Tag: Laura Dern

Wild (2014)

Wild (2014)

Reese Witherspoon finds herself in a film that is more than just Eat, Pray, Hike

Director: Jean-Marc Vallée

Cast: Reese Witherspoon (Cheryl Strayed), Laura Dern (“Bobbie” Grey), Thomas Sadoski (Paul), Michel Huisman (Jonathan), Gaby Hoffmann (Aimee), Kevin Rankin (Greg), W. Earl Brown (Frank), Mo McRae (Jimmy Carter), Keene McRae (Leif)

Ever thought tackling a 1,100 mile hike would be a fun adventure? The opening of Wild might change your mind. Gasp as Reese Witherspoon rips out a bleeding toe nail and then throws her ill-fitting hiking boots down a mountain, screaming abuse at them all the way! Want to grab that back-pack now?

In this adaptation of a memoir about loss and self-discovery, Witherspoon plays Cheryl Strayed who (fairly impulsively) decided to hike the Pacific Crest Trail in 1995 to try to find in herself the woman her late mother “Bobbie” (Laura Dern) believed she could be. After Bobbie’s early death from cancer at 45, Cheryl had collapsed – ruining her marriage to Paul (Thomas Sadoski) in an orgy of anonymous sex and heroin addiction. Now she wants to make a new start.

Adapted by Nick Hornby with a good deal of skill and emotional intelligence, Jean-Marc Vallée’s film is an interesting character study via the survivalist genre, mixed with a touching exploration of grief, loss and self-loathing. After throwing us into Day 26 with that bloodied toe-nail, the film rolls back to follow Cheryl’s walk: intercut with powerful memories of her relationship with her mother, each memory activated by different encounters along the way and bubbling into her mind along with a distinctive soundtrack (most especially Simon and Garfunkal’s El Condor Pasa) that reflects the music that reminds Cheryl of her mother.

It could have been a sentimental finding-yourself movie – Eat, Pray, Hike anyone? (I also rather like Reese Witherspoon Finds Herself in a Backpack) – and I won’t lie, there are elements of that. But maybe it caught me in the right mood, maybe because I’ve always fancied testing myself with an epic hike, but I actually found it intelligent, sensitive and just the right side of sentimental.

Wild carefully avoids simple points. It’s a film not about a long journey leading to revelation, but a journey that helps you accept all your past decisions, right or wrong. There is a pointed lack of emotional breakdowns, tearful confessions or flare ups of self-anger and revelation. Instead, it’s about the long grind of starting an internal journey towards contentment. Because trekking 1,100 miles is the long haul: there ain’t any easy ways out or short cuts on this trek.

The film’s principal asset is Reese Witherspoon. Also serving as producer, Witherspoon is in almost every single frame and delivers an under-played but very emotionally satisfying performance. She plays Cheryl as quietly determined, having already hit rock bottom and knowing every step she takes from now is upwards. She meets adversity – aside from the odd flash of frustration – with a stoic will and finds an increasing spiritual freedom in the wild that serves as an escape from the horrific wilderness of her self-destructive years. But she never lets us forget the pain that underpins this journey for Cheryl. It’s a very impressive performance.

The reminders of that pain are distributed through the film, which unflinchingly chronicles Cheryl’s escape from grief in the arms of a parade of sleazy men, anonymous hotel sex and (finally) shooting up heroin on the streets of San Francisco. It ends her marriage to Paul – but not their friendship, in the sort of adult emotional reaction you hardly ever see in a movie. Paul – played with warmth by Thomas Sadoski – may not be able to continue his marriage after discovering his wife’s parade of trust-breaking, but it doesn’t stop him from helping a person he loves who is in need.

All of this is nicely counterpointed by the hike itself. Naturally it’s all slightly episodic, as Cheryl moves from location to location, but Hornby’s script makes these vignettes really work. Vallée’s direction also does a fantastic job of intercutting between the long walk of 1995, and Cheryl’s memories of both her mother (played with a vibrancy that makes a huge impression from limited screen time by an Oscar-nominated Laura Dern) and her own emotional collapse after her death.

I also appreciated that Wild doesn’t shirk from showing the vulnerability of an attractive young woman hiking alone. Some potential predators are revealed to be the opposite: others are exactly what they appear to be. But not every encounter is one of potential danger: far from it.

Cheryl is met time and again by people who only appear to support, share their expertise and help her in her quest. At an early station, a man talks her through the huge amount of equipment she’s bought and advises what she can leave behind (Vallée opens the film with the strenuous effort, including rolling around on the floor, Cheryl has to go through just to put this backpack on). She finds a touch of romance with a handsome musician (a charming Michel Huisman). There’s also comedy, most of all with Cheryl’s encounter with a self-important journalist (Mo McRae), who won’t be convinced that she isn’t a female hobo.

This is all packaged together in a quiet, un-pretentious way that culminates in a thought-provoking monologue about the value of self-acceptance and putting aside regrets. Others would have layered on the sentiment, but here the balance is just right. With Witherspoon at the top of her game, Wild is a well-made and involving road trip that also makes you think.

Jurassic World: Dominion (2022)

Jurassic World: Dominion (2022)

It squeezes so many characters in, it totally forgets to make room for plot, invention or anything new at all

Director: Colin Trevorrow

Cast: Chris Pratt (Owen Grady), Bryce Dallas Howard (Claire Dearing), Laura Dern (Dr Ellie Sattler), Jeff Goldblum (Dr Ian Malcolm), Sam Neill (Dr Alan Grant), Isabella Sermon (Maisie Lockwood), DeWanda Wise (Kayla Watts), Mamoudou Athie (Ramsay Cole), Campbell Scott (Dr Lewis Dodgson), BD Wong (Dr Henry Wu), Omar Sy (Barry Sembène), Justice Smith (Franklin Webb), Daniella Pineda (Dr Zia Rodriguez)

As I was leaving the cinema, I heard a twelve-year old talking about which of the dinosaurs in the movie was their favourite. Then they said: “it was a bit samey though wasn’t it?”. I’m not sure I can beat that precocious nail-on-the-head judgement. Nothing happens in Jurassic World: Dominion you’ve not seen many times before in the franchise. Underneath the flash, Jurassic World: Dominion is a tired retread, crowbarring in references from better films left, right and centre, all to hide that there are no new ideas here.

Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) and Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) have dedicated their lives to protecting human clone Maisie Lockwood (Isabella Sermon) from the grasp of corporations. When she’s kidnapped by foot-soldiers of clearly-evil-corp BioSyn (they even have “Sin” in their name), they pull out all the stops to get her back from BioSyn’sNorthern Italy research compound. Meanwhile, Drs Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern) and Alan Grant (Sam Neill) are investigating genetically modified locusts which are destroying every crop in the Southern USA – except those using BioSyn seed. All roads lead to that Italian compound – where Dr Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) is employed as a contrarian philosopher – to try and stop BioSyn’s nefarious schemes.

You know what struck me when I wrote that summary? I didn’t use the word dinosaurs. The prehistoric beasties are pretty superfluous. Sure, they down a plane and our heroes dodge them in various places (BioSyn’s compound doubles as a dinosaur refuge). But, seeing as the last film ended with dinosaurs escaping into the wild and becoming part of our everyday lives… this sequel takes the concept nowhere. Bar an opening news report montage (showing, among other things, pterodactyls – yes, I know they’re not dinosaurs – stealing a bride’s bouquet) and a Star Wars style under-ground market where dino-pets and fighting-pit beasties are traded on the black market, Dominion finds almost nothing to do with this.

In fact, Dominion struggles to find anything to do at all. It’s an extremely loosely plotted mess of a film that feels like two vaguely (very, very vaguely) connected plotlines rammed together in a way designed to shoe-horn in as many legacy characters and call-backs as possible. Laura Dern gets the bulkiest (and only plot essential) role among the returning trio. Sam Neill feels dragged along for the ride (Grant serves literally no narrative purpose) and, while Goldblum gets most of the best lines (delivered in his trademark, improvisational oddness), Malcolm merely splits the role of “inside man” with another character so cursorily introduced and vaguely motivated he feels like he was only there because covid made some of the other actors unavailable for parts of the filming.

The legacy framing is so lazy that all three of these characters essentially wear the same costumes as they did in Jurassic Park. Everyone in universe seems to know who they are (Which I find highly unlikely) and the film bends over backwards to introduce clumsy links between them and the characters from the first two Jurassic World films in ways that feel forced.

The film slowly consumes itself with references back to previous films, linked by sequences that feel ripped out from other hits. Owen and Claire’s opening plotline plays out like an odd Mission: Impossible spy thriller, including a Bourne-ish roof top chase (with Owen haring away on his trademark motorbike from killer velociraptors – the film’s only exciting set-piece, and even that is ripped from other films) with Claire transformed into a semi-adept free-runner. The dino-market is essentially Mos Eisley, by way of that Kamono Dragon fighting pit from Skyfall. By the end a host of famous set-pieces from Jurassic Park and Jurassic World are effectively re-staged or openly referenced and props (such as Nedry’s shaving foam can) are reverentially pulled out.

Any interesting ideas raised are swiftly crushed. Maisie’s concern that, as a clone, she isn’t a real person is fascinating, but the film forgets it in seconds. The villain (a neat Steve Jobs parody from Campbell Scott) spends a fortune capturing Maisie – but when she escapes (thanks to a key to her cage being helpfully left on a table in front of her) he makes literally no attempt at all to recapture her. It’s stressed to us that the whole world is looking for Maisie and that if she is found it will be dangerous for her – by the end of the film she’s doing a press conference and no one gives a damn. The moral implications of a ‘mother’ cloning herself and curing her clone child of a life-ending disease in the womb, is thrown on the table and then ignored.

The whole film revolves around ridiculous coincidences. Villains run away and then helpfully return to ludicrously unsafe places, purely because the plot requires it. Stupid decisions are made right, left and centre. Plot armour ruthlessly protects the expected. The dinosaurs are just irrelevant set dressing: we are told no less than three times the Gigantasaurus is “the biggest hunter there’s ever been”: solely to build up an inevitable face-off with the T-Rex. The deadly locust plot is such a naked attempt to motivate shoe-horning in legacy characters, the film doesn’t even bother to explain what it’s about or what the baddies plan was.

At one point Laura Dern says something to the effect of “we shouldn’t live in the past, we should aim for the future”. Imagine if this slightly lumpen rehash of its better predecessors had done the same.

Jurassic Park (1993)

Jurassic Park header
Dinosaurs walk the Earth once more in Spielberg’s classic blockbuster Jurassic Park

Director: Steven Spielberg

Cast: Sam Neill (Dr Alan Grant), Laura Dern (Dr Ellie Satler), Jeff Goldblum (Dr Ian Malcolm), Richard Attenborough (John Hammond), Bob Peck (Robert Muldoon), Joseph Mazzello (Tim Murphy), Ariana Richards (Lex Murphy), Samuel L. Jackson (Ray Arnold), Wayne Knight (Dennis Nedry), Martin Ferrero (Donald Gernaro), BD Wong (Dr Henry Wu)

Can you imagine a more exciting film for a 12-year-old boy, than one with dinosaurs walking the Earth once more? And not the sort of rubbery dinosaurs, that we always knew were really models, in classic films. I was 12 when I first saw this film, and these animals really did look 65 million years in the making: they felt real, with roars that deafened the ears and footfalls that made the cinema shake. Dinosaurs are hugely exciting, awe-inspiring beasts. So much so you can forget many of them were also ruthless killers, with really sharp pointy teeth. It’s that mixture of awe and terror that Steven Spielberg understands so well in this exceptional blockbuster, like he mixed Close Encounters and Jaws together in a lab and then let it run loose.

Boffins have worked out a way to clone dinosaurs from frozen DNA, stuck inside prehistoric mosquitoes. Naturally, what else would you do with this discovery but use it to create the most exciting theme park ever seen. What could possibly go wrong? Avuncular billionaire John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) has built the park – and he wants scientists and archaeologists Alan Grant (Sam Neill), Ellie Satler (Laura Dern) and Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) to give it the thumbs up. Sadly however things are set for disaster during a long, low-staffed weekend when an act of industrial espionage by disgruntled employee Nedry (Wayne Knight) leads to all control over the par being lost and the dinosaurs turning on the guests.

The rights to Chrichton’s novel were sold before the book was published, and it’s classic Chrichton set-up of science trying to play God, and landing us all in a moral quagmire and massacre. But first though, let’s not forget how awe-inspiring dinosaurs actually. It’s a long wait until we see any more detail of one than a fearsome eye. But when we do, Jurassic Park knows that for that brief moment we are all children again. As John Williams’ triumphant theme thunders out, and the characters stagger with breathless, tearful excitement in its wake, a Brachiosaurus towers over the screen. Spielberg’s camera perfectly hammers home the sense of wonder at the size and beauty of this gentle giant. Sure science is arrogant, but then if it wasn’t we’d never reach the stars, right?

Spielberg’s film though isn’t just an awe-inspiring modern-day Planet Earth. Because the makers of this park also created plenty of fierce monsters, from the mighty T-Rex to the scarily smart and vicious velociraptors. And if the first half of the film is about the magic – that imperious brachiosaurus, a sleeping triceratops, a baby velociraptor emerging from its egg – the second half is about the horror of finding out what happens when man’s hubris comes back and (literally) bites him in the ass (and plenty of other places). Because when the Raptors get lose, suddenly this park isn’t magic, but a terrifying death-trap where the guests are the prey to out-of-control exhibits.

The second half of the film – from the moment the T-Rex bursts through its non-functioning electric fence to rip apart two jeeps (and of course eat a lawyer cringing on the toilet) – is a terrifying, giddy, exciting monster-chase, with a director who hasn’t delighted this much in the relentless horror of nature since Jaws. And Spielberg gets to play every game here. Huge dinosaurs stomping on cars. Velociraptors playing ruthless hide-and-seek in isolated power houses. Open spaces becoming terrifying hunting grounds and everyday ones like kitchens become terrible traps. What chance do human beings have when there are “clever girls” like the raptors running around?

Jurassic Park is singularly responsible for elevating the raptor, a previously largely unknown dinosaur, to the front rank of dinosaur fame. There is always a romantic appeal to the T-Rex. It’s the king after all, the biggest and the most famous – and its status in the public perhaps reflects the fact that the film sort of asks us to root for it. After all, it only eats the lawyer. And when the final act comes, it’s the T-Rex’s intervention that saves our heroes bacon. The real monsters are the raptors: supremely clever (they can open doors!), totally ruthless, they hunt in packs, they move super-fast and they look like a disturbing mix between bird, human and lizard. Spielberg makes them one of the most terrifying monsters in film, that more than live up to their extended build-up.

Spielberg directs the entire film with his usual devilish wit and fiendish mastery of the set-piece. The film draws some neat, if simple, story-lines for its human characters. Will Dr Grant overcome his aversion to children? Each of them gets a snippet like this. The actors are often (literally) in the shadow of the dinosaurs, but they are big part of communicating the sense of awe. Neill and Dern go through the motions with a certain charm. Goldblum steals most of his scenes as a rock ‘n’ roll physicist, riffing in the way only he can. Richard Attenborough reinvented himself from a career of creeps to cuddly grandad as a Hammond who shares nothing but his name with the book’s ruthless capitalist.

But the real stars are the dinosaurs. And even almost thirty years on, the special effects are really breath-taking here. These feel like real, living, breathing creatures, and Spielberg knows how to shoot them. Even today it still casts quite a spell. It’s telling that none of the sequels, except Jurassic World (which was made by the people who grew up on this film) gets near to matching the mix of magic and horror that this one hits. Sure, it’s a film so confident of success that it fills one scene with shots of the park merchandise (available in a shop near you now!), but then that’s because it’s got a master at the helm and the greatest attractions in 65 million years.

With its underlying plot of the dangers of mankind’s hubris – plus some rather witty criticism of how a park reliant on wild animals might have struggled to work anyway if the dinosaurs refused to emerge from the shadows of their huge paddocks for the tourists – Jurassic Park gives you something to think about, while still terrifying you with ruthless monsters. It’s a classic.]

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.

Little Women (2019)

March Sisters: Assemble! For Greta Gerwig’s superlative adaptation of Little Women

Director: Greta Gerwig

Cast: Saoirse Ronan (Jo March), Emma Watson (Meg March), Florence Pugh (Amy March), Eliza Scanlen (Beth March), Laura Dern (Marmee March), Timothée Chalamet (Laurie), Meryl Streep (Aunt March), Tracy Letts (Mr Dashwood), Bob Odenkirk (Father March), James Norton (John Brooke), Louis Garrel (Professor Friedrich Bhaer), Chris Cooper (Mr Laurence)

Spoilers: Such as they are but discussion of the film’s ending (or rather Greta Gerwig’s interpretation of it) can be found herein…

There are few novels as well beloved as Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. So much so – and so successful have been the numerable adaptations, not least Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 version – that it’s hard to see what a new adaptation could bring to the story that hasn’t been covered before. A new window on the story is triumphantly found though in Greta Gerwig’s fresh and vibrant adaptation, blessed with some terrific performances, and telling its own very distinctive version of the story.

Gerwig’s version crucially starts off in the sisters’ adult lives: Jo (Saoirse Ronan) in New York struggling to make it as a writer, while Meg (Emma Watson) nurses the ill Beth (Eliza Scanlon) back home with Marmee (Laura Dern), and Amy (Florence Pugh) encounters their childhood friend Laurie (Timothée Chalamet) in Paris. This is intercut with the story of their growing up in Massachusetts, with the past story line eventually catching up with the present day. 

If that sounds like it should make the story hard to follow, don’t worry – this is astonishingly confident work from Gerwig, wonderfully directed with zest, fire and imagination (making her exclusion from the Best Director list at the Oscars even more inexplicable – chalk that up I guess to sexism against pictures about “girls” and the fact it’s not as overtly flashy as the rest of this year’s nominees). This takes a familiar book, and fires it up with all the energy of independent, modern cinema, creating something that feels hugely fresh and dynamic. The cross cutting between the two timelines work beautifully – not only is it always perfectly clear, but it also makes for some wonderful contrasts between events in the past and present. None less than the recovery of Beth from TB being followed (with an almost shot-by-shot echo in its filming) by the reactions to Beth’s death. Inventions like this add even greater depth and meaning to the moments and hammer home some terrific emotional high points. 

Gerwig’s style throughout the film invests the story with a great energy, particularly in creating the warm bohemian attitude of the March family. This really feels like a family – conversations between them are fast, people talk relaxedly over each other, the chemistry is completely real, and the camera captures in its movement the warmth and energy of these characters who are completely comfortable in each other’s presence. It’s no surprise that Laurie is taken so quickly with this family, or wants to be part of it. Gerwig invests the family with a dynamic, excited sense of freedom and urgency. Helped by the warm glow that the childhood sections of the film are shot with, these scenes hum with a glorious sense of familial warmth and excitement. 

The camera often moves with careful, but perfectly planned, movement through scenes, mixed in with moments of fast movement – following Jo through streets, or the playful exuberance of Jo and Laurie’s first meeting (and dance) at a society ball. It’s a vibe that carries across to the performances, anchored by Saoirse Ronan’s fabulous performance as Jo. Fervent, intelligent, idealistic but also stubborn, prickly and difficult, Ronan’s Jo carries large chunks of the film, with the character skilfully mixed in with elements of Louisa May Alcott. Ronan most impressively suggests a warmth and familial love for Laurie at all times, that never (on her side) tips into a real romantic feeling. She also has superb chemistry in any case with the excellent Timothée Chalamet, who is just about perfect as a dreamy, but quietly conventional in his way, Laurie.

Gerwig’s primary rejig – and a reflection of the new structure she is chosen – is to allow more screen time to Amy, usually the least popular of the four sisters. She’s also helped by a sensational performance by the Oscar-nominated Florence Pugh as Amy, who not only plays a character perfectly from her mid-teens to her early twenties, but also invests the character with huge amounts of light and shade. The film gives a great deal of time to Amy’s time in Paris – her frustration with living in Jo’s shadow, her longing for her own artistic career (and recognition of her conventional talent – brilliantly established by a wordless glance Pugh gives an impressionist painting compared to her own literal effort) and her own romantic feelings and dreams. Cross cutting this with her past actions – her more temperamental and less sympathetic moments (burning Jo’s book!) that have pained generations – gives the audience far more sympathy and understanding for her. Pugh is also pretty much flawless in the film.

There are a host of superb performances though, with Watson capturing the duller sense of conventional duty in Meg, but spicing it with a sad regret for chances lost; Laura Dern is wonderfully warm as Marmee, but mixes in a loneliness and isolation below the surface; Chris Cooper and Meryl Streep sparkle in cameos. There is barely a false step in the case.

All the action eventually boils towards the ending – and Gerwig’s bravest and most unconventional decisions, in subtly adjusting the final conclusion of the story. At first it seems that the cross cutting of the story has short changed heavily the Bhaer-Jo relationship (Bhaer appears only in the first half an hour of the film and the end), as it cannot lean too heavily on romance when many in the audience will still be expecting a Jo-Laurie match up. 

But Gerwig actually uses this as a skilful deconstruction of the novel. Always feeling that Alcott desired Jo to be a single author – but inserted the marriage to Bhaer at the end to help sell the book – Gerwig effectively has Jo do the same thing. At a crucial moment in the final scenes, we cut to Jo negotiating with her publisher (a droll cameo by Tracey Letts), who insists on a happy ending. Cue a “movie style” chase to intercept a departing Bhaer (shot with the golden hue of the past, while Jo’s meeting with the publisher has the colder colours of the present). Our final shot shows Jo watching her book being printed, cross cut with a golden hued vision of “Jo’s” school with husband in tow. 

It’s a genius little touch, as it’s subtle enough to allow viewers to take the happy ending as it appears in the surface, but smart and clever enough to make the movie unique and different from the other versions (and that ending from the 1994 version is hard to top!). It may undermine the final relationship – and offend those who like the idea of Jo deciding she wants something different than she at first thought – but in its freshness it can’t be challenged. It also makes for a film from Gerwig that is both fresh and exciting and also bracingly and thrillingly in love with Alcott and her work.

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 Founder (2016)

Michael Keaton accepts the praise as Founder of the McDonalds Business Empire

Director: John Lee Hancock

Cast: Michael Keaton (Ray Kroc), Nick Offerman (Richard McDonald), John Carroll Lynch (Maurice McDonald), Linda Cardellini (Joan Smith), B.J. Novak (Harry J. Sonneborn), Laura Dern (Ethel Kroc), Justin Randell Brooke (Fred Turner), Kate Kneeland (June Martino), Patrick Wilson (Rollie Smith)

McDonalds. The Golden Arches are ubiquitous, not just in America but across the whole world. But how did this happen? How did a small business – just one stand in a small town in America – suddenly become a global monolith?

Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) is a luckless travelling salesman, selling supplies to drive-in diners. In California he encounters a diner the likes of which he has never seen before: a walk-up restaurant serving high quality food in disposable packaging, instantly. The business is McDonalds, run by brothers Dick (Nick Offernan) and Maurice (John Carroll Lynch). Kroc instantly recognises the potential of the business, and strikes a deal to franchise the formula across America, although the McDonald brothers will maintain control over all changes. Kroc, however, has the drive and ambition the McDonald brothers lack – and he slowly begins to stretch and expand the deal, taking on more and more power. Eventually he will become “The Founder” of the business that bears his original partners’ names.

What’s interesting about The Founder is that it has a certain element of wanting to have its cake and eat it. It’s simultaneously a semi-celebration of American entrepreneurship and a condemnation of big business crushing the little guy. This sounds like it should make for a confusing film but actually it kinda works. It fits the complex world of major business successes – someone like Kroc had the skills and the ruthlessness to actually make McDonalds into a global super-company in a way the McDonald brothers never did. At the same time, Kroc is clearly incapable of creating anything himself (even most of his business-building ideas come from other people) and the McDonald brothers have the real “American” entrepreneurial invention to create something new.

So the film becomes an engaging story of how businesses grow and develop, which largely manages to remove Hollywood sentiment from the equation. Kroc isn’t exactly a hero – he’s selfish, ruthless and places himself first constantly – but he’s not exactly a villain either. He’s a downtrodden striver, who has too continually push to be accepted by those who look down on him. He has a sense of loyalty and love for his brand – even while he begins to shut the McDonald brothers out of their own business. Similarly the McDonald brothers have a homespun honesty to them, but they are also naïve and unrealistic in their demands and desires for the business.

The film relies a lot for its success on Keaton’s slightly tragic desperation in the lead role, his yearning to improve and better himself. The first half of the movie shows his charm but also demonstrates his business acumen, his genius in recognising that what the McDonald brothers have invented could work on a huge scale. He’s hard-working and initially luckless, and the snobbish knock-backs he receives from banks and investors when peddling an idea get us on his side – after all we know it’ll be worth billions. It’s a Capraesque spin: he’s the little guy bucking against the system who becomes the very monolithic monsterous system himself. We can’t even be certain where we see the flip.

What becomes clear is that Kroc himself is somehow empty, somehow slightly devoid of depth, a man able to move smoothly from concept to concept with no lingering sense of guilt. He discards the McDonald brothers (after copyrighting their name) with as much calmness as he drops his wife (Laura Dern, in a thankless part as The Loyal Wife). Despite this though, the film never brings itself to condemn Kroc. It’s a little in love with the chutzpah of Kroc’s success and his persistent positivism, while seeing those he has had to drop on the way as tragic victims of the monolithic American business success Kroc has created.

We are invited to have similar sympathetic feelings about the hapless McDonald brothers: innocents in a world of business, able to create something that can change the world but hopelessly incapable of translating it into the type of scale that it could achieve. The film doesn’t forget that the McDonald brothers are the victims here, and Offerman and Lynch are both superb as two brothers with a deep personal bond and a love for their business and each other. But it also partly follows Kroc’s line – these two do not have the vision and ambition to take their idea to the next level. They are innovators but they are small-scale ones. The film daringly doesn’t just take their side as the little guys crushed by the system; it also allows itself to consider if they to a certain extent failed themselves. They never learn either, accepting Kroc’s handshake agreement for future royalties at the end of the film, an agreement we are all too aware even when it is happening will probably never be met.

The film has a certain love for the Americana of McDonalds and fast food joints, and it’s both an advert for the triumph of the business (the customers are all uniformly happy, and the ordinary employees in Kroc’s empire are all wonderfully warm) and a sad testament to the small businessman being swept aside by the big company. It’s quite a feat for the film to manage both at the same time and remain coherent. It’s both an advert for and attack on McDonalds, but it holds both these ideas simultaneously at the same time really well. Well worth a watch.

Wild at Heart (1990)

Laura Dern and Nicolas Cage in the hideously empty Wild at Heart

Director: David Lynch

Cast: Nicolas Cage (Sailor Ripley), Laura Dern (Lula Pace Fortune), Diane Ladd (Marietta Fortune), Harry Dean Stanton (Johnnie Farragut), J.E. Freeman (Marcello Santos), W. Morgan Sheppard (Mr Reindeer), Willem Dafoe (Bobby Peru), Crispin Glover (Dell), Isabella Rossellini (Perdita Durango), Sherilyn Fenn (Car Accident Girl), Sheryl Lee (Good Witch)

David Lynch is an eccentric film director. I think that is a fair comment. At his best, he combines his “view askew” look at the world with genuine comedy and pathos. At other times, his films disappear down a self-reverential rabbit-hole that seems designed to frustrate and alienate the viewer. Wild at Heart is the latter type of movie.

Sailor Ripley (Nicolas Cage) is released from prison after his self-defence response to a knife-wielding man at a party turns into a homicidal fury. The knifeman may (or may not) have been hired by Marietta (Diane Ladd), mother to Sailor’s “girl” Lula Pace Fortune (Laura Dern, Ladd’s real life daughter) a woman with a sexually troubled background of abuse, who is in the middle of a sexual awakening. Together they go on a road trip to – well just kinda to get away I guess.

I’ve got to confess I really hated this movie. I only stuck with it to the end, because (a) it wasn’t that long and (b) I wanted to have actually watched the whole thing before I laid into it in this review. This film is the absolute worst elements of Lynchian oddness and gore mixed with pop-culture references to the 1930s through to the 1950s.

In fact it’s a film that is so totally obsessed with these two things that there is literally no room in it for any real plot or emotion. Instead it’s full of pointless, smug and irritating visual and audio quotes from Elvis to The Wizard of Oz, and empty characters played by showboating actors giving massive performances under ostentatious make-up, all to hide the fact that the film (for all its bombast) is a shallow as a puddle. It’s a horrible piece of intellectual fakery, that pretends to be about deep profound themes about love and death but tells us nothing about them. In the end it gets more delight from Dafoe blowing his head off with a shotgun than it does from anything to do with its so-called themes.

Lynch piles on the violence for the sake of it, all in the name of parodying the aggression that lies under his apple-pie surface Americana. This worked in Blue Velvetbecause the contrast was so great, and the characters (for all their larger-than-life qualities) felt real. Here, everything feels artificial. A constant visual image of fire and flames runs through the story – it’s a reference back to the murder (it’s not a surprise to say) of Lula’s father (burnt alive on the orders of his wife it turns out). This adds nothing at all to our understanding of anything – particularly since Marietta is the most obviously corrupt and hypocritical character from the start, drawing attention in such a ham fisted way to her past misdeeds, and the impact of them, hardly seems necessary.

The film is full of signs of man’s inhumanity – the brutal shootings, the torture of Harry Dean Stanton’s luckless PI (toned down considerably from the original cut), Sailor’s brutal murder at the start, a road accident peopled with twisted bodies – but it’s all so bloody obvious. We get it David, the world is bad and people suck. Just because you’ve shot this with some tricky angles and carry it across with a tongue-in-cheek delight at your own naughtiness doesn’t make this a masterpiece. It just highlights the shallow emptiness you are peddling as art.

The rampant self-indulgence spreads to the actors. You’d think Cage would be perfect for Lynch right? Wrong. His hideously self-conscious performance of overt oddity here just makes his performance all the more unbearable. Diane Ladd gives the sort of performance many call brave, but is really just about shouting and smearing lipstick all over her face. By the time Willem Dafoe turns up with ludicrous teeth, ripping into the scenery, you’ve lost all patience. The only person who emerges with any credit is Laura Dern, who at least invests her characters with some level of humanity and sweetness. Everyone else (everyone!) is a stock cartoon drawing.

But even Dern is cursed with Lynch’s awful sexual abuse sub-plot, which is genuinely offensive in its trite shallowness and in its suggestion that having sex with your uncle as a young teenager will turn you into a real goer later in life. Did he really deal with the same themes with such sensitivity in Twin Peaks? As for the so-called romantic happy ending – it’s unearned in any way by the film, which has treated the subject with scorn. The film’s dark wit isn’t even particularly funny – everything is so dialed up to eleven, that all the comic beats get smothered in over acting or over stylised dialogue and action.

Wild at Heart won a flipping Palme d’Or (to be fair the announcement was booed). But don’t be fooled. This is a film pretending an intellectual depth it never gets anywhere near to achieving. It’s a horrible, pathetic, cruel and empty film that thinks it’s a satire on the dark heart that lies at America’s soul. It’s not. It’s just a cartooney, self-important lecture which mistakes oddity and eccentricity for heart. Lynch is a talent for sure, but here his talents are sorely misdirected into indulgent, childish emptiness and faux profundity. Don’t watch it.