Tag: Domhnall Gleeson

The Little Stranger (2018)

Little stranger header
Domhnall Gleeson doesn’t believe in ghosts in The Little Stranger

Director: Lenny Abrahamson

Cast: Domhnall Gleeson (Dr Faraday), Ruth Wilson (Caroline Ayres), Will Poulter (Roderick Ayres), Liv Hill (Betty), Charlotte Rampling (Mrs Ayres), Harry Hadden-Paton (Dr David Granger), Anna Madeley (Anne Granger), Richard McCabe (Dr Seeley)

Can an adaptation of a novel work when the key to its success was the way it was told rather than the story itself? With its unreliable narrator and distinctively interior style, Sarah Waters’ book was a tough ask. But, making it even harder for the big screen, The Little Stranger is a ghost story narrated by a fervent non-believer, who witnesses none of the supernatural elements and spends his time finding detailed, logical reasons for why the people living in the haunted house are as unsettled as they are. It makes for a challenge which, for all the style Lenny Abrahamson brings, the film doesn’t quite manage to meet.

Our sceptic is Dr Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson), a young village GP in the years immediately after the Second World War. Faraday grew up in the shadow of the Ayres house, a grand country seat now being lived in by the last remnants of the Ayres family who have fallen on hard times. Son Roderick (Will Poulter) has been left with debilitating injuries after his RAF service, Caroline (Ruth Wilson) seems destined to become a spinster, and their mother (Charlotte Rampling) struggles to hold together what’s left of the house’s prestige, among leaking roofs and bills that can’t be paid. Dr Faraday becomes an intimate of the household. But are the family’s problems partly linked to a malign presence in the house, perhaps the unsettled ghost of a third, long-dead Ayres sibling? Or is it all just bad luck, frozen pipes, branches on the window and creaking floorboards?

Well of course it isn’t. The film’s main problem is that it takes a book where the narrator spends the entire time stubbornly refusing to accept he is in a ghost story, and repackages it as a more conventional tale of creeps and psychological horror. While moments like this are undoubtedly unsettling, it rather flies in the face of what made the book unique in the first place.

In the book you find yourself – despite knowing deep down he’s wrong, because that’s not how stories work – thinking that maybe all this is just a series of terrible coincidences impacting a psychologically fragile family. In the film, you are never in any doubt that the ghosts are real. Not least, because we are frequently witness to supernatural events. When Charlotte Rampling’s character is terrified in the nursery by the ghost of her lost child, we share the terror with her. A truer adaptation of the book would have only shown us the aftermath – a trembling woman on the ground surrounded with broken glass – and asked us if we shared Faraday’s diagnosis of suicidal depression.

The change in perspective from the book has a particularly bad impact on the Faraday character. Faraday, deep down, is a sort of chippy Charles Ryder, as much in love with the house – and the prospect of one day owning it – as he is with the family itself. This mix of longing, envy and class jealousy bubbles under the surface of the character in the book, qualities that we have to read between the lines to detect. In the film however, these qualities are bought firmly to the surface.

This means that, for all Domhnall Gleeson has just the right rigidity and lack of imagination for the born sceptic, it means the character’s sinister possessiveness towards the Ayres house comes more to the fore. In the film it’s hard to escape the sense Faraday is as much a creep as the ghost (something the film even perhaps vaguely suggests in its open-ended conclusion). He’s cold and undeniably bitter, quietly but resentfully recording each moment where he is treated like a retainer.

The film also loses some of the context of the book as well. Part of the reason this house is falling apart is the declining wealth of the family in a world of post-war depression and higher death duties. Today the Ayres house would have been long since flogged to the National Trust. The crumbling house – compared to the grand vision in Faraday’s memories – is itself a metaphor for a particular class in Britain. However, this gets a bit lost in the film. Instead it’s easy to see the Ayres as just personally unlucky rather than symptomatic of a general collapse of the landed class.

But the film does do lots of good things. The ghost stuff is undeniably creepy – even if, as I say, it leaves the viewer in no doubt that Faraday is wrong and the Ayres are right. Will Poulter is very good in a small role as the bitter and scarred son, while Wilson captures a sense of premature middle-aged drift in Caroline, a woman unhappy in her life but unsure what she wants. Rampling is similarly very strong as a crumbling matriarch.

The film also looks lovely – perhaps too lovely, with its idealised view of a 1950s that surely was dirtier than this – and is well assembled. It just fails to bring a narrative drive to the film to replace the uncertainty and scepticism of the narrative voice that made the book so strong. There Faraday’s dismissals and self-denial about his class envy were what made the story compelling: here they are both removed – and what’s left isn’t quite interesting or unique enough to fill the gap.

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.

Unbroken (2016)

Jack O’Connell does fine work in the middlingly impactful Unbroken

Director: Angelina Jolie

Cast: Jack O’Connell (Captain Louis Zamperini), Domhnall Gleeson (Lt Russell Phillips), Garrett Hedlund (Lt Commander John Fitzgerald), Miyavi (Sgt Mutsuhiro “The Bird” Watanabe), Finn Wittrock (Sgt Francis McNamara), Jai Courtenay (Lt Charlton Cupernell), Luke Treadaway (Miller), Spencer Lofranco (Harry Brooks)

Angelina Jolie’s directing work doesn’t get the acknowledgement it perhaps deserve and it’s easy to think, watching the confident and imaginative framing of much of the film, that if, say, Brad Pitt had directed the film it might have got a more positive reaction from people. Anyway, perhaps part of the problem might be for all the extraordinary courage of Louis Zamperini’s life story, the general ideas behind the film are now so common in film-making that – and it feels terrible to say it – perhaps we are at last too familiar with these stories for them to have a real lasting impact. 

Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell) was an Olympic athlete, who set a world record for the fastest lap in his final lap of the 1936 Olympics 5000 metres final (despite finishing 8th overall). Signing up for service in the war, his bomber crashes and (after surviving 47 days in an open lifeboat in the Pacific) he is captured by the Japanese. There he experiences the brutality of the POW camps – and earns the enmity of Mutsuhrio Watanabe (Miyavi) one of the camp’s officers, who beats him mercilessly. But through it all his determination never wavers, neither does his humanity. He remains Unbroken.

The attraction of the resilience of the human spirit never wavers – and many of us suspect we would break, making our admiration and respect for those that don’t all the greater. That admiration is easily bound up in O’Connell’s wonderful performance as Zamperini, dripping charisma powered by kindness, humanity, decency and self-respect. O’Connell dominates the film, and is also the key to its successful moments – the camera always comes back to him, and his eyes wind up telling much of the story. Without him the film would struggle to make a real impact.

Which is part of the problem with it – it doesn’t make the impact you feel it should. Jolie’s direction is technically accomplished and very skilful, and the film is beautifully shot and filmed by Roger Deakins. There is barely a foot wrong anywhere in its make-up – but for some reason it doesn’t come together into something that carries real force. Maybe this is overfamiliarity with these stories, maybe this is too much professionalism and expertise crowding the emotion out, maybe it’s just that there isn’t enough story here for it to really work. But for whatever reason, this is a film that winds up leaving you colder than it should.

Its finest sequence coves the isolation on the boat, the struggle with sun and sea, without sufficient food or water, a marathon endurance test that claims the life of one of the three men who undergo it. Jolie’s film captures the strange claustrophobia of a tiny world – one lifeboat – in a huge expanse of nothingness. These scenes are compelling in a way the later prison camp scenes just aren’t. 

The camp scenes are of course tough and brutal in a way (although some have – perhaps justly –  complained that they are so beautifully and elegantly filmed that their impact is dramatically reduced, with every shot of the camp turned into some sort of renaissance-lit masterpiece) but they don’t hit like they should. Yes what Zamperini and the soldiers go through is dreadful and awful beyond measure, but nothing here seems to really capture that. It’s sort of something we understand but don’t wind up feeling from the film. 

Perhaps that’s because the one thing the film does capture really well is the powerless drift of POW life. The soldiers have no control over their fates and no way of escaping it, This all gets captured in the brutal bullying of Watanabe – but the film never manages to make either him or his rivalry with Zamperini compelling, leaving me unsure whether he was intended as a representative cipher of the appalling system rather than a real character.

Unbroken won’t exactly disappoint but it won’t exactly thrill either. While I do feel not enough credit is given to Jolie – and a male star would have got more praise – this is also a film that feels too much like a Hollywood prestige picture, too much like an important film straining for those Oscars. It forgets the heart and doesn’t engage our feelings.

Brooklyn (2015)

Saoirse Ronan excels as an Irish immigrant in the USA, torn between two loves

Director: John Crowley

Cast: Saoirse Ronan (Ellis Lacey), Emory Cohen (Tony Fiorello), Domhnall Gleeson (Jim Farrell), Jim Broadbent (Father Flood), Julie Walters (Mrs Kehoe), Brid Brennan (Miss Kelly), Eva Birthistle (Georgina), Fiona Glascott (Rose Lacey), Jane Brennan (Mrs Lacey), Jessica Paré (Miss Fortini), Emily Bett Rickards (Patty), Nora-Jane Noone (Shelia), Eve Macklin (Diana), Jenn Murray (Dolores), Eileen O’Higgins (Nancy)

In the 1950s, Irish immigrants flocked to Brooklyn to build themselves a new life. Those who made the move often found themselves torn between two worlds – the lure of the new life they were building across the water, and the pull of the land of their fathers. Brooklyn, based on a successful novel by Colm Tóibín, places this conundrum in an intensely dramatic context by making the conflicting calls on its central character as much romantic as they are emotional.

Ellis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan) is our homesick young woman, eager to build a new life in America. Sponsored by kindly priest Father Flood (Jim Broadbent, with more than a passing resemblance to Tóibín) and living in the boarding house of kindly-but-no-nonsense Mrs Kehoe (Julie Walters, in a role surely written for her) she finds work in a department store and trains at night as book keeper. She meets and falls in love with a sweet Italian American plumber Tony (Emory Cohen), but when tragedy occurs back in Ireland, on her return there she is strongly drawn to her homeland and to kindly, handsome Jim Farrell (Domhnall Gleeson). Which life will Ellis choose?

You can see why Brooklyn was so popular with Oscar voters, and why it struck such a chord with so many people. It’s reassuringly, warmly, old-fashioned, a big-hearted, brightly filmed, gorgeously mounted “woman’s picture”, the sort of story that Hollywood studios churned out in the 1940s and 1950s (you know, those sort of “who will she choose!” films). Crowley pulls the material together however with real emotional force, married with an interestingly different (if gently touched upon) theme of the immigrant experience.

Helped by a very good script by Nick Hornby, Brooklyn is not only emotionally moving but also much funnier than you might expect. Part of this is deliberate choice, expanding parts of the novel (particularly the dry humour of Mrs Kehoe, seized upon with relish by Julie Walters) that bring the funny, but also from the warmth, regard and humanity it invests its characters in. Ellis is a character so well drawn, whose feelings are so real, that we end up feeling deeply invested in her, and all the more ready to respond to her quick intelligence and dry (but gentle) wit. 

It’s a gift of a part for Saoirse Ronan, who is quite simply outstanding as a quiet, sheltered woman who grows, changes and decides to create her own destiny before our very eyes. (Helped by Hornby’s script again, which uses the Ireland-USA-Ireland structure to pinpoint many dramatic bookends and contrasts that Crowley subtly, and not forcefully, brings to the screen.) Ronan’s intelligence and her conflicting desires are clear in every scene, while her eyes seem able to communicate reserves of emotional depth. In two cultures where it isn’t easy for a woman to define her own destiny, Ronan brilliantly shows the difficulties many woman had in understanding or expressing what they want, in a world where they haven’t been set-up to think like that.

The film also doesn’t make it easier for her by making her two suitors – while radically different men – both such charming, lovely guys. Cohen’s Tony is a boyish enthusiast, full of hopes and dreams, who seems to represent everything that America has to offer Ellis. Domhnall Gleeson’s Jim is decent, honourable, kind, old-fashioned man who represents everything that she realises her Irish culture has for her – tradition, decency and a sense of self. It also speaks to how well drawn Ellis is by the film, and how deeply well-though out Ronan’s performance is, that it makes perfect sense that these two very different men would be drawn to her, and that both bring out different parts of her personality, which never feel contradictory.

It works as well because we’ve lived through everything Ellis has. She is present in nearly every scene in the film, and we see her change from a shy, scared, frightened woman on the boat from Ireland who needs to be cared for by an experienced emigrant fellow passenger (a very good cameo from Eva Birthistle) to a woman who flourishes in her new surroundings and the opportunities she is given. We need to feel that connection with her, since some of her behaviour (if it came from a man) would probably be seen as quite shabby indeed. But because we have such an understanding of her inner life – and because Ronan has such an empathetic and expressive face – we understand the reasons for her conundrum.

It’s that conundrum that lies at the centre of the film, and to be honest what dominates it. It works because it is done with such emotional truth (aided by Michael Brook’s excellent, heart-string tugging score that mixes American sounds with Irish folk to glorious affect), but the film is primarily a nostalgia romance. While it’s very setting makes you think about the immigrant life, it has very little to say really about either the cultural phenomenon or the impact it has on either the USA or Ireland (a charity Christmas meal for former Irish railway workers now all homeless is as close as it gets to talking about long-term integration). It doesn’t really matter, because the central story sweeps you up so much, but it does make the film more of a romance than the grander claims made for it by some as some sort of commentary on Irish immigration.

But there’s nothing wrong with such a handsome, romantic, emotional drama, or one that feels so reassuringly old-fashioned, even as it is made with touches of wit and confidence. Making some welcome comments on feminism, and led by Saoirse Ronan at her finest, it’s still a triumph of old-style, romantic, women’s pictures that you’d have to be pretty cold not to feel some sort of warming in your cockles by the end of it.

Ex Machina (2015)

Alicia Vikander: is she human or not? The question that troubles the cast of Ex Machina

Director: Alex Garland

Cast: Domhnall Gleeson (Caleb Smith), Alicia Vikander (Ava), Oscar Isaac (Nathan Bateman), Sonoya Mizuno (Kyoko)

It’s the age-old story of creation: man yearns for the power of the gods. There is something intrinsically god-like about the desire to create life and to develop a new creation. Ex Machina is a film that precisely explores this idea (along with a host of others). In the struggle to create an artificial intelligence, are we motivated to further mankind – or is it a perverse desire to become God ourselves? 

Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is a low-level coder working for a Google-like organisation founded by genius inventor Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac). Caleb wins a competition to spend a week at the reclusive home of Bateman, a solitary modernist house cumresearch station in the middle of a secluded forest. Nathan wants Caleb to conduct a series of interviews with his new invention – an android named Ava (Alicia Vikander), as part of a Turing Test to ascertain if she is truly intelligent or not. However, over the week, the mysteries of the house darken – and, as Caleb begins to develop strong feelings for Ava, the question arises of who is manipulating whom.

Ex Machina is a confident, fascinating piece of film-making from first-time director Alex Garland, who also writes a screenplay stuffed with ideas. It challenges and provokes discussion, carefully outlining a story of deception and counter-deception, demanding multiple viewings to unpick truth from lie. Garland is also a brilliant chamber-piece director, drawing fantastic performances from his cast, and shooting the secluded house in such a range of styles and angles that it feels both expressive and claustrophobic. Ex Machina is an extremely intelligent small-scale discussion piece, which would make as terrific a play as it does a film.

Among its themes is the question of man striving for god-like control. Nathan, a prickly, socially uneasy and unempathetic person, wants God’s mantle – and is willing to treat his creations with the same ruthless indifference, he demonstrates to Caleb, and the users of his search-engine. His knowledge of humanity is based on essentially stealing an understanding of our thoughts and desires from our search histories, so creating artificial intelligence is simply a progression from the control he already has.

It’s especially creepy that the androids Nathan creates are all attractive young women. Throughout, the film explores the attitudes men have to women. To Nathan, it’s increasingly clear they are objects. He proudly brags about how Ava is both sexually attractive and fully capable of experiencing sex. He treats his housemaid (and sexual partner) Kyoko with a contempt bordering on outright cruelty. Nathan is possessive – and you suspect it’s logical to him to make the first in the next generation of his perfect race as a woman, subservient to him.

Caleb has a healthy but romanticised view of women –he wishes to see himself as white knight, sweeping in to save the woman he loves. He has a lovestruck, teenage protectiveness and devotion towards Ava – qualities, the film suggests, make him ripe for manipulation (the question being from whom). Caleb’s entire attitude towards women is protective – he is increasingly disgusted by Nathan’s vileness – but still in its way paternal. Caleb is naïve and strangely innocent, prone to hero worship – and his initial devotion to Nathan slowly transfers to Ava.

A lot of this works because Alicia Vikander’s Ava is such a fascinatingly elliptical figure. Vikander and Garland skilfully leave you guessing: just how human is Ava? Under observation from Nathan, her discussions with Caleb seem cold and functional. During the many brief power cuts that blight the lab, when they are alone from CCTV, she appears to be far more emotional and tender. But what does she feel for Caleb? Is it genuine feeling – or an approximation designed to draw Caleb in? Her desire for freedom is a genuine human feeling – but how is she going about this? In scenes where we glimpse her alone, Vikander’s movement and expression are neutrally unreadable. It’s a fascinating superb performance from Vikander, both tender and gentle and also unsettling and creepy.

The script never loses its way, and never gets overwhelmed by cheap thrills. There are moments of violence and danger – and the ending of becomes increasingly dark – but it all seems a very natural progression. Because the ideas of seeking freedom from oppressive masters – and mankind looking to abuse the powers of the gods over their creations – feel very real and true. These are ideas that are endlessly fascinating – and the film explores them in brilliant detail, without ever flagging, becoming bogged down in tedious discussion, or letting its ideas overwhelm the plot.

Ex Machina is a fascinating film, brilliantly acted – Isaac and Gleeson are quite simply superb as two very different tech geeks, struggling with ideas about humanity they can scarcely begin to understand and express. The effects to create Ava are extraordinary (and Oscar-winning). Alex Garland makes himself as a director of true promise – and Ex Machina is a film that can take its place as one of the compelling, intelligent and intriguing science-fiction films of the 2010s.

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.

The Revenant (2015)

Leonardo DiCaprio conquers the wilderness

Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio (Hugh Glass), Tom Hardy (John Fitzgerald), Domhnall Gleeson (Andrew Henry), Will Poulter (Jim Bridger), Forrest Goodluck (Hawk), Duane Howard (Elk Dog), Arthur Redcloud (Hikuc), Melaw Nakehk’o (Powaqa), Grace Dove (Glass’s wife), Lukas Haas (Jones), Paul Anderson (Anderson)

The Revenant may have been one of the hardest films ever made. Iñárritu’s bleak survivalist masterpiece may not be the easiest watch – and certainly not the most fun – but it is something really unique and interesting, an attempt to completely submerse the audience in one character’s experience, with little interest in narrative, context or characterisation.

In 1823, Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) is mawled by a bear while leading a group of trappers away from an Indian ambush. Slowing the rest of the men down, he is left in the care of a small party led by Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy). Fitzgerald abandons Glass to save his own skin – murdering Glass’ young son, he leaves Glass for dead, alone in the frozen wilderness.

This is a true experience film, that’s probably easier to admire and respect than it is to love, or even enjoy. As a technical accomplishment it is outstanding: it looks absolutely fantastic. Apparently all lit by natural light, the film has a dusk/dawn beauty to it throughout its running time that perfectly captures the harshness of the setting. The camera also unstintingly follows the burdens of its central character, close and personal with the action, often using hand held and Steadicam to throw us into the action: the three major “action” sequences have an almost unbearable intensity to them.

Iñárritu’s direction is masterful – this is a splendidly directed piece of cinema, a bravura display of accomplishment, which has the confidence to largely not draw attention to itself. In fact, that’s a major strength of the film – its technical brilliance, its striking editing and wonderful photography all serve the purpose of bringing us closer to the experience of Glass, throwing us into the world. The opening attack of the Indians on the trapper probably deserves a host of Oscars by itself, a frighteningly vivid, desperate conflict that the film throws the viewer right into the middle of. Similarly the fateful bear attack has a brutal efficiency about it that makes the viewer feel every bite and blow on DiCaprio’s battered body.

It’s well known that Leonardo DiCaprio won the Oscar for his role in the film. Possibly this was as much (if not more) a testament to his fierce commitment to this role than the actual performance. There is certainly no debate about that. Never mind the freezing cold conditions, DiCaprio spends a third of the film bound to a filthy stretcher before being swept down rapids, eating a raw fish from a lake, and climbing naked inside the guts of a dead (hopefully prop) horse… Throughout all this, a combination of his isolation and wounds means he says very little, but only growls and groans. It’s not an acting performance in the sense of a character creation – you learn very little about Glass, and other than his strength of will and hunger for revenge, little of what motivates him – but it is a complete physical performance. And DiCaprio probably deserves some sort of reward for leaving nothing in the dressing room in playing it.

The “character” acting is left far more to Tom Hardy as the weak, arrogant, blindly wilful Fitzgerald. Hardy’s performance was a little overlooked here, but it’s as fiercely committed as DiCaprio’s and, in many ways, is a more complex and intriguing character – a man with the force of will to lead but without the courage and integrity that makes a true leader of men. Yes he mumbles the dialogue – at times I did find it a little unclear what he was saying – but it is a very accomplished exercise in character creation from slight material. The rest of the cast are all equally strong – Will Poulter is terrific as a naïve Bridger, as is Domhnall Gleeson as the rigid Captain.

But the film is possibly so triumphant in its mise en scene that it overpowers the themes and narrative of the film. It is surprisingly easy to forget that Glass is a man powered by revenge, so completely is the focus on his survival. His past grief over his deceased wife is murky and unclear on first watching, not enough focus or context given to it by Iñárritu’s storytelling. Many of the “narrative” encounters that Glass has over the film are not particularly new or unique. Iñárritu’s film here is not really about the story, but the telling of it. And in focusing on the detail of delivering the story, it loses the heart and investment that a real story needs. Glass’s journey is terrible, his suffering huge, his perseverance and will striking – but I can’t say that I felt particularly emotionally involved with his struggle or got a sense of his emotional pain.

As such, this increasingly becomes a film that is easier to respect and admire than it is to love. Despite DiCaprio’s commitment and bravery as an actor, Glass is largely an enigma and the film itself is an immersion in an environment rather than a piece of drama. As a viewing experience it grips during its duration, but I’d be fascinated to see when I watch it again, will this be enough to make it last? Will a familiarity with the story allow the themes it attempts to deal with – revenge, grief etc. etc. – come out more strongly? Either way, any film that requires a second viewing is one that deserves recommendation.