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Star Wars: The Last Jedi

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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.

Click here for nationwide movie times for Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi

 
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Logan Lucky

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What if Steven Soderbergh directed The Dukes of Hazzard? That thought exercise doesn’t map precisely onto the brisk, brash crime caper that is Logan Lucky, but it should give you a good idea of the tone of the thing, which sees the eponymous down-on-their-luck Logan siblings plotting to rob the home of NASCAR, North Carolina’s Charlotte Motor Speedway, during the biggest race of the year, the Coca-Cola 600.

So, it’s a heist movie, something Soderbergh knows a thing or two about, having called the shots on Ocean’s 11 through 13, not to mention the classic Elmore Leonard adaptation, Out of Sight. What sets it apart from his previous endeavours in the field are two things: the setting and the characters. For one thing, this is a flyover state piece of pulp fiction, set in the deep red states of backwoods America, not the coastal metropoles we’re used to seeing on the big screen. For another, our cast are, for the most part, not professional criminals, but down on their luck working class heroes who wouldn’t need a big score if there was any such thing as a steady job in modern America.

Our mastermind is former miner Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum), his football career killed by a bad knee, who needs the cash to keep seeing his daughter, who’s in the custody of his estranged wife (Katie Holmes). His brother, Clyde (Adam Driver), tends bar with his one good arm, having lost the left in Iraq. Sister Melly (Riley Keough), works in a downmarket beauty salon. They’re all underachievers, labouring under what Clyde thinks is a family curse – they’re all, as the title says, “Logan lucky”.

Bringing much needed criminal expertise to the exercise is Joe Bang, a safe cracker and explosives expert played by a peroxide-haired, tattooed Daniel Craig, clearly having a blast being free of the 007 yoke and oozing dangerous sexuality and down-home charm. Unfortunately, Bang is himself banged up at the time of the planned robbery, but that’s not much of an obstacle for the Logans, who are considerably more canny than anyone expects them to be.

What proceeds is a nimble, footloose sting on what is, as far as the world of the film is concerned, the beating heart of America – the home of NASCAR. It’s here that Soderbergh tips his hand a bit, briefly but unmistakably demonstrating a deep distrust of this element of American culture, with its flag-waving patriotism and militarism, its roaring engines and roaring crowds, its conspicuous consumption and crass commercialism. It’s a case of “hate the sin but love the sinner”, though, as Logan Lucky has ample affection for its cast of hangdog heroes. Imagine a Coen Brothers movie that actually liked its characters – to be fair, there have been a few – and you’re on the right track.

Ultimately, it’s all about the little people sticking it to the Man, but the film is smart enough to know that the Man is often clothed in the things we think we love: NASCAR, energy drinks, fried chicken, Jesus and Coca-Cola. That Soderbergh manages to revel in the spectacle of it all while giving us something to chew on is quite a feat. Those deeper themes never overwhelm the action, though; you’ll find no pontificating on the American condition here. Still, for a fast and funny crime flick, Logan Lucky has plenty of grunt under the hood.