Great start to new Star Wars trilogy

Luke Skywalker has vanished, the Empire has crumbled, and from its ashes cometh the First Order. The Resistance is fighting back.

The previous trilogy with the centrality of the Skywalker hero and the shadow of the insidious Empire has come and gone.

Enter the new in Star Wars Episode VII The Force Awakens (2015), the next episode in the continuation of the Star Wars series, just over thirty years since Star Wars Episode VI Return of the Jedi.

However, there are remnants of the former trilogy that appear on screen. Luke Skywalker isn’t fully absent and Han Solo and Leia return. Chewbacca, C3-PO and R2-D2 are still here.

Even Darth Vader gets a vague reference although he died in the earlier film.

The freshness of the new film is referenced when the evil Imperial leader Snoke tells his right-hand man Kylo Ren he senses an awakening in the Force, the New Age-like mystical energy that surrounds and binds everything. Something is anticipated or brooding on the horizon which isn’t made fully clear, yet.

It makes one hanker for what’s going to happen more than the old although one can’t resist seeing the old come and do their stuff.

The new characters hit the spot. Daisy Ridley plays a tough scavenger whose instincts are to survive and gets involved in the fight against the First Order; John Boyega as a defective Imperial trooper has over-the-top charm; Oscar Issac plays a Resistance fighter obviously on the side of integrity. A new droid has spunk.

Having a villain as menacing as Darth Vader would be a feat, but Kylo Ren just about comes close. Adam Driver is mostly masked throughout the film, but as Ren his voice conveys fear that will send shivers through your spine and with the first sequence of mindless violence the First Order is palpably scary.

The bare bones of the story is finding Luke Skywalker who has vanished. The First Order want this “last Jedi” eliminated, but the Resistance need him back on their team.

It’s a fresh Star Wars film, with a few new story revelations, but like other Star Wars films that have a clear good versus evil thread. In this one, the meat in-between is engrossing and the production values top notch.

Star Wars Episode VII The Force Awakens (2015) ****½ Starring: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Issac, Adam Driver, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher. Director: J.J. Abrams.


Out of Africa sweeps one up

Thematically, Out of Africa (1985) has got some interesting points, of one’s place and connection in the world in spite of the transient nature of life, seeing the life God intended although the world is imperfect, and the small details of life carrying some significance for good or ill. A bit of a smorgasbord of ideas, a bit of a mix and pick, but the ideas connect to the central story.

Out of Africa is based on real people and fictionalized for dramatic effect, Danish baroness Karen Blixen (Meryl Streep) moves to colonial Kenya and marries her best friend there, Bror (Klaus Maria Brandauer). There is a strain in her marriage as Bror has infidelities coming left, right and centre despite them trying to make a go of a coffee plantation in the African country.

Enter big game hunter Denys Finch Hatton (Robert Redford). Ever so gently a romance develops after Blixen’s divorce from Bror.

The spectrum of events like these can make one question one’s place in the world, question if the events are ominous or good, and somehow get back to the life God intended. Ambiguous and lucid but getting through the fog to find a meaningful life.

Meryl Streep had two acting Oscars already on her mantelpiece before she filmed Out of Africa. When the Oscar nominations came out in 1986, she was nominated for her role as Karen Blixen. She didn’t win and didn’t win again for another 26 years when she got another one for The Iron Lady in 2012. But some may say that the field was so good in 1986 that they all deserved the Oscar.

The beauty of Meryl Streep’s performance as Karen Blixen is that she consumes her role as if disappearing in it, which many say is what Meryl Streep tends to do. Streep may be the best thing in Out of Africa but there are other reasons to admire it as a movie.

Streep consumes her role as Blixen, but when she’s with Redford and he’s putting on the charisma, you start to think, oh, he’s a star and so is she. Redford has that effect on occasion, but mostly you wouldn’t notice.

There’s a slow burning romance between the main characters. Finch Hatton takes Karen Blixen on his plane–some magnificent aerial photography showcases the romance of the African landscape. By then it’s more than a date, not that dates figure in this film’s world.

I’m not commending the moral flaws in this film, such as the infidelities, the divorce, and the romance with another man, but Streep’s wonderful performance, and Brandauer’s too, the production’s handsomeness, the literate sweep from a screenplay by Kurt Luedtke (based on the writings of Karen Blixen), the detail and well-developed characters, are all on the flip side. There are few lulls. I was taken into this movie’s cocoon. A tremendous effort, a film that’s focused and follows through on what’s been established, and a film of poetry, nuance and detail, delivered with a return on the viewer.

Out of Africa (1985) ****½ Starring: Meryl Streep, Robert Redford, Klaus Maria Brandauer. Director: Sydney Pollock.

This much-anticipated Star Wars sequel was fun, but with serious moments

Han Solo’s buddies are there to rescue him.

Solo (Harrison Ford) is encased in carbonite as a prize for the slimy, slug-like gangster Jabba the Hutt. Solo’s been indebted to the Hutt. Now Jabba has him, yet not the money he’s owed. But as payback, the person himself.

It sounds like the plot out of a pulpy Star Wars expanded universe novel, but The Empire Strikes Back which preceded Return of the Jedi gave gravitas to the scenario.

In Empire, the situation Solo found himself in was touched by danger. He was unjustly treated and betrayed. In the end, he lost. It gives his rescue mission in Return of the Jedi (1983) a sense of weight to proceedings, for a man who was put into so much difficulty, should be saved by equal measure of salvation.

One by one, Luke’s friends make their entrance into Jabba’s Palace to save Solo. It is obvious they have a plan. A hologram of Luke Skywalker is projected by the droid R2-D2 to present a message to Jabba the Hutt, but the message is rejected by Jabba and the droid employed into the service of the palace. Back-ups follow, in disguise, until it comes down to the last man, in a crucial action scene at the Tatooine dunes.

The rescue mission is punctuated by a sense of fun instead of heaviness, which is not so much a bad thing as it turns out. Jabba’s Palace is filled with sketchy, caricatured low-lives, one’s you wouldn’t care to get to know. But they are so sketchy they seem less sinister than what they probably are and more adequately fun. Fans would be buying the Palace toy and every figure that inhabits it.

The story progresses from Jabba’s Palace. Hero Luke Skywalker is seeking to convert villain Darth Vader to the good side. He’s coming to terms with losing a Jedi master and the revelation he has a sister, but all this existential angst is in the shadows of other moments. Fun moments.

Moments like the Rebel Briefing where the Rebels gather to discuss the strike on the Empire’s half-completed Death Star. You can’t take the overt statesmanship of this scene with gravitas.

The Rebel strike showcases the best action scenes and visual effects in the movie. Heaps of fun.

And moments with Ian McDiarmid as the Emperor, the Empire’s head honcho. He buoys the scenes he is in, to make those scenes come alive. The Emperor’s theatrical plays of power is a lot of good innocent fun.

Vader and Luke’s story which is supposed to resonate doesn’t nail it at times. The human moment that Vader and Luke share strains for effect, the sentiment somehow misses the mark.

But other serious moments resonate. One watches Vader and Luke duelling to the sounds of quasi-religious music on the soundtrack, heightening the theme of good versus evil.

Later, the redemptive moment echoes off profoundly.

Return of the Jedi may be more about the fun moments, but the serious moments that work count for something. And one can see how the finale all pans out and is very moved at the end of it.

Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983) **** Starring: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Anthony Daniels, Billy Dee Williams, Kenny Baker, Peter Mayhew, Dave Prowse, voice of Frank Oz and James Earl Jones. Director: Richard Marquand.

Oldman consumes Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour

Why watch Darkest Hour (2017)? Gary Oldman is the appeal of watching Darkest Hour. In the uncertain days of the Second World War, Winston Churchill (Oldman) became Prime Minister of England, replacing the statistically and politically unpopular Neville Chamberlin.

Chamberlin couldn’t lead during wartime according to one observer, but perhaps equally unpopular was Churchill, after a series of misfires as diplomat. But he had the backing of the opposition in Parliament so was the obvious choice.

Churchill struggles under the pressure of leading Britain during wartime, but his stubbornness and resolve to pursue his policies against Nazi Germany rather than sign a peace treaty with them is his great strength. Churchill did the right thing at the right time, despite the surrounding pressures inside and outside Parliament.

Churchill is played as a charmless, but genuine and kind person, whose charm-lessness has the opposite effect of being charming in its odd way, and his humour sharp and biting.

Oldman conveys the flaws and strengths of his character with masterfulness. Otherwise, Darkest Hour is a bit of an uninteresting, even boring war-time drama, replete with grey suited English politicians in stuffy stodgy environs of the parliamentary corridor, and very little production colour to brighten things up. It is efficiently bland with an even more pedantic sense of precision than Darkest Hour director Joe Wright’s Atonement.

Oldman doesn’t hold the movie together alone as it is rather grey and uneventful despite Oldman’s bursts of splendid outrageous colour. Still, worth a look for Oldman, made up unmistakably as Churchill, if one is curious enough.

Darkest Hour (2017) ***½ Starring: Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Ronald Pickup, Lilly James, Ben Mendelsohn. Director: Joe Wright.

Not easily forgotten

Maybe it’s the mileage. Watching Star Wars A New Hope (1977) to see how many times I could beat myself. 5, 10, 15 times. Well, that’s enough. By the end of it one comes out an expert, but as they say, familiarity breeds contempt. However, I wonder if I was enamoured by A New Hope at all? And the “addiction” just forcing myself to like it. Well, having watched it again, I could tell that I wasn’t massively engaged at times and other times I was engaged massively. It just depended where I was in the movie.

Massively made up with images of technology, the first quarter isn’t that pleasant to look at. The Jawas, scavenger residents of the desert planet Tatooine, are the only humorous sights that far into the movie. Mostly we see “droids”, spaceships, helmets, heavily costumed warriors, and more droids. There is not much room for humanity here.

But later there is. Humans in close-up, humans evading peril, humans as potential heroes. Massive images of technology juxtapose massive images of humanity.

By the end, humans face battle stations head-on, evading the dreaded machine. The point is apparent: humans should not be the slave of technology. Technology can enslave you, but don’t let it.

There’s an art to the transitional devices between scenes.  Seamless lead-in to scenes and wipes that turn over a new page, as it was, to continue the story from a new point.

The visuals are so astonishing as to be sublime. A new world has been created in all the visual capacity that it can hold.

But one is also aware of the fantasy that lingers which makes one take a step back and distance one’s self from it.

Sometimes it’s just not massively engaging on its own terms, but engages it still does and in those moments it’s wonderful. Meeting Ben Kenobi for the first time, the young fool being pulled away from home but also finding himself unable to stay there anymore, the tight-knit “boardroom” of grey suited elders discussing the future of their enterprise the Death Star, Darth Vader’s faith in the force. Han Solo’s cool. There are probably many more that just sneaked up on me without noticing too much.

Star Wars A New Hope can’t be easily forgotten.

Star Wars Episode IV A New Hope (1977) ***** Starring: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Peter Cushing, Alec Guinness, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, Dave Prowse, Peter Mayhew, James Earl Jones (voice of Darth Vader). Writer/Director: George Lucas.

The aftermath of Aftermath

Been catching up on Star Wars: Aftermath: Life Debt, the second in the post Return of the Jedi novel trilogy (Yes, this trilogy is all book, not movie). Three-thirds in to reading Life Debt, I found my mind wandering, the lustre of this novel was replaced by the mundane. It caused a life changing decision or at least caused me to think twice about continuing to read this trilogy. I decided to put this trilogy to rest and had a life affirming revelation. The deeper less candy-coated Star Wars fiction is better.

Painstakingly effective

This is a movie that flew under the radar. For one thing, it’s very long. The production design is mostly indoors, which may be too wooden for some tastes, and the costumes from the 1800’s, with only the occasional flare for cinematic storytelling. Despite the pitfalls, it’s not gratingly so. Although the dialogue and interactions are more or less so sophisticated and may require one’s full concentration, Little Dorrit (1987) is involving.

It is impressive in terms of the scale of the storytelling despite the setting limitations. In Little Dorrit, famed English actor Alec Guinness plays William Dorrit, the gentlemanly head of a debtor’s prison in Victorian England. He sweeps visitors up in conversation and is the object of adoration of her daughter Amy, otherwise called Little Dorrit. One has a certain amount of sympathy for William Dorrit, as the story sides with him, especially evident in the final scenes which are breathtakingly good and highlight the divide between rich and poor.

It’s all based on Charles Dickens reportedly satirical novel about being rich and poor in Victorian society. Part one—the three hour It’s Nobody’s Fault—is seen through the eyes of Arthur Clennam (Derek Jacobi), who becomes involved with the business of William Dorrit (Alec Guinness). William’s daughter Little Dorrit (Sarah Pickering) is the seamstress of Clennam’s mother to earn a crust. Clennam aims to help them get out of the debtor’s prison with the help of a lawyer.

Part two is much the same storyline as part one, but told through the ‘eyes’ of Little Dorrit (or Amy). Scene after scene is framed to see the second half through the perspective of Little Dorrit. One finds respect for her, her kindness, genuineness, good manners and even temperament standing out, which made quite an impression.

I loved the cast and characters. With a sprawling cast, Little Dorrit is filled with good performances and interesting characters. As Clennam, Derek Jacobi exudes a youthful air. Clennam’s fineness and reserve is the surface but he is secretly in love. Clennam’s also impeccably generous which reveals nobility.

As Cleenam’s mother, Joan Greenwood is frightfully straightforward. Her reading of the Bible is of a punitive passage in the book of the prophets at exactly eight o’clock and no bible context is given. With her bubbly personality and effervescence in a reserved society, Miriam Margolyes as Flora Finching stands out in the sense that she seems out of place, but in a good way.

Roshan Seth’s exuberance is catching, his cockney accent a change of pace from his refinement in Gandhi and a villain’s off-colour charm in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

The actual logistics of undertaking a film told from two character’s perspectives would be painstaking to produce, but effective and very satisfying.

Little Dorrit (1987) ****½ Starring: Derek Jacobi, Sarah Pickering, Alec Guinness, Roshan Seth. Writer/Director: Christine Edzard. Running time: About six hours.

A satisfying finale to prequel trilogy

Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005) is, in a way, predictable enough, but also attractive enough to get bums on seats–in terms that we know what will happen, but don’t know how.

The predictability lies in the telling of the story of young Jedi Knight Anakin Skywalker’s fall from grace. Everyone knows the ending.

The result in Star Wars creator George Lucas’ finale of the prequel trilogy is effective in portraying a conflicted individual who concedes to the ‘dark side’ because of “lust” i.e. personal ambition and a sense of significance that can’t be quenched. Anakin Skywalker is never satisfied.

As well, Anakin is torn between duty as a Jedi and forbidden love for Padme (Natalie Portman) and his all consuming attachment to her.

The love story is the movie’s central soap opera along with Anakin’s trainer — a more mature Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) — trying to keep reigns on his apprentice’s impetuousness.

The movie seems to be saying that Anakin missed out on acquiring knowledge which in-spite of his immaturity would have given him wisdom and foresight and hold him back from being a mechanical dictator.

And there are other messages in the movie – adoption of children for those that cannot have them, faithfulness, loyalty, and friendship are all interwoven.

Your sympathies may be touched in feeling for the likeable Anakin who said as an idealistic ten-year-old, in The Phantom Menace, that what is wrong with the universe is that no one cares for one another. But Anakin is vulnerable, especially in his friendship with Chancellor Palpatine. Their relationship in Revenge of the Sith is crucial to Anakin’s demise, as Palpatine plays on Anakin’s lust for power and significance.

Depending on your level of commitment to the saga the viewing process could be emotionally strong, symbolically rich, and a wonderful tapestry of mythic storytelling.

Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005) **** Revised version , original published, 2005. Starring: Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Hayden Christensen, Christopher Lee, Samuel L. Jackson, Frank Oz, Ian McDiarmid, Jimmy Smits, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, Peter Mayhew. Screenwriter: George Lucas. Director: George Lucas.

Less than satisfying second part to prequel trilogy

I’m looking to George Lucas’ collaboration with director Steven Spielberg to make the next Indiana Jones adventure. Let’s hope that magic doesn’t get lost in the new century, as it has with Attack of the Clones (2002). It is not all bad news, though. Attack of the Clones is hugely entertaining mainly because of its visual experience to be only fully felt at the cinema. State-of-the-art computer effects are eye blowing and conceptual design is highly imaginative.

Star Wars blew cinema audiences away in 1977 when it captivated with an appealing sci-fi adventure. The awe-inspire lies back there. Nowhere in Attack of the Clones is there a smooth operator like Han Solo, a feisty princess, an intimidating Wookie, a fear inducing dark villain and a great actor named Alec Guinness, who brought a lot of expression to his character Obi-Wan Kenobi, more so than his “Padawan learner” Ewan McGregor in Attack of the Clones.

Anakin Skywalker, now accomplished Jedi, falls in love with the ex-Queen of Naboo (from Phantom Menace days). He is assigned to look after her as her life is under threat from those dividing the Republic into Separatist states. Anakin has recurring nightmares over his mother and his separation from her, as described in Phantom Menace, which has its after effect. This is a psychological undercurrent of Anakin’s fall from grace to become Darth Vader. We will need to wait until the third instalment to encounter the real story with its poignant pseudo religious cum spiritual significance.

This prequel has a high sense of soap opera, especially evident in conversations between characters. The decisions political figures make, a Jedi’s contemplation followed by wise action, and the consequences of these, are dished out with importance as if this is the story of the century. However, despite this movie being less than satisfying, it is another Star Wars film and there is an interesting development of action sequences in this. Unlike the rudimentary action set piece that stands out because it is self-conscious, Attack of the Clones seamlessly weaves its action set pieces within the fabric of the plot and each one plays like a mini story in and of itself.

For example, Obi Wan and bounty hunter Jango Fett fight it out on a planet and in outer space. It plays out like extension of the previous scene.

In the final analysis, one needs some patience with the story, as it pans out to a lifeless pace, but visual and mythical elements (such as the new characters of the trade guild) keep those committed to the Star Wars saga interested.

Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002) ***½ Published, 2002, (last sentence deleted and new one added 2018). Starring: Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Hayden Christensen, Frank Oz, and Christopher Lee. Screenwriters: George Lucas and Jonathan Hales. Director: George Lucas.

Finding true inspiration

Less an old-fashioned, lavish musical, Xanadu (1980) is whimsical, decent.

Whimsical in that a muse comes into the life of a frustrated artist.

The artist struggles in the world of commercial cover art, paying the bills in producing music store posters, which is against his sense of genuine artistic expression.

Then along comes an Angelic muse, dressed in silky white, on roller skates. Cruising along the beachfront, she gently kisses him. As he finds out more about her, she inspires him to pursue an inspired life and ditch the day job.

Then the artist/dreamer encourages a retired night club entrepreneur to set their sights on enlivening an abandoned building and dream of ways to make it into a nightclub.

The young artist thinks it needs rock and roll, and the older man thinks it needs jazzy numbers from the 1940s, but as they dream aloud, their fantasies merge and feature The Tubes, modern dance moves and classical style.

This musical apparently was lambasted by the critics. But Gene Kelly, Olivia Newton John and Michael Beck provide appealing performances. Kelly is charming, Newton John is stunning, Beck plays the loveable searcher. He falls in love with the muse who is keeping the relationship appropriately platonic.

Olivia Newton John plays the Greek muse. Her songs feature on the soundtrack and she gives solo performances as well.

An animated sequence involves Newton John and Beck—which attempts to milk the mystical aspect of the story for all its worth.

The muse arises from Greek mythology. One can see a broader perspective without taking Greek mythology literally: the theme of having inspiration fall into your lap.

It’s almost supernatural. Inspiration can happen at uncanny times and when one needs it.

Some critics might have said that Xanadu is a phony. But between the lines of dancing, song, and clean-cut love, comes a tale of finding true inspiration.

Xanadu (1980) ***½ Starring: Olivia Newton John, Gene Kelly, Michael Back. Writers: Richard Christian Danus, Marc Reid Rubel. Songs: Olivia Newton John (written by John Farrar) and Electric Light Orchestra (written by Jeff Lynne). Director: Robert Greenwald.