Film review – Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Rian Johnson, 2017)

CONTAINS SPOILERS – ONLY READ AFTER WATCHING THE LAST JEDI

Well, it’s finally arrived. After an almost-two-year wait, we finally got to see what happens on Ahch-To immediately after the infamous closing sequence of The Force Awakens. The highly-anticipated interaction between Luke and Rey was anything but grandiose – Luke simply tosses the lightsaber over his shoulder and walks away.

This may not have been the first thing we see in the film, but it certainly set the tone. There are some serious plot developments going on here, but they’re always delivered with a smattering of humour. Indeed, The Last Jedi may be one of the best examples of a script being so well-written that the overarching plot’s many loopholes can be forgiven.

In many ways, the tone of the script is essential to ensure the entire spectrum of potential viewers stays on board. Those expecting to see the darkest of dark sides of the force will certainly be pleased – it gets very dark –  but there’s a lighthearted feel to this film that means no fan will feel alienated.

The basic plot is split into three threads, essentially focused around the three main new heroes introduced in The Force Awakens: Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega) and Poe (Oscar Isaac).

Rey is wrestling with the dark and light sides of the force – a development that clearly has ramifications for the future of the galaxy. She spends the early parts of her journey with Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), before taking off to see Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). Our heroine is a truly engaging character and Ridley is the perfect actor to take on the role, taking us on a journey to find out more about herself at the same pace as the viewers.

Elsewhere, Finn wakes up from the coma we left him in at the end of The Force Awakens, before a chance happening sees him forming a bond with resistance mechanic Rose Tico (newcomer Kelly Marie Tran), herself mourning the death of her resistance fighter sister.

Poe Dameron is busy on the main resistance fleet ship attempting tactical dogfight missions to attack the First Order, before attempting a rescue/escape plan with Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) and Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern).

If great films are remembered so for their show-stopping visual moments, then The Last Jedi delivers them in buckets. The dogfights are absolutely real, comprehensible and exhilarating, clearly showing the influence of the film ‘Twelve O’Clock High’, which director Rian Johnson cited as a key reference point. The final fight sequence on the salt land of Crait contrasts the crystalline white of the ground with the kicked-up red chalk as the fighter vehicles slice through them towards the enemy.

A surprising and memorable fight sees Rey and Kylo team up together to wonderful effect. It’s a sequence reminiscent of ‘Three Outlaw Samurai’, with very few cheat editing or confusing cuts. It’s delivered masterfully. There are two specific deaths that really caused some great whooping and fist-pump scenes at the midnight screening: one involving a lightsaber-in-the-head death for a Praetorian Guard, and one involving the brutal death of a major character.

The McGuffin for Finn and his new partner in crime Rose allows them to develop something of a romance. It’s a romance that remains almost entirely unkindled by the end of the film – allowing plenty of  scope to further develop or completely nix their relationship before episode IX. The cynic in me believes this will probably depend on how popular Rose is as a character.

It must be said that the whole story thread for this pair of characters is mainly pointless. There is a largely disappointing sequence on the casino planet of Canto Bight that serves the sole purpose of introducing DJ (Benicio Del Toro). It is framed in a world that is wholly reminiscent of Final Fantasy on a plot level – casino-based planets are common in most games in the franchise, with Chocobo races being a clear inspiration for the Fathier creatures being forced to race for entertainment on Canto Bight. It’s also fairly identical on a visual level, suffering from a common issue in present-day cinema where physical sets and props are lovingly built and filmed, only to be touched-up in post with some less-than-realistic CGI, making for a wholly underwhelming result (see Unkar Plutt in Episode VII for a further reference point).. Fortunately there was no need to reproduce an entire human character a la Peter Cushing in Rogue One, but the visuals are so important after the failings of the prequel trilogy and it’s almost unfathomable that this can still go wrong.

As a side note, there is a wonderful tracking shot whilst we’re on Canto Bight that felt like a tribute to 1927 silent film Wings, which can be seen below.

Unfortunately, this Finn-Rose sideplot always feels like an unwelcome distraction from the Rey-Kylo thread. We were left hanging for two years and so most of the build up has been about what happens next to Luke and Rey, who Rey’s parents are (nobody, it turns out), how her training will play out and how she’ll defeat Kylo Ren. It’s frustrating that we keep getting the rug pulled from under our feet with unwelcome distractions from what is emerging as the main plot, and contributes to a sagging middle act. Indeed, should this have been missing from the film entirely, there would have been little impact on the outcome.

Poe’s character gets many of the best lines for laughs, but there are also big visual gags from BB-8 and some friction between Chewbacca and the furry little creatures called porgs. These porgs are destined to be something of a Marmite character for the franchise – I’m still trying hard to warm to them.

All is forgiven by the final act. If anyone was left unconvinced at any point, the film gets firmly back on track with a lovingly-balanced reintroduction of Yoda as a force ghost. It was surprising but absolutely welcome. Frank Oz provides the voice and yes, it is a real puppet operated by real people. This is how it’s done Mr Lucas.

This kick-starts a long stretch towards the end that is entirely satisfying, exhilarating and feels like a genuinely fresh take n the franchise. It sets up the Resistance in a perilous predicament that gives J.J. Abrams a meaty starting point for the final installation of this trilogy.

It makes the failings pale into insignificance and provides a perfect ending to a not-quite perfect film.

The clocks are officially reset and I’m now on countdown again for the next instalment.

Advertisements

Film review – ការពារឧក្រិដ្ឋជន / Jailbreak (Jimmy Henderson, 2017)

Shot on a budget of just $260,000, Jimmy Henderson’s latest release ‘Jailbreak’ is an impressive and resourceful film that is far beyond the sum of its parts.

The film is set almost entirely in the Phak Kai Prison complex, where a small team of police officers are sent to deliver the notorious criminal Playboy (Savin Phillip) to his cells under the belief he is the leader of the notorious Butterfly Gang. Aware that he is going to reveal her true identity, real gang leader Madame Butterfly (Céline Tran) instigates a prison riot to attempt to capture and murder Playboy, which leaves our team of police – including Jean-Paul Ly, Dara Our and Tharoth Sam – to fight their way out of the prison complex and avoid being killed.

London-based stuntman and actor Jean-Paul Ly was on hand to introduce the film before its screening at the London Film Festival. He has an illustrious stunt career, recently working on Lucy, Doctor Strange and Now You See Me 2. His role in Jailbreak was two-fold. Not only did he star in the picture but he also trained all the stunt team involved. “There is no action film industry in Cambodia, which means that there is no stunt actor industry in Cambodia,” he said, recollecting the project. “I said ‘Where are all the stunt people?’ and (producer Loy Te) said ‘There’s nobody any, so you’ll have to train extras!’, which I thought was a joke but he was deadly serious.” They trained every weekend for sixteen hours and ended up with 80 extras all capable of performing in action films.

The results are incredible, especially considering the background to the production. The bokator fighting style, one of the oldest traditional fighting systems in Cambodia, features heavily in the action sequences.

Te and Henderson enlisted Cambodian MMA champion Tharoth Sam as the sole female police officer. She’s capable of holding her own in a fight and is also responsible for most of the best one-liners, using great comic timing to stop the all-male cast dragging the film back into the 1980s.

Céline Tran also appears in her first action film role, following a successful career in the pornographic film industry. She’s a great antagonist as Madame Butterfly and clearly has a lot of fun in the role, eventually getting a one-on-one fight with Sam towards the end of the film.

The Cambodian action film industry is, essentially, in its infancy. With films like this and Jimmy Henderson’s previous effort Hanuman leading the light, there is every chance that we’ll see an swell of quality films over the coming years that will help to grow the industry.

If they can do this for $260,000, we can only imagine what they could do with a Hollywood budget.

Film review – Flash Gordon (Mike Hodges, 1980)

Where’s he got that leotard from? Why doesn’t he just sleep with the alien girl? Why is he so dedicated to the earth girl when they’ve know each other ten minutes? Why did they do so many tracking shots?

If you’re sat there pondering any or all of these questions, then you may well have been watching Flash Gordon. Maybe, like me, you were on holiday with a VHS player and only a handful of of videos to play on it, of which 80% were James Bond.

On the face of it, this could have been a great film. There’s a classic comic book as the source. The cast is, for the most part, absolutely brilliant. Then there’s the unforgettable titular theme song by Queen.

Yes, it’s easy to be critical of it now. It’s almost 40 years old and time has not been kind to the flimsy costumes or the flimsier scenery. These are of the time and can partly be forgiven.

But there are things that you just can’t get past. Gilbert Taylor acted as cinematographer. This is a man who worked on Star Wars just three years prior. Between him, director Mike Hodges (Get Carter) and editor Malcolm Cooke there was a much more impressive final product to be had. Some clumsy edits reveal mistakes in actors’ takes, whilst tracking shots do little to hold the imagination when it seems a wider angle could have been taken.

The dialogue is intentionally camp but winds up feeling unintentionally humorous. This results in confusion over certain lines that may or may not have been intended as jokes. There’s an excruciating scene between Flash (Samuel J. Jones) and Princess Aura (Ornella Muti) that not only feels embarrassing but also fails to provide any motive for either character. In particular, our hero seems to have developed a sort of honour-bound dedication to Dale (Melody Anderson), a woman he had only met a couple of hours before and knows nothing about.

For campiness, it’s impossible to beat the American Football fight at the start of the film. Why, oh why…

Indeed, overall there is very little in the way of character development and the viewer is left to piece together the well-intended plot from what we are left with.

There are two types of film that become cult classics. Some are under-appreciated gems, or at least were when they were released (see Big Trouble In Little China, The ‘Burbs or Ferris Bueller’s Day Off). Others attain cult status because they flopped or were never that good in the first place (Tommy Wiseau’s The Room, or every film by Ed Wood). Unfortunately, Flash Gordon falls into the latter category.

It’s a real shame because my memory of the film was hazy but certainly positive. It is now somewhat tarnished, just like the VHS copy I watched. Fitting, really.

Film review – Wind River (Taylor Sheridan, 2017)

WARNING: This review contains moderate spoilers of a good film. Just go watch it. Then come back.

Taylor Sheridan’s first mainstream foray into directing comes in the form of Wind River, a low-budget film that makes good use of some astute casting to harness a subtle script to leave an impact way beyond the sum of its parts.

Part murder mystery, part western thriller, it plods along at a pace that, at times, risks feeling simply like a better-than-average TV investigation drama. Then, with a well-executed flashback as the introduction to the final act, the film turns into a classic western, complete with Mexican stand-off and the resulting bloodbath. It’s the payoff for a steady build-up that is well worth the wait.

The plot centres around an unsettling and mysterious opening sequence, where we follow professional huntsman Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) as he discovers the body of Natalie Hanson (Kelsey Chow) on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming, USA. Her body is frozen in the snow and there are clear signs of rape. She is without shoes. FBI agent Jane Banner is brought in to investigate, quickly forming an unlikely bond with Lambert to trace and track the truth.

Wyoming is the unorthodox setting for the story, captured beautifully by cinematographer Ben Richardson. Much of the film is set in mountainous terrain and the snow-covered land becomes integral to the plot. But as picturesque as the environment is, the bloody and violent story playing over the top trumps it.

Nick Cave and Warren Ellis team up again to provide a moody and fitting soundtrack, shadowing the film rather than becoming overbearing.

It’s a gritty conclusion to Sheridan’s trilogy – following Sicario and Hell Or High Water – and one that absolutely does its predecessors justice. It may not feel as brash and immediate as either film, but the three films feel like they are a strong body of work and wholly played out in the same universe. As a result, Taylor Sheridan is holding his own with both David Mackenzie and Denis Villeneuve – a sign he has the ability to keep delivering the goods.

Film review – Logan Lucky (Steven Soderbergh, 2017)

A well-chosen ensemble cast and a smattering of quick-witted humour makes ‘Logan Lucky’ an enjoyable ride as Steven Soderbergh returns to the heist genre that has served up some of the most-popular films of his career.

The film stars Channing Tatum and Adam Driver as the Logans, two brothers who are renowned for their lack of fortune as much as their lack of intelligence. After Jimmy (Tatum) gets laid off from his job at the Charlotte Motor Speedway track, he and brother Clyde (Driver) hatch a plan to perform a heist on the track during a race day. Enlisting Joe Bang (Daniel Craig) and his brothers Sam (Brian Gleeson) and Fish (Jack Quaid), the elaborate plot forms the centre piece for a smart cinematic sandwich that delivers more than it promises in the trailers.

The action on the speedway racing is kept to the minimum, which gives the racing much more appeal outside the southern areas of USA. When it does appear, it injects a bit of adrenaline without detracting from the focus of the story.

But it is the humour that really delivers the best moments for the film. Whether it’s the stupidity of the lesser-known Bang brothers, Craig unexpectedly being a great over-the-top comedian, or the slapstick visual gags involving prosthetic arms, it never fails to amuse.

It’s not all rosy. Seth MacFarlane’s performance as the pig-headed obnoxious businessman Max Chilblain does undo some of the hard work in other parts of the film. Perhaps it was hard to get past the woeful British accent, which may have been slightly off-kilter to create laughs, but it was too off-putting to set aside. I thought at times he might have been Australian. It’s frustrating when you know the man behind the moustache is one of the modern comedy greats.

Soderbergh’s previous heist films were famed for their great soundtracks but fans hoping for another great driving playlist will be sadly disappointed. For a quality soundtrack that accompanies a car-based action film, music fans will have to keep playing Baby Driver for a while longer yet.

Tatum plays the headstrong and world-weary lead excellently, but his comic abilities were almost completely untapped. I didn’t feel this was necessarily a bad thing. Soderbergh had a lot of character actors playing wildly outside their comfort zone in a manner that could have easily fallen flat. Here, it doesn’t. Adam Driver playing comedic straight man to a prosthetic arm? Yes please.

Logan Lucky won’t be as popular as Ocean’s Eleven but it doesn’t have the big money behind it to reach those peaks. Indeed, as of 21st August 2017 it is recorded as having the 25th worst opening weekend for a 3000+ cinema release film of all time.

If it fails to make its money back it will be a disaster that would tell you nothing about the quality of this picture.

Film review – Baby Driver (Edgar Wright, 2017)

There aren’t many moments in cinema where you start to watch the opening scene and an uncontrollable giddy smile engulfs your face, such is the joy of what is unfolding on the screen. It needs to be a brilliant idea, executed to perfection and in a language that speaks to you.

Baby Driver, Edgar Wright’s latest cinematic masterpiece, achieves just that. But the moment I knew it was a truly great film was when I realised the credits were rolling and my smile hadn’t left.

Oh, Baby!

The titular Baby is played by the young Ansel Elgort, who many will recognise as Caleb Prior from the Divergent film series. Baby is a young man who suffers with tinnitus, a whistling hum in the ear, which he got from an initially mysterious childhood incident. He works as a getaway driver for a heist masterminder named Doc (Kevin Spacey), who counts amongst his rotating team of goons a highly-strung Bats (Jamie Foxx), passionate love birds Buddy (John Hamm) and Darling (Eiza González), Griff (Jon Bernthal) and Eddy No-Nose (Flea). Lily James also stars as a waitress named Deborah.

To drown out the noise, Baby has a series of iPods to suit his moods. These are essentially soundtracking his life with a mixture of classic tunes that also serve as the soundtrack to the film, from Beck to Sam and Dave, The Commodores to The Damned.

It is these playlists that also serve as the film’s soundtrack, with sounds and visuals perfectly in sync with one another. For fans of music, and in particular soundtracks, Baby Driver is an absolute dream. The music is the backbone, catalyst and cherry on the icing, all at the same time. It’s a remarkable achievement.

If the opening sequence seems familiar, Wright used the same scenario in 2003 for the music video he directed for the track ‘Blue Song’ by Mint Royale. This hit the music airwaves mere months prior to his directorial breakthrough Shaun of the Dead, but watching it now you can see he probably had the idea for Baby Driver in his head as a starting point.

One of the best examples of how perfectly it works comes during the opening credits, when the first job has been completed and Baby goes to pick up some coffee from a shop near to their hideout. As Bob and Earl’s ‘Harlem Shuffle’ is played through his earbuds and the backdrop becomes subtly flourished with graffiti, shop names and visual signposts, it was clear that something special was unfolding before my eyes. That this was done as a one-shot makes it all the more beautiful.

The film goes far and beyond being just a glorified music video. The car chases are breathtaking from the get-go, and there’s no let up as the story progresses. They’re believable and easy to follow, with no cheap cuts to hide poor editing and hide continuity – something of an epidemic in cinema in the 21st century.

Many of the actors are a little out of their familiarity zones with their characters, but it’s obvious that the likes of John Hamm and Jamie Foxx are taking great pleasure in being allowed to indulge their acting abilities. Kevin Spacey may be on more familiar ground, but it doesn’t make for poor viewing in the slightest.

I think her name is Debra! Or Deborah…

There’s a great use of the song ‘Debra’ by Beck in a scene that cements Baby’s relationship with Lily James’s waitress. They’re both stuck in a rut and in need of a route out, so their inevitable desire to be together is an expected story arc. Only Edgar Wright would, at this point, think it was a good time to drop in a song about a man wanting to have a threesome with two sisters. It’s a hilariously sweet moment that comes just at the right time in the film, softening up the audience before the rollercoaster second half of the story.

The fact that Elgart spends the opening thirty minutes dressed in an outfit that is very reminiscent of Han Solo shouldn’t be overlooked either. Elgart came close to being cast in Disney’s upcoming problematic Han Solo standalone film, before being overlooked in favour of Alden Ehrenreich. It’s clear that the coolness of Harrison Ford’s character is something Wright was trying to remind the audience of. However, Wright recently denied the connection in a Twitter Q&A, saying that the similarity was purely coincidental.

Similar to Han Solo? Wright is denying any links.

I just can’t be effusive of the film enough. It’s something I could watch time and time again and I’m certain I’ll be getting enjoyment out of it for years to come.

Baby Driver could well be the greatest film of Wright’s illustrious career. If you’ve not been taking notice yet, now’s the time.