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.

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 – While We’re Young (Noah Baumbach, 2015)

While We’re Young is the latest film from Noah Baumbach, following the recent critical successes of 2010’s Greenberg and 2012’s Frances Ha. The film stars Ben Stiller as established documentary filmmaker Josh, now struggling to find the inspiration and money to finish his current project, and Adam Driver as young aspiring documentary filmmaker Darby, who seemingly hits on endless streams of ideas without much effort. Naomi Watts and Amanda Seyfried also star as Josh’s wife Cornelia and Darby’s wife Jamie, respectively, though the men take centre-stage as the focal point of the slow-reveal story.

This is an excellent film with an intelligent theme. As is often the case with films about filmmaking, the central characters are extremely rich in backstory and well-realised. Ben Stiller himself is an actor, director, producer and writer (his last feature as director being 2013’s admirable The Secret Life of Walter Mitty) and I’m sure he drew on his experiences to add depth to his character. He brilliantly paints the frustrated picture of a man desperate to stay true to the values of filmmaking whilst at the same time reacting in disbelief that nobody else wants to follow that same journey with him. It’s yet another example of Stiller at the top of his game and it’s a shame that the box office receipts for his more serious roles are inevitably dwarfed by those of, for example, the Night at the Museum franchise.

Naomi Watts and Ben Stiller co-star in While We're Young

Naomi Watts and Ben Stiller co-star in While We’re Young.

Both couples give the impression of aspiring to live out of their own time and the emotional plot devices are driven by the fact that the elder couple is far less comfortable trying to fit in with the younger generations than vice-versa. For Darby and Jamie, attempting to remember a morsel of information they’d forgotten is the source of great fun; they are determined to avoid becoming reliant on modern technology when it is to the detriment of thought-provoking discussion. Conversely, Josh and Cornelia are much quicker to jump onto their tablet device to find their answers as they would rather find the solution as quickly as possible. This was initially a clever role-reversal to aide character development, though it becomes a key part of the plot further down the line (and one which I won’t go into here).

One of my favourite aspects of the film is the excellent soundtrack. James Murphy (of LCD Soundsystem fame) provides the original score and has compiled a playlist of original songs, including Paul McCartney and Wings, David Bowie and Haim. The song choices mix the old and new in a way that underlines how little the musical landscape has changed, but it also serves to reflect the dovetailed lives of our four main characters. The songs sit side-by-side with one-another and the particular choices are all artists that would be deemed fashionable by the Topshop generation, either in a serious or ironic way.

It is a critical time in Adam Driver’s career. Regardless of whether the upcoming Star Wars films are successes or flops, it is inevitable that the careers of the main stars will be defined for the foreseeable future by such a massive franchise. Both Driver and his co-star Oscar Isaac have been rapidly adding to a varied list of assured performances in the last year or two, though less has been happening with John Boyega and Daisy Ridley, who are being touted as the main stars. This could potentially be seen as a risky strategy. Driver can be happy that he can add this excellent performance alongside his roles in Lincoln and Inside Llewyn Davis as prime examples of his acting ability. Oscar Isaac is already well-established with plenty of huge roles under his belt. Time will probably prove that this was a wise move for their post-Star Wars careers.

This film is highly recommended and should be sought out if you get the chance. You simply can’t argue with such an intelligent script, especially when it’s delivered in a package like this.

While We’re Young is on general release at cinemas in the UK now.