Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Cast: Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Andy Serkis, Lupita Nyong’o, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Gwendoline Christie, Kelly Marie Tran, Laura Dern, Benicio del Toro

Director: Rian Johnson

Writer: Rian Johnson


The reception The Last Jedi has proven to be rather divisive, perhaps more so than even the prequels, and I must confess that I myself wasn’t sure what to make of it at first. In that kind of situation I think it is important to consider what exactly it is you expect of a film such as this going in. With The Force Awakens for example, with the prequel PTSD still making itself felt, I went in hoping to see a movie that looked, sounded, and felt like the Star Wars I loved as a child. If that meant playing it safe and recycling plot points from the previous movies then so be it because I walked out feeling elated in the way that only Star Wars can make me feel. This time, with my child-like faith now restored, I hoped to see a movie that would take more risks and would take the franchise in new directions. The Last Jedi did exactly that and it caught me completely off guard the first time I saw it. On the second viewing I loved it more than I loved The Force Awakens.

The film picks up immediately after Episode VII with what’s left of the Resistance, led by General Leia Organa (the dearly departed Carrie Fisher), fleeing the First Order. A counter-attack by Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) allows them a chance to escape, but Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) and his fleet remain relentlessly hot on their trail. After an attack led (but not executed) by Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) leaves his mother incapacitated, Leia’s command is assumed by Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern). Disapproving of her inactive strategy Poe, Finn (John Boyega), mechanic Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), and BB-8 concoct a plan to disable the device that allows the First Order to track their fleet through light speed. Meanwhile Rey (Daisy Ridley), having arrived on Ahch-To with Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) and R2D2 in search of Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), find him living there in a self-imposed exile, disillusioned by his own failures and with the teachings of the Jedi. It falls onto her to inspire Luke to complete her training and to help them save the Resistance from the wrath of Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) and the First Order before it’s too late.

Making a great sequel is a tricky thing, especially with an iconic property like Star Wars. It’s a matter of making things feel old and new at the same time; giving the audience what they want and also what they didn’t know they wanted. The Force Awakens did this by reviving a familiar story while throwing in new, compelling, likeable characters. The Last Jedi does this in a more challenging but ultimately more rewarding way. It harkens back to the past, sometimes nostalgically, sometimes humorously, and sometimes unsentimentally, and provides arcs for the characters that parallel what we’ve seen in the original trilogy, but it also builds on the new elements that were introduced in the prior instalment and allows the torch to be passed into the hands that promise to lead the franchise into an unfamiliar but promising future. The movie tackles themes of legacy and questions whether the past is something that we should allow to shape us and define us or if it is something that should be rejected so we may be allowed to decide our own futures. The answer, the film shows us, is somewhere in the middle and it is fascinating to see how the it gets there.

This is evident in Rey’s anguish over not knowing who her parents are and not knowing her place in the galaxy and in Kylo’s agony over destroying those for whom he cares in order to forge his own destiny, two arcs we get to see mirror each other wonderfully in the telepathic conversations they share. Both feel broken and lost and they find within each other the potential to overcome their past traumas and build a greater future for themselves (for light and for dark). Luke meanwhile, having already grown from a young and naïve dreamer to a learned and capable warrior, is now old, cynical and haunted by his past in a way that Rey can recognise but barely begin to understand. Hamill delivers one of the greatest performances in the epic saga’s decades-long history as a Luke who failed to live up to the promises of Return of the Jedi and has spent the years since punishing himself for it. The fulfilment of his arc at the end is moving and profound in a way that only a story told over several years with a reflective, poetic sense of theme and character can possibly be.

The film demonstrates far more interest in telling the story it wants to tell rather than playing to audience’s expectations (not least of which is its complete and total indifference for fan theories), and that can be understandably unfulfilling and even alienating for fans who deeply love this franchise and its characters. Those who love the hopeful ending to Return of the Jedi and the state of redemption and enlightenment that Luke is able to reach after all he’s been through might not be able to reconcile themselves with this disheartened, pessimistic Luke whose triumphs were defeated by his own failures. But if we truly want Star Wars to continue and evolve as a franchise, we must necessarily open ourselves to ideas and directions that go against our expectations, whether or not we ultimately agree with and embrace the road taken. Personally, I found the direction taken by The Last Jedi to be not only great but also true to the spirit of the franchise and to the characters in it.

The debate over whether The Last Jedi is the best or worst movie in the Star Wars canon is one that will continue to rage many, many years after we’re all dead, buried, and forgotten, but everyone can surely agree that this is the most visually stunning Star Wars movie ever crafted. The set-pieces we see such as Snoke’s throne room, dominated by a shade of red so dreadful and sinister it could’ve been lifted straight out of a Roger Corman film, or the climatic battle on the salt planet, where the white surface is brushed aside to reveal an under-layer of crimson, almost as if the planet itself were bleeding, are masterpieces of colour and composition. Another visual highlight involves a starship going into hyperspace in a way that is as blindingly striking as it is emotionally powerful (and it involves a character we only just met!). Johnson, in my eyes, has secured this movie’s position as the best directed Star Wars movie in the series not just for his inspired visual realisation but for how he handles the story as well. Using the lessons he presumably learned from his tenure on Breaking Bad, he unravels the story with the confidence of a director who trusts that the different plot threads will come together and that everything that has been set up will come through, even when it appears the movie has seemingly miscalculated and leads us down a worrisome path. It all pays off in the end and is all the more powerful for having been doubted by us in the first place.

There are imperfections, as there always have been with Star Wars. The quest undertaken by Finn and Rose feels like more of an aside than it does a major part of the plot (even if it does ultimately get them where they need to be by the time we reach the climax), there is an early scene involving Leia that I’m still not sure how to feel about considering her untimely death, and the resolution to the conflict between Poe and Holdo doesn’t really make much sense. However, after the film’s marvellous work of character development done with Rey, Kylo and Luke, the bold story, the stupendous action, the sharp sense of humour, and all the emotionally overwhelming moments that follow, I’d have been willing to forgive a lot more. This is a movie that fulfils the promise of taking this universe into uncharted waters, expanding on the mythology in unprecedented ways, and bringing a beloved chapter of this franchise to a satisfying close so that we might follow it into a promising and exciting future. It is also an enormously thrilling, funny, moving film that delivers all a Star Wars fan could possibly want and more. As I beheld the image of a sunset that recalled Luke’s last night on Tatooine before the start of his great adventure, I felt that same sense of wonder, sensation and awe that makes Star Wars so special.

★★★★★

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Suburbicon

Cast: Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, Noah Jupe, Oscar Isaac

Director: George Clooney

Writers: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, George Clooney, Grant Heslov


Cinema is an art and the films that get made are inherently reflective of ourselves and the world we live in, which is why movies cannot help but be political and social constructs. Whether it’s done actively or passively, all movies are affected by the societies that shaped them and are indicative of the principles and values of their own time and place, whether it’s confirmation, opposition, indifference or ignorance. This applies whether it’s done well or badly and that brings me to Suburbicon. Clooney has been one of the most actively political American actors and directors of recent years and he has been successful in conveying his liberal beliefs in films such as Good Night, and Good Luck and The Ides of March. Here he tackles the difficult but important subject of race politics, a topic that has never seen much prominence in his filmography. Although I believe his intentions were honest and sincere, Clooney’s handling of the subject is problematic (to say the least).

Set in the 1950s, the film takes place in Suburbicon, a rural neighbourhood with a ‘diverse’ range of white residents. This peaceful community however is shaken up by the arrival of an African-American family who, despite being perfectly pleasant and agreeable people, are received with nothing but harassment, abuse, and scorn. So focused is everyone on their outrage against the Mayers family that nobody notices the dark dealings of the house adjacent to it, that of mild-mannered family man Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon). His house is broken into by two robbers, Sloan (Glenn Fleshler) and Louis (Alex Hassell), and he is taken captive along with his wife Rose (Julianne Moore) and son Nicky (Noah Jupe). Rose subsequently dies from an overdose of chloroform and so her twin sister Margaret (also Moore) steps in to help Gardner and Nicky rebuild their lives. Nicky however suspects that something strange is going on as his father and aunt start being suspiciously in the aftermath of the attack. His sentiments are shared by Bud Cooper (Oscar Isaac), the insurance agent brought in to investigate their case. As the case becomes more complicated and messy, so does the conduct of the white supremacists terrorising the Mayers become more aggressive.

What we essentially have here are two parallel narratives which work neither as parallels nor as narratives. The intention, I imagine, is to put a spotlight on the twisted and evil deeds of white people that go unnoticed because everyone else is looking in the wrong direction due to blinding racial anger. That would be fine if Clooney was prepared to completely invest the film into the characters of the Mayers family and fully explore their plight, but he fails to do so. We never learn the first names of Mr. (Leith Burke) or Mrs. Mayer (Karimah Westbrook) and the film never illustrates their discernable personalities or inner lives to us. They are there to serve as symbols of the African-American community in Clooney’s satire of 1950s racism. By taking this approach there is an implication that this kind of behaviour is a thing of the past, that it isn’t still going on in Charlottesville and other similar places. That may not have necessarily been Clooney’s intention, but by portraying these events by way of parody and depicting the effects on the black family not through their own eyes but rather the eyes of the white main characters, I cannot help but find the movie’s treatment of racism to be outdated.

The other narrative, which Clooney adapted from an abandoned Coen Brothers screenplay, concerns Nicky and the increasingly precarious situation growing in his house. Clooney, despite being a frequent collaborator of the Coens, proves unequal to the task of replicating their unique black noir tone and has instead made a movie that is neither funny enough nor dramatic enough to make the material work. There is no energy in his direction or in Damon’s and Moore’s performances, and so the story unfolds at a steadily stale and stolid pace. Gardner and Margaret are both extremely unpleasant people, as is often the case with the Coen Brothers’ characters, but neither the director nor the actors can bring enough humour, appeal or life to make them at all enjoyable, relatable or memorable. Isaac does better as a shrewd investigator with an uncanny nose for bullshit, but not enough to save the film.

The movie is earnest and well-intentioned, but that just isn’t enough in 2017. This movie takes the real-life story of an African-American family who suffered the horrid persecution of white America and trivialises it. The event is distanced from the audience as a laughable relic of the past, it plays second fiddle to a far less interesting story, and its effects are felt not by the victims but by the white family next door. This kind of movie is patronising for black viewers and undemanding for white viewers. If a white filmmaker wants to take on the weighty subjects of racism, hypocrisy and white privilege, it’s not enough for them to acknowledge that they (white people) understand that these things exist, especially when the movie in question is the product of an industry historically and overwhelmingly dominated by white men. Movies like this need and demand to be more challenging, more inspired and more truthful. Suburbicon is the product of a filmmaker who either didn’t know or couldn’t decide what story he was trying to tell and it falls far too short of whatever good intentions he may have had.

★★

X-Men: Apocalypse

Cast: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Oscar Isaac, Nicholas Hoult, Rose Byrne, Tye Sheridan, Sophie Turner, Oliva Munn, Lucas Till

Director: Bryan Singer

Writer: Simon Kinberg


As much as I’ve enjoyed some of the movies in the X-Men franchise (First Class being my personal favourite), I don’t think the film series has been realised as fully as it could be. When watching the cartoon and reading the comics what appealed to me about the X-Men was how they worked as a collective. The best parts were always when they’d charge into a situation together as a team and would then display their diverse powers, working with and off each other. So far there hasn’t really been a movie where we’ve had the X-Men charge together into a skirmish and then just had them be the X-Men. In ­X-Men the team is pretty much just there to back up Wolverine. In X2 the characters are separated and a couple of them get knocked out. Days of Future Past was a lot of fun because we actually got to see some of the minor characters like Quicksilver, Iceman and Colossus show off their powers in new and creative ways. Therefore, with Apocalypse bringing back some familiar characters from the earlier films, it was my hope that this might be the ­X-Men movie that I’d been waiting for.

Taking place 10 years after Days of Future Past (in a universe where every mutant presumably possesses the Wolverine gene that stops them from aging) Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) is now the headmaster of a flourishing academy for young mutants. His newest student Scott Summers (Tye Sheridan) arrives to learn how to control his heat vision and there meets the telepathic and telekinetic Jean Grey (Sophie Turner). Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) meanwhile is working covertly to save mutants but refuses to become the heroic symbol that the young mutants proclaim her to be. Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) has gone into hiding in Poland where he lives with his wife and daughter. His peaceful and contented life is tragically destroyed, leading him to seek vengeance once again. He finds his chance for revenge in Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac), an ancient and powerful mutant who has recently woken up after centuries of hibernation. He recruits Magneto as one of his four horsemen in his mission to scourge the Earth of the plague that is humanity.

The biggest problem with X-Men: Apocalypse is simple: it’s more of the same. We learn about Magneto’s tragic backstory again. Professor X gets kidnapped again. The X-Men travel to Alkali Lake again. On top of that we have a generic bad guy with an apocalyptic plan backed by a vague motivation, some forced fan service and a failure to use some of these characters the way they should be used. While watching the climatic battle I found myself comparing it to the airport scene in Captain America: Civil War. Those characters all had their reasons for being there that the film took the time to establish and the scene actually had some fun with their differing abilities, playing them with and against each other. Here the film sort of pushes its characters into the climatic setting and then has them use their powers in the most straightforward, routine way possible. There are some great moments in there like the Quicksilver scene and the Wolverine cameo (which isn’t the spoiler that it should be thanks to the trailer) but even they are little more than recreations of scenes we’ve already watched.

McAvoy and Fassbender continue to be excellent in their roles as Professor X and Magneto, more so than the film deserves. When Erik’s peaceful family life is inevitably taken away from him, it’s a predictable and derivative moment that we can see coming from a hundred miles away, but damned if Fassbender doesn’t sell it. Jennifer Lawrence however doesn’t bring half the life into her role that she did in First Class. Here she gives exactly the kind of performance that Hollywood stars give when they are only in the movie to fulfil their contractual obligations. Some of the new(ish) mutants that are brought into the trilogy like Cyclops, Jean Grey and Nightcrawler do well enough with what they are given but others like Storm and Angel are barely given enough to justify their presence in the story. Oscar Isaac meanwhile is completely wasted as Apocalypse, one of the blandest and least memorable villains that the films have come up with.

Apocalypse isn’t exactly a bad movie, especially not when compared to The Last Stand and Wolverine. It’s just generic and formulaic. It brings very little to the table that we haven’t seen before in the previous movies. Anyone who is familiar with the comics or the cartoon knows that there is a treasure trove of potential in this concept and these characters, but it is almost entirely wasted here. Perhaps this movie was following the example of Star Wars: The Force Awakens where more of the same meant a return to basics but did so without either the inspiration or the imagination that made it a success. I do hope that, at the very least, the groundwork this film has laid for future sequels will lead to greater things, especially now that some of the original characters have returned to the universe, but the film itself doesn’t stand on its own. Although it has the same characters that we’ve enjoyed watching in the previous films, this time they’re trapped in a movie that doesn’t know what to do with them.

★★

A Most Violent Year

Cast: Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo, Alessandro Nivola, Albert Brooks, Elyes Gabel, Catalina Sandino Moreno

Director: J. C. Chandor

Writer: J. C. Chandor


In A Most Violent Year we are presented with a moral tale about a man who follows a path of truth and honour in the face of violence and corruption in his pursuit of the American Dream. It is a perilous path that he chooses as outside forces beyond his control threaten to bring him down. However, no matter how desperate his situation becomes, he refuses to abandon his principles and stray from his path. He carries on regardless, all the while placing his trust in the belief that whatever choices he must make along the way there is always one choice that is “most right”. He trusts that all will be well so long as he follows his moral compass and does what he believes to be the right thing. This proves to be very difficult and dangerous as he stands to lose everything that he has worked for.

The film is set in the backdrop of New York City in 1981, one of the most violent years in the city’s history. Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), an immigrant who runs a successful oil business, is in the process of making the biggest deal of his career when a series of his lorries are commandeered by armed men as they make their deliveries. Abel is an ambitious, strongly principled man who prides himself on having built a business from honesty, hard work and integrity. Even after one of his drivers is beaten to a pulp during one of the hijackings, Abel refuses to allow his employees to carry weapons. These incidents indicate that someone has targeted Abel and his company and that he must try to find and stop them. However things become worse for Abel when the district attorney Lawrence (David Oyelowo) informs Abel that a case is being built against him, accusing him of corruption and embezzlement. This takes a toll on Abel’s business as none of his partners will participate in this deal anymore.

The troubles that Abel faces threaten not only his business, but also his family. When Abel catches a man trying to break into his house in the middle of the night, his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) demands to know what is happening. Abel tries to assure her that everything is under control, only for Anna to later find their daughter playing with the intruder’s gun. Abel is left with no option but to tell his wife the truth. Chastain plays a Lady Macbeth type of character as she pushes her husband to resort to dishonest methods. She is just as ambitious as her husband but does not share his sense of morality. She has no qualms about keeping her family safe through immoral means, a view that often leads to clashes between her and Abel.

Isaacs, who appears to be channelling 1970’s Al Pacino in his performance, plays Abel with a calm and collected demeanour coupled with an underlying sense of panic. This is a man who is trying his utmost to keep everything under control, but finds himself struggling to cope as more of these problems keep slipping through his fingers. He is adamant that this business deal must happen and that it cannot wait until his legal troubles are over, and so he finds himself scrambling around trying to borrow the money that he needs. On top of that he struggles to keep his situation with the district attorney and the police under control, especially when they show up in the middle of his daughter’s birthday party with a search warrant for his house. His legal troubles become even worse when one of his lorry drivers is involved in a gun-related incident. He attempts to face his troubles with all the dignity he can muster, but he exhibits a clear sense of desperation beneath it all. As his difficulties get worse and worse, one wonders how long it will take before he finally snaps.

Despite the compelling struggle of Abel Morales and his ideological clashes with his wife and his associates, I found A Most Violent Year to be a somewhat underwhelming film mostly due to its lack of payoff. When all is said and done, the film never really builds up to anything and never really finds a resolution. I’m not convinced that Abel as a character has learned anything by the end, and so I find myself wondering what it was all for. The inaction that Abel displays may be necessary as a character motif, but in the end it ultimately builds up to something of an anti-climax. It certainly isn’t by any means a bad film; in fact I believe it to be a worthy addition to J. C. Chandor’s filmography. But ultimately I did not find it to be particularly effective or memorable.

★★★

Ex Machina

Cast: Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, Oscar Isaac

Director: Alex Garland

Writer: Alex Garland


The theory of Artificial Intelligence has always been a fascinating one. Is it possible for a machine to possess a human consciousness? What does it mean to be human and what does it mean to be a machine? Can thoughts and emotions be programmed? How does someone tell if a machine’s thoughts and feelings are real or artificial? This subject, which has been explored in a wide range of films from 2001: A Space Odyssey to Her, is tackled by Alex Garland in his directorial debut Ex Machina. He addresses all of these questions and more as he sets out to understand the nature of Artificial Intelligence and the potential implications and ramifications it holds for mankind.

We are introduced to Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) who wins a competition and is selected to participate in an exclusive project for the company he works for. He is an introverted young man with no social life to speak of and who had never expected to ever be presented with this kind of opportunity. Without knowing where he is going or whom he is going to meet, Caleb is taken by helicopter to an isolated location deep in the woodlands where he is left alone to find the base of this secretive project. The woodlands provide a beautiful yet strangely ominous setting. There is something not quite right about this place; it seems almost too perfect. The unsettling tone and atmosphere that this place creates reverberates throughout the film.

Caleb eventually finds the base and meets Nathan (Oscar Isaac), the owner of the company. Nathan is a young, multi-millionaire genius who has brought Caleb on board to participate in the greatest scientific breakthrough in the history of mankind. Nathan reveals that he has built the world’s first Artificial Intelligence and that he wants Caleb to give it the Turing Test, the test that assesses a computer’s ability to exhibit the behaviour of a human being. It is Caleb’s task to determine whether Nathan has created a being capable of conscious thought and genuine emotion by interacting with it and forming a social bond with it. Like the woodlands they inhabit there is something menacing about Nathan’s character. He displays the behaviourisms of a man with something to hide and the way he candidly talks to Caleb combined with his incessant drinking all hint towards something disturbing.

Before long the test begins and Caleb is taken to the room where he will meet the subject. He is surrounded by a glass wall that will separate him from the AI where he notices a small crack, again hinting towards something sinister beneath this whole endeavour. We are then finally introduced to Ava (Alicia Vikander), a robot with the face and figure of a beautiful woman. The two are instantly fascinated with each other as Ava shows herself to possess very human traits. She engages Caleb in intelligent conversation, she makes jokes, and she draws pictures which reflect her creativity. She also has a keen curiosity about Caleb, about humans, and about the outside world and shares with him her desire to one day see a busy road in the middle of a city where she can watch and observe all the people going about their varying activities. However when a power outage renders the cameras recording their conversations inactive, Ava delivers a warning to Caleb. She warns him that Nathan is a liar and that he must not trust him or anything he says. As soon as the power is restored Ava returns to normal and carries on talking as if nothing had happened.

As Caleb ventures deeper into this project his mind becomes more uncertain and his situation more hazardous. He does not know who he can trust or whether he can even trust himself. He starts to doubt his own judgement as he steadily becomes infatuated with Ava, who in turn reciprocates his affections. He starts to question whether there is more to this test than he was told. He wonders what exactly it is that Nathan is hiding from him. He contemplates whether Ava is trying to deceive him or if she’s even capable of deception. The relationship between him and Ava grows more intriguing and complex as he starts developing strong feelings for her and is overcome by a desire to help her.

The mystery surrounding Ex Machina is endlessly fascinating and stimulating. As soon as you start to think that you’ve figured it out, something new is revealed that changes your perception. It is a film that keeps you guessing up to the very end. The discussion surrounding the theme of Artificial Intelligence is also captivating as the nature of the human mind and what it means for a computer to display that nature are considered in an intelligent and interesting way. This film never provides any answers but instead provides food for thought so that the audience might find their own answers. The film draws parallels with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as it considers the implications of creating a being with a human consciousness. It is Caleb who declares that “to erase the line between man and machine is to obscure the line between men and gods”. An exciting thought but also a terrifying one.

★★★★★