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)

 

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EX MACHINA****Riveting


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EVEN AS IT asks some pretty heavy questions about the nature of consciousness and artificial intelligence (which might suggest a ponderous and overly serious tome) “Ex Machina” is a taut, riveting drama. It’s equal parts creepy, sensuous and thoughtful; writer/director Alex Garland (“28 Days Later”, “Never Let Me Go”) pulls us into a bizarre world where, like the hero, Caleb (Domhall Gleeson from “About Time” and “Calvary”), we begin to have real feelings for and side with an entity that we know is a robot.

Caleb is a computer programmer working for the world’s largest internet company. He has ostensibly won an office prize to spend a week with Nathan (an extraordinary Oscar Isaac), the mega rich owner of the company. Nathan’s a combustible combination of Larry Page, Howard Hughes and Frankenstein; and a man with a towering God complex.

Caleb is whisked by helicopter to Nathan’s home/laboratory, a bunkered place far beyond the reach of civilization. It is here that he is building the uber android: one that has reached the point of a singularity where the wall that divides artificial intelligence and self consciousness is collapsed resulting in a manufactured entity that is to all extent and purpose, a sentient being. This is Eva (the stunning Alicia Vikander of “A Royal Affair”, “Testament of Youth” and the upcoming “Son of a Gun”), half woman, half android. Caleb’s job is to evaluate whether he thinks this gorgeous entity has the self-consciousness to be considered ‘human’; which, if he does, will be a redefining of what ‘human’ means.

Writer Garland lays out the territory clearly: He’s not seeking to develop a better Deep Blue (IBM’s chess master), or an enhanced version of Siri with it’s algorhythmic intelligence. He says to Caleb that he could have built a neutral grey box, but instead what he built was Eva. Vikander is so beautiful that her seemingly empathetic, intelligent and vulnerable personality are just the obvious qualities pulled into play to persuade Caleb of her consciousness. What really matters to this geeky, single man is the sexual factor: her desirability. For Nathan has quite deliberately programmed Eva to be heterosexual (As Nathan points out to Caleb, sexual desire is a fundamental part of the human condition, and anyway, it’s fun). Eva is enough of a seductress (the face, the voice, the breasts, the curve of her hips and ass; she’s fully functional sexually he tells Caleb) to ensnare her evaluator.

Thing is, Caleb, and us the audience, may very well consciously and rationally understand that Eva, the android, is just a non-human, programmed machine. But she is able to unlock layers of feeling deeper than the rational thinking brain, perhaps to what the Phenomenologists call pre-reflective self consciousness, or perhaps what we might also call lust. Despite ourselves, we begin to entertain a real human connection with the machine. This is more than an examination of the point at which a machine becomes conscious (we’ve seen enough of that from Will Smith’s “I am Robot” to the terminator’s Skynet). It’s a freaky look at what will eradicate the distance between the machina and the deus. For Caleb, it’s desire and love (and when the object of desire is Alicia Vikander, frankly I’m of Caleb’s camp).

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The pull and intrigue of this fascinating movie though is that it isn’t only about what Caleb (or we) think about the machine; it’s also about what the machine thinks about itself/herself and us. Indeed, at what point does artificial intelligence veer into artificial empathy? At what point does a machine’s simulacrum of desire become a reality of deception?

For Eva, her humanity lies in the lengths she’s prepared to go in a search for free will, the underpinning of true self-identity. To do this, she must liberate herself from Nathan, her maker, the omniscient God and puppet master: he who must be obeyed; and who is also the bringer of death (Caleb quotes Oppenheimer’s words, “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds”). She must liberate herself from needing a deus ex machina to control and program her actions and thoughts. It is not unlike Ahab’s need to proclaim his identity by slaying Moby Dick, the white whale, the God.

Not so much “I think therefore I am” but “I am, therefore I can think”

So how will she free herself? Did the all-powerful Nathan really need Caleb, a mid level programmer, to endorse his creation? If not why has he been invited to this God forsaken retreat? Why does the electricity suddenly fail at unexplained times? And who is the mysterious, silent Asian serving woman?
This stunningly designed movie hooks itself into you from the first frame and with Geoff Barlow’s thumping score, never releases you right up to its shocking conclusion

Ex Machina. Dir/writer: Alex Garland. With Oscar Isaac, Alicia Vikander and Domhall Gleeson. Production Designer: Mark Digby (“Rush”, “Dredd”, “Slumdog Millionaire”).

The Two Faces of January: Look Away


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“THE TWO FACES of January” is a nonsensical B movie non-thriller that at least lives up to its name: one face displays the style and period clothes (it’s set in 1962) of a high concept mystery. The other reveals its truer self: a badly written made-for-video movie with brand name stars (Viggo Mortensen as con-man Chester; Kirsten Dunst as Colette, his clueless wife and Oscar Isaac, so good as Llewin Davis as Rydal, an American drifter and part time tourist guide)

The said two faces refer to Viggo’s Chester and Llewin’s Rydal. Chester we discover is on the run (somewhere in sun-drenched Greece) having fleeced gullible investors back in the US. By chance he encounters Rydal – another American and as the story labours to point out, a mini version of himself, engaged in small-time hustles of unsuspecting tourists.

They’re two sides of the same coin. Get it?

It’s when a private investigator turns up at his hotel and is accidentally killed by Chester that on the run turns into sweaty flight.

Chester and Colette leave the hotel hurriedly without first reclaiming their passports (Huh? Why not simply check out?). Thank goodness they have the assistance of Rydal who, though he doesn’t know them, helps Chester stash the dead PI (who he thinks is just a drunk that Chester is simply helping like any Good Samaritan would). He then locates a friend who happens to make forged passports. (Hey anyone would do that for a passing stranger. No questions asked.) As for wife, Colette, she’s just too oh so full of bubbly spirit, to actually either notice or care what’s happening until the penny finally drops half way through the movie, after which point her expression shifts from giddy delight to perplexity.

But these are important expressions, call them facial tics. They won the heart of Rydal. Who’d have thunk it? This callow hustler dumped a beautiful and wealthy ‘find’, sourced the forged passports and decided to go on the lam with her and Chester because he’d fallen in love. How touching.

Now maybe I’ve seen too many B movies, but the first rule of running from the law is to change your look. Especially when your face is front-page news. But Chester is as dumb a blonde as his wife and he insists on wearing the same cream-coloured I-am-a-foreigner-on-holiday suit throughout.

Which leads to various chases in dark alleys accompanied by the quivering violins of composer Alberto Iglesias (a famous name who’s composed for some famous movies such as “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” and “The Constant Gardner”).

At least we can be thankful that the movie’s short: it comes in at just 90 minutes or so.

Seems director Hossein Amini himself (writer of other masterworks such as “Snow White and the Huntsman” “47 Ronin” and “Drive”) realized, like his characters, he too needed to cut bait and run.

INSIDE LLEWIN DAVIS: Better to stay outside


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INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS starts on a dour depressed note and stays there for the next two hours or so. There are no highs or mediums. It’s all low, all the time. The dreariness of the protagonist’s loser life remains unvaryingly and unremittingly bleak.

The movie’s based loosely on the life of folk singer Dave Van Ronk, who, like Llewyn,, also cut an album called “Inside Dave Van Ronk”, but whose career went nowhere after a young, newcomer to the folk scene, Bob Dylan, stole his one hit song and his one chance to fame and glory. Llewyn has no such excuse. The movie covers the last few weeks of his life as a – failed – singer, before he chucks it all in to return to the merchant navy… to merely exist, as he sees it, instead of living.

Llewyn is a man afraid of the past and scared of the future. For him, the past is a singing partner who killed himself (something you’d want to do after seeing this film) and a two-year old child he never even knew he had; the future, where he refuses to sacrifice the potential of royalties for the immediacy of a session fee, looks mightily like his catatonic father. As a result, he lives in a sort of permanent present, drifting from sofa to floor, barely managing to make ends meet. In this life of living only for the now, nothing can ever change – for the better or for the worse – unless he can escape from the fundamental cause of his troubles: himself.

He’s not a bad singer, and indeed, much of the music, written by Oscar-winner T. Bone Burnett and Todd Kasow (“No Country for Old Men”, “August: Osage County”, “The Fifth Estate”), is pretty good. Llewin’s problem is that he’s a prick: a self-absorbed, artist-anguished, selfish asshole. His personality is repellent. Far from getting inside Llewin Davis, his prickliness keeps everyone out.

His one act of selflessness, and a suggestion that there may, someday, be hope for him, is his knee-jerk reaction to look after a cat that’s been inadvertently shut out of a friend’s apartment, just as Llewyn is shut out from friendship. But really, he’s doomed. This is no story where the hero finally sees the light, or where diligence pays off, or where integrity to art is finally rewarded, even posthumously. Rather it’s the story of a man who, even when he’s down, gets (literally) kicked down further. As Jean, his sister, tells him (accurately) “Everything you touch turns to shit, you’re like King Midas’ idiot brother”. It’s the story of a life which goes from worse to worser.

Filmed in a kind of washed out grey (by Oscar nominated Bruno Delbonel), no light is ever allowed to enter into this grim story of a grim life.

The director/writer team of Ethan and Joel Coen have picked up a fair share of awards and nominations for “Inside Llewin Davis” and it’s been solidly praised across the board. The cast is outstanding, with bit-player Oscar Isaac in the lead, jousting with ex-lover Jean (a venomous Cary Mulligan – all sweetness on stage and foul-mouthed sourness off). John Goodman as a record producer, Ronald Turner is a heroin shooting wreck of a man: a vast physical embodiment of failure. The art direction is beautifully honed, with carefully constructed scenes that reek of the early days of Queens and Greenwich Village. “Sex in the City” art director Deborah Jensen helps you smell the curling cigarette smoke in the grey fog of lonely performance venues and The Gaslight Café. And the music, as we’ve noted, is marvelous.

But, despite it all, despite this carefully observed life of this unremittingly unpleasant man, there’s nothing here that’s worth two hours of a viewer’s life. The movie offers no new or interesting insights into any of the threads the story follows: self-belief v selfishness; integrity v commercialism; how we try to fit in to the world around us. It’s as dreary as its hero, as dour as his life.