Rian Johnson

Knives Out (2019) [DVD]

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They really don’t make films like this anymore. And I mean that quite literally. Once upon a time cinema was full of crime stories, film noirs, paranoid suspense thrillers, police procedurals and whodunnits. But those days are long past and today such fare has been consigned to the small screen, replaced by explosive blockbusters, bombastic superhero films and dazzling science fiction franchises. When stalwarts such as Sherlock Holmes or Hercules Poirot do venture back into cinemas it’s invariably as radically amped-up versions of their old selves possessed of near-superhuman mental and physical prowess.

Knives Out is testament to writer-director Rian Johnson current standing in Hollywood, that he was able to get this relatively small scale passion project off the ground and to bring such an impressive Hollywood A-list cast along for the ride. And you can see why something so comfortingly familiar, small-scale and old-fashioned would appeal to Johnson as a way of recovering from the critical bruising he took from his work on the divisive Star Wars VIII: The Last Jedi.

The film is firmly and knowingly located in Agatha Christie territory, harking back not just to the Finney/Ustinov Poirot films of the 70s and 80s but also the likes of the socially biting Sleuth and the playful Deathtrap. and more recently with Downton Abbey forebear Gosford Park. Each of these films delivered a murder mystery with a healthy side serving of comedy, and it was indeed in the comedy category that Knives Out won a handful of Golden Globe Awards in 2019. But here the humour is generally subtle and wry (one scene has a suspect in back of shot trying to throw away a key piece of evidence, only for a friendly guard dog to see it as a game of fetch and dutifully return it to the crime scene) and not nearly as broad as, for example, Neil Simon’s Murder By Death which comprehensively parodied and skewered every known detective archetype then in existence. Read the rest of this entry »

Star Wars VIII: The Last Jedi (2017)

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It’s been a while since I’ve been to the cinema to see a fim on the big screen, and I was shocked by how much ticket prices had risen. They’re now the same as a new-release Blu-ray, which at least has re-watch and re-sale value. Small wonder then that these days I limit my theatrical outings to three specific categories of films – new James Bond, Star Trek and Star Wars instalments – which I’ve been faithful to ever since the Seventies.

Somewhat to my surprise I duly made it to see Star Wars VIII: The Last Jedi before Christmas, and without having suffered any spoilers. I’d even kept away from official trailers in the build-up to the film’s release. I had seen the reviews, and noted that they’d started with euphoric raptures before curdling somewhat with criticism from fans who weren’t happy with the direction the series was going, but I made sure to avoid any details of either praise or gripes until I’d seen the film for myself. Which I now have.

Before I go on, a word about spoilers. I don’t intend to reveal any here – I’d rather everyone saw it in the unsullied state that I managed for myself – but inevitably there will be comments and hints in this review that betray more than a given reader might like. So if you are staying clean and pure from all spoilers, then perhaps it’s better to look away now just to be sure. And just to add, some elements of The Force Awakens are also discussed here since the statute of limitations on spoilers from that film has now expired. Read the rest of this entry »

Looper (2012)

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Contains medium-level spoilers, so please read with caution!

It’s been well over a year since the last time that I went to the cinema to see a new release film, but the positive reviews for Rian Johnson’s Looper made me stir and head off into town for a change. Maybe that led to too-highly raised expectations for the film, because while it’s a solid three-star piece of entertainment it’s also rather flawed, frustrating and ultimately disappointing compared to what it could have been.

The premise of the film is that criminals from 30 years in the future send their victims back to 2044 to be disposed of by hired guns called ‘loopers’ such as Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). One day he realises that the victim he’s been sent to kill is his future self (Bruce Willis), and he botches the assignment leading to him being hunted by the big local crime boss, Abe.

So far so good; it’s a good idea with lots of possibilities. The film even has its cake and eats it with regards to time travel, clearly establishing early on that time is fluid and changeable by events in the present which neatly means that almost any script flaws and inconsistencies can be dismissed as unintended consequences of the time changes. The film even has not one but two characters warn us not to think too hard about any of this stuff: “This time travel crap, just fries your brain like a egg,” says Jeff Daniels, playing Abe.

This is even dramatised early on, first with the unsettling fate of Seth (Paul Dano) which sets up the stakes for Joe, and then we apparently see Joe himself killed as a result of his own failure to complete his self-terminating assignment. But that means he can’t be alive in the future to be sent back to spark the events in the first place; so the film cuts to an alternate timeline in which Joe succeeds in his task, lives his life, ages into Bruce Willis and gets sent back after all … where he once more escapes the attempt on his life by his younger self. It’s a temporal paradox, and the film cleverly establishes the situation in which time itself seeks to find the best-possible workaround from this impossibility even if it means using bits and pieces from mutually incompatible futures. This approach might not make an awful lot of sense in practice but since we don’t know what time travel would mean if it actually existed, it’s as believable as any other theory. In the film’s scenario it’s set up well enough to make possible an ending which would otherwise mean that the entire film could not have taken place at all. Read the rest of this entry »