Tag: Adam Driver

The Last Duel (2021)

The Last Duel header1
Adam Driver and Matt Damon fight The Last Duel in medieval France

Director: Ridley Scott

Cast: Matt Damon (Sir Jean de Carrouges), Adam Driver (Jacques Le Gris), Jodie Comer (Marguerite de Carrouges), Ben Affleck (Count Pierre d’Alencon), Harriet Walter (Nicole de Buchard), Alex Lawther (King Charles VI), Marton Csorkas (Crespin), Željko Ivanek (Le Coq), Tallulah Haddon (Marie), Bryony Hannah (Alice), Nathaniel Parker (Sir Robert de Thibouville), Adam Nagaitis (Adam Louvel)

The medieval era had its own solution for “He said, She said”. Let God decide via a fight to the death. After all, He would never let the injured party lose, would he? Scott’s The Last Duel is a dramatisation of one of the last French judicial duels, in December 1386, between Sir Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) and his former friend Jacques le Gris (Adam Driver), after Le Gris is accused of raping Carrouge’s wife Marguerite (Jodie Comer). Scott’s Rashomon-inspired film shows the events leading up to the duel from all three characters’ perspectives.

The three different stories we see are not radically different. Unlike Rashomon – which presented totally different versions of the same events, according to the prejudices or agendas of the storytellers – The Last Duel’s versions stress subtly different reactions or presents different fragments of an overall story. So, for instance, Le Gris and Carrouges remember different elements of a battle. Carrouges recalls the noble charge to save the innocent, saving Le Gris’ life in the final stages of combat. To Le Gris it’s a suicidal charge, in which he saves an unhorsed Carrouge’s life. After the rape, Carrouge remembers offering his wife sympathy; she remembers his anger and demand they have sex at once to “cleanse her” of the stain.

These mixed recollections work best when we see each of them remember a fateful reconciliation meeting between Le Gris and Carrouges (where Le Gris and Marguerite first meet). A wedge has been driven between them ever since Carrouges believed Le Gris cheated him out of both land and his father’s former position. When the two agree to try and put the past behind them, Carrouge asks Marguerite to give Le Gris a kiss of peace. He remembers her surprise and timidity. Le Gris remembers her as being quietly excited with a kiss that lingers. Marguerite remembers a kiss from Le Gris that lingers too long. Small moments like this are where the film is at its strongest, making its concept feel very relevant today in our world of accusation and counter accusation.

But these moments are few and far between. Most of the time there isn’t this subtle variation. Where the film is weakest is when we (frequently) see the same events, presented the same way, three times. While our perception of Carrouges changes – from the ill-treated noble he sees himself to the sullen, self-entitled whiner everyone else sees – our idea of Le Gris is fundamentally the same (blissfully self-entitled). Fundamentally, when we see events the first time, later versions only really tweak our perception of them rather than challenge it.

You can see this in the rape itself, which we first see from Le Gris’ perspective. The film shows Le Gris’ understanding of consent has been twisted by most of his sexual experience being court orgies with playfully protesting prostitutes. His pursuit of a genuinely unwilling Margeurite around her room echoes exactly the pretend-chases and “chat up lines” he’s used in those earlier scenes, so we understand it’s possible he doesn’t actually understand he’s raped her. But no viewer can see Le Gris’ version as anything other than rape. In fact, the only tangible difference when we see the event from her perspective is that her screams of “No” and “Stop” are louder and the camera focuses more on her anguished face. If the film is presenting any tension about whether this is a consensual encounter or rape, it ends the second we see Le Gris’ story.

This negatively effects the drama – and actually makes Marguerite’s version seem strangely superfluous. You start to feel we might as well see all three perspectives at the same time, as the narrative trick ends up adding little to the film – especially since the film categorically states Marguerite’s version is the truth. Why not just tell the whole film from her perspective in that case? It also doesn’t help that Marguerite goes last – which means until an hour into the film, the character we should be most engaged with and sympathetic towards has stood on the side-lines.

This is particularly unfortunate as the film is striving for a feminist message. The men are callous and self-obsessed, treating women as sex toys or assets – and are praised for it. Marguerite though is intelligent and principled, marginalised by her husband and condemned as a whore when she protests her rape. She pushes her case with determination, despite discovering she will be condemned to burn if Carrouge loses (he of course is only in his own honour). Her word is only good if backed a man, and she is powerless to defend her innocence.

It’s the lot of medieval women. Harriet Walter (rocking a bizarre appearance, straight out of David Lynch’s Dune) as Carrouge’s mother tells Marguerite the same thing happened to her, but she considered it pointless (and dangerous) to press charges. What we see of the judicial system is ruthlessly unjust and misanthropic, with women harangued to confess their guild for tempting men.

But it doesn’t quite click together. It’s a shame, as many scenes are highly effective. The rape – both times we see it – is alarming. The final duel is brilliantly shot and hugely tense, not least because Marguerite stands literally on the top of an unlit bonfire watching every blow. Scott’s shoots the film with the same blue-filtered beauty he gave to the early scenes of Kingdom of Heaven.

There is of course an oddness in seeing such American actors as Damon, Affleck and Driver in period setting. The accents are an odd mix: Comer basically uses her regular (non-Scouse) performance voice, Damon does a gravelly version of his own, Walter an American twang to match Damon, Affleck is halfway to plummy Brit, Driver flattens his Californian tones. Damon is pretty good as the sulky, surly Carrouge who gets less sympathetic the more we see him, Driver is suitably charming on the surface but selfish. Comer plays wounded injustice extremely well and brings a lot of emotion to a difficult role. Affleck has the most fun, flouncing around in a blonde wig as a lordly, hedonistic pervert who likes nothing more than belittling Carrouge.

The Last Duel is part way to a decent film, but it just lacks that little bit extra to make it really come to life. Its alternative versions of the truth don’t illuminate as much as they need to – even if they are at points pleasingly subtle in their differences. It has an admirable feminist message, but defers most of it to the second half of the film (were they worried about sidelining the famous male actors?) and it’s concern that we should not doubt Marguerite at any point does undermine its drama. Handsomely filmed, it doesn’t make the impact it should. Perhaps that’s why it was one of the leading box office disasters of the Covid Pandemic?

House of Gucci (2021)

House of Gucci (2021)

Ridley Scott’s bizarre film is half-pantomime, half true-crime drama

Director: Ridley Scott

Cast: Lady Gaga (Patrizia Reggiani), Adam Driver (Maurizio Gucci), Jared Leto (Paolo Gucci), Jeremy Irons (Rudolfo Gucci), Al Pacino (Aldo Gucci), Salma Hayek (Giuseppe Auriemma), Jack Huston (Domenico De Sole), Reeve Carney (Tom Ford), Camille Cottin (Paola Franchi), Youssef Kerkour (Nemi Kirdar)

There are few juicier combinations than glamour, money, fashion and true crime. Scott’s House of Gucci taps into this with a film that’s somewhere between pantomime and tragedy. Full of actors giving their very best “Mamma Mia!” Italian accents and shrugging shoulders, it oscillates wildly from scene-to-scene between black comedy and operatic high drama. It’s a strange mixture, with House of Gucci becoming some sort of bizarre treat, like an end-of-year treat for cinema viewers to unwrap.

The film follows the disastrous marriage between Maurizio Gucci (Adam Driver) and Patrizia Reggiani (Lady Gaga). Patrizia, a ruthlessly ambitious gold digger, zeroes in on the shy Maurizio, heir to 50% of the Gucci fashion fortune, and marries him. This is all to the horror of his father Rudulfo (Jeremy Irons), who (correctly) identifies Patrizia’s ambitions, and cuts them off. Taken under the wing of Rudolfo’s brother Aldo (Al Pacino), Patrizia pushes Maurizio into a management role in the company – and down a slippery slope that will lead to forgery, betrayal and eventually murder.

House of Gucci feels like it might have existed more comfortably as a ten-part TV drama. It’s essentially a big, brash version of the Emmy-award winning The People vs. OJ Simpson, but told in about a quarter of the time. What this basically means is that any subtle character work and detailed story telling is sacrificed, with the focus firmly on the salacious and entertaining drama. The overall effect is a swift rush through a story that becomes a series of sensational, almost comedic, clashes between larger-than-life personalities squabbling over a huge pot of money. Like Dallas on the big-screen, it’s all scored with a series of funky pop tunes, adding to the sense of pantomime.

It’s an odd outing from Scott, with (it felt to me) little of the individual stylistic touches that he has bought to other projects. In fact there’s very little of his stamp on it: it’s Scott as professional craftsman. He and the film feel very confused by the tone. Mostly the film doubles down on black humour and show-casing big, brash performances. Then it might acknowledge briefly that there were real victims here, which it wants to treat with a level of respect. By and large, the film is like a glossy magazine article, with Scott nudging you as you turn each page and saying “you will not believe what happened next!”

I suppose House of Gucci probably could have explored more the personal and emotional hinterlands of its characters. Relationships shift dramatically from scene-to-scene, with Maurizio and Patrizia’s marriage souring over-night, for no clear reason. Pre-existing family rivalries and politics could have been explored more: it’s heavily implied Aldo and Rudolfo are already engaged in a struggle of ideals (Aldo wants commercial expansion, Rudolfo to remain an elitist fashion house). Drama could have been made of the attempts by both brothers to use other members of the family as pawns in this feud. But then, a film that dived into the psychology of the players might well have ended up being more about business and less about the entertaining ruthlessness of the rich and famous.

The performances are wildly different in tone. Lady Gaga effectively holds the film together as an ambitious woman who is only partially aware (at first) of what a ruthless gold digger she is. Devoid of any interests other than being rich (“I’m a people pleaser” she tells Rudolfo when asked what her interests are), Patrizia is the sort of monster of ambition who would fit comfortably into an episode of Desperate Housewives. Setting her cap at Maurizio with a laser-like focus and shafting everyone left, right and centre (although Gaga does hint at her deeply repressed insecurity) it’s a performance that walks a fine line between OTT and human. The film has a lot of fun at her amoral certainty – she sees no problem with forging Rudolfo’s signature on some vital papers after his death (the film even sets forgery up as Chekhov’s skill in its opening scenes) and Gaga enjoyably plays the outrage that only someone convinced they never wrong can feel.

Opposite her, Driver plays Maurizio as a timid, easily seduced young man, pushed into taking a leading role in a business he has no real interest in (or aptitude for). Driver is softly spoken – and gives the most restrained and grounded performance in the film – and frequently meets another demand from his wife with a chuckle and a reluctant “Patrizia…”. House of Gucci steps carefully around Maurizio, sometimes playing him as an innocent abroad, at others as a man corrupted by his wife into a creature of ambition.

Most of the rest of the cast go for a broad style which, while fun to watch, only adds to the sense that we aren’t supposed to be taking anything too seriously. While many of the Gucci family probably were larger-than-life personalities, I’m not sure they could have been the cartoons they are here. Irons goes for a waspish Scar-like mastery of the cutting remark. Pacino doubles down on his shoulder-hunched energy, with added shouting. Hayek gives a performance that’s a near master-class in Vampish camp, plotting murder from a mud bath.

Towering above them all is Jared Leto, who seems to be in a film all of his own, with every scene another clip for his “for your consideration” show-reel. Buried under a mountain of latex that transforms him into a clone of Jeffrey Tambor, Leto goes all out as the passionate, ultra-stereotypical-Italian Paolo Gucci, in a performance that’s either a shameless parade of showing off or somewhere near a stroke of genius. It works because, beneath all the hammy exuberance, Leto make’s Paolo a desperately sweet guy, the only real innocent in the film. Leto and Pacino in particular feed off each other – a late scene between the two is hilarious (I’m not sure in the right way, but who can tell what these actors are aiming for sometimes) in its joyful overplaying.

Perhaps joy is the one thing House of Gucci needs a little bit more on. I wonder how more entertaining again it might have been if the film had really gone all out on being a camp classic. It shies away from this, wanting to leave some vestige of respect for the dead and not lose its true-crime-roots. But, I wonder if a director more suited to this material than Scott – who struggles to stamp his personality on it – might have done more to make this into a cult classic.

Midnight Special (2016)

Michael Shannon is the loyal dad in Midnight Special

Director: Jeff Nichols

Cast: Michael Shannon (Roy Tomlin), Joel Edgerton (Lucas), Kirsten Dunst (Sarah Tomlin), Adam Driver (Paul Sevier), Jaeden Lieberher (Alton), Sam Shepard (Pastor Calvin Meyer), Bill Camp (Doak), Scott Haze (Levi), Paul Sparks (Agent Miller)

At some point around its original release, someone attached the label “Spielberg-esque” to Midnight Special. I suppose this may be due to its father-son central relationship and its rough similarities to Close Encounters. But it’s a label that does the film no favours. JJ Abrahms would create a Spielberg-esque film, but Jeff Nichols? Pull the other one. Instead Jeff Nichols creates a sci-fi film that wilfully avoids explanations and turns its back as often as it can on any sentimentalism. It’s more like James Cameron crossed with existential philosophy. It certainly won’t be offering up easy entertainment.

Roy Tomlin (Michael Shannon) is on the run from the law with his son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), helped only by his friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton). Alton has mysterious powers – glowing eyes, elements of telekinesis and the ability to intercept electrical signals – that have made him a target for everyone from the government to a cult that has kept him under lock and key for years, believing he holds the key to surviving the inevitable apocalypse. Alton has an aversion to sunlight which means our heroes can only travel at night, heading towards a secret location, trying to stay one step ahead of the dangerous figures following them.

Nichols film is almost too elliptical for its own good. But then I think this is partly Nicholls point. He’s looking to subvert a few expectations here. To create a sci-fi, other-world chase movie that’s wrapped itself up in enigmas. Sadly, I think to have enigmas like this become truly engaging, you need to form a connection with the film itself – and Midnight Special fails too much here.

It keeps its cards extremely close to its chest – it only begins to dive into any sort of explanation about what’s going on over halfway into the film, and even then this is kept vague and undefined. There is virtually no exploration given of most of the characters of their backstory, bar a few key points. It’s a chase movie which frequently slows down to a crawl. It’s a science fiction film that’s largely confined to the ‘real’ world. It’s a father-and-son on the run film, which separates these two characters for a large chunk of its runtime. All this makes it very difficult to form an emotional attachment with, in the way you do with, say, Close Encounters or The Terminator (both of which leave traces in this film’s DNA).

Not that I think Nicholls will mind, as this is an attempt to do something different, more of an existential musing on humanity. Its unfortunate that this was exploration of personal regrets and tragedies against a backdrop of earth-shattering sci-fi revelations was done more absorbingly in Arrivalamong others. Compared to that, Nicholls film seems almost a little too pleased with its deep (and in the end slightly empty) mysteries and its opaque characters, many of them defined more by actions and plot functions rather than personality traits.

There’s strong work from Shannon as a father desperate to do the right thing and Lieberher as young boy who becomes calmer and more in control as the film progresses. But we never quite learn enough – or understand enough – about either of them to really invest in their fates.

And without that investment, its hard to worry in the same way about what might happen to them – or to really care about the revelations they are seeking to discover by the films conclusion. The film could counterbalance this if the ideas behind it were fascinating enough. But I am not sure they are. It touches upon questions of faith, parental love, destiny and human nature – but it studies them like they were under a microscope. Ideas are there to be excavated from it, but that doesn’t always make for great story-telling. Take the cult: there are fascinating ideas about the honesty (and pervasions) of faith, contrasting this perhaps with the overwhelming faith the father has in his son’s fate. The film introduces this – and then doesn’t really give it any depth.

It’s a problem all across the film. It’s partly a meditation on human progress and enlightenment – but the film never makes a compelling case or intellectual argument about it. Again there’s some great opportunities here, not least with Adam Driver’s fine performance as a sceptic turning believer – but it even that plotline eventually gets reduced to simply allowing someone to move from A to B for plot purposes. The film – for all the skill it’s made with and the obvious talent of Nicholls – is cold and distant.

And a cold and distant film is eventually going to get that reaction from a lot of its audience. Those who can see its merits, but never engage with it – or care about it – enough to really seek it out.

Marriage Story (2019)

Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver are an estranged couple in Marriage Story

Director: Noah Baumbach

Cast: Scarlett Johansson (Nicole Barber), Adam Driver (Charlie Barber), Laura Dern (Nora Fanshaw), Alan Alda (Bert Spitz), Ray Liotta (Jay Moratta), Azhy Robertson (Henry Barber), Julie Hagerty (Sanda), Merritt Wever (Cassie), Wallace Shawn (Frank), Martha Kelly (Nancy Katz)

It’s a scenario that more and more marriages in our modern world head towards – divorce. And it’s never easy to separate from something that has dominated your life for years, and the more that bonds two people together, the harder to pull them apart. As the film says, “it’s not as simple as not being in love any more” – and the complex emotional bonds that form between people, and the inability we have to switch these on and off like lights, are what drive Noah Baumbach’s film, heavily influenced by his own real-life divorce from Jennifer Jason Leigh.

Nicole Barber (Scarlett Johansson) is a former child-star who has built a career as a respected theatre actor in tandem with her husband Charlie Barber (Adam Driver), an acclaimed and visionary theatre director. Living in New York with their young son Henry (Azhy Robertson), their marriage is dissolving with Nicole frustrated at Charlie’s selfishness, just as Charlie is angered by what he sees as her refusal to take full responsibility for her career choices. As mediation fails, Nicole returns to LA for a role in a TV series, taking Henry with her. With divorce papers filed in LA, the couple engage in a cross-state legal battle for custody and finances, with their positions increasingly weaponised into hostile encounters by their respective legal teams. No one is coming out of this one unscathed.

Baumbach’s film is tender, sympathetic and offers a fine line of arch comedy and even farce (at points), that works over time to be as even-handed as it possibly can. The film’s sympathies are aimed not solely at husband or wife, but at the couple themselves wrapped up in the hostile, money-spinning world of divorce where, it’s strongly implied, the only real winners are the lawyers making thousands of dollars spinning out clashes as long (and as aggressively) as possible in order to cement their positions and keep their industry going.

The film is a solid denunciation of the entire industry that has grown up around divorce, where it’s seemingly impossible to find any arrangement alone without lawyers giving it a legal force, or to come out without that process consuming most of the wealth of the couple. Even worse in this case, the main battle-ground becomes the rights of each parent to access to their son, Henry’s college fund disappearing into a legal battle and the child becoming the centre of both fraught attentions and an unseemly competition for affection between both parents, effectively offering bribes for preferential responses from their son. All in order to prove that their link to him is the stronger.

The tragedy of all this – the way the system seems designed to turn personal relationships poisonous and bitter – becomes Baumbach’s focus. Brilliantly the film starts with a voiceover from both Nicole and Charlie in turn, over a montage, stressing the wide list of things they loved about their partner in the first place: part, it is revealed, of a mediation session that ends in disaster and Nicole’s walkout. But the closeness, the bond, the intimacy of these two people is revisited time and time again in the film. Legal dispute scenes and lawyer confrontations are followed by perfectly friendly home visits and regretful conversations. Legal meetings are bizarrely punctuated by coffee with conversation from the lawyers suddenly turning light and breezy. Then, as events hit a courtroom, moments like Charlie’s failure to properly install a car seat are spun out by lawyers as evidence of his risky disregard of his child’s safety while Nicole’s glass of wine after work becomes incipient alcoholism. 

For a film about divorce, it’s striking that it’s the process of divorce that turns the couple’s relationship increasingly toxic (culminating in a brutal scene where each throws increasingly personal and cruel abuse at each other for other five minutes). Sure there are resentments and anger at the front, but these are kept under reserve and still allow the couple to chat and negotiate amicably when they’re by themselves. As soon as the lawyers are involved, the mood steadily turns worse and worse. 

This is part of the film’s attempt to present the couple even-handedly. I’d say it only partially succeeds at this – with a 55/45 split in favour of Charlie, who is presented as the most “victimised” by the system, as the New York man having to prove he has a link to his now-LA-based-son. While Nicole does get a fantastic monologue (brilliantly performed by Johansson, full of regret, apology, anger and confusion) where she outlines Charlie’s selfishness, distance and probable (later confirmed) affair to her lawyer, the focus soon shifts to Charlie’s travails in the system. It’s him hit by a blizzard of demands from court and lawyer. It’s him who is separated from his son. It’s him who pays the biggest financial burden. It’s him who takes the biggest blows and has to bend his whole life to try and claim a residency in LA. It’s not a surprise Baumbach marginally favours his surrogate, but it does leave you wanting a few more scenes – especially in the latter half of the film – for the impact on Nicole.

However you keep on side with both halves of the couple thanks to the superb performances from Johansson and Driver. Johansson is both fragile and acidly combative, a woman who feels she has led someone else’s life for far too long. Driver is a bewildered gentle giant, but carrying a long streak of self-justifying self-obsession, clearly believing himself the only victim, but deeply hurt by the situation he finds himself in.

Supporting him are three very different lawyers. Laura Dern is on Oscar-winning form as Nicole’s brash, confident, ruthless defender with a smile so practised it’s hard to tell when it’s false or when it’s true. Alan Alda is endearing – but also gently out of his depth – as Charlie’s more conciliatory first lawyer (in one brilliant moment, Charlie interrupts a lengthy joke from Alda’s Bert during a sidebar with the frustrated put down “sorry Bert am I paying for this joke?”) while Ray Liotta channels De Niro roughness as his fiercely competitive second lawyer.

Marriage Story is a bittersweet, superbly made, moving but occasionally strangely funny story of a couple falling out of love and trying to find the way of converting that into a functioning co-parenting friendship. Throughout it’s not the couple, but the system making money from their dysfunction, that’s to blame in this marvellously written and superbly played drama.

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019)

Our heroes prepare for one final adventure in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

Director: JJ Abrams

Cast: Carrie Fisher (Leia Organa), Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker), Adam Driver (Kylo Ren), Daisy Ridley (Rey), John Boyega (Finn), Oscar Isaac (Poe Dameron), Ian McDiarmid (Palpatine), Billy Dee Williams (Lando Calrissian), Anthony Daniels (C-3PO), Naomi Ackie (Jannah), Domhnall Gleeson (General Hux), Richard E. Grant (Allegiant General Pryde), Lupita Nyong’o (Maz Kanata), Keri Russell (Zorii Bliss), Joonas Suotamo (Chewbecca), Kelly Marie Tran (Rose Tico)

When Disney took over the control of the Star Wars franchise, they had in mind an epic continuation of George Lucas’ space opera that would take in everything from more tales from the renamed “Skywalker saga” to standalone entries like Rogue One and Solo. Well, we are almost seven years into this journey now, and the series has delivered some hits but also the first flop Star Wars film (Solo) and the most divisive entry for the fandom ever in The Last Jedi. So where does Rise of Skywalker fall in its plans to cap the third (and they claim final, but let’s see…) trilogy?

Set a year after The Last Jedi, the Resistance has rebuilt itself under the leadership of Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), who has also been training Rey (Daisy Ridley) in the Jedi arts. Imagine their horror when a message from the not-so-late Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) rings out across the Galaxy, threatening revenge. Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) has been searching for Palpatine and forms a deal – Palpatine will make him emperor of the galaxy, if Ren will kill Rey. Meanwhile Rey heads out into the galaxy with Finn (John Boyega) and Poe (Oscar Isaac) in a race against time to find the location of Palpatine and his armada, before the late Emperor can launch a deadly attack.

JJ Abrams’ return to the franchise is also a return to the fun-focused, action-packed, fast-paced explosion of entertainment and thrills that he offered with the excellent (and still best film in this new trilogy) The Force Awakens. It will excite you, entertain you, and offers some terrific work from many of its players, not least Daisy Ridley (who has grown and grown with each film as an actress confident in carrying a huge franchise) as Rey and Adam Driver as a morally conflicted Kylo Ren. JJ Abrams gently handles the death of Carrie Fisher, skilfully using off-cuts and deleted scenes from past Star Wars films to retroactively create a series of scenes using what dialogue they had from the actress to give her arc some sort of resolution.

It’s one of many things the film gets right here, along with its electric pace and sense of excitement, that never lets up and takes you on such a gripping thrill ride that you hardly notice that most of the film makes very little if any sense (so little sense, I didn’t really understand whether the baddies were the First Order, the old Empire or the Final Order or whatever they were meant to be). It’s a top-to-bottom piece of entertainment, designed to thrill the initiate and the casual fan and give all that you might want to the superfan.

In fact you could say it’s more or less a course correction from the deeply unpopular (with certain elements of the fandom, although its box office success was huge) The Last Jedi. Rise of Skywalker lacks all the iconoclastic “forget the past” attitudes of Rian Johnson’s film. In fact it goes out of its way to ignore as much as possible everything that happened in that film – to the extent that, apart from the growing bond between Rey and Ren and the initial training of Rey, you could more or less skip over it if you wished when viewing the trilogy. I’m not sure how I feel about this – or the fact that the franchise feels it has effectively side-stepped by-far-and-away the most interesting and different film it has produced in favour of a safe-return to familiar stories.

It does mean that Rise of Skywalker is a far less brave film than Johnson’s – and one that avoids doing anything new as well. Many elements from The Last Jedi are disregarded, and all the plot hooks that film are ignored are firmly, and hurridly, reinstated. It means that Rise of Skywalker rushes from revelation to revelation, from plot point to plot point, hardly stopping to draw breath, so eager it is to give the fans what it feels they want. It’s probably a testament to fan power – but also to the savviness of film producers, working out the vast majority of people will come and see any Star Wars film, but the hardened fans will only support a film that matches their agenda.

So it reckons the fans wanted to see answers to questions raised in Force Awakens, lots and lots of cameos and call backs, and plenty of action and space battles. So Rise of Skywalker is a film almost exclusively made up of these things. While there are flaws in this approach, it does mean that this film is a joyfully fun piece of excitement, with lots of great set pieces and some terrific gags among the screenplay. JJ Abrams is a wonderfully confident director of this sort of action, and while the film often feels like it never takes a second to really explain any of its plot dynamics, he is also able to create a narrative that is much more fun and exciting than The Last Jedi, for all its faults of pacing, narrative and characterisation.

What this film does the most is hammer home the bizarre fact that Disney set about making a franchise of three films – guaranteed three films! – with no coherent thought at all about how all these three films would work together either in terms of tone or plot. Now that all three are assembled there is no sense of them having any particular themes, or that they connect together to form an overarching story. The conclusions reached in this film are only faintly threaded in Force Awakens and all but contradicted in The Last Jedi. It’s this lack of planning that underwhelms the film – fun as it is, these are more like three loosely linked films rather than ones that progress one to the other, or feel connected to the original three films.

It’s of course made worse by the ignoring of The Last Jedi – Rose Tico, a character that film spent a lot of time building and establishing gets less than three minutes of screen time – and a re-focusing of the film on the “family of three” in Rey, Poe and Finn that mirrors the first film. This relationship is now far warmer and closer than we ever saw developing in Last Jedi (a film they never appeared in together until the final seconds) – and also laced with an odd, almost queer-baiting sexual tension, where they seem at times like a borderline thruple. (The film offers a cop out on LGBTQ people in Star Wars by having two background characters kiss at one point, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shot, cut in China.)

It’s part of a general lack of imagination in the film as a whole, which leans often on bringing back people from the previous trilogy and even sidelines the villains of the rest of the trilogy to shoe-horn back in Palpatine (a reintroduction that is barely explained – like much of the film – and also rather undermines the ending of Return of the Jedi) as the big-bad, and which again doubles down on many of the tropes of the first trilogy. JJ Abrams often mistakes bigger for better – and this film is big, with races against time, fleets beyond imagining, planet destroying tech that can be put into a single star destroyer, Sith powers that can stretch over thousands of miles etc. etc. He takes the same approach with the film, throwing so much of the old trilogy in that it becomes more of a surprise that stuff is missing rather than appearing (I was shocked Yoda wasn’t in this one).

But it’s what the film is going for, offering something safe and recognisable, something that is a thrill ride like you remember rather than the different path the trilogy seemed to be heading towards. There is nothing wrong with that of course at all, but it feels like a missed opportunity. For all its faults, The Last Jedi tried to do something new. This doubles down on the things it knows fans will love, and offers all the entertainment it suspects the casual viewer wants. And maybe that’s enough.

BlacKkKlansman (2018)

Adam Driver and John David Washington infiltrate the KKK in Spike Lee’s brilliant, thought-provoking, political message film BlacKkKlansman

Director: Spike Lee

Cast: John David Washington (Detective Ron Stallworth), Adam Driver (Detective Philip Zimmerman), Laura Harrier (Patrice Dumas), Topher Grace (David Duke), Jasper Pääkkönen (Felix Kendrickson), Ryan Eggold (Walter Breachway), Paul Walter Hauser (Ivanhoe), Ashlie Atkinson (Connie Kendrickson), Corey Hawkins (Kwame Ture), Michael Buscemi (Jimmy Creek), Robert John Burke (Chief Bridges), Fred Weller (Patrolman Andy Landers), Harry Belafonte (Jerome Turner)

BlacKkKlansman feels like it would make great material for a comedy film. The true story of the first black cop in Colorado, who in the 1970s tricked the Ku Klux Klan (over the phone) to give him membership of the party, working with a white colleague for face-to-face meetings. Hard to believe but, as this film says, “Dis Joint is based on some fo’ real, fo’ real shit”. And the film has more than its share of comic beats. But Spike Lee is far smarter, and far more worried about where America is going, to simply make a film that turns the KKK into a gang of idiots. Instead this becomes a dark, terrifying vision not just of what America was but what it is.

Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) is that first black cop. Ambitious and keen to do his bit, he points out that he is perfect for some undercover work – and after first investigating some of the civil rights movement (and falling for Black Student Union Leader Patrice Dumas, played by Laura Harrier) he is motivated to turn his attention to the Klan. Cold calling local organiser Walter (Ryan Eggold), he quickly finds himself welcomed to the Klan (who are of course completely unaware of his race). Working with fellow undercover detective Zimmerman (Adam Driver), a more relaxed Jewish cop, who can handle the face-to-face meetings, Stallworth opens an investigation into extremism in the far right, with their main target being Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace).

Spike Lee’s film starts as a clever balance between exploring the central comedy of this set-up – the black cop busting the KKK – and an exploration of the racial tensions that were barely concealed in America in the 1970s. Stallworth experiences a parade of suspicion and resentment of the police from his fellow African-Americans, while some of the responses from the police officers range from suspicion to outright racist distrust. It’s his brilliant handling and understanding of the racial tensions in America that power the movie – and give it the impact and importance it undoubtedly has.

The comic timing in much of Washington’s phone calls with various hard-right racists is spot on, and the film gets laughs from the gullibility and foolishness of the Klan (Duke talks at length about how he can always tell the difference vocally between a white man and a black man). But Lee knows that extremism like this fundamentally isn’t a joke – and it’s certainly not in this film, which wraps up a part cop-caper, part undercover thriller with a sharp political message.

Because no matter how stupid the KKK are, we are left in no doubt about how dangerous, violent and vile they truly are. The racist language, the repeated use over and over again of every insulting term imaginable for African Americans and Jews, the prolonged fantasy talk about lynchings and murders, the amount of guns these people have available to them, the mix of suave “public face” racists and the violence-as-a-first-resort hicks and hillbillies that follow them… It’s beyond alarming, its’ terrifying. And Lee is quite clear – give any of these people even the slightest piece of endorsement and encouragement, and they would gleefully enact another Holocaust. There ain’t nothing funny about that. 

Instead, scene after scene of Adam Driver’s undercover cop interacting with this human slime shows no amount of humanity or empathy can be found at all among this appalling crowd of people. You feel the terror of these people and Lee fills every scene with a mounting tension and horror that slowly strangles (fittingly) the initial comedy of the set-up. But then that is part of Lee’s extraordinary work on this film, an angry blast of politically motivated invective wrapped up in an entertaining story. Lee makes it clear that we are kidding ourselves if we think racism is a problem of the past, or something that can be easily wrapped up (it’s easy to see why he was so pissed off that Green Book, a far more cosy, reassuring and hopeful film about racism, scooped best picture). The film ends with an alarming flash forward to shots from Charlottesville, reactions to the murder of Heather Heyer and shots of Trump mindlessly talking about “very fine people on both sides”. The message “America First” is shouted as proudly in the 1970s plotline as it is in the real life footage of 2017.  Hammering home Lee’s fears that the KKK have never had a warmer environment to work in than they do today.

Lee’s film does struggle when it comes to the plot that he builds around the events of the film. The film makes clear that in many ways the whole investigation was for nothing and produced no lasting results: it unearthed KKK sympathisers in key government departments (all of whom were “sent to Alaska” in the words of Stallworth) but was then abruptly closed down. While this real target is referenced in a throwaway scene or two, a late fictionalised bomb plot by the KKK – which of course revolves around Stallworth’s fictional black power girlfriend – doesn’t quite ring true and feels slightly out of place.

But the real aim of the film is Lee’s political message, and on that score this film is powerful, sticks in the mind and leaves a lasting impression. Lee’s direction is also a brilliant mixture of flash and sensitively filmed set-pieces. There are superb cameos from Harry Belafonte (in a heartfelt speech) telling a story of historic lynching, and Corey Hawkins as articulate, passionate activist Kwame Ture. Both these sequences stand out, with Lee’s controlled direction knowing when to move the camera and when to hold it and let the power of the words and emotions do the work.

The cast all give outstanding performances. Driver is chameleonic (and Oscar nominated) as the cop who moves naturally between his own liberal views and his easy approximation of racism. Washington is brilliant in the lead role as the dedicated lawman, willing to prove himself among the racists of his own department. Grace and Eggold stand out as two different types of the face of “acceptable” KKK. Lee’s film builds on these performances with his own passion to create a truly lasting and important piece of filmmaking. Never believe the world has changed: this film reminds us immediately that cozy stories that talk of “how far we’ve come” are fairy tale fantasies that distract us from the danger of a racial lynching being just round the corner.

Silence (2016)

Andrew Garfield struggles with questions of faith in Martin Scorsese’s Silence

Director: Martin Scorsese

Cast: Andrew Garfield (Father Sebastião Rodrigues), Adam Driver (Father Francisco Garupe), Shinya Tsukamoto (Mokichi), Liam Neeson (Father Cristóvão Ferreira), Tadanobu Asano (The Interpreter), Ciarán Hinds (Father Alessandro Valignano), Issey Ogata (Inoue Masashige), Yoshi Oida (Ichizo), Yōsuke Kubozuka (Kichijuri), Nana Komatsu (Monica/Haru), Ryo Kase (João/Chokichi)

Martin Scorsese is well known as the director of the finest gangster and crime films ever made. But interestingly, he also has quite the sideline in searching religious epics – and in fact many of his films, not least Mean Streets and The Departed, dwell on feelings of Catholic duty and guilt, questions of doubt and faith. Silence, a book published in 1971, zeroes in on these questions by placing priests in impossible situations and seeing how their faith is tested.

In the 1630s, Japan begins a campaign of persecution against Christian converts. Jesuit priest Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson) witnesses his flock undergoing torture for their faith. Word reaches the Catholic church that Ferreira has committed apostasy. A few years later, Fathers Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garupe (Adam Driver) volunteer to head to Japan to continue the mission of spreading the world, and to find out the truth about Ferreira, who had been their mentor. In Japan, they find a dangerous and violent world where Christians face gruelling persecution. Both men find their faith tested – and God’s silence deafening.

Silence is a film that received a slightly sniffy review on release – but what were people expecting? This is a quiet, meditative, beautifully made film that raises profound questions around faith, identity and Christianity – and is brave enough to let people develop their own answers. It’s a slow-paced, thoughtful and (for such a dynamic film-maker) very calmly filmed work, that feels like it carries a great deal of personal investment – Scorsese’s interests in the effort and struggle required by faith, and about how few clear-cut answers there are in our understanding of religion.

On those terms, I found myself both engrossed by it – much more than I was anticipating. Scorsese combines astounding visuals and use of sound (and silence) to create a hypnotic film. The mists of Japan have rarely looked so beautiful, and the film’s astounding cinematography uses it to maximum effect to create a series of stunning images. One marvellous shot of a crucified man removed from his cross and carried to his funeral pyre is very moving in its simplicity and echoes Caravaggio’s Deposition from the Cross. At other times, silence is skilfully introduced, just as moments of seeming quiet are never truly silent. It’s a marvellously made film.

Within this beautiful framework, Scorsese explores ideas of faith and apostasy. How does faith work? How much is our communication with God private and how much does it need to be made public? Would you renounce your calling to save others – even if it meant turning your back on God? How much of all this is God listening into? How much is the act of conversion a selfish one, spreading your own glory? How many sacrifices are worth the celebration of faith – and what is the ultimate aim and reward of martyrdom? How can we even define martyrdom – and does it always revolve around death, or a can it be a private death of the spirit? 

These are fascinating ideas, and the film presents a series of viewpoints on each of these, while never offering a definitive answer. While this is a film about men who question their faith, it is not a film asking the viewer to question theirs. If you hold faith, different solutions and answers will present themselves, and your own personal beliefs will guide what you feel is right and what is not. Some people you may find unforgiveable – others you may find foolish or even conceited in their faith, while others will find the same men brave and principled.

Scorsese directs all this with an astonishing sense of control and quiet reflection, letting the film breathe and never allowing melodrama to overwhelm reflection, or the character story. The film is unflinching in watching the matter-of-fact drowning, crucifiying and other killings of Christians, but it never feels like its making cheap points, strange as it is to see such visual beauty given to horror. It’s asking us how much of this we could sit and watch without agreeing to abandon something we believe passionately in as the ultimate truth.

Andrew Garfield performs with a passionate earnestness and absolute commitment. In many ways, as the reactive centre of the film, he has the least interesting part (and therefore fewer opportunities to shine than the rest of the cast) but he is very good in a difficult internalised role, and makes us invest in every step of Rodrigues’ tortured journey of increasing doubts and fears. 

Driver has a flashier part, but does very well as a priest who wears his heart on his sleeve – and voices doubts, but also flashes of anger. He provides a lot of the initial energy, and demonstrates again what an intelligent and instinctive actor he is. Neeson as the fallen priest is able to invert his own reputation for mentors, while leaving the question open of how much his placidity and co-operation with the authorities is brain-washing or hiding far different feelings.

Scorsese recruits some of the cream of Japanese acting, and they deliver uniformly strong performances. Shinya Tsukamoto is excellent as Rodrigues’ mirror image, a man quick to denounce to save his own skin, but carries a kernel of faith at his centre. Tadanobo Asano is wonderfully controlling as Rodrigues’ interpreter, while Issey Ogata is outstanding as the leading prosecutor of the Japanese government, a man who seems a harmless, wizened old man, but whose eyes (and chamelonic body) are able to rearrange itself swiftly into looks of contempt and loathing.

Silence is a serenely made film, one that really wants to speak to those with Christian faith. Like the works of Carl Dreyer, it engages intelligently with themes around faith. I’d be fascinated to see what those who hold a stronger faith than mine make of it. But I thought this posed a series of compelling, and searching, questions about the unknowability of God – of his silence, but that silence not necessarily being indifference. It charts how hope can be found from despair – and how sacrifices we sometimes make for the greater good can also lead to new ways we can understand ourselves. It’s a very mature, brave and compelling piece of film making.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)

Could Daisy Ridley be The Last Jedi in this controversial new Star Wars chapter

Director: Rian Johnson

Cast: Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker), Carrie Fisher (General Leia Organa), Adam Driver (Kylo Ren), Daisy Ridley (Rey), John Boyega (Finn), Oscar Isaac (Poe Dameron), Kelly Marie Tran (Rose Tico), Andy Serkis (Supreme Leader Snoke), Lupita Nyong’o (Maz Kanata), Domhnall Gleeson (General Hux), Laura Dern (Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo), Benecio del Toro (DJ), Gwendoline Christie (Captain Phasma), Anthony Daniels (C-3PO), Frank Oz (Yoda)

Spoilers! OK I’m really trying my best to not have too many spoilers in here, but you know it’s pretty much impossible. So you should do what I do and go to the see the film knowing almost nothing about it. That would be much better than reading any reviews!

It’s pretty clear the Star Wars franchise is going to be with us for some time. So eventually it’s going to have to move past telling similar stories, with familiar characters, in very familiar settings, and branch out into something new and a bit more daring. Star Wars: The Last Jedi is an attempt to do this. Is it completely successful? No, probably not. Does it try and push the franchise into a slightly new direction? Yes it does.

The film starts moments after the end of The Force Awakens. Rey (Daisy Ridley) has met with Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) on the remote planet he has spent the past decade hiding on. She believes (as do we!) that he will train her in the ways of the Jedi – instead he tells her to leave, and firmly states that the Jedi are a failed organisation that don’t deserve to continue. Meanwhile, during a speedy evacuation of the resistance base – covered by a suicidally reckless military operation by Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) that costs the lives of dozens of resistance ships and pilots – General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) is incapacitated, and the surviving rebel ships find themselves relentlessly pursued by the First Order. While the new leadership of the resistance seems to be offering no alternatives, Poe and Finn (John Boyega) hatch a plan to travel to a distant planet and recruit a codebreaker, to help them hack into the First Order flagship and disable the tracker it’s using, allowing the fleet to escape.

The Last Jedi is a film that has had a mixed reception from the fandom. After spending a couple of days thinking about it, this might be because the film so completely inverts expectations and refuses to play it safe. It’s a film about loss and disillusionment, but also about hope against adversity. It would have been very easy to transform Luke into a new Yoda, to make Poe and Finn heroic guys whose actions save the rebellion over the heads of their stuffed-shirt commanders. To build Kylo Ren further towards a redemption arc. These are all things you could expect – none of them happen.

Subverting these expectations has angered a lot of people – fascinatingly the same people who complained The Force Awakens was too similar to Star Wars. So I guess that kinda shows you can’t keep the Internet happy – so why even try. The main issue has been the re-imaging of Luke Skywalker. The man the first trilogy presented as the universe’s bright-eyed-boy, our new hope: here he’s a bitter, depressed man who has lost hope and his love for the Jedi. He’s a man who confesses to dark thoughts, who it transpires considered acts of murder, who has failed at almost everything he’s touched since the conclusion of Return of the Jedi. This is a big turnaround for the franchise’s hero, and yes it is jarring. Is this what people expected after the end of Force Awakens? It sure ain’t.

But, after the play-it-safe Rogue One and the thrilling remember-what-you-used-to-like-before-the-prequels joy of The Force Awakens, the franchise needed something like this. A shake-up, a repositioning of the universe. It’s not always bright and hopeful, and our heroes are flawed people who make huge mistakes. It’s in many ways a logical extension: if Rey is the new hope, than something must have gone wrong with the old hope. Luke has failed totally in the same way both his mentors (Yoda and Obi-Wan) did – he encouraged and honed the viper-in-the-nest.

As that viper-in-the-nest, we’ve got the terrifically complex Kylo Ren. Ren’s path in this film is the most inverted, unexpected and unusual development in the series so far. Adam Driver was superb in Force Awakens, and he’s great here once again as a very different type of villain. Ren is strong in the force, but in almost every other way he’s hugely weak: a sullen, moody man-child, straining for greatness, a tearful brat easily led, driven by his emotions, trying to take on a mantle of greatness he is psychologically ill-equipped for. He seems barely aware of what he wants from life, except for a vague wish to pull the world down – like any teenager, angry at his parents, which is what he is.

Pulling the world down seems to be Rian Johnson’s aim as well. An early attack wipes out the resistance leadership – Admiral Ackbar! No! – and the resistance itself is eventually reduced to a single ship, desperately running from the far stronger First Order. Never mind Empire Strikes Back, the resistance has never been so pummelled, its military achievements so minor. Even their one victory in the film – the destruction of a fearsome First Order ship – carries such a huge cost of men and equipment that Leia strips Poe of his rank for even attempting it. Thereafter, the only victory the resistance can hope for is to survive. No other Star Wars film has ever allowed such monumental failure to be the main plotline for our heroes. Johnson is clearing the decks and resetting the tables – he even wraps up lingering mysteries from The Force Awakens with such abruptness you wonder if he wanted to kill parts of the Internet dead.

Failure also ekes through the Poe/Fin subplot. Every single decision these characters take in this film is wrong, misguided, hugely costly or all three. If the film does have a major flaw it’s that Finn’s journey to the gambling planet is a cul-de-sac of plot development, that could have easily hit the cutting room floor and probably cost the film very little indeed. It never really goes anywhere, other than to allow Johnson to make some points about arms traders selling weapons to both the First Order and the resistance. It also introduces into the mix Benecio del Toro’s fantastically annoying, overly-twitchy performance as the hacker DJ – Del Toro seems to be getting more and more prone to “Deppism”, where a good actor succumbs to twitches and quirks rather than acting.

What is most interesting about this plot-line though is its very pointlessness. The plan (major spoiler here) doesn’t work at all, in fact it leads to many, many, many more resistance lives being lost, and wrecks Hondo’s secret plan which would have saved everyone’s lives. The film doesn’t quite have the courage to pin the blame for this disaster directly on Poe and Finn. In fact the film gets a bit confused here about the message it wants Poe to learn – it’s something about costly actions in war not being worth mindless sacrifice, but then this is a film that at its conclusion celebrates another character making a huge sacrifice. Unclear? A bit. Anyway: the point however is: you can’t imagine previous Star Wars films allowing our characters to so completely fuck up here as Poe and Finn do – and give them no moment of triumph to make compensation later in the film. 

What this does though, is Rey to be repositioned at the real hope – although the film goes about inverting her as well, with several suggestions that she is far more open to the dark side of the force might have thought. Daisy Ridley is very good as Rey, juggling conflicting pulls on her personality, her desire to redeem both Ren (and there is a great sexual chemistry between these two) and Luke, and the different directions these desires pull her in. Rather than seeing the force as a binary good/bad thing, Rey seems to want to find a balance between the two of them. Johnson explores this via a number of visually interesting scenes, not least Rey in a cave from the dark side, full of endless reflections. It’s an unexpected re-working of the Luke/Yoda relationship and works very well.

The Last Jedi is not a perfect film. For all its interesting inversion of old tropes, and the lack of triumph it allows our characters, it’s way too long. It could easily have been cut down by half an hour at least. Although some plots are designed to be expectation-defying dead-ends, they still end up feeling less than interesting (and ripe for fast forwarding on later viewings). Despite an attempt to include some scenes of deliberate humour, the film has less spark and joie de vivre than many of the other entrances in the franchise. Structurally, it’s not always clear what the timeline of events is between the different locations (weeks seem to go past for Rey, while only hours go by in the rebel fleet), and some of the points the film wants its characters to learn are unclear or hard to understand (I genuinely don’t know what Poe was supposed to have learned by the end of this film).

Its strength though are the characters – building on the groundwork from The Force Awakens(and very differently from Rogue One) this film is full of characters we care about. John Boyega and Oscar Isaac continue to excel as Finn and Poe (and still have great chemistry, shippers…) – Boyega in particular is quite the star. Ridley and Driver are superb. Hamill was never the strongest actor in the world, but he gives his most complex performance yet as Luke. The film mostly rattles along very nicely, and has plenty of action and excitement as well as “race against time” structure that works very well. Interestingly, its main handicaps are that it defies expectations almost a little too much (so it demands second viewing and reflection) and that it’s overlong and at times unclearly structured. But as a step forward for the franchise it’s still a good thing. A new hope indeed.

Coda: The film’s main sadness is the premature death of Carrie Fisher. One problem watching the film was that two or three times I was convinced that the film was about to show us Leia’s death. Johnson avoids changing the film from its original plan (Episode IX was intended to be “The Leia film” after films focusing on Han Solo and Luke), but it does seem a shame that Fisher’s good work wasn’t crowned by the sort of iconic final scene she deserves. The Episode IX planned will now never happen – but it would have been great to see Fisher really head centre stage in that film. RIP.