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.

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)




AFTER THE DREARY second ‘chapter’ of the (new) Planet of the Apes franchise (“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”), “War for the Planet of the Apes” is a tremendous movie. It’s thoughtful, gripping, brilliantly acted and the quality of the CGI is unsurpassed.

Though it starts in a fairly typical action movie mode – guns a blazing, apes and soldiers dying in abundant heaps etc. – it soon morphs (after the capture by the apes of a few, defeated, soldiers) into a compelling drama.

It’s been fifteen years since the dawn of the Simian flu, which has resulted in a decimation of the human race and the flowering of simian intellect. The ape leader, Caesar (convincingly embodied by Andy Serkis…the genius who gave us Golum) is keen to avoid war and the ongoing skirmishes with humans. His plans are, like Moses, to lead his beleaguered tribe out of this Pharaonic war zone to a promised land, way over yonder, past an impassible (to humans) desert. This is the first of multiple Biblical and Greek mythological references (There’s even a frightening Red Sea moment when, like Ramses’ armies, Caesar’s tormentors are drowned in a deluge of snow and ice).

But his bête noir, The Colonel (Woody Harrelson), the bald, buff, increasingly deranged Kurtz- like leader of a Nazi-esque troop of rogue mercenaries, is intent on enslaving the apes (“They’re almost human” one of his mercenaries says…in an echo of the Christian apologia for slavery) before wiping them out. The Uncle Toms of this brave new world are turncoat apes, called Donkeys. They’ve turned against their own to save their own skins and will perform any task no matter how demeaning.

The story twists and turns (including a thrilling “Great Escape” segment, as the apes tunnel through forgotten caverns in the quiet dark of the night) as it explores themes of slavery and freedom, mercy and vengeance, heroism and sacrifice.

And it all hangs around the grand, epic character of Caesar as he faces a personal challenge deeper than that of the Colonel’s mercenaries: his desire for vengeance. His people need the calm command of his leadership; but his dark, brooding heart drives him away from the leader’s responsibility as the protector of his clan to the hunter’s lonely quest to kill and destroy. His drive to survive long enough to rid the world of the Colonel is fueled by pure unbridled hate. (I am reminded by the exchange between Quintus Arrius – Jack Hawkins – and Judah Ben Hur – Charlton Heston – in “Ben Hur”. “You are full of hate,” Quintus tells Ben Hur. “That is good. Hate can keep a man alive”)

But in the end, it is the touching generosity of a young, mute girl (Amiah Miller), and a Messianic survival of crucifixion, that soothes the savage beast within. Spartacus turns into Henry V. Or maybe Christ. Hate, tenderness, rage, sorrow, joy. The little miracle of director Matt Reeves’ movie (he also co-wrote it) is how clearly these emotions play across Serkis’ ape visage. You feel for him in ways way beyond the faux emotions of the summertime blockbusters. Here on a planet of apes is the crisis of modern humanity writ large.

Reeves’ noble and very iconic vision (Imagine rows of crucified apes dying in their own Appian Way or chained, slave-whipped apes brutalized by their heartless overlords) is well served by the dark, atmospheric cinematography of Michael Seresin (“Dawn of the Planet…”, “Midnight Express”) and James Chinlund’s (“Dawn…, “Avengers Assemble”) convincing post apocalyptic world.

What a surprise to find such a gem among this year’s even more mindless blockbusters: “The Transformers”, “The Mummy”, “Alien: Covenant”, “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “Guardians of the Galaxy. Vol2”.


WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES. Dir: Matt Reeves. Writers: Matt Reeves and Mark Bomback (“Insurgent”, “Wolverine”). With: Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn, Amiah Miller. Cinematpgraphy: Michael Seresin. Production Design: James Chilund. Music: Michael Giacchino (“Star Trek Beyond”)





SET TEN YEARS after the apes became self-aware and intelligent, human civilization has collapsed due to a biological experiment (the simian flu) that has metastasized into Armageddon. Small, well-defended communities live in fortified fear… of what’s “out there”. “Out there” are the apes: a large community, knitted together by the communal activity of the hunt and living peacefully under the thoughtful, unquestioned leadership of Alfa ape, Caesar. When the story begins, it’s been two years since they last saw a human… until now, when two ape scouts stumble upon a small human group, searching for the location of a large dam’s long unused hydro-electric generator.


The confrontation, fuelled more by fear and surprise than animosity proves fatal to one of the apes. And so it begins. The story charts Caesar’s attempts to broker a peaceful co-existence with the humans based on trust and respect. But hawkish humans and apes, driven by private agendas, distrustful of each other and wary of too much trust, plunge the two communities into war.


This is a story of trust corrupted by deception, a theme that plays out not only in the bigger narrative but even in the small set-piece scenes, such as one in which one of the apes monkeys around to distract a couple of armed humans; once he has won their trust, he shoots them both. What began with scenes of trust and harmony rapidly falls apart, and we are left in the end with a world where both humans and apes distrust each other as well as themselves.


Presumably on this note, part three will take us back to where we first met the apes, way back when, before Charlton Heston had turned into a rifle-toting bigot.


Director Matt Reeves (“Cloverfield”) has taken over from Rupert Wyatt’s brilliant reinvention of the franchise three years ago, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”. With the aid of flawless CGI, he (and the extraordinary Andy Serkis of Golum fame, reprising his role as Caesar) manages to anthromophize the apes well enough to make their interactions compelling, believable and empathetic. The worlds he constructs – one of accomplishment (the ape world) and one of failure and destruction (the human world) – are richly immersive and makes no doubt where his (and our) sympathies lie.


Beyond this, the story of competing ideologies and its slow build toward war is nicely done – certainly a far cry from the usual brutish summer blockbuster offers of all style and no substance. Not that this is any sort of ponderous dissertation on the fog of war. It’s a fast paced, adrenaline-pumping action flick with just enough head and heart to stand heads over the likes of “Transformers” et al.


It suffers though by comparison with its breathtaking original. Who knew what to expect from the original James Franco/Freida Pinto/John Lithgow ‘original’? What we got was an intelligent, thoroughly credible explanation of where it all began.


But like so many second acts (“Quantum of Solace” after “Casino Royale”, “The Dark Knight” after “Batman Begins”, “X-Men 2” after “X-Men” etc), “”Dawn…” is no “Rise…”


What the original managed to offer, apart from the credible pseudo science was the equally credible knit of relationships between Franco and his dementia-struck father John Lithglow; Caesar and his jailer/tormentor Tom Felton. These provided strong emotional motivations for the actions that followed; they involved us in the drama.


The emotional motivation factor is missing in “Dawn…” Kobo is Caesar’s hawkish opposite number. But whereas Caesar’s relationship with humans was formed by the love he experienced from Will (Franco), his owner (the focus of the first movie), Kobo’s only relationship with humans was shaped by the abusiveness of his human captors. It makes good sense therefore that he should view these humans as a threat not worth negotiating with. But we’re never made to feel Kobo’s sense of angst and anger. It’s stated, never evoked. There are layers to Caesar’s character; Kobo remains an ape with a gun.


The humans equally remain cyphers. We know Ellie (Keri Russell) and Malcolm (Jason Clarke) are good guys, but the plot never allows us to know them or build a relationship with them (the way we built with Franco and Lithglow). The baddies are the typical interchangeably gung-ho baddies with big guns (unlike the profit-driven industrialist, Steven – David Oyelowo- whose greed catalyzed the chaos that was to ensue in “Rise…”)


So whereas “Rise…” seduced us into its world and invested us in the bizarre reality of rooting for Caesar and the apes over the humans, “Dawn…” offers more spectacle, but less soul