A disappointing finale
Star Wars: Episode IX - The Rise of Skywalker (2019): After Palpatine mysteriously returns, the Resistance faces the First Order once more in the final chapter of the Skywalker saga.
It’s hard to approach this film with any sort of objectivity. I, like countless others, was raised on Star Wars. One of my earliest movie memories was seeing my brother’s VHS copy of Episode IV (with a title scroll that did not feature “Episode IV” in it) and thinking it was the coolest thing I had ever seen. That childlike sense of innocence and wonder is integrally tied to Star Wars for countless fans, so it’s hard to look at the finale of the latest trilogy in the biggest franchise in movies with a critical take. Especially when you add in the divisiveness of the previous installment. However, I will do my best because that is what I’m here for, right? So, let’s talk about The Rise of Skywalker!
The Rise of Skywalker is the 9th installment in the Star Wars saga and 11th film in the Disney mega-franchise. The finale in a trilogy that began with Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens, this installment sees director J.J. Abrams return to the helm after Rian Johnson led the groundbreaking and divisive 8th film, Star Wars: Episode VIII - The Last Jedi. The film concludes the battle between the lowly Resistance and mighty First Order with the same cast of characters from the previous two films. From the opening scene, J.J. Abrams sets the tone for a frenetic and chaotic Episode IX, often to the film’s detriment. One of the many wonderful traits of many Star Wars films is its lush and beautiful planets the characters visit. However, because of the frantic pacing of Episode IX, you hardly ever get to take a breath and enjoy these worlds. It also doesn’t help that the primary world this film takes place on, the mysterious planet of Exegol, (which I had to look up to remember because, worst name ever) is a hideous, decrepit, and forgettable setting with nothing but distracting, seizure-inducing lighting that is some of the worst lighting I have ever seen in any film, let alone a Star Wars film. Seriously. I wish I knew what J.J. Abrams and co were thinking when they made this planet the crux of this film, because there are ways to promote the idea of a “sinister” planet without making your film unwatchable in the process. *Facepalm*
Ok, so the set design is *not great.* What about the story? It’s….. mediocre. Back in the hands of the crowd-pleasing Abrams, The Rise of Skywalker is completely devoid of any originality or creativity. It’s a carbon copy hero's journey, a bland and utterly predictable story that taps into your nostalgia veins from the first shot by making the puzzling decision to bring back the Emperor, making him the overarching villain of the entire trilogy in the process. (This is revealed in the opening title scroll, so don’t @ me with spoiler complaints.) Seriously, The Last Jedi left this trilogy in such a fascinating position, pinning a seemingly irredeemable Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and his mighty First Order against Rey (Daisy Ridley) and the decimated Resistance after a STUNNING battle on the gorgeous planet of Crait. (Ugh, The Last Jedi was SO good.) But, nope, J.J. Abrams has the unquenchable need to reintroduce a massive villain, because the worst thing about people can’t be other people, right?
In its attempt to appeal to the lowest common denominator, The Rise of Skywalker takes no risks, a conscious decision made by Disney entirely out of fear of a toxic fanbase’s overreaction to something they don’t like and/or expect. Nowhere is this fear more prevalent than in The Rise of Skywalker’s abhorrent treatment of Rose Tico. After having a major role in The Last Jedi, actress Kelly Marie Tran found herself at the epicenter of a toxic fanbase of neckbeards, honing in on her for all the issues they saw with Episode VIII almost entirely because she was an Asian woman. The abuse leveled at Tran was despicable, and Disney’s decision to cut her out of The Rise of Skywalker almost entirely was equally as such. No, introducing a black woman in Jannah (Naomi Ackie) does not make it better, guys. Rose has around 5 lines in this entire film as she is cast aside by Disney out of fear of enraging the neckbeards again. (Man, The Last Jedi was great….)
That said, it’s not all bad. This is still a superficially fun film. There are lightsabers, plenty of space and ground battles, the final action sequence is enjoyable (even if its set design is terrible) and it’s still Star Wars. On my second viewing I turned my brain off and approached this film as a popcorn flick, similar to a Fast and Furious film, and had way more fun than I did the first time around. The core cast is still wonderful, with characters like Poe (Oscar Isaac) and Finn (John Boyega) receiving plenty of aesthetically pleasing screen time. The dynamic between Kylo Ren and Rey is still intriguing, even if it is butchered, (especially at the end, my GOD did I hate the conclusion of their arc) but that is thanks largely to where Rian Johnson left their storyline at the end of Episode VIII. Also, newcommer villain General Pryde (Richard E. Grant) is fun and gleefully sinister, as Grant basically rolls out of bed, puts on his best Grand Moff Tarkin (villain from A New Hope) impression, and screen chews to the bitter end in this unnecessary but welcomed role. I do wish he had been the main general in this franchise over General Hux, (Domhnall Gleeson) because Hux has had hilariously little to do since The Force Awakens. Also, veteran Billy Dee Williams reprises his role of Lando to a merrily nostalgic effect. Who doesn’t love a charismatic laugh from the 82 year old actor? The dude’s still got it! And, the score! It's great! Composer John Williams returns for one more Star Wars score and fully leans into the nostalgia of the franchise this time around, rehashing many of the iconic themes this saga has to offer in what may be the legendary composer’s final film score. (John Williams is 87, after all.) This is one department where I have no quarrel with leaning into the nostalgia alllllll day.
What else is there to say about The Rise of Skywalker? As you’ve probably gathered, (and can see firsthand in my previous review) I adored The Last Jedi and its courageous effort to upend the status quo. I think if you enjoyed Episode VIII, you are going to have an opinion similar to mine on Episode IX. If you hated the previous installment, you’ll probably enjoy this film a lot more. I can’t help but go back to Disney’s puzzling decision to have two (and initially three, before nixing poor Colin Trevorrow in favor of Abrams return after the response to The Last Jedi) different auteurs helm this trilogy. George Lucas may have had no idea how to direct actors, or pen a script, but at least he had a consistent vision that he was able to execute virtually uninterrupted (or in a heavy advisory role re: The Empire Strikes Back) in the previous two trilogies. Here, the visions of Abrams and Johnson ultimately clash and conflict, creating a disjointed and disorganized final product. But, at the end of the day, it is still Star Wars, and Star Wars is, at its core, a space opera between the forces of good and evil and the ability to make millions off of merchandising rights. If you go into this film looking for an entertaining sci-fi battle between good and evil, there may be enough here for you to have a good time. For those of us (like me) hoping for Star Wars to set the bar for the best big budget Hollywood has to offer? Prepare to be disappointed in what may be the worst installment to this entire saga outside of The Phantom Menace.
My Number: 5/10
Dynamic characters and fun filmmaking
Little Women (2019): Four sisters come of age in America in the aftermath of the Civil War.
There’s something marvelous about Greta Gerwig and her filmmaking. The wonderful actor-turned-director’s, easy-going, innocent style is perfect for the latest adaptation of Little Women, the pioneering, iconic, revelatory coming-of-age story originally penned by Louisa May Alcott. And that’s exactly what this film is: lovely, free-spirited, beautiful, and, of course…. Fun. Sure, it has some confusing editing, (we’ll get to that) but this story could not have been put in better hands. Greta’s directorial debut and titanically successful Lady Bird may have enabled her the opportunity to helm this film, but the idea was in her head long before her 2017 breakout hit. (As evidenced by the fact that she wrote the first draft of this script before directing Lady Bird.) Gerwig’s entire career has led to this moment, and the result is nothing short of a cinematic triumph.
Little Women is the second film from director Greta Gerwig, and the fifth(ish, but who’s really counting) adaptation of the classic Alcott novel. The story follows the March sisters – Jo, Meg, Amy, and Beth – as they come of age in Civil War era America. Their struggles to be independent in a sexist economical and societal system designed to repress them are conveyed with a wonderful combination of chaos and meticulousness by Gerwig. The film features a non-linear style with two separate storylines, one set during the Civil War, 7 years earlier than the later. This side-by-side allows you to see two separate portraits of each of the March sisters: one of where they are discovering themselves and who they want to become, the other after they’ve (mostly) molded into what their lives will be. While some have complained that the editing between these storylines was muddy and hard-to-follow, I felt Greta did a marvelous job balancing them thanks to her subtle and clever use of lighting. The earlier storyline was shot entirely with warm lighting, while the “present day” storyline was shot entirely with cold lighting. (If you have no idea what I’m talking about, here’s a handy crash course.) Apart from providing practical help, this also played up the themes of each storyline, as the earlier felt more vibrant, child-like, and innocent, while the “present day” storyline felt more industrial, flawed, and joust overall grown-up and realistic. It’s not every day that the lighting in a film gets to take center stage to help tell its story, but here it is an invaluable character.
That said, the strength of Little Women is in the characters themselves. Each of the March sisters have their own unique set of qualities that Gerwig explores with a carefree, spontaneous sense of self-discovery. At the helm is the chaotic, disorganized, yet fiercely independent Jo March. Portrayed by Saoirse Ronan, there is a palpable fire to her character, both thanks to the strong writing of her in the source material and thanks to Ronan herself. This was the role Ronan was born to play: her fusion with Jo is downright uncanny at times. (Greta has talked at length about this seamless transformation on the press tour.) There’s Meg, played by Emma Watson, who is the closest thing to a traditional feminine character this story has to offer, but even she is unconventional. She is kind and patient, the elder of the group, and becomes a metaphor for the manifestation of true love while still offering wisdom and guidance for the rest of the sisters. Emma Watson’s calming facial expressions brought a real soothing sense of peace and joy to this character. There’s Beth, quiet and reserved, played in a down-to-earth way by Eliza Scanlen and a welcome contradiction to the rest of the sisters. And finally, there’s Amy. Her struggle for social acceptance, combined with her unquenchable ambition, was the most relatable for me. This, as well as her impromptu yet calculated personality made her my favorite of the sisters. Additionally, while the other three stars felt at home in their characters, Florence Pugh’s performance was the most impressive of the group. It really felt like Pugh had to settle into the skin of Amy and mold herself to the character she was playing, versus coming naturally equipped to play the role. Between this, Midsommar, and Fighting with My Family, Pugh has certainly arrived in the business. (Also, she started filming this 4 days after wrapping Midsommar, so that is quite the impressive transition.)
The supporting characters are also incredibly strong, but the highlight is definitely Laurie. Timothée Chalamet strips away his “bad boy” persona for this grounded yet romantic and innocently kind take on the boy next door. I have a natural predisposition to like everything Timothée Chalamet does, but I really enjoyed his portrayal of Laurie. He is a romantic, searching for his one true love, but also willing to step aside and do what’s best for others around him. He’s never selfish and always fun, and that’s right in Timothée’s wheelhouse. Laurie is the embodiment of how men should act around the women they love. That said, the bad boy vibe does come through a few times and feels somewhat awkward when it does, and, even though you can see the torment of his past actions shining through in these moments, they still feel very out-of-place compared to the character we see the rest of the film. But, of course, it’s Timothée Chalamet, and I am gleefully obligated to love anything and everything that he is involved in.
I’ve spent so much of this review talking / praising the individual characters, because that is the selling point of what Little Women is. It is incredibly rare for a 134 minute film to have this many developed characters, but the strength of the source material, combined with Gerwig’s penmanship, make each character I just mentioned feel unique and thorough. Gerwig’s amazing use of stacked dialogue really hammers this point home. Each scene in the tumultuous March home gives the viewer a fascinating insight into each sister and their mother. These scenes are chaotic yet driven at the helm of a master conductor behind the camera. I could go on and on about this film. I could talk about the amazing costume design, (I will cry foul play if it isn’t at least nominated for this) the incredible colors in the luscious set design, everything. From a technical standpoint, this film is perfect. And thanks to the lighting cues, I never once felt lost at the hands of the admittedly frenetic editing. But, even this worked for me! Gerwig makes great use of recycled shots in these scenes to up the emotional ante, and I found myself rocking the ugly cry in these moments on both viewings of the film.
I’m worried this film is going to be largely overlooked this award season because of sexism, (to the people who are excited to see Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker while also complaining about a new adaptation of Little Women being released at the same time, just stop) and because, depressingly, many of the societal constructs mentioned in Alcott’s novel are still in existence today, that doesn’t take away from the fact that this movie is a surefire classic. It is absolutely the pick-me-up film you need this holiday season, and a triumph for its filmmaker, firmly establishing her in the upper echelon of the Hollywood elite. Greta Gerwig has come a long way, and now the world of Hollywood is firmly in her grasp. Never did I ever think I'd be this hyped for a Barbie film.
My Number: 9/10
A unique portrayal of forgiveness
Honey Boy (2019): A young actor's stormy childhood and early adult years as he struggles to reconcile with his father and deal with his mental health.
Rarely does a film come around with the rawness of something like Honey Boy. The passionate, reconciliatory brain child of Shia LaBeouf and Alma Har'el, Honey Boy approaches its primary subject, forgiveness, in one of the most unique ways I've ever seen. While it doesn't always work - the unpolished edges can lead to some rather distracting / incomprehensible moments - the end product is nonetheless emotional, purgative, and alluring.
Honey Boy is the feature debut of both director Har'el and screenwriter LaBeouf. LaBeouf also places himself in front of the camera (a position he's certainly used to by now) and plays James Lort, a stand-in for Shia's own father, Jeffrey Craig LaBeouf. Portraying Otis, the stand-in for Shia LaBeouf, is Noah Jupe as a kid and Lucas Hedges as a 20ish year-old grappling with the effects James left on him as a kid. It's a rather hard film to summarize, other than to say it's about anger, coping, and forgiveness, but the parallels shown between each storyline go a long way to conveying traumatic events and how one grapples with them while simultaneously trying to forgive the person responsible. It's a fine line to try and ride that Har'el does a fairly great job with.
Let's talk about forgiveness for a moment. So many films portray this complicated subject in black and white terms. A singular moment in a film where the main character realizes the errors of their ways, delivers a touching monologue, and all is forgiven. Rarely does it work that way in real life, and this is exactly how Honey Boy tries to tackle the subject. James Lort is a wildly flawed, yet somewhat relatable character who is despicable on the surface. Yet, despite his (at times) heinous actions, Otis continues to follow him because he genuinely loves him and cares for him. We all have that person who's hurt us, emotionally or physically, that we need to search the inner dimensions of our own feelings to forgive because we know that's the only way to truly move on and grow as a human being. While, at times, Lort amplifies these misdeeds for cinematic effect, (and the message become somewhat incomprehensible because of it) the end result is still identifiable and personable to the viewer. It also helps that the man playing him, Shia LaBeouf, delivers one of the best performances of the year. A raw, emotional, unnerving turn that was clearly therapeutic for the real life man who's been around the business his entire life. Love love love.
We also need to talk about Otis. This character is played effectively by both Noah Jupe (definitely the child actor performance of the year) and Lucas Hedges, (who does a great Shia LaBeouf impression, and I loved it, too) and almost acts as a vehicle for the viewer to place themselves in this role. I absolutely love this character. He's written so well by LaBeouf. It's clearly himself, but he writes the character in a way that makes him ascribable for the audience. The viewer can easily channel himself through the young Otis, (Jupe) which makes the older Otis's (Hedges) path to forgiveness with his father that much more identifiable.
I know I keep returning to the topic of forgiveness, but that's what makes Honey Boy so great! Sure, sometimes the visuals are….. distracting, and the hand cam isn't always welcome, (seriously, you don't need hand cam in every scene!) but how this film approaches forgiveness and coping with one's past actions is so wonderful. James Lort, on the surface, is a terrible human being. He commits abusive atrocities on Otis that (understandably) lead to his drinking / ultimate PTSD. And yet…. You feel for Lort. You see his insecurities play out in screen. You see his unwavering drive to see his son succeed. You see how Otis follows in his footsteps and how Lort influences him, both good and bad. While the filmmaking is distracting and overproduced at times, this message is applicable to all demographics. If you're looking for an artsy film that is intimidating, yet approachable, look no further than Honey Boy.
My Number: 8/10
A masterful display of minimalism
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019): Based on the true story of a real-life friendship between Fred Rogers and journalist Tom Junod.
There’s a certain sense of tenable awe one feels when they think about the legacy of Mister Rogers. Whether you watched his program as a child or not, (yours truly would fall into that later category) Mister Rogers persona has become synonymous with generosity, kindness, and good-will. He was a genuine, down-to-earth person, and his program was overtly simple, yet poignant and touching. His legacy, and a wonderful example of his unwavering hospitality, was destined to find its ways into the hands of one of the most touching directors in the business today, Marielle Heller.
For those who don’t know, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is the latest work from director Marielle Heller (who previously directed last year’s overlooked and underappreciated film Can You Ever Forgive Me?, as well as 2015’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl) and stars America’s real-life dad Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers. The story follows reporter Lloyd Vogel (played by Matthew Rhys and based on real-life reporter Tom Junod) as he is assigned to profile Mister Rogers for a real American heroes” segment in Esquire magazine. Lloyd is dealing (poorly, as we see in one of the film’s opening scenes) with a multitude of personal issues. He and his father are estranged (to put it mildly) and this estrangement has trickled down to Lloyd’s lack of intimate connection with his own newborn son, Gavin. These personal issues have seeped into his work, as well. Lloyd has developed a reputation for being a hard-assed reporter, searching for the worst in the people he’s interviewing. As we discover when Lloyd begrudgingly accepts the Mister Rogers assignment, no one else wanted to be interviewed by him.
While the film takes its time approaching the first interaction between Mister Rogers and Lloyd, the conversations they have throughout the film are some of the best film conversations I’ve seen all year. This is where the mastery of director Marielle Heller comes in. Her ability to make a simple conversation mesmeric is remarkable. Her use of shot reverse shot, the most simplistic technique in filmmaking, is perfect. It holds on the relevant character for the exact right length of time, is never distracting with too many edits, and lets us really see into the minds of these characters with its use of close ups and (to a lesser extent) mids. These exchanges between Lloyd and Mister Rogers are done mostly in close-up, which means there’s very little excess in the shot to distract you from the characters, what they are saying, and how they are saying it. The conversations between Mister Rogers and Lloyd are simple and intimate, yet they provide us, the viewers, with so much insight into their respective mentalities. Lloyd is troubled and cynical, while Fred Rogers is heartfelt, loving, and most of all genuinely concerned by Lloyd’s demeanor. Mister Rogers takes over these exchanges as they progress, and Marielle Heller’s cinematographer, Jody Lee Lipes, will show this transformation with a subtle change of the camera angle halfway through the scene. These exchanges between Lloyd and Mister Rogers are not just the best scenes this film has to offer, it’s some of the best scenes I’ve seen in any film all year, period.
The quietness of these scenes comes to a head in the third act. There is a scene between Mister Rogers and Lloyd that occurs in a diner in Pittsburgh, shortly after Lloyd experiences some particularly traumatic events and responds to them by fleeing to see Mister Rogers. In this scene, Mister Rogers asks Lloyd to sit back and think about all the people that love him for an entire minute. We, the audience, proceed to sit in silence with these characters for that entire minute, while the camera slowly and deliberately pans around Mister Rogers until he is looking directly into it and thus at us. This therapeutic minute was emotional and cathartic, a courageous inclusion by Marielle Heller in an age where most big budget films are terrified to have even a second of silence in their respective films. There were audible sniffles and tears throughout the theater as we shared in this incredibly touching and minimalistic moment.
While the minimalism is where this film excels, its gaudy moments are where it does not. There is one moment especially, a disorienting dream sequence Lloyd experiences when he flees his problems for Pittsburgh, that felt shockingly out-of-place. It was a glitzy, flamboyant moment that didn’t really fit into the overall narrative. It also took Marielle Heller out of her wheelhouse, and the filmmaking itself suffered as a result. Additionally, and likely my biggest complaint about the film, is in the performance of Matthew Rhys as Lloyd. While Tom Hanks was phenomenal as Mister Rogers, embodying that simple, minimalist approach Heller is skillful at conveying, Rhys’s performance felt very.... big. It was a showman performance reserved for a play, and at times it felt like the antithesis of Heller’s vision. However, despite Rhys’s out-of-place performance, it was more than made up for by Tom Hanks. It’s been a few years since I was truly blown away by a Tom Hanks performance, (I’d say Captain Phillips was the last one) but his casting as the iconic Fred Rogers was perfect. The brilliance of his performance was uncanny – it was almost soothing to hear the calming voice he donned to play the icon.
Despite its sporadic missteps, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a master work from a director at the height of her game right now. It’s very quiet, slow, and deliberate, but that feeling also embodies the show Mister Rogers created. This film’s formula is the very essence of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, right down to Heller’s decision to bookend this film with an episode of the show itself. While it may not be for those looking for an exciting thrill ride at the movies right now, (you can reserve that for something like Ford V Ferrari) those that are willing to stick with this 108 minute film will find it to be exceptionally rewarding and possibly even curative for their own personal problems. Even now, 16 years after his death, Mister Rogers is still helping to make us feel loved, just the way we are.
"Anything that is human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable is manageable." - Mister Rogers
My Number: 9/10
Quick Reviews, Fall 2019, Part 2: Harriet, Motherless Brooklyn, Ford V Ferrari, Midway, Dark Waters, Knives OutRead Now
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