CommonSpace film critic Scott Wilson takes a look at the films of the moment in his final review of 2017
STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI IS OUT! Somehow, cinemas have a little bit of space left for some other films too, if that isn’t quite to your fancy...
Star Wars: The Last Jedi – ★★★★☆
Rey has gone off to find Luke Skywalker, while the rest of the Resistance continue the fight against the First Order. Having been introduced to all the key players two years ago, it’s time for this new trilogy to step it up a gear and raise the stakes.
Which means the wide-eyed fun of The Force Awakens has been replaced with a sense of scale. There are times The Last Jedi feels massive. It’s weighty thematically, breathing life to the force, the struggle between the light and the dark, and clinging to hope when there is little left. It has set-pieces that are jaw-dropping and crowd-silencing; so cool, so punch-the-air that they are that only something as huge as Star Wars could deliver moments like these.
The sense of scale can be its own downfall. At two and a half hours, there’s some padding. One side-quest is one hell of a detour, and there are a number of scenes to set, which it’s in no hurry to do. As the plot crystalises, it’s tempting to view some characters as side-lined. Not everything can be about the force, but when it’s this urgent, some events just don’t carry the same severity.
Having lost Carrie Fisher in December of last year, it’s wonderful that she is so central to the film. She’s it backbone and it’s heart.
But, it’s still a success. It’s a mature film, deliberately paced, and trusting of its audience to stick with its more philosophical approach. It’s also way funnier than The Force Awakens and Rogue One. Unlike the latter, The Last Jedi is committed to fun and cool entertainment, whereas Rogue One deliberately went one darker. The familiar bleeps and bloops of BB-8 keep everyone’s spirits up.
Having lost Carrie Fisher in December of last year, it’s wonderful that she is so central to the film. She’s it backbone and it’s heart. She inspires the Resistance to fight even when it seems all hope is lost. She was a warrior in real life, and the film does that the justice it deserves.
The modern entries in the franchise continue their fine run. Given The Force Awakens’s relative tightness, it might be a welcome return for JJ Abrams after this two and a half hour behemoth. It deserves to be stuck with – you won’t find a cooler scene in all of 2017 (or most other years) – and Rian Johnson has done the series proud.
Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle – ★★★☆☆
Because 2017 absolutely has to end on a good note, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle has decided to not be terrible. As the deluge of remakes and reboots continues, the decision to revisit Jumanji, a beloved film watched by kids off sick from school in the 90s, was the final straw for many who hoped this modern interpretation would fail.
It doesn’t by going down a different route entirely. Where before Jumanji was a board game, here it’s a videogame, the kids choosing avatars before being sucked into the titular world. It’s how Alex Wolff’s Spencer becomes Dwayne Johnson’s Dr. Smolder Bravestone, who is brave and smoulders. Rounding out the troupe are Karen Gillan, Kevin Hart, and Jack Black, who puts in his best performance in years as a middle-aged hairy man who is in fact a teenage girl.
You have seen this film. It has that very particular modern humour that’s present in all American comedies designed to broadly appeal. It has that generic plot where one thing must get to another thing while avoiding lots of things that want to kill the heroes (thankfully they have three lives each on this occasion). It has a bad guy who exists simply to be bad in a wasted Bobby Cannavale.
This is a different entity entirely and it works by taking the central idea and warping it for a modern interpretation.
Which is to say while it isn’t terrible, it isn’t groundbreaking either. To 90s kids, the original Jumanji was a playful and scary ride, enough to be unsettling and endlessly exciting. That charm is absent here – you never feel like maybe, just maybe, this could happen to you too. You don’t really want it to either.
But it’s well-intentioned and all it asks is you have a good time. There are a number of big laughs, the central shtick of kids in adults’ bodies never really gets old, and its two-hour run time flies by. There is only a fleeting nod to what came before, and it’s the right choice – this is a different entity entirely and it works by taking the central idea and warping it for a modern interpretation.
It’s unlikely that in 20 years kids will look at Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle how 20-somethings look at the original now. But it’s good, big, daft family fun, and it isn’t the disaster many feared, and some sadly hoped, it would be.
Better Watch Out – ★★★☆☆
What scares us changes as we get older; that much is obvious. What’s not so clear is how what scares us about the world fits into the horror genre. Many classics that continue to scare come from the 1970s and 1980s and typically involve quaint suburbia disturbed by a malevolent presence. When the world was still on the up, the scariest thing was an invasion of that peaceful nuclear family unit.
The 2000s saw violence ramped up to 11 with the torture porn genre, but what came next was a look back to what came before. Ghost stories are back in, and films like The Witch and It Comes at Night are putting more stock in atmosphere than jumps. It’s that feeling of everything being just a little off.
Better Watch Out is culturally current in a way that is so sharp, so scathing, so seedy. Fear is not the ghost or the monster. It’s the men’s rights activist, it’s the pick up artist, it’s the entitled man who thinks he can do what he wants to you.
Because of how knowing Better Watch Out is, it’s genuinely creepy in the way you want to take a shower afterwards.
Twelve-year-old Luke has a crush on his seventeen-year-old babysitter Ashley. She’s got a boyfriend, plus she’s leaving town soon, so Luke decides to take drastic measures to win her affections despite her never having shown any interest in him. He talks to his goofy friend – tonight’s the night – and they go over the plan one more time.
When everything begins to go off the rails there are subtle call-backs and “oh my God” worthy nods to the real world. Not everyone will hear Luke say “and then what?” in a lecherous way when Ashley’s trying to plan something, but enough people will. The camera frames Ashley how Luke views women at the start of the film and it’s a disturbing effect – it’s the clinical precision of a sexist, patriarchal, warped young mind.
And the film never poses the question of how Luke came to be this way. He’s seen to be savvy with technology, and it’s not a big leap to imagine where he’s been hanging out online. It’s about enabling the youth in the opposite way of what we hope. Instead of being able to access a wealth of information, maybe the next generation are exposed to the world’s poisons at a susceptible age.
Because of how knowing Better Watch Out is, it’s genuinely creepy in the way you want to take a shower afterwards. It’s not about the jumpscares, it’s about the manipulation, the intimidation, the entitlement. This is life in 2017 for just over half the population. This is horror.
The Prince of Nothingwood – ★★★★☆
Some of the best documentaries, like the Scientology exposé Going Clear, impress due to their detail. Clearly researched within an inch of its life, it’s a data-dump, lecture-like feature, featuring horrifying stories and anecdotes from within the church, mostly presented through talking head segments.
Then there are films like The Prince of Nothingwood. Instead of bombarding with information, Sonia Kronlund’s film points the camera in Salim Shaheen’s direction and enjoys him. He’s a film director in Afghanistan, and self-reports that he’s made around 110 films. When Kronlund is speaking to him in the back of a car, he admits to working on a handful at the one time.
It comes across like an episode of Planet Earth or Blue Planet. Shaheen is a fervent, positive figure, clearly in love with cinema and eager to share it with everyone even if his talent and budget don’t keep pace with his enthusiasm. He’s framed in the wild, unbound, often scouting for locations, shooting stock footage he’ll use in a number of films – he’ll then get in frame, start singing and dancing, then celebrate a successful scene.
The Prince of Nothingwood is an ode to cinema as something not only to be consumed, but to be created too.
He’s a force of nature with an unbridled passion that comes from a past life in the military. He and his crew do not fear death and are at peace with God, equipping them with a fearlessness that allows them to create cinema in war-ravaged and often dangerous places. They’ve had a number of close encounters (and actual encounters), but nothing has deterred them.
All of this is played against the country’s culture. The treatment of women is different, the accessibility of film is nothing like what we are used to, the availability of technology is poor. It’s insightful, though what could be presented as sentimental simply commits to being the hopeful story it is, of a man determined to share and spread his passion. Shaheen is good company, as are his crew, and it’s no wonder he’s greeted like a hero by his adoring fans.
The Prince of Nothingwood is an ode to cinema as something not only to be consumed, but to be created too. Shaheen makes art where art is not as able to flourish. That it’s incredibly rudimentary adds to the charm – it’s all for the sheer love of it.
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