Mesmerised are we! – Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017), dir: Rian Johnson

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Right where The Force Awakens left off, The Last Jedi picks the story up and introduces yet another episode in the sci-fi extravaganza called Star Wars. Episode VIII lasts two and a half hours and is a rich and highly entertaining addition to the saga.

The Last Jedi encompasses everything a Star Wars fan might desire; immense thrills, nostalgic references, emotionally-charged confrontations, burning questions, haunting doubts, crucial dilemmas, mind-blowing visuals and dynamic characters. It also lacks predictability to the extent where it makes you suspect Rian Johnson purposefully dismissed all the fan theories on the web while putting together the script.

The parallel narratives alternate smoothly and allow enough screen time to both familiar and new characters to develop and fulfil their distinct part in this war. Rey is in constant effort to persuade, Kylo is struggling to make decisions, Luke is learning how to be a better teacher, Leia is fighting for the cause, Snoke is arrogantly manipulating, Poe is leading manoeuvres against the First Order, and Finn is throwing himself in the fire. All the aforementioned span among three main storylines that merge beautifully into one at the end.

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Rey, Kylo and Luke are the main draws of this film, delivering great scenes and triggering the most intense feelings. Scenes of the likes of the red-infested fight where Rey and Kylo join forces is gripping and utterly magnetizing as it combines character study, thrilling dialogue, crucial story developments and impressively choreographed action.

Another would be the visually stunning and aesthetically elegant scene of the aircraft explosion in the speed of light. Similarly, to the opening scenes where Poe is taking initiative in his mission, the CGI effects are tremendous. The scene where Luke gets yet another precious lesson from his wise Master in front of a flaming sacred tree is able to give you goose bumps, for obvious reasons.

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I found particularly intoxicating the narrative device of telepathic connection that Rey and Kylo experience, as we are tantalised with the prospect of a great, unexplained connection between the two and we witness their genuine chemistry, pushing them a little further in discovering their true identity. By using this storytelling trick, Johnson enriches the dramatization of events and laces it with playful humour of wisely calculated dosages. Telepathy however, has never been more erotic and divisive as this one, with exquisite closeups, complete with seductive force and dramatic purpose.

As for the laughs that The Last Jedi provides, they are an invigorating addition to the franchise that has made only dry attempts in the past, and sit brilliantly among the dramatized sequences. Self-deprecating humour reigns here with General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) representing a caricature of evil stupidity, Poe (Oscar Isaac) expressing his unquenched passion for blowing up stuff, Rey’s initiation to the Jedi lessons by an impatient Luke, and finally, even with Kylo Ren being overtaken by a vengeful fever that transcends into a ridiculous attack that reveals serious anger management issues.

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Johnson’s script is smart and fresh by delving into his characters’ psyche, adding them layers and taking the story in different directions than the expected. His narrative has an impeccably tight flow, excluding only the ineffectual parts of Finn’s and Rose’s mission to find the Master Codebreaker and that of the Rebels’ internal upheavals around defence strategy. Those scenes lacked the energy and appropriate tension, feeling more like a break from the thrilling action. The reason for this is either that fans are not as invested to the characters involved, or that the anticipation for the film’s narrative backbone, involving the central trio was far too great. However, it’s worth mentioning that Johnson finds the right balance between action and dialogue thus, enabling us to identify with the characters and experience emotions of immense intensity instead of relying to explosions.

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The Last Jedi is a fascinating, galactic ride that is simultaneously broad and personal. It is admittedly a classic fight between good and evil, light and darkness but as Rey quickly perceives, reality sits somewhere in the colourful middle. The film explores the limits of ambition, the tragic consequences of momentary mistakes, guilt’s ability to numb and dominate the spirit, the importance of having a mentor and the traits of a good one, the excruciatingly hard dilemmas and the amount of bravery one needs to face them, the majestic self-sacrificial tendencies of simple people and finally, it explores the idea that vulnerability resides even in the darkest existences.

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Rey’s persistence and strength are effectively communicated in Daisy Ridley’s performance while she is attempting to trace her roots and secure a future for the Resistance. Ridley emits focus, compassion and inspirational strength. However, I find the most moving and emotionally-complex performance belongs to Adam Driver whose expression encapsulates beautifully and painfully the eternal clash between good and evil. Driver’s closeups are haunting and piercing as he powerfully communicates the conflict, the loneliness and the weight his father’s murder had on his soul.

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Admittedly, the last hour of the film is a barrage of action, emotion, betrayal and confrontation with amazing visuals, where even the blood red fighting ground elevates the grandeur of the spectacle, and Joh Williams’s score dresses the dreamlike atmosphere. Apart from the dark, sensual cross-cutting dialogue, what stayed with me afterwards was how compelling and imperative women were to the storyline. It is rare to witness a film that allocates equal dynamism and importance to male and female roles, with the difference that the Last Jedi certainly skewed female.

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Rey is a powerful, smart, loyal and determined person, an admirable survivor and a brave, passionate fighter. General Leia is an established leader and a powerful galactic icon, and Vice Admiral Holdo surprises with her pure, self-sacrificial mission. With Rose, being a fair and brilliant girl who manages to turn a corrupted city upside down and many other Rebel warriors featuring in the film, it’s evident that the Force is with women in Rian Johnson’s vision. Finally, part of this vision is to make clear that you can be a nobody and at the same time the most powerful creature in the galaxy.

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After the film you might book for the next screening, take some time to process the overflow of emotion and spectacle while listening to the atmospheric score, realise how boring white salt is and catch yourself using the word ‘force’ a little too often. Also, you might have dreams about (a shirtless) Kylo Ren sobbing while talking to you about his childhood trauma and inner conflict, or you might dream about Yoda and Poe spending the night in jail after being arrested for arson.

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Thunderous laughter – Thor: Ragnarok (2017), dir: Taika Waititi

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This was such a blast! Laughing out loud throughout and being impressed by the charisma in the air. And… let’s all admit that the film’s poster could not have been any cooler!

Vivid colours, excellent visual effects, classic but effective storyline drawing the battle between good and evil, right and wrong, bravery and cowardice, the old and the new, etc. And all these given under the 70’s rock and electro musical influence that enriches the action scenes with a particular kick-ass dimension. The film’s tone although inspired by almost four decades ago is refreshing and beguiling. The action is tightly connected with transitory scenes that are purposeful in that one can even detect a laconic intention in directing from Waititi.

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There were moments when I felt that Ragnarok is all a comic-book film should be, a feel-good picture that leaves no opportunity for laughter unexploited but importantly so by not crossing the limits to ridicule. Of course, there are also films like Logan that again seem to be the pride and joy of the genre but found on the other side of the emotional scale of course.

There were a few amazing scenes, like the Valkyrie’s memory which is a slow motion, visual effect masterpiece. Valkyries and Hela seem as if they’ve jumped out a painting in an Arts Museum. The opening dialogue between Thor and the Fire Demon Surtur. Anthony Hopkins’ Asgard scene, where he imitates Loki’s lightness of speech and elegance of movement. Scenes shared between Thor and Loki are effortlessly funny and moving thanks to Hemsworth’s and Hiddleston’s chemistry. Thor’s attempts to take Hulk under his influence project childness and playfulness that keeps you interested. Banner’s first scenes after putting Hulk to sleep are pure enjoyment.

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Thor: Ragnarok is one of the funniest comic-book adaptation films, perhaps the second most self-mocking movie of the genre after Deadpool. Breaking the third wall is not necessary here however, with Thor being more than well-known amongst this audience who have countless references to rely on for ample laughter and excitement as it is.

Hemsworth proves himself as a gifted lead man with a surprising flair for comedy that does justice to the brilliantly entertaining dialogues. There’s also a sweetness in the character, his goofiness and comical predisposition are marked by a timid modesty, predominantly seen in the classic Hollywood leads of the likes of Rock Hudson, James Stewart and Cary Grant. The physicality of the part is again, a wonderful achievement: an integral part of how realistic the “strongest of the Avengers” should look like and of course, a great pleasure for us to behold (!)

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Tom Hiddleston puts a great deal of emotional charge in his performance; he plays along with the ridicule and parody of the damaged, competitive and mistrustful relationship of the brothers but at the same time he seems to have decided to delve deep into Loki’s psyche and deliver an exquisitely complex villain (considering the limitations of the nature of the project of course…).

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Cate Blanchett on the other hand, focuses more on Hela’s body language and delivery of lines to establish a powerful and distinct presence in the film. Blanchett’s Hela walks decisively and beautifully, swinging her body softly from side to side like a proud, seductive deer. Make-up and costume contribute massively to her transformation to a slim, elegant, deadly demon with shiny horns and piercing eyes. I caught myself looking forward to seeing her on screen; there was nothing of older roles of hers in Hela, it felt such an original approach.

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And what about Jeff Goldblum? How did he invent a Grandmaster so absurd and at the same time unpretentiously hilarious?! If you ask me, his scenes were amongst the funniest of the entire film; the intonation he delivered his lines with show a precious instinct for comedy while maintaining a certain naturalness. The way he fixes his jacket, the playfulness of his speech and other details composing this persona made me adore his presence on screen and left me wanting more. Incredible he was!

Mark Ruffalo was also a pleasure to watch both as Hulk and Banner; playing two parts with entirely different requirements each, the former being demanding on physicality and the latter accentuating fear and vulnerability.

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After the film you might attempt to imitate Hemsworth’s accent because we all know… Australians are simply the coolest, be tempted to do the “get help” trick with a friend at some point just for fun, stick the phrase “cause that’s what heroes do” after practically everything, you might ponder about what god/goddess you’d be of, would you be a peaceful or a wroth one, what signature costume you’d wear, powers etc., and finally, you might think about Banner’s situation for a second, how it resonates with most of us to some extent and also, trace the triggers that brings out the Hulk in you.

Tunes, feelings and colours; Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2 (2017), dir: James Gunn

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One thing’s for sure; James Gunn knows how to capture our fantasy and engage us with laughs and effortless cuteness right from the opening credits. Baby Groot’s dance number is performed in a CGI celebration of colour, humour and music, and sets you in the right mood for the adventure you’re about to witness.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2 is great fun thanks to the striking visuals, the chemistry among  the  cast and  also, because the action plays on character development by taking advantage of everyone and splitting screen time almost equally. And so the diverse gang that protects the Galaxy returned with Vol.2 to bring a spectacle of robust CGI scenes, a breadth of feelings and clever, well-written dialogues that respect the characters evolution. Needless to say I loved the film because in its plot’s simplicity and predictability, it’s a fun ride to yet another strange and fun Marvel Universe.

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Michael Rooker delivers a memorable performance as the blue-skinned buccaneer Yondu. He is a man of multiple layers and that makes him incredibly relatable and likeable. Yondu’s biggest mistake was to betray the trust of his fellow Ravagers which leaves him exiled by their community and utterly hurt, regretful and tormented. Nothing compares to the effect on the audience when a crude and shielded character unveils his emotions and unspoken truths, by revealing where his heart truly lies and by seeking redemption by all costs.

Mantis (Pom Klementieff), the empathic sole companion/habitat of Ego is fresh, funny, sweat and surprisingly strong. Her flourishing friendship with Drax is heart-warming and amusing. Bradley Cooper does once more great voice work with Rocket, the piece-of-work modified raccoon whose wild nature and bad temper tries the patience of his friends. The scene where Yondu confronts his trouble-making nature and pushes him to admit his vulnerabilities is impactful and memorable.

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The film has weaknesses like any other; every time Chris Pratt, the Star-Lord himself delivers a line on a dramatic tone, I find it funny, I can almost see him smile while yelling at his Ego-maniac father, or blaming Gamora for not being a supportive friend, or freaking out over Rocket’s theft… I simply can’t take him seriously. Although, I understand the rationale behind casting him as Peter Quill, I believe he is a comedy actor who fails drama, as it was recently proved in Passengers (2016). In addition, Guardians Vol.2 doesn’t achieve the laughs of its predecessor, with sarcastic hints and jokes that are dragged for too long and were not that funny to begin with, e.g. the Taserface teasing that had the whole crew bursting in tears of laughter (?), Drax’s share of funny comments (nope…), etc.

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Speaking of striking scenes, I believe the film gives one of the most colourful and heart-breaking funerals in cinema. Baby Groot’s torture and subsequent mission serves laughter upon tears, Yondu’s revenge is diabolically satisfying, Nebula (Karen Gillan) sharing her plans with Kraglin (Sean Gunn) is oddly devastating and funny and finally, Yondu’s ascend to space with Peter in his arms draw the simplicity of love and silence. Also, Groot (Vin Diesel) is the most adorable, one-sentence speaking, constantly teary-eyed wooden baby ever created and I feel constantly manipulated by how this little cute twig makes me feel…

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Guardian’s USP consists of the stunning spectacle of colourful visuals along with incredible 70’s mixed tapes that mark the action and inner dialogues. The film also emphasises the absolute need for respect to diversity and explores the concept of family, by placing friends as surrogates in the absence or incompetence demonstrated by blood-relations.

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After the film you might listen to Fleetwood Mac’s anthology, put on your most colourful outfits, think how cool it would be to be blue, green or purple (or any other skin tone of crazy colours and shapes you can imagine), try to imitate the way Mantis and Yondu talk and finally, think of the “crazy shit” you would built if you were a half-Celestial.

 

The golden apple in the garden of video-game films; Assassin’s Creed (2016), dir: Justin Kurzel

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Prepare yourselves for the exception in video-game film genre. Take it from someone who is unfamiliar with the games, and detests video-game movies, like Warcraft (2016), Lara Croft and Resident Evil (well..all of them), Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010 – sorry Jake…) etc. The trio (director Justin Kurzel and actors Michael Fassbender – who is also one of the producers and Marion Cotillard) that created Macbeth (2015) returns with an utterly different story and format. Mythology, Apple of Eden, highly-trained assassins bearing an important deadly mission, scientific, the Spanish Inquisition (stakes, persecution etc.), eagles, parkour, fights, chase, Sinister figures, conspiracy etc. These are all included in the film that seems to have been conceived in the Dan Brown conspiracy universe with the addition of impressive parkour chase acts and a little bit of Marion/Fassbender magic.

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Cal (Michael Fassbender) becomes an orphan and a runaway when his father murders his mother. Thirty years later, he is sentenced to death for murder. He is about to be executed when his life takes an unexpected turn. Abstergo Foundation transports him to their facility in Madrid where Dr. Sophia Rikkin (Marion Cotillard) offers him a new life, if he agrees to help her find a relik of the past. This item is none other than the Apple of Eden, which contains the genetic code for free will. Why he is the guiding map to the relic? Because of his blood line, part of his DNA belongs to his ancestor, Aguilar de Nerha who is also the last man who is known to have had the Apple in his possession. Dr. Rikkin’s machine, the Animus allows people to relive genetic memories of their ancestors so Cal’s mission takes him to Aguilar’s and Maria’s (Ariane Labed), his partner’s path in ensuring the safety of the Apple.

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There are several things I loved about this film: it would be unfair to dismiss its strengths out of holes in the storyline. First, it has a brilliant score signed by Jed Kurzel (the director’s brother), which sets the accelerated rhythm of the fighting and running with the addition of dark and mysterious turns that match perfectly the colour pallet of the haunting Andalusia of torture and fear.

In addition, the Assassin’s Creed is different from its video-game peers in the sense that it has a cast that adds prestige to the simplistic story plot. Apart from the aforementioned protagonists, Jeremy Irons plays the sinister British figure (stereotypical but ever pleasing), Brendan Gleeson is [once more – Trespass Against Us (2017)] Fassbender’s overly dutiful and sullen father, Charlotte Rampling is the queen of the vicious Christian Templar that controls humanity throughout the centuries and finally, Michael K. Williams plays the humorous and passionate descendant of yet another assassin.

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The dialogue is subtle and clever, and the film’s atmosphere successfully transports you in the Spanish Inquisition era. The dark colour pallet and the costume design achieve the recreation of the 15th century era with the same detail found in a masterful painting [the cinematographer is Adam Arkapaw, another member of the Macbeth (2015) team]. The frenetic action (roof parkour chase mostly) is particularly refreshing as it is imaginatively choreographed and beautifully executed. The energy the film projects, whether it is achieved through the performances, the dizzying action, or the use of colour and movement in its composition compensates for the weak core story.

Assassin’s Creed is not a massive hit but unlike its own kind, it is not a boring and outrageously unreasonable film either. As a whole, it may disorient, confuse and provoke complete indiference for the Assassins’ life mission, probably due to a great dosage of fetishism. It is a pity because its themes of identity and duty (“A man grows by the greatness of his task” ~ Cal justly claims) are universal and everlasting. While watching the film, and not having been able to identify with the characters (Oops…) I had sparse thoughts and questions around these themes. Questions, such as ‘Will you follow a predetermined path, or draw your own?’, ‘If free will is so precious then why do we deny it on a daily basis?’, ‘Why people feel the need of believing in something so completely (whether it’s science, violence, religion, another person, work, a bad or a good habit) that their existence is absorbed in it?’.

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Finally, my most intense thoughts were about this Animus machine that I would crave to have. Undoubtedly, given the chance I would use it all the time until my friends held an intervention. It must be thrilling to experience the memories of your ancestors and have access to everything that accounted to your existence. According to M. Szyf’s and M. J. Meaney’s body of research in behavioural epigenetics, alterations in brain neuron pass down from one generation to the other. The idea of accumulated experiences of you past generations is scientifically proven and that is what makes the film’s concept intriguing.

According to the new insights of behavioural epigenetics, traumatic experiences in our past, or in our recent ancestors’ past, leave molecular scars adhering to our DNA (http://discovermagazine.com/2013/may/13-grandmas-experiences-leave-epigenetic-mark-on-your-genes). Wouldn’t you love to go back and witness everything that shaped you into who you are (genetically at least) and become a natural historian in the meantime? Experience the danger of a battlefield but without being inflicted a single scratch?! Redefine yourself through the fragments of time that are inside you anyway?

In spite of being a somewhat mediocre film, in the Assassin’s Creed can be found scenes of excellent acting and action that redeem this period piece; Fassbender’s physical acting approach to the execution scene, the mental game of influence/ trust between him and Cotillard, Fassbender singing Patsy Cline’s “Crazy”, and all these juicy Andalusian parkour chase scenes.

I suggest you take the “Leap of Faith” and watch this one because….

“Nothing is true, everything is permitted.”