As the modern revival of Star Wars continues, director Rian Johnson takes the reins for the eighth episode of the space-opera saga. The Last Jedi picks up where 2015’s The Force Awakens left off, as the dwindling Resistance prepares to do combat once again with The First Order. As Rey (Daisy Ridley) tracks down Jedi master Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) to ask for help with the impending battle, her fellow fighters including defector Finn (John Boyega) and pilot Poe (Oscar Isaac) remain at base, with General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) fronting the army. Meanwhile, the First Order, led by General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) plan an attack to wipe out their enemies once and for all.
As well as entertaining or informing cinema audiences, filmmakers can use their work as a vehicle for their political agenda. With his sixth feature in the director’s chair, George Clooney presents a satirical attack at modern America through his crime drama Suburbicon. Set in a picket-fenced idealistic neighbourhood during the late fifties, the plot follows businessman Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon) who, along with his wife Rose (Julianne Moore) and their young son Nicky (Noah Jupe), appears to live a happy life. The family is rocked when they fall victim to a brutal burglary, which sets off an unlikely chain of events.
A decade has passed since the last lightsaber battle on the silver screen, and the anticipation around the latest instalment of the franchise has been rife. ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ is the seventh episode so takes place approximately 30 years after ‘The Return of the Jedi’, revisiting the characters of the original trilogy as well as introducing a host of new faces. British rising star John Boyega stars as Finn, a stormtrooper who rebels against his master Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) to assist captured fighter pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) escape from the clutches of the dark side. Following this, Finn meets Rey (Daisy Ridley), a scavenger on the planet Jakku and together along with Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), they join forces to track down the missing Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and overturn the First Order.
Straight from the iconic opening titles, there is an air of nostalgia that is ever-present in director J.J. Abram’s foray to a galaxy far, far away, and John William’s recognisable score is used to good effect in key moments which hark back to previous incarnations. The plot has a familiar structure and retreads themes of inner conflict and ‘good versus evil’, but still feels fresh in its rejuvenation. The team of writers superbly handle the combination of using old and new characters, the story never feeling cluttered or convoluted despite there being so much going on between the grandiose action sequences and the more intimate dialogue driven duels.
A lot of pressure lies on the young shoulders of Boyega and Ridley to deliver their in their pivotal central roles, and I am pleased to say that they do. Finn, or FN-2187 to give him his stormtrooper title, is far from the stereotypical hero. He has his flaws but has a good heart and Boyega captures this depth well. Daisy Ridley is equally excellent, Ren carrying the torch for the trend of strong female characters in film. Harrison Ford brings playfulness and exuberance to proceedings, Han Solo and Chewy working well with the youngsters and recreating the team dynamic on the Millennium Falcon first established back in ‘A New Hope’. There’s an abundance of solid turns from the cast including Lupita Nyong’o, Domhnall Gleeson among others, each making the most of their given opportunities but Adam Driver stood out in particular in his complexly villainous portrayal of Kylo Ren, his performance putting him up there with my favourite cinema baddies of the year.
‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ lives up to the almighty hype and does enough to tick the boxes for fanboys as well as welcoming a generation of new fans along for the ride. The sentimentality might be a tad indulgent for some, but it wasn’t overdone and looks forward to the future as much as it looks back into the past. J.J. Abrams has revitalised the classic series for the 21st century, directing with bravery and skill, and with respect for the enormity of the task at hand. The force is strong with this one.
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Swapping dystopia for his own brand of utopia, Alex Garland, the writer of 28 Days Later and Never Let Me Go presents his intelligent debut as director ‘Ex Machina’. Continuing the run of thought provoking science-fiction in contemporary cinema, his intimate story follows geeky computer programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) to the isolated lair of his employer Nathan (Oscar Isaac), after he receives an invite as a prize to a competition. Whizzed off to the secret location by helicopter, he has no idea what to expect and is thrilled when informed that he is to take part in a Turing Test experiment with the highly advanced robot that his boss has built. The machine in question is named Ava (Alicia Vikander) with the test taking place over one week, across several monitored encounters. These meetings, where Caleb and Ava get the chance to ‘know’ each other, form the structure and pacing of the film, giving a steady, if at times repetitive, platform in which to handle the ever-expansive psychological and technological themes.
Set in only one slickly futuristic yet somehow cold creepy environment with only three predominant characters, the fixed set up lends the film an unnerving sense of claustrophobia that lurks throughout. The relationships between the three are never simple, always transforming and simmering with complex tension. The script is sharp and intellectual and makes every conversation that takes place interesting and full of acumen. Regular power cuts in the building serve as a plot device as Caleb, Nathan and Ava try and stay one step ahead of each other, and in turn keeps the audience not only guessing what will happen next but also pondering the all encompassing questions that it poses of humanity, artificial intelligence and the blurred lines in between.
Because we are trapped in a tight space with only a few faces to keep us company, it is even more important that the acting is up to scratch. Gleeson certainly works as the wide-eyed inquisitive central figure, and his casting brings out comparisons and similarities with a certain episode Charlie Brooker’s sci-satirical series Black Mirror in which he plays a man who dies and is rebuilt through his virtual personality on social media. This could easily be mistaken for a feature length sequel. As good as Gleeson is though, he is third best behind Isaac and Vikander. The former is menacing and controlling in his role, but also brings black humour with excellent delivery and a shockingly good dance sequence. Alicia Vikander portrays the humanoid Ava with such careful precision, every expression and every step is measured to perfection and I could listen to her talk all day.
Alex Garland brings his already accomplished novelistic craft to the project, as well as flexing his directorial muscles, bringing refreshing creativity and visual flair. In ‘Ex Machina’, he sets and establishes a scary setting in which his absorbing concept can be explored, and though a couple of minor plotholes leave things unanswered, his ideas are given ample room to develop. What stands out and has a lasting effect though are the actions of the fascinating characters, and the consequences of them. Gleeson and Vikander’s man and machine connection make this glimpse at what the future may hold far more human than Her, as Oscar Isaac pulls the strings of reclusive genius Nathan, the manipulator of this modern monster of a film.
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It is always fun to root for the underdog, and unlucky losers often find a place in movie-goers hearts. Mix this theory with the quirkiness of Joel and Ethan Coen and we have ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’; a tale of a folk singer in 1960s Greenwich Village who so nearly makes it again and again, described amusingly as being ‘like King Midas’s idiot brother’. Partly based around the memoir of Dave Van Ronk, the film captures an essence of the scene through its nondescript yet pleasant palette and melodic narrative. Oscar Isaac stars in the eponymous role and the Coen brothers write and direct with a knowing flair, scenes flowing together like tracks on an ambitious concept album creating a flawed central character who rarely makes the right choices but we’re happy to follow him wherever he goes.
As the title suggests, the story tracks the protagonist’s every move and Llewyn is, in effect, the plot. For the most part, we see him dossing in the spare rooms, cars or on the couches of the subplots, bumming cigarettes along the way. This pay-as-you-go lifestyle lends the film a disjointed structure, if you can even call it that, and like his budding career, it struggles to go anywhere. This unconventional approach to storytelling may not appeal to some but I felt it only added to its charm. One constant however, is a ginger cat in which Llewyn finds himself responsible for after accidentally locking it out of its owner’s flat without a key to let it back in. What initially appear as a passing moment gradually becomes the glue which holds the tender piece together. The cat, in a way, represents the responsibility that Llewyn does not want to face up to, unwilling to admit that his dream of making it in the industry may not become a reality. This idea of a creative soul’s expressiveness going unnoticed is universal and this theme forms a resonation with the audience, and with anyone whose efforts have fallen on deaf ears.
Casting Oscar Isaac in the titular part works well as it allows him to find a balance between his acting talent and musical prowess, passing on both counts with flying colours. He has an effortless quality in his portrayal which suits the character and his voice is mesmerising in the performance sections whether on stage at the local smoky bar or crooning awkwardly to guests at a dinner party. He is joined by Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan as friends and folk duo Jim and Jean, who both do well in providing one of the soundtrack highlights ‘500 Miles’. Scenes shared between Isaac and Mulligan have a great energy, their bickering arguments fuelled by wasted talent and missed opportunities are both touching and funny which is no mean feat. Coen brothers favourite John Goodman rounds off the impressive supporting cast as loudmouth jazz musician Roland Turner, an interesting yet unimportant turn which sadly serves as no more than an extended cameo appearance.
Despite the well crafted cinematography and sharp script we’ve come to expect from the Coens, the infectious music is what really gives the film an edge. Filling the gaps between his episodic moments of failure are the heartfelt tracks which provide an excellent soundtrack to his struggles, the stand out tracks being Hang Me, Oh Hang Me and Fare Thee Well. ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ is a film full of note perfect verses without a chorus and with no suspenseful crescendo, but I could listen to it on repeat all day.