After the thunderous reception for J.J. Abrams' Episode VII: The Force Awakens two years ago, writer-director Rian Johnson had a lot to live up to with Episode VIII. And he delivers more than anyone expected: a lucid, entertaining film that operates on four distinct planes, deepens all of its characters, enriches the mythology and constantly surprises the audience with twists and turns. It's a little overwhelming, a nonstop two and a half hours of action and intensity without any time to catch your breath. But there's also a steady stream of sharp humour to help keep things in perspective.
The story picks up straight away, as the First Order led by Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) presses its advantage to wipe out the rebellion for good. Snoke is playing his apprentice Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) off against General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) for maximum effect as they launch an attack. Rebel General Leia (Carrie Fisher) is trying to protect her scrappy army, with pilot Poe (Oscar Isaac) trying against the odds to find a way to get them to safety. He sends rebel hero Finn (John Boyega) and mechanic Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) on a mission to track down a hacker who can give them a chance against the First Order. Meanwhile, Rey (Daisy Ridley) has tracked down Leia's brother, jaded Jedi master Luke (Mark Hamill), who is trying to teach her hard truths about the Force.
Each of these characters finds a surprising connection to others, derailing plans and sending each person on an unexpected journey. The way Johnson orchestrates all of this is remarkable because it's both coherent and compelling. And the actors beautifully inhabit the characters, offering telling glimpses beneath the surface. Driver has the strongest role, grappling with three other main characters to understand his destiny. It's dark and complex, and unnervingly moving. Ridley and Hamill also have powerfully gripping moments, while Isaac gets to make good on his scallywag promise in the previous film. And in her final role, the late Fisher brings a wonderfully knowing, sassy edge to Leia.
Continue reading: Star Wars: The Last Jedi Review
An intriguing premise keeps the audience gripped for about 20 minutes before the movie runs out of steam. Which is far too early. Despite the always-engaging presence of Ryan Reynolds, this fantastical thriller is slick enough to hold the attention, but fails because it's unable to generate any interest in the central characters. And instead of exploring the fascinating issues the story raises, the filmmakers instead fall back on irrelevant violence.
The story opens as billionaire Manhattan businessman Damien (Ben Kingsley) discovers he has six months to live. But he has heard about a new medical procedure called "shedding", in which his mind is implanted in a lab-grown body. At $250 million, it seems like a bargain, so he signs up with Dr Allbright (Matthew Goode) and prepares to abandon his old life for a new one. He wakes up in New Orleans as Edward (Reynolds), and begins to adjust to his fit new 35-year-old body. But after he misses his adjustment meds one day he has a series of bewildering flashbacks that make him wonder about the true nature of the shedding process. Maybe his new body wasn't so "new" after all. So he goes looking for answers, which involves teaming up with Madeline (Natalie Martinez) and seeking help from his business partner Martin (Victor Garber).
There are all kinds of intriguing themes swirling through this set-up, including issues of identity and mortality. But writers David and Alex Pastor seem uninterested in exploring any of this in lieu of a much more simplistic morality tale packed with continual shoot-out and chase scenes, plus far too much body-swapping. All of this is produced to a very high standard by director Tarsem Singh, who has a reputation for seriously stylish cinema (see The Fall or The Cell). He adds a strong edge to every scene, with intriguingly haunting editing choices and camerawork that add plenty of tension and uncertainty even if the plot itself is utterly predictable.
Continue reading: Self/Less Review
With this writing-directing debut, Joseph Gordon-Levitt delivers a remarkably assured comedy-drama while also giving himself a role that's far against his usual type. It's raucously hilarious but also surprisingly involving as it reveals the vulnerabilities of a strutting hard-man. And we're having so much fun that we barely notice that the script's approach to addiction is somewhat simplistic.
The title character is such a dude that his friends call him "the don", in reference to New Jersey gangsters. And Jon (Gordon-Levitt) has his life figured out, with a list of things he cares for: his body, home, car, family, church, friends and girls. In that order. But above everything else, his main obsession is porn. Then while hanging with his friends Bobby and Danny (Brown and Luke) he spots Barbara (Johansson), a perfect "dime" who's worth playing the long game for. Except that she has zero tolerance for pornography, so he has to hide his addiction from her, only confessing to his parish priest and an unexpectedly sympathetic fellow student (Moore) at night school.
Like a character from Jersey Shore, Jon is such a charming loser that we can't help but love him. But despite the macho swagger and gym-honed physique, he's also deeply devoted to his parents (the fabulous Danza and Headly) and happiest when he's cleaning his flat. Gordon-Levitt wouldn't be the first actor you'd think of in this role, but he plays it perfectly, letting us see the little boy behind the tough-guy posturing and making us believe that he's fallen for the charms of this idealised woman (Johansson is simply hysterical).
Continue reading: Don Jon Review
For a time travel thriller, this film is remarkably free of head-scratching anomalies in the plot, instead concentrating on richly developed characters and goosebump-inducing action. This is an unusually intimate action blockbuster, which gives the cast a chance to do something more resonant than we expect. And writer-director Rian Johnson takes a Christopher Nolan-style approach to the story, using intelligence and strikingly inventive filmmaking to draw us in.
Johnson is also reuniting with his Brick star Gordon-Levitt. He plays Joe, a looper in 2044 Kansas whose job is to kill men who are sent back 30 years in time by the mob, even though time travel has been outlawed. Joe knows that one day his victim will be his older self, sent back to close his loop, giving him 30 years of retirement. But when the older Joe (Willis) appears, he escapes, and now a manhunt is on. If Joe doesn't catch his older self, his boss (Daniels) will do something even more drastic than a vicious henchman (Dillahunt) has in mind. So Joe hides out in a rural farmhouse with single mother Sara (Blunt) and her young son Cid (Gagnon), with whom Joe creates an unusual bond.
The film is beautifully shot and edited, with a noir tone established by a knowing narration and the fact that most characters are addicted to a drug they take as eye-drops. And while it opens with some lively humour and witty edginess, things become darker as the story unfolds, especially when older Joe starts hunting Terminator-style for the younger version of an evil man who has too much power in the future. The hitch is that this man is a 5-year-old in the present day.
Continue reading: Looper Review
What immediately sets Conversations apart is how, over its 85 minutes, it makes such fun and inventive use of the split-screen technique. The technique's most obvious function is to convey how the story's man and woman (Aaron Eckhart and Helena Bonham Carter), no matter their passion for each other, inhabit disparate and irreconcilable worlds. But it goes brilliantly beyond that, using split-screen also for flashbacks, triggered by memory, in which younger versions of the characters (Erik Eidem and Nora Zehetner), play out the halcyon days of their long-ago romance. What's more, the details of these flashbacks warp and alter, depending on who's doing the remembering. In an intriguing twist, the split-screen projects not only alternate versions of the past, but of the present too -- showing variations on small but important moments either as a character perceives they happened or he/she wishes they had. It's a sensationally expressive use of a tired cinematic device, now revitalized and itself revitalizing a tired genre.
Continue reading: Conversations With Other Women Review
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