29 December 2017

Film Reviews | Star Wars: The Last Jedi directed by Rian Johnson

This review is not going to go the way you think. I’m not going to condemn Rian Johnson’s anti-holistic, geek-aggravating approach to Star Wars; nor am I going to bemoan supposed plot holes that don’t even come close to rivalling Obi-Wan’s unlikely scheme to “hide” Darth Vader’s son on his home planet with his step family (and without even bothering to change his surname!) upon which the original trilogy was built. Instead, I’m going to whinge about how I had to sit for almost three hours next to a broken speaker which hissed at about 95dB whenever Poe Dameron so much as looked at an X-Wing. Like the other hundred or so people in the screening, I couldn’t get up to go and complain in case I missed anything, so I just had to sit there, my stomach in knots, the best afternoon of my year ruined from the start.

Or so I’d thought.

It was at least some consolation that The Last Jedi lived up to the critical acclaim instantly bestowed upon it - even with half its awesome battles drowning in static and interference.

JJ Abrams had a difficult enough task remixing and updating the original Star Wars movie for a new generation as The Force Awakens, but Rian Johnson’s mission to do the same for The Empire Strikes Back was altogether more problematical. Now almost universally celebrated for its darker tone; peerless villain; rough-and-ready space romance; and saga-shattering twist, my favourite Star Wars movie – no, my favourite movie - could not simply be reworked for a modern audience as A New Hope was. Not without being utterly predictable, anyway, which in of itself would make it unlike Empire. Yes, Johnson could use Episode V’s basic heroes-on-the-run / young-Jedi-wannabe-in-search-of-guidance / baddie-looking-for-someone-to-rule-with premise, but ultimately the only way to replicate the sense of shock and awe that Empire engendered was to turn it on its head - and that’s exactly what Johnson’s game-changing middle act does.

“You’re nobody. You have no place in this story. You’re nothing. But not to me.”

The Last Jedi’s twists and turns don’t even strike when you expect. Arguably the movie’s seminal scene sits just off-centre, rather than at its end. The writer and director makes fine art of toying with audience expectations, only to shatter them, leaving viewers feeling almost exactly as they did the first time that they heard Darth Vader claim, “I am your father.” Only this time, the twist is that Rey’s parents weren’t galactic despots conceived by the Force - our scrappy scavenger’s place in the story is not earned through her provenance but her heroic actions, and the saga is all the more thrilling for it. We’ve always known that anybody can be strong in the Force, but to see such “raw strength” under the microscope really drives home Johnson’s message that anyone has the potential to be anything, irrespective of their background or heredity. He may hit that particular note a little too often and far too loudly, the movie’s final scene being a case in point, but given where we leave the Resistance I can at least understand the desire to show how events on Crait have already begun to resonate amongst the galaxy’s oppressed.


Those who’ve lambasted Episode VIII because they aren’t happy with Rey’s lineage are too focused on the minutiae of the original trilogy to recognise its blazing spirit: the mechanics of this movie, and indeed the sequel trilogy thus far, remain the same. Luke and Rey both were raised in incredibly similar, far-flung wastelands before becoming embroiled in a galactic adventure. Luke entered Yoda’s dark-side cave in Empire and saw himself in Vader’s armour, because what he feared most at that point was falling to the dark side as Obi-Wan’s - at that point nameless - apprentice had. Rey was abandoned, she’s no-one, and so the depths of Acho-To’s dark-side pit showed her endless reflections of herself, bringing her solitude into sharp focus ahead of her ill-fated, Luke-like decision to face Kylo Ren. The Last Jedi serves its protagonist’s character just as Empire did its own, and in so doing retrospectively enriches the film which it follows, exactly as Empire did.

“I’ve seen this raw strength only once before, in Ben Solo. I wasn’t frightened enough then. I am now.”

Rey’s allure notwithstanding, going into the movie I was looking forward to catching up with a certain Skywalker more than anything else. The film’s mouth-watering trailers had painted the picture of Luke as a broken man who’s given up on all that he’s ever believed in, but, true to form, The Last Jedi fleshes this out in the most astonishing and inventive of ways. When we meet him, Luke has literally lost his religion, having cut himself off from the Force. Where there was once youthful exuberance, now there is only caustic humour and cynicism. Where there was once hope, there is only fear. Luke Skywalker has become an even more reluctant Yoda, almost an anti-Obi-Wan. He’s prickly, cold and tormented by the thought that he lost his nephew to the dark side. The beats of the original trilogy are still there, only heightened. Obi-Wan lost a brother-in-arms to evil. He perhaps let him down, but he wasn’t ultimately to blame. Luke lost actual family, and what’s eating him up is that he was directly responsible. That famous insight which served him so well in A New Hope and Return of the Jedi caused a momentary lapse of reason that left him, and the galaxy at large, with “consequence”. Despite his public reservations about the script, Mark Hamill’s returning performance is nothing short of mercurial. He may not have bought into Luke’s story when he read the script, but he certainly sells it on screen. Hands down, Episode VIII is Hamill’s finest turn.


I also applaud Johnson for having the gumption to make Luke accept the bare truth of what George Lucas would only dare to imply in his prequels. The Jedi are every bit as flawed as the Sith, at least as an institution, and were their order to endure the consequence would be a slew of Darth Vaders and Kylo Rens unleashed upon the galaxy. We already know how the Jedi Order’s mistreatment of Anakin Skywalker fuelled his descent into evil, and what The Last Jedi reveals of Ben Solo’s journey to the dark side is even more damning. Life and death, light and dark - the Force seeks balance, as Johnson so beautifully demonstrates. But such a notion is anathema to Jedi and Sith alike. Perhaps Luke’s epiphany that the Jedi Order must end – a view apparently endorsed by a very old and wise friend who makes a welcome return - will give rise to a new generation of Force-wielders who are not restrained by the “narrow, dogmatic” constraints of the Jedi Order or the self-defeating greed of the Sith. In 1977 good guys wore white, and villains black. For better or worse, 2017 is altogether greyer. Rigid notions of sexuality, gender and even morality are constantly shifting, and so it’s fitting that the sequel trilogy’s two central figures are reflective of this cultural blurring of the lines.

“Let the past die. Kill it, if you have to. It’s the only way to become what you were meant to be.”

But only the fan fictioneers who first dreamt up the idea of “ForceTime” foresaw the startling direction that The Last Jedi would take, although I daresay that even they were left reeling by how their idea would impact upon the saga’s two main players. Unwillingly connected through the Force across the galaxy, Rey and Kylo Ren find themselves bound to one another as effectively as if they were locked up together in a holding cell. Through Johnson’s ingeniously simple cuts, what begins as a jarring and slightly surreal interstellar dialogue soon develops into something as solid as a single-set scene. As walls of enmity and privacy fall, we start to see the glimmer of a mutual understanding and sympathy between our two adversaries; perhaps even affection. Rey starts to see the light in the dark, and Ren the darkness in the light. More so than with the planet-destroying, son-maiming Darth Vader, I found myself willing for this poor lost boy’s soul to be saved.

“You’re no Vader. You’re just a child in a mask.”

I would never have believed that anyone could make a movie that would have me championing the man who killed Han Solo, but as The Last Jedi’s unbelievable throne room gathered pace, that’s exactly what I did. Had Ben Solo finally seen the light? Would Rey succumb to the dark? As if Kylo Ren’s impromptu assassination of his scathing master, the supreme leader of the First Order, wasn’t enough to send shockwaves through cinemas everywhere, within moments he and Rey would fight back-to-back against Snoke’s guards; Rey would even put her lightsaber in his hand. But that same lightsaber - the legendary weapon forged by Anakin and passed onto Luke by Obi-Wan before being drawn to Rey - would soon be torn in half by the Force as the momentary allies resumed their opposing positions. We’re well past the passing of the torch now; that torch has been torn in half. Luke Skywalker set the stage himself in his very first act of the film.



The newly-minted Supreme Leader Ren’s refusal to redeem himself is more heartbreaking, in many ways, than Anakin’s Episode III heel turn. It’s almost cruel, given what has just been played out, and therein lies its genius. Whilst Kylo Ren may lack his grandfather’s awe-inspiring presence, his evident humanity is capable of reeling in not just the audience but his on-screen adversaries too, and through it he’s accomplished what Darth Vader never could: he rules the galaxy with a gloved fist. It’s a testament to how thoroughly transfixing both Daisy Ridley’s and Adam Driver’s performances are that their unique relationship eclipses the long-awaited return of a legend and the final appearance of another. The Last Jedi is dominated by “Reylo”, and if the same proves to be true of 2019’s Episode IX, then it has the potential to be the best of the saga - though I can’t see another director ever making a Star Wars movie that’s more visually arresting than this one. The Last Jedi is relentlessly breathtaking.
 

Those who go to see Carrie Fisher’s final performance won’t be disappointed, either. Her role is perhaps more understated than many would have hoped, given that The Last Jedi has proven to be Leia’s final adventure, at least on the silver screen, but it’s significant in more ways than one. Johnson definitely made the right call in not restructuring his movie to kill off Leia following the actress’s sudden death - he certainly had the raw footage to be able to do so, and for several long moments I even thought that he had. But in keeping Leia alive, in allowing her to play out her angle with Holdo and Poe as was always intended, and particularly in reuniting her with her brother to provide the few surviving rebels with the spark of hope that they so desperately need, Johnson has given Leia a send-off that is emblematic of her character’s role in the saga, if not quite the resolute ending that both character and performer deserved. There’ll always be threads hanging, now - it’s absolutely gutting to think that we’ll never get to see her nascent Force powers fully awakened on the big screen - but with books and CG TV shows there is always the possibility that Leia’s final story will be told in another medium one day.


In keeping with The Last Jedi’s spirit, what I liked most about Leia’s storyline was, in fact, Poe’s. Just as Luke’s character services Rey’s, Leia’s does Poe’s, and she does so in the most maternal of ways. I loved Oscar Isaac’s character right from his dry, “Who talks first?” line in The Force Awakens, and he’s just as quick to endear himself to Last Jedi viewers with his “Holding for General Hux” skit here. What follows, though, is an absorbing examination of heroism and heedlessness unlike anything ever before seen in a Star Wars movie. Again, Johnson turns the narrative on its head, using the audience’s connection with Poe to get us on his side, only for the angry matriarch of the Resistance to rise from her sick bed to slap him down and teach him a lesson you can’t help but feel she wished her late husband had learned long ago.

“Bad guys, good guys, it’s all a machine. Live free. Don’t join.”

I’m as much a fan of John Boyega’s Finn as I am Oscar Isaac’s Poe, and so I was delighted to see him paired up with a new foil - Kelly Marie Tran’s delightful Rose - and sent off on a hyperspace caper to Canto Bight in search of The Last Jedi’s answer to Lando Calrissian. This limb of the narrative seems to have been singled out for especial criticism by many, largely because the predominantly comic caper feels a little extraneous and doesn’t ultimately bear fruit within the story. Why send off Finn with Rose to find a master code breaker, when the script could have had a Resistance techie break the code in seconds? Why bother to break the code at all, when the Resistance had another plan in the works all along? Well, for one, through moments touching and hilarious we get to see Finn and Rose bond, setting up a poignant sequence in the Battle of Crait that will doubtless resonate into Episode IX. For another, without it Poe’s mutiny wouldn’t have had any purpose. Through Benicio Del Toro’s DJ, the director is able to explore the movie’s themes of perspective and morality in greater depth, and often explicitly. He’s able to have Finn battle Phasma in a stunning and (literally) explosive set piece. He can play tricks with irons that are both funny and dazzling. Best of all, he has the opportunity to pull the rug from under us yet again as, just for kicks, The Last Jedi’s answer to Lando actually does “do a Lando”.

There are, however, a couple of aspects that don’t sit well with me. The Last Jedi’s flashback scenes felt considerably out of place in a Star Wars saga movie, for instance. I can see why Johnson felt it appropriate to include them, given the lack of room for a “sequel prequel” trilogy (though I suppose in the Disney era there’s always the possibility of a bridging “Star Wars Story” or two), and the need to relay a key historical event from two opposing perspectives, but to me they killed a little of that distinguishing Star Wars saga feel, and worse still they closed the circle a little too neatly. Having Luke and Ren simply tell their sides of the story would have been enough for me. After all, Alec Guiness’s tales of Darth Vader’s dark deeds in A New Hope didn’t need any visual embellishment (though George Lucas will probably work in some prequel clips on the inevitable 4K release, if he still has the power to).

 
My main gripe though was the lack of an intimate, one-on-one lightsaber duel. I appreciate that the timing wasn’t right for another Rey / Ren showdown, but I do think that Luke could have been given some actual action. He doesn’t – can’t, in the circumstances – clash sabers with Ren. The film’s finale is clever, uplifting and - of course - surprising, but it does feel like a bit of a cheat, even if it does prove to be the cheat that lights the fire that will burn the First Order down.

Finally, I’m on the fence when it comes to Force ghosts’ apparent ability to physically interact with the living. I expect to be sold on the idea eventually, but at the moment we are missing too many pieces of the puzzle to be able to form a view. In the first Star Wars movie, Obi-Wan told Vader that if he struck him down, he’d become “more powerful than you could ever imagine”, only to return as a Force ghost and concede to Luke that he couldn’t interfere in his upcoming tangle with Vader. The question is why? Is it matter of ability, or ethics? Is it OK to burn down a tree, even a holy one, so long as you don’t use your ghostly powers to bring about regime change? Do you get Daniel Jacksoned if you cross the line? Even with what we’ve learned from Star Wars: The Clone Wars and Star Wars Rebels, Force ghosts are still largely a mystery, but now that we’ve seen Yoda wield lightning from beyond the grave, Episode IX is going to have to examine some basic cans and can’ts.


But as for comedy, Porgs and Fathiers - I really couldn’t give a damn. Star Wars movies are always funny – even Episode III has its Anakin’s-been-under-a-lot-of-stress Threepio gag – and this is a fundamental part of what makes them so universally enjoyable. All The Last Jedi does is shift gears – its humour is more modern, but no less pleasing for it. Luke’s dryness works particularly well, as does Finn’s slapstick and Chewie’s Porg problem. I don’t have any issue with the movie’s diversity, either – well, except that it’s illusory. Besides Snoke, and of course BB-8, the token droid, every single member of the core ensemble is human! Chewbacca the Wookie and the other droids have about three minutes’ collective screen time, and poor old Admiral Ackbar is killed off in even less than that and replaced with a human, albeit one with purple hair. I don’t even lament the lack of a back story for Snoke – he’s just a cipher. A wonderfully played and astonishingly realised cipher, aye, but ultimately one whose origins are best explored elsewhere. Even the evil Emperor had to wait fifteen years for his tale to be told in The Phantom Menace.

“The Rebellion is reborn. The war is just beginning. And I am not the last Jedi.”

At its most basic, telling a story is a simple as being able to say, “...and then.” A leads to B, B leads to C, and so on. Rian Johnson doesn’t do that. For every “and then”, there’s a “but.” Johnson’s movie has earned its place as the Empire of the sequel trilogy through not being it, which is exactly what the franchise needed after the awesome-but-familiar Episode VII. To some, the Star Wars movies may not quite “rhyme” as they once did anymore, but there’s no disputing that they pack more of a punch for it. And to fans lamenting Rey’s place outside the Skywalker / Solo family, think on this: there’s always marriage.

04 November 2017

Discs' Champion | Cinema Paradiso: Even Better Than LOVEFiLM?

On Halowe’en night, as the clock struck midnight, LOVEFiLM quietly disappeared. Another victory for streaming, and perhaps the heaviest loss yet for physical media. 

Now my position on the old, “Why do we still bother with physical media?” debate is quite complicated. On the one hand, I concede that it’s moribund – and deservedly so. Some people might still like tangible things, but downloading or streaming digital media is faster and greener than purchasing it on disc, and obviously it takes up negligible real-world space. It didn’t really hit me until I moved house in 2012 just how many shiny discs and plastic cases I owned - I’ve since eBayed the collection down to just three titles, all of them Blu-ray steelbooks, and two of them still in their shrink wrap as I can watch their digital counterparts on Apple TV. There’s simply no need in this day and age to deliver digital media by disc – not when video can be downloaded and streamed in glorious 4K HDR. I’ve even given up fully on printed books, now, having recently read a number of DC graphic novels on the iPad in the iBooks app with no more difficulty than I would the trade paperbacks. Less, in fact, as this way I can read in bed again without having to disturb my wife with a bedside lamp.
 
On the other hand, though, subscription streaming services are all lacking in content, and it’s here that the apparently black-and-white issue becomes cloudier for me. Amazon Prime Video, Netflix, et al are so convenient and relatively inexpensive that people are now content to just lazily watch whatever old shite is offered up, provided that once in a while a decent original series comes along to justify keeping the subscription. They might as well watch live broadcast television, as crazy as that sounds. Why go to the trouble of sourcing the 1970s Famous Five TV series on DVD for an Enid Blyton-obsessed daughter, when you can just bombard her with three of five Peppa Pig seasons on an endless Netflix loop? Why take out a loan from the Iron Bank to fund a Game of Thrones purchase, when you can just watch Breaking Bad for a ninth time? 


LOVEFiLM survived and thrived for as long as it did because its content library was vast, encompassing almost all mainstream movies and TV shows, and quite a few niche selections to boot. Yes, the content wasn’t available on demand, but it was worth waiting for – it was part of the fun, really. My eldest daughter used to get quite excited when she’d hear the letterbox go and the discs land on the mat. That’s much healthier, in my view, than having her stare blankly into an iPad. I’ve just cancelled my free Netflix trial with a fortnight left to run because, beyond the exclusive Star Trek: Discovery, anything else on there worth watching I’ve either seen through LOVEFiLM or own in my iTunes library. Amazon Prime Video didn’t even last that long in our house. 

And, as much as I champion iTunes and Apple TV, they don’t always have the content that I want to buy. Mostly they do, in fairness, and almost always before the physical releases arrive - this year all the CW’s superhero shows hit the iTunes Store several months ahead of their physical releases, for instance, and almost every major motion picture is released a good few weeks in advance of its various discs hitting stores. However, a popular show like Gotham, which had its highly-regarded third season released on Blu-ray and DVD in August, still hasn’t been released in the iTunes Store because it’s yet to air in the UK. Similarly, while some older shows may be available, they are not in HD despite having had a Blu-ray release – the 2005-2008 seasons of Doctor Who are cases in point. And, of everything that I do buy, I normally have to re-tag it as the metadata is riddled with typos or other errors, and the cover art has often been clumsily adapted to fit Apple’s size requirements or simply doesn’t measure up to the physical media’s artwork. I get the impression that printed sleeves are carefully designed, proofed and vetted by media distributors – uploaded files clearly are not. When I purchased Transformers: The Last Knight from the iTunes Store recently, even its title wasn’t correct – it had a superfluous “(Digital)” at the end, as if this wasn’t the norm. Worse, if you purchase a bundle of movies without numbers in their titles like, say, the Star Wars six-movie collection, the films don’t automatically show up in your library in the correct order. It may be easy to remedy (simply change the “sort as” field in iTunes to “Star Wars 1”, “Star Wars 2” etc), and indeed to forgive (particularly now iTunes are offering free 4K HDR upgrades of movies to customers who bought them in 1080p), but it’s still sloppy and would not have passed muster on disc.

In short, then, the technology is wonderful, but the content platforms that utilise it are not. To bend what’s available to my requirements, then, I have needed to buy what we want to keep from iTunes and rent things that I think we’ll only watch once through LOVEFiLM (and if I’m wrong, and they do warrant a repeat viewing, use the superb CheapCharts app to price-watch them on iTunes so that I can nab them when they’re more reasonably priced). But with LOVEFiLM now gone, I’ve had to scour the market for a replacement service, and it seems that there is only one: Cinema Paradiso, which is basically a better version of LOVEFiLM.

Yes, better

https://www.cinemaparadiso.co.uk/

Cinema Paradiso offers tens of thousands more titles than its erstwhile Amazon-run competitor did, and allocates them more specifically. There are no “High” and “Low” priority titles with Cinema Paradiso – you rank your titles in the order that you want them posted out to you, and in my case I’ve had the top two titles on my list with every despatch thus far. And they weren’t mainstream picks either; my first two discs were the incredibly rare Droids and Ewoks DVDs that Lucasfilm released about forty-three copies of back in 2005 (and which iTunes don’t offer a digital version of). These were on my LOVEFiLM list for six years as “High”-priority titles, yet I was never sent them. 

So far I’ve had fewer problems with unplayable discs too – the discs that I’ve received have all been pristine. How much this is to do with the soft material (instead of plastic) slipcases that house the discs, I don’t know, but the end result is ideal The discs aren’t even branded with bulky Cinema Paradiso stickers the way that LOVEFiLM’s discs were, and as a result you can actually read all the information on the discs, which is more important than you’d think in the absence of the cover, particularly with TV series. 


The return envelopes provided are exactly the same as LOVEFiLM’s, bar the printing, though there is one key area where Cinema Paradiso could learn a little from LOVEFiLM: provide an app. The Cinema Paradiso website may be stylish and easy to navigate, but an app would still be welcome as, if nothing else, it’d avoid the need to log in every time I need to add or remove a title from my list. 

So, in an imperfect world full of wondrous platforms that continue to pedal utter shite, clunky old physical media still has a champion: Cinema Paradiso, where the content comes first, not the platform. And after all, isn’t it the content that matters? People seem to be forgetting…

Cinema Paradiso are currently offering a fourteen-day, no-obligation free trial.Prices thereafter are almost identical to LOVEFiLM’s.

31 October 2017

Rotherham Advertiser | 31st October 2017

The latest Wolverson (or, at least, former Wolverson) to throw her hat into the literary arena, and get a bit of decent press coverage to boot:

http://www.rotherhamadvertiser.co.uk/news/view,rotherham-teacher-victoria-is-now-a-published-author_24397.htm

Well done R Vicki!


Worlds Away is available to download from the Amazon Kindle Store for £2.99. A paperback edition is also available from Amazon for £8.99 plus postage.

You can also check out Vickis profile on Author Central.

21 February 2017

Film Review | The LEGO Batman Movie directed by Chris McKay

I never reviewed 2015’s LEGO Movie as, shortly after its release, I read a review that quoted the writer’s child, whose one-line offering encapsulated my own views far more concisely than I could have. As a huge fan of Batman and DC as well as LEGO, though, I’ve got plenty to say about this year’s LEGO Batman Movie. Truth be told, I’d been looking forward to it as much as T2 or even The Last Jedi.


The LEGO Batman Movie is far from being the brick-built Caped Crusader’s first on-screen outing, though. Since the original, straight-to-home video LEGO Batman movie (DC Superheroes Unite), he’s made countless home video appearances, mostly alongside his Justice League compatriots (and all conveniently to be found on DVDs displayed at the end of most supermarkets’ aisles, right next to The LEGO Batman Movie sets and minifigure packets), before playing a major – and arguably show-stealing role - on the silver screen in The LEGO Movie. Yet The LEGO Batman Movie is the first not only to properly showcase the ninety-year-old DC icon, but also to celebrate him, and everything that he is – and could never be. It’s as if all the triumph and tragedy of the Dark Knight has been distilled and exaggerated to such a degree that everyone from the three-year-old moviegoer to his reluctant granny will instantly connect with the character.

ROBIN: Wow! Does Batman live in Bruce Wayne’s basement? 
BATMAN: No, Bruce Wayne lives in Batman’s attic!

This movie’s Batman is, as he should be, a one-man crime-fighting machine. It’s also implicit that he lost his parents in his youth, but without LEGO having to terrify its youngest viewers with unnecessary flashbacks to their murder. The film even buys into the old DC conceit that “Superman is just Clark Kent in a cape, but Bruce Wayne is Batman’s mask” by literally having Batman don the cowl throughout the movie (unless Alfred forces him to take it off in order to masquerade as a playboy billionaire). Where the LEGO Batman differs from his comic book and counterpart though is in his attitude. For a man who “gets up at four in the afternoon every day to pump iron” so that he can keep the city safe, he’s bombastically selfish and arrogant – traits upon which most of the movie’s comedy is built. From his opening voiceover dissing Superman to his (priceless) claim of having nine abs and his willingness to use Dick Grayson as “expendable” cannon fodder, Will Arnett’s heavy metal, beat-boxin’ Batman is a study in narcissism. The man’s in the wrong trade - he’s practically a walking WWE promo.


Yet inside, he’s still the child that lost his parents. He throws actual tantrums rolling around on the floor (his “No, no, no, no…” perfectly in tune to the old TV series’ famous theme), gets put in time-out, makes himself laugh with childish passwords (“IRONMANSUCKS” and “ALFREDDBUTLER”), and eschews any meaningful connection to anyone to avoid the pursuant hurt. I love in particular the humorous insight that the movie offers into Batman’s – not Bruce Wayne’s, mind, Batman’s – home life. He gets in from “work”, slips into something more comfortable (still wearing his cowl, obviously), then sits down to laugh at a romantic film, which he seems to genuinely believe is a comedy. It’s brilliant. The film straddles the fine line between tragedy and humour dexterously, somehow portraying a tragic character as a hilarious one without really altering any of his core characteristics.

ROBIN: Kids call me Dick.          BATMAN: Kids can be so cruel.

On the hero side of the divide, most of the heart and humour is borne of Batman’s relationships with his bumbling ward, Dick Grayson (Robin), his loyal butler – and surrogate father – Alfred, and the newly-minted Commissioner Gordon… Barbara Gordon. The first admires him, the second loves him, and the third thinks that she’s better than him (and what’s particularly funny is, she actually is – just look at the stats she’s got to prove it!) Every scene manages to be both witty and insightful, making the audience laugh while progressing the narrative and, more often than not, making light of hitherto inviolate comic book lore. Take Batman telling Robin to use the “dark parts” of his [bright yellow, red and green!] costume to blend into the night, for instance - it leads into Barbara promptly spotting them both, reinforcing Batman’s ineptitude in her eyes. Similarly, Batman’s aggressive, unforgiving “encouragement” of Robin as he infiltrates Superman’s Fortress of Solitude leads into a delectable scene in which a devastated Batman finds the entire Justice League – not just the big guns, but Hawkman and Hawkgirl, Green Arrow, the whole lot of ’em – having a party without him.


Villain-wise, Seth Grahame-Smith’s narrative blossoms out of Batman’s crippling limitations as a human being – he’s even an inconsiderate adversary, it seems. Poor old Joker, who wants nothing more than for Batman to just acknowledge his status as the Dark Knight’s foremost foe, finds himself casually spurned in favour of the likes of Bane and Superman –“He’s not even a bad guy!” protests the Clown Prince of Crime – as the Caped Crusader likes to “fight around”. So unfurls a plot that sees the Joker willingly committed to the Phantom Zone so that he may return with a legion of horribles, all intent on putting Batman and his precious Gotham City to the sword.


An action-packed but thoroughly riotous mêlée ensues, and so Batman has to turn to his accidentally-adopted “son”; his war-dog of a butler dressed as the 60s’ Batman; Barbara “Batgirl” Gordon; and, best of all, all the scum and villainy of Gotham City in order to battle the Joker’s forces of darkness. And what a force they are - Voldemort, Sauron, King Kong, the Wicked Witch of the West, even the Daleks. Watching The LEGO Batman Movie made me realise how fortunate the kids of today are – they’ve got it made built. Yeah, they might have to put up with populism gone mad (specifically Brexit, Trump, and the wacky notion that a female Doctor Who is not merely “OK”, but somehow inevitable), but on the flip-side they get to see Batman fighting Daleks and enjoy some mind-blowing merch. The movie’s tie-in sets are impressive enough (my eldest daughter opted for set 7092: Catwoman Cycle Chase - not to get the Catwoman and Batgirl minifigures, but for the hilarious and endearing Robin, whom she seems to be half in love with), but the twenty-strong minifigure series is something else altogether. Lobster lovin’ Batman and Catman are joined by allies and adversaries both obscure and nefarious; like the film, it’s a celebration of ninety years of Batman – even the camp and concealed bits. The LEGO Batman Movie is less a film, more an event.


Building upon the spirit of 2015’s LEGO Movie, 2017’s LEGO Batman Movie takes the franchise to a whole new level. Photo-real animation brings to life a story that’s as surprising as it is funny, and as emblematic of both the LEGO and Batman properties as anything possibly could be. ’Twas surely for this film that the phrase “best of both worlds” was coined…

16 February 2017

Rants | The "News About Your Ticket" E-mail from the National Lottery's Cruelty Department

Waking up on a Sunday morning to an e-mail telling us that we’ve won the National Lottery is a surprisingly common occurrence in our house. Yet here we are, still not millionaires.

Rather than simply sending players an e-mail to advise them that they’ve won a £25.00 prize (just think what dastardly cyber criminals could get up to were they to intercept an e-mail telling you that you’ve got that sort of dosh on its way into your bank account…), instead the National Lottery send their players a cryptic message telling them that they have “some news” about their ticket from the previous evening’s draw, and that they are advised to sign in to their accounts as soon as they can for more information.

The first time this happened to us, I was convinced that we’d hit the jackpot. I spent hours trying to log into our account, but for some reason the page wouldn’t load. Eventually the penny dropped that the lottery is - technically - gambling, albeit gambling of an unrealistic sort, and as such the site was blocked by our parental controls, the password for which eluded me for a microcosmic eternity. Later that day, I finally managed to log in to our account to find out about our £25.00 prize. I was actually annoyed – no, incensed – that we were £25.00 better off. This preposterous, nonsensical, needlessly clandestine National Lottery notification system had left me beside myself with rage about actually receiving a minor windfall – something that’s almost universally considered to be “a good thing”. What should have been the cause for minor celebration soon became “another Cineworld”.

Since that day a few years ago, we’ve had around £200.00’s worth of £25.00 wins, the most recent of which followed last Saturday’s draw. Overall, that’s the equivalent of a week’s food and warmth for a family of four, a decent little smart TV for the bedroom, a top-tier LEGO set, a large Transformers Masterpiece or – if I were a smoker – three packets of cigarettes. And yet, every little win has felt like a digital slap in the face; it’s as if each £25.00 prize came attached to an invisible clown, whose mocking laughter drowned out anything positive that we could possibly have done with the extra cash.

National Lottery, you don’t need to e-mail me the details of the account that you’re paying our £25.00 into. You don’t need to include any information that could lead to any sort of cyber security breach. All you need to say is “We’ve got some news about your ticket from the draw on [date]. Congratulations – a prize of £25.00 has been paid into your bank account.” My reaction to such an e-mail would be along the lines of - “Get in!”, “Nice one!”, or - if I were feeling even remotely Alan Partridgey - “Back of the net!” To be clear, and for the avoidance of any doubt, that would be infinitely preferable to my involuntary response to your current e-mail.

Larger prizes, such as those with four figures before the decimal point, as opposed to overall, then yeah – a login might be prudent. But please, please, please - stop making us think we’ve won the damned jackpot when in fact we’ve not even won enough to pay for a modest meal out, because no matter how many times I get your accursed e-mail with its “news”, and no matter how absurd the odds of us hitting the jackpot are, there’s still always an unwelcome little pang of excitement that follows receipt of each cruel little e-mail – a pang that quickly blossoms into unbridled fury once I login and realise that you’ve done it to us again.

27 January 2017

Book Review | T2: Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh

When my teacher training was in its death throes, I’d regularly cite either this book - then known as Porno - or the author’s earlier Filth as being my favourite reading material whenever the topic arose in workshops or seminars. Not because they were, you understand; just because it provoked either an amused or judgemental reaction, the achievement of which was just about the only reason for my continuing, sporadic attendances (the other being the continued receipt of my bursaries and loan instalments). The thing is though, both truly are superlative titles, and whilst I’m not one for favourites, Irvine Welsh’s 2002 sequel to both Trainspotting and Glue is perhaps the one book in his canon that showcases a little of everything that the Scots scribbler brings to the table - a ‘best of’, if you will, rather than an outright best. 

It is nonetheless a very different beast to Trainspotting, most obviously because it is a novel in the traditional sense, with all the structure and plot threads that you’d expect thereto, rather than a series of snippets that are, by and large, capable of being enjoyed in isolation. Another significant difference is focus - Trainspotting will forever be synonymous with heroin, whereas in T2 it barely gets a mention, as most of its characters are now only partial to the peeve or a bit of ching. Indeed, as most would readily infer from the title, this book’s focus is the world of adult erotica, from Juice Terry’s stag movies shot in the upstairs of a Leith tavern, all the way up to the Cannes (Adult) Film Festival, and all the aspirant undergraduates in between.

“In your twenties you can do it on looks, your thirties on personality, but in your forties you need cash or fame. Simple fucking mathematics.”

And whilst many paperback editions of the book are emblazoned with the same names burned into Britain’s collective consciousness thanks to the fame that they found through the 1996 Trainspotting movie’s ubiquitous mock-identity parade posters, T2 actually focuses on just one of them: Simon David Williamson, the abovementioned ‘Sick Boy’. Whilst his three famous friends (four, if you count Dianne, who’s gained an extra ‘n’ since her silver screen days) all have pivotal parts to play, the novel formerly known as Porno is driven by Sick Boy - which is really quite fitting, given that it’s about Sick Boy’s drive. The plot focuses on Felinus Vomitus’s quest to make a “proper” adult “fillum” and the scams that he pursues in and around it. Time has marched on since his former best friend, Mark Renton, “chose life” and did a runner with drug money belonging to both him and their psychotic associate, Franco Begbie. Sick Boy’s been married since, and indeed divorced. The Beggar Boy’s inevitably in the nick, serving a murder-reduced-to-manslaughter charge. Loveable Spud is living unhappily ever after, off the junk and married to Ali, but trying and failing to write a book on the history of Leith. Erstwhile jailbait Dianne is at university, reading psychology and writing a dissertation of the sex industry. The Rent Boy, meanwhile, is running a nightclub in Amsterdam, and it is here that a chance encounter with an Edinburgh DJ (Glue’s N-Sign) leads to an unwelcome reunion with one of the men that he screwed over. Before long, Sick Boy and Rents are superficially as thick as thieves again, agreeing to put their differences behind them and form a porn-pedalling partnership. In truth, though, one man is trying to manipulate circumstances to get the other killed, who in turn is setting in motion an extravagant plan to rob his once-best friend for the second time in as many books, but this time on a much larger scale.

It’s refreshing to follow these events mostly through the eyes of the book’s antagonists, as both Trainspotting and its recent sequel, Skagboys, settle upon the generally more amiable Renton as their voice. Sick Boy dominates, Welsh’s first person prose allowing the reader to see the proud and prejudiced turning of every cog in his mind, but Begbie gets more exposure than he ever has too, offering a frighteningly narrow perspective that’s constantly flitting between terrifying and comically tragic. The reader can almost see the old psycho blossom into “a deep fuckin thinker” here, believe it or not, as those “blazing coals of enmity” set deep in his skull are finally opened to the fact that he may be the toughest son of a bitch in the old port, but ultimately he’s everybody’s mug; nowt more than a weapon to be wielded.


More surprising still is the attention given to non-Trainspotting characters. ‘Juice’ Terry Lawson and Rab Birrell of Glue fame both feature heavily in the first half of the book, though Welsh - much like Sick Boy, ironically - only uses the former as an eager prick, and the latter as a ready-made road into the undergraduate world of the book’s female players. This is a little disappointing as “the best-known aerated waters’ salesman” that Edinburgh ever produced, even when he’s purely there to find wood, is so relentlessly entertaining that he’s sorely missed once he falls by the wayside, while Rab’s storyline just peters out, left in desperate need of a coda. The female contingent, however, are used exceptionally well, from the studious and repressed Lauren all the way up to fiery Reading diva Nicola Fuller-Smith, who is in my view the book’s real star. Porno is, after all, all about the girls.

“It’s not the penises that are the problem, it’s the attachments; they come in varying sizes alright, varying sizes and degrees of annoyance.”

I knew a number of girls like Nikki in my university days - outwardly intelligent, independent, ambitious, fit as fuck and don’t they know it, yet silently tortured by well-hidden low self-esteem and jealously that leave them vulnerable to exploitation by the likes of our Mr Williamson. It’s been well reported that Welsh has a keen academic interest in the study of feminism (his MBA’s thesis was on creating equal opportunities for women), and to my delight this is often embodied by his strong female characters, but in a way that eschews cliché or even subverts expectation. Nikki might not be quite as indomitable as one of Welsh’s Wedding Belles, and she may have admittedly poor wanking skills for a part-time masseuse, but any male reader is sure to follow every male character in the book and fall instantly in love with her, and thus find themselves on a rollercoaster ride that takes in arousal, anger and utter vexation before she finally manages to have her cake, eat it, and then throw it up before it can damage her (you’ve got to give it to Welsh, he’s got a gift for squalid metaphor).


Perhaps the most remarkable thing of all about T2 though is that it’s actually quite light on how’s your father. For me, the images of Del Boy and Rodney conjured by the original edition’s blow-up doll cover aren’t all that out of place as, for all its base and shallow cruelty, T2 is quite a hoot. It mischievously toys with Begbie’s sexuality, for instance, running a little with the aspersions cast by the actor who played him on screen by bombarding him with “poof’s porn” in prison and then rendering him impotent upon his release when he tries to get a ride from his new squeeze. Poor old Terry, meanwhile, is treated like he’s in a particularly lewd Carry On film, enjoying only a few R-rated scenes as a “fly-in-shit with all his needs met” before his banjo string snaps, and doctors tell him that a hard-on during the healing process could lead to the amputation of his penis, leading to a hilarious procession of gags involving his female Seven Rides for Seven Brothers co-stars. When things do heat up, though, the man who’s called ‘Welsh’ despite his patent Scottish pedigree holds his own against the dominating mummy porn pioneers of today, vesting Sick Boy and Nikki’s nuclear war of a lovelife with a vividly-described physical passion that certainly wouldn’t have passed censorship had John Hodges T2 screenplay followed the book more closely.

“Sick Boy: vain, selfish and cruel. And that’s his good side.”

However, T2 was never going to find itself on a pedestal like Trainspotting because Trainspotting was such a specific and insightful thing; a cultural pipe bomb. This is a pity, really, as the erstwhile Porno deserves better than second prize - it’s just as thoughtful as its predecessor, in many ways, offering as balanced an appraisal of the sex trade, pornographers and prostitutes as Trainspotting did of hard drugs. And this time around, the appraisal is at least couched in the more familiar guise of a tortuous and relentlessly gripping narrative.

Irvine Welsh’s recently rechristened T2: Trainspotting is now available to download for £4.99 from iTunes or Amazon's Kindle Store

If this review seems familiar, its because I wrote and published it on here in August 2013. If Vintage can republish and rename Porno, then I can do the same with its review. I’ve even tidied up a few bits...

21 December 2016

Spoiler-Light Film Review | Rogue One: A Star Wars Story directed by Gareth Edwards


A good title can do a lot for something, and Rogue One is a case in point. It immediately calls to mind Star Wars without having to have “Star Wars” bludgeoned in there (much in the same way that Enterprise said Star Trek perfectly well before CBS hammered on its superfluous prefix in its third season), while at the same time setting the film apart as, quite literally, the first rogue one in the franchise’s live-action cinematic canon. Perhaps most importantly though, it eschews the pulp-fiction serial feel that the likes of The Empire Strikes Back and Attack of the Clones so purposefully engendered, setting the stall for the decidedly gritty tone of Disney’s first Star Wars Anthology tale.

All seven episodes of the
Star Wars saga to date have had much in common. Structurally, they all open in the same distinctive manner, share analogous themes, and even adhere to narrative beats as if they were stanzas of the same poem. All Rogue One shares with its forerunners is an opening card grounding it in the same universe – almost everything else is different. Tell-tale swipes and segues are gone, replaced with sharp cuts and text info-dumps. Once forbidden flashbacks are not only permitted, but embraced. Even the duty of scoring the action is given to a new composer, Michael Giacchino (Star Trek) who, whilst paying due homage to John Williams’ immortal themes where appropriate, imbues the movie with a mood that speaks to another genre entirely. 


However, what really sets this movie apart from the main saga is its angle. Episodes IV to VI presented heroic rebels battling the evil Galactic Empire. Rogue One presents psychotic terrorists, would-be murderers and a few heroic senators and soldiers looking to bring down the evil Galactic Empire, whose minions range from devoted to enslaved. Indeed, the whole plot turns on the machinations of a conscripted Imperial scientist standing up to his paymasters in the only way that he can. It’s therefore a much greyer, much grittier and much more plausible long ago and far, far away - if I didn’t know better, I’d say it was a Chris Nolan take on George Lucas’s most prized creation. 


And to say that Rogue One is the first Star Wars flick not to feature the Jedi, it doesn’t disappoint when it comes to its multicultural band of protagonists. From Vader’s twisted mirror Saw Gerrera (of Star Wars: The Clone Wars fame) to tragic Death Star designer Galen Erso, each supporting part is enthralling and distinctive, while the leads positively dazzle. Felicity Jones is superb as Erso’s unruly daughter, Jyn, whom we follow from interred criminal to galactic beacon of hope, and she’s matched every step of the way by Diego Luna’s clearly conflicted Captain Cassian Andor who, more than any other character, embodies both the physical and moral war waging at the heart of the movie. The standouts, however, are Donnie Yen’s Chirrut Îmwe and Jiang Wen’s Baze Malbus, failed guardians of the Whills. One’s blind to the world and the other to the Force, but together they see what must be done. 


Of course, Rogue One’s most controversial character wears the face of a dead man. Peter Cushing’s ghost is the face of the Empire here - a blend of CG effects and Guy Henry’s measured performance recreate Emperor Palpatine’s first and only grand moff almost perfectly. Nobody seems to have an issue with the terrifying veracity of this digital resurrection, but questions as to its ethics abound. Is it right? Well, yeah - of course it is. I don’t remember any complaints when Stephen Stanton breathed life back into Tarkin for his CG
Clone Wars and Rebels appearances. The only difference here is that the end result is photo-real, imbuing it with an unintended haunting quality that previous efforts have lacked.


And though his appearances in Rogue One are limited, Darth Vader still manages to enjoy his strongest theatrical appearance to date - at least in a literal sense. Taking a leaf out of Star Wars Rebels’ playbook, Vader is portrayed as an unstoppable force and immovable object; a creature so attuned to the dark side of the Force that his lightning speed and stupefying strength are only outmatched by his ferocious brutality. This is the Vader that I’ve always seen in my mind’s eye - not the lumbering cyborg of Revenge of the Sith or the reined-in, at-heel father of the original trilogy, but the Chosen One of Jedi legend gone bad; the ultimate Sith Lord who can throw a rebel to the ceiling with the flick of one wrist and cleave him in two with the bloodshine lightsaber that he holds in the other. Rogue One doesn’t limit itself to redefining Vader’s prowess in battle either. James Earl Jones delights in delivering deadpan dialogue that’s on a par with The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi’s most memorable one-liners, and what’s more he does so from within Vader’s obsidian black fortress on Mustafar, which makes its first on-screen appearance here - bacta tank, hooded apostates and all. 



And yet, Rogue One is in some respects even more of a love letter to the original Star Wars movie than even The Force Awakens. Bursting at the seams with cameos and Easter eggs, its very subject matter seeks to dramatise the first film’s opening crawl, making the tapestry of that long-ago galaxy far, far away that much more intricate and alluring. It’s quite apt that, in defiance of every Star Wars saga movie to date, none of the characters here manage to get out the line, “I’ve got a bad feeling about this...”, because it’s hard to see how anyone possibly could. Last Christmas the Force awakened - this year, it’s on fire.