My Favourite Films #46: The Return of the Jedi

In Clerks, Dante Hicks dismisses the third film in the Star Wars trilogy saying “All Jedi had was a bunch of muppets”. It’s a harsh assessment of the movie, but highlights a problem that some viewers have with the movie. The Ewoks.

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This alien race, who look like teddy bears, are the kind of thing that little kids love, but for older audiences appear rather cutesy and twee. Personally, I quite like the Ewoks, because their guerrilla tactics against a superior foe are surprisingly brutal and they are kinda cute. Also, they don’t look so bad after some later additions to the universe.

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While it’s not as good as Empire, I still love this movie, which continues the trilogy’s crowd pleasing, entertaining action. It brings the Darth Vader (the body of David Prowse voiced by James Earl Jones) story to an end, with him earning redemption thanks to the faith and goodness of his son Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). Their final showdown where the Emperor (Ian McDiarmid) attempts to get Luke to give in to the Dark Side is well done, with Luke finally realising what’s going on and stopping himself.

Vader, witnessing this mercy and then the Emperor’s attack on Luke finally rediscovers his good nature, lost years earlier. He sacrifices himself to kill the Emperor and Luke escapes before the Rebels manage to destroy the second Death Star, which they had been tricked into believing was yet to be operational.

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The Death Star, half built and hanging in space is visually striking and the revelation that the Emperor has set a trap for the good guys raises the stakes greatly and sets up the largest space battle of the series.

Meanwhile, on the planet there’s a different battle going on as Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) and Han Solo (Harrison Ford) lead a small rebel force, and the Ewoks against the Empire’s forces to try and disable the force field that protects the Death Star. The fight, which sees the primitive Ewoks triumph through ingenuity and surprising viciousness (their cuteness distracts from the fact they are straight up murdering Stormtroopers).

Han Solo’s rescue from Jabba’s clutches is a cracker, providing some old school heroics from Luke Skywalker, and shows Leia is a badass herself, having posed as a bounty hunter she thaws out the frozen smuggler only to be kidnapped, but she gets free and kills Jabba. It’s a shame all these heroic moments have been overshadowed in the public consciousness by her golden bikini.

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Of course, the movie also includes the big reveal that Luke and Leia are twin siblings, which Luke discovers from the dying Yoda (Frank Oz). It changes the dynamic between the two, and works rather well. It also clears the way for Han and Leia’s relationship to blossom fully, and this is the heart for much of the movie, with the two’s bickering softening and Han confessing his feelings this time around.

What makes this movie work is the ending, where good triumphs and Luke makes peace with his father, and the galaxy celebrates. It’s an entirely satisfying ending to the series and while it’s since been added to, it still serves as a solid ending.

There’s heroism, resolution and some cracking intergalactic action, and just like the other two movies it continues to entertain years and many rewatches later.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


My Favourite Films #45: The Empire Strikes Back

Star Wars was a game changer in many ways, in terms of blockbusters and memorabilia but it’s the second movie in the original trilogy that’s impact is still felt. Countless film series made since has attempted to follow the Empire model with the second movie having a darker, more downbeat ending that leaves the heroes in poor shape before they rally in the third part.

But although often imitated, The Empire Strikes Back has never been matched and is still the stand out movie in the four part Star Wars saga. I fell in love with the first movie, but it paled when I saw this one, and this is where I became a lifelong fan of the series.

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Unlike a lot of movies which include a massive twist, this movie is more than just that big reveal. The moment where the villainous Darth Vader (body by David Prowse, voice by James Earl Jones) reveals that Obi Wan was telling porkies and that he is actually Luke Skywalker’s (Mark Hamill) father is one that has slightly lost it’s impact thanks to countless rip offs and gags, but for audiences in 1980 it must have been an absolute stunner.

If I have kids I’m going to show them the Star Wars trilogy at a young age and hopefully ensure that this twist is fresh for them, as it’ll probably make more of an impact.

The reveal sets up the finale brilliantly, but it also contributes to the downbeat ending which made Empire so special. The end of the movie finds our heroes in a bad way, Luke is reeling from the news his enemy is his papa and has lost a hand, Leia (Carrie Fisher) has finally admitted that she loves Han Solo (Harrison Ford), only to see him frozen and taken prisoner.

But the ending doesn’t depress you. Luke has a robot hand and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) sets off to find Han. It leaves the audience hooked- will they be able to rescue their old friend? How will Luke and Vader’s next meeting go? And will the war with the Empire ever be over?

The defeat they suffer works because it delivers on it’s title. If a villain is always vanquished they begin to lose their edge for audiences (see the Daleks), what they got right in this series was that while the Empire had lost the first movie they win this one, and the good guys barely escape. It makes the villains all the more evil, and more of a threat, it’s a smart move.

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Of course, a solid ending isn’t enough and what makes this such a cracker is everything that builds up to it. We find the Rebels on a snowy planet and Han debating leaving as he needs to sort out the bounty hunters on his trail. His decision to leave causes an argument between him and Leia, and suggests that there is a growing attraction there.

Ford and Fisher, who we recently found out were getting it on behind the scenes, have phenomenal chemistry on screen and their bickering, flirty scenes together are among the best in film. The story splits up our group, leaving Leia, Han, Chewie and C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) on the run and trying to find a safe place to hole up, while Luke travels to continue his Jedi training.

This is another aspect that would work for first time viewers, the reveal of Yoda (Frank Oz). When Luke seeks out the Jedi Master who taught Obi Wan the audience expects a great warrior and intergalactic badass, the revelation that the little green man is actually the master is a nice subversion of expectations.

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Yoda’s wisdom and training sees Luke develop his skills, and this is an interesting storyline as we see Luke get stronger and discover more about the Force.

This movie improves on the first by adding to the characters and by having a superior script, shown not only in Han and Leia’s flirtations, but throughout. And there are memorable moments throughout- the AT-ATs advancing through the snow, the trippy sequence where Luke faces his fears, the climactic fight.

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I love this movie because it’s great fun, and shows us more of the universe. It also introduces Lando Calrissian, played by Billy Dee Williams, who is pretty damn suave.

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It’s a perfect middle movie for a trilogy, which doesn’t just act as a bridge but serves to up the stakes, grow the story and ensure the audience is even more invested in the characters.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


My Favourite Films #44: Star Wars

Disclaimer: Before any fans get narked, I know that’s not the full title, but putting it all in would be awfully long and you all know which movie I mean.

I must have seen the Star Wars films as a little kid, but I can’t really remember much from those childhood viewings apart from the chase sequence in Jedi. What I do remember is the 20th anniversary special editions. I was almost twelve and they came out just as I was on the brink of geekdom, it was the perfect time for me to see them again.

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I can remember the music starting, and the opening scrawl and then that amazing opening shot with Leia’s ship emerging on the screen followed by the imposing Star Destroyer, chasing it across the stars. Even years later the sheer scale of that shot works well and on a big screen it was phenomenal.

The whole opening is done supremely well, especially the entrance of Darth Vader (David Prowse, voice by James Earl Jones).


A million lunchboxes and three dodgy prequels later, Vader has lost his edge somewhat, but on that first watch he’s a menacing presence. Striding imperiously over the bodies of the enemy, his raspy breath and dark, cloaked figure is memorable and has become understandably iconic.
The plot is known to many and quite simple, but a simple story executed well is far better than a complicated one that is bungled. Farm boy Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) dreams of adventure and the wider galaxy when he gets a hold of Princess Leia’s (Carrie Fisher) message for help.

He meets old warrior Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness) who explains that he was a friend of Luke’s father before Darth Vader killed him. He begins to train Luke in the use of the Force, a cosmic energy force that flows through all things.

They recruit roguish smuggler Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and his copilot Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew). They head for Alderaan, Leia’s home planet but arrive after it is destroyed by the Empire’s latest weapon the Death Star.

What follows is a story of adventure and heroism as our heroes rescue Leia and deliver the plans for the base. It has a single weak spot and Luke joins the pilots in the attack as the lethal space station closes in on the Rebel base.
It’s hard to look at Star Wars without the cultural baggage that it carries now, without nostalgia and as a movie on its own merits. But this isn’t a review, its a love letter.

I love the world of the movie, I love the bustling energy of the cantina, the scruffiness of Han Solo and his ship the Millennium Falcon. It has a lived in feel that the sterile ships of other sci-fi often lack. They want everything to look cool and shiny, forgetting that people are meant to live there.

I love the characters, from Hamill’s likeable goofiness as the space bumpkin Luke to the bickering droids. I love that Princess Leia takes charge of the guys who are trying, ineptly, to rescue her.

The late, great Carrie Fisher is superb. She makes Leia a strong, confident character who rolls with the bunches and who stands defiant against the forces of the Empire. She runs rings around the swaggering Solo and is an utter delight.

But let’s face it, Han Solo is still the coolest guy in the movie. Harrison Ford brings his easy charm to the role, with a laid back swagger and sarcastic, cynical outlook. But he’s winging it the whole time, surviving on a mix of luck, skill and his comrades.


He’s the old gunslinger who tries to play like he doesn’t care about anything other than money and his own life, but when the chips are down he roars back to make the save.

The action is well done, and while the Vader vs Kenobi fight is hardly a masterpiece of fight choreography it is well performed. Guinness delivers his lines brilliantly, giving depth and power beyond the cliches. He goes into the fight seeming to know that this is the end, but goes to it with dignity, knowing that this isn’t really the end.

The effects have aged in places, but the special edition make over makes up for it, and some of the sequences still hold up. In fact the models and costumes hold up better than most CG will in years to come.

I love the rousing ending, the glorious John Williams score and the ingredients mix to make a film that still fills me with the geeky excitement and love that washed over my twelve year old self.

I love the fun vibe, the dialogue which at times is a little clunky, I love it all.

A pure, simple treat of a movie. It holds up because of the great characters, the simple story of good vs evil and the bags of charm it has. It’s a movie I return to when I want that blast of childish joy, to lose myself in a simpler world with familiar faces.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Film Review: Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Firstly, the good news, this is no Phantom Menace, and despite the hype surrounding its release this movie works and fits with the original Star Wars trilogy in terms of tone and story in a way the prequels never did.

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Set many years after the victory over the Empire the story finds Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) is missing and the Republic is in trouble from the threat of the First Order who seek to return the Empire. General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) despatches her best pilot, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) to recover a map leading to Luke’s location. On the planet Jakku Poe gets it but the Order catch up with him.

He sends off the details in his droid BB-8, before being captured by Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) the dark Jedi who works for them. During the attack on the village the civilians are slaughtered and stormtrooper FN-2187 (John Boyega) who refuses to go along and is horrified.

He aids Poe in escaping, and Poe names him Finn. They crash and wind up back on Jakku, separated. Finn finds BB-8 who has been found by Rey (Daisy Ridley), a scavenger who scrapes by on Jakku. Finn pretends to be in the resistance and they flee aboard an ageing ship they find at the junkyard.

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Finn and Rey in trouble

The ship turns out to be the Millennium Falcon and they are soon tracked down by the former owners Han Solo and Chewbacca (Harrison Ford and Peter Mayhew, respectively). Finn just wants to get away to safety, while Rey, despite her desire to join Solo and travel the galaxy, feels she must return to Jakku to wait for her family to return.

But both find themselves drawn deeper into the resistance and have to decide what role they will play. Will they join the fight or run? What is Kylo Ren’s link to the original characters? And where is Luke?

For me this movie really worked, because it successfully bridged the gap between Return of the Jedi and this new trilogy. The old faces do their jobs well, particularly Ford who exudes the same roguish charm that made Solo a favourite and Fisher, who convinces as an older, slightly jaded Leia.

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Fisher on fine form

Their relationship hints at the difficulties that developed after the Empire fell and that it wasn’t the happy ending they hoped for. In their scenes together they capture a realistic sense of a couple divided and reeling from hard times, but still deeply in love.

But what gives a new hope (sorry) is that the new characters work well. Rey is a tough, resourceful heroine and the main character, and Ridley makes her likeable and easy to warm too. It’s also cool to see her stand up for herself and reject Finn’s well-meaning, if sexist, attempts to protect her. Throughout she appears capable, independent and a true hero.

Equally strong is Boyega’s work as Finn, as he manages to capture the former Stormtrooper’s inner conflict, with the character having to fight his instinct to run to do the right thing. He also has serious comedic chops and gets most of the film’s laughs. Oscar Isaac is the least used of the three, but makes Poe a swaggering, self assured hero and he shares good chemistry with Boyega.

The villains do well too, with the First Order capturing the menace of the Empire with a hint of fanaticism which makes them more dangerous. The other strong point is that Kylo Ren clashes with General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson), hinting at divides and that Ren doesn’t have the reputation or standing that Vader held in the Empire.

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The bad guys

Ren, who’s been plastered over the merch does make a solid villain and his lack of control makes him distinctly different from Vader and his raw anger makes him unpredictable. The back story reveals more and sets up some of the film’s key moments.

It’s not without flaws, some of the plot points have been seen before and a few events are easy to see coming. The final attack is almost an exact retread of the attack on the Death Star.

One character’s speech about “the same eyes in different faces” feels like a lazy explanation for repeated ideas and characters acting like others.

But JJ Abrams does his job well and the characters feel more real and natural than anything in the prequels and there’s genuine humour and thrills. MWF was more impressed than I was, but I still left happy and keen for the saga to continue.

Verdict: Abrams makes this more fun and engaging than the prequels and the balance between new and old faces is about right. Some of it gives a feeling of déjà vu but for the most part it succeeds. It has warmth and a sense of scale which will please old fans and win over a fresh generation to the series. 8/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


The Geek Awakens

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.
I think I may be shamed soon. Why? Because despite my reservations I can already feel the distant drums of geeky excitement in my head, and all because of less than a minute and a half of footage.
Yes, I watched the trailer for the Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, JJ Abrams’ sequel to the original trilogy.
Previously I’d held on to my doubts. I’d been burned in 1999, when, having fallen head over hells in love with Star Wars I had gotten hyped up for the prequels only to be bitterly disappointed.
Sure, JJ Abrams has made some quality stuff in the past, and I’m intrigued by how they’re going to continue the saga.
But there are far too many doubts. Will the ageing cast still work in their roles or will this be another late addition which damages the original (like the last Indiana Jones flick). Mark Hamill has done great voiceover work, but Fisher and Ford are rusty, and Ford hasn’t had a truly great flick in years.
But despite this watching the trailer it got the geek fires burning. X-Wings, old Luke, the Falcon and a tease for the return of Han Solo, one of my first man crushes.
I got sucked into the hype last time, and I’m worried it’ll happen again. Sure I’m older but I still love Star Wars and love makes fools of us all.
I just pray to the geek gods that Abrams pulls this off and the sequels entertain in the way the originals did, but that the prequels failed to.
Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO


Film Review: The Expendables 3

Common Hollywood theory states that sequels are an exercise in diminishing returns, possibly due to the plethora of witless and by-the-numbers follow ups in the horror and action movie genres during the 70s and 80s (for the best example of this rewatch Jaws and then suffer through the sequels, or the Halloween series, the last one I watched featured Busta Rhymes for crying out loud, and he wasn’t even the worst part of it). But sometimes this theory is rubbish and the superhero genre in particular has thrown up several sequels which match, or even surpass, the original.

Back in the day Sylvester Stallone was the face of the “bad sequels” idea, with his two most popular characters, Rocky and Rambo, having some shaky follow ups (Rambo III is pretty dire, even if it is in a fun way, and Rocky’s II and V are weak). But in the 21st century he’s become the king of the sequels, Rocky and Rambo both returned and in some style, Rocky Balboa may be the best in the series after the original and Rambo is far superior to III.

The Expendables series would seem to be primed for disappointing sequels, of stars taking the cheques and laziness seeping in, but somehow, they’ve actually got better too. The first one was quite good fun with Stallone leading a gang of action heroes into battle for some standard action heroics, and the sequel was lots of fun too, thanks in part to a better villain in Jean Claude Van Damme and giving Schwarzenegger and Willis more to do than just chat in a church.

In a way the third might be the best of the series so far, even if the action has been toned down to 12A levels. A large part of this is down to some new faces to the franchise, some familiar and some less so.

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The movie kicks off with Barney Ross (Stallone) and his squad (Jason Statham, Dolph Lundgren, Terry Crews and Randy Couture) staging a daring rescue on an armoured prison train to rescue a mysterious figure. The man they rescue turns out to be Doc (Wesley Snipes), an old friend of Ross’ and an original member of the Expendables. Doc is a slightly unhinged dude who joins the squad on their next mission to take down an arms dealer.

The mission hits a snag however when the dealer is revealed to be Stonebanks (Mel Gibson), a former friend of Ross’ and Expendables teammate.

Best villain yet- Gibson takes aim as Stoneback

Best villain yet- Gibson takes aim as Stonebanks

 

During the ensuing firefight Stonebanks deliberately targets one of the team to hurt Barney, leaving them critically injured. Barney’s new CIA handler, Drummer (Harrison Ford) is unhappy with the failed mission and reflecting on his injured friend and having to face Stonebanks again, Barney fires his team.

This does not go down well, especially with right hand man Lee Christmas (Statham). The four uninjured members struggle to come to terms with being out while Barney recruits Bonaparte (Kelsey Grammer) to build a new, younger team (Kellan Lutz, Victor Ortiz, Glen Powell and Ronda Rousey). Another prospective member is rejected when Bonaparte realizes it’s actually an older mercenary, Galgo (Antonio Banderas), who’s former team cut him loose and is eager to return to fighting, the one thing he can do.

The team are skilled in modern tech and fighting and Ross leads them after Stonebanks, however, the mission fails and the new recruits are captured. Stonebanks calls out Barney to come and get them, and he returns to the US to tool up, reluctantly agreeing to take on the talkative, enthusiastic Galgo. His former teammates arrive and volunteer to stand with him, and the six man crew head back to Stonebanks’ Eastern European base.

The rescue team

The rescue team

Meanwhile, Barney’s former rival Trench (Arnold Schwarzenegger) decides to go back them up, assisted by Yin (Jet Li), a former Expendable, and Drummer volunteers to come with them.

Can they save the younger crew or are they walking into a trap? Can Barney defeat a man who knows him so well?

I bet you can figure out the answer to those questions. But while this film may be predictable it still works as a hugely entertaining action film, and is probably the most fun of the three, and this is down to some of the new characters, particularly Antonio Banderas’ crazy Spanish soldier, who talks a mile a minute and manages to make the character entertainingly flamboyant but human underneath. His backstory is one you see coming, but there’s something wonderfully sweet about the way he acts around the others and he’s a breath of fresh air among the scowling action heroes.

Breath of fresh air- Banderas

Breath of fresh air- Banderas

Another good addition to the mix is Snipes, who is a charismatic on screen presence and has wonderful chemistry with Stallone and Statham. Statham and Snipes’ characters are rivals but there’s a bantering side to it all that I felt really worked.

Statham and Snipes work well as rivals

Statham and Snipes work well as rivals

It also helps that in Gibson the series has it’s best villain yet. Gibson’s trademark barely contained lunacy works masterfully here, he’s a more cynical, jaded and extreme version of Stallone’s character, less morally conflicted and with a nasty streak. He switches between demented swagger and icy, ruthless evil to great effect and he appears to have beefed up a bit meaning that the inevitable showdown with Stallone seems like an even match.

The young guns are good even if a tad underdeveloped, although it is nice to see a female join the ranks and MMA fighter Rousey does rather well, holding her own in the middle of all the testosterone and taking part in a fantastic fight scene. The only problem is it feels as though Lutz’s character was meant to build a relationship with Barney, but its never realized properly.

The young guns

The young guns

Ford is the weakest of the new additions, never really getting in the mix and Willis is written out in harsh style (“He’s no longer a problem”). Not given much to do Ford looks out of place and even among the older heroes seems past it, it doesn’t bode well for the new Star Wars flicks (assuming he survives past VII).

But it’s not all about the new faces, the major draw is still Stallone. I’ve always found him to be a likable on screen presence and here he’s near his action hero best, and the older he gets the more badass he looks. Stallone also manages to show some acting chops, with one scene after Stonebanks takes out his man standing out for me. It’s subtle, while flying the plane the camera closes in on his eyes there’s a shift from sadness to cold, steely resolve in his face.

Stallone plays Ross just right, we see the effect his chosen career weighs on him, his heroism and his fears, pushing his team away to save them and prepared to die in order to rescue the kids he’s got mixed up in a private vendetta with Stonebanks.

The other standout among the returning members is Statham, probably the cast member who’s career is strongest at the moment. He and Stallone share easy chemistry and their bantering, bickering interplay is one of the series’ strongest assets. Statham has less to do here, but its a typically solid, charismatic performance.

Crews, Couture and Lundgren continue to be underused, which is a shame, but in a cast this big inevitable, but all three do their jobs. Jet Li by this stage is just cameoing, and when he does show up barely does any kung fu fighting.

Arnie gets more screen time in this addition and seems to relish it, he and Sly work well together as friends/rivals and with his stubble and cigar chomping Arnie looks quite badass as he blasts his way through the final battle.

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Basically everyone does what they do, but if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. It’s great fun, especially for action fans and everyone seems to be enjoying themselves. The action might be rather bloodless, but it doesn’t stop the movie from being an immensely entertaining action flick, and with fresh blood added I suspect we haven’t seen the last of the Expendables, especially as there’s mention of the team containing up to twenty guys at one point (who’ll turn up in part four? Kurt Russell, Nicolas Cage, Ice T, Ice Cube, Samuel L Jackson, Chow Yun Fat? Just please, no Busta Rhymes)

Verdict: A solid and entertaining action movie which benefits from some new blood (particularly Gibson, Banderas and Snipes) but some of the cast get lost in the swelling ranks. Sly and Arnie fans will love it and there’s enough banter and gags to keep it ticking over. Best so far? Maybe. 7/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


JK Rowling

I kind of feel bad for JK Rowling.

JKR looking quite MILFy.

I know that sounds daft given she’s an insanely wealthy and successful author who’s created a much loved character which will will probably endure for generations, but in a way that in itself must be a bit tough.

Her new book, her first post-Potter effort, The Casual Vacancy, is out later this month and while it’ll no doubt be a financial success (her name alone will shift copies) it must still be daunting to be trying something different and attempting to move away from the franchise, almost like starting out as a writer all over again. She’ll be under a different kind of spotlight and its a totally different type of book, described as “blackly comic”. Will it work? Can she emerge as an adult writer or will she forever be the Harry Potter woman?

Let’s face it, she’s always going to be the Harry Potter woman.

The Casual Vacancy might turn out to be a phenomenal book, but Harry Potter was a phenomenon. For a whole generation of kids it was the best thing ever. Seriously, you know how people of a certain age make Star Wars references? That’s what the HP kids are going to be like in the future.

Those seven books were for many a gateway into reading for pleasure, and that’s to be applauded.

It’ll ensure that in the future JKR inspires the same affection that Roald Dahl does for people around my age.

And the fans love those books, they pour over them, look on Twitter or Tumblr and you’ll see just how many people are utterly devoted to the world of Harry Potter.

JKR handles the kid fans better than RD did, apparently he hated kids and was a nightmare when he gave talks at schools, but that may change. I feel bad for her because I suspect she’d actually quite like to go on and be a successful adults author, but like I said, it’ll be hard to shake off the Harry Potter fans and image. I only hope she doesn’t come to resent the thing that made her name. That she’ll come to loathe HP and the fact its what everyone keeps bringing up.

Kind of like how Harrison Ford is with Star Wars

But more than that I feel bad for her because, as I said, its almost like she’s starting out as a writer all over again, only one under immense media scrutiny. All her prior success means that her new book may as well come with a target on the cover as I’m sure many are eager to add JKR to the “build them up, tear them down” club.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.