Film review- The Greatest Showman

The Greatest Showman

Starring Hugh Jackman, Michelle Williams, Zac Efron

Certificate PG

Director Michael Gracey

I’m rather late to Hugh Jackman’s latest big screen offering. It’s a party that launched at Christmas to lukewarm reviews from some critics, and yet proved that many cinema-goers don’t care a jot about what they think. Despite one high profile reviewer claiming there were “no memorable songs”, I wonder if he saw the same film.

In mid-March I finally take the plunge, more curious as to why this musical biopic of legendary showman PT Barnum has kept punters coming back for more.

Yes, it’s slick, formulaic and some of the effects are a little cheesy, but that doesn’t stop me from becoming immersed in the story.

A few years earlier I’d sat through the much talked about stage show Barnum, and despite being captivated by Brian Conley’s tightrope walk, I was pretty bored with the rest of it. Aside from There is a Sucker Born Ev’ry Minute, and Come Follow the Band, I’d struggle to think of another memorable tune in the whole show.

No such problems with The Greatest Showman. From that opening track, The Greatest Show, to Come Alive, the much played This Is Me and delightful Rewrite the Stars, I’m bowled over.

Hugh Jackman reminds me why he is one of the most talented thespians working in movies today. Yes, he honed his craft in West End hits such as Oklahoma!, but it’s still hard to believe this is the same man who wowed me in last year’s Logan.

Zac Efron is also on great form, which is reassuring considering his annoying turn in the Baywatch movie. However, when Rebecca Ferguson turns up, I’m like a kid on Christmas morning.

I have become a little obsessed with the woman who stole Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation from under Tom Cruise’s nose, and kept me gripped throughout sci-fi chiller Life.

I don’t expect much from her in this, and although she mimes to the phenomenal tune Never Enough, my gob is well and truly smacked; it’s hard to see the join between her acting and Loren Allred’s vocals.

When Hugh and company round things off with From Now On, I’m ready to see it all again.

The screenplay by Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon ensures the whole thing ticks over with the speed of a locomotive at top speed, while Seamus McGarvey’s photography is terrific.

Considering this is his first feature, visual effects veteran Michael Gracey does a good job in the director’s chair.

While he could have done with more cash than his $84million budget allowed, I doubt he’ll have too much trouble getting a green light for his next picture. TGS has grossed almost $400million in 87 days, and the fact singalong version has kept packing audiences in mean Jackman’s position as one of the most lucrative actors in the business is secure.

Obviously it won’t be for all tastes, and with the DVD and Blu-ray due for release in May, some might want to wait. I’d recommend seeing it on a huge screen before that day as it’s the very thing cinema was invented for: a communal, feelgood experience which makes you forget your troubles for 105 minutes.

The greatest show indeed.

8/10

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Film review – Annihilation (2018)

Film review

Annihilation (2018)

Certificate 15

Starring Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Oscar Isaac

Directed by Alex Garland

There was a time when waiting for a movie was a thing. The anticipation of a big budget slick offering was like the smell of a great meal before it arrives at your table.

Then the game changed. Out of thin air the cinematic feast dropped on your table, but despite nice packaging, the flavour was occasionally off.

Netflix has been backing some high profile, disappointing offerings lately, but finally they have a winner.

So after the woeful Will Smith vehicle Bright, humdrum Duncan Jones sci-fi oddity Mute and lacklustre The Cloverfield Paradox, we have another high gloss confection from the streaming service.

And it’s extraordinary.

I’ve been a fan of film maker Alex Garland since he started making waves with The Beach. His under-rated, flawed sci-fi epic Sunshine was the most unforgettable cinematic experience of 2007, and Dredd undid most of the damage caused by Sly Stallone’s 1995 misfire comic book conversion, Judge Dredd.

All of which preamble brings us to his latest offering, the trippy Natalie Portman vehicle Annihilation.

As I’m hard wired to lap up any sci-fi saga, good or bad, the thought of a new offering from the maker of Ex-Machina was a tantalising prospect.

What starts out as a dreamy tale of loss and mourning, soon takes a left-hand turn.

Natalie Portman is the ex-soldier turned biologist whose missing partner (Oscar Isaac) turns up out of the blue.

However, he’s sick, so one thing leads to another and she winds up on an all-female mission into the Shimmer, an energy field that’s expanding in Florida.

In order to save her fella, the only person to emerge from the anomaly, she embarks on a possible suicide mission.

What unfolds is reminiscent of Apocalypse Now, (the film) Southern Comfort, Arrival, The Fountain, and unsurprisingly Sunshine.

There’s also a mix of Avatar and Jurassic Park, with elements of Space: 1999. Oh, and bits of Contact too. And yet while it might remind you of dozens of other movies and shows, Annihilation is also like nothing you’ve seen.

The third act is one of the trippiest things I’ve witnessed since the incredible Under the Skin. And while some might reach for the off button during a scene with a swimming pool and a knife, stick with it.

Garland might tread into the queasy territory of Event Horizon with a recorded slice of past terror, but this is as much Alice in Wonderland as it is a horror movie.

The final shot is a little inevitable, but the journey is extraordinary. Portman and fellow Thor veteran Tessa Thompson may never have shared screentime in that Marvel universe, but in this otherworldly one they shine without standing in the shadow of the hammer-wielding hero.

In a decade’s time, folks will still mention Annihilation in the same breath as classic intellectual sci-fi offerings like Solaris and 2001.

The fact the closing credits are eclipsed by the unfurling graphics is testament to how daring Garland’s project is. He doesn’t even tell you who’s in it.

Do yourself a favour. Turn the lights and your phone off, wait ’til around 10pm, press play and prepare to have your mind blown.

8/10

Film review – The Shape of Water

The Shape of Water

Starring Sally Hawkins, Doug Jones, Octavia Spencer

Directed by Guillermo Del Toro

Certificate 15

Baltimore, 1962, and a mute cleaner at a high-security government laboratory embarks on a relationship like no other in Guillermo Del Toro’s BAFTA-winning masterpiece The Shape of Water.

Sally Hawkins, giving one of the best performances of her career, is Elisa Esposito, the mesmerising heroine who lives above a cinema, is friends with a neighbouring artist (Richard Jenkins), and lives a lonely existence. While he has designs on the cafe worker nearby, she’s an achingly solitary figure who cleans up at the lab a bus ride away.

This is a world of classic Bakelite gadgets and Cadillacs, the sort of nostalgic design you’d expect from a visual maestro like Del Toro. (He’s a film maker who could shoot a movie about the phone book and I’d happily hand over my cash).

Following the fascinating misfire that was Crimson Peak, he’s hit the bull’s eye with this heart-rending tale which feels like a mash-up of The Creature from the Black Lagoon, Amelie, Delicatessen, Frankenstein, Hellboy and ET. And yet despite its influences, it’s also like nothing else I’ve ever seen.

Witnessed after the mega bucks Black Panther, where I didn’t believe in any of the characters, each of Del Toro’s protagonists here feels like they live and breathe, whether it’s air or water.

The casting is spot on, probably because the role was written for Hawkins, and Michael Shannon personifies the tough government stooge so well I can’t imagine anyone else in the role.

Alexandre Desplat’s score is a perfect accompaniment to the unfolding drama that washes over me, and though I try and remind myself it’s only a movie, the fate of the amphibian man at the heart of the drama is as compelling as ET’s in Steven Spielberg’s 1982 classic.

I’m on edge throughout as I just want a happy ending. While i’ll obviously not spoil a thing, I’ll happily see this again to soak up the wondrous imagery, nail-biting action and beautiful romance.

Having been hooked on Guillermo’s work since he started making waves in world cinema in the late 1990s, it’s a relief to say he’s finally made his masterpiece.

Don’t wait for the home release. Rush out and see it at a decent art house cinema, and not a certain multiplex where they turn the lights on the split second the credits roll.

Easily one of the best films of this or any other year.

Gracias Guillermo.

9/10

Movie review – Black Panther

Movie review

Black Panther

Directed by Ryan Coogler

Starring Chadwick Boseman, Michael B Jordan, Martin Freeman

Certificate 12A

Unlike Marvel favourites Spider-Man, Captain America, Hulk, Doctor Strange and Thor, Black Panther was never given a dry run as a TV movie.

Launched in the 1960s, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s creation barely got a look in as an animated hero either. Which seems odd as he has such a rich back story and interesting characters.

However, now Marvel has a decade’s worth of blockbusters under their belt, it’s clear they’re willing to take a few ’risks’, such as an African American superhero.

Of course this should have all happened decades ago, and at one point it looked like it would with Wesley Snipes, but he opted for a lesser Marvel character – Blade.

No, Black Panther’s road to the big screen has been a long, rocky one.

And at the helm is director Ryan Coogler, whose critical success with Rocky sequel Creed proved he could breathe life into one of Marvel’s most ambitious movies.

As a fan of the comics, thanks to black and white British reprints from the early eighties, I was keen to see if the movie worked, but the trailer left me cold. Generic shots involving flying vehicles and expensive futuristic cityscapes all felt rather derivative.

Then the reviews arrived, and critics claimed it was an epic like no other.

So I settle in for what is admittedly a visually stunning adventure, but while millions of dollars were obviously spent on the effects and stunning costumes, about a tenner was spent on the script. It’s a yawnsome array of humdrum one-liners, clumsy exposition and forgettable monologues.

There are some standout lines, most notably from excellent villain Killmonger during the obligatory showdown. It’s one of those movies where the villains are far more interesting than the heroes. Michael B Jordan is more rounded than Chadwick Boseman’s bland, noble hero T’Challa. He sounds like a young Nelson Mandela throughout, but the banter with his sister Shuri falls flat.

On the subject of which, Shuri, the gadgets mistress – a Q to Boseman’s Bond if you like – is one of the most memorable characters in the movie. Letitia Wright, last seen in the excellent Black Mirror, is a fun, engaging breath of fresh air, and along with a scenery-chewing Andy Serkis and ever reliable Martin Freeman, helps lift the film to another level.

It’s not a bad movie, though some ropey CG rhinos, confusing action scenes with the gravity-defying hero, and an improbable laboratory which looks like a tourist attraction at Epcot does jar a little. And the ritual fight scenes feel like a musical waiting for a rousing song that never comes.

And don’t get me started on those masks and suits that appear out of thin air. The Batmobile’s instant CG shields bugged me in 1992’s Batman Returns, and this looks even more improbable.

Yes it’s a fantasy but the best comic book conversions, like Chris Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, have a believable gravitas. This just feels like anything can be summoned from thin air.

Solid support comes from Get Out’s BAFTA-winning Daniel Kaluuya, while Angela Bassett, Lupita Nyong’o, Forest Whitaker and Walking Dead’s Danai Gurira help give the saga some heft.

Given the mammoth box office returns after week one, safe to say a sequel is in the works, but before that, our hero and a few sidekicks return for the enormous Avengers: Infinity War.

I hope Coogler and Boseman have a better script for Black Panther 2. So much time and effort was taken on the look of hidden kingdom Wakanda, that it would be nice if the dialogue matched the occasionally stunning vision.

7/10

Film review  Jumanji – Welcome to the Jungle

Film review

Jumanji – Welcome to the Jungle

Starring Dwayne Johnson, Karen Gillan, Jack Black

Certificate 12A

I can’t say I was desperate to see a sequel to Jumanji, the 1990s Robin Williams blockbuster in which kids get trapped inside a board game and play to get back to the real world.

And the concept of Dwayne Johnson and Jack Black as two of the four protagonists fighting for their life also left me cold.

Don’t get me wrong. I like them both, but I’ve never rushed out to see the new Dwayne or Jack movie. They’re just not magnetic enough for me.

However, Karen Gillan has that winning mix of sex appeal and quirkiness to win me over, so on a bleak January morning I settle in.

I’m not expecting much, so as the movie opens with references to the original, and so much product placement I feel queasy, I fear the worst.

On the surface this may be a Jumanji reboot, but once I get past the feeling I’m watching a mash-up of It and Stranger Things (thanks to a creepy house, yellow rain coat and lovably nerdy students), I realise the heart of the piece is The Breakfast Club transplanted to the jungle. (The nerdy guy, the jock, the princess and the geek girl reflecting on their shortcomings).

And I’m happy to say it’s one of the most enjoyable family adventures I’ve seen in years.

The plot: while four fellow students are given detention and have to de-staple a bunch of magazines for recycling, they happen across a 1990s video game.

And wouldn’t you know it? They are soon transplanted to the jungle. The twist being the geek is now the muscle-bound charismatic hero. The athletic jock is now the diminutive, weapons-carrying sidekick. The selfie-obsessed narcissist prom queen is a chubby middle aged man, and the shy geek is a Lara Croft-style kick-ass heroine.

After landing in their new home (those Hawaii backdrops are glorious on the big screen), our fish-out-of-water heroes are soon introduced to Rhys Darby’s avatar character, a genial sort who fills in their back story and mission before leaving them to it.

Cue rocket-launching bikers, killer hippos and no end of human and geographical hurdles to overcome.

As our heroes overcome their personal differences and adjust to their own new special abilities, what unfolds is often a joy.

The highlight is Black teaching Gillan how to flirt as she attempts to sidetrack intentionally generic bad guy avatars.

Director Jake Kasdan does a great job of juggling the epic set pieces, while the cast interact so well, I’m not surprised it’s become one of the biggest blockbusters of the past 12 months.

If you get the chance, see it on the biggest screen possible and enjoy as Johnson, Gillan, Hart and Black take you on a magical adventure which is even quite touching in places.

Those glorious vistas will lose a lot on the small screen, as I’ll find out when I watch it again, and again in a few months’ time. And no, not just because (a recognisable) Karen Gillan has finally landed the blockbuster she deserves.

Given the huge box office returns, a sequel is only a matter of years rather than decades.

I have a feeling Mr Williams would have been proud.

8/10

Restaurant review The Cockpit Cafe, Beverley

Restaurant review

The Cockpit Cafe, Beverley

In a world where generic chains offer overpriced coffee and food, I’ll always gravitate to a themed cafe if done well. The food doesn’t just have to be great, but the place also has to have the courage of its own convictions.

Thankfully The Cockpit Cafe in Beverley has a great USP – a glorious splash of fun on a winter’s day. It indulges my passion for vintage aviation, and then some.

I’ve been looking forward to this visit since it opened in early December 2017. Now, in one of the most depressing weeks of the year, it’s just the helping of escapism my partner and I need.

Thankfully the drive from Howden to Beverley is a joy on a freezing Saturday morning; parking a few minutes’ walk from the venue is easy and relatively cheap, and the place itself is easy to find.

I love the exterior with its gorgeous graphics and welcoming facade. The interior is equally terrific with vintage suitcases for tables and elegant booths at the rear of the cafe.

It’s a pleasure to meet former air hostess-turned entrepreneur Lucie Mountain. The brains behind the operation, she drew inspiration from the 1950s, and with a passion for travel, that winning mix of great food, drink and ambience has customers packing out the venue for our 90-minute stay.

Serving food and drink from all over the world, it’s a treat to see a simple but effective menu which offers some of my favourite dishes and drinks.

And with waitresses naturally in airline attire, it’s that essential touch which helps keep the aeronautical fantasy aloft.

The day is so icy when we arrive, it demands something to warm the cockles. I go for hot Kentish Pip Firespice Ginger Cider, while Rachel has a Bailey’s Hot Chocolate.

As it always reminds me of honeymoon in New England, I opt for the seafood chowder with garlic toast. At £7.50, you certainly get your money’s worth. I’m used to some chowders being a starter, but this is very much a main, filled with delicious fresh ingredients. The toast is deliciously crisp and the flavour avoids being overpowering.

Rachel chooses Baked Frittata (£5.50) – spiced sweet potato, caramelised onion frittata, with yoghurt, honey and poppyseed dressing.

“The flavours are nice and it’s cooked to perfection, but the portion of dressing is too generous,” she remarks. “In that case less would have been definitely more.”

We split a delicious Chocolate Terrine, and I savour a cappuccino, complete with plane (rather than plain) biscuit, which goes down a treat.

I was sold on The Cockpit Cafe from the minute I walked in, probably because it’s just the sort of place Beverley needs. A break from the norm and a reminder of that golden era of world travel.

“I wanted to create something completely unique to other food and drink venues in Yorkshire,” remarks Lucie.

She’s certainly done that, though I’m itching to see a huge 1950s propeller revolving fan-like from the ceiling. I’d also love to see a merch stand with the beautiful coffee cups (I’d have bought one on the day). And the delicious Chocolate Terrine is begging to be renamed “Chocs Away”. But that’s just me. Some touches are perhaps too obvious.

Yorkshire needs more entrepreneurs like Lucie, who’s done a wonderful job of taking a great idea and making it fly.

I can’t wait to return and sample more of the menu, perhaps on an evening when there’s live music.

Well worth a look, and best of all, you won’t need your passport.

Bright – Movie Review

Bright

Directed by David Ayer

Starring Will Smith, Joel Edgerton, Noomi Rapace

So, after months of plugging, Netflix unveil their highest profile streaming movie to date.

Bright has the production values of a major motion picture, the heavyweight star appeal of Will Smith, and a high concept premise: an alternate LA, filled with orcs, elves and fairies.

Will Smith is Ward, the foul-mouthed cop teamed with Joel Edgerton’s Jakoby, the long suffering Orc crime buster who spends most of the movie being sworn at, beaten up or worse.

Their chalk and cheese partnership forms the backbone of the story involving a magic wand, a dark lord and an endangered elf.

Which is all very Harry Potter meets Lord of the Rings with Ayer’s previous movie End of Watch thrown in and a heroine reminiscent of Leeloo from The Fifth Element.

It’s brutal, bloody stuff which for 90 per cent of its running time is hard to stomach. The seemingly endless macho posturing, face offs with gang members and swearing is so abrasive, i’m worn down by the sheer nastiness of the whole production.

Smith is usually good value for money, but even his charm can’t save this Christmas turkey.

Edgerton is okay as his sidekick and Noomi Rapace adds malevolence as the big bad.

So, 30 years after Alien Nation posited an LA filled with ETs, and mismatched cops tackling bad guys,this unofficial remake makes that bad film look a lot better.

It’s toxic stuff alleviated only by some great photography and flashes of excitement. The whole time I’m watching it I want it to get better, and be less brutal, but it feels like crawling through a two-hour long tunnel of offal.

The only bright bit comes at the end.

The music is yawnsome, the script mostly dreadful with the odd decent one liner from Max Landis, and on the whole a horrible experience.

No matter how much you may love the Fresh Prince, or the good ideas, avoid at all costs.

2/10

Theatre review – Jack and the Beanstalk

Theatre review

Jack and the Beanstalk

York Theatre Royal

Rather aptly for a panto set in York, Berwick Kaler’s latest production is a shambles.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s a beautiful mess. The set is a glorious tribute to the brilliant Mark Walters, who designed both it and the dazzling costumes, and the opening number, Not Just For Kids Anymore (which made me laugh out loud) is tight, well choreographed and really gels. I just wish the rest of the show had as much coherence.

That’s the problem when a production is so front-loaded. Trying to top the intro is tricky.

Now to put this in context, Jack and the Beanstalk is far better than Kaler’s offering from 12 months ago. The whole thing clicks more effectively, and I’m guessing the key reason is Martin Barrass, Kaler’s long-term sidekick who generates so much love from generations who’ve been following these shows for years, it’s hard not to get swept along.

It’s been well documented that a 2016 accident left him in a right state, while Kaler’s own heart surgery understandably took the wind out of his own sails.

Now both of them are back on some sort of form, their panto has its mojo back.

And it’s great to see Suzy Cooper back on stage doing her ditzy blonde singing and dancing routine as Jill. Her comic timing is superb, and I get the feeling in the 1970s, when mainstream sketch shows on TV were a thing, she’d have been a regular.

But oh that script. Kaler’s a force of nature who conjures up these shows with waves of heart and spirit, but structurally it’s a mess.

Okay, I know it’s panto and the story doesn’t really stand up to much scrutiny, but at least it should have a start a middle and an end.

And the references are just so out of date. It feels like a show from 1983 with references to Return of the Jedi, or at a push, The Addams Family from a decade later, when the Christina Ricci films were popular. Okay, the stage version of TAF is doing the rounds, but it doesn’t feel mainstream enough to be worth a musical number. (’Oh yes it does!’ you may cry.)

There’s the obligatory Trump and Brexit comments for the parents, but none of it feels like a panto for today.

As a kid I used to watch Little and Large’s TV show. One of the reasons I liked it was Eddie making references to stuff happening at the time. It felt relevant and ahead of the dated other comics.

And don’t get me started at that half-way film, where our heroes flee from ’Super Troopers’, dropping in at various York spots for a series of woeful sponsor-inspired sketches. One recurring TV favourite’s performance as a giant may give little ones nightmares, and not for his Olivier-worthy acting either.

None of what I think will matter a jot of course to the countless families who have been enjoying this nonsense for years. And fair play to the team for keeping the art alive.

My first experience of any theatre was panto, and it’s something I’ve never forgotten. I didn’t care about the songs or the gags. Whether it had a start, middle or end, or the story structure. I just loved that feeling of seeing something special happening in front of my eyes with ’Dana off the telly’.

And for the kids who went nuts at Kaler’s latest smorgasbord of jokes, sketches, songs and slapstick, in 45 years they’ll still have a warm, fuzzy memory of those strange characters breathing life into a well worn, rather odd story.

Will I be back next year? Of course.

Christmas has now officially started because 12 months after the culture shock of seeing my first Berwick Kaler panto, Cinderella, I’m now becoming part of that annual tradition where, for a few hours, anything goes.

David Leonard brilliantly milks his villainous part as Dr McCarb like the cow at the heart of the story, and Suzy Cooper steals my heart once more with her expert comedy schtick. Her ’It’s behind you’ routine with Leonard is a sheer joy.

The fact she made an appearance as Princess Leia (sigh) may have helped alleviate my confusion. (That and the fact I got to meet Look North legend Clare Frisby at half time).

JATB, as no-one is calling it, might be all over the place, but it’s a glorious splash of warm-hearted colour on an icy December night, and I’ve no doubt it’ll be a massive success until it bows out on February 3, 2018.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off for a lie down. My mind has been well and truly blown.

Oh yes it has.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi – Spoiler Free Review

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Directed by Rian Johnson

Starring Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver

Certificate 12A

There was a time the average gap between Star Wars movies was three years. But when Disney took over the franchise in 2012, they planned on releasing at least one Star Wars-related movie a year. And with Kathleen Kennedy in charge, 2015’s The Force Awakens proved the franchise was in safe hands.

Now we have the eighth chapter in the saga (ninth if you count the sublime episode 3.5, Rogue One).

And with JJ Abrams passing the baton to Looper’s Rian Johnson, we’re off on another dazzling adventure.

The opening space battle is pure Star Wars. Dizzying, thrilling and glorious cinematic magic accompanied by John Williams’ bombastic score.

Seconds after the opening crawl, I have a big stupid grin as Rebels fight the bad guys; a familiar face pops up as an evil officer, and the whole thing slots together beautifully.

But that space battle is just the eye candy-laced doorway to one of the most complex, divisive and bold chapters in the saga.

Safe to say The Last Jedi will leave die-hard fans emerging from the theatre processing what they’ve just seen.

Johnson takes the saga to interesting places, and though the script could have done with some polish, one scene involving a key character’s actions against insurmountable odds definitely needed rejecting at the script stage. Some force-related feats push things too far.

The new cast we met in The Force Awakens feel a lot more at home here. Not that they did a bad job in TFA, but it’s good to see the likes of John Boyega, Daisy Ridley and Oscar Isaac given a chance to flex their acting muscles.

Obviously given the passing of Carrie Fisher, the whole movie feels like a tribute in all the right places, but if the film belongs to anyone it’s Mark Hamill. The hermetic Luke Skywalker is now as weathered as the craggy island he calls home.

Giving a terrific performance as the hero millions grew up with, to see him back in action for the first time since 1983 is a treat fans never thought they’d witness.

And while old beloved droids like C-3PO and R2D2 are also back, BB-8 steals the film once more.

There are inevitable nods to The Empire Strikes Back, but at times it also feels like the first episode of the revamped Battlestar Galactica, with a touch of The Two Towers’ Helm’s Deep thrown in for good measure.

There’s also a low tech clunkiness to the props. Maybe it’s hi-def cameras showing more than film ever used to, but some gadgets and sets feel a bit Blue Peter. Then there is Snoke’s lair, a blood red screen which looks striking but temporary, like a stage set.

And the Vegas-style Canto Bight features a few too many weird characters in the now obligatory cantina-style scene that adds colour to most SW movies.

As it’s the longest of the saga, my oft-repeated comment of it being 20 minutes too long is completely on the money.

The Last Jedi is still a compelling sci-fi adventure, but kids will be restless in the second act, and their parents nursing aching legs by the finale.

So, a flawed but fascinating chapter which fails to match the dizzy heights of Empire and Rogue One, but is still a must see on the big screen. The 3D is pretty effective, the sound design excellent, and that shot of fighters soaring over salt flats, leaving scarlet scars in the Earth is unforgettable.

Who knows what’s in store for Episode IX, but with JJ Abrams back at the helm, it should be much tighter than this ambitious curio.

8/10

Film review: Paddington 2

Paddington 2

Starring Hugh Bonneville, Hugh Grant, Sally Hawkins

Certificate PG

Directed by Paul King

Perfection, as we all know is an elusive quality. We may strive for it, but despite Fairground Attraction’s foot-tapping pleas, few things are rarely perfect.

Except occasionally a film comes along where everything clicks. The right producer hires the best director and the ideal cast and crew, together with spot-on effects technicians. And the story is strong enough to carry the weight of expectation from start to finish. Every second of celluloid is a well-crafted dream; finely tuned, expertly crafted and dovetails with the next scene.

It’s a film with a start, a middle and end. It makes sense. There’s a cross generational appeal, so those pushing 50 can enjoy what’s on screen as much as those in the spring of youth and the winter of their years.

Paddington 2 is one of those movies, a film so utterly wondrous, it feels like a dozen Christmases rolled into one.

Three years to the day after seeing the first Paddington movie on the big screen, I’d hoped the sequel would live up to that wonderful starter of a motion picture. A film which introduced us to the eponymous bear from darkest Peru who finds a new home in London with the Brown family and proceeds to steal the hearts of almost everyone around him.

Film one was a toe in the water, a brilliant mix of wry humour, sight gags, action scenes and delightful musical segues. It was everything I’d hoped for from the bear who stole my heart as a six-year-old kid reading Michael Bond’s books for the first time.

With the ideal casting of Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins and Julie Walters as key members of the family who take Paddington under their collective wing, the inevitable move for the sequel was to pluck the bear from his adoptive family.

While trying to save up enough cash to buy a pop-up book for his Aunt Lucy, so she can experience a flavour of London in Peru, Paddington embarks on a window cleaning round, which owes a spiritual debt to Wallace and Gromit and countless silent movie stars.

There are so many gags in Paddington 2, it’s hard to keep count of the amount of times I giggled, but it’s a lot.

When ham actor Phoenix Buchanan (Hugh Grant, in a career-best performance) pinches said book, for reasons which eventually become clear, there’s no prizes for guessing who’s framed for the crime and winds up doing a long spell inside.

So most of the movie is a prison caper, but the likes of which you’ve never seen. Brendan Gleeson gives another of his effortlessly brilliant performances, this time as a fearsome prison chef.

Paddington, seeing the best in everyone, proceeds to change the lives of those inside, while back in that moneyed region of London he had to leave behind, the locals are falling apart without him.

Writers Paul King and Simon Farnaby construct such a beautifully crafted screenplay, there’s no lull in the story from minute one to the breathtaking final few minutes. In terms of emotional sucker punches, the finale is up there with ET for the most tear-jerking final 15 minutes of any film I’ve seen. Yes, it was dusty in that cinema, and yes, I did get something in my eye. A lot.

And as with film one, Farnaby leaves me giggling like an idiot as the amorous security guard who takes a shine to Grant’s disguised nun. (In film one, Farnaby’s flirting with Hugh Bonneville in drag was one of the funniest scenes of 2014).

Director King proved he could tell a beautifully touching and original tale with The Bunny and the Bull many years ago, and armed with a bigger budget three years ago, he adapted that indie quality with great success. I’d wondered if Paddington was a fluke and he’d drop the ball with the sequel, but with the training wheels off, he’s now become the Chris Hoy of British comedy directors. A more assured but no less brilliant film maker whose lightness of touch is astounding. And that pop-up book scene with Paddington and his Aunt is among the best things you’ll see on screen in this or any other year.

There no doubt it’ll land technical awards for effects, and maybe production design, but if there’s any justice, this should also land a BAFTA nod for Best Film. It won’t of course. That will be reserved for a socially conscious, political drama deemed far more worthy, but for me Paddington 2 is easily the best British film of 2017.

Michael Bond, the little bear’s much missed creator, would be more than proud.

9/10