Tuesday, 31 December 2019

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

My last review of the year in a year with very few reviews (and relatively few good films) - sorry about that (it’s been one of those years for me). 

What to say about The Rise of Skywalker? It has a number of magical Star Wars moments that made me glad I had watched it. These magical scenes invariably involved characters who were neither fighting other characters nor planning to fight other characters. So yes, that only leaves about five minutes for those moments to occur (exaggeration admitted). Sigh.

Among the things I hated most about The Rise of Skywalker was the Stormtroopers. Finn and Jannah (a woman introduced in this film) are former Stormtroopers, conscripted against their will to fight for the evil First Order. They found a way to escape and now fight against the First Order. Finn and Jannah are clearly depicted as beautiful human beings worthy of a long happy life. Not so much the countless thousands of Stormtroopers (and other soldiers) who are still forced to fight for the First Order. They are treated like mindless dehumanized plastic machines who can be killed by our heroes without a moment’s hesitation. It’s as if clothing a human being in plastic makes them worthless objects. The Rise of Skywalker, like so many other similar films, is full of such thoughtless redemptive violence. Very sad.

Other problems with the film include the washed-out made-for-3D cinematography, which occasionally rises above this limitation to create the odd beautiful scene but is mostly mediocre, the many plot holes and the ending (not the last scene, which is one of the magical moments, but the previous twenty minutes or so). 

Speaking of the plot, film critics are particularly critical of what they think is a lame and unimaginative story that is an attempt by the writer/director (J.J. Abrams) to mollify the many viewers who complained about The Last Jedi. I have no quarrel with critics talking about the lack of imagination in The Rise of Skywalker. This final (we can only hope) Star Wars trilogy is, in my opinion, largely a repeat of the first trilogy. The Last Jedi showed sparks of imagination, but the others are certainly lacking in that department. But by the time I walked into the theatre for this final film, this is what I expected, and I found The Rise of Skywalker relatively satisfying in terms of a final instalment for the series (violence notwithstanding). UNLESS, that is, it is true that J.J. Abrams wrote this final story to appease the viewers who hated The Last Jedi. Insofar as that is true, I would have to agree with the critics. But my sense is that this is where Abrams intended to go all along. 

The acting and dialogue remain far superior to the first six Star Wars films. Daisy Ridley is, in my opinion, the best actor involved in the whole series (Sir Alec Guinness excepted, of course). 

So there it is. One of the worst years of this century for film ends with a whimper. But there were some great films this year that I have not had the chance to review, and I’ll be telling you about them over the next two weeks, when I post my favourite films of 2019 as well as my favourite films of the past decade. In the meantime, The Rise of Skywalker gets ***. My mug is up but shaking. 

Monday, 2 December 2019

The Irishman

The second-most critically-acclaimed film of 2019 (after Parasite) is the latest film by Martin Scorsese. Scorsese returns to the gangster film genre and to Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci (they had previously collaborated on Raging Bull, Goodfellas and Casino) in a three and a half hour film made for Netflix. 

The Irishman of the title is Frank Sheeran (De Niro), who becomes a hitman for the Pennsylvania mafia after meeting Russell Bufalino (Pesci), whose cousin, Bill (Ray Romano), a lawyer, had gotten Frank off on a major theft charge. Eventually, Frank, still working under Russell’s guidance, will become a trusted bodyguard of Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), a challenging job (to say the least). Things go downhill from there (as they tend to do when you get mixed up with the mafia). 

In a film this long, there are many actors, but The Irishman is very much dominated by De Niro, Pacino and Pesci, so I won’t list other actors here. The quality of the acting, as one might expect, is top-notch. In particular, the performances of De Niro and Pesci are incredible (what can I say -  I’ve never been a Pacino fan, so wasn’t sure he was the best choice for Hoffa).

I’ll start by freely admitting that The Irishman is a masterpiece. The direction is superb, with every scene feeling like the work of a master, the pacing is spot-on (the film feels much shorter than it is), the cinematography is sublime, the score/music is perfect and the writing is sharp. Not that the film is flawless; I think some scenes were longer than they needed to be while others could have been longer (especially those involving the few women in the film). Frank’s relationships with his wives and daughters felt particularly under-developed. But these are minor complaints.

Nevertheless, as great an achievement as the always-engaging and intelligent The Irishman may be, and as fascinating as it is to watch the development of Frank’s relationship with Russell and Hoffa, the film didn’t really touch me (i.e. I didn’t love it). It’s possible to feel some sympathy for Frank, especially if you consider the possibility of PTSD from his time in WWII, but it wasn’t enough to keep me emotionally engaged and I’ve just never been a fan of the gangster genre (Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America is the only gangster film on my favourite shelf, which contains 350 titles). 

But if you like gangster films, you don’t want to miss The Irishman. Just don’t make the mistake of watching it on your laptop (or your phone!). It may be on Netflix, but it needs the largest screen you can find to appreciate its beauty. The Irishman gets ***+ -  ****. My mug is up. 

Sunday, 1 December 2019

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood


Having watched and loved last year’s documentary on Fred Rogers, Won’t You Be My Neighbour, I wondered whether A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood wouldn’t just be a dramatized version of what I already knew. I needn’t have worried. Indeed, not only is there very little overlap between the films, Rogers isn’t even the protagonist in this new one (despite the presence of Tom Hanks in the lead role).

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood focuses instead on the character of Lloyd Vogel (played very well by Matthew Rhys), an Esquire journalist assigned to write a short article on Rogers in 1998 as part of an American heroes edition. Lloyd is unpopular among those he interviews, known for putting a negative or critical spin on whatever he hears. But Rogers treats him like an old friend and disarms him by constantly asking questions about Lloyd’s own life. 

This is particularly distracting for Lloyd because he is going through a somewhat traumatic time in his life, dealing with a newborn son and the recent wedding of his sister, Lorraine (Tammy Blanchard). Lloyd’s father, Jerry (Chris Cooper), attended that wedding, opening up old wounds that hurt enough for Lloyd to take a swing at his father and start a fight. 

Lloyd’s wife, Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson), tries to be supportive but is frustrated by Lloyd’s hatred for his father and unwillingness to even talk to him. Lloyd, meanwhile, is digging into Rogers’s past life, with the hope of exposing some flaws or secrets, only to find himself sharing private pieces of his own life with Rogers. This, in turn, leads Rogers to do what he does best: reaching out to the child within all of us. 

I confess to being a little disappointed that Rogers wasn’t the centre of this film, especially since I didn’t find the Vogel family story as compelling as I would like (despite an excellent performance by Cooper). On the other hand, I’m convinced this is precisely what Rogers himself would have wanted to see in a film about him. In that sense, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood felt exactly right. And the relationship between Lloyd and Rogers was beautifully handled, with one brilliant scene after another (including my favourite scene of the year so far).

Hanks, who is one of the best, was the perfect choice to play Rogers, making us believe it’s really him despite them not looking that much alike (at least, not to me). The direction by Marielle Heller was also just right, while the writing, score and cinematography, if not exceptional, were more than adequate. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a wonderful humanizing film that I recommend to all. It gets **** and a place in my top ten films of the year. My mug is up.