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Non-Review Review: Star Wars – Episode VIII: The Last Jedi

Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi is visually sumptuous, thematically rich, but narratively clumsy.

There is a lot to love in The Last Jedi. Most notably, the gamble that Disney took on director Rian Johnson has paid off. The Last Jedi looks and feels like no other Star Wars movie. It is not simply the intimacy with which Johnson stages conversations separated by half a galaxy, nor the high quality visual effects. There is an endearing and appearing sense of wonder to The Last Jedi, as if watching a small child playing with action figures and humming the lightsabre noise to himself. The Last Jedi feels like the work of somebody continuing and expanding a story, more than just recreating it.

Rey of Hope.

Indeed, the best moments in The Last Jedi struggle to reach beyond what audiences have come to expect from the franchise. Some of this is inherited from the ambition of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, particularly in early scenes that emphasise the human cost of this galactic struggle. However, there are other more ponderous moments in The Last Jedi when it seems like Johnson and his characters are asking profound questions of the franchise itself, poking at the underlying assumptions that power this box office behemoth.

This was essential for the success of The Last Jedi. Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens was an exercise in nostalgia that worked so well because of three factors; it was a palette cleanser after the prequels, it innovated by pushing background characters to the narrative foreground, and it was released more than a decade after Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith. Nostalgia is not enough to sustain a franchise that will be releasing one major motion picture a year for the foreseeable future. The Last Jedi needs to find something interesting to say about a forty-year-old franchise.

Seeing red.

In its best moments, it seems like The Last Jedi is lining up its arguments. It looks at the Star Wars universe through new sets of eyes, often in a literal sense. Johnson is not a director in the vein of Lucas or Abrams. Johnson is not a director who feels entirely comfortable with spectacle and scale. Instead, Johnson offers a tighter and closer glimpse at the universe and the people who inhabit it. There is a lot of focus on faces in The Last Jedi, shadows moving across them, eyes either focused or trying desperately to look away.

However, The Last Jedi ultimately lacks the courage of its convictions. The bolder and more provocative suggestions at the heart of the narrative remain just that, nothing more than implications or subtext. The Last Jedi has intriguing and bold ideas, but lacks the resolve to follow them through to their logical conclusions. Although undoubtedly less nostalgic than The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi remains too trapped by its own past to fully chart its own course and map its own destiny.

Shore thing.

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Non-Review Review: Lady Bird

Lady Bird is a sweet and charming little film, one anchored in two great central performances from Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf.

Lady Bird is relaxed and casual, a story of teenage anxiety unfolding at its own pace without any tangible sense of stakes or scale. Lady Bird is a refreshingly quiet and sincere movie, one that captures a lot of the listlessness associated with youth, the obliviousness to the reality of the outside world, the struggle to define a unique identity. For all the film is anchored in its Californian surroundings, Lady Bird is a universal coming of age story.

Blessing in disguise.

Like its protagonist, Lady Bird is smart and wry, if a little directionless and unsure of itself. However, the movie works in large part because of the decision to build its emotional core around the relationship between the eponymous character and her mother. Ronan is phenomenal here, but Metcalf is just as able to match her co-star. Both actors deliver raw and genuine performances that perfectly capture the push-and-pull of any real-life familial dynamic.

Lady Bird is perhaps a little too eccentric and a little too whimsical in places, drawing its supporting cast in broad strokes and leaning a little too heavily into stereotypes of adolescence, but the film has a warm and beating heart that sustains it for its ninety-three-minute runtime.

Bye, bye, birdie.

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Non-Review Review: Darkest Hour

Darkest Hour is a powerhouse performance nested inside a fairly formulaic film.

In terms of plot, Darkest Hour is very much a familiar cinematic biography. Building off the template cemented by writer Peter Morgan on The Deal, The Queen, The Special Relationship and Rush, this is a film that explores its subject through the lens of a single event. The plot of Darkest Hour unfolds across May 1940, in the shadow the Second World War. It charts the life of Winston Churchill from the resignation of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain to the evacuation of Dunkirk. It is tightly focused, and perhaps the better for that.

Winston, Loseton.

In many ways, Darkest Hour feels like a collection of pop culture standards. Churchill is such an iconic part of European history, and this month was so crucial, that audiences have almost reached saturation point with narratives documenting key moments in the life of the statesman. Darkest Hour cannot help but evoke shades of everything from The King’s Speech to The Crown to Dunkirk, all of which share some sense of the same time and place. Darkest Hour simply combines a lot of pop culture Churchill into what amounts to a “greatest hits” package.

With that in mind, it should be no surprise that Darkest Hour is elevated by the central performance from an almost unrecognisable Gary Oldman. If pop culture has synthesised Churchill’s history to a collection of “greatest hits”, then it is the delivery that truly matters. Oldman carries the film home.

Two-finger salute.

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Non-Review Review: Jumanji – Welcome to the Jungle

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is a weird and interesting experiment, in part because it is a nostalgic and belated sequel that remains caught between its past and the present.

Welcome to the Jungle joins a long (and perhaps undistinguished) line of twenty-first century franchise revivals for beloved nineties properties. The original Jumanji was a hardly a breakout hit, even if it did make an impression on a younger generation who would have grown up on it as part of Robin Williams’ nineties family-friendly oeuvre along with Hook or Ms. Doubtfire. Indeed, Jumanji is arguably the nineties Robin Williams film most perfectly suited to a revival like this, in that it involves a premise that can be divorced from its iconic and beloved star.

Franchises find a way.

At the same time, Jumanji is undoubtedly near the bottom of nineties adventure films in need of a revival, lurking in the shadow of other resurrected blockbusters like Independence Day or Jurassic Park. Perhaps because of this distance, and perhaps because of the lack of a true cult iconography, Jumanji serves as an interesting control case. This is a film with one leg in the present, aimed at what modern families expect from blockbuster entertainment. The other leg it planted firmly in the past, harking back to certain aspects of formula that seem almost quaint.

Welcome to the Jungle is not a particularly good film, but it is an interesting one. It serves as a prism through which certain aspects of nostalgia might be deconstructed and explored.

Players.

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Non-Review Review: The Post

The Post is clean, efficient and timely.

Even to those unfamiliar with the historical events that inspired the film, there will be very little in The Post that is surprising. The Post follows a very clear trajectory for a prestige picture coming into awards season, setting up its character arcs and trajectories in a very straightforward manner and following them all on their clearly defined paths towards the end credits. It is very easy to see where the story will end up, and there are surprisingly few twists and turns in the narrative as it develops.

Food for thought.

However, there is something endearing in this efficiency. The Post famously came together in a hurry while director Steven Spielberg was waiting for postproduction work on Ready Player One, and the film serves as a showcase for the effectiveness of the creative talent involved in the production. The Post is unlikely to become a defining or signature film for anybody involved in its production, but instead exists as a testament to the sheer technique and craft of that production team.

The Post is not a masterpiece or a classic, but it is a sleek and well-made film.

Old news.

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Non-Review Review: I, Tonya

I, Tonya is a biopic for the post-truth era. It is also brilliant.

The subject of I, Tonya will be casually familiar to most viewers, the figure skater Tonya Harding who was implicated in an attack on fellow figure skater Kerrigan. The incident was a flashpoint for the nascent twenty-four hour news cycle in the early nineties, although most people remember it as a warm-up for the O.J. Simpson case only shortly afterwards. As such, I, Tonya feels like the perfect window through which to examine the modern era’s obsessive celebrity-focused culture and the desire to turn our heroes into monsters for the audience’s viewing pleasure.

Putting her own spin on it.

I, Tonya is fascinating on that level alone. Its characters repeatedly break the fourth wall in an attempt to steer and control the narrative, but occasionally do so to indict the audience for their complicity. I, Tonya is a film that understands it cannot be about this media maelstrom without being part of this media maelstrom. There’s a canny knowingness to I, Tonya, an understanding that a movie about culture’s slipping grip on the idea of reality cannot be too earnest or too sincere.

I, Tonya repeatedly suggests that its story may stray into the realm of fantasy and fiction, but the movie still packs a real punch.

Get your skates on, mate.

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Non-Review Review: The Disaster Artist

The Disaster Artist opens by professing its love for its subject, the enigmatic Tommy Wiseau.

A variety of talking heads, primarily comedians, make a reasonable case for The Room as a beloved cult classic. The segment is short, but it sets the tone for a lot of what follows. The Disaster Artist doesn’t exactly obscure the (infamous) difficulties experienced during the production of that cult classic, mostly caused by the fragile ego and highly strung creative force behind the movie. However, there is also a sense that The Disaster Artist has an abiding affection for its subject, a sincere appreciation for the sheer force of Tommy Wiseau’s will.

Wiseau guy.

The Disaster Artist is ultimately a heartwarming tale about an outsider overcoming nearly impossible odds (which are not helped by the temperament of the outsider himself) to realise his dreams. Tommy Wiseau comes to Hollywood and decides to make something of himself, despite being told that he has no talent and no charisma, and that the best he could hope for would be to be cast as a “malevolent presence.” Wiseau proves all of his doubters wrong by shepherding his vision through a disastrous production cycle and releasing a cult classic.

It just so happens that Wiseau’s vision is absolutely terrible.

Edge of your seat stuff.

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