Although this gawjuss thing isn't the poster you'll likely have seen - it is an official poster, not fan art.  It's by a fella who, if you ask me, is the heir apparent to Drew Struzan ... Paul Shipper, ladies and gentlemen.  Find him here:

There’s gonna be some spoilerage in this review.  Serious spoilerage.  So, if you haven’t seen The Last Jedi yet, go away and do so.  I’ll see you after ...

These days, the first few moments of a Star Wars film make me tense ... Is it going to be Empire good, Phantom Menace bad, or Force Awakens okay?  ...  The first few minutes usually tell.

Where J.J. had to spend some time, with The Force Awakens, introducing a whole new cast of characters and a (slightly) different galaxy - Rian Johnson, in this film, gets to hit the ground running. 

Interesting, then, that he sets off by offering us some mixed messages: The opening line is delivered by ... Ade Edmondson.  Really?  They have Sir Adrian Dangerous on a Star Destroyer?  What could possibly go wrong.  And he’s answerable to Domhnall Gleeson, who’s still playing Hux as an eye-swivelling maniac with a light sabre stuck up his ass.  But, thankfully, writer/director Rian Johnson takes care to do what J.J. failed to do - and that’s let the audience in on the joke:  Hux is meant to be ridiculous.  Phew.  That’s a relief.

Throughout this film, there is interplay between genuine humour, knowing nods to the audience, and edge-of-the-seat drama.  It’s quite a balancing act but, as Luke tells Rey, the secret to The Force is that’s all about balance.

Ehm ... Nope.  I got nothing.
When Oscar Isaac turns up as Poe Dameron, he’s just one guy in an X-Wing, facing off against an entire Star Destroyer.  And, when he talks to Gleason, it’s still hard to reconcile these performances with the ones the two actors gave in Ex Machina (2015) ... But that’s good, it shows the range they both have.

After this comic moment - suddenly there’s flying and shooting and shouting and lots of explosions.  The opening ten minutes is frantic seat of the pants stuff during which, they essentially restage the entirety of Rogue One (2016).

So, after the first few moments - the nerves are singing, the senses tingling - and things are looking good!

The film manages to successfully balance several tones - from tragic to comic by way of dramatic - and several different plot threads, which proceed at wildly different paces and often in entirely different directions.  Yet, it is to the credit of the writing and the editing, that it is all perfectly explicable.

There are visual and thematic contrasts here ... Snoke’s audience chamber is a sterile red and black affair, while the landscape over which the Rebellion stages its last stand is sterile red and ... white!  The last film began with us following Rey, all alone, living life by her own terms, and surviving on her wits - yet full of hope for the return of her parents.  This film brings her into contact (finally) with Luke Skywalker, who is all alone, living life by his own terms - but full of despair. 

The contrast, and the emotional affect Rey and Skywalker have on each other, is the emotional crux of the story - as Skywalker’s training was the emotional crux of Empire.

This week on 'Escape to the Country', legendary Jedi, Luke Skywalker and Miss Rey Nosurnameyet have picked out this secluded and detached residence on the planet Ah-Choo.  Don't they look happy.
Over in the Rebellion’s part of the story, Dameron’s gung-ho attitude, which a younger Leia tolerated in Han Solo, stretches her patience and she is constantly reining him in.  They’ve done something interesting with Leia.  Firstly, they’ve given her hair which isn’t nearly as silly; but they’ve also given her genuine authority over her troops.  Secondly, they have created a brilliant and heart-breaking moment for her - which pays homage, wonderfully, to the legacy of Carrie Fisher.  It shows the power Leia has been restraining all these years.  I actually wept.

But then, they unravel it all and proceed as though the sequence never happened.  That was an odd choice.  They create the perfect send-off for the character, then have her come back from it.  Odd.  However, this does feed into a motif which runs through this film more obviously than it has through the others (although, it’s really always been there) which is the way in which, for those who are strong with the Force, death is a temporary inconvenience, rather than a permanent state of affairs.  Bear that in mind when you see a certain person cut in half by a light sabre.

Where Force Awakens was, essentially, a tribute remix of A New Hope - which slavishly reproduced most of the first film’s key elements, from the desert planet beginning, to the Death Star Trench ending - this film mixes in ingredients from both Empire and Jedi, too many of them, if I’m honest, but does so efficiently and energetically.

To the untrained eye, this might appear like a restaging of the Battle for Hoth but, no, nothing could be further from the truth.  Oh, okay, yes it is.
There’s two (count ’em) restagings of the attack on Hoth, there’s the Jedi training in a primeval environment, there’s yet another Cantina scene (this time in a casino), there’s the obligatory we-have-to-turn-off-the-transmitter plot from Jedi and even the Millennium Falcon flying through the tunnels whilst pursued by TIE fighters.  But, y’know, as overly-familiar as these elements were while I was watching them, none of them are on screen long enough to spoil the fun.  With so many different plotlines rattling along, it’s not possible to get bogged down in any one moment.

It is ironic, of course, that Ren's major piece of advice to Rey is to abandon the past, because that's the only way to move forward.  Maybe that was Johnson subtly nudging J.J.'s elbow, now that Mr. Abrams is back in the director's seat for Episode IX.

While Kylo Ren, in Force Awakens, was essentially a spoiled brat long over-due a thick ear; here, Adam Driver gives the character some real depth and pathos.  There is a connection between him and Rey.  The film never explicitly says this, but it seems to be heading in the direction of revealing, in the next film, that they’re related.  Brother and sister, maybe.  That would be vintage Star Wars.  But Ren and Rey are conflicted, both trying to find themselves, both being given advice by Jedi masters they don’t entirely trust.  She is being told two narratives - one by Skywalker, one by Ren.  Which does she believe ... Or will she synthesise them and make her own mind up?

Watching Kylo Ren in The Force Awakens just made me want to put him over my knee ... But, here, he is thoughtful and serious and poignant, a really layered and nuanced character.
Ren and Rey's scenes together (even though they’re rarely actually together) are intense and soulful and aren’t full of the meaningless hokum they spouted at each other in Force Awakens, but actually develop the characters and push the story along.  And there’s a moment, when they are in Snoke’s chamber together, a moment of epiphany that is the equal, in its grandeur and drama, to the sword-fight between Vader and Skywalker at the end of Jedi.  Genuine hair-on-the-back-of-the-neck stuff.

It’s worth mentioning - this year of all years - that the original Star Wars was notorious for the short shrift it gave its female characters (all one of her); well, the new films have done a lot to redress that, now we have the entire Rebellion being run by them.  Clear eyed and calculating, they are strategic and unemotional in their stewardship of the war. 

Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo - offering strong and stable leadership.  Ahem.
As Laura Dern's Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo says to Poe “Hope is like the Sun, if you only believe in it when you see it, you’ll never make it through the night”.  Which is a helluvan important message to soak up in these trying times.

Over on the side of the First Order, they have an entirely male command structure, and they’re constantly bickering, getting distracted, getting emotional, and trying to get one over on each other.  Hope, then, is female, while despair is conspicuously male.  Interestingly, when impetuous fly-boy Poe (briefly) takes over as commander of the Rebellion, his plan - whilst very noble - is really stupid and guaranteed to lead to lots of explosions and dying.  He is motivated by despair - he feels that he must act now to avert disaster.  Cooler heads have a plan that will take slightly longer to unravel.  It’s genuinely enlightened to have an alpha male be proven wrong and be sidelined in this way, by an alpha female.  Refreshing!

Wonder when they’ll let a woman actually direct one of these films?

Anyway, given the way the plots rattle along, they’ve managed to find time to shoe-horn in a huge amount of fan service - not much of which serves any purpose.  They bring back Yoda (see my previous comments about death not being permanent), so he can offer Luke a few well turned homilies such as “failure is the greatest teacher” (an important lesson all creative artists have to learn the hard way).  C-3PO is there, of course, taking up room.  R2-D2 shows up for one scene, simply so he can play Luke the original “Help me, Ob-Wan” hologram, which created a lump in Luke’s throat, and mine.  They even bring Maz Kanata back for about 30 seconds (presumably because Lupita Nyong'o had it in her contract).

Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) and Finn (John Boyega) blending in perfectly in the billionaire's playground of Canto Bight.
She sends Finn and new-recruit Rose on a side mission to the casino city of Canto Bight.  This sequence, in the middle of the film, is really just to give Finn something to do.  It's his chance to remember that he's supposed to be a hero, shamed into this revelation by Rose, a young woman who has no business giving a damn when it isn't her turn.  This whole sequence doesn’t add much to the film, but it is fun and delightful to look at and, of course, provides a plethora of new characters Disney can turn into toys.  It doesn’t really serve the narrative or the characters, but it will certainly serve the Disney coffers.  Funny, but I typically resent this - creating characters and locations as product placement - but, in this film, it takes up so little screen time, I didn’t really have time to mind.

Also, importantly, we return to Canto in the film's coda, and we see the impact that Rose and Finn's visit has had; how it has inspired the next generation.  Slave children tell each other of the heroics of The Last Jedi, and that will fuel their imagination as they grow to become the hoped-for future.  The spark of Episode IX is lit at the end of Episode VIII.

The character arcs between Ren and Rey intersect with him telling her: “Your parents have no place in this story,.  You come from nothing.”  He is instilling in her a belief that she is self-made, immensely powerful even without tuition - like he is himself.  But, to say the parents are irrelevant, is to fly in the face of The Monomyth, the story that all these epic narratives draw from.  So, I’m going to say that he was either wrong or lying.  If he is right, and she isn't any kind of chosen one ... That could be the single most radical creative decision in the whole film!

But there is an interesting development, when Rey looks into the black pit which represents the pull of The Dark Side.  Luke warns her that she went straight there, fearing that it might consume her.  Might that be a pre-cursor of the direction she chooses to swing in the final film?  More likely, is that she - unlike either Anakin Skywalker or Luke Skywalker before her - can access The Dark Side without being overwhelmed by it.  Both she and Ren are pulled by both the Dark and the Light ... And they don't see either of these as being right or wrong, just different.  That's the way to not be defined by the past; that's the way to shape your own future.

The story ends as it began, with one man, hopelessly out-gunned, facing down the First Order alone.  This moment also had tears pricking at my eyes.  And the resolution to this sequence is nothing short of genius.

The show-down on planet Crait is visually arresting, because it takes place on a battlefield completely unlike Hoth.  See, that's not ice - it's salt.  Totally different thing.  But, under it, there is a red crystalline substance which may very well be frozen blood.  How's that for a gothic Star Wars location?
This film is far from perfect, but then all of the Star Wars films have holes you could fly a Star Destroyer through.  It's part of their charm and has nothing to do with how much we love them.  Here, the characterisation is compelling, the broad strokes of the story feel right and, overall, The Last Jedi earns my respect.  Where Lucas’ prequels earned my contempt and The Force Awakens earned my disappointment, this film earns my trust and my enthusiasm.  It doesn’t proceed without a misstep and - clocking in at over two and a half hours - it certainly has a few too many fake endings and plot-reversals; but the wider sweep of the story is overwhelmingly positive.  It’s exciting where it needs to be, emotional where it needs to be and there are even one or two moments which are simply spine-tingling in their perfection.  I was twelve years old again, having my mind blown again, as I did in January 1978, when I first saw Star Wars.

It’s also worth mentioning that John Williams is on barnstorming form.  His music for Force Awakens was ... Okay.  But it lacked the epic heft and the hummable themes that one associates with his greatest work.  The music here has the heart that Force Awakens had, but it also has the drama of the original trilogy.  It is a delight when the old themes for Skywalker and The Force and The Falcon float through, like a memory, fleeting then gone, but leaving a warm sensation behind them.  I hope he is hale and hearty enough to complete his great work - by providing the music for Episode IX, in two years time.  When he’ll be 87.

So, how good is The Last Jedi?  Is it Empire good?  No.  As inconceivable as this may be ... After just one viewing, I’m pretty sure that The Last Jedi is not the best Star Wars film since Empire.  It’s the best Star Wars film.  Ever.

Annie Leibowitz' portrait for Vanity Fair is impossibly poignant now.

Written & Directed by Rian Johnson
Dur: 152 mins
Cert: 12A


            Something very clever is going on with The Disaster Artist.  It’s playing around with reality, with the difference between perceived reality and actual reality ... And where art fits in between those two.  Before I saw The Disaster Artist, I perceived it as a vanity project by James Franco, directed by him and starring himself and his brother - where he would be deriding another vanity project, the legendarily bad film, The Room (2003).
            Turns out I was wrong on both counts.   
            You see, Franco, for all his tom-foolery in scatological comedy films, is actually serious about his art.  And he does consider film-making an art.  And, yes, he is indulging in laughing at the delusions of Tommy Wiseau, the failed actor who made The Room simply so he and his friend, Greg Sestero, could get some screen time; but Franco is also acknowledging that all artists are similarly deluded.  None of them know if they are any good, until an audience tells them.  They all have to risk putting their work out there, in order to know if they are any good.
            The truth is that Wiseau isn’t good.  He’s a hammy actor who copies James Dean and Brando without understanding why they acted the way they did - nor does he understand how mannered and histrionic those performances now appear; Wiseau is also a lousy script-writer and he’s a clueless director.  But it’s easy for me to say this, cos I’m not out there doing those things myself.  Franco is more circumspect about Wiseau’s plight because he, too, has done work that is personal and niche, and he has been ridiculed for it - such as the time he appeared in a daytime soap opera.
            Wiseau’s perception of himself is actually delusional.  He believes he can pass for a teenager, when he’s clearly in his forties, he believes he has no European accent, when his English is actually quite poor.  He clearly isn’t lying about any of this - he’s made himself genuinely believe this nonsense.
            Franco respects Wiseau.  He’s freely willing to admit that the man has some very strange personal eccentricities, and a surfeit of confidence over experience; but that’s hardly a unique skillset in Hollywood.  Orson Welles described the making of Citizen Kane (1941) as the product of “the confidence of ignorance”.  Instead of this being a portrait of ridicule, Franco allows you to feel sympathy for Wiseau; at least his delusion is well-meaning.

Franco channelling his inner Wiseau, channelling his inner Brando.
            Wiseau is portrayed, initially, as charismatic and overwhelmingly confident; so much so that the desperately naive Sestero falls under his spell.  A curiously intimate, rather uncomfortable asexual relationship develops between them (made all the more uncomfortable when one considers that both participants are, in the real world, brothers).  But they continue to perceive their talents as very different from everyone else.  Wiseau’s abundant self-confidence needs an audience and so, inevitably, they head for Hollywood.
            Wiseau pitches himself - pathetically - at a producer in a restaurant and is told, in no uncertain terms, “Just because you want it, doesn’t mean it will happen.  It’s one in a million if you have Brando’s talent!”
            As we spend more time with him, Franco lets us see that the bravado is really defensive, hiding deep-rooted self-doubt and a persecution complex.  It was about this time that I realised why this story is particularly timely these days.  When a charismatic personality with no discernible skills persuades others to adore him and ignore his many and obvious short-comings, and reacts furiously to any criticism, both real and imagined ... You get President Trump.
            Wiseau goes through his dark night of the soul when he has to stop ignoring the reality and finally admits that he can’t have things his own way.  Then Sestero suggests that they should make their own film ... And Wiseau is off again.
            There are several moments in this first act, where Wiseau and Sestero’s life and locations mirror those we will later see reproduced in the movie they make.  So we get to see Wiseau’s reality - through Sestero’s eyes.
            Then, we’re into the second act - the production of the film - where we get Wiseau’s ‘vision’ - his reality!  We also see behind the scenes of the film production, which is a very different reality - the reality of film production.  Here, actual reality intersects with Wiseau-reality, and there’s friction.  Wiseau is now rubbing shoulders with cynical, professional film people who understand that film-making is a magic trick, a set of techniques and motifs designed to create a certain perception in the mind of the viewer.

Wiseau directing ... Like, y'know, Hitchcock.
            This happy band of film-makers-for-hire are led by the ubiquitous Franco acolyte,  Seth Rogan, who begins by pointing out how Wiseau could make the film better - and more cheaply - but eventually does what any sane person would do in that situation ... He just shuts up and takes the money.
            Constantly challenged by the limitations of his ability - and the yawning chasm between his ‘vision’ and the reality of the filming process - Wiseau becomes increasingly intemperate.  He is cruel to his leading lady because he read that Hitchcock was cruel to Tippy Hedren, and thinks that’s how you get great performances.  The shooting of the needlessly gratuitous sex scene is, therefore, as uncomfortable to watch as the finished scene is in the finished film.
            The crew discuss the way that the script is clearly autobiographical - though, if true, it deals with part of Wiseau’s life from before his first meeting with Sestero and, therefore, is beyond the remit of the film.  What the reality of Wiseau is just gets muddier and muddier.
            The third kind of reality here is the restaging of the scenes from the original The Room film.  These are curious in themselves because, of course, Franco has assembled a cast of talented actors who are all pretending to be bad actors - whereas, in the original film, they’re just bad actors.  Or, acting badly might be a fairer assessment, since no-one can do anything that Wiseau doesn’t want.
            The fourth kind of reality comes when Wiseau finally watches his finished film with an audience - and they laugh.  He gets to see his work from their perspective, and it hurts him.  He feels genuine emotions - for the first time since he stood on the roof and despaired of ever being an actor.  As with the previous occasion, Sestero rescues him from his depression, by altering his perception into accepting their laughter as a positive response.
            The final challenge to the film’s reality comes during the credits, when they roll the original scenes side-by-side with the reshot scenes.  One kind of fake reality playing alongside a pastiche of that fake reality.  This is a moment of pure post-modern irony.  Then, at the end, Wiseau turns up, in person, in a cameo in his own biopic.
            Finally, of course, the whole film is filtered through Sestero's perceptions (since he wrote the biography, from his point of view) which is, in turn, filtered through the film production process. In terms of acting, Dave Franco gets the tougher job, because his Sestero is, pretty-much, a regular guy. So he just has to hold on to the audience's sympathy by being normal. The danger is, that could have become boring. It didn't. James Franco, on the other hand, has much more with which to work; many more personal eccentricities, many more characteristics for him to get his actorly teeth into. It's easier to attract the eye when playing someone who his physically and demonstrably different from every one else. It's harder to hold your own when that isn't the case.  Both brothers make the most of the opportunities offered - and director Franco is careful to give sufficient emphasis to the performance of brother Franco.

The real Wiseau in the real The Room.  Described by one casting agent as having "a malevolent presence".
            So, as I said at the outset, Franco is doing something very clever with perceptions of reality and the notion of ‘vision’.  He is surprisingly sympathetic to his subject - this isn’t the cruel savaging of Wiseau that the marketing suggested.  It also isn’t as funny as the trailer suggested - but that’s because it isn’t taking easy pot-shots at its subject.  Instead, it is an honest and heartfelt analysis of artistic compulsion (and, I suppose, the American Dream, blah-blah-blah).
            I suspect they felt that they were making a film akin to Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994) - indeed, Wiseau reputedly wanted Depp to play him - but, for me, this film is more in the style of a little-seen documentary called American Movie (1999), which charts the struggles of Mark Borchardt, a young man with no contacts, little experience, and no budget, trying to make his dream movie.  That film is also about the restless artistic spirit refusing to be suppressed; it’s also about a film-maker who is determined to live in his own reality.
            As should we all.

Dir: James Franco
Script: Scott Neustadter &Michael H. Weber (based on the book by Greg Sestero & Tom Bissell).
Cert: 15
Dur: 103 mins