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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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Suburbicon

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In Suburbicon, director and co-writer Clooney and writers Joel and Ethan Coen, and Grant Heslov, set out to explore the underbelly of the titular late 1950s community. The suburbs have always been Gothic, the darkness behind (or below) the neat rows of houses was always there, hidden beneath the veneer. It lurks in Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist (1982), Joe Dante’s The ‘Burbs (1989), and even Desperate Housewives, (sorry, David Lynch’s Blue Velvet doesn’t qualify; its location is the small town, the darkness of Frank Booth et al is geographically ‘elsewhere’, likewise most movies adapted from Stephen King books).

Among the rows of neatly manicured lawns, small houses, and clean streets, life in Suburbicon appears straight forward. The 1950s suburb is beautifully evoked in the film’s art design and opening sequence. To its post-war boomer inhabitants the community feels safe and happy, everyone wrapped up warmly in their smug sense of themselves, talking to the postman and making custard pies. Until a black family, the Meyers (Leith M Burke and Karimah Westbrook), move in and the all-white suburb erupts into racism. In the house bordering the rear of the Meyers’, lives Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon), his wheelchair bound wife Nancy, her carer and twin-sister Margaret (Julianne Moore), and their son Nicky (Noah Jupe). But the veneer of this wholesome family is shattered one night when two robbers pay a visit.

These twin narratives are almost-linked through the vague friendship of each family’s sons, but ultimately the majority of the film focuses on the Lodges and a predicament that almost seems to echo the Coens’ more noir inspired works (watch out for the appearance of a VW Beetle, a nod to the brothers’ debut, Blood Simple). In part the story, which slips between uneasy comic tones and crime drama, echoes the brothers’ better thrillers – Suburbicon was apparently first written in 1986 immediately after Blood Simple – but it lacks the power of that work and the wry, witty intelligence of films such as Fargo.

While Clooney’s direction is efficient, the script lacks the necessary intensity, the cast – and Moore especially – deliver good performances, and as an ensemble piece the film is not without charm, but lacking the necessary narrative focus it becomes hard to care about the protagonists, and by the inevitable third act neither story climaxes with the necessary emotional power.

Suburbicon wants to say something about violence, about the darkness behind the twitching curtains, about the smiles that hide lies, about the fear of the outsider, about the motives that drive people, and about the undercurrent of the suburban dream of 1950s USA. But despite evoking the period through great design, the film just doesn’t live up to the sum of its parts.

Click here for nationwide movie times for Suburbicon

 

 
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The Promise

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The largely forgotten atrocities of the early 20th century Armenian Genocide form the backdrop of The Promise, Terry George’s operatic historical epic. Unfortunately, the rather rote human drama at the centre somewhat fails to engage.

It is 1915. Mikael (Oscar Isaac), the son of a village apothecary, travels to Constantinople to study medicine. There he befriends a fellow student, Emre (Marwan Kenzarie), the wealthy son of a Turkish official, and finds the possibility of romance with the Paris-educated Armenian girl, Ana, who is working as a governess for his uncle.

However, as Europe is plunged into war, anti-Armenian sentiment in the Ottoman Empire reaches fever pitch. Ana’s lover (and Mikael’s romantic rival), the American journalist Chris (Christian Bale), investigates rumours of Armenians being marched off their land by Turkish troops, and finds evidence of mass atrocities. Mikael and his family are rounded up during the ethnic purge and he is sent to a labour camp. The Armenian Genocide has begun.

Set against one of the great tragedies of modern history and boasting an excellent cast doing top notch work, The Promise is a sweeping, humanistic epic that attempts to put a face and context to the incredible atrocity that was the Armenian Genocide. However, for all that it is tackling an incredibly worthy subject, George’s film feels less than the sum of its parts.

Partly that’s because the human drama that pushes the narrative forward is nothing we haven’t seen before, and the uniformly excellent work by the cast (Isaac in particular) can’t do much to change that. But The Promise is also hampered by an overly (and, let’s face it) understandably reverent approach to the material at hand. We’re largely kept removed from directly experiencing the horrors of the Genocide as the film struggles, even at its generous running time to take us from the initial purges of April 24, 1915, to the Armenian resistance’s fighting retreat from Musagh Dagh, taking in a number of points in between. There’s a lot of plot jammed in, basically to ensure that the viewer gets a decent overview of the scale of the events. Essentially, the film’s work as a history lesson somewhat undermines its function as a drama.

There are small moments that speak volumes, though. For all that the love triangle is forefronted, it’s the relationship between Mikael and Emre that is the most interesting, as the latter risks his life to help his Armenian friend while being constrained by his position and ostensible privilege. Bale’s Chris is a character type we’ve seen before – the hard-drinking, morally forthright newsman – but it’s through his eyes that we see the ordinary heroism of people working against the Ottoman Empire, be it missionaries smuggling war orphans out of the country, or a sympathetic Turkish official protecting the Armenians under his administration. These little grace notes do more to drive home the reality of the situation than the main thrust of the narrative ever achieves.

Ultimately, The Promise is more admirable than enjoyable, but perhaps that was the intent. It’s a worthy film, but what frustrates is the sense that it’s only a couple of drafts away from being a really great one.