The Director and the Jedi (2018)

2018 #59
Anthony Wonke | 95 mins | Blu-ray | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 12

The Director and the Jedi title card

So, The Last Jedi, eh?

No, okay, let’s not get into that again. Instead, how about this: the film’s Blu-ray making-of documentary. But oh, how that undersells it. More indicative, perhaps, is the fact it was screened as part of the South by Southwest festival last month. The Director and the Jedi isn’t some cobbled-together EPK featurette, where talking heads tell you how wonderful everyone is and how great the working environment was, while tech guys show you how to build a puppet or paint out greenscreen or, you know, whatever. No, for this one Last Jedi’s writer-director Rian Johnson and his producer Ram Bergman contacted documentary-maker Anthony Wonke to follow them around throughout the film’s production and provide a more truthful account of the film’s creation.

If that sounds like it would just turn out a video diary (another familiar special feature of the DVD era), the key would seem to be Wonke, who brings considerably more artistry than that. Most making-ofs are, for want of a better word, educational — “this is how they did it”. There’s some of that here, naturally, but it’s not about that. It’s more often about the psychology and emotion of being the people making a new Star Wars movie. But not heavy-handedly (Wonke isn’t constantly making people say how they feel or something), and that’s why it’s so artfully done. It’s even beautifully filmed and edited. It doesn’t look like crummy behind-the-scenes B-roll — there are some legitimately gorgeous shots in here.

The producer, the apprentice, the director, and the Jedi

If that makes it sound faked, no, it’s definitely not been staged. Far from it, in fact: this is a warts-and-all making-of. Exceedingly rarely for a documentary about a new release, Wonke has been allowed to include comments critical of the process or filmmakers. Chief among them: Mark Hamill’s much-discussed reservations about Johnson’s treatment of Luke Skywalker. As the title might imply, this is the doc’s strongest throughline, and would be its most affecting were it not for another part (more on that later). I say that because the feeling you eventually get from Hamill and Johnson is one of immense mutual respect, even as their beliefs about what should happen in the film clash. Except they don’t clash because Hamill, the dutiful actor, informs Johnson of his misgivings before committing to realise Johnson’s vision as best he can. It causes Johnson to doubt whether he’s doing the right thing — and, again, such elements of doubt are not something we normally witness in documentaries like this, even as they are surely always a part of the creative process.

Indeed, the creative process of filmmaking is another major point, especially in how it clashes with reality. The Last Jedi may’ve had a phenomenal budget and a massive production machine to back it up, but it also had just a 100-day shoot to squeeze in the construction of and filming on 120 sets, not to mention travelling around the world for location shooting. What Johnson and co want to achieve constantly clashes with what’s possible with the time and budget available. (The amount of effort that went into making the thala-siren milking scene happen just makes it all the funnier how much some people hated it.) As one producer puts it, eventually you have to fit everything in a box — “this box is big, but it has limits”.

It ain't easy at the top

Consequently, there’s a lot of stuff with department heads butting against Johnson’s vision a little bit, either because of time, or money, or “that? In Star Wars?” feelings. But, like Hamill, they all get on with their jobs to serve his vision, because that’s filmmaking. And this is why we, as film fans/theorists, still discuss the notion of the director as auteur, even though filmmaking is undeniably a massively collaborative exercise. The Director and the Jedi is as a good demonstration as any of why the seemingly-conflicting notions of “filmmaking is entirely collaborative” and “auteur theory is relevant” are both true.

The other most memorable part of the film is how it handles Carrie Fisher’s presence and, well, eventual lack thereof. The bulk of the documentary is dedicated to the actual filming of The Last Jedi (Wonke wasn’t privy to either the writing or post-production, which is a shame because they’re certainly key parts of the creative process), but Fisher’s death is an unavoidable topic, and clearly they conducted at least a short interview with Johnson after it happened. Aside from those few comments, Wonke builds a tribute to her through her work and the regard others hold her in. He chooses to end the documentary, not with the last day of shooting, but with Fisher and Hamill finally reunited on set and on screen, the crew watching in hushed awe as they film that beautiful scene in the Crait hangar. It forms a fitting, respectful tribute.

The princess and the director

“Beautiful” is a word I keep coming back to with this documentary — how it’s shot and constructed; how it handles its subjects; how the relationships between people come across. I guess those who hated Last Jedi and Johnson’s contribution will still rile against it to some degree, but even for them I think it’s worth a watch, if only to try to appreciate that no one was deliberately trying to “ruin their childhoods” or whatever. Quite the opposite. And even for non-fans, there’s insight here into humanity when its applied to a joint creative endeavour. If that sounds a bit grand for a blockbuster’s making-of, well, The Director and the Jedi is much more than your bog-standard making-of.

5 out of 5

The Director and the Jedi is included on the Blu-ray of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, which is released in the UK today.

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Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)

aka Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi

2017 #169
Rian Johnson | 152 mins | cinema | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 12A / PG-13

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

I’ve felt a great disturbance in the Force, as if a small but vocal group of fanboys suddenly cried out in terror and were unfortunately not silenced because on the internet such complaining goes on forever.

Yes, something terrible has happened: a new Star Wars movie has come out and, rather than go the Force Awakens route of appealing to nostalgia and familiarity, it’s attempted to boldly go where no Star Wars movie has gone before. Well, it’s maybe not quite that innovative, but writer and director Rian Johnson has given us an Episode VIII that eschews rehashing former glories for an attempt to push the franchise forward in interesting new ways. It’s not an unmitigated success, but it is considerably more than just “a good effort”.

Picking up exactly where Episode VII left off, The Last Jedi opens with the Resistance fleeing as the First Order strike back. With those villains in pursuit, intent on wiping out the Resistance once and for all, hot-headed pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and former Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) hatch a plot to cripple the First Order’s flagship. Meanwhile, on the other side of the galaxy, Force-adept orphan Rey (Daisy Ridley) tries to persuade hermit Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), the only remaining Jedi Master, to rejoin the fight.

The last Jedi?

Two years ago, The Force Awakens set a new trilogy in motion by not only introducing us to a selection of new characters and their conflicts, but also by posing a bunch of questions and establishing a pile of mysteries. The Last Jedi has the task of either perpetuating these — essentially, putting them on hold to be answered in 2019’s finale, Episode IX — or actually (gasp!) resolving some of them. No spoilers (I imagine if you care then you’ve seen the film by now, but just in case…), but Johnson has indeed decided to furnish us with some answers, and it’s generally this that has riled up certain parts of the internet.

Frankly, it’s not a debate I want to wade into, in part because I generally think the complaints are misplaced — many of them stem from fans having expected certain things, then not got those things. They say that’s not it; that Johnson’s writing of characters and ability to tell a story is fundamentally flawed… but they’re wrong. Johnson’s answers are fine — in fact, in many cases they’re exactly the kind of thing I’d hoped for (yep, some of us did get what we wanted!) — they’re just not the kind of answers some people expected. And I think that’s a good thing. This way is more surprising. But also, it’s not surprising for surprise’s sake — it fits the story being told. Minor spoilers here for the film’s themes, which are failure and what it takes to be a hero. (That’s two of them, anyway. I’m sure there are more.) The former, as we are told, is important — you learn more from failure than from success, as they say. The latter is, at least in part, explored in terms of who gets to be a hero, and why. Both of these lead to answers that have made some people deeply unhappy, usually for the wrong reasons — as I say, an awful lot of people are blaming Johnson’s abilities as a filmmaker, when really they just don’t like the perfectly-well-built story they’ve been given.

The end of Kylo Ren?

Anyway, that’s enough harping on about other people’s issues. I do think the film had some flaws, primarily in the pacing department. I think where it goes wrong is how it emphasises the events on Ahch-To (Luke’s island) and Canto Bight (the casino planet). I get the impression the latter has been built up to give us somewhere to cut away to during the former, but it means what is a subplot aside gets too much screen time. We expect a three-act structure, and it makes that whole section feel like Act Two of Three, but it isn’t. I can imagine this plays better on a rewatch, so I’m reserving judgement slightly.

That aside, though, The Last Jedi has much to please. Every major player is granted a noteworthy arc, developing as people throughout the movie. The pay-offs to all that are particularly satisfying. Obviously I can’t talk about that without spoiling it, but everything that occurs in the throne room after it becomes clear this isn’t your typical Star Wars throne room scene is among my favourite stuff in the whole saga. And you’d have to go some way to beat the long-awaited reunion between a couple of characters, in a perfectly-written and emotionally loaded scene. This definitely contains some of the best acting in any Star Wars movie — Carrie Fisher gives one of the best performances of her career; Mark Hamill makes you wonder why his never took off like, say, Harrison Ford’s did; and the young guns get their moments too, particularly Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver, with a shoutout for the always wonderful Domhnall Gleeson.

Also John Boyega and Kelly Marie Tran

Away from the dramatic conflicts, it also satisfies as an action movie, with some of the saga’s most incredible sequences. At times it feels like we’re watching an actual war, rather than the odd skirmish that pops up in previous films. The smaller level combat is impressive too. This is certainly not a film just about its action set pieces, but they don’t disappoint. All around this may well be the best-directed Star Wars movie, with its shot choices, editing, and some bold and original ways of staging things that give us examples of pure filmmaking never before seen in this series. Part of that is the beautiful cinematography by Johnson’s regular DP, Steve Yedlin. There’s been striking photography in previous Star Wars movies, but none so consistently as this. One bit in the second half provoked actual gasps and “wow”s from my audience — and we’re British, we don’t make noise during films.

Except laughter. People laughed, too. This is a funny film. Too funny, in some people’s estimations. Maybe they forget that Star Wars has always been amusing (on IMDb the highest-rated quote from A New Hope is Han’s chat over the intercom when they’re breaking Leia out, which is basically a comedy skit). I had mixed feelings about one extended bit at the beginning (it’s funny, but does it fit in Star Wars?), but mostly I thought the level of humour was about right. That reminds me of the most ridiculous single criticism I’ve read of the film, though: some people have claimed the film has a “vegan agenda” due to one comedy bit. I kid you not. Elsewhere, the humour is used to succinctly undercut some of the series’ pomposity, which ties back round to Johnson’s pleasantly irreverent aims that I was alluding to earlier.

Or is Luke the last Jedi?

One of the key lines from The Last Jedi’s trailer (and it’s also very important in the film, of course) comes from Luke: “This is not going to go the way you think.” That’s quite clearly the case between the film and its audience, too. Some of us have revelled in that; others despised it. Others still find themselves in between, stuck being drawn back and forth to two complex and opposing emotional states. Being uncertain of your feelings between the Light and the Dark — seems only appropriate for this franchise, doesn’t it?

The Last Jedi doesn’t play to the populist cheap seats in the way The Force Awakens did, which makes it a less congenial movie, but perhaps a better one. It doesn’t effortlessly entertain with nostalgic Star Wars-ness as Episode VII does, but instead takes all that familiar iconography and prods at it to push it in new directions. Like another big sci-fi sequel this year, Blade Runner 2049, it’s a film whose true appreciation may only occur over time. I didn’t like everything about it, but the stuff I liked, I loved.

4 out of 5

Star Wars: The Last Jedi is in cinemas everywhere now. I imagine you’ve already seen it.

P.S. I loved the Porgs.

The last Porg?

Looper (2012)

2015 #40
Rian Johnson | 119 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA & China / English | 15 / R

LooperWriter-director Rian Johnson re-teams with the star of his first movie for this near-future sci-fi thriller, hailed by critics as one of the best genre movies of 2012, though it seems to have been a little more divisive among audiences.

In the year 2044, Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is employed by the mob as a very special kind of assassin. 30 years in the future, time travel will have been invented and outlawed, leading organised crime to use it for murders: the victim is sent back in time and immediately killed by a so-called ‘looper’, leaving the future police with no body to investigate. Loopers know that, one day, they’ll have to kill their future self, in order to cover their tracks by “closing the loop”. So — and you’d know where this was going even if it wasn’t part of the film’s very premise — it’s not long before we meet Joe’s future self (Bruce Willis), who escapes, intent on changing the future so he can live. It’s up to younger Joe to stop him before the angry mob kills them both.

There’s quite a bit more to Looper than that — major characters aren’t introduced until a significant way through the running time, for instance. I’m sure some screenwriting gurus would have something to say about such a structure, but it helps make for a less predictable, more organic, more entertaining movie. One that, on occasion, plays about with its chronological structure. How apt. It does make it difficult to discuss in full without spoiling anything, mind, but as I’m posting this review in order to recommend the film just before it makes its TV debut, I shall endeavour to keep things newcomer friendly.

Not visually influenced by Blade Runner, honestFirstly, the less you know the better. I pretty much knew the above before I went in, and that meant the film had surprises from the get-go. For instance, the near-future world most of the action takes place in has been well-realised by Johnson and his design and effects teams, and time travel is not the only SF concept or imagery employed here, which I wasn’t aware of. Their vision is Blade Runner-esque in its decrepitude — this is a future where the global financial crisis has rolled on, so flying motorbikes exist but most people drive present-day cars retrofitted with solar panels, for example — but it doesn’t slavishly rip off Blade Runner’s style and imagery, as have so many other movies (both good and poor). The future concepts are also used economically when it comes to storytelling. Nothing is introduced merely for the sake of showing “it’s the Future, innit” — everything pays off in some way, but without the heavy-handedness normally associated with everything existing solely for a narrative purpose.

Once the genre-rooted concepts are established, the film morphs almost into a character-driven thriller. It’s one still absolutely grounded in ideas of future technology and its possible implications, but it’s what these particular people do in that particular situation that matters. A good deal of the second half is spent on a remote farm, for instance, where the extent of sci-fi tech is a self-piloting drone for watering crops. Some people didn’t like that; I thought it was fine. So too the action sequences, which are effectively put together and serve the story, rather than making this An Action Movie.

Lookie-likieHeading up the cast, Gordon-Levitt does a good Bruce Willis impersonation — believable, but not a slavish impression. That was probably quite necessary, because I don’t imagine Willis has the thespian chops to emulate an older Gordon-Levitt. Notoriously, the younger actor does the whole thing under prosthetics designed to make it more plausible he’d age into Willis. They’re a bit weird: not badly done — far from it, in fact — but you’re always kind of aware they’re there. A highly able supporting cast flesh out the rest of the characters, though most memorable is young Pierce Gagnon as an imperilled child you wouldn’t necessarily mind getting killed. And I mean that in a nice way; about the film and his performance, if not the character.

Time travel fiction is notoriously hard to get right because of the limitless potential for paradoxes, inconsistencies, and so on. Some reckon Looper has more holes than a golf course; Johnson has asserted it was incredibly carefully constructed and all of the criticisms are answerable. I’ve not listened to either of his commentary tracks (one on the disc, another made available for download while the film was still in cinemas) so I can’t really back one side or the other. Does it feel like there are issues? Maybe. But time travel is impossible, and probably always will be, so we can’t know how it would function. A fiction has to establish its own rules for what is and isn’t possible; what does and doesn’t happen. Looper doesn’t explain the nitty-gritty of everything it portrays — there’s even a hand-wave when talking about Old Joe’s memories of Young Joe’s current actions — but I believe there is at least some thought to how it all hangs together, just maybe not in the way some viewers would approve of. Well, you go write your own time travel story, then.

It's about timeEven if there are some logic issues, it doesn’t fatally undermine the movie. Looper comes with the joys of a well-imagined future, a captivating storyline, engaging characters, and enough twists and turns along the way to keep you guessing at the outcome. The best genre movie of 2012? That was a year of stiff competition among SF/F pictures, but Looper may have the edge.

5 out of 5

The UK TV premiere of Looper is on BBC Two tonight at 9:05pm.

The Brothers Bloom (2008)

2011 #84
Rian Johnson | 114 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

The Brothers Bloom“Crikey, time flies!” I thought when I compiled this listing and saw that The Brothers Bloom was released in 2008. Somehow it felt like it was only last year, not three (or, if at the start of 2008, closer to four) years ago.

Then I happened to spot the UK release date on IMDb: June 2010. That explains that then.

From the director of the acquired taste that was Brick, The Brothers Bloom looks like it might be a little more mainstream: it’s got a lead cast who are all Oscar nominees, and half of them winners too, and it has a con/heist plot — always popular — and a light tone — a very funny and enjoyable trailer, I thought. But while it’s not as specialised as Brick’s near-impenetrable dialogue and considered (over-considered?) tone, it’s certainly Quirky.

The capital Q may give a clue that I think it may be too forcibly quirky at times. Genuine quirkiness can be a lot of fun, though there’ll always be people who don’t get it, but if you force it then it comes across as weird; silliness for the sake of silliness; trying to be Cool. I don’t think Bloom goes quite that far, but I did feel those involved were trying too hard.

Despite that, it can be surprisingly dramatic in places, at least more so than the trailer suggested. It’s not quite as all-out-fun as it looked… The titular Brothersbut then the job of a trailer is to sell you a film, so if the end result doesn’t match it 100% is that a failing? How are you meant to summarise the entire tone of a film in a two-minute spoiler-free sales burst anyway? That dilemma is emphasised in this case because it’s the opening that feels least like the trailer. I mean, the pre-titles is kinda quirky-fun, but then it gets a little serious and slow, and later — perhaps half-an-hour or three-quarters of an hour in — you get to all the stuff the trailer was selling. And then the last act is back to something more unusually — or, if we’re to be unkind, unevenly — paced and toned. I can imagine the marketing meetings for this were a struggle…

Despite (or perhaps because of) all those shifts, it drags a bit at times, but it still has lots of amusing, quirky and fun moments to help make up for that.

I’d heard the last act was incredibly twisty; too twisty, according to some. Perhaps it was because I read that and was prepared, but I didn’t find it to be so. It has twists, sure, but this is a con movie — con movies have twists. That’s almost the point. They weren’t all the twists I was expecting either, which is probably a good thing.

The cast of the conPerhaps the problem for others was that the ending doesn’t quite spell everything out. I’m certain every question you might have is answered, more or less, but it doesn’t lead you by the hand back over the film pointing everything out, as many twist-ending-ed films do. Part of me appreciates this assumption of intelligence; part of me would like it all handily explained so I don’t sit here wondering it for myself. I don’t feel completely lump-headed not wanting to do that — there’s no Deeper Meaning or Philosophical Insight gained from sorting this out, I don’t believe; just an understanding of who was being conned and when, and who knew what and why.

I score most films right after watching them, even if I don’t post the review for many months. I thought I’d given The Brothers Bloom a three, but coming to write this I find it has a four. Make of that what you will.

4 out of 5

Brick (2005)

2007 #72
Rian Johnson | 105 mins | TV | 15 / R

BrickThere’s a nagging sense that you’re watching a student short film for large chunks of Brick, especially at the start. This is accompanied by a niggling worry that it’s also been vastly overrated.

But it does, eventually, kick into gear — the incomprehensible plot becomes a bit clearer and the fantasy that these high school kids are in some film noir becomes less irritating and more quite fun.

It occasionally lapses back into its earlier problems but, all said, I’m glad I bothered to stick with it.

4 out of 5