Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Star Wars: Episode IX -The Rise of Skywalker


Thank the Midichlorians it's over! When it was announced that J.J. Abrams was chosen as the director of the closing film for the Sequel Trilogy, I predicted that he'd attempt to please both fans and non-fans of The Last Jedi at the same time. A noble intention, that in retrospect, was doomed to fail. In his desperate endeavors to be as pleasing as possible, he was as safe as possible. But because of the groundwork laid down by his predecessor, even the safe answer was a risk; not so easy as a simple Copy/Paste of the classics. He had to tell the story as he saw fit, while moving forward with the story and characters from a starting point that probably intimidated him. Is it possible to tie together such a disjointed trilogy into a conclusion that holds together? Yes. Is it possible to please everyone? No.

Time for Rey to find her place in all this. Whether you like it or not!

In the end, I'd rather watch two hours of fanservice than be insulted for two hours (though neither are ideal) so The Rise of Skywalker comes out on the positive side, but not without the additional odor of Retcon. None of the films in this franchise respect each other, and the flow between them is understandably rough. Abrams spends half the film clawing his way back to a vision he can work with -- essentially making two films worth of content fit into the run time of one. It's rushed and messy; shaved of every second it could spare, and never given a moment to rest. But then he finds the place in which he wants to work, and around the third act everything settles into a compelling story again. Only one thread hangs on, fraying but intact, to tie the three films together; and that is the arcs of our heroine Rey, and her villain, Kylo Ren.

If I had my pick of any one thing to keep consistent between the films, that would be it, with no second place. That's what Abrams nailed down in the end, and though it's not exactly the way I would have written it, it works within the frame of both the movie and the last two movies' baggage -- and is genuinely good storytelling from a character perspective. Despite holes in the plot, I respect that. Rey (Daisy Ridley) will still be called a Mary Sue, I'm sure, but Abrams provides a reason for her exemplary untrained skills, and completes her arc with care and dedication. Kylo Ren remains the best written character of the sequel trilogy. Adam Driver doesn't have a pages of dialogue here, and even spends extended amounts of time in silence when you wouldn't expect it. With the solid foundation of the character, and Driver's talent for expression, Ren thrives under the treatment. He is the film's boldest choices, and its greatest payoff.

Rey and Kylo are the heart and soul of the film, which is the most important thing. Also, this movie has more than one lightsaber duels, and that's very important too. 

As for my used-to-be personal favorite, I was glad to see Poe (Oscar Isaac, who actually drew a short straw when he won a part in Star Wars) fulfill the role he was originally written for; "the Han Solo type." He keeps the temper Rian Johnson gave him while piloting the Millennium Falcon, flirting and quipping, and finally feels realized. And yes, he and Rey interact. Finally. I almost didn't even notice, and that's exactly how it should have been from the start. John Boyega's Finn unfortunately takes more of a backseat, having done all his growing in The Force Awakens. You can sense that there's no clear vision for the character, but he isn't in the way either; a welcome presence. While feeding the fans lines to placate them once, Abrams said that Rose was the thing Johnson did that he was most grateful for; watching the movie, that's clearly not true.

What I would guess Abrams is really most grateful for, is the establishing of Force Skype Calls -- or the connection between Rey and Kylo that allows them to interact at distances. Abrams takes it a step further in a neat way -- one of the movie's most creative ideas -- and useful to the plot, too. In fact, it seems most of Abram's creative choices here stemmed from working through choices that Johnson made. Sometimes it leads to the fulfillment of themes that I found impressively intuitive and subtle considering the action beats coming across like a cartoon hammer to the skull -- and sometimes it results in blatant retconning. Sometimes both at once! The movie is a mess because of it, but also not as milquetoast as it might have been had Abrams been allowed to merely execute a soft remake of Return of the Jedi. A fascinating trade-off, and something for which I'll gladly thank Johnson.

This movie elevates TLJ, but also wouldn't have happened without TLJ, so I guess really, they elevate each other -- and through that counterintuitive route, that means they succeed in doing what trilogy parts were meant to. 

We could spend hours in Whatifland, but I'll forgo it. This trilogy could have been many different things, but this is what it is: Abrams'. He has staked claim and it belongs to him. He did what he thought was best, and if it wasn't, I'm far too tired to devise how. Given the circumstances, this film is closer to a best-case scenario than I ever dared hope it'd be. The whole trilogy was a long series of stumbles, insecurities, misunderstanding of fans, and conflicting ideas, but, almost miraculously, the ending doesn't fall apart. It gets to where it was going. It makes it to a real end. I could mention that the end it finds is more than decent; far from dull, and at least in the ballpark of a resonating and moving story. (At most I got misty-eyed yesterday just thinking about it.) But all that's a mere bonus at this point. For most films, making it to the end of the story is a given; but given the disastrous road this one has endured, I cannot think of a better recommendation than to point out the end that this giant, turbulent, space adventure possesses, and say, "They did it."

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Upcoming Movie Roundup - December

I've been playing catch-up in November and didn't see anything that I mentioned yet. Though I did watch The King off Netflix (a November release that I overlooked somehow) and was impressed enough with it that I wanted to give it a review. (Read it here!) We got to the theater to see Jojo Rabbit, which was a wonderful little film, full of wicked humor and genuine heart. (Read my review here!) And I caught up on one that I wanted to see in theaters but never did -- The Peanut Butter Falcon. It was so good, clean, warm and full of adventure that I wish I had seen it in theaters, but I'm glad I've seen it now. (Review here!)

Now it's December (Merry Christmas!) and there's one last movie I need to see before my end-of-year list will be complete. And it's not Star Wars, though I'm looking forward to that, too. There's more than a few good looking releases coming before 2020 though -- I hope the decade ends with a fantastic month of movies!

What looks good to you?? See y'all again in the New Year!

The Aeronauts
Limited release Dec 6th, streaming Dec 20th; PG-13
Eddie Redmayne hires Felicity Jones to fly a hot air balloon for him so he can study the atmosphere. It says inspired by a true story, so you know it's 100% fictional, and it seems like the movie throws one obstacle after another at them to ramp up the action and tension aspect. Still it'll be streaming on Amazon since it's an Amazon production -- and it's an adventure! I'll always give adventure movie their due chance to impress.

Richard Jewell
In theaters Dec 13th; R
Now this Clint Eastwood film is actually a true story. About a security guard who found a bomb and saved a ton of lives, but then was smeared by the media who believed that he set the bomb in the first place. He fought them (my favorite Sam Rockwell play his lawyer) and proves his innocence, but the media of course didn't spread the truth like they did the lie. They'd already ruined his life, why bother to take it back? So Mr. Eastwood is making this film so that everyone will know and his name will be cleared in public perception as well. It's sad though, because Jewell died back in 2007. Still it's a story worth telling. I'm glad it's being told, and I'll definitely watch it.

Jumanji: The Next Level
In theaters Dec 13th; PG-13
The Rock, Jack Black, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan (and even Nick Jonas) are back for round two of this surprisingly fun reboot of the Jumanji franchise. I seriously don't expect this to rise to the same levels as the last one (genuinely good dumb fun can be hard to do with a big head but we'll see) but even if it doesn't it's not like it's going to ruin anything. A rare example of worry-free sequel!

Uncut Gems
Limited release Dec 13th; R
I may have heard of this one because it's an A24 production crime drama hype. But the only reason I'd want to watch is this: to see Adam Sandler do this level of acting. It's something I'm not surprised he had in him, and it's about time it came out.

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker
In theaters Dec 20th; PG-13
I mean... it's Star Wars, so I'll be there. I was happy when J.J. got the job for this movie, but still haven't been able to build hype for it very far. I expect it'll be about as good as The Force Awakens, but even if it turns out worse than The Last Jedi it won't really make much difference. One thing I know will happen, and that's all I need: Rey, Finn, and Poe, actually in scenes together. Whoever heard of a Star Wars trilogy where the leading trio only interact in the third movie?? But at least it'll happen before it all ends. Maybe it'll be fun, maybe not. I'm really just curious to see at this point!

In theaters Dec 20th; PG
Another case of curiosity. Insert curiosity/cat joke here, haha. This is such a bizarre mix of awful and unique. I can't tear my eyes away. I won't see it in theaters, but I'd be lying if I said I wasn't interested at all. It's just to weird to ignore.

Spies in Disguise
In theaters Dec 25th; PG
This looks silly. And probably not very good. I'm sure it's more made for the actors, Will Smith and Tom Holland to mess around with than it is a story that's good, entertaining, and worthwhile in its own right -- but since I like the cast, I'm sure I'll give it a chance someday. I just kinda wish Tom Holland would stop wasting his career. Seems like Hollywood has him pigeonholed (pun not intended but I'll allow it) as the endearing goofy idiot and I'm already growing tired of it.

Little Women
In theaters Dec 25th; PG
Every once in a while you need a new adaptation of Little Women, and this one has top-notch production value that's getting me pretty excited. I loved Greta Gerwig's writing and directing in Lady Bird. Also the stars from that film, Saoirse Ronan and Timothée Chalamet were great, and seem very well cast as Jo and Laurie perspectively. Emma Watson as Meg isn't ideal but will likely work, and I haven't see Florence Pugh (Amy) in anything yet but hear tell she's talented. I'd love to see this wind up being a high quality as faithful adaptation -- I don't think it's a guarantee, but here's hoping!

Limited release Dec 25th; R
And THIS is most anticipated of the whole year! A WWI story, in which two soldiers must race to warn another group of an impending ambush. The film takes place in real time, shot as if it were one, long continuous shot for the entire feature. As cool as that sounds, that's also my biggest worry, that the gimmick will distract from the story. Or even that the story won't have been developed far due to reliance on the gimmick. There are many big names here -- Benedict Cumberbatch, Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Andrew Scott, and Richard Madden -- but the two lead are less known: George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman. Chapman was in Netflix's The King briefly, and MacKay has been doing impressive indie work for a while already. He's one of my current favorite actors, and I'm excited to see him lead a film that could easily be a favorite of the year, if all goes to plan!