The Lego Batman Movie

Stop what you’re doing. Whatever it is, it’s not important. Block out your baby’s cries, they’re just being dramatic. That phone call to your mum, forget about it. You can tweet an emoji at her later or something. Most important of all, stop watching your newsfeeds filled with nothing but a filthy rich and overpowered egomaniac man-child with anger management issues and zero sense of responsibility…and go see a film about a filthy rich and overpowered egomaniac man-child with anger management issues and at least SOME sense of responsibility. And a way cooler headpiece. Best decision you’ll make this week, period.

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Let’s be honest, no one expected 2014’s The Lego Movie to be anything remotely like the juggernaut it turned out to be. Near-universal critical acclaim, a box office gross almost four times its budget, it even caused an actual Lego shortage that year! Seriously, Google it. But amongst all the colours and craziness of its cast of characters, it was one distinctly black-and-yellow personality who stole the show: Batman. Now he’s back with a spin-off film all his own, because who else could carry a budding Lego Cinematic Universe to the next level? Besides, it’s not like his live-action gigs have been turning out so well.

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The Dark Knight. The Caped Crusader. Master Builder. It’s a hardcore hero’s life for Batman (Will Arnett) as he defends Gotham City from its relentlessly villainous hoards. His home life, however, needs work, and to that end his butler/surrogate father figure Alfred (Ralph Fiennes) insists he take responsibility for raising wide-eyed orphan adoptee Dick Grayson (Michael Cera). Between that, the efforts of new Police Commissioner Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson) to make him a team player, and the threat of an almighty villainous plot by the Joker (Zach Galifianakis), Bruce Wayne may have to make the ultimate sacrifice: his solo career.

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With any surprise hit, there’s always the same attitude sequence: the mania stage, and then the ‘lightning never strikes twice’ stage. Even when something comes so completely out of left field and blows everyone away, something that says anything is possible, as The Lego Movie did, we still tend to revert to a more sceptical view. Maybe that’s just the general ‘sequel fatigue’ of modern times, maybe we’re all just negative people but in any case, this is a film that determinedly defies disappointment. Think Lego Batman’s impact was best served by his ‘in moderation’ cameo role? Lego Batman will take your entire hour-forty-five-minute experience and you’ll be grateful for it! Arnett’s career seems to have been deliberately cultivated for this role, considering his work on Arrested Development and Bojack Horseman. Long-time Batman fans will never recognize any voice-actor better than Kevin Conroy for the role, but for who this Batman is and the context of the character in general pop culture today, Arnett more than earns his cowl. The rest of the film’s vocal talent only adds to the film’s strengths, with Cera the obvious choice for Robin (in the best way), a pitch-perfect turn from Fiennes as Alfred, and a solid Joker from Galifianakis (though again, no one can top the legendary Mark Hamill’s Clown Prince). Special mentions must include Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill, returning as Superman and Green Lantern from The Lego Movie, Eddie Izzard’s wicked wand-waver (no spoilers here), and Doug Benson’s hilarious impression of Tom Hardy as Bane. Oh, and Siri. Siri’s the Batcomputer in this. Good job Siri.

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It may seem ridiculous to say, but when you think about it, The Lego Movie had it easy. All it had to be was a good film that didn’t seem like a feature-length commercial. The Lego Batman Movie had to be a good film on its own, a good follow-up Lego film, AND a good Batman film. Struggling as the character might be amidst Warner Bros’ current DC Cinematic Universe efforts, Batman continues to enjoy just as iconic a cultural status as Superman, and with more consistently demonstrable success on film and TV. Like Lego Batman himself says, “DC…The House that Batman Built”. Director Chris McKay, here making his feature debut, is clearly an adoring fan and it’s his clear prioritising of both the mythologies and contexts of Batman that elevates the film from generic and cynical spin-off territory to sincere, robust cinema.  By caricaturising the classic comic book dynamics, from Bruce Wayne’s maniacal inwardness, to Batman and Robin’s mentor-protégé setup, to even the Joker’s twisted infatuation with his arch-nemesis, the ultimate Batman experience is delivered in full. Even come the third act, when things venture more towards The Lego Movie’s unencumbered and frenzied way of doing things where a lesser film would probably lose its focus, the Bat-Signal shines through. The climax does suffer somewhat from clumsy execution, awkwardly flipping between scenes of emotional reconciliation and all-out action and chaos the stuff of any child’s (or inner child’s) dreams, making it harder for the audience to connect with either, but such stumbles are easily forgivable for a first-time director whose triumphs so clearly eclipse his missteps. Better that the experience be a consistent B than an A in parts and a C in others. Even better when it’s a B+.

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Part-celebration of all-things Batman throughout his 75+ year history, part joyously anarchic action-adventure in the true spirit of the 2014 hit, The Lego Batman Movie is a worthy addition to a franchise that looks set to be Warner Bros’ true golden goose, and a tremendous work of self-deprecation, retro (and intro)-spection, and relentless fun.

Quality: 4/5

Entertainment: 5/5

Final Score 4.5/5

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Hell or High Water

In most people’s minds, a classic Western boils down to a handful of elements: good guy(s), bad guys(s), shootouts, cowboy hats, horses, horizons and maybe the odd ‘Injun’. True Grit, The Magnificent Seven, Red River, The Searchers, these certainly tick all the boxes, but often what people underappreciate is that’s only ever half of the appeal. Like all the best stories, the experience isn’t simply the sum of their genre tropes (by that logic A Million Ways to Die in the West and Once Upon a Time in the West are drinking buddies) but the extent to which they transcend their genre. David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water may not simmer with the tension and exhilaration of No Country for Old Men proportions, but make no mistake: it ticks all the boxes, and then rustles up a few more.

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When Howard brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) embark on a string of bank robberies in West Texas, soon-to-retire Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) throws himself into the chase. But in Texas, justice takes many forms, and sometimes a man has to determine his own choices before they can define him.

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If half the appeal of a great Western is its signature elements (the duel, the saloon bar, the stirrups, the Sheriff’s badge), the other half is its ability to resonate with the times, and this more than anything is Hell or High Water’s ace in the hole. Mackenzie creates an atmosphere that feels almost tangibly like the essence of the classics, and transposes it onto a setting and story that is uncompromisingly current.

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Pine and Foster are pitch-perfect casting as the Howard brothers, amateurs to their craft but diligent in their method and defined far more by their relationship than their actions. Though they live in a world and lead lives of increasingly unfortunate choices, their fraternity is the one thing neither of them chose, and the one thing neither of them would ever choose to change. Foster is particularly a standout in capturing Tanner’s caution-to-the-wind charisma, but without Pine and the chemistry the actors clearly share the effect would not be nearly so potent.

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Indeed, only narrowly does Bridges pip Foster to the ‘Best Performance’ post, but pip him he does nonetheless. Hamilton, in Bridges’ hands, is a man of palpable experience, past his prime but by no means out of touch with his prime, and all the wit and wisdom that comes with it. His partnership with fellow ranger Gil Birmingham (Alberto Parker) offers ample opportunity for Bridges to shine, and indeed makes for a few of the film’s highlights, but it’s the ever-self-sustaining magnetism of his solo work that continues to set him apart.

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Sensational cinematography, a sharp and tightly focused script and engrossing performances across the board distinguish Hell or High Water as a deserving addition to an increasing body of ‘shoot-em-ups with something to say’. A complex, carefully considered character study into those who act in the name of justice in a time when injustice feels so institutionalized.

 

Quality: 4.5/5

Entertainment: 3.5/5

Final Score: 4/5

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Hacksaw Ridge

“When the order came to retreat, one man stayed”. “Based on the incredible true story”. “One of the greatest heroes in American history never fired a bullet”. All genuine poster taglines for Mel Gibson’s grand comeback in the director’s chair: Hacksaw Ridge. The story of an intensely religious US army medic in World War II who refused to kill, or even carry a gun, yet single-handedly saved the lives of over seventy comrades in Okinawa. So far, so Oscar-baity, but then again to say that Gibson has fallen out of favour with Hollywood in recent years would be to put it mildly, so it’s hard to imagine how else he could ever have expected to re-ingratiate himself. Not having directed since 2006’s Apocalypto, and his acting career having sauntered off into The Expendables 3 and The Beaver territory, for Gibson it was go big or go home. With this season’s Hacksaw Ridge, big it is, and home he has come.

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Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) has spent his whole life as a devout Christian, but committed above all to God’s commandment of ‘thou shalt not kill’. As the United States enters World War II in the wake of Pearl Harbour, Doss enlists as an army medic, though his unyielding objection to killing by his own hand quickly threatens his hopes of serving his country. For Doss, the choice is an impossible one: his love of country, or his love of God? But as the Japanese slaughter American troops by the garrison at the Maeda ‘Hacksaw Ridge’ Escarpment, he soon learns how choice itself is a luxury that warzones cannot afford.

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WWII action-dramas, it seems, have a tendency of going in either one of two directions at the expense of the other: action, or drama. The Fury route (war in all the bloody brutality of the battlefield), or the Schindler’s List route (war as plague on the hearts and minds of society). Rarely does a film find that perfect mid-point between the two, and to date Saving Private Ryan is generally considered to be the standard-bearer. Hacksaw Ridge isn’t that missing piece of the spectrum, but that doesn’t stop it from taking a much-deserved place in the Hall of Honourable Mentions. There’s no two-ways about it: Gibson has absolutely knocked this one out of the park.

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Garfield delivers the performance of his career to date, the role of Doss becoming something of a comeback of his own, richly deserving of the plethora of nominations he has received this season. It’s no easy thing to sell an individual defined by his devout religious belief to an increasingly secular cinema-going public, but Garfield makes sure to convey the man far beyond this fundamental. Doss is shy, but his will is steel, and at no point does his emotional conflict ever feel contrived for the sake of added drama. Even his pure persistence in sticking to his principles, more likely to irritate audiences with its outright irrationality, never feels offputtingly obstructive and obtuse. Doss is governed by his heart, and we feel it every step of the way. Teresa Palmer deserves ample credit also not only for what she brings to the table as Doss’ wife Dorothy, but for the chemistry she shares with Garfield, their romance playing out in classic-yet-sincere fashion. Special mention should also go to Hugo Weaving as Doss’ Great War veteran father, his volatility and survivor’s guilt offering a bleak contrast to Garfield’s faith like the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.

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Gibson could have just settled for a solid war film with some standout action sequences and a sensational star headlining, but his efforts continue yet further with a supporting cast of richly real characters. Vince Vaughn’s turn as Doss’ unit Sergeant Lovell may be something of an adjustment at first to audiences familiar with his filmography (Wedding Crashers, Anchorman), but it makes sense in the context of his pursuing more dramatic roles post-True Detective. It’s a solid performance in and of itself, but greatly enhanced by the talents of the rest of their unit. Luke Bracey, Luke Pegler, Richard Pyros, Ben Mingay, Firass Dirani, to name a few, avoid the pitfalls of cardboard cut-out clichés in camo and from the very first convey full and vivacious personalities, all of which serves to heighten the tension and unpredictability of the combat scenes. Every character has been invested in by the story, and so we feel every character’s peril. It’s a balancing act rarely pulled off to such a satisfying extent, and it’s a storytelling talent never-before-seen from the film’s director, yet Gibson defies expectations.

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But for all Hacksaw Ridge’s heartfelt spirit and Gibson’s typically upfront religious imagery (albeit in fairness more restrained here than in his past works), it’s the doubling-down-and-then-some on the battlefield scenes that truly electrifies this film-going experience. Not in recent memory has any film shown the horrors of war quite so vividly and relentlessly through practically every production department a film can have. Corpses whole, dismembered and blown-to-pieces strewn across bloodstained rock and dirt, rats feasting on remains at night, organs scattered, and the air filled with screams and gunfire. As soldiers charge into the fray, the camerawork deftly balances clarifying shots of the battlefield with frenzied-but-focused edits. Shaky cam isn’t the obnoxious and distracting tool it has been for so many films today; it’s a distinct part of the visual language, and all of it captures Doss’ journey into hell and back again to the fullest degree imaginable. The setting for the action never strays from the same moderately-sized battlefield atop the ridge, but for all the chaos and intensity it might just as well be the Somme.

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What should have been a beyond by-the-numbers Oscar-seeker, Gibson takes away and returns an experience of battle with such uncompromising spectacle it will surely rank alongside Spielberg’s Normandy beaches, with a story grounded above all by an exemplary cast of characters who bring this piece of history to vibrant life.

Quality: 4/5

Entertainment: 4/5

Final Score: 4/5

La La Land

2016 was a year that witnessed the passing of many an iconic contributor to international arts, but Debbie Reynolds left an especially deep wound in America’s entertainment culture. Hollywood had lost one of the last great faces of what many consider to be a golden age. Whereas today the box office bursts with superheroes and Minions, once upon a time it was the musical which dominated the medium, and how so very many of those have endured the test of time for their song and dance numbers, as well as their timeless characters and stories. But times change, and Hollywood has now found itself in something of an identity crisis. Mining franchises for all they’re worth (and then some), fanning audience nostalgia, chasing evermore astronomical opening weekend box office numbers. People complain that they don’t make anything original anymore, and they’re right. Original is risky, and transporting ourselves to past times and places is partly why we tell stories at all, isn’t it? But in clinging to past glories, when and what should be considered too tight? Damien Chazelle, in association with Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, presents this awards season’s love letter to Hollywood old renewed: La La Land.

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Mia Dolan (Emma Stone) has always dreamed of her big break in Hollywood. Seb Wilder (Ryan Gosling) is a jazz music purist determined to one day open his own L.A jazz club. Chance encounters forever intertwine their paths through the City of Angels, but chasing your dreams takes a lot of reality checks, and ambition is rarely rewarded without a price.

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If there’s one thing that’s abundantly clear, it’s that director Damien Chazelle LOVES jazz. His last project in the chair, 2014’s multi-award nominated ‘Whiplash’, was a furious feature-length fangasm to the genre, and here he fuses that abundant enthusiasm with the unenviable task of resurrecting an era of cinema long since boxed up and shipped to the ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ warehouse of film history (barring the occasional breakout for TV re-broadcasts). As genre blends go, historically they’re not exactly the most obvious of bedfellows (barring the genius that is High Society) but with an opening number that delivers L.A. commuters leaping from their vehicles and into a sweeping ensemble extravaganza, Chazelle certainly makes a statement about taking both music and performance in today’s Hollywood to the next level. It’s a stage-setting set-piece that radiates pure adoration for its cinematic history, that defies audiences not to enjoy themselves, be it through the music itself or the plethora of homages on display. Indeed, when it comes to the big set-pieces throughout, Chazelle has a demonstrably keen and palatable sense of spectacle and sensation that he interweaves deftly with yet more clever call-backs to the stylisations of a bygone Hollywood. The result: a dazzling visual experience that allows the eye to feast on colours, textures and choreography galore.

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But whilst there is an irrepressible love for the film’s unique musical identity at work here, as well as an obviously profound respect and admiration for Hollywood history, La La Land struggles to fully reconcile the potential of both into a more consistent and creative piece of storytelling. Showstoppers come, showstoppers go. Gorgeous cinematography and inventive imagery abounds, but what should feel like a symphony that hits all the right notes instead resonates as more of a disparate collection of greatest hits with scant and sporadic emotional coherence. First and greatest of the casualties of this effect are, in fact, our protagonists. Stone has long since proven herself as an actor and performer to be reckoned with, and headlining a major movie musical is clearly a career occasion deserving of her efforts which she more than rises to. More than anyone besides Chazelle, La La Land belongs to her. That said, as much as she owns her every song and dance, as well as she communicates both Mia’s resilience and vulnerability, her material feels in the end somewhat under-serving of her talents. It’s a problem that extends even more so to Gosling, with Seb given very little characterization that doesn’t come directly from his mania for jazz music. Consequently, this leaves us with a one-dimensional lead who offers little variety in the way of his own musical input (ironic considering the character’s excitement for music he explicitly describes as fundamentally reliant on intensity, challenge, variety and improvisation). Hampered yet further by a plot that limits itself to a somewhat generic ‘authenticity vs. success’ debate, the greatest crime of which is twisting Mia and Seb’s characterizations to suit the narrative’s needs (with little transition), and the overall spectacle loses perhaps its most vital ingredient: surprises.

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Like any musical, however, in the end it’s the songs and dances we come for, and any serious attempt to reconnect with Hollywood’s harmonious history had better deliver at least a couple of knockouts and belters. But whilst La La Land has dances big and small, and ballads hushed and loud, rarely does it find itself able to combine the two in the traditional style. Stone and Gosling sing, and Stone and Gosling dance, but almost never simultaneously, and what musical moments they do mix and match are typically low-energy or build-up. It’s a general lack of connection such as this, between music and performance styles, that ultimately detracts from the overall effect of the film as a ‘musical’. Spectacular as some of the set-pieces are, as loving lookbacks to a more theatrical time in the industry this may be, and as dedicated the actors are in their roles, in the end there just isn’t enough musical resonance to go on. Perhaps two or three songs will stay in your head afterwards, but even those are more likely to just vaguely echo around your head rather than have you bursting into your own renditions (albeit with one exception that steals the show for Stone).

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La La Land is a good movie in and of itself. But Whiplash was a better movie about jazz, A Star Is Born is a better musical about Hollywood, and Crazy Stupid Love is perhaps a better executed romance.

Quality: 3/5

Entertainment: 3/5

Final Score: 3/5

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Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

WARNING: Only a Stormtrooper could miss the following spoilers…

It is a dark time for the galaxy. The Jedi Order is long-since extinct. The Galactic Empire reigns supreme across the galaxy, with only a fragile alliance between disparate rebel groups resisting its iron grip. Seeking to secure absolute dominion, the Empire has been building in secret a superweapon of planet-destroying potential, but a stall in its development prompts Imperial science officer Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) to hunt down former colleague Galen Erso (Madds Mikkelsen), and force his completion of the work. Though Galen’s wife is killed upon capture, his young daughter Jyn escapes to the guardianship of rebel extremist Saw Garrera (Forrest Whittaker).

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Fifteen years on, the Empire’s weapon is on the verge of completion, and Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) finds herself strong-armed by the Rebel Alliance into rescuing from Garrera an Imperial defector who bears a vital message from her father. Accompanying rebel spy Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and reprogrammed Imperial enforcer droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) to the occupied moon of Jedha, where their party is joined by blind Force-sensitive warrior Chirrut (Donnie Yen) and his mercenary companion Baze (Jiang Wen), Jyn discovers an incredible truth: Galen Erso has used his position all this time to build a fatal weakness into the superweapon, what the Empire now calls the ‘Death Star’. As the Empire conducts a minor test of the weapon to cataclysmic effect on Jedha, Jyn and her companions escape.

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Despite the opportunity Galen’s work has given them, Rebel Alliance leaders prove unwilling to attempt a recovery of the Death Star’s schematics, prompting Jyn and co. to rally a band of volunteers for this suicide mission to Scarif, a top-security Imperial data bank. Successfully infiltrating the facility, Jyn acquires the plans whilst the Alliance, emboldened by their courageous undertaking, sends reinforcements and attacks the Empire’s forces. Despite the success of their mission, Jyn transmitting the plans to the Rebel fleet, the arrival and swift attack of the Death Star ensures the raiding Rebels never make it out alive. The plans themselves, though fiercely pursued by wrathful Imperial forces, make it into safe hands, and the galaxy finds itself with, at long last, a new hope.

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COMMENTARY

A long time ago, Star Wars was something of a universal delight. But whilst the original trilogy remains one of the most beloved stories cinema has ever produced, the prequels had a very different impact. A once united fandom became fractured as older enthusiasts clung tightly to past glories, and the new episodes influenced an emerging generation into reassessing what Star Wars should be. For over ten years, the fanbase became characterized by endless infighting, the joy that George Lucas’ saga once inspired all but forgotten. Until last year, when J.J. Abrams’ long-awaited ‘The Force Awakens’ swept across the world like it was 1977. For a time, for many, this was the franchise’s Second Coming, a sci-fi sensation that was both a love letter to fans of the old, and the promise of a new and epic era. But to others, it was perhaps too retrospective, with many especially criticising a thin plot that often seemed to just recycle and blend elements from the original trilogy. And so, whilst the fandom may have found new life over the past year, it has yet to find itself collectively enthused as before. Which brings us to this year, and Gareth Roberts’ ‘Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’, the first in a planned anthology of films exploring as much of George Lucas’ rich and vibrant galaxy as our appetite can swallow, and then some. This film has sent audiences and fans into hysterics. Many are calling it the best Star Wars film since ‘The Empire Strikes Back’. Others gleefully herald it as the antithesis of all ‘The Force Awakens’ shortcomings. The fandom, quite suddenly, and at long last, seems united once again. But if there’s one thing that defined Star Wars from the very first, it was its staying power. Is Rogue One truly made of the same stuff?

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Developed as a war film first and foremost, an ‘on the frontlines’ look at the Rebel Alliance’s struggle against the Empire, Rogue One stands firmly as both a part of the greater galactic mythos, and its own unique entity. Roberts is no amateur when it comes to truly epic visuals (2014’s Godzilla being his last work in the director’s chair), and it shows in every Star Destroyer hovering above a city, every Imperial walker crashing through the film’s Vietnam War-evocative climax, and of course every test of the Death Star’s power. Even the film’s opening on the grey plains of a backwater planet has a sense of limitless to it, a horizon line that’s just the front gate, but it’s the action sequences above all where Roberts gets to shine. From rebel extremists attacking Stormtroopers in the streets to a space battle almost up there with ‘Return of the Jedi’, to a very special slaughtering of Rebel troops that thrills and chills unlike anything you’ll have felt from a Star Wars film before. This being a war film, Roberts succeeds also at portraying a galactic conflict more nuanced than what we’re used to. Whilst the scheming, backstabbing ambitions of Imperial high-rankers is to be expected, the extent to which the film portrays moral dubiousness within even rebel ranks is especially striking. Assassinations are sanctioned, blackmail, kidnapping and even torture is resorted to. Rebel extremists are all but namechecked as terrorist cells. This is a time for the galaxy where the means justify the ends, no matter what side. Roberts proves fully adept at capturing all this, but more importantly he does so without making the world unrecognizable.

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It’s ironic, however, that in trying to not stray too far from the franchise’s roots, from iconography to cameos to musical cues to even the action, not only is Rogue One guilty of the same sins that many of its fans decry ‘The Force Awakens’ for, but ultimately it restrains the film’s potential. What begins as a grittier taste of life for those in the galaxy whom the Force doesn’t call, eventually gives into the sweet sensations of classic X-Wing vs TIE Fighter dogfights, heroes overcoming great odds through blind luck, no small amount of plot convenience and almost entirely superfluous cameos. Indeed, the fan service in general here is largely of the ham-fisted variety, albeit with some exceptions that are admittedly tremendous feats of modern movie magic and entertainment (the appearance of the late great Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin must be seen to be believed). But whilst the film’s plot and overall story execution do have their problems, Rogue One’s greatest misstep is with its characters. Put Luke Skywalker in a blender with Ellen Ripley from Aliens, and there’s our protagonist with Jyn Erso. She’s feisty, fierce in a fight, and has father-issues. Hers is a character arc informed by plot, like the writers were so acutely mindful of the fate preordained by the original films that they saw little reason to give her much substance. Indeed, her entire existence seems to have been for the purposes of acquiring the MacGuffin that is the Death Star plans, the circumstances of which create a bigger plot hole than the one the entire film concerns itself with filling (namely, how did the Empire overlook the fatal flaw in the Death Star).

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Her entourage, whilst commendable to see a major blockbuster acknowledge the talents of diversity, fares little better in their characterizations. Chirrut is a stereotype done to death, and Baze is a grunting, grim-faced wingman whose emotional payoff both falls flat, and stands as one of the film’s more poorly executed moments, whilst Cassian is mostly the war-weary lens through which we experience the film’s various ethical dilemmas. All acted with evident ability, but with altogether underserving material. Ultimately, much like Bryan Cranston in Godzilla, Madds Mikkselsen makes for the most compelling actor-character but enjoys the least screen-time. By far and away the scene-stealer of the hour, however, goes to Alan Tudyk as the voice of K-2SO. If C-3PO and Marvin from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy ever met and it was love at first socket, K-2SO is the wonderfully, perpetually-peeved product. Don’t be too surprised if Disney announces his own spinoff in the next few years.

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Rogue One is, clearly, far from perfect. Take Guardians of the Galaxy, make Gamora the main character and cut out two thirds of the laughs, and this is pretty much the result. So why has it created such a runaway riot with fans and audiences alike? The climax is undoubtedly a thrill-ride, and what creative freedom the story can wrangle from its destiny of the original trilogy makes for a solidly refreshing sci-fi. But take out the Star Wars, and would this film receive praise anything like it is currently? Lacklustre characters ultimately take away from our investment in the action that is so clearly pride of place here, and its reliance on fan service and the audience’s familiarity with the franchise make it no better than ‘The Force Awakens’. Perhaps the simple answer is that ‘Rogue One’ at least feels more immediately fresh, and taps into an appetite for something new and different in today’s market of endless sequels, remakes and adaptations. If we’re going to fill our cinemas with cash cows, at least try to serve them juicy.

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Quality: 3/5

Experience: 4/5

Final Score: 3.5/5

Sherlock: S4, Ep1 – ‘The Six Thatchers’

Confidence, and consequence. Pride, and the fall. It’s the never-ending cycle of Sherlock.  But with Series Four set to be the game’s final round (supposedly), is all that about to tumble irreversibly over the waterfall’s edge? It’s been three years since ‘His Last Vow’ saw the Watson family overcome devastating personal secrets, and the famed consulting detective driven to murder. Last year’s semi-self-contained special ‘The Abominable Bride’ may have put Jim Moriarty firmly in the grave, but death hasn’t stopped his webs from creeping through Sherlock’s mind palace. Caught between his vow to the Watsons and his obsession with solving the Case of the Posthumous Nemesis, something’s got to give, and Sherlock of all people knows that sentiment is a chemical defect found in the losing side.

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Going into series opener ‘The Six Thatchers’ therefore, there’s promises aplenty of murder, mystery, mayhem, everything that Sherlock lives for and which we spend years waiting for. But just five minutes in, a somewhat unfamiliar sensation begins to take hold. A quick snap of Mycroft’s fingers, and Sherlock’s crimes are struck from all record. An even quicker series of snaps of our own fingers, and John and Mary Watson welcome daughter Rosamund into the world from birth to baptism to Sherlock’s babysitting. And all the while, Sherlock’s fingers are…tweeting. This isn’t just Moffat’s signature motor-mouth dialogue cranked up to eleven (writer’s credit here in fact going to co-showrunner Gatiss). It’s not just frenetic, it’s erratic, twitchy, impatient, like the storytellers have dabbled in Sherlock’s drug habits and are going through withdrawal symptoms. But storming viewers with such an opening onslaught, likely to alienate newcomers and irritate the rest of us into epilepsy, wasn’t the biggest red flag. The biggest red flag was that Sherlock Holmes, the man who abhors celebrity, gossip and every form of ‘social engagement’, who couldn’t care less about the opinion of anyone in the world who doesn’t bear the name Holmes or Watson (or Adler), is now on Twitter. We’ll come back to this, but five minutes in and that unfamiliar sensation has acquired a name: Disappointment.

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Had these problems been confined to these five minutes, we wouldn’t dwell on them nearly so much, and such is the love for this show that most of us would happily chalk it up to a rare and relatively minor misstep. Unfortunately, they are not confined. They persist, and magnify, throughout the entirety of the episode. Just when things seem to be settling into more recognizable Sherlockian detective work with the mysterious death of a student supposedly away on his gap year, the episode turns the case into little more than a diving board into the real story of vandalized busts of the eponymous former Prime Minister, which in turn suddenly hurls us into a globe-trotting conspiracy thriller that’s somehow equal parts ‘Spectre’ and soap opera. Everything rockets along at such a pace that the only result in the end is a sense of lacklustre, since the chances we’ve had to let the various story developments sink in are few and far between. This leaves the episode feeling less a cohesive, fully fleshed out narrative, and more just a series of events and scenes loosely threaded together by recurring gags and plot contrivances (indeed, not unlike most globe-trotting conspiracy thrillers). Secrets of a character’s past are dragged into the light in an admittedly gasp-worthy, ‘bet you didn’t see that coming’ fashion, but that’s more because we assumed those skeletons in the closet had already had their day in the light. We didn’t see that coming because, frankly, we’d already seen it, and there isn’t anything to add. Yet by making it the core focus of the entire story, the episode is completely dependent on our wholehearted investment in recycled intrigue.

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Oftentimes, in stories of criminals, crime-fighters and mysteries, it all boils down to the climax. How often has the ending to a detective story suddenly accounted for all the apparent flaws up until that point, the writers pulling a fast one, all those ‘flaws’ simply part of the design from the very first? What would ‘The Usual Suspects’ be without that iconic final twist? Well, this wasn’t ‘The Usual Suspects’. Honestly, it barely even felt much like Sherlock at all. Granted, none of us saw the identity of the real criminal of the week coming, but again that’s because we had no reason to. There was no build up to it, no clever thread to connect it to anything without a major last minute plot dump in classic villain exposition monologue style. But this all plays second fiddle to the real climactic twist, the death of a major character which pulls at the heartstrings to an extent, but coming at the end of an episode such as this it rings faintly hollow. It serves less as a goodbye to the character in question, but as a clumsy contrivance to dramatically shake up the relationship between our surviving heroes, a contrivance which suffers directly from ‘The Six Thatchers’ muddled focus that suggests something of an identity crisis for the show’s final series. What’s more, the wildly out-of-character actions and behaviour of one who shall here remain nameless overshadows the entirety of the heartbreak, by design certainly, but a fundamentally flawed design.

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Taken simply as fun, action-adventure, crime-solving entertainment, ‘The Six Thatchers’ serves up ample spectacle, set-pieces and storylines to keep the viewer engaged from start to finish, and for all its pitfalls and problems it remains television of evident intelligence. Though the cycle of confidence and consequence is no new territory for Sherlock’s journey, it’s refreshing to see the show address its collateral impact head on, and certainly promises for a deep, dark, dramatic denouement to the Baker Street sleuth’s modern day adventures. What sours the experience more than anything is the knowledge that the show is fully capable of being better, smarter, tighter and above all more emotionally rewarding. There’s an inescapable sense of a juggling act at play here, and however dazzling that can be, after ninety minutes it just feels strained, especially when it comes at the cost of staying true to the characters we’ve embraced over the past seven years (yes it has in fact been that long). Sherlock tweeting, He Who Shall Remain Nameless cheating, it simply doesn’t fit in with who these characters are, at least not without the slightest hint of build-up. As an audience, we’re ready to see Sherlock and co. tumble off the waterfall’s edge this series, but we at least expect the tumble to make sense in and of itself, and to recognize our heroes as the same characters we’ve been rooting for all this time. Otherwise, what’s the point of going dark at all? Sherlock’s final problem seems set to be the saving of John Watson. Perhaps, however, the most in need of saving right now is Sherlock itself?

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Quality: 3/5

Experience: 3/5

Final Score: 3/5

Arrival

‘The devil is in the detail’, so the popular idiom goes. What many may not know, however, is that this wasn’t always the phrase. Once upon a time, we said ‘God is in the detail’, but if history has taught us anything it’s that oftentimes an angel and a demon can be one and the same, depending on your point of view. It’s these subtleties, nuances and altogether smaller realities that can both connect and divide us that director Denis Villeneuve (Sicario, Prisoners) confronts head-on with his cerebral science-fiction sensation, Arrival.

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Dr Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is a leading linguistics expert who, with the arrival of twelve mysterious alien spaceships around the world, is enlisted to help the US military decipher their language, and determine their purpose on Earth. Aided by theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) and US Army Colonel Weber (Forrest Whittaker), Louise finds herself in a race against time, as fear of the aliens’ unknown intentions spreads across the world, and the clouds of war between both nations and species threaten to break.

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There is much about Arrival that resonates long after the credits roll. Adams delivers a truly mesmerising performance, conveying Louise’s awesome intelligence, her wonderment at her historic undertaking and the sheer weight that comes to rest on her shoulders. Jóhann Jóhannson’s haunting score cuts to the very roots of the hairs on the back of your neck, pivotal to so many of the film’s greatest moments of atmosphere and tension-building, and even informing so much of the aliens’ character as we perceive them. Perhaps most of all, Villeneuve’s spectacular visualisation of the alien ‘Shells’, as the ships come to be called, is reminiscent of nothing less than Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey masterpiece, slowly tracking over the vessel’s vastness as if the camera itself is in awe, and the very design and presence of the ships comparable to Kubrick’s iconic monoliths. The fact that Villeneuve is able to maintain this sense of awe, of fear even, upon Louise and Ian’s meeting and continued interactions with the extra-terrestrials (dubbed ‘Abbot’ and ‘Costello’ by the boyishly-humoured Ian) speaks volumes as to the director’s ability to command truly visceral impulses in his audience.

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It’s hard to talk about the experience of watching this film and not acknowledge recent events in the world, which make Arrival’s timing not so much ironic as sobering. “We’re a world with no single leader”, sighs Michael Stuhlberg’s sceptical US intelligence Agent Halpern (in what may be a minor scene, but much like language itself it’s often the smallest pieces that make the most impact). These are divisive times in which we live, and Arrival is by no means the first work of science-fiction to try and highlight the contrast between our own heavily conflicted and self-destructive species, and what at least appears to be a united alien alternative. But few works of this genre spring to mind that make so concerted an effort to address this issue, and so explicitly. “We need to make sure that they understand the difference between a weapon and a tool”, Louise insists. She may well be referring to the aliens in that instance, but it’s no less appropriate a lesson for our own species. Arrival is a film of captivating contemplation, a celebration of the possibilities of human collectivism whilst paying full respect to the value of our idiosyncrasies. In short, exactly the kind of story we need, now more than ever.

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Quality: 5/5

Experience: 5/5

Final Score: 5/5