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Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Review, Theatrical, This Week 2 Comments

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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Brigsby Bear

Review, Theatrical, This Week 1 Comment

Growing up in a sealed habitat with his parents, Ted (Mark Hamill) and April (Jane Adams), James’ (Kyle Mooney) only connection with the wider world is the children’s television show, Brigsby Bear, which is still in production in their presumably post-apocalyptic world. A pseudo-Sid and Marty Krofft affair with talking animals, psychedelic production design, and a sprawling and intricate internal mythology, Brigsby Bear is the font from which all of James’ education flows, and he is an obsessive fan of the show.

Unfortunately, it’s not real. None of it is, as James learns to his dismay and confusion when the police raid their remote compound. James was kidnapped as a baby and raised in isolation, completely cut off from the real world for reasons which are never fully explored, and the show was manufactured by his faux-father as a kind of experimental teaching aid. James is returned to his real parents, Greg (Martin Walsh) and Louise (Michaela Watkins), and meets his teenage sister, Aubrey (Ryan Simpkins) for the first time, but reintegrating into the real world is fraught with difficulty.

James is in his 20s, by the way, which makes this a lot less cute than it might come across at first taste.

The central conceit here is “man-child obsessed with retro pop culture touches the hearts of friends and family”, which is a pretty well worn trope by this stage of the game, but rarely has it been done so mawkishly and insincerely. In a time when grown men are having heated online arguments about female Ghostbusters and fervently hoping for a Masters of the Universe movie that “gets it right,” do we really need a feature-length screed in defence of the infantilisiation of pop culture and the magic of fannish obsession?

That is, at the end of the day, what Brigsby Bear is, and while early in the piece there’s an intriguing tension between James’ singular, Brigsby-centric worldview and the complexities of the suburban life he is thrust into, it gradually becomes clear that the film is firmly in James’ corner: everything would be better if everyone just saw the world how he sees it, and helped him do whatever he wants to do, which is make a feature-length Brigsby Bear movie to finish off the show’s long-running storyline. James’ obsession stops being a handicap and becomes the mechanism by which he gains acceptance and friendship, teaming up with local budding auteur Spencer (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.) to shoot the thing, and even enlisting local cop Detective Vogel (Greg Kinnear) to his cause, who not only acts in the movie but steals props from the evidence locker (all the Brigsby ephemera is, of course, evidence in the kidnapping case).

The film barely spares a thought for Greg and Louise, obviously tortured by James’ crippling case of arrested development and trying desperately to create a space where they can communicate meaningfully with him, but in this world that means doing what James wants and helping him make his movie. Everything improves when people fall in line. The idea that just maybe James’ poor socialisation and infantile fixation are real problems is barely given lip service; it’s the world that must change to accommodate James, not the other way around – ultimately, our protagonist learns almost nothing, making our main dramatic arc more of a flat plane.

There are strong performances here – Kinnear, Hamill, and Lendeborg stand out – and if you’re burdened with an utterly uncritical appreciation of whimsy or unearned sentimentality, then those buttons are going to get pushed good and hard. That doesn’t change the fact that Brigsby Bear is an empty exercise, a twee celebration of immaturity, and no amount of retro posturing can disguise the hollow solipsism at its core.

Click here for nationwide movie times for Brigsby Bear