(On Blu-ray, March 2018) So the newest mainline Star Wars movie is out and wow is it interesting. After criticisms that The Force Awakens was a carbon copy of A New Hope, here comes The Last Jedi, seemingly determined to outdo The Empire Strikes Back and undercut expectations at every turn. Never mind the mind-warping idiocy of the premise (space bombers requiring gravity? A space chase in which they need fuel to keep going the same speed? Why is this so dumb?) when the entire movie, from plot points to one-liners, seems determined to shake up the Star Wars legacy. Consider the repeated undercutting of the heroic male as represented by Poe. Consider the savaging of the idea that Rey’s parentage was important. Consider Luke as a reluctant mentor. Consider the silly humour of “general Hugs” or the milking sequence, at odds with the series so far. Consider the script, replete with dialogue along the lines of “I didn’t expect that,” “I assumed, wrongly,” “let the past die,” “It’s time for the Jedi … to end.” Heck, simply consider the misdirection in which a steam iron is momentarily made to look like a new ship. Most of the plans hatched in this movie are near-complete failures. Dozens of plot arcs launched in The Force Awakens are cut shot here, usually unceremoniously. The ending is the bleakest in the series so far, even in acting as a counterpoint to The Empire Strikes Back. This is no mere accumulation of coincidences: Official interviews confirm that there was very little overarching plotting for the trilogy—writer/director Rian Johnson was able to go wherever he wanted with this film, with little regard to the intentions of the previous film. Considering that, it’s easy to understand why a number of Star Wars fans were infuriated at the result—it certainly doesn’t fulfill expectations, and arguably destroys quite a bit of the Star Wars mythos in the process. On the other hand … for jaded viewers who have been contemplating a yearly Star Wars franchise unable to take risks, this is a welcome shot in the arm. It’s worth reminding everyone that the trilogy isn’t complete—there may be retractions and further revelations to build upon the earthquake seen here. It’s all very interesting, which wasn’t necessarily something to be said about The Force Awakens (although it was one of the strengths of Rogue One). It helps that the film itself is reasonably made, although with significant issues. At nearly two hours and a half, it’s too long by at least fifteen minutes—the last act in particular feels like an afterthought after the climactic throne room confrontation. The idea of Canto Bight is far better than its execution, and while cutting off dramatic arcs in unexpected fashion is intriguing, it’s also frustrating—the case example here being the somewhat unceremonious end for Captain Phasma. The special effects work is fantastic, the Porgs aren’t as annoying as expected, and the actors aren’t bad either—among the newcomers, the ever-interesting Laura Dern makes a good impression in an unusual role, while Kelly Marie Tran brings a bit of welcome diversity (not simply in ethnicity, but also in class) to the usual cast. Mark Hamill makes the most out of his acting repertoire, while Adam Driver is a bit more than an angsty antagonist this time around. Still, the star here is the plot and its willingness to go against expectations. I’m not entirely happy with the results, but I’m far more interested in seeing where the next episode will take us than I was at the end of The Force Awakens. I’m still bothered by a lot of the world building, but, eh, it’s Star Wars after all. Plausibility doesn’t factor in.
(On DVD, October 2016) I have an unaccountable fondness for high-concept films, and since Brick can be summed up as “high-school noir”, you can imagine that I liked it quite a bit. Joseph Gordon-Lewitt stars as an outcast in his own school, abruptly asked to investigate a sordid story involving murder, drugs, sex and organized crime. It could have been a comedy or a satire, but it turns out that writer/director Rian Johnson cleverly chooses to play things as straight as he can: For all of the tough-guy dialogue, femme fatales, bleak atmosphere and rough play of the classic noir elements, Brick does not smirk to its audience nor wallow in self-awareness: it simply plays with the typical elements of hard-boiled noir crime fiction within a high school and sees where things go. We never spend much time in class and most of the adults are useless to the teenage characters, but the very cool result makes the most of its low budget. While Brick probably earns a lot of attention nowadays for being the feature film debut of a writer/director who has since delivered two solid films and is poised to direct the next big Star Wars movie, it’s a solid, perfectly enjoyable film in its own right. Noir fans in particular will simply love it.
(Video on Demand, January 2013) There are quite a few things that annoy me about Looper: The inanity of its time-traveling premise, the slap-dash way its future is assembled, the way the two main stories of the film don’t seem to mesh seamlessly, the lengthy time-out in the third quarter of the film… all elements that could and should have been fixed. But these doubts having been expressed, let us not be distracted from the fact that Looper remains one of the strongest SF films of 2012 in a relatively crowded field: It’s a solid movie, a confident effort that doesn’t spoon-feed its audience and engages with provocative questions about our relationship with ourselves (in the first plot-line) and our duty to the future (in the second). Joseph Gordon-Lewitt stars as the younger version of a character also played by Bruce Willis, but it’s writer/director Rian Johnson who emerges as the big winner of the film: not only does he turn in an accomplished piece of cinema, he also plays with SF archetypes in a refreshing matter-of-fact fashion that allows him to use those elements to get to the core of the drama he wants to set up. Looper goes effortlessly from the streets to the cornfields, striking a Midwest SF atmosphere that feels refreshingly different from many of the other recent SF blockbusters. While the script has weaker points, it manages to present a few complex ideas cleanly, and its second half’s sense of moral uncertainty is uncanny in the best sense. For SF fans who are tired of the same old visually-spectacular-but-dramatically-hollow products, Looper is a small triumph and another entry in the mini-boom of good original cinematic SF since District 9.