First Blockbuster of the Week: Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise Of Skywalker
LondonNet Film Review: Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise Of Skywalker
Review: At the age of nine, I became a willing disciple of George Lucas’s epic, sprawling and occasionally frustrating sci-fi saga. That summer, I sat expectantly between my parents in the circle of our local Odeon, a Kia-Ora fruit drink clasped in one hand and a mint Matchmaker melting slowly in the other in lieu of a lightsaber, nervously awaiting Sunday service at the church of the moving image. The title of the afternoon’s sermon: Return Of The Jedi. Thanks to VHS, I had obsessively studied Lucas’s old testament – A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back – and still felt ripples of shell shock from the disclosure of Luke Skywalker’s parentage. Lights dimmed and a familiar opening scrawl transported me to a galaxy far, far away … accompanied by a sonic blast of John Williams’s thrilling orchestral score. For a little over two hours, reality vanished and the pure, primal pleasure of crowd-pleasing cinema coursed through my veins. The same electrical thrum of euphoric shared experience crackles during key scenes of the ninth and concluding chapter, The Rise Of Skywalker, which promises a fitting resolution to 42 years of fantastical beasties and breathless dog fights on board the fastest hunk of junk in the galaxy. Director JJ Abrams preached to the converted in 2015 with The Force Awakens, and here he provides generations of expectant Padawans and Sith apprentices with the nostalgia-saturated swansong they crave. It’s not always the most elegant film-making. The opening 20 minutes are extremely clunky, plot gears grinding furiously with a dewy-eyed denouement in mind. However, when planets align, Abrams delivers rousing action sequences, including one of the series’ most visually stunning lightsaber duels, and he engineers a fitting farewell to the late Carrie Fisher using unreleased footage. Following the death of mentor Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), Rey (Daisy Ridley) finds herself on a parallel journey of self-discovery to Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), who has assumed the position of Supreme Leader of the First Order after the demise of Snoke. Finn (John Boyega), Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), X-Wing pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) accompany Rey on her daredevil mission, while General Leia Organa (Fisher) presides over the entrenched Resistance. Meanwhile, a shift in the Force propagates rumours about the return of Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid). When Rey’s faith wavers, Leia repairs frayed nerves. “Never be afraid of who you are,” she tenderly instructs. Co-written by Chris Terrio, Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise Of Skywalker shoehorns every conceivable reason for audiences to whoop, cheer and – yes – surrender to steady trickles of saltwater into 142 minutes. Loose plot threads are tied neatly and heartstrings plucked as friendships and gently simmering romances threaten to become collateral damage of a bloodthirsty war against the First Order. Some of the plotting is convoluted and a long-awaited battle royale follows the Avengers: Endgame template for an adrenaline-pumping emotional crescendo but Abrams presides over a happy union of old and new with obvious reverence and affection. It’s a final hurrah made by a fan for the fans.
Second Blockbuster of the Week: Cats
LondonNet Film Review: Cats
Review: Loosely based on TS Eliot’s collection of poems, the stage production of Cats with melodies courtesy of Andrew Lloyd Webber once held the honour of the longest-running musical in London’s West End and on Broadway. Part of the show’s enduring appeal was imaginative set design, which allowed feline protagonists to emerge from oversized dustbins within pawing distance of the audience. Tom Hooper’s ambitious film version, adapted for the screen by Billy Elliot and Rocketman scribe Lee Hall, employs digital trickery to add coats of soft, wind-tousled fur to a starry human cast including Dame Judi Dench, who was supposed to originate Grizabella in 1981 until injury forced Elaine Paige to replace her. The character’s belting ballad, Memory, is the show’s standout number and Jennifer Hudson sinks her claws into each tremulous word on screen. The Oscar-winning star of Dreamgirls wreaks emotional devastation with her raw rendition, tears streaming as she confides, “I remember the time I knew what happiness was,” before an inevitable key change tips her over the edge into full-blooded caterwaul of the broken-hearted. She is truly the cat’s whiskers in a psychedelic whirl that remains faithful to the theatrical songbook with the introduction of one new lament, Beautiful Ghosts, co-written by Taylor Swift and Lloyd Webber. A naive white cat called Victoria (Francesca Hayward) is cruelly discarded in a London alleyway as felines gather for the Jellicle Ball, where Old Deuteronomy (Dame Judi Dench) will grant a precious extra life to one member of the congregation. Among the hopefuls are greedy Bustopher Jones (James Corden), swaggering showman Rum Tum Tugger (Jason Derulo), palsy-afflicted Gus The Theatre Cat (Sir Ian McKellen), outcast Grizabella (Hudson) and lazy tabby Jennyanydots (Rebel Wilson), whose show-stopping solo incorporates drill teams of cockroaches. When scheming Macavity (Idris Elba) gate-crashes the ball with malevolent intent and a sprinkling of catnip courtesy of alluring Bombalurina (Taylor Swift), competitors temporarily put their differences aside to restore peace. Cats is a slinky and strangely sensual extravaganza quite unlike any other big-screen musical. Hooper’s cameras revel in the sight of cast members rubbing themselves up against each other in purring rhapsody or arching backs to the choreography of Andy Blankenbuehler, who won a Tony Award for Hamilton. Computer-generated tails uncoil like whips as venerable figures from stage and screen meow and greedily lap milk with flicking tongues. Seldom has a certificate U film been full of such sensory delights. Visual effects are initially disorienting and there are brief moments when the joins between motion-captured human performance and digitally rendered animality are visible. However, the unforgettable sight of McKellen nuzzling a theatre’s backstage column – “touch wood,” he purrs – becomes second nature by the time Corden hams it up in white spats in a comic set piece. Weird and sporadically wonderful.