PHANTOM THREAD***** Oscars all stitched up


DANIEL DAY LEWIS is compellingly watchable as Reynolds Woodcock, a celebrated 50’s fashion designer, in Paul Thomas Anderson’s (The Master, There Will be Blood) fabulous, multilayered story that knits together the symbiotic relationship between creativity and (almost OCD-like) control. Day Lewis’ character is a fussy, fastidious, controlling, easily angered artist whose asexual, effete airs and God complex alienate him from people and desensitise him from their feelings.

In fewer words, he’s a shit. But he’s a brilliant shit whose obsession with perfection drives a couture that aims not simply to make his chosen coterie of patrons look better but feel better about themselves. In his designs, they become, even for a fleeting moment, paragons of perfection. It’s as if his gowns (these creations were far more than mere “dresses”) – in which were stitched the phantom thread of hidden messages – enveloped its wearers with all the hopes and dreams and ambition of its creator.

The only forces reining him in, ensuring he maintain some semblance of social grace, are his frightening, controlling business manager/sister, Cyril (Leslie Manville) and the ghost of his long dead mother, cursed somehow by the wedding dress he made her when he was sixteen. Ms. Manville, with a pale mask-like face, drained of emotion and blood gives a performance almost as magnetically commanding as Day Lewis’.

It is into this claustrophobic world (most of the story is played out in the grand, if stifling, multi-room house that is at once home, show room, atelier and of course visible expression of its owner’s heart) comes Alma (Vicky Krieps). She is a slightly clumsy, affectless, elegantly beautiful waitress he comes across in a seaside hotel. Having only recently ditched his last lover/muse, Woodcock is immediately smitten. The artist and craftsman in him immediately recognise her potential to re-inspire his creativity. The man and lover follow much later. He charms her into accompanying him back to London; and his first act is to measure her near naked body with Cyril, his sister, sitting at his side noting all the measurements.

Woodcock approves of her shape: “perfect” he notes. But Alma worries aloud to Cyril, “my neck is too long…my breasts are too small…my hips are too large”. “Not at all,” Cyril replies, “you’re just his type”. The artist’s search for perfection has found its muse.

But though they may have recorded every inch of her, they fail to take her measure. After her initial obeisance (She learns how to butter her bread, cut her toast and eat in a manner that does not upset his rarified sensibilities…and his creativity) she slowly begins to assert herself. She’s a woman, not an abstract muse. And she refuses to yield to his obsessive need to perfectly shape and control his surroundings, of which she’s merely a part. Her self-assertion, her own need to exercise some sort of control parallels her involvement with his art. She becomes both his creation as well as the most steadfast defender of it. And there’s nothing an artists loves more than the pretty acolyte who worships his creativity. Slowly their one-way love becomes a two way romance. It is a (literally) poisonous romance where genuine mutual affection and passion seems to be anchored only by the electricity of the control each has over the other and the dependency that results.

Perhaps Anderson is suggesting that the antisocial, imperious control demanded of art, has its same roots in the need for control demanded of true love. They’re both fundamentally dependent upon the earthy vitality, the potentially poisonous drug of passion and chaos, for its essential sustenance and growth. Chaos, control…and love, like the two halves of Woodcock’s large home, may be at the very heart of the creative process.

From the moment we’re introduced to Woodcock to the very last frame, this is a movie that involves us in its world through the detailed intensity of its observation. We follow the director’s close, intimate lens as it focuses in on bruised, needle-damaged fingers threading those needles, caressing and lovingly stitching shapeless fabric into perfectly formed confections that ennoble and enhance their wearers. We tag along with the lens as it circles and lingers on Woodcock’s objects of desire: the neck, the arms, the lips of Alma. Anderson balances the minutia of these “observations” with the broader swoop of crowded rooms, the unseemly crush of wealthy society. We feel Woodcock and Alma’s distaste for a party crowd in a beautifully choreographed tableaux that morphs quickly from revelry to drunken riot; and their shared contempt for a society grand dame who, undeserving of his creation, passes out wearing one of his gowns.

When we relinquish control, we become animals.

Anderson, who was also his own director of photography, has shot the whole thing with the kind of subtle golden light that gives the increasingly surreal proceedings a kind of faux glamour. And the impeccable style of costume designer Mark Bridges (Jason Bourne, Captain Phillips) offers just the right patina to the mood of monied success, nicely undercut by Johnny Greenwood’s dark, brooding Dvorak-like score.

We return to Day Lewis’s performance. It is a towering one. His Woodcock is really a dreadful person, but we can’t stop watching him. In him, Day Lewis has created one of the memorable figures of the cinema. Let’s hope the Oscars recognize this.

 

PHANTOM THREAD. Dir/Writer/Cinematographer: Paul Thomas Anderson. With: Daniel Day Lewis, Vicky Krieps, Leslie Manville. Production Designer: Mark Tildesley (Snowdon, T2 Trainspotting)

 

 

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DARKEST HOUR*** Shines no new light


ACCORDING TO THIS telling, Winston Churchill not only stood down the massed ranks of aristocrats and his own Tory party (ready to make a deal with Hitler at the drop of a hat), but he found his resolve thanks to a chance (and entirely fabricated) encounter with ‘ordinary’ people… who were prepared to fight to the last person. Darkest Hour condenses the drama of the war to a few critical weeks of crisis when Britain was facing a massacre at Dunkirk, had failed to secure the involvement of the Americans and the real threat of a German invasion was imminent.

It’s a superb piece of storytelling complemented by an outstanding piece of acting, all gloriously shot by cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (Inside Llewyn Davis). It leaves you cheering at the end and would be typical nationalistic jingoism if it weren’t essentially so very true.

The Churchill we’re introduced to is an insufferable alcoholic. He’s abusive, short tempered, eccentric and beholden to no party ideology and to no one, other than his stoic wife (Kristin Scott Thomas). But he also has a clear sightedness and an understanding of the arc of history that, perhaps justified his boorish self-belief…his refusal to yield to anyone.

Director Joe Wright (Atonement) and his writer Anthony McCarten (The Theory of Everything) seem to suggest that his (internal) enemies could see no further than Churchill the curmudgeonly, eccentric drunk. It was the other side of Churchill that won the war: Churchill the inspiring self-confident leader; the one who found the resolve and the conviction to rise to the occasion and face down the onrushing panzer divisions of the Third Reich.

Churchill not only found the resolve he needed, but the language of persuasion. As one of his thwarted opponents mutters after the “fight them on the beaches” speech, “Churchill has found his words and has sent them in to battle”. Wright threads the theme of language and persuasion throughout the narrative. Churchill’s eloquence and his way with words are, it is suggested, central to his thought process. He wrestles and tugs at language, with his stenographer, Elizabeth (Lily James), gamely following along, until he arrives at both verbal and intellectual precision.

The brilliance of Gary Oldman’s portrayal is that he exaggerates Churchill’s flat delivery just enough to make it dramatically compelling, even as he flits between his character’s two faces illustrating how the one energized the other. For it was in his drunk abrasiveness that Churchill seemed to underscore the resolve to win over his doubters and fill his people with the courage they would need to outlast the blitz.

The problem I had with the movie though is that it all felt a bit smug.

This was plucky Blighty ready to fight them on the beaches and in the fields; led by, let’s face it: God. In one farcical scene on the ‘tube’ where the ORDINARY PERSON is seen in direct contrast with Churchill’s feckless War Cabinet (the one resolved to die fighting against Nazism; the other ready to surrender), there’s even a Shakespeare-quoting Black man. (In real life, such an occurrence would probably have given Churchill, who had zero contact with the ordinary person let alone those of a darker hue, a heart attack).

Churchill and the war he led was modern Britain’s equivalent to Henry V. Anthony McCarten is a marvellous writer; but in a story deserving the complexity of Shakespeare, Darkest Hour offers us Churchill for Dummies instead.

Sadly, this, like Dunkirk, continues to be part of an eco-system of pop culture that feeds Britain’s inflated sense of identity: as the courageous self-subsistent island kingdom, who conquered the world (Who needs Europe?). This glorious version of self may have the ring of Shakespeare’s “sceptered isle” but it’s a sad fantasy that continues to nourish the country’s false sense of its post Brexit go-it-alone muscle.

And yet on the other hand, what Darkest Hour so startlingly reminds us of, is just how far the country has declined in this our present darkest hour: from Churchill’s (and Shakespeare’s) well wrought and eloquent exhortations to “stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood” to Theresa May’s version of national motivation: “Brexit means Brexit”

 

DARKEST HOUR: Dir: Joe Wright. With: Gary Oldman, Lily James (Baby Driver), Kristin Scott Thomas, Ben Mendelsohn (Rogue One). Writer: Anthony McCarten. Director of Photography: Bruno Delbonnel (Big Eyes, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince). Production Designer: Sarah Greenwood (Beauty and the Beast. Our Kind of Traitor)

 

THE POST*** Solid


THIS IS A massively entertaining, minor movie.

Spielberg has spoken at length of his need to tell this story – of the deeply important role of the free press, of truth, of moral conviction – at a time when the leader of the (so-called) free world is only too eager to create a world of “alternative facts” and even more eager to demean the Fourth Estate as a place of fake news; as “enemies of the people”

“The Post” centers on the events around the leak of The Pentagon Papers by insider Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys from “The Americans”). The Papers, penned by then Secretary of State Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood) revealed the White House’s long-held, and long-hidden knowledge of the futility of the US involvement in Vietnam. For years, the Papers showed, the White House (Truman, Eisenhower, Nixon, Johnson and Kennedy) had been systematically and cynically lying to the nation, even as it sent its sons to muddy graves.

The contents of the Papers – so damaging to the credibility of the President – were initially published by The New York Times. It was a major coup for them. But after the government banned (essentially censoring) further publications, the baton was passed to The Washington Post under the leadership of its gung-ho editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) and its initially hesitant, brow beaten owner, Kay Graham (Meryl Streep).

Spielberg’s narrative follows the evolution of Graham (who inherited the newspaper after the death of her husband) from society hostess, retreating to the parlor with “the girls” while the men clustered to discuss “important matters” (A role her contemptuous male peers permitted her) to self-confident, empowered and fearless leader. As you’d expect, Streep looses herself in this layered and nuanced role. She’s never anything but entirely believable either as the timorous woman who’s supposed to shut up and know her place, engulfed in board meetings by a swarm of sober suited men, indifferent to her views or presence; or as the woman who finally finds her voice and her moral conscience and decides to risk her stature against Nixon and his gang of thugs.

Graham’s battle to defend and publish the truth at all cost was no mere ethical decision. Her decision risked personal incarceration or corporate bankruptcy. This is a story about the (literal, financial) cost of truth. If it was found guilty of contempt of court, the value of the Post brand would have been severely tarnished and a planned Wall Street offering would probably have been a disaster. The dilemma that she faced was the choice between facing the financial cost of publishing v facing the moral cost of not doing so…between her responsibility to her shareholders v her responsibility to the nation.

Spielberg is a marvelous storyteller: with an economy of style (there’s not a wasted word or scene in the movie) and a lyricism of movement (his camera swoops and tracks his characters like an omniscient god), he lays out the critical milestones and leaves it up to volumes of emotions at Streep’s command to entangle us in the ethical drama of the crisis unfolding.

But Streep’s well-written multi-leveled character is not matched by Hanks’ one-note Jimmy Stewart impersonation. As you’d expect, Hanks is watchably solid. He’s a character seemingly untroubled by doubt; almost blind to the shattered lives and the downside of potential failure. Indeed, he’s so Tom Hanks, the perennial good guy, that there’s never a moment of genuine, heart-thumping, palpable tension. So that the real, dark threat of Nixon’s and Kissinger’s malignant evil remains an abstract aural ghost somewhere dimly in the background.

And yet, there’s much in the film that’s delicious to behold. There are clusters of finely balanced scenes that seem to tell the story in visual nuggets: scenes that morph from panelled rooms with crowded, black suited, po-faced men to ones of airy flowery salons with well heeled chiffon-embraced society women to the sunny outdoors where throngs of excited cheering young women herald a new day; all with Graham at the swirling centre. And there is the tactile feel of the press: the oily, inky hands of typesetter letters, columns of newly printed newspapers swirling up and up as if to a heaven beyond, and the thick frames of sculptural lead locked into place…as if the truth then demanded that heavy anchor of lead in deliberate contrast to the ephemeral truths of our digital words

It’s nice for Spielberg to have left off editing his newest sci fi blockbuster “Ready Player One” now in the works, to remind us of the need for the Fourth Estate to be on the side of the governed not the governors, as it so gloriously was in the past. But he’s preaching to the converted. “The Post” is Spielberg’s long editorial cry designed to stroke our liberal egos in the bubble of our Trump/Koch/Fox News/Daily Telegraph threatened world where truth is an enemy of the state.

But art must do more than safely play to its gallery of believers. If journalism speaks truth to power, art must also challenge us and reframe our perspectives and threaten the status quo and destabilize our smug beliefs. It must expose the mechanisms of what drives behavior and the irrational forces that influence our decisions. “The Post” is too tame, too well mannered to live up to these demands. Its high-mindedness will cause no sleeplessness in this long night of democracy’s slow demise.

I went expecting delight and surprise. I found much to delight in. But of surprise…that was thin on the ground.

 

THE POST. Dir: Steven Spielberg. Writers: Liz Hannah and Josh Singer (Spotlight). With: Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Sarah Paulson, Bob Odenkirk, Matthew Rhys. Production Designer: Rick Carter (“Star Wars: The Force Awakens”, “the BFG”). Director of Photography: Janusz Kaminski (“The BFG’, “The Bridge of Spies” etc)

 

 

THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI***** Outstanding


THIS VERY FUNNY, very black comedy has some of the sharpest, smartest writing of the year. Martin McDonagh, who wrote and directs also wrote In Bruges as well the outstanding play, The Pillowman. Writing of this caliber must be a joy for actors to work with: they don’t have to invent characters around the script, they simply have to give it life. And the three key actors giving it life – Frances McDormand as the determined, embittered, devil may care Mildred, Woody Harrelson as Willoughby, the stoic sheriff, resigned to his own insignificance in solving a horrific crime, and Sam Rockwell as Dixon, the racist, momma’s boy deputy, as thick as a brick – are all at the top of their game.

The act that sets off a train of events (not to mention the title of the movie) is Mildred’s rental of (said) three billboards outside Ebbing. The billboards shout her frustration with the sheriff’s incompetent pursuit of the rapist/murderer who killed her daughter. All her sorrow and anger is vented on these billboards. It is this catharsis of blame…this need to point a finger, to assign guilt that clouds the brain and makes the search for truth impossible.

The characters in the story are all casters of the first stone. People who are far from blameless blame everyone else for deeds done or perceived to have been done. Just as Mildred blames the sheriff for the failure to hunt down her daughter’s killer, Dixon blames every black person around for being black as well as the billboard owner for simply renting the billboards. Willoughby’s wife, Anne (Abby Cornish) blames Mildred for unjustifiably hounding her husband and on and on. But, as the movie shows, the blame game has a nasty way of taking on a life of its own. Passions are set loose from their moorings of reason; people are burned, thrown out of buildings, one drops dead. This is an out of control beast, controlled only, perhaps, by the revelations only the truth can offer and by the cleansing of forgiveness and empathy.

What with Get Out, the (overlooked) Death of Stalin and The Party, these last few months have seen the return of great black comedy to the screen. And as with all great black comedy from Joe Orton on, the characters and the twists in the plot are racheted up to the wildest extremes. The genius in McDormand and Rockwell’s indelibly iconic characters is that they remain fully fleshed and convincingly believable. In lesser hands, it would have been so easy to slip into caricature.

And the genius in McDonagh’s writing and directing is that the comedic excesses (told at a breath taking pace) are always in service to his deeply insightful (and so very apposite) idea about the need for the clarity of understanding in the obscuring fog of passions and blame.

After the much ballyhooed and entirely undeserving success of La La Land last year, here, at last is a movie thoroughly deserving of its much-garlanded praise.

 

THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI. Dir. and written by Martin McDonagh. With: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Caleb Landry Jones, Peter Dinklage. Director of Photography: Ben Davis (Dr. Strange, Guardians of the Galaxy)

 

MOLLY’S GAME*** Enjoyable


THIS HUGELY ENTERTAINING, if flawed piece of moviemaking, is celebrated scriptwriter Aaron Sorkin’s (“Steve Jobs”, “Moneyball”, “the Social Network”) generally well-received (but poorly attended) entry into directing. It’s his glittering adaptation of the biography of a high stakes, celebrity poker host, Molly Bloom (“the poker princess”).

The story begins, as it ends, with Molly’s relationship with her demanding father (a very credible Kevin Costner) but focuses mainly on her life as a hostess to Hollywood and then New York high-rollers. As expected, Sorkin’s highly literate screenplay – a mixture of Ms. Bloom’s sardonic narration of her life and the rat-a-tat sparring between her and her lawyer (Idris Elba) – dazzles. It’s only outshone by a sizzling Jessica Chastain, as the eponymous heroine. Chastain is the perfect embodiment of Sorkin’s on-going exploration of the seductiveness of power, sex appeal and corruption. Her patrician hauteur (and the haute of her figure worshipping wardrobe) sprinkles a pixie dust of classiness and out-of-reach glamour to what is really a seedy battleground of alpha males intent on dominance.


To her, it’s all about the money. To them, it’s all about the power.

To Sorkin, it’s all about his exploration of the truths that lie beneath the surface appeal (of her attractiveness and their wealth). The Feds, who target her as a route to dismantling a Russian crime syndicate, see her as a corrupt felon and probably a whore. Her lawyer sees her as a figure of incredible integrity. Her (ex) boss (Jeremy Strong) sees her as sexy chick who’s getting above her station. Her father sees her as a potential winner (She was an Olympic skier hopeful) who needs to be ruthlessly driven.

Wherein, asks the story, lies the truth?

At one core level, the truth lies in her hard drive. It contains all the names, and all the dirt, of her famous players: their adulterous emails, their nefarious deals, their hidden fault lines. But it’s only one level of truth; a truth she’s prepared to hide and defend with all her integrity (or, as she sees it, “her good name”). For on the one hand, it is this, your good name, Sorkin suggests, that really only matters… more than the glitz and the glamour and even the risk of imprisonment. On the other, he seems to be suggesting, that perhaps there are some truths that have such potential to hurt, they must forever stay hidden.

The problem with the movie (and this is where Sorkin’s a better writer than he is a director) is that the thoughtfulness of the idea that drives the story never really throbs with the blood of real people. Chastain’s Molly Bloom remains a cypher. In his adaptation of (the real Molly Bloom’s) narrative, written to present an exculpatory image of herself, Sorkin has given us the narrative; but not the person.

More than this, there’s far too much voice over narrative (deliciously written though it is) to push along the plot. Sorkin seems to have discarded the first truth (or cliché) of good fiction: show, don’t tell (Perhaps in a story of poker faces, that’s his “tell”)

He’s written a good story. For the cinema, it needed a different talent to tell it.

 

MOLLY’s GAME. Written/directed: Aaron Sorkin. With: Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba, Kevin Costner, Michael Cera. Cinematographer: Charlotte Christensen (“Fences”, “The Girl on the Train”). Production Designer: David Wasco (“La La Land”, “Inglorious Basterds”). Costume Designer: Susan Lyall (“Money Monster”)

 

JUMANJI: WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE*** Comedy in Full Swing


It’s exciting, very funny and (to me) the surprise hit of the season. Dare I say it: I had more fun watching this enjoyable movie than I did the bloated Star Wars extravaganza.

It’s a Jumanji for the age. You may remember the original Jumanji (twenty two years ago) with Robin Williams and Kirsten Dunst. Then, the key characters were sucked into a board game. In this new iteration (Welcome to the Jungle) the board game has been replaced by a dated Atari video game. (And Robin Williams has been replaced by Dwane, The Rock, Johnson).

The story, vaguely themed around growing up and learning to accept others, centres around four key stock characters: the nerd (Alex Wolff from Patroits Day), the Black quarterback jock, ( Ser’Darius Blain) the hot party girl (Madison Iseman) and the dowdy, shy one (Morgan Turner). These kids have all been placed in school detention (the American High School is probably the most defining idea of Americana in Hollywood movies) and, upon discovery of the game, all choose an avatar. Better to play a dumb ‘90’s video game than suffer the enforced isolation of detention.

No sooner have they chosen their avatars than they’re zapped into a lush jungle. There, they’re instructed to find and replace a gem stolen from the “Jaguar’s Eye”, or else….

The fun starts with the avatars they become. The nerd morphs into Dwane Johnson, amazed at his pecs and his super-manliness. No more bullying him. The muscular quarter backer turns into the diminutive, loquacious Kevin Hart. He has to learn how to fend for himself as a small guy. Just as well he’s become a famous zoologist. The dowdy, shy one turns into Martha (Karen Gillan), a mid-drift baring, shorts revealing hottie (who has mastered the art of Combat Dancing. When cornered by the bad guys, just turn on the disco and unleash her). The party girl turns into Jack Black – an overweight middle-aged man, who happens to be a genius cartographer and who has, much to her amazement, that thing between his legs, which she must learn to use.

Jack, channeling his inner party girl, also has to instruct Martha (Gillan) into the not so subtle art of flirtation – the hair, the pouts, the walk etc- in what must be one of the funniest movie scenes this year

Director Jake Kasdan (Bad Teacher and son of Lawrence who wrote Raiders of the Lost Arc, Star Wars VII etc) has managed to find the perfect balance between laugh out loud silliness and action scenes, so thrillingly staged that even Bond would be proud.

His cast is first class. Dwane Johnson is such a behemoth of a man (with a mean raised eyebrow) that he can allow himself the latitude to play the nerd to great comic effect. Add to that funnymen Jack Black as a teenage girl and Kevin Hart being himself and you have a priceless comic trio. Karen Gillan (Guardians of the Galaxy) complements this trio of jokers nicely. She’s yet another talented Brit with a flawless American accent. Seems an unwritten rule that every major production must have at least one of them. Chris McKenner (Spider-Man:Homecoming) gave the plot enough twists and turns to keep it lively without ever coiling in on itself.

And here, we’re back to Star Wars. The damn force just won’t leave us be.

 

JUMANJI. WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE. Dir: Lawrence Kasdan. With: Dwayne Johnson, Karen Gillan. Kevin Hart, Jack Black, Rhys Darby, Bobby Carnavale. Writers: Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers (Spider-Man Homecoming), Scott Rosenberg (Zoo), Jeff Pinker (Zoo). Cinematographer: Gyula Pados (Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials). Filmed mainly in Honolulu, Hawaii

 

 

STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI*** Too many Forces?


I’M SURE MY second (not to mention third and fourth) viewing of this swooningly reviewed eighth episode of the Star Wars franchise will endear me more to Star Wars: The Last Jedi. It certainly contains all the requisite elements (or, “winning formula”) of the series: endless aerial battles, brave heroes, swashbuckling light-saber duels, storm troopers (two of whom were the Royal princes, William and Harry), John Williams’ stirring music, stunningly well realized CGI and of course The Force.

Star Wars fans will not be disappointed.

But I’m a fan and I wasn’t as “whelmed” as I thought I would be.
Why?

Director (and writer) Rian Johnson (Looper) clearly decided that the “less is more” philosophy just wasn’t working for him. So he’s given us more of more. For some (my wife), this was a brilliant creative decision as it ensured a multifaceted and unflagging narrative drive. It also ensured that his audience would never get bored with any one story.

The result is that The Last Jedi is a dizzying knit of multiple storylines and themes.

The umbrella idea of the Force, this otherworldly energy, is spelt out in far more detail…and there are several nice touches in the way said Force can act almost like a telepathy Skype between people. There’s a strong father/child theme, seen via the evolving Jedi education of Rey (Daisy Ridley) and the last Jedi, Luke, pain in the arse, Skywalker (Mark Hamill); and (on the dark side) via the evolution of Kylo Ren’s (Adam Driver) relationship with Snoke (Andy Serkis). Meanwhile the meaning of heroism v leadership is explored via the tension between headstrong top gun, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) with his flashing eyes and gritted teeth and the level headed Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) along with the multiple battles of the bold, heroic, but, staggeringly incompetent rebel forces. These rebel stories are balanced with stories from the First Order as the various officers, led by General Hux (Domhall Gleeson) glower at each other, suck up to Snoke and mow down the rebels. As expected, the mythos of the hero’s quest is continued via Finn (John Boyega) – whose presence (compared with his first outing ) is severely curtailed – in his searches for First Order weak spots as well as his search for Rey. But the story’s arc demands the retention of core characters such as Maz Kanata (Luita Nyong’o) and also for those familiar Star Wars tropes, such as the alien cantina. They’re all shoe-horned into the plot. Add to all this the generous shower of new characters, perhaps seeding further Episode IX story lines, and what you’re left with is two and a half hours of dizzying “stuff”.

Or, put it another way, two and a half pounds of stuff in a one pound bag.

And whilst it’s an entertaining, often frenzied, two and a half pounds of stuff, none of the multiple storylines had those hold-your-breath cliffhangers that keep you on the edge of your seats waiting to see what happens next.

Moreover, the absence of Harrison Ford’s older, but still rakish charm was missed. The presence of Han Solo not only buoyed up Episode VII, but nicely balanced the youthful energies of Rey and Finn. In Episode VIII, the focus falls far more on the two bearers of the Force: Rey and Kylo. As the one wavering between the yearning to be the good son he once was and the malignant pull of the dark force, Adam Driver is outstanding. You believe in his pain. Less so Daisy Ridley whose spunk seems to have gone AWOL.

Mark Hamill never had Harrison Ford’s charisma, but he harrumphs along entertainingly, generally pissed off that his secret retreat has been discovered. Rogue-ish Benicio del Toro is a great new character, D.J. He certainly stands out amidst the running and strutting of the others. But Laura Dern as Vice Admiral Holdo, yet another newbie, seems at a loss. Perhaps it was the terrible costume she was consigned to wear.

And finally…if these big ticket pop cultural phenomena are any indication of the mood of the world, oh how it has darkened. Ten years ago, a few hobbits along with some elves and an ageing magician bumbled along in a place of paradisical beauty as they sought to save the world. Now, we’re witnessing the destruction of whole worlds, literally millions of people are being eviscerated and the gestalt is one of all war all the time. Paradise has been supplanted by a bombed out war zone

Are these new episodes of Star Wars a clear-eyed reflection of our “out of joint” world, or merely a prescient harbinger of the shit that’s yet to come?

And a Merry Christmas to you too

 

STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI. Dir/writer: Rian Johnson. With: Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, John Boyega, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Oscar Isaac, Andy Serkis, Lupita Nyong’o, Domhall Gleeson. Cinematographer: Steve Yedlin (San Andreas, Looper), Composer: John Williams, Production Designer: Rick Heinrichs (Big Eyes, Captain America, Pirates of the Caribbean), Special Effects Director: Vince Abbott (Star Wars Episode VII, Spectre)