After the repackaging of A New Hope that was The Force Awakens and the flawed but adventurous The Last Jedi, JJ Abrams returns with the least innovative Star Wars film since Disney’s purchase of Lucasfilm. The set up from the previous instalments, not to mention the talent involved, carry plenty of potential, as Rey (Daisy Ridley) continues her Jedi training, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) seeks to further his power, and the Resistance builds its defences against the First Order. It is therefore frustrating that much of what has been set up previously is not explored, especially the egalitarian tropes of The Last Jedi and the creative courage to strike out the territory of this new sequel trilogy. Narrative threads are forcibly rather than organically connected; dramatic stakes are established then abandoned; certain characters appear (aside from the obvious returning stars, what the hell is Dominic Monaghan doing here?) for scant purpose while more interesting figures are side-lined. On the plus side, the central four characters – Rey and Kylo along with Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and Finn (John Boyega) are well drawn and their arc is highly engaging. Abrams also delivers some great set pieces including several lightsaber battles between Rey and Kylo that are both gorgeously choreographed and emotionally weighty. Across the sequel trilogy, these two characters have been the tortured heart, their strange love/hate relationship providing the human clash within the grand scale conflict. Star Wars has long been interested in issues of power, identity, redemption and legacy, and it is pleasing that these receive due attention here. It’s just a shame that the surrounding narrative is such a mess.
When he accepted the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film, director Bong Joon Ho urged audiences to seek out films not in their native language. He could not be more right, because Bong’s Parasite is a wickedly inventive drama of deceit, family and social stratification that absolutely must be seen. Don’t ponder this, don’t wait for details, just see it. The less you know about this film, the better it will be for you. In brief, the film is funny in its situations that veer from the outrageous to the absurd to the witty. It is also scary in its portrayal of poverty and privilege and contains moments of gory violence. Amazingly, it is often scary and funny at the same time, causing the viewer to laugh and recoil all at once. It is also ingenious in its portrayal of families and in its scathing social commentary, making it a superb satire of contemporary South Korea. But it does not feel culturally specific as the concerns, characters, jokes and commentary could be applied to any modern city and society. The performances are all superb, from Kant-ho Song to Sun-kyun Lee, Yeo-jeong Jo to Woo-sic Choi, while Ha-jun Lee’s production design ensures that the house where most of the action takes place is also a character in the film. Director of photography Kyung-pyo Hong shifts between deep and shallow focus, often capturing events accorded multiple planes of action so the viewer must always be alert. Most impressively, co-writer and director Bong balances the different tones of the film as superbly as he did with Snowpiercer and The Host, handling shifts from dark comedy to nerve-shredding tension, from warm family drama to absurdist social satire with a deftly light touch. To say more about Parasite would be to spoil it, so the simple review is to reiterate that it must be seen.
Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle was an unexpected delight in 2017, delivering far more fun than many people expected. Rejuvenating a property from the mid-90s into a winning comedic adventure that combined inquiries into identity and embodiment with spirited performances and dazzling effects, director Jake Kasdan pulled off quite a feat. Jumanji: The Next Level continues in this vein and, perhaps inevitably, runs out of steam before reaching its destination. The principals return and provide much charm and charisma, with some additional contributors including Danny Glover and Danny DeVito. These new arrivals allow the central four performers – Dwayne Johnson as Smolder Bravestone, Jack Black as Shelley Oberon, Kevin Hart as Franklin Finbar and Karen Gillan as Ruby Roundhouse – to demonstrate again their physical comedy skills. From the huge Johnson revelling in newfound flexibility to Hart speaking with Glover’s slow, measured, tones, there is fine comedy to be had in the fish out of water scenarios. The inclusion of new Jumanji avatars Ming Fleetfoot (Awkwafina) and a horse (don’t ask) provide further amusement, as does the added fun of body swapping. However, the film somewhat overplays this hand, with some sequences overdoing the gag. Meanwhile, the overarching narrative once again follows video game logic, but at some points injects more plot than is necessary.
Perhaps ironically, the film succeeds best in its real world scenes, as the central four young stars are used beautifully to express growing pains. Film series that feature young actors sometimes suffer from them ageing – the recent It: Chapter Two being a notable example. Jumanji: The Next Level embraces its young stars, who are two years older and noticeably so. Spencer (Alex Wolff) is now in college and troubled by his relationship with Martha (Morgan Turner), herself tasked with an unanticipated leadership role. Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain) and Bethany (Madison Iseman) have (well-founded) concern for their friends, and this friendship is the touching heart of the film. So although the film doesn’t take us anywhere we haven’t been before, the ride that we take is a charming one.
Produced by the Russo brothers and directed by Brian Kirk, 21 Bridges recalls 70s classics like Serpico and The French Connection, with obvious updates like mobile phones and other digital technology. Andre Davis (Chadwick Boseman) is the straightest arrow in the NYPD, the type of cop who insists on proper procedure from Internal Affairs when reviewing his shooting of a suspect. When seven cops are killed at a botched robbery, Davis is called in to make sure it is done right. The subsequent manhunt around Manhattan, cut off from the mainland by closing the titular bridges, provides the film’s narrative, with a strict timeline before the FBI take over. Boseman proves himself a charismatic leading man without a vibranium catsuit, and his banter with fellow officer Frankie Burns (Sienna Miller) provides a tough but human commentary on the action. The emotional heart of the film, however, is the young criminals the cops are hunting, Michael (Stephan James) and Ray (Taylor Kitsch). In over their heads and hunted by both sides of the law, the ingenuity and increasing desperation of Michael and Ray are gripping and at times distressing. It is therefore perhaps disappointing that the film does not take more innovative directions, such as developing a relationship between Davis and Michael beyond shouted exchanges over gun barrels. As Davis and Burns pursue their prey, they encounter (unsurprising) deepening layers of organized crime and police corruption. Kirk delivers investigative procedure as well as action set pieces efficiently, containing the twisty narrative within its tight plotting. But the script also slips into cliché, including shoot outs in train carriages and homes, and the need to resolve things with bullets rather than eloquence. It is maybe a curse of being a genre fan that you know what to expect, and it simultaneously provides pleasure while disappointing you for not being innovative. As a result for a fan of crime cinema, 21 Bridges provides what you expect, but offers little that is surprising.
Most of FrightFest was scarily enjoyable, but there’s always an exception. In 2019, that exception was The Drone, a monumentally stupid and clunkily obvious tech thriller with zero scares although some laughs. Director Jordan Rubin makes no attempt at subtlety as the central conceit is revealed early on and no suspense as we see everything that could be remotely creepy laid out with insulting obviousness. It is also annoying as it focuses on two hopelessly beautiful people – Chris (John Brotherton) and Rachel (Alex Essoe) – living in a luxurious house of chrome, concrete and glass that you want to throw stones at. The perfect life is disrupted by the drone that takes too prominent a role in their life early on, and the minor twist that appears adds very little beyond a hamfisted attempt to shove in a comment on abusive relationships. The saving grace of the film are the leads, who despite their prettiness are also game and fully commit to the film’s utter stupidity. They do inject the film with some humour, but overall The Drone tries to be an updated possession horror, but ultimately fails to attain any height.
Feedback breaks a key rule of drama: show, don’t tell, as it tells its story rather than showing in its restricted setting of a radio studio. One of the scariest films at this year’s FrightFest, Feedback features nothing supernatural or even uncanny. Rather, the horrors are all too human in this sleek, brutal, claustrophobic and ultimately devastating thriller of past crimes, recriminations and the need to listen closely. Eddie Marsan is Jarvis Dolan, a forthright and uncompromising radio host who uses his platform to challenge the British establishment, especially pointing out the corruption of Brexit. When masked figures take him and a fellow host hostage, Jarvis finds himself confronting uncomfortable truths of his own. The radio conceit is emphasised as Jarvis and the viewer must listen closely and reconsider their own level of involvement and culpability. Increasing tension is interspersed with brutal violence, as hammers, bullets and blades meet flesh with sickening force. The film also makes striking use of sound, including a ‘dead room’ where sound is muffled, that speaks to the film’s wider conceit of voices being silenced and only some being heard. Laced with ideas of #MeToo and redolent of the Weinstein scandal, Feedback is a gripping and scarily relevant tale of our times.