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.

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Film review – Happy End (Michael Haneke, 2017)

Michael Haneke’s latest picture is a twisted look into the wealthiest ways of living in the north of France, as seen through the eyes of a dysfunctional family hell-bent on self-destruction. A mixture of humour and satire litters the script to create a solid effort that, despite its best efforts, fails to deliver the same impact as the most dedicated of Haneke fans would hope for.

The film opens with a slow series of voyeuristic shots through the camera phone of 13-year-old Eve Laurent (Fantine Harduin), transmitting through a social media platform that looks similar to Snapchat. We see her murder her pet hamster and then, in the final shot, we see her unconscious mother, whilst an overlay of text chat show young Eve admitting she has poisoned her.

In the next shot we see the CCTV footage of a construction site where a huge disaster occurs, critically injuring one of the employees. It is in the aftermath of these two opening gambits that the rest of the film hangs its developing intertwining plots.

We later find out that this workplace accident was due to negligence at the hands of site supervisor and alcoholic Pierre Laurent (Franz Rogowski), whilst firm owner Anne Laurent (Isabelle Huppert) is left to pick up the pieces and deal with an impending lawsuit. Eve is now living with this family in a large mansion in Calais, along with depressed grandfather Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant).

The ironically-titled Happy End is a good film, but not a great one. The cast is substantial and the dialogue is sharp, but somehow the plot doesn’t feel like it takes us on a journey with enough of the characters. It’s more of a satirical social commentary piece rather than a meaty piece of fiction, with too many of the characters used as fodder for the main characters.

Trintignant and Huppert reunite here with Haneke after the successes of 2012’s Amour, a film that won the Best Picture Academy Award and the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. It is clear why Haneke was so keen to work with them both again. They don’t share much screen time together, but with the former’s desire to end his life and the latter desperate to keep the dysfunctional family together and presentable, there is enough to go on to maintain the interest. With the addition of the young Harduin to the cast, this triangle of strength is enough to carry the film.

It could be argued that Toby Jones’s inclusion is on the cynical side. His role is very minor, though his prominence in the advertising campaign will undoubtedly have helped ticket sales in the UK, a place where his acting credentials need no introduction – least of all in the arthouse cinemas in which Happy End will play. If this is true, I don’t mind. It’s just smart advertising and a good way to carve out a niche in the market away from the impending Star Wars: The Last Jedi Release next week. For those of us who go to see more than the most mainstream of films, options and variety are required.

It feels unlikely that Happy End will repeat the award season successes enjoyed by many of his previous efforts, but it’s not without merit.

Film review – The Florida Project (Sean Baker, 2017

The moment lead character Halley, played by Bria Vinaite, has had enough of her landlord Bobby (the ever-brilliant Willem Dafoe) is a touch of genius. Her constant trouble-making, lack of responsibility for her own life and the conseqeut poor behaviour of her daughter has come to a head. Bobby counts to three, demanding she leaves his office. She relents, but as a parting shot removes the sanitary towel from her pants and slaps it on the glass window of the reception, punctuated by a flip of the middle finger in his direction.

It reveals a lot about her character. It’s one of the most disgusting visual moments of the cinematic year and (hopefully) goes far beyond the imagination of most viewers even on their worst of days.

That Bobby also shortly after is again protecting her from trouble beyond this action says a lot for his character too, presumably a reason Dafoe was attracted to the role. He delivers a typically nuanced performance. He’s rough and tough on the exterior, largely through necessity. Inside he is a man who clearly recognises the peril all his residents face – most are one missed payment away from homelessness and without any hope to get out of the predicament.

The film achieves what it aims to do, which is to shine a light on the horrific living conditions for many people living in Florida in the shadow of the self-proclaimed “happiest place on earth”. Disney World’s original work-in-progress name was The Florida Project, though here the name is repurposed to represent the social housing slums of America, all too familiar to so many of the nation’s population.

The film takes the form of a series of vignettes, each showing another layer to the life of Halley and her daughter Moonie (Brooklynn Prince). Prince is as brilliant as she is irritating, her idea of hyjinx ranging from spitting on her neighbour’s car to burning down a disused house.

The plot is laced with humour throughout, and there were certainly some huge laugh-out-loud moments. But for all the laughter, there was an element of sadness and horror to think about how real these situations are.

The result is effective, though the overall sum feels less than the parts. By the end of the film it felt like it was dragging, meandering towards a final set piece that didn’t really feel as triumphant as the filmmakers had hoped. It’s a film that I wanted to like more than I did, but I just couldn’t get behind the characters enough to really allow myself to enjoy the film.

It’s an interesting but disappointing watch that is more thought-provoking than it is entertaining.

Film review – Insyriated (Philippe van Leeuw, 2017)

Philippe Van Leeuw May have taken a cheap shot with the title of this film, but the shallowness starts and ends there. It’s an imperfect but nonetheless powerful film that takes a gripping story and frames it within the resonatingly-threatening streets of the modern-day war-torn Syrian capital Damascus.

Inspired by a real anecdotal stories of people living in Damascus, the action takes place entirely within the confines of a small flat over a 24-hour period. Inside the flat lives the matriarchal Oum Yazan (Hiyam Abbass), a mother trying to keep her family together, alive and safe through the ongoing battles. Lodger Halima (Diamand Bou Abboud) is planning to escape from Damascus with her husband Samir (Moustapha Al Kar)) and newborn baby.

The story starts in earnest when housemaid Delhani (Juliette Navis) witnesses a sniper shooting Samir, who collapses in plain sight of one of the windows. Confiding in Oum Yazan, the pair decide to keep the shooting a secret to help maintain the peace inside the besieged flat.

It’s a powerful story no doubt, but its strengths are heightened by some excellent performances by the three central female characters. It is essentially a cross-analysis of how far people go to maintain their own lives and the lives of those they love.

Of the three central roles, none are better delivered than the performance given by the relatively unknown Diamand Bou Abboud. It is certainly the most substantial of the roles: they are relatively outcasts in the group, she has a newborn baby and wants to protect it, but is new to motherhood. It is one late scene when there are two intruders in the house that serves as one of the most memorable and horrific of the year, proving that what we don’t see on screen can be far more powerful that what we do see. It is a heartbreaking and sickening moment in the woman’s life and challenges the viewer to decide what they’d do in her shoes or in those of her cohabiters. Abboud really proves her acting mettle here.

There is little in the way of musical accompaniment in the film, and the cinematography is tough to view critically due to the filming style and confined location. These facts don’t detract from the overall impact, which is more about telling a powerful story than wowing the audience with an elaborate production. As Van Leeuw states in his production notes for the film, “there are no tricks, no special effects, it is just a plain look at the drama of the situation.” [1]

Historically, Arabic-language films have limited appeal at the global box office. True, there have been a number of success stories in recent years (notably Naji Abu Nowar’s 2014 drama ‘Theeb’, which took $774,556 globally [2][3]), but it doesn’t appear as though Insyriated has bucked the trend. Its inevitably sluggish performance at the UK box office (£10,706 from 19 arthouse theatres [4]) means that the film will have to perform well on home streaming platforms in order to recoup the money. Fortunately it is available now through Curzon On Demand and iTunes for the same price as a cheap cinema ticket, along with the standard DVD releases.

It’s not an outstandingly brilliant film, but it is in turns moving, horrific, heartbreaking, shocking and thought-provoking. A solid achievement by the Belgian director and the strong cast. It deserves an audience and will hopefully get that over the coming months.

Notes:

[1] https://curzonblob.blob.core.windows.net/media/6010/insyriated-production-notes.pdf

[2] http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?page=intl&id=theeb.htm

[3] http://www.the-numbers.com/movie/Theeb/United-Kingdom#tab=summary

[4] http://www.the-numbers.com/movie/Insyriated-(Lebanon)#tab=summary

Film review – Thelma (Joachim Trier, 2017)

Supernatural horror ‘Thelma’ begins with an unforgettable opening scene. A girl called Thelma, no more than 7 years old, is hunting with her father Trond (Henrik Rafaelsen). The man allows her to walk ahead of him, entranced by the sight of a deer and the prospect of its impending doom. Trond instead points the gun at his daughter’s head, with a expressive face that reads as both fear and temptation.

It’s an arresting opening shot that is hard feel anything but intrigue for. Why was a man willing to kill his own daughter? What sort of emotional termoil are they both experiencing? It’s brilliant filmmaking.

It is followed up with a long shot of a pedestrianised square. The viewer is essentially challenged to a game of ‘Guess Who The Main Character Is’. Eventually, the slow pan begins, finally focusing on Eili Harboe, who portrays the titular Thelma, some ten years after the opening scene.

Director Joachim Trier, in these opening shots, is warning us what he is about to do with his film – drawing us in slowly and leaving us guessing until he, by design, reveals what we need to know, with maximum impact.

The square, we learn, is at the University of Oslo, where Thelma has just begun her studies. A deeply-religious girl who refrains from drinking, she struggles to settle in and make friends. However, when she has a seizure in the middle of the study area of a library, she is helped by a girl called Anja (Kaya Wilkins).

Becoming increasingly friendly with Anja, Thelma begins to express herself more, eventually becoming physically attracted to her. However, her journey of self exploration doesn’t stop at her growing lustful emotions for Anja and she begins to worry about the causes of her seizures and the dark secrets that lie behind them.

What Trier has achieved with this story is nothing short of remarkable.

It’s a visual wonder, full of memorable set-pieces that jump out of the screen and leave a lasting memory. A scene at the opera oozes with tension as Anja and Thelma search for each other’s hands in the safety of a dark public space. With the accompanying concerto raising the pace and increasing filling the auditorium with volumous classical music, Thelma begins to feel another seizure engulfing her mind. It’s a stressful thing to watch, and captures the threat she feels perfectly.

Harboe is the perfect casting for the title role. She has a naturally distant expression on her face that gives nothing away. It borders on cold, making her eventual emotional expressions feel genuinely surprising. When she finally kisses Anja, you can feel her blushing. She knows it goes against everything she has learned as a child and is scared and excited about her new discovery.

The flashbacks serve as a means to reveal to truth behind her story, what the seizures mean and the shocking reason her father was willing to murder her as a child. The make-up department has done a fantastic job of making these flashbacks believable, without trying too hard to make them look like the parents are caked in make-up – too often a failing of bigger-budget releases.

The culmination of the film hits like a crescendo, and Trier plays the audience perfectly with a balanced build up to the final pay-off.

This genuinely is an excellent film and one that should do well outside its home country. It has also been submitted as Norway’s nomination for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 90th Academy Awards, 11 years after Trier’s first feature film achieved the same accolade. Here’s hoping it goes one step further and makes the shortlist – it deserves to be seen by a wider audience and this will help ensure this happens.

Film review – Die Another Day (Lee Tamahori, 2002)

There is a scene two hours into Die Another Day. It takes a while to get to but it feels like the worthwhile pay off to the most patient of viewers. As Bond takes off a virtual reality headset we discover that the whole sexual fantasy had been in fact part of a simulation. Simple, effective, genuinely funny. That the Bond at the centre of the scene isn’t character James but actress Samantha portraying Miss Moneypenny is simply a stark and damning assessment of arguably the worst film in the franchise’s history.

Die Another Day, across the board, leaves a lot to be desired. The story feels messy and the dialogue makes it drag. Pierce Brosnan was never convincing as a womaniser, not in the charming way Sean Connery was that allowed the audience to both believe him and forgive him. It is a script laden with quips, come-ons and innuendo and I was left urging the women to slap him and ground the whole thing in some semblance of reality.

The technology is ridiculous even by Bond’s standards, with the inclusion of invisible Aston Martin the real calamity that lets the whole film down. The rhythm of the film makes this very much the centrepiece, utilised in the critical scenes right at the climax of the film in a pointless car chase and subsequent rescue mission. The wheels are revealed to have traction treads in them very late in the day, which would probably have saved the entire chase and… well the whole scene is very easy to get nitpicky about to be honest. I’m sure you’ll have as much fun as I did yelling at the screen.

The name’s Bad Guy. Unconvincing Bad Guy. – Image by © MGM/Corbis

The CGI just makes them all worse, though it reaches a trough when we see the destruction weapon called Icarus. This is clearly a matter of sheer terror that could cause the absolute destruction of entire countries, being that it focuses light from the sun and turns it into a giant flaming beam of light that rips through everything in its path. Director Lee Tamahori and the team at Eon Productions had 25 years to digest how George Lucas achieved this remarkable visual spectacle on a shoestring budget in 1977 for Star Wars, but yet they still managed to fail miserably in ripping it off here. You may also question why the icebergs don’t completely melt immediately when touched by the rays, or why the flaming beams stop instead of ripping through to the centre of the earth, or why nothing seems to be on fire. But hey, this is Bond. Am I right?

This also has the very worst Bond theme song of be lot, as well as the worst overall soundtrack that clumsily places modern tracks into scenes to miserable effect. Bond’s on his way to London? Throw in ‘London’s Calling’ by The Clash. That’ll do. It’s hard to escape Madonna’s terrible song too, running at the start and end of the film, sounding nothing like a Bond track, trying and failing to do something different with the well-trodden rules. In case you had managed to move on from it, Madonna pops up early in the film as a fencing teacher. She acts well but it’s a terrible scene that needlessly shows Bond struggling to keep up with someone to prove a point that he has a bit of rivalry with the film’s primary antagonist.

It is rarely so obvious that James Bond is punching above his weight. – Image by © MGM/Corbis

The whole Gustav Graves gene swap with Zao is very problematic for me. It is entirely pointless and seems superfluous to the script, borrowing heavily from Face/Off some five years after it had hit cinemas and proved that the follow-through doesn’t match the idea. Bond is a leading MI5 expert and the fact he didn’t have any suspicions at all is simply because the filmmakers made no attempt to leave any breadcrumbs for him nor the audience, making the Act 3 reveal a little hollow and a bit of a cheat. Could Graves perhaps have utilised some of the martial arts that had Bond struggling in an earlier fight sequence, given that he was actually Zao and an expert in martial arts. Instead he was portrayed as an expert in fencing, which is doable for sure but makes me begin to question the timeline for the switch.

Remarkably, there was a planned spin-off with Halle Berry reprising her role as Jinx, though this was canned following the lukewarm response to this film. Allegedly many of the plot points were reused for Casino Royale, which history has proven to be somewhat of a saviour of the franchise and a well-loved instalment for die-hard Bond fans and general film lovers. It’s a shame because Halle Berry clearly suited the role and was one of the few shining lights in a very poor film. It’s something that we’ll sadly never see now, with the franchise back on its own two feet and with no need of a spin-off to help maintain public interest.

Brosnan is, for me, not the worst Bond to have hit the silver screen. He was, by the end of his tenure, a Bond for the wrong era. As the Bourne series was launched, what cinema-goers wanted was exactly what Daniel Craig provided – roughness, realism and believability. He has proven himself over a four-film series and that is something that Brosnan, eventually, failed to do.

Film review – Lady Bird (Greta Gerwig, 2017)

In September 2003, I had reached my goal. Or so I thought. I spent 18 years building towards reaching university. I studied hard, behaved sensibly, stayed away from alcohol, achieved good grades, applied to a reputable university and chose a subject I knew would hold me in good stead for the future. I put the effort in and the hard work paid off. I was there, wherever “there” was.

I should have felt a distinct sense of achievement, but instead I stood there as my parents drove away, face in hands, sobbing my eyes out. Suddenly I was alone with nobody to turn to. Everything I’d done before, all the friends I’d made, all the information I’d been taught, right in that moment, meant nothing.

My university years were ahead of me, or a romanticised version of them. A chapter in my life was firmly shutting behind me as the next chapter started. It was, it must be said, one of the fearful moments of my life.

It was my memory of that moment, strangely seen through my parents’ eyes rather than my own – a trick of the mind I often play on myself when remembering my own memories – that flashed through me at some point near the start of the film ‘Lady Bird’, Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut. It’s a powerful piece of cinema that awakens such stark memories, but that is exactly what it did.

‘Lady Bird’ a small story about a girl in Sacramento, California. That person is Christine “Lady Bird” MacPherson (Saoirse Ronan) , a girl we are introduced to in an emotional rollercoaster of an opening sequence in a car journey with her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf), which spirals down from a joyous reflection of an audiobook cassette of ‘The Grapes of Wrath’. Before long the pair are engaged in a wholesome argument unique to parents with teenage children, before Lady Bird finds a novel way to end the discussion with shocking and hilarious consequences.

The film serves as an exploration of a girl coming of age, fitting in, not fitting in, hoping to go to college in New York and dealing with the relationships and life surrounding her. It is, simply, a snapshot of a girl at a critical point in her life.

There is are many secondary relationships that help further explore the character of Lady Bird at a critical time of her life. Her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein) encourages her to join a theatre group, where she meets her first teenage love obsession Danny (Lucas Hedges). The scenes set in this plot strand provide some fantastic early laughs, though Danny’s story arc is one that allows Hedges to deliver a really beautiful characterisation when the story could have settled for a much lesser throwaway love interest. Indeed, the relationship between Ronan and Hedges shares a certain understated chemistry that is brought to fruition in one of the film’s most powerful scenes during an encounter behind a coffee shop. It’s a real showstopper.

The plot is brought to life with some extremely snappy dialogue that provides genuine laughs throughout. Greta Gerwig has had a mixed bag of output throughout her career, beginning with a strong association with the mumble core movement and an early success with ‘Frances Ha’. Whilst both Mistress AmericaandWiener-Dog’ had some drawbacks, her role in 20th Century Women in 2016 was a real high point in a career that had been under close scrutiny since her early success. She has grown into an actor, writer and director of real credentials, and ‘Lady Bird’ feels like the ultimate realisation of her talents.

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It is a love letter to the city of Sacramento, with Gerwig inevitably drawing on her own experiences and relationship to the city to create plot points. She herself grew up in the city and moved to New York to study at university. One can’t help but feel that Lady Bird’s quick switch of home city from Sacramento to San Francisco was a line Gerwig has used many times herself, partly to enhance her exoticism and partly to make explaining it much easier.

Stylistically, the costumes, sounds and stylisation of the film managed to achieve a sense of nostalgia for 2003, which can’t have been easy given that it feels so recent. As a house party scene begins and we hear Justin Timberlake’s ‘Cry Me A River over the sound system there is a real feeling that they were getting it right.

‘Lady Bird’ is. simply, a joy to watch. From start to finish the balance between humorous dialogue and well-paced plot progression is very fine indeed. The result puts it as a frontrunner for awards season next year.

‘Lady Bird’ will reach UK cinemas on 29th December 2017.