House of Suns

Posted: February 19, 2018 in Book reviews, science fiction
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41YN0MhPJWL.jpgBy Alastair Reynolds.

It’s more than six million years in the future and humanity has spread throughout the Milky Way galaxy. There are myriad human and post-human civilisations, although no major civilisation seems to last for long, as the lack of faster than light travel makes it hard to maintain any empire spanning multiple star systems.

One of the few permanent features within the galaxy are the “Lines”. Each line was born from a single individual, six-million years before, who cloned themselves a thousand times, copying their personality into their clones, both male and female, before sending these facets, known as Shatterlings, out into the universe. Genetically enhanced to have incredibly long lifespans, and making use of stasis and abeyance technology, the Shatterlings routinely travel alone, congregating every 200,000 years to exchange stories.

One such line is the Gentian Line, also known as the House of Flowers, composed of the clones of a woman named Abigail Gentian, and two of the shatterlings are Purslane, a female, and Campion, a male. In violation of Line rules, Purslane and Campion have become lovers. Already fifty years late for the latest reunion, their arrival at the festivities is delayed further when they encounter a malevolent space bourn entity, rescuing a being named Hesperus in the process. Hesperus is one of the Machine People, an advanced race of sentient robots.

With Hesperus as their guest, Purslane and Campion resign themselves to a late arrival at the reunion, and probable censure by the rest of the line for their relationship, but a major turn of events will leave the House of Flowers torn apart. As they struggle to determine who has targeted their Line, Purslane and Campion will discover secrets they had forgotten, and potentially embark upon a journey of such epic proportions that it will make their 200,000 year circuits of the galaxy seem like a walk to the local shops.

 

One thing you can say about Reynolds. He thinks big, concocting huge, sprawling epics that embrace not just a few days, or weeks, or months, but millions upon millions of years. This particular tale of Deep Time is a densely packed universe that feels utterly real, despite being utterly divorced from today. The world building at work in House of Suns is just phenomenal, from the notion of the Shatterlings and their endless routine of circuits and reunions, to the enigmatic machine people and the other societies who inhabit the Milky Way. And then there’s the technology, covering everything from space travel to the differing forms of suspended animation, time dilation, stardams, and an exceptionally grisly form of interrogation.

This is a grand sweeping space opera at its grandest and most sweeping, and though the story is long and packed full of detail, Reynolds’ prose and sheer planning make it a hugely enjoyable ride. The story takes several twists and turns, and whilst the ending does feel a little like we’ve seen it before, there’s huge enjoyment to be found in getting there.

Purslane and Campion are perhaps not fleshed out as much as they should be. Campion is the more reckless of the two, but at times this is the only thing that seems to differentiate the two of them, and particularly when they share scenes it can be tricky to decipher which one is speaking because they don’t seem distinct enough, but once separated, and with them taking alternate first-person chapters, this becomes easier.

Similarly, the flashbacks to Abigail’s childhood, and eventual decision to shatter herself, is a little jarring at times, although there is a deeper thread at work.

Any flaws are minor however, overall this was an excellent read, at times exciting, at times thoughtful, at times headache inducing (in a good way!) it just seems a shame that Reynolds hasn’t yet felt the need to return to this universe, after creating it in such great detail, it almost seems a shame to limit it to one novel, however good.

Highly recommended, just don’t expect a quick read!

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Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle.

Posted: February 15, 2018 in Film reviews
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Directed by Jake Kasdan. Starring Dwayne Johnson, Jack Black, Karen Gillan and Kevin Hart.

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A gentle Sunday afternoon orienteering was about to get a whole lot more exciting!

When four high school students are placed in detention and tasked with clearing out the school cellar, they discover a strange old-fashioned games console. It’s twenty years since the magical board game Jumanji wreaked havoc. The world has moved on, but so has Jumanji, sensing that people no longer play board games its redesigned itself as a computer game.

The four students grab a controller and choose a cheesy character to play in the game. Before you can say “Jumanji!” they’re sucked into the game and find themselves in another world, and that’s not the only change, because they’ve each become their own avatar. So nerdy gamer Spencer Gilpin is now a musclebound explorer named Dr Smolder Bravestone (Johnson) whilst Spencer’s former best friend, a jock nicknamed ‘Fridge’ is now a weedy zoologist nicknamed ‘Mouse’ (Hart). Cynical loner Martha has become a scantily clad kung-fu expert named Ruby Roundhouse, and most shockingly of all, selfie obsessed Bethany is now an overweight cartographer named Professor Sheldon “Shelly” Oberon (Black)

The only way to escape the game is to return a fabulous jewel to it’s resting place in the eye of a statue, but whilst the group have heaps of special skills to call upon they’re facing an army of bad guys. They each have three lives to help them along, but once they expend them death might just get a lot more permanent!

When four high school students are placed in detention and tasked with clearing out the school cellar, they discover a strange old-fashioned games console. It’s twenty years since the magical board game Jumanji wreaked havoc. The world has moved on, but so has Jumanji, sensing that people no longer play board games its redesigned itself as a computer game.

The four students grab a controller and choose a cheesy character to play in the game. Before you can say “Jumanji!” they’re sucked into the game and find themselves in another world, and that’s not the only change, because they’ve each become their own avatar. So nerdy gamer Spencer Gilpin is now a musclebound explorer named Dr Smolder Bravestone (Johnson) whilst Spencer’s former best friend, a jock nicknamed ‘Fridge’ is now a weedy zoologist nicknamed ‘Mouse’ (Hart). Cynical loner Martha has become a scantily clad kung-fu expert named Ruby Roundhouse, and most shockingly of all, selfie obsessed Bethany is now an overweight cartographer named Professor Sheldon “Shelly” Oberon (Black)

The only way to escape the game is to return a fabulous jewel to it’s resting place in the eye of a statue, but whilst the group have heaps of special skills to call upon they’re facing an army of bad guys. They each have three lives to help them along, but once they expend them death might just get a lot more permanant!

 

Though it came out in December, the fact that Jumanji was still in cinemas way into February finally gave me to time to catch up with it. With a great cast and an amusing trailer I’d been tempted, but something held me back. Having finally gone to see the film all I can say is, I was a fool! If I’d gone to seen this in December I might have got a second viewing in!

‘cos Jumanji is very enjoyable, in fact it’s ridiculously enjoyable. I mean, don’t get me wrong, it won’t win any Oscars, and it’s not really deep and meaningful (though there’s some nice morals hiding in there) but sometimes it’s just enough for a film to entertain, and Jumanji entertained me a whole lot.

It’s been a while since I saw Jumanji, but aside from a few call-backs you don’t need to have seen the 1995 Robin Williams’ vehicle to enjoy this one, and the premise is a straightforward fantasy quest. It pretty much takes the route you expect it to. What makes the film so fun is the script, the performances and its sheer energy. I was never bored, I laughed a whole lot, and I may have even inched my bottom towards the edge of my seat on occasion.

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“Hey, where’d my hair go?”

Dwayne Johnson is a man with enough natural charisma to power a city. His imposing physique is allied with great comic timing, and a dash of old school Hollywood charm; the fact that he has no qualms about taking the mickey out of himself is just icing on the cake. Is he the greatest actor in the world? Not remotely. Does it matter? See previous answer. He has a lot of fun playing the nerd who’s afraid of everything, and his special skill of being able to ‘smoulder’ to order is used to great comic effect.

Jack Black’s had a varied career. For every High Fidelity or School of Rock there’s a King Kong or The Holiday, but given the right material he’s a hoot, and boy does he get the right material here. Tasked with playing a self-obsessed teenage girl he throws himself into the part with vigour. It would have been so easy to overplay this, to camp it up into caricature, but for the most part he keeps it just the right side of too much, and along with Gillan he has the funniest scene in the film as Shelley has to teach Ruby Roundhouse how to flirt, and both actors completely nail it.

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Gratuitous Karen Gillan picture.

Karen Gillan’s come a long way since Amy Pond, and as a big fan it’s no surprise that I loved her in this. Yes she’s dressed a little too revealingly (words I never thought I’d say), but thankfully her character has enough agency that you just go with the flow. She’s brave and kicks ass with the best of them, and just when you think the film’s going to go down the route of her learning to be womanly…well…you’ll see. Plus, as stressed above her skit with Black is pretty much worth the price of admission alone.

Rounding out the team Kevin Hart is amusing as the high school jock trapped in the body of a nerd. He has great chemistry with Johnson and you can see why they’ve made several films together. He too has good comic timing, but thankfully gets his share of heroic moments, in fact each of the ensemble gets their chance to shine.

Bobby Cannavale’s villain is a little lacking, but in the main it’s because he isn’t given much to get his teeth into, and given he’s a virtual character I guess that makes sense, but Nick Jonas rounds out the in-game characters nicely with an intriguing role. Outside of the game I give props to the four actors tasked with playing the teen (and in fact real) versions of our heroes. It’s testament to their performances that despite limited screen time I’d have happily seen more of them.

Well acted and directed, with laughs and thrills aplenty, you can argue Jumanji is a trifle lightweight, but when a film is this entertaining that hardly seems to matter. I’m not sure how they can wangle a sequel, but I really hope they do.

Jumanji!

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Hopefully these guys are back in any sequel too!

Directed by Martin McDonagh. Starring Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell.

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Just when would the costume designer pay for their crimes against fashion?

Mildred Hayes (McDormand) is angry. It’s been seven months since her daughter was raped and murdered, and the police in Ebbing seem no closer to finding out who killed her. Consumed by rage and grief Mildred rents three abandoned billboards and uses them to very pointedly ask why the police haven’t solved the case.

The appearance of the billboards upsets the local sheriff, Bill Willoughby (Harrelson) who feels Mildred’s ire is unfair. He feels there’s a limit to what the police can do when there’s no evidence and no witnesses. Though he tries to assure Mildred that they haven’t given up on the case she is not to be dissuaded and has no intention of bringing the billboards down.

The locals are sympathetic to Mildred’s loss, but they’re more sympathetic to their sheriff, and as time passes the locals become more and more angry at Mildred, none more so than Officer Jason Dixon (Rockwell) an angry, racist cop who idolises Sheriff Willoughby.

As tragedy strikes Mildred finds an increasing array of obstacles in her path; is there any hope of getting justice for her daughter?

 

It’s hard to believe that Three Billboards (yeah I’m not gonna type the whole title each time, so sue me) is only the third full length film written and directed by McDonagh in almost ten years. He burst onto the scene with In Bruges in 2008, a wonderfully spiky gangster film that established him as a man who could make even the coarsest curses sound almost poetic and who could marry humour and extreme violence seamlessly. He followed In Bruges up four years later with Seven Psychopaths. Whilst not up to the standard of In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths was an enjoyable film that followed a similar path to McDonagh’s first work; it was spiky, foul mothed, violenct and a lot of fun.

Now three years later we have Three Billboards. In many respects it follows the pattern of the first two films, it’s a film that bristles, it deals with a cast of engaging characters, it’s a drama that revolves around a violent crime and, of course, it’s incredibly funny and foul mouthed. In all other respects however, Three Billboards is very different, this is a more grown up affair.

It’s a difficult film to pigeonhole. Yes it’s a very black comedy, but beyond this it’s a tale of grief and the extremes it will push people too, and it’s a story about how nobody is all good, nobody all bad, and how some people can surprise you.

McDonagh’s script is excellent, every word seeming chosen with meticulous care, and his overarching message that violence begets violence is never far away. In his casting he has actors each of whom is able to take those words and do something wonderful with them, and it’s in the dialogue and acting that the film primarily succeeds.

McDormand is a great actor, and she will forever be Marge Gunderson in Fargo. Mildred is about as far away from Marge as you can get, where Marge was innocent, Mildred is anything but, and McDormand wrings every drop of emotion from the role, swaggering around town like a female John Wayne (a metaphor ably supported by her own twangy Western theme) she’s angry, grief-stricken, tough as nails and yet also incredibly fragile. I don’t think there are many actors who could have pulled this off without either making Mildred too sympathetic, or making her too unlikable, and however much we might be rooting for Mildred, the film never shies away from the fact that she’s going too far. I won’t be at all surprised if McDormand ends up with another Gold statue in a few weeks’ time.

 

Harrelson imbues Willoughby with a huge amount of humanity, and in many respects he’s the most sympathetic character in the film—though special mention must be made of Peter Dinklage who excels in a cameo role as the local car salesman with something of a crush on Mildred—and Harrelson’s performance helps the film enormously, he’s so darn nice that it makes Mildred seem all the more extreme.

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“I’m telling you, sheriff, she’s that pregnant cop from up north!”

Rounding out the main case is Rockwell, who I’ve been a fan of since Galaxy Quest. He has great comic timing, but also essays Dixon’s anger management issues to a tee, and it says something about Rockwell as an actor that he can make Dixon sympathetic.

You can probably tell I enjoyed this film, but that said I don’t think it’s quite as fantastic as a lot of critics would have you believe. There are plot contrivances that are a little too convenient, one of which relates to the Ebbing police station’s opening hours, and whilst many have singled out the reading of some letters as a masterful scene, I’m not so sure. They seemed a little too eloquent, and though the character’s voice is heard I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was really hearing McDonagh. There’s also the small matter of one character’s evolution, they’re overplayed as an idiot to begin with, which makes where they eventually end up stretch credulity a little, although the actor’s so good they manage to pull it off. I also found the eclectic soundtrack jarring, skipping from Spaghetti western to classical, to showtunes and pop; who knows, perhaps that was supposed to be jarring?

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You shouldn’t need a magnifying class to see what’s great about this film.

Overall the strengths outweigh the weaknesses, though it won’t be a film for everyone. The language is beyond fruity, and the lack of a neat resolution will infuriate some. Me, I loved the cursing, and as for the moral ambiguity, that was another one of the strengths of the film, and for me the final scene as one of the most note perfect endings I’ve seen, for some reason evoking the end of John Carpenter’s The Thing (from the perspective of a weary “Let’s see what happens” kind of way, I’m not suggesting anyone in this is an alien shapeshifter!)

Sharp, funny, heartrending and incredibly foul mouthed, it’s not perfect by any means but I will certainly be paying another visit to Ebbing soon.

 

2017: A Year in Film

Posted: January 21, 2018 in Film reviews
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So I’ve now seen my first film of 2018, but before I publish that review I thought it might be nice to list the films I saw in 2017 and place them in some kind of order. So here it is, all 29 films I saw at the cinema last year, ranked from the best to the worst.

A couple of points to make clear, the first is that all placings are, of course, subjective, and I know not everyone will agree with me, they’re also quite fluid, so whilst it’s unlikely Blade Runner will plummet too far in my affections, obviously in most cases I’ve only seen each film once, and a second viewing may alter my perception, so no positioning is fixed.

And finally, it has to be said that I enjoyed the vast majority of the films listed here on some level, so don’t take Logan at 18, for example, to mean I hated it, far from it. In fact realistically I can safely say it’s only the bottom three that I actively hated. I mean the Mummy is terrible, but Russell Crowe’s ridiculous accent alone almost makes seeing it worthwhile.

Anyway, goodbye 2017, hello 2018 so watch this space because reviews are coming!

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Ryan Gosling rocking that General Leia look!

1              Blade Runner 2049

2              Dunkirk

3              La La Land

4              Paddington 2

5              Thor Ragnarok

6              Raw

7              Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

8              Star Wars: The Last Jedi

9              John Wick Chapter 2

10           The Death of Stalin

11           The Lego Batman Movie

12           T2 Trainspotting

13           Get Out

14           Wonder Woman

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And yes, she was indeed a Wonder!

15           Fast and Furious 8

16           Baby Driver

17           Spider-Man: Homecoming

18           Logan

19           Kong Skull Island

20           Kingsman: The Golden Circle

21           Atomic Blonde

22           Victoria and Abdul

23           Wind River

24           Split

25           Justice League

26           The Mummy

27           Ghost in the Shell

28           Assassin’s Creed

29           Alien Covenant

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I guess he didn’t like Covenant either…

The Long and the Short of it.

Posted: January 16, 2018 in Regarding writing
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Ok so this is actually Margaret Hamilton standing next to the computer code she helped write for NASA’s Apollo program, but you get the idea!

So, my 2018 writing resolution was to step back from writing short fiction and to focus on a novel and, hopefully, a screenplay. It’s now the middle of January and I currently have four short works in progress and have done very little towards novel prep, and nothing towards a screenplay!

So, to further procrastinate, I thought it might be a good time to discuss the difference between short and long form, the positives and negatives inherent with each.

Each format has its appeal, each format has its limitations.

The first thing to discuss is perhaps financial reward. Most writers dream of becoming best-selling authors, of million pound, multiple book deals, of Hollywood throwing millions of dollars at you to buy the film rights etc. Now let’s be honest, the chances of this happening are thin, for every Stephen King or JK Rowling there are thousands of writers who never make it, but of those who do it will probably be the novel that makes their fortune.

There are exceptions of course, back in the 1980s Clive Barker became a household name on the back of his Books of Blood anthologies, and writers like Stephen King and Neil Gaiman can still shift anthologies, but these are the exceptions, and even the three writers mentioned above found their greatest success with novels, screenplays, comic scripts etc.

Of course, it’s worth remembering that even most authors who write novels will never make the big time, and it’s eminently possible that having some short fiction published could lead to greater things.

So, lets look at some plus points to short stories over novels. There’s a sense of immediacy for one. One of the problems I’ve had recently is a surfeit of ideas, and some of them have demanded to be written there and then. Depending on its length a short story doesn’t take too long to write, a few days, a few weeks, hell on some occasions I’ve written a complete first draft in a few hours. By contrast novel writing is akin to marathon running, with the best will in the worst you’re probably not going to churn out a novel in a few days or weeks without calling in sick from work and snorting a lot of cocaine to enable you to write 24/7. No, writing a novel takes time, and whilst writing is a lonely job/hobby at the best of times, it’s even more isolating if you’ve got to keep your motivation going for months, sometimes years without validation. That’s like running a marathon alone, with no competitors to chase and no crowd cheering you on, and all the while you brain will keep generating other ideas to distract you. Evil, evil brain…

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Few short stories will take so long to write that you have to abandon them for a new idea, and the other good thing about short stories is that after you complete them you can release them into the wild whilst you start work on something else, because that’s perhaps the other advantage of the short form, there’s potentially a much bigger market for short stories than there is for novels; anthologies and indie publishers aplenty, and in the end isn’t it better to be a writer with publishing credits than the person who wrote a novel that went nowhere? Of course, there’s always the self-publishing route, and I’ve gone down that myself, but it’s not the same as someone choosing to publish you.

How about short stories versus novels from a craft perspective? I remember Lawrence Block saying that you could get away with a lot more flaws in a novel. When you’ve written 90,000 words an editor will likely be more forgiving of some creaky dialogue or some clunky exposition because it’s the whole that matters. When it comes to a 2,000 word short story on the other hand, every word matters, and the whole thing should be as meticulously crafted as a swiss watch. Or, to go back to the running analogy, if you’re sprinting you need to run as fast as you can for as long as you can, but running the marathon? You’re more likely to be able to get away with slowing down for the odd mile, just so long as you make your time up later.

Which isn’t to say you can afford to be sloppy with a novel, just that the long form can be more forgiving.

So, in conclusion I’m not sure you can argue either is really better. Sure, you’re probably more likely to accrue fame and fortune with a novel, but the odds are still stacked against you (sorry, if its any consolation they’re stacked against me too). At the end of the day the form you choose may be out of your hands. Perhaps you have a short attention span, or perhaps you only come up with ideas that require 120,000 words to do them justice, or maybe all your ideas only require flash fiction to get them across.

Ideally you’ll find a way to do both, working long term on a novel, whilst allowing your imagination free reign to drum up the odd short story while you’re slaving away on your epic fantasy trilogy, this will allow you to hopefully get the odd publishing credit to keep your motivation up, and hopefully writing those finely crafted short stories will make you a better novel writer into the bargain…maybe…

That’s my plan, but first there’s a short story I need to finish!

Beatnik Literature

Postcards from the Edge

Posted: January 1, 2018 in Book reviews
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postcards-from-the-edge-9781439194003_hrBy Carrie Fisher

Movie actress Suzanne Vale is trying to put her life back together after a drug overdose, but this proves harder than she thinks, a stint in rehab helps, but the vacuous nature of Hollywood and her romantic and career interactions keep her off kilter enough to ever wonder if she can be happy again.

There’s something very poignant about reading this book a year after Carrie’s untimely death, though not an autobiography this novel is clearly autobiographical, with Suzanne Vale, with her drug problems and famous mother, a fictionalised stand-in for Carrie herself.

The first thing to note is that this is nothing like the film. I haven’t seen it, but I know that at its core is the relationship between Suzanne and her mother and so it took me by surprise to realise that Suzanne’s mother barely appears in the book—seems there were a lot of changes when Hollywood decided to film it (though Carrie also wrote the screenplay).

The structure of the novel took a little getting used to as well. Split into five sections (plus prologue and epilogue) the book shifts between first person and third person narrative and even the point of view changes. After the prologue, which is in the epistolary style in the form of postcards, the first section is told first person, and from the perspectives of Suzanne and Alex, a screenwriter with a major drug problem. In this section Suzanne is in rehab where, after a major bender that almost costs him his life, Alex joins her. In many ways I think this was my favourite section of the book, if only because it’s the rawest. By the time we enter Suzanne’s life she is off drugs, and so Carrie uses the character of Alex to give a glimpse at how Suzanne likely ended up in rehab.

The Suzanne sections are humorous and hopeful, but interchanged with these the Alex sections are incredibly, almost frighteningly manic (and given the nature of Carrie’s diagnosis with bipolar disorder one can’t help but see the parallels between the calm Suzanne and the manic Alex).

Alex’s descent towards overdosing is terrifying, as is his refusal, initially at least, to accept he has a problem, and even after he does he sees rehab as research, grist for his writing mill. Not for the first time you get the feeling that in this book life imitates art which in turn imitates life, and so on. As a window into Carrie’s mind I think this book is a doozy.

The next section is told in alternating monologues between Suzanne and Jack, a film producer with whom she’s having a relationship. Suzanne is talking to her therapist, Jack his lawyer, and though their relationship is consensual it’s easy to see a low-level Weinstein like vibe in Jack’s attitude toward women.

The book shifts into third person for the rest of its sections (bar the epilogue). The first section deals with Suzanne’s first post rehab job on a B-movie, this section is quite amusing but also depressing, and again the position of women in Hollywood is at the forefront.

The final two sections detail Suzanne’s day to day life, her relationship with her friend Lucy, and an incredibly shallow Hollywood party. I found these parts my least favourite to read, although Carrie does a good job of showing how shallow most of the people in Hollywood are, she almost does too good a job. Plus, without a clear idea of who characters might really be representing none of them come alive enough for this satire to work to the fullest.

The epilogue at least is a neat and amusing return to the start of the book.

I can’t say for sure that I enjoyed the book, and if I did this enjoyment waned somewhat towards the end. It’s perhaps at it’s most engaging while Suzanne is struggling, and limps a little towards the end. What is clear is that Carrie was a talented writer, in particular the scenes of Alex’s drug fuelled bender are incredibly harrowing, and this certainly hasn’t put me off reading some of her other books.

As a thinly veiled description of a specific time in Carrie Fisher’s life, and a snapshot of Hollywood, this is incredibly insightful, and as an example of her literary skill it’s enlightening, but as a narrative it all ends up feeling a little hollow and unfinished, but then that’s probably the point, because it’s clear in so many ways that Carrie was probably a little too switched on for Tinsel Town, a place that doesn’t always value introspection and prefers the shallow, something she so clearly wasn’t.

Directed by Rian Johnson. Starring Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Daisey Ridley, Adam Driver, John Boyega and Oscar Isaac.

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“This week on homes under the hammer, retired Jedi Luke Skywalker is looking for a new hovel, will Rey be able to find something to suit him?”

We pick up the story not long after the end of The Force Awakens. On a remote planet Rey (Ridley) has finally found Luke Skywalker (Hamill) who she hopes can be persuaded to re-join his sister, General Leia Organa (Fisher) and help the Resistance defeat the First Order. Meanwhile the Resistance must evacuate their base after the First Order arrive. Poe Dameron (Isaac) leads an attack to buy time for the Resistance fleet to escape but victory comes at a cost.

With the Resistance unable to elude the First Order former Stormtrooper Finn(Boyega) joins forces with a Resistance mechanic named Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) to attempt a dangerous mission that, if they’re successful, could see the Resistance fleet finally able to give the First Order the slip. Meanwhile Kylo Ren (Driver) struggles to find his place in the Universe after killing his father in The Force Awakens. Is he a truly powerful warrior in his own right, or just a wannabe Lord Vader?

And manipulating events throughout the universe is the mysterious Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) the overlord of the First Order who wants to crush the Resistance, and destroy Luke, the last Jedi…

First a quick note to point out that this review contains only the vaguest of spoilers!

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And so we come to our third Star Wars film in three years, an amazing sequence and not one I’d have ever imagined happening ten years ago. In 2015 we had The Force Awakens, a shockingly good Star Wars film and arguably now one of my favourite in the franchise. Then last year we got Rogue One, a prequel set just prior to A New Hope. Now a lot of people really loved Rogue One, but it was a film I struggled with. I liked it, I just couldn’t bring myself to love it.

And now we have The Last Jedi, the direct sequel to The Force Awakens, so where does it sit in relation to the last two Star Wars films, and in the franchise overall? Well deciding where it slots into the franchise is not a question I really feel I can answer. I’d need to see it again, maybe even more than once (and truth be told I need to see Rogue One again as well) in order to make a judgement call.

What I can do is give you my emotional gut reaction to The Last Jedi. It didn’t grab me the way The Force Awakens did, but by the same token it gripped me emotionally far more than Rogue One, and it has to be said that it has a harder job as the third film in three years, lacking the shock value of The Force Awakens.

There is a lot to enjoy in The Last Jedi; great performances, great battles, and, more importantly, having the rug pulled out from under you again and again regarding the expectations you walked in with. But for all it’s good points it’s a film that infuriates. The longest Star Wars film to date it’s too long by half an hour at least, but the length would be more acceptable if the pacing was better. It’s worrying when a film seems to come to a natural end and then proceeds to go on for another half an hour or so and give us another big battle. Watching this film again will be interesting with hindsight, knowing what’s to come I might be more relaxed about the pacing and enjoy it more.

On the plus side, as long and uneven as it is, the film never bores, although during the quieter moments you might find yourself questioning certain things and spotting plot holes. By contrast The Force Awakens was a film that just didn’t let up, and didn’t give you the chance to ask “Hang on. what about…” type questions.

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Kylo Ren was a bit embarrassed after cutting himself shaving.

But it’s good that TLJ isn’t just a copy of TFA, instead it charts its own path, and on writing and directing duties Johnson has done a good job, and he’s aided by some great performances. The central quartet of Ridley, Boyega, Driver and Isaac are as good here as they were in TFA. In particular Driver and Ridley share some great scenes and both play being conflicted very well. In particular whilst Kylo Ren still hasn’t quite lost that whiny teenager edge, Adam Driver gives us a villain with more nuance than the average bad guy, and yet again Daisy Ridley completely convinces as Rey, tough as nails but as desperate as Kylo Ren to find her place in the universe.

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“Does anyone know how I turn this off?”

And this is a film where several characters develop over the course of the movie. Boyega continues to be a joy to watch, a cocky sureness married with superb comic timing, if I have a problem with his role it’s that he doesn’t seem to get enough to do and he seems a little relegated by his side mission. As Poe Dameron Isaac gives it his all as the uber brash X-Wing pilot, and he has one of my favourite lines from the film. He’s also good butting heads with Leia and Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) and he too has something of a learning curve.

In many respects however this is Hamill and Fisher’s film. Hamill is just wonderful in this, essaying Luke as a somewhat broken, very grumpy old man, who made a mistake with Ben Solo and fears making another with Rey. It was worth his absence from TFA to have him here, older, wiser, yet still that young man looking to the horizon. And of course this film packs the additional emotional wallop of giving us Carrie Fisher’s last performance, though no one realised it when they were filming, and as melancholic as it is to see her on the big screen, I’m glad to say that Leia gets way more to do here than she did in TFA; barking orders, making big decisions, and generally putting a certain flyboy in his place. It’s a joy to see and just a damn shame that we won’t see it again.

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“No, you’re a scruffy looking nerf herder!”

The newer characters don’t fare as well. Tran is the best of the bunch as Rose, an ordinary Resistance fighter who proves anything but, and she and Boyega have some nice chemistry. Laura Dern doesn’t really convince as Holdo though, and Benicio del Toro doesn’t get nearly enough to sink his teeth into as codebreaker DJ.

Everyone’s new favourite droid BB8 is back, and he’s as cool as he was in TFA. Poor old R2D2 doesn’t get much of a look in however, and though they get a bit more screen time, C3PO and Chewbacca feel similarly side-lined, as does Gwendoline Christie’s Captain Phasma who’s barely in it, though at least she fares better than Maz, whose return basically happens via Skype (it is very funny though). Rounding out the cast is the ever reliable Domhnall Gleeson as General Hux (and yes folks, his aide who looks a bit like Vivian from the Young Ones is actually Vivian from the Young Ones!)

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Chewie really wasn’t sure about his new co-pilot…

There are some great effects and some great set pieces, and plenty of weird and wonderful new creatures to populate the Star Wars universe, including the adorable (but essentially pointless) Porgs. I can’t shake the feeling however that this was a film that had one too many characters, one too many crazy cgi aliens, and one too many set pieces (in particular Finn and Rose’s trip to a casino planet, whilst hardly superfluous, is a weak point).

I’m being picky of course, because this is a great film, with great character moments, a huge amount of humour, and some genuinely unexpected plot skews, it’s just that (at the moment) it doesn’t quite break into my Star Wars top three, but as I say, I suspect repeat viewings may change this.

Anyway, go see it, and May the Force be With You!

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Things suddenly felt a touch Rogue One, which didn’t fill Finn with hope for a long life!