Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Movie Reviews: Star Wars IX: The Rise of Skywalker, Emma (2020), Knives Out, Joker, Little Women (2019)

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (aka Star Wars IX): A somewhat messy, but entertaining movie, that does its best to wrap up the trilogy of movies that started in The Force Awakens (Star Wars VII), as well as the trilogy of trilogies that make up the Star Wars canon.

The resistance is pursued by the first order, Rey is entangled with Kylo Ren, Palpatine has returned and is about to launch a ridiculously huge army (this really makes no sense), and Poe and Finn and Rey have to defeat them all. And there are light-sabers.

The movie has many things going for it, including decent acting, good characters and a few good character arcs, some good action sequences, some funny and some touching moments, great visuals, sound, and music, and a reasonable wrap-up of some parts of the story.

It also has many problems, of two main types: those that are the fault of Rian Johnson and the terrible mess he left us with Star Wars VIII: The Last Jedi, and those that are J. J. Adams fault, essentially the same problems that we saw in his Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens.

People criticize this film for the sins of the trilogy: the trilogy has no cohesive story arc. This is because VIII deliberately destroyed dozens of story arcs that were started in VII, and, even worse, destroyed many of the essential elements and ideas of the entire SW universe: good isn't good, bad isn't bad, heroes aren't heroes, the Force is universal, there is no resistance, etc, etc. To write IX, you either had to ignore much of what happened in VII (and pretty much the rest of Star Wars) or much of what happened in VIII.

IX chose the latter by awkwardly retconning lines and characters from VIII. This was only partially successful. Snope was set up in VII and made meaningless in VIII; VIII desperately tried to remove the concept of overarching villains from the series, which was terrible. So IX tried to shoehorn in the old emperor Palpatine as pulling the strings behind Snope, but it did so quite badly, without any surprise reveal and in without any real threat or dramatic presence. In VII, Rey had some kind of important background and story; VIII tried to destroy any meaning to her background and story. So IX tried to subvert what happened in VIII, but it did so quite badly. She has a story again, but it didn't make any sense, didn't give us any real dramatic interest, and left dozens of important hints from VII unanswered. And so on.

As for IX on its own, maybe Adams was hobbled from making any kind of sensible story by trying to fit in VIII and also wrap up a trilogy of trilogies. While VII had a pretty decent (if predictable) story, the story in IX is sometimes insane. The "Goonies-like" treasure map that they find, and how they find it, is unbelievable nonsense. The new force powers are cool in abstract, but don't fit the story or the trilogy. Characters appear for fan service, or don't appear (or don't appear much) for no sensible reasons. The end threat scenes are Marvel-level and just too unbelievable to take seriously. The dialog is forgettable; the only memorable line is "A Jedi's weapon deserves more respect", and it is memorable because it is a metashot at Rian Johnson's disrespect of the lightsaber at the beginning of VIII.

Still, there are many good scenes, and each scene, other than the ones with Palpatine and the ridiculous end battle, are entertaining and well-shot. It was nice to end the movie with callbacks to both of the original trilogies. The movie doesn't add up to the sum of its scenes; the story just isn't any good. Lucas may have hired some so-so actors and written some clunky dialog, but I always loved the stories (even the prelude trilogy). It's almost possible to forget all this while watching this movie; almost, but not quite.

Emma.: Like the recent attempts at the Great Gatsby and Anna Karenina, this movie is unfortunately directed by someone who is in love with process and sets, but has no interest in actors other than to use them as props for their photography. It's no surprise to me that the director is most well known for her photography.

The sets and actors fly around the landscapes, and the camera takes notice of all of the scenery and settings, but little of the characters. The movie would still have been a little better than the above two mentioned movies (which were not watchable). Unfortunately, the director or screenwriter's second major mistake destroys the movie.

Emma is supposed to be sympathetic but flawed. Book Emma as a heroine is full of good intentions and good Christian works, beautiful manners and kindness to everyone, though served poorly by her self-righteousness and blinded by lack of insight. That's not what we get here. In this movie, Emma is loathsome, snobbish, and entirely unsympathetic. There is no chemistry between her and Mr. Knightly, and no apparent reason for him to fall in love with her. Maybe that is the fault of the actors, maybe of the directors; it's hard to say.

I guess Emma learns something by the end, as she must, but she doesn't retain much of it, doesn't change her character, and doesn't become any more sympathetic. So, if you remove the pretty shots and sets, the story is about an obnoxious, unsympathetic snob who makes a few mistakes and realizes one or two of them by the end, is sorry and fixes one of them, but otherwise doesn't change, and then a handsome rich man marries her. Mmmm ... okay? That's not a very interesting story.

Honestly, stick with the 1995 version with Gwyneth Paltrow, which was silly but faithful, at least.

Knives Out: A gem of a movie, this was unexpected fun. Lots of great actors in an old-fashioned, southern whodunit. Daniel Craig, Ana de Armas, and the rest of the cast are exciting and lovely, and the script is tight, tense, and funny, with multiple flashbacks from alternate points of view. This movie is also by Rian Johnson, who redeems himself in my mind after having ruined the Star Wars franchise.

In a family house, a grandfather has a questionable relationship with all of his children, their spouses, and their kids, and somehow he ends up dead. Was it one of them? Or the nurse? Or suicide? Who will inherit his fortune? Enter private detective Benoit Blanc (Craig) to figure it out.

Captivating. Worth watching on the small screen.

Joker: This controversial origin story was actually quite good. Joaquin Phoenix does nearly as good a job as the Joker as Heath Ledger did in The Dark Knight. The sound and visuals were fantastic.

Arthur Fleck is a clown who is poor, who has a sick mother and no father, and who, every day, gets beat up and the sad end of the stick in Metropolis, which is NYC at its most disgusting and ready to boil over. He also has a disease that makes him laugh inappropriately, which is, as you may guess, likely to get you hated, ridiculed, and beaten up on occasion. He is also a failed comedian who loves a Johnny Carson type (played by Robert De Niro). One day while in clown makeup he shoots three entitled white dudes, partially in self-defense but mostly because he has nothing left to lose, and he (maybe?) inadvertently starts a revolution with himself as the cult leader. In the end, some or all of what happened is revealed to be a fiction of his imagination, so it's not clear how much of it to believe.

Although I admit that the movie was well made, I still didn't like it too much. It's not that, as some critics said, it excuses violence by the downtrodden or entitled white men; the movie makes it pretty clear that this guy is an exception who is disturbed, and that some or all of what happens might be in his deranged mind. It's more that the movie doesn't say much more than that. He's a deranged guy who suffers and ends up killing people. Okay, that's all? I wished it would have given us something more. Dark Knight had The Joker, and it gave us much more to think about and much more story. This gave us very little. It seems like an homage to Taxi Driver and King of Comedy, both of which also gave us a lot more in the way of character, story, and moral complexity.

Still, amazing performances, some great cinematography and directing, and fascinating in a "can't look away from the car crash" kind of way.

Little Women (2019): Gillian Armstrong's 1994 version of this book, starring Winona Ryder, Kirsten Dunst, Claire Danes, Susan Sarandon and others was a sweet and innocent classic, faithful to the book: it was moderately feminist, slipped over a lot of the transcendentalist morals, and cut out much of the last half of the book.

Greta Gerwig's new version, starring Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Laura Dern and others, is quite nice, strongly feminist, and very different. It adds scenes hinted at in the book, removes others, and thoroughly changes the character of Amy. The book and the 1994 movie are Jo's story, with input from the others adding to, and contrasting with, Jo's sentiments. This movie is equally Amy's movie (played by Florence Pugh), and she tromps, scowls, and grabs at opportunities and the scenes whenever she appears. We are now far from the transcendentalist roots that informed the source material.

But the story is still the story, which needs no explanation here. It is split into flashbacks, since we start with Jo trying to publish her book. Gerwig as a writer and actress starred in movies with excessive quirkiness that sometimes detracted from the stories. As director, in Lady Bird and this movie, that hand is present with some excessively quick dialog and quirky characters, but it is lighter, allowing the actors and story to properly flow and shine.