The titular post here is The Washington Post, one of America’s better newspapers. The main setting is of course Washington D.C., and the time is 1971. Following in the very fresh footsteps of the beleaguered New York Times, the Post’s editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) and publisher Katharine Grahame (Meryl Streep) are thinking of risking imprisonment by publishing extracts from the so-called Pentagon Papers. And that, essentially, is all this movie is about. The revelatory documents themselves show a pattern of lying by the government, particularly on the part of presidents and Secretaries of Defence and about the Vietnam War, which stretches back for decades. That level of mendacity is a big topic, but how people sought to reveal it is an appreciably smaller one, and the level of tedium is magnified by Steven Spielberg’s use of every cliche in the “publish and be damned” storybook.
The performances are OK here, and Meryl Streep is very good, but fine acting doesn’t take us very far when it’s in the service of a lamentably feeble script.
The Post is excruciatingly banal, trite, pompous and dull. Its dialogue is wooden and its style sentimental. Given that the (true) story is rather slight and its ending is – to anyone who knows their American history – predictable, it’s also too long. Imagine The West Wing minus all the wit and you’ve got something of the tone. Perhaps the whole thing is intended as a nostalgic sap to progressive and liberal-minded audiences in a time when, to use a line from Leonard Cohen, “Everybody knows that the good guys lost”. But judged solely as a film it’s abysmal.
Alarm bells may ring when you realise that the second film in the shiny new Star Wars trilogy is taking its cues, at least in part, from the second film in the original Holy Trinity. The Force Awakens may have been The Star Wars Film We had to Have in order to wash the foul taste of the Prequels out of our collective mouths, but repeating that cheap trick again would be a crashing disappointment – do we really need The Empire Strikes Back 2.0?
Luckily, we needn’t have worried. Writer and director Rian Johnson (Looper, Brick) takes familiar figures, archetypes and tropes and pushes them into uncharted territory, examining them, recontextualising them, finding new facets and, occasionally, hidden flaws. The result is a film that simultaneously feels familiar and new – the first “new” Star Wars film since Disney took the reins and clearly, judging by the fact that Johnson will be heading up his own discrete trilogy in the universe soon, the template going forward. And that’s a good thing.
But, in the broadest of strokes, The Empire Strikes Back: while nascent Jedi Rey (Daisy Ridley) trains on the distant planet Ahch-To with hermit Jedi Master Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), the Reb – sorry, Resistance is on the back foot (a bit of a leap considering the massive military victory that capped off TFA), on the run from Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson), wannabe Vader Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), and the First Order fleet.
From there, things get more complicated: with the First Order able to track the Resistance convoy’s every move, ex-stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) and new hero Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) must undertake a desperate mission to the luxury world of Canto Bight to find an agent who can help them give the bad guys the slip. Meanwhile, hot-headed X-Wing pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) has to contend with Resistance Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo (Laura Dern), who has no time for his recklessness, while he thinks her pragmatism is putting the entire Resistance at risk.
The Last Jedi delights in setting up and then subverting expectations. This is a Star Wars movie for a more complex age, and while the good guys and bad guys are still clearly demarcated, at a more granular level everything is a bit more blurred. Not every last-ditch desperate gambit works, not every scoundrel has a hidden heart of gold, not every stuffy officer is incompetent and, most importantly, not every aged Jedi is full of wisdom.
Indeed, what Johnson does with the Jedi is fascinating – old Luke has sequestered himself in some forgotten corner of the galaxy not to meditate, but to hide from the crushing guilt that he may be responsible for turning promising Jedi Padawan Ben Solo into the evil Kylo Ren. We’re used to reluctant heroes – here we have a reluctant mentor, fearful of training the naturally Force-talented Rey in case he makes the same error twice. Skywalker no longer sees any point in the existence of a Jedi Order at all – it seems Johnson is au fait with those fan theories about the arrogance of the Jedi – and in the context of this film, he may be right. Which is of no use to Rey, who simply wants someone to tell her what her place in the world is, and needs a wise mentor, not an old man filled with doubts.
That’s some dark territory, and arguably darker than the simple threat of the fascist First Order: it’s one thing to have the villains put a few runs on the board, it’s quite another to learn that the structures and assumptions on which we base our identities are shaky at best, and perhaps completely unstable. The Last Jedi questions the Light Side/Dark Side binary on which the Star Wars mythos is founded, and while we might wind up more or less where we might expect by the time the credits roll, narratively speaking, it leaves deep cracks in the firmament for later exploration.
We get plenty of adventure and action along the way, though. Exotic locales abound, from the aforementioned casino world of Caito Bight, which brings a little 007 flavour to the galaxy (and a missed opportunity for a pitch-perfect cameo, it must be said), to the salt flats of Crait, site of the climactic battle, fulfilling the Star Wars remit of taking us to places we’ve never seen and blowing up spaceships while we’re there.
The action sequences are top notch. Everyone likes to call Star Wars a space Western, but Johnson instead digs into the other two key stylistic influences on the trilogy – WWII films and Japanese chambara samurai movies, bookending Episode VIII with a bombing run straight out of Dambusters and a lightsaber duel that wears its Kurosawa debt on its flapping kimono sleeve.
All that mayhem is scaled up, too, in a concession to modern blockbuster sensibilities. Why have a Star Destroyer when you can have a Dreadnought? Why odds of a thousand to one when you can have a million? At times it stretches credulity, even for old Star Wars hands, but then this has never been a franchise with much debt to things like physics and probability.
But while there’s a lot of fun to be had, a somber pall overlays it all, to the point where some of the comedy beats fall flat in the overall context. This is a movie where the heroes are beaten within an inch of extinction, where the forces arrayed against them are monolithic, where the odds of victory are infinitesimal, and where terrible sacrifices are necessary to leverage those tiny odds. It is, ultimately, a film about hope in the face of overwhelming darkness – and rebellions, as someone once said, are built on hope.
Still, it’s only a glimmer of hope in this one – victory by the thinnest of margins, with the highest costs. The Last Jedi is an emotional wringer, and the film never lets us forget the human price that is paid in wartime – we’re perhaps all a bit too savvy than we were 30 years ago to think that casualties are bloodless. When we leave The Last Jedi, we’re in a much different and more difficult place than we were when we started, and while there’s definitely a path forward – of course there’s going to be an Episode IX – what that path might be is up for conjecture.
The Last Jedi is, to be clear, a great Star Wars film, one that honours the traditions of the franchise but boldly pushes the envelope in terms of thematic complexity and emotional tone. If this is indicative of the direction the core saga is taking going forward, we’re completely on board.
With nostalgia basically being its own industry nowadays, and the quest to find good video game movies proving less and less fruitful with each passing year, this film already feels like it’s climbing an uphill battle purely by existing. However, it seems that everyone involved was more than prepared for that challenge, and the results are genuinely surprising in a number of areas.
The acting is genuinely impressive. Our main four not only channel that sense of out-of-body wish fulfillment inherent to the premise, they actually come across like they are avatars controlled by teenagers. Whether it’s Dwayne Johnson marveling at how chiseled his own body is or a self-obsessed Valley Girl in the body of Jack Black, they all wield their status as fictional characters in-universe to great comedic effect. Same goes for Nick Jonas with a surprisingly solid performance, and Bobby Cannavale being genuinely intimidating as the main villain.
As an update to a kitschy ‘90s flick, the cavalcade of writers attached to this take an expected but highly effective route. Not only do they manage to explain the update from board game to video game in a quick but legible fashion, they also bring some real gamer knowledge to the proceedings. It maintains the basic framework of a video game, with levels, character abilities and objectives, and injects them into cinematic form in a remarkably smooth fashion. From the inclusion of cut scenes to puzzle-solving, even down to gags relating to the cast’s specific strengths and weaknesses, it feels like we’re watching a video game being played out… and yet, the urge to just leave the cinema and play the game for yourself never comes up.
This is because, along with effectively translating video game storytelling into a spectator-only medium, it also highlights what escapism is capable of. Escapist media (films, video games, novels, music, etc.) allows people to have experiences that would be near-impossible to have otherwise. It’s quite thrilling to watch action stars doing stunts while hanging off a helicopter, but most would be hesitant to try it for themselves. Things like character arcs and closure and growth aren’t things that likely to happen to someone over the course of only two hours. And yet, when you’re absorbed in a good piece of fiction, you get to have those experiences without risk of personal injury or embarrassment.
As our leads traverse through the jungle, we see how fantastical environments can be very effective teaching tools, allowing the characters the opportunity to bond and grow while acting out that fantasy. They are the audience, and we end up experiencing all the fun and drama and kitsch right alongside them.
This film manages to be insane amounts of fun and yet never feels like you need to switch off to enjoy it, boasting an incredible cast, a consistently funny script and very immersive visuals. Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle takes two difficult tasks (being a follow-up to a nostalgic ‘classic’ and a film set mainly within a video game) and pull them off so breezily that you start to wonder why so many others struggle with even one of them.
Set squarely in the middle of the decade that taste forgot (summer ’75 – ’76 based on repeated Jaws references), writer and director Stephan Elliott’s (The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert) quasi-memoir is a riot of garish clothes, fantastic plastic, rayon and Ray-Bans, all seen through the eyes of 14 year old budding filmmaker, Jeff (Atticus Robb). It’s frequently funny and anyone who spent any of their formative years in beachside ’70s suburbia is sure to have their sense memory triggered (the production design, by Fury Road Oscar winner Colin Gibson, is extraordinarily on point), but under the surface there’s not a lot going on.
Which is a shame, because out of the gate it comes across like a kind of amiable ocker Goodfellas, narrated by Richard Roxburgh as the now-adult Jeff, recalling how he spent his 14th summer running around with an 8mm camera, making weird little stunt/action movies with the neighbourhood kids, and also accidentally documenting the shenanigans of his parents (Guy Pearce, on form, and Kylie Minogue, wasted) and their neighbours, Jo and Rick Jones (Radha Mitchell and Julian McMahon), and Gale and Bob Marsh (Asher Keddie and Jeremy Sims), as they try to spice up their suburban existence with a spot of wife-swapping.
Naturally it all goes awkwardly wrong and leads to some bad blood in the cul de sac (it wouldn’t be much of a movie if they all discovered happiness in polyamory, would it?), but young Jeff has more immediate concerns: the 200 ton blue whale that’s beached itself on the local shore for one thing; his growing attraction to fellow teen Melly (Darcey Wilson), who is alienated by the middle class bacchanalia around her, for another.
Sadly, Jeff’s actual journey gets lost in the mix, with director Elliott becoming too enamoured of the film’s period aesthetic to maintain narrative or thematic focus. The social and sexual mores of the period get roundly mocked, but never examined in great detail – watching Swinging Safari, you get the sense that there was a somewhat darker and more complex story here, but it’s been elided away in service to the extant film’s brisk and brazen 96 minute running time. Interestingly, the film once went under the more oblique title Flammable Children, a reference to burn scars that both Jeff and Mellie bear, but this story element is largely reduced to a joke about synthetic fabrics.
It’s a problem that extends to every area of the film – intimacy and complexity are repeatedly sacrificed in favour of sight gags, knowing winks, and broadside parody. It’s all surface sheen, and we’re never allowed into the inner lives of any of the characters to any meaningful degree. Events happen, but are not reflected upon or contextualised. Characters are interchangeable, be they a rabble of kids running around the neighbourhood, or even the adults upon whose peccadilloes so much of the plot depends. Indeed, the three blowhard patriarchs of the story are so similar that Pearce, McMahon, and Sims could have swapped chunks of dialogue wholesale and nobody in the audience would be the wiser.
Swinging Safari is a fun enough time, to be sure, but jokes about knitwear, bad haircuts and fondue parties only get you so far. Ultimately, the film fails in its implicit aim to satirise, instead falling back on mere parody. What could have been a real deep dive into a period of uncertainty and change turns out to be just a sight-seeing tour, and that’s a wasted opportunity.
Wonder retains its number 1 spot whilst Daddy's Home 2 leapfrogs Justice League and Bad Moms 2 approaches $10mil, whilst the latest Jim Sheridan and Woody Allen movies are DOA, and good films such as Only the Brave, Goodbye Christopher Robin and The Man Who Invented Christmas flop; collectively proving that the majority of humankind will go to cinema hell.
The titular wound here is a particularly painful one, because the story revolves around a traditional initiation process which begins with circumcision. It takes place in a remote mountain location in South Africa, where a group of teenage boys is subjected to an ordeal which lasts for a couple of weeks and evidently involves a considerable amount of discomfort and distress. Most of what transpires is murkily or discreetly filmed, but the content is still occasionally confronting – including the mercifully brief scenes involving animal slaughter.
So much for the context. Despite its intermittently extreme content, The Wound is first and foremost a relationship story. Xolani (Nakhane Toure) is a warehouse worker from Johannesburg who himself once underwent the initiation process, but who now regularly returns to be a “caregiver” and instruct the latest participants about what supposedly constitutes being a man. In so doing, he gets to reunite with fellow caregiver Xija (Bongile Mantsai). Homosexuality is not accepted at the camp, so Xolani and Xija have to sneak away for their encounters. Meanwhile, Xolani’s latest charge Kwanda (Niza Jay) has his suspicions…
The Wound has its moments, but they’re pretty few and far between. There are quite a few echoes of Brokeback Mountain here. Both films involve closeted gay characters who leave the city for clandestine rural meetings with their male paramours. Both have at least one protagonist who is macho, in denial and emotionally withdrawn. The main difference is that Brokeback Mountain was a substantial movie, and this isn’t. It’s moderately interesting as a window on another world, and passable as drama, but no more than that.
Aspiring actor Greg Sestero (Dave Franco) suffers from a lack of confidence. His new friend Tommy Wiseau (James Franco, who also directs), a flamboyant eccentric of dubious origins, does not suffer from that issue, although he is hampered by a staggering deficit of talent and a strangled accent that he insists is from New Orleans. The two decamp from San Francisco to Los Angeles to try to make it as actors, but find tinseltown a tough nut to crack. Undeterred, Tommy resolves to write and direct his own movie, a melodrama in the mould of American classics like Death of a Salesman and A Streetcar Named Desire, a searing psychological passion play he will pour his heart and soul into.
That movie is The Room, now widely regarded as one of the worst movies ever made. Here’s the surprising thing about The Disaster Artist: it’s not mean. The cult that has gathered around Wiseau’s inept opus is a broad church, but for a lot of people the appeal is simply mockery – The Room is a singularly terrible work, failing on every conceivable technical and creative level, and it’s fun to laugh long and loud at this kind of unaware buffoonery.
However, working from Sestero’s memoir, director and star James Franco eschews the easy path and instead makes sure that we never forget the humanity of the people we’re pointing at. These are real folks with real aspirations, even though those dreams may exceed their grasp by a very long stretch. That includes the mercurial, often bizarre Wiseau, who remains a figure of mystery to this very day (although the documentary Room Full of Spoons, suppressed by court order, has a lot to say about Wiseau’s origins). We never get inside Wiseau’s head – good lord, imagine that! – but he remains a figure who elicits sympathy if not empathy. A lot of that is down to a fantastic performance by Franco, who leans into Wiseau’s outre mannerisms and tics – how could you not? – but still never forgets to imbue him with an inner life, even if that life might be completely unknowable to anyone outside his skin. Franco’s Wiseau approaches filmmaking like he approaches the world: with unfettered confidence and a seemingly alien set of axioms and assumptions. Asked whether he will shoot on digital or film, he boldly chose both, despite the technical impossibility that implies. Spying a big shot producer in a restaurant, Tommy just starts doing Streetcar at his tableside until security intervenes. An acting teacher (Bob Odenkirk, only one of a murderers’ row of cameos) tells the lank, scarecrow-like Wiseau that his shortcut to fame is to play monsters and villains, a la Lugosi or Karloff, but in Tommy’s mind he’s the romantic hero, and the world is at fault for not seeing that. He leaves everything out on the field in pursuit of his impossible dream – can we blame him?
It’d be an absolute tragedy if it wasn’t so funny, and yes, The Disaster Artist is straight up hilarious. Faithful fans of The Room will marvel at Franco’s nigh-perfect recreations (a side-by-side comparison crops up at the end to really drive it home) but even newcomers will be hard-pressed not to hoot at the goings on, with Wiseau’s antics anchored by the wry observations of crew members played by Seth Rogen and Paul Scheer, who act as a kind of jaded Greek chorus. Dave Franco’s Sestero gets fewer laughs, but functions as the heart of the movie: a modestly talented aspiring actor like countless others, both buoyed and hamstrung by his loyalty to the weird Wiseau. Sestero’s defining characteristic is that he’s a nice guy, endlessly supportive of his friends and loyal to a fault – a trait that ultimately sees him tied to the mast of the good ship Wiseau, come hell or high water. There’s a scene where Sestero shaves off his beard that, contextually, might be the saddest thing seen on screen this year this side of Lion.
Ultimately The Disaster Artist is about a friendship, albeit a strange and arguably damaging one. The received wisdom is to double feature it with The Room, which seems obvious, but Withnail & I might be a more thematically resonant running mate, detailing as it does a similarly cockeyed relationship (we’ll allow Ed Wood as well, obvious though it might be). In focusing on the emotional dynamics rather than the chaos, The Disaster Artist has managed a truly impressive feat of metatextuality: turning what was a one note joke into something much more nuanced and moving.
What makes a good family film? What are the ingredients necessary to make a picture that is fulfilling for both kids and adults? Well, whatever the specifics of the recipe, it seems that Paddington 2 has all of it in spades. Visually, director Paul King and director of photography Erik Wilson get terrifically creative, integrating illustrations, faux-pop-up books and of course reality-bending CGI work to craft the film’s world. The title character being generated through computers barely even registers – partly because the effects work is just that good, but also because a bear making sandwiches in a prison kitchen is nowhere near the most fanciful thing to be found here.
The cast, full of British talent that are either household names or rightly should be household names, imbue their characters with such vigour that everyone ends up leaving a pleasant impression by film’s end. Whether it’s Brendan Gleeson as a prison cook, Absolutely Fabulous star Joanna Lumley as a talent agent, or Hugh Grant giving the performance of a lifetime as a faded egotistical actor, everyone fits into the puzzle, to say nothing of Ben Whishaw as our favourite bear, giving his impossibly hopeful and optimistic character the right amount of sweetness and light to make this film’s ultimate purpose sink in.
Among many other things, the film medium is exceptionally good at imparting messages onto its audience. Everyone has at least one friend who is able to rattle off quotes from films and TV shows because that is how deeply ingrained media can become in people’s minds. The message that this particular film wants to impart is both incredibly simple and incredibly necessary: Be a good person. Throughout the film, between the hunt of lost treasure, the worries of losing loved ones and even time in jail, Paddington never lets the world get to him. Everywhere he goes, he spreads goodness and manners to everyone he meets, managing to brighten up even the cloudiest of mindsets. As the story carries on, we see that dedication to niceties returns to him tenfold, showing just how much impact being nice can have on others. It seems like such a simple thing and yet, with how fearful people are of difference, it’s apparent that we have managed to lose sight of it. But thankfully, Paddington is right here to give a warm and friendly reminder, with a marmalade sandwich in one hand and a toffee apple in the other.
A family film in the truest sense of the term, Paddington 2 contains so much joy, so much humour and so much sincere emotion that it is sure to delight all audiences. Not only that, it never betrays its own heart. Sweet without a hint of cynicism and silly without a drop of irony, it never tries to be more than it is. And because of that, it succeeds as a funny, emotional and altogether brilliant depiction of one of England’s most beloved childhood characters.