For those hoping that there may have been a substantial uptick in quality between J.J. Abrams’s The Force Awakens and Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi—in much the same way that The Empire Strikes Back improved on Star Wars—you may need a new hope. The latest entrant in this now-Disney-owned franchise is largely content to further the themes and narrative strategies of its predecessor: Johnson, a filmmaker who proved capable of crafting individualistic, tightly wound sci-fi with 2012’s Looper, too often seems to think that the best he can bring to Star Wars is an amped-up version of Abrams’s overly reverent tribute to George Lucas’s original films.
The Last Jedi’s manically paced first 90 minutes include two lengthy spacecraft battles and at least three independent plotlines. Johnson makes a great effort to leaven the freneticism of this chaos by indulging in a handful of comic set pieces: The film’s first scene is an extended crank-call joke, and there are several petty disses directed at a “new Vader” who isn’t quite filling his grandfather’s oversized helmet. But these moments feel like exaggerations of things Abrams did in The Force Awakens—with the wry self-awareness coming off as more tiresome by comparison, since this franchise should feel less burdened by now with the task of establishing itself and its lineage.
The good news is that Johnson has a bit more of his own plan here than the first half of his film suggests: The Last Jedi becomes essentially bifurcated, thanks to one decisive, unexpected break from this series’s tradition-bound progression that reverberates across the film’s various narrative threads. But The Last Jedi’s two-and-half-hour sprawl still includes an awful lot of clunky, derivative, and largely unnecessary incidents to wade through in order to get to its maverick last act. This is especially true when it comes to the plausibility-straining mission of stormtrooper turned Rebel Alliance fighter Finn (John Boyega) and puckish series newcomer Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran).
In order to hack into, what else, a giant battleship, the two young recruits are first dispatched to a nearby planet with a lavish casino run by rich arms dealers—who, it turns out, profit from supplying weapons to both sides of the galaxy’s seemingly eternal good-versus-evil conflict. Johnson establishes the opulent casino space with a gliding push-in, whizzing past an array of inventive creatures and costumes, in a scene that’s very much designed to capture the bustling feel of Chalmun’s Cantina, from the original Star Wars (but in a far more socially upscale context). After this shot, though, the setting is largely discarded, as Johnson abruptly refocuses on, and hastily defines, an underground culture of enslaved children and racing llama-like beasts. The film sidles up to an anti-colonialist sentiment but doesn’t devote it any time, instead spending its energy on a CGI llama stampede.
There’s a very good 90-minute version of The Last Jedi that strips out the extraneous subplots and zeroes in on the emotionally compelling relationship between self-assured hero Rey (Daisy Ridley) and the vulnerable villain, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). While Rey spends much of her time in the film with her new master, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill)—on that remote planet she landed on at the end of The Force Awakens—she finds herself able to telepathically link with Kylo Ren. The two rivals’ shared scenes boast a surprising tenderness and intensity, thanks largely to Johnson’s careful framing, which puts the viewer just off axis enough from the actors’ eyelines to avoid the breaking of the fourth wall but still conveys a creepy sense of closeness.
The Last Jedi does pull many of its disparate parts together in its markedly stronger final stretch, which also happens to include the film’s two best set pieces: a lightsaber duel in a Twin Peaks-like red room and an impeccably paced airship battle through a sprawling, crimson-dyed mineral mine. But Johnson’s ambitions here can easily be over-sold: Most of the surprising plot twists and character developments that eventually enliven The Last Jedi walk back their radical implications on the story, and revert to the resolutions we’ve come to expect from a trilogy beholden to recycling its themes of misplaced hope and heroic sacrifice. Three films into the Disney Star Wars era, there have been enough unique elements introduced to this familiar world to suggest the kind of ways Star Wars could grow and change. But there’s also been resistance to letting those elements escape an oppressive sameness.
Cast: Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Andy Serkis, Lupita Nyong'o, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Gwendoline Christie, Kelly Marie Tran, Laura Dern, Benicio del Toro Director: Rian Johnson Screenwriter: Rian Johnson Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Running Time: 152 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2017 Buy: Video, Soundtrack
Review: The Changeover Enjoyably Pinballs Between Disparate Fantasy Styles
If, in the end, the film’s narrative fails to cohere, the journey getting there is at least enjoyably swift-paced.2.5
Miranda Harcourt and Stuart McKenzie’s The Changeover is an unusual and mostly enjoyable hybrid of disparate fantasy styles. Based on the 1984 young adult novel by Margaret Mahy, the film suggests a superhero origin story, developing a convoluted internal mythology involving a coven of benevolent witches, an evil vampiric “larva” who sucks the youthful vitality out of young children, and a “sensitive” schoolgirl, Laura (Erana James), who receives psychic premonitions of future harm. When the larva, Carmody (Timothy Spall), picks Laura’s kid brother (Benji Purchase) as his next victim, it’s up to her to save him.
It can be a little difficult to keep the story’s mythos straight, particularly when, in its final third, the film launches into a lengthy Inception-style action sequence that takes place entirely in a dream realm. By the time the credits roll, it’s not entirely clear what just happened, and exactly why. McKenzie’s script has to resort to voiceover narration—present only in the very beginning and end of the film—to fill in some of the gaps, and even then, not every piece of the puzzle seems to fit together. This makes for an ultimately somewhat confusing and unsatisfying viewing experience, at least for anyone who’s never read Mahy’s supernatural teen romance. But sometimes it’s better to feel a little lost than to know too much: The film confidently powers ahead without feeling the need, as so many fantasy stories do, to halt the momentum every reel or two to offer a dull exposition dump.
As directors, Harcourt and McKenzie eschew the soporific melancholia of teen fantasy films like Twilight in favor of a lithe, angular visual approach—including impressionistic close-ups and skittering, almost Michael Mann-ish handheld shots—that grounds the story’s supernatural goings-on in a sense of reality without draining them of their fantastical charm. Spall strikes a similarly appealing balance between plausibility and outright camp, digging into his villainous role with teeth-gnashing glee. Pitched somewhere between a deranged hobo and Mr. Dark from Something Wicked This Way Comes, his performance provides a fun yet menacing foil to James’s haunted, obsessive turn as Laura.
Even when the specific details of the film’s plot may seem silly or confused, Laura remains credible and compelling. It’s this carefully managed equilibrium between the inherent preposterousness of its mystical milieu and the convincing emotional reality of Laura’s journey that ultimately makes The Changeover, for all its muddled mythos, a lively and engaging excursion into an unusually naturalistic world of magic.
Cast: Timothy Spall, Melanie Lynskey, Lucy Lawless, Nicholas Galitzine, Erana James, Kate Harcourt, Benji Purchase, Ella Edward, Thomasin McKenzie, Claire Van Beek Director: Miranda Harcourt, Stuart McKenzie Screenwriter: Stuart McKenzie Distributor: Vertical Entertainment Running Time: 95 min Buy: Book
Review: 1900 Obliterates the Barriers Between Story and History
Bernardo Bertolucci’s film is a living, fluid organism that spans the distances between several poles of extremity.3.5
A handful of iconic films are inseparable from a single, equally iconic review. Whether it was a pan, a rave, or somewhere in the middle, is immaterial: The piece of writing and the film are, by chance rather than design, now joined at the hip in the minds of every well-read viewer that encounters the film from that day forward. There’s John Ford’s Wee Willie Winkie, which inspired Graham Greene to write a provocative contemplation of wee Shirley Temple’s “adult” appeal. (A consequent lawsuit by 20th Century Fox further inspired Greene to flee to Mexico.) 1900 was Italian maestro Bernardo Bertolucci’s first film after Last Tango in Paris, the runaway international success of which can at least partly be attributed to a goalpost-shifting, all-stops-out rave by New Yorker critic Pauline Kael.
1900 didn’t necessarily send Kael into comparable flights of exaltation, but her review is almost as much a landmark as the one for Last Tango in Paris, in its way. Before getting to the business of weighing and measuring the qualities and liabilities of Bertolucci’s epic, a multi-generational mural that seeks to envelop the whole of the century up to that point, Kael circled the pool before swimming, meditating on the very idea of the director’s—any director’s—grandest gesture, the epic that danced on the knife edge between brilliant and insane, noble and foolish. It wasn’t a “think piece,” in today’s parlance, not the way Kael transmitted levies and decrees from her high judicial seat. Rather, it sought to address as directly as possible the tendency for auteurs of a certain stripe to render unto mortal audiences a monument of—and to—the cinema, a true gesamtkunstwerk in motion-picture form.
The gesamtkunstwerk, generally attributed (not exclusively) to Richard Wagner, has a special resonance with the cinema. While in the 19th century a “total art work” would combine or hybridize elements of several different media, the movies seemed to be one-stop shopping for visionaries with similar dreams of amalgamation and “total”-ness, pitched at the grandest scale, and encompassing the largest themes. Directors like D.W. Griffith and Abel Gance, as well as Hollywood moguls like David O. Selznick, attempted such Herculean exertions, but a film like 1900 is unimaginable during earlier decades. It requires the picture-window magnitude of widescreen cinema (without the lateral restrictions of the Cinemascope frame). It requires the new open-mindedness of art-house moviegoers in a post-Midnight Cowboy, post-Last Tango in Paris era, given the graphic nature of some scenes—some of which, without getting too specific, you’ll never, ever, be able to un-see. There’s the relentlessly mobile camera, requiring the most up-to-date production technology, and which seems to prowl and sweep at the same time. And there’s the melting pot of American and European stars, emblematic of an international cinema scene preordained by Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s The Barefoot Contessa and Vincente Minnelli’s Two Weeks in Another Town.
Similar barriers between story and history are obliterated. 1900, of course, doesn’t draw lines around the world’s 20th century so much as limit the breadth and depth of the whole world to the story of modern Italy, from the death of Verdi in 1901 to the innumerable planes of struggle following WWII. This isn’t the kind of film that adheres to any tradition of screenwriting discipline; resolutely episodic, even its episodes (which are countless) are often amorphous, flowing and breathing into what happened before, and what comes after.
The heads of the principal characters are drunk on tempestuous cocktails of primal urges, political convictions, and sexual impulses. No corner of Italian society seems to escape Bertolucci’s attention, but, if anything, it’s most frequently concerned with class warfare, setting up Robert De Niro’s Alfredo Berlinghieri and Gérard Depardieu’s Olmo Dalco as respective totems of the landowner and peasant class, locked in eternal conflict, right to the end of the line—and to the present moment. Bertolucci’s concept of the epic is to fashion a living, fluid organism that spans the distances between several poles of extremity: ancient and modern, agony and ecstasy, life and theater, rich and poor. Foremost, perhaps, is Bertolucci’s trademark ability to weave intimate spaces into infinitely larger tapestries. If it fails, as some critics have noted—beginning with Kael—to live up to its ambition to stand as the greatest of all films, it is perhaps only because the century is itself profoundly, humanly disappointing.
Cast: Robert De Niro, Gérard Depardieu, Burt Lancaster, Dominique Sanda, Sterling Hayden, Donald Sutherland, Francesca Bertini, Laura Betti, Werner Bruhns, Stefania Casini, Anna Henkel, Ellen Schwiers, Alida Valli, Romolo Valli, Bianca Magliacca, Giacomo Rizzo, Pippo Campanini Director: Bernardo Bertolucci Screenwriter: Franco Arcalli, Giuseppe Bertolucci, Bernardo Bertolucci Distributor: Paramount Pictures Running Time: 317 min Rating: NR Year: 1976 Buy: Video
Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Actress
Sometimes it’s important to just step back and pay your respects to a remarkable actress.
Sometimes it’s important to just step back and pay your respects to a remarkable actress for having given a performance that, while not your, um, favourite nominated one, is still deserving of an Oscar victory lap. Now, if only others felt the same. Very early on in the awards season, there was already a sense that this award could become a career-achievement coronation for the six-time losing Glenn Close—and that people were going to have a problem squaring that with the fact that her Oscar would be tied to a film perceived to be a piffle. That’s not an inaccurate perception, but it’s difficult to remember a time when critics have used that as an excuse to not do their homework.
In short, have you seen The Wife? Indeed, until the awards-media system’s attention shifted full time into covering AMPAS’s A Series of Unfortunate Oscar Decisions, it seemed as if every day brought us a new article by some pundit about the Oscar race in which it strangely sounded as if the The Wife was still a blind spot for the writer. Which is shame, because Close gives good face throughout the film. Certainly, few Oscar-nominated films this year are as absurd as The Wife, but I’ll do battle with anyone who thinks Close is getting by on her legend alone. Close’s triumph is recognizing The Wife’s inherent ludicrousness and elevating it, and without condescension, with a kabuki-like verve that seeks to speak to the experiences of all women who’ve been oppressed by their men. It’s a turn worthy of Norma Desmond.
Today, the most reliable Oscar narrative is the overdue performer. And if you take stock in that narrative, then you’ll understand why I texted Eric, my fellow Oscar guru, the following on the morning of November 29: “I think Close is going to Still Alice at the Oscars.” After that morning, when the New York Film Critics Circle officially kick-started the Oscar season (and gave their award for best actress to Regina Hall in Support the Girls), no actress ran the table with the critics and guilds, but most of the cards that matter did fall into place for Close, and much as they did for Julianne Moore ahead of her winning the Oscar for Still Alice.
This was a done deal when Close won the Golden Globe, received a standing ovation, and gave the night’s most impassioned speech, immediately after which Eric conceded that my instincts had been right. Of course, that was no doubt easy for him to admit given that, by that point, the oxygen had already seeped out of A Star Is Born’s awards campaign, leaving only Olivia Colman in Close’s way. Colman has worked the campaign trail in spectacular ways, giving speeches that have been every bit as droll as this, but in the end, she doesn’t have the SAG, and as bold and subversive as her performance certainly is, it isn’t sufficiently big enough to convince enough AMPAS members that Close should continue waiting for Oscar.
Will Win: Glenn Close, The Wife
Could Win: Olivia Colman, The Favourite
Should Win: Olivia Colman, The Favourite