Standing in the Balance – Why The Last Jedi is One of my Favourite Movies

1995

When I was seven years old, I brushed past my first experience of melancholy, a feeling of true bittersweet-ness. It’s an odd emotion to go through, especially at that age, but it was such an acute realisation that I’d taken in something really special, and that it was over. It was the day I feverishly asked my mum and step dad if I could watch Return of the Jedi, immediately following my jaw-agape-first-viewing of The Empire Strikes Back. It was already dark outside after all, and I was sure to be sent marching up the stairs soon enough. They nodded happily that I had the time to watch the third and final Star Wars film before bed.

2018

It has now been eight months since the latest installment in the Skywalker saga was released – Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi. Much has been said about it, and much will continue to be. I truly believe the risks that it took not only paid off brilliantly, and left me feeling unexpectedly like a kid again (more on that later), but by design were going to leave a lot of people disappointed. To paraphrase our favourite… wait, what species is Yoda again? Alright. I’ll try again without trying to sound clever. To paraphrase Yoda, I believe that a great storyteller must have the deepest commitment, and the most serious mind.

I have no interest in defending The Last Jedi, or even justifying why it’s one of my all time favourite films. I’m merely telling my story of why it connected with me, and why I love it. Nothing more, nothing less. I sometimes feel a little concerned that the people who worked on The Last Jedi have taken the backlash to heart, particularly Rian Johnson. And I’m sure he has. But I’m also sure he can handle it, and to paraphrase our little green friend (eh, I’ll give that one a D+) once again, that is the burden of all great storytellers. If you ever make a deeply personal work, no matter the size or scale of the canvas, it will eventually grow beyond you.

But back to my own self indulgent backstory here, as I attempt to paint the picture of what led me to The Last Jedi, and why it has such a personal resonance and meaning to me. So I was watching the end of the original Star Wars trilogy, a series of films I was long aware of but had never been seen. I knew of Darth Vader, and “use the Force,” but otherwise had little knowledge of what it actually was. I seemed to suddenly started getting a lot of “Luke, I am your Father!” heckles in school, or maybe it had happened before, and I was merely more aware of it after I had started watching the movies. And being named Luke, let me tell you, if I had a pound for every time someome has said that to me I’d have a few hundred quid.

1995

The blue (or was it purple?) ridged carpet had never felt so oddly pleasing as I ran my fingers across it, lying on my front, waiting for the opening crawl of Return of the Jedi to begin. Some two hours later I was elated. It had been everything I’d hoped for and more. My step dad, the man who had practically tried to force feed me Star Wars a few weeks earlier, informed me that there were no more films in the series. There would be no “Episode VII“. I was bummed that there wasn’t more, but at the same time cherished this new discovery, these three sacred movies, six hours of unmitigated joy that I could return to time and time again. And boy did I.

1997

Not long afterwards I heard rumblings of a new Star Wars movie. One that told the backstory of Darth Vader. The rest is history and the prequels were –my– Star Wars. I love them like that kind hearted friend in school you were always so attached to and protective of, despite their many surface faults and enduring body odour. The heart was there and always will be, even if there are many pot holes along the way. And yet I still didn’t feel like I’d experienced it all properly. I never got to see The Phantom Menace in the cinema for one thing. At the time I lived a couple of miles away from Stonehenge, out in the country, so there was no nearby cinema. And by the time Revenge of the Sith came out I was sixteen and more interested in other things to truly grasp the moment of it.

2012

In 2012, Disney bought LucasFilm. Alright, I thought, not too moved by the news one way or the other. So they’re going to delve into the merchandise possibilities and make some TV shows or something. Surely that was all there was to it. I remember checking my phone in work and stopping dead in my tracks when the news came with the explicit announcement that they would be producing Star Wars: Episode VII. I couldn’t believe it. And that was why I failed… to understand just how special this newly proposed sequel trilogy was going to become to me.
I spent most of my childhood imagining a hypothetical Episode VII.

Hell, I even wrote one when I was twelve, a sixty page story about Luke Skywalker’s son Ben, influenced by the expanded universe novels that I enjoyed, but with my own twist of Luke being an old man with white robes and an Obi-Wan inspired beard. My ideal vision of Luke was a content and wise Jedi Master, teacher of many young pupils and truly at peace with his place in the galaxy. My version wasn’t very interesting, but I was twelve, cut me a break.

I had spent almost twenty years entrenched in the idea that there would never be a sequel to Return of the Jedi. As I got older, the why became more clear. Carrie Fisher had gone through some troubling times, Harrison Ford was apparently over the series, and Mark Hamill had seemingly vanished off the face of the Earth. Bare in mind, this was from my teenage perspective, long before the internet had truly become the norm, and actual information was scant. I was also aware that George Lucas simply had no more story to tell, and yet whispered tales of the legendary sequel trilogy still endured among my friends. It was like the Trilogy That Shall Not Be Named, as if talking about it would somehow curse its possibility forever. But I never, ever thought that it would actually come to pass.

2014

I could hardly contain my excitement when Disney quietly announced on a random weekday in 2014 that Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford (among other old favourites) were officially returning for the seventh entry in the saga. The big shocker was Harrison Ford, (apparently Hamill even said “he’ll never do it!”) yet all I could focus on was Mark. I had eyes as wide as Rey in The Force Awakens when she first hears Luke’s name, just imagining the very giddy reality that I would see my favourite Star Wars character in a movie again. I had since realised just how wrong my youthful perception of Mark Hamill vanishing really was, and had become a big fan of his work as an actor in general. From voicing the Joker to interesting roles in movies like Sushi Girl, he became one of my favourites, beyond the galaxy far, far away.

2015

Now The Force Awakens was my Star Wars. The mythical, seemingly unattainable Episode VII. The hype was through the roof, the likes of which we will truly never see again. It’s not like the Star Wars universe is going to stop dead with Episode IX, and in thirty years Daisy Ridley, John Boyega and Oscar Isaac will come back for another go around. The distance and time between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens is something you cannot manufacture. It wasn’t just a sci-fi action adventure flick, it was an event. I had unfortunately seen a report that Luke Skywalker was only going to be in the film for a couple of minutes at the very end, and even worse, had no dialogue.

Nahhhhh! I scoffed. There was just no way! We’d seen Mark Hamill with a beard for over a year, it wasn’t as if he was just hanging around not playing scenes the whole time, right? If that was going to be the case, I was ready to riot. The idea that I’d longed for two whole decades to see Luke again and would be short changed really brought my piss to a boil. So, it must have been a false rumour. Surely.

Then The Force Awakens happened. And Luke was only in the film for a couple of minutes (barely a minute if we’re being real picky) and yep, he had no dialogue. And I applauded along with the rest of the cinema at 2:30am in the morning as the credits rolled on the film’s midnight premiere. He hadn’t been physically in the movie until the closing minute, but the whole movie was about HIM. To sweeten the deal, I was floored with how much emotion and untold meaning were etched onto the face of an aged Luke Skywalker. An aged Luke Skywalker who looked eerily similar to the way I had envisioned him in my teenage writings, but with an added layer of world weariness, emotional damage, and flashier hair.

Speculation ran rampant for years. Not just about why Luke had been absent from the fight, but who Rey’s parents were, and any other configuration you could possibly imagine about any conceivable plot point and character imaginable. Me? I was married and eyeing up a mortgage to the idea that Rey was Luke’s daughter. The emotion in each other’s eyes as they met, the Skywalker saber calling to her hands while the triumphant yet mournful rendition of the Binary Sunset theme from John Williams played, every sign pointed towards it. Despite being very open to any story JJ Abrams wanted to take me on, for Episode VIII – I was set in what I wanted, and what I didn’t want.

2016

The announcement of Rian Johnson stepping in to not only direct but write Episode VIII was yet another reason for me to be unreasonably excited. His previous movie Looper became an instant favourite and his directed episodes of Breaking Bad are far and away the best episodes of, well, the best television series I’ve ever seen. A new voice and flavour to the sequel trilogy was really interesting. The trailers spoke to that. I wasn’t as excited initially, because it felt oh so much more deeper, and darker. I began to worry that The Last Jedi was going to gut me by the end. That I would be left with two years of agony, dumped on another cliffhanger with our heroes up shit creek. After the wonderful and captivating performances of Adam Driver and Daisy Ridley in The Force Awakens, I knew magic was abound in the sequel based on their involvement alone, but I started to wonder if it would be possible to match the feeling of “coming home” that JJ Abrams had captured in VII.

2017

For all the uncertainty I had about The Last Jedi, the night before the first 10am showing I couldn’t get to sleep at all. To drag out the tired old cliche and flog it further, I really did feel like a kid on Christmas Eve. The butterflies in my stomach were somewhat softened as I sat down in the cinema by the sight of a full costumed pairing of Darth Vader and Kylo Ren stood next to the screen, both fumbling with their gloves and smartphones, tapping each other’s helmets in an attempt to co-ordinate a selfie. And then the movie happened.

Some two and a half hours later, I recorded a vlog outside the cinema, and once I could pack my goofy, gleeful grin back in my mouth, I notably said: “It was fucking perfect. It was everything. It destroyed me and completed me at the same time.” Yeah, I know. Barf. (I’m my own best friend!) Someone recently found this video and “reacted” to it, laughing about how stupid I am, no doubt. I’m quite proud that I never really watched it. Seeking out people with completely harmless opinions that differ from your own to laugh at and criticise seems like just about one of the most fruitless things you could possibly do with your time.

But as cheesy as my honest words sounded, they were just that. I meant it. Perfect is such an interesting word, because objectively, at least when it comes to art, it’s kind of impossible. To me, Seven Samurai is the greatest film I’ve ever seen, from the thousands I’ve watched in my lifetime. And there’s a few funky bits in that too. I see perfect as a word that sums up something you loved completely, and that’s it.

In the times of the prequels and The Force Awakens coming out, I really did think those were my Star Wars moments. The ones that came out during my lifetime, when I could experience their release and reactions and revel in the excitement. But The Last Jedi is, and will always be my Star Wars. (Third time lucky, eh?) Wanting the prequels or Episode VII to be the defining Star Wars movies of my life was like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. I loved them, but they weren’t where the true magic was. As an adult I saw things in The Last Jedi that truly connected with me, that struck a chord and dug in deep. It was the closest in impact to my absolute favourite film, The Empire Strikes Back, whilst still being so very, very different.

The first viewing, I was a mess of emotions. I’d never cried in a cinema, and by crying I do mean allowing those pesky droplets of tears to actually roll down your cheek. I’ve been moved and choked up in a cinema hundreds of times. But when I saw my two favourite characters, from my favourite movie, reunited one last time, I couldn’t hold those tears back. As Luke Skywalker and Yoda reconnected, I let the tears trickle away, happily.

The film was powerful, emotional, mystical… everything I loved about Star Wars. Did it have that unexplainable charm of the original three movies? No, and nothing ever will. Perhaps part of the problem with these new movies for some people, is this pedestal upon which the holy original trilogy is placed. I get it, there’s an unrepeatable magic to those films, but to directly quote a character from another juggernaut movie franchise… a thing isn’t beautiful because it lasts.

Would I have wanted a trilogy of Luke, Han, Leia, Chewie, R2, 3PO and Lando back together again, fighting the bad guys and going on adventures? Sure! It may have stretched credibility a tad, but why not? But this series has become generational, since the day George decided to do the prequels. Cyclical, even. A new generation of characters needed to be introduced, and thankfully I loved them. The key pairings of our new cast with the old have worked wonderfully so far (Finn & Han, Rey & Luke, Poe & Leia) with lessons being imparted, and torches being passed gracefully.

Besides, we already have movies that gives us all of those things, and we can go back to them any time we want. Now we have a hero who has to find her own place, a villain more twisted and conflicted than we’ve ever seen before, and an inevitable showdown that will surely be something unforgettable. It’s starting to sound like I’m defending which I don’t want to veer off into, but I really do stand by the merit of having the original cast play supporting parts, over the quick and easy path of making them take center stage.

Now, eight months on, I rank The Last Jedi in my top five favourite films of all time, where it sits comfortably with other genre films that speak to my true love of cinema: unbridled escapism. I love disappearing into other worlds, whilst still being told something about the human experience and connecting with the characters despite their surroundings and differences. But what does it for me, with The Last Jedi?

For one, the performances are stellar. Adam Driver is Rutger-Hauer-in-Blade-Runner level great, a turn so captivating I find new details in every inflection of his voice and in every movement of his face. Daisy Ridley is tremendous, displaying a raw, untapped fire at everything that is wrong with the galaxy, and at the same time a gentle, vulnerable and innate kindess. Mark Hamill gives his all time career best as Luke in a knockout performance filled to the brim with regret, reluctance, and ultimately peace. That trifecta of acting pushes the film so much higher than it has any right to be, and the rest of the cast are excellent to boot. Special mention to Carrie Fisher, who while I enjoyed immensely in The Force Awakens, she truly felt like a complete Leia in The Last Jedi. A sublime performance that many don’t comment on, she brought such great subtlety to certain moments, especially the knowing hint of a smile as she proudly watches Poe leading the Resistance out of the caves on Crait. Perfect.

You even have smaller parts shining, like Captain Canady, a deliciously camp First Order officer, or Paige Tico, who with scarcely a single word of dialogue leaves such an impactful imprint on the screen. And lest we forget Andy Serkis, who truly does disappear into every role he takes on, breathing a showstopping life into Snoke. A character that I love. Let’s talk about him for a moment.

Rampant speculation has no doubt sullied the very idea of Snoke for many people, but I personally adore the idea that he is just what he seems. Himself. I paint in the blanks with Snoke, imagining him to be a powerful user of the dark side of the Force, who leapt at the chance to pick up where the Emperor left off. He models himself after the Emperor, with his own throne room, his own red clad guard, and looms ominous over the galaxy with the power of his First Order. To me he’s the great pretender, a master of smoke and mirrors. Powerful with the Force, yes, but also weak and diseased, a man more reliant on manipulation and intimidation than anything else. His garish golden robes show his flare for theatricality, and his demise the perfect summation of his vanity. He was an evil Wizard of Oz. Brilliant.

Any great performance needs to be written however, and Rian Johnson did a beautiful job with the script. I’ve seen the film almost a dozen times at this point (with a record breaking eight viewings in the cinema) and have such a fondness for the story and dialogue. I mean, nothing can truly be airtight, and maybe I do get slightly irked when Luke says “hubris” twice in the span of fifteen seconds, but it really is an excellent script. Any great film is a great collaboration, and so the writing and acting breathe life into each other when you get it just right.

The visuals are stellar, from the cinematography (which may be the franchise’s all time best) to the fantastic visual effects, both practical and digital. Incredible creature designs that bring the tangible quality of awe and imagination straight back to childhood wonder, and costumes that reflect the characters. (Moody, fisherman attire Luke is so good.) Then there’s the sound design, the sound effects, the masterpiece of a score written and orchestrated by the national treasure that is John Williams. Every piece of the puzzle creates one living, breathing whole, and very rarely do all the pieces fit so snugly. And as an editor, I truly appreciate the wonderful cutting throughout the film, whether it be transitions to other scenes (The “Where’s Han?” cut is inspired) or the frenetic crosscutting during the big set pieces.

For fun, me and a friend did a video commentary on the film a few months ago, and as we were doing it from the UK to the US, we each watched our own Blu-ray copies with the sound off, and the subtitles on. Seeing the entire film from start to finish without sound really amplifies just how well the movie is put together, and some of the visual storytelling through match cutting is at times quite brilliant.

This is the only area that I actually get my back up over people criticising The Last Jedi. When they proclaim it’s a badly made film. Absolute lunacy.

Back to my concerns before the film came out, y’know, when I was worried the film would leave me sick to my stomach with another downbeat cliffhanger. Not only was I not gutted and left feeling hung out to dry by some cruel third act twist, I felt a surge of energy and upliftment. I had fully expected The Last Jedi to leave us with a conflicted Rey, a woman unsure of where she should stand. And after the trials she endures throughout the film, to see her standing firm on the right side was incredibly hopeful. At this point the term “hope” has become almost overbearing in the Star Wars universe but it’s something I feel quite strongly about.

Our whole lives are predicated on hope. We hope our future will turn out well, we hope our upcoming holiday will be fun, we hope tomorrow will be better, we hope we stay healthy. Of course in Star Wars hope is built around the fate of an entire galaxy, but it’s just a basic core of the human condition that it binds the entire series together in a surefire relatability.

And who was Luke Skywalker, if not the “New Hope”? Subject of much debate, Luke’s character is very closed off and despondent in The Last Jedi. Luke has always been, at his core, impatient and emotional. Whether it was leaving to save his friends against the advice of a master with nine hundred years of life experience, or whether it was shedding his facade of confidence and calm in the Emperor’s throne room, and attacking his father in a rage. As a master to his nephew Ben Solo, he failed. Because he’s human.

The deconstruction of a myth and a legend is a very interesting route to take, one that I wasn’t quite expecting. As I said before, I was bound to the notion that Rey was Luke’s daughter, that their unspoken emotions at the end of The Force Awakens meant something more. In finding out this wasn’t the case, I wasn’t disappointed, but intrigued. Perhaps Rey will be free of the tragic cycle of the Skywalker family, unlike Ben.

Another tired cliche at this point for Star Wars fans is the oft-quoted, much-memed line from George Lucas when he was making The Phantom Menace. “It’s like poetry, they rhyme.” But I find it rings true in very effective ways throughout the entire series. From Luke’s perspective, the Jedi’s legacy is nothing but failure, and he was no different. He was never going to go through with killing Ben, it was a glimmer of madness at the foresight of the uncontrollable horrors of his nephew’s future. If Ben Solo had only been a deep sleeper, he may never have become Kylo Ren. All it takes is one fleeting moment (or one bad day…), and things can change forever. That moment is the great tragedy of the sequel trilogy, I think.

The Skywalkers are bound to tragedy, and perhaps it would have been best to leave things as happily as we did in Return of the Jedi. But if there is any semblance of truth to be found in these space operas, it’s in the inevitability of tragedy that colours everyone’s lives at some point. It will never fully disappear, and we will always have to live with its presence, no matter how big or small its effect on us is. But the key is in finding the balance between the good and the bad. Appreciating the fleeting wonder of the light, fighting against the oppression of the dark. Like the original Star Wars trilogy, I find The Last Jedi to embrace and champion this very simple but powerful ideal.

Luke’s deception on Crait is one of my favourite sequences in any film. To truly embody the philosophy of the Jedi, more than any Jedi we’ve ever seen before (“A Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defense, never for attack.”), and to pull off the most badass pacifist move ever, Luke saved the galaxy one last time. It may have been just a small group of important rebels that he helped to flee, but the most important element is that Luke decided to face his own legend, and to breathe life back into it once more. The final, beautiful scene of the film showcases this as the young slaves discuss Luke’s reappearance excitedly, fashioning their own toys to recreate the story they’d heard (like we all did ourselves one day…). The new legend of Luke Skywalker.

Much like my disdain at the idea of Luke only appearing in The Force Awakens at the end, with no dialogue, if you had told me there was no real lightsaber duel in The Last Jedi, I would have balked. But to see Luke and Kylo face off, in a showdown of light and emotion, without ever touching, was something I never knew I wanted to see so badly. To see my childhood hero shake off his demons and reclaim his own myth in the most unexpected way possible was a thrill I could never fully describe.

I felt as giddy as a child, and that’s the best feeling to have coming out of a movie. It doesn’t happen often. After I first saw the film, I wandered around the city of Trondheim, Norway, where I lived at the time, practically gliding across the snow. I went right back in to the cinema an hour later, and saw the film again, pricey Norwegian cinema tickets be damned! And I was moved all over again. Blood pumping through my veins at the exciting action set pieces and emotional sledgehammers, tears rippling under my eyelids when the Millennium Falcon roared through the crystal caves of Crait as the Death Star Escape theme boomed through the cinema. And grinning from ear to ear when Yoda turned up, now able to actually listen to a word he said with my emotions more in check.

But the best viewing was the third. On the Friday night, with my fiancee Connie. I was so excited to see her reaction, to feel her reaction, and it was a packed room. We were sat in the middle, our usual spot, and the atmosphere was quietly electric. As Kylo killed Snoke (another one of my favourite sequences ever) and stood back to back with Rey, I heard someone exclaim gleefully in one of the back rows, and a hushed sense of awe fanned out across the room. I could sense Connie’s awe also, and sharing that love of something with her was really something. It was December, in Norway, and we were boiling hot by the end, the room had become so tense that the minus degrees temperature outside the cinema was a relief.

I will no doubt be forever chasing a cinema experience like that again, prepared for disappointment should it ever be toppled, but always, secretly hoping, that it remains unmatched forever. The Last Jedi is true magic to me, something that only comes along every once in a while, something to be celebrated, not matter what others may think. We can all love what we love, and dislike what we dislike. I wouldn’t dream of trying to convince someone to like a film more, the same way I wouldn’t attempt to make someone enjoy a film they like less. Though I do try to operate under the philosophy of focusing on talking about art that I like, and not lingering for too long on art I don’t. Bashing doesn’t seem to serve much of a purpose, nor does getting angry about it.

This may come across as a giant big, soppy love letter to Rian Johnson, and in a way… it totally is! But it’s more a giant big, soppy love letter to the thousands of people who made The Last Jedi. I could wax silly-ly on all day about the hundreds of tiny moments in the film I love, about Rose’s fiery spirit, DJ’s “maybe” line, every scene with the Caretakers, Leia’s flight (which was utterly amazing, I loved every second), about Rey’s innocent and playful reaction to seeing rain for no doubt the first time, about how maddeningly complex and interesting Ben Solo is… but then you’d never get to stop reading this.

I mentioned the George Lucas poetry line earlier, and I think that idea has never been as brilliantly portrayed as it is in The Last Jedi, when Luke dies. (Um… spoilers?) A simple juxtaposition between his longing glance at the twin sunset on Tatooine in Star Wars, and his emotional, exhausted gaze at a binary sunrise in The Last Jedi, moments before he becomes one with the Force, makes for my favourite single shot in film history. It’s a testament to Rian’s vision, the artists that realised that visual idea, John Williams’s unforgettable accompaniment to it, and Mark Hamill’s spellbinding, worldess performance.

It encapsulates our hero’s journey through the entire story, but it also reflects our own journeys through life, an idealistic take on that full circle moment. Looking out to the horizon in our youth as we face the beginning of adulthood, uncertain of our future, yearning and longing for something bigger. An adventure. And in the end, looking back at that same horizon, imagining our younger self, reflecting on everything in one moment, at peace with where we ended up, despite the horrors we will all inevitably face along the way. Embracing the light, fighting the darkness, standing firm in the balance, if we can manage it. With peace and purpose.

Luke Ryan

August 30th, 2018.

 

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Tightly Wrought Tension – Borg McEnroe (2017) Movie Review

January 23rd, 2018

I’ve been a big fan of tennis for almost twenty years. It was during the 2001 Wimbledon championships that I first got drawn in to the highly athletic and psychological sport, as Tim Henman vied to become the first British champion in sixty five years. He ended up losing in a five set semi-final clash to Croatian player Goran Ivanišević, who remains the only man to enter the tournament as a wildcard and win the whole thing. I experienced the agony of defeat and the surprise of not knowing when the tide could turn, at any moment, on any point. The match was halted and restarted multiple times due to rain, which threw both players off and perhaps cost Henman his last shot at winning the big one.

That’s why I love tennis, because of the stories it can create. One one side you had Henman, searching to prove himself and to validate his own country’s tournament by giving them a home grown champion once more. And on the other, Ivanišević, who had struggled for years to win at Wimbledon, reaching the finals numerous times, and by 2001 had slipped so far down the rankings it was only as a wildcard that he gained entry to the tournament.

I love the sport, I love the one versus one intensity of the game. I love the immense precision and athletic ability required to become great at it, but the stories, the rivalries and the moments are what make it so special. One of the greatest stories in tennis history was the rivalry between Swedish world number 1 Björn Borg and American John McEnroe. It spanned numerous matches but was never more momentous than when they met in the 1980 Wimbledon Men’s finals.

Borg, having won the previous four tournaments consecutively, was on course to be crowned as the five time champion, while McEnroe was chasing his first. Borg was known as the Ice Man, cool, calm and collected, never any emotion on the court. He simply played tennis, and he dominated. McEnroe however, was the complete opposite. Hot tempered, foul mouthed, controversial. He was nicknamed “SuperBrat” in the UK, and his presence at the All England Club wasn’t exactly the most welcome.

When the 1980 tournament had reached its final, the only two men left were Borg and McEnroe. Ice and fire, steely and emotional. To tell you (if you haven’t seen it, or know of the outcome) what happened in the match would be spoiling things some what, but to say enough that McEnroe was booed when he walked out for the final, and managed to win the hearts of the crowd by the end is just one part of what made the match so special.

McEnroe and Borg

The 2017 film, Borg McEnroe (directed by Danish filmmaker Janus Metz Pedersen), seeks to capture not just this historic, legendary tennis match that many call the greatest ever played (hotly contested by the 2008 Nadal/Federer Wimbledon final), but the inner workings of both Borg and McEnroe’s psyches during the tournament. Which I’m ecstatic to say, it pulled off wonderfully. Most tennis films are primarily focused on an element beyond the sport and the psychology that goes behind it. 2004’s Wimbledon was more about the romance between Paul Bettany and Kirsten Dunst, and 2017’s Battle of the Sexes was more about the feminist movement Billie Jean King was spearheading in the 1970s.

Borg McEnroe (which is titled differently everywhere: Borg/McEnroe, Borg Vs McEnroe, or in Sweden, where it’s simply and probably more appropriately, titled Borg) acutely focuses in on the pressure that Borg was placing on himself to win Wimbledon again, and McEnroe’s frustration at being talked about more for his on court tempter tantrums than his tennis. If I could level any criticism at the film, it would be that it really is more about Borg, which for the most part, is fine.

We get extensive flashbacks to Borg’s childhood, and his (apparent, and this is where the stickler in me wants to know how true this all was) own foul temper as a young teen training in Sweden. The two young actors portraying the younger Borg were excellent, especially Borg’s own son Leo. These scenes paint a much broader picture of who Borg was, and everything that was leading to his fifth attempt at the Wimbledon title. Not only were they extremely well done, the placing and editing of these flashbacks was superb, dropping in and out of the current 1980 timeline of the movie at the right moments, to where you feel like you’re entering inside Borg’s own doubt-ridden mind.

As for McEnroe, not so much. We get a handful of flashback scenes to his younger self, but there’s not much meat to it and while they work well enough, the balance between the two “back stories” of the two men definitely feels lopsided. Shia LaBeouf was surprisingly convincing as McEnroe, and the casting seems like an obvious one, almost a ploy. However the word is that Shia approached the filmmakers about the part himself, feeling a strong connection with McEnroe’s early struggles as a misunderstood person in the public eye.

Another minor niggle I have is that some of McEnroe’s outbursts to the media and umpire/crowd on court feel just a little bit overdone. I could be off base, but I don’t recall seeing much footage of McEnroe going around telling everyone to shut the fuck up at every opportunity. Yet, Shia really brings a level of believability to McEnroe’s personality that is very watchable. You get the sense that he’s still just a kid, hungry and focused yet still a loose canon. What he loses in looking nothing like a young John McEnroe, Shia gains back in nailing the fiery spirit of him.

Sverrir Gudnason however, is the true revelation here, slipping into the physical resemblance of Borg as if the filmmakers had brought the man himself back from 1980 in a DeLorean. The likeness is truly startling at first, and a true testament to Gudnason’s good genes that he’s in his late thirties playing a man in his early twenties rather convincingly. His acting though is top notch, and he captures the restrained resolve of Borg immaculately. With Shia LaBeouf there’s a little bit of getting past the fact that it’s Shia LaBeouf, but with Gudnason, you just believe you’re watching Borg in front of your eyes, and that’s really quite exciting.

The editing is a true standout, and really puts the film up a notch for me. Not just in the timing of the different strands of both men’s lives that are woven throughout almost every couple of scenes, but the timing of the tennis scenes. Which for the most part do take a back seat to the inner workings of Borg and McEnroe’s mentalities off the court. This was a good move, as by the time we get to the climactic match between the two, the tennis truly takes center stage, as it should. The production design needs to be singled out too, as it felt very authentic to the time period without pushing it too hard to the point of distraction.

And if all of those elements being executed to such a high standard wasn’t good enough, we’re also treated to two outstanding supporting performances from Tuva Novotny as Borg’s fiancee, Mariana Simionescu, and the ever trusty Stellan Skarsgård as Borg’s coach Lennart Bergelin. Novotny really conveyed a strong yet underappreciated support to Borg in Mariana, with a quiet restraint that moved me quite a bit. As for Skarsgård, he excels as the coach that only wants the best for Borg, but has difficulty in continuing to fulfill his role as the boy he once coached to stardom has now become his own man. The flashback scenes with Skarsgård’s Bergelin wrestling with a young Borg’s tempestuousness are among the best in the film.

Even though I knew the outcome of the match, the tightly wrought tension (which had been beautifully built, simmering and bubbling throughout the entire film) was literally palpable, and I found myself clenching and unclenching my fingers throughout. The unbearable pressure that both men are put under, both by the world and themselves, is finally released, not in an explosion, but in a slowly unwinding and mentally grueling fashion. Gudnason puts in an unforgettable performance here, and Shia is really not that that far behind, servicing (eh? … eh?) his part in the story exceptionally well, especially in his final moments.

I truly love movies that capture these lightning in a bottle sports rivalries (Rush, from Ron Howard, is a great one), the kinds that can’t be manufactured. They can be marketed and sold (like Borg and McEnroe’s rivalry so quickly was) but the stories of these rivalries are written on the fly, the magic moments appearing out of thin air, through personality, will, character, skill and heart. A masterful depiction of how great tennis can be, and easily the best tennis film ever made. If you can point me in the direction of one better, I’d gladly give it a look.

 

Achingly Convincing (for the most part) – Jungle (2017) Movie Review

January 21st, 2018

Jungle, set in the early 1980s, tells the true story of Yossi Ghinsberg, an Israeli backpacker eager to explore the uncharted areas of the Amazon. Traveling with two friends he’d made along the way (Marcus Stamm, a Swiss teacher, and Kevin Gale, an American photographer), Yossi enlisted help to explore the jungle from an Austrian man named Karl Ruprechter, who claimed to know where to find an indigenous village deep in the Amazon.

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Choices of Violence – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017) Movie Review

January 14th, 2018

A particularly popular film from the 2000s that has always seemed to slip out of my viewing schedules (I even owned it on Blu-ray for a few years) is In Bruges. From what I gather it’s a dark comedy from director Martin McDonagh, set in Bruges. Everyone raves about it. One day I might actually get around to seeing it (cue people messaging me that I REALLY need to see it).

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Discounted Worth – The Florida Project (2017) Movie Review

January 12th, 2018

A couple of years ago I saw a film called Tangerine that was picking up buzz as a feature film entirely shot on iPhones. Beyond the gimmick itself (which was nicely pulled off), I quite enjoyed the film and was quite keen to see director Sean Baker’s next film: The Florida Project. Unlike his previous effort, it’s not shot on phones, but on 35mm film, the complete opposite end of the filmic spectrum. While I haven’t seen any of Baker’s other movies, it’s clear that he’s very interested in telling stories about marginalised people in society, and as impressive as Tangerine was from a technical standpoint, with The Florida Project I wasn’t ever thinking about how it was shot, I just got lost in the story.

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My Top 10 Favourite Films of 2017

January 10th, 2018

So here are my (as of January 1st, 2017) Top 10 Films of 2017. As always, these are my favourites, not what I would consider the “best” films of 2017, though I’d argue that at least most of the movies on my list this year are “great” films.

As it goes every year, I spend December through February playing catch up, and getting to as many of the films I missed as possible, so this is my “rough cut” so to speak. I saw 67 new releases in 2017.

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