Movie reviews by
3 ½ (out of 4)
Literary classics prove their status by sustaining their stature rather than diminishing as years pass. Some only become immortal when cinema tries to realize their essence to both remind the acquainted and demonstrate to the unaware what was so powerful about the characters, situations and subjects in the first place.
So Little Women isn’t Shakespeare or Pride and Prejudice, but Louise May Alcott’s treasured story has had many an adaptation in its day – George Cukor directed Katherine Hepburn in the 1933 version, there's one from the 50s with Elizabeth Taylor and the 1994 reiteration starring Susan Sarandon and Winona Ryder surely stands out in today’s consciousness. Just after last year’s reviled modern take marked the 150th anniversary of the novel’s publishing, Greta Gerwig was already out tailoring the defining film version of the story – with talent like Laura Dern and Meryl Streep in support, it was not shocking that her telling would play out as the absolute, unbeatable attempt. Before I use up the rest of this space as a further expression of my reverence for Gerwig, let me get rid of my gripes and point out the remote extent to which she’s sullying her bright, sunny new career.
While her romantic partner Noah Baumbach is scraping the highest artistic highs of his storytelling vitality with Marriage Story (his 10th original film in an ever-mounting, remarkably homespun career), Gerwig has already turned down the easier avenue following her tenderly crafted breakthrough debut Lady Bird in 2017. After bearing her soul with an autobiographical inception to a filmography it makes sense that she would gravitate toward recreating a famously personal near-nonfiction masterwork. But when the story movements are already laid out for you, the trimmings on top – the tastefully stylish camerawork, savory mise en scène, gorgeous Alexandre Desplat score, the uniformly superb performances – aren’t quite as meaningful as they might be in something drawn from scratch.
Still, my god, the icing overtop this proven recipe is incredibly rich and even the substance itself is excellent and flavorful in ways you would not anticpate. Gerwig has the instinct to reexamine Little Women through a deviating narrative lens, redefining the parameters and rhythms of Alcott’s reflection of her own deprived Civil War-era upbringing. The adapted text has an insistent equilibrium of whimsy and melodrama courtesy of Alcott’s crocheted realism but Gerwig’s temporal hopscotching in her script demonstrates every internal conflict of the March sisters by juxtaposing a perfect past with a faded future. The color scheme (warm hues offset by blue tones) informs this rift in time between the good old days and an uncertain present, invoking a well-illustrated nostalgia and longing.
The zig-zagging nonlinear direction takes the tale in halves and works through them diligently and thoroughly, refusing to let the unannounced transitions through adolescence fail to inform the distance between the simple, fixed memories of youth and the more immediate trepidations of early adulthood. By utilizing methodical editing as a pick to unlock the more cinematic feelings of Little Women’s endurance, Gerwig’s hand also reconsiders Alcott through her distinct emphasis on awkward, restless naturalism, giving her adaptation an accessibly modern flavor despite the beaming, excited acting and textured production and costume design. It’s not as memorable or drastic as Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite or Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, but Little Women finds Gerwig exercising a singular, resonant voice through a beloved feminist period template.
Until a new fashioning of Emma arrives in February, Gerwig’s classically composed drama will remain the lit-head's movie of the moment, burning with the appetite of a revisionist eye and the inherent intent of Alcott’s wit and wariness. I was worried Little Women would fail to exceed a sense of irrelevance, functioning as a vehicle for Gerwig to secure her career for safer, businesslike goals rather than artistic ones. Pleasantly, it's just about effortless to forget any hesitations while watching, though that is to say I dearly hope she formulates her own fictions as she goes forward. With a clarifying understanding and appreciation for the source, there’s nothing but the rewards of superlative adaptation to appreciate from Gerwig’s second feature. Is it even worth bringing up that Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, Timothée Chalamat, Emma Watson, Chris Cooper, Dern and Streep are without flaw? Because of course they are.
2 ½ (out of 4)
So a long time ago there once was a really good space fantasy movie called Star Wars. It became and remains essentially the most popular original film of all time, at least as far as domestic audiences are concerned. The sequel, The Empire Strikes Back, was a blockbuster miracle superseding the iconoclastic predecessor with rich emotion, vibrant drama and deepened ingenuity.
Everyone with a sliver of a grasp at pop culture knowledge is aware of this but it’s important to reiterate that 1980 really was the last time Star Wars movies were exceptionally great. Return of the Jedi, regardless of its operatic strengths and classic climax, was a considerable step down for the series as the now-trilogy had already found itself in a relative state of creative rehashing. The prequels famously splintered the religious fanbase and critical voices, setting the stage for the exponential divide we have now in the age of the Mouse's Movie Monopoly. George Lucas’s heart was in the right place when he sought to impart brand new stories within his established world by way of shiny new digital technology and yet, whether you cite the crutch of green-screen-imprisoned visual effects, hokey plotting and drama, faulty humor (unintentional or otherwise) or any other repeated nitpicks, you have to admit Lucas was unable to conjure anything close to the instant, enduring classic like his watershed original movie, nor emulate the tales of old and tangential influences that inspired him. Revenge of the Sith is the only story apart from the first trilogy really worth a damn – there was potential for masterful moviemaking if not for Lucas’ shortcomings, which are far more unregulated in the grotesque indulgence of The Phantom Menace and the protracted melodramatics of Attack of the Clones.
By the time The Force Awakens came out just four years ago, Disney hedged their bets on drawing in the largest possible audience and assuaging disgruntled diehards in order to funnel as many people as possible back into the collective fan machine. The safe nostalgia trip was nothing more than a remix, a redo and a softball setup for potentially better movies down the line. Reportedly, and astonishingly, nothing was planned beyond Episode 7 – enter Rian Johnson, who put forth his own radical vision in relative disregard to the template provided by The Force Awakens and a lot of Star Wars mythos in general. This was the irreparable fragmentation of the base – some critics declared The Last Jedi to be one of the great Star Wars movies to date while others deemed it an awful, meandering, contradictory mess, myself included. In the words of Bo Burnham, original does not mean good. No amount of decent visual direction, fine developments of the dynamics between Rey and Kylo Ren and admirable (and unfulfilled) attempt at thematic substance can redeem Johnson’s most baffling, bold and borderline stupid choices.
Capping off this new, controversially uneven trilogy, The Rise of Skywalker is forced to serve as a two-fold finale – the end of a fan fiction-tier sequel trilogy and, in the greater scheme of things, the climax of nine terribly popular movies, all while supposedly fulfilling its own individual cinematic goals. J. J. Abrams, who jumped from Star Trek to Star Wars in one bound, was brought back into the fold after Jurassic World's Colin Trevorrow dropped out of direction. And as you might predict, this new film tries to placate the abandon of its predecessor by reversing many of Johnson’s more unpopular decisions. Luke’s aged ideology has been completely autocorrected, Rose’s role has been diminished, Snoke’s importance is immediately downplayed, just to name a couple reversions.
So after deliberation on all of Star Wars’ past, the short review is this: if you hated The Last Jedi, logic suggests you’re probably okay with The Rise of Skywalker and vice versa. I can't defend Johnson's film as entertainment whereas J. J. compels me to enjoy his films in spite of myself. Maybe it’s time to acknowledge the ingenuity of the original two films cannot be duplicated, manufactured or otherwise reattained and the whole idea of continuity in this "saga" has been one fantastical bit of winging it at every turn. However that does not excuse how discordant Episodes Seven through Nine plays out as consecutively conceived space operas. At least with the prequels there was a definitive destination for the story, although those films are almost just as guilty of unsatisfactory miscalculations.
All this to say – relatively speaking within the realm of Star Wars movies and big blockbusters overall – I enjoyed The Rise of Skywalker for what it was, and what it was mostly was a loud, practically incoherent, expensive, intermittently lovely yet roughly nonsensical pile of space fantasy remains. Maybe that's a good defense for The Last Jedi, and even The Force Awakens too, but I don't really care. Something urges me to die on the "Rise of Skywalker is the best of the trilogy" hill. Call me cuckoo.
J. J. the writer and his partner Chris Terrio (the odd duck with both an Academy Award for Adapted Screenwriting in Argo and co-writer credits for Batman v Superman and Justice League) had the unenviable job of wrapping up at least two and at most eight predecessors immediately after Johnson crudely painted the new franchise storyline into a claustrophobic narrative corner. TRoS is, if anything, admittedly overstuffed and cacophonous – but J. J. the director can almost always smooth over internal absurdity and sometimes downright dumb interludes and dull dialogue with the disciplined velocity of his digestible gifts. His first Star War loses points inherently for narrow-mindedly blocking out all creative directions for the story, and The Last Jedi both ignores a decent cliffhanger for a middle chapter and mistakenly gives us a wasted, misplaced feeling of finality.
Of course by returning to the comfort zone, part nine is planted in Return of the Jedi, but this one still feels like a neatly continuous yet separate, standard Star Wars movie – the planet-trotting adventure emulates silly serial escapades of old, the new characters finally feel comfortable and established, the broad humor lands abnormally well and the action (in Act 2 specifically) is kind of exhilarating when Abrams’ camerawork is most fluid and polished. The cinematography is fairly vivid and the emotions, mainly between Rey and Kylo (whose relationship has been the only consistent character drama the past three films) are effective even if the bumbled, half-baked story isn’t so much.
Yet my enjoyment doesn’t deter the film’s countless flaws, yet I reiterate: Star Wars has never exceeded the level of “eh..” in 40 years, and this film, nor any other (no matter the numerous apologists in Lucas’s or Johnson’s respective camps) breaks the streak. The Rise of Skywalker is flashing colors and paper-thin myth-making – but if you're itching for a sleazy, exciting visit to the movies this one goes down easy and if you’re looking for much more than that from this franchise at this point of corporate exploitation you’ve backed the wrong horse. Frankly, if you can get past the Emperor’s resurrection (“somehow, Palpatine returned,” was a explanation enough for Kathleen Kennedy) and maybe reaffirm the idea that these films are literally about monks with space magic, futuristic military machines and the well-stirred blend of science fiction, fantasy, adventure and westerns, the more gaping flaws in the silly story mechanics feel inconsequential next to detectable entertainment value. At least the insults to our intelligence are employed for the sake of greater cinematic appeal rather than feeble moral revisionism (*ahem Rian). This appropriate simplicity probably explains why audiences are receiving The Rise of Skywalker so reasonably while critics have finally mounted their high horse after shamelessly shilling the mediocre Disney Wars thus far, Solo notwithstanding. I won’t even go so far as to say all these movies are for children (though that is the core audience that will get the most out of them) but I can’t think of another film of late more deserving of the preliminary, and very asinine, advice to just, like, turn your brain off dude.
In-theater enjoyment and retroactive embarrassment is how nearly every Abrams movie plays out, and The Rise of Skywalker is just that and then a little more just to be safe. Still, Abrams knows how to shoot a movie efficiently with his trademark Spielberg-lite senses. You can criticize so much – the wonky third act, the needless new characters, the bullet train plot process – but the film gets you your money’s worth by the sheer ration of content vs time – this Star War has a whole beginning middle and end when it should be considerably focused on resolution, ya know like any good, properly planned trilogy topper should.
Babu Frick was cool! Adam Driver is magnificent, filling out the only character of the new trilogy we can be glad about. They gave Poe a few more layers which was nice. It’s almost miraculous the way Carrie Fischer’s scenes play so smoothly, until Leia's death when they don’t so much. Richard E. Grant should've been an Imperial General all along and then Domnhall Gleeson actually wasn't an Imperial general so... the wayfinder and the Sith dagger were sort of uh... the climax was kinda um... yeah I change my mind this isn't the hill I want to die on frankly.
3 ½ (out of 4)
The current cultural climate would indicate these are not the times in which a filmmaker as uncompromising and recently erratic as Terrence Malick would prosper. But, at least in terms of unmitigated productivity, my god, the man has seriously redefined his work ethic to the exact polar extreme of the strict selectivity of his 20th century career. It really feels like some executive at Fox should have told him to stop sometime along the way but his prolific drive has miraculously let him mold the most controversial, disputed, discussed and otherwise divisive entries of his filmmaking pilgrimage.
A Hidden Life is the first Malick feature in a long while to bear an identifiable narrative structure after a streak of five variably experimental projects during the last decade. There’s no stopping him either, as Malick's next enterprise is already on deck: the extended renaissance of America’s most cloistered moviemaker continues with Géza Röhrig (Son of Saul) as Jesus and Oscar winner Mark Rylance as four separate manifestations of Satan in the forthcoming The Last Planet.
In retrospect, however, the greatness of The Tree of Life will surely remain uncontested as it tops numerous best of the decade lists but otherwise all bets are off – the significance of the stretch from To the Wonder through Knight of Cups and Song to Song and finally Voyage of Time will be forever questioned. But with relative, specific and passionate confidence I can say A Hidden Life is Malick’s legitimate return to form, his most sweepingly beautiful and actively meaningful motion picture since his tremendous, awe-inspiring peak with The New World and The Tree of Life, though this is not so say equally valid arguments cannot be made for Badlands, Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line.
In years of late he has categorically bent the fabric of the medium to the point of ineffectual disrepair. While I'll happily defend the ethereal artistry of Wonder and Knight, I would certainly not be the first to denounce Song and Voyage as needless, uninspired and almost satirical. Now, Malick returns to the emotionally blistering breadth of his earlier historical renditions, a dependable formula back in employment with a newly exploratory era fortunately at its end.
Relentlessly ruminating on faith, nature, principles and dogmas, Malick's impeccable eye and intrinsic ability to extol martyrs and noble detractors magnifies a particular instance of personal devotion into broad implications on social and political injustices. This isn’t Hacksaw Ridge – the moral sincerity of A Hidden Life notes how much doing the right thing can cost you without going into Mel Gibson-level preaching or religious symbolism. Malick's unrestricted sensibilities are nonetheless as indulgent and uncompromising as ever, patiently taking three contemplative hours to contrast the rustic contentment and idyllic day to day of a Polish farmer with the extensive reach of Hitler’s totalitarian reign and the senseless brutality of Nazi prison camps.
It’s the kind of masterpiece that will be a struggle to revisit casually but A Hidden Life has more urgency, ethical deliberation and scenic resplendence than several of Malick's late-era improvised one-offs combined. It’s riveting and harrowing, and just as surreally edited, probingly photographed and narratively unconcerned as his best and most frustrating creations, though those classes are certainly not mutually exclusive. Malick also improves his prescribed whispery voice-overs by using actual letters exchanged by the central separated couple – played to painful perfection by August Diehl and Valerie Pachner – as a way to upgrade an auteur trademark (and easy point of mockery) from inner monologue to longing longhand, bettering the excruciating power of the acting, not to mention the filmmaker's other celestial, prayer-like characteristics.
This will be an agonizing beauty to those with enough attention to submit to an imposing vision, a brutal bore to those unaccustomed to the auteur's predilections and sure to be generally ignored since Malick's capricious career has all but abandoned whatever mainstream appeal it once maintained. It’s probably preferable that way as audiences with the tolerance for and interest to seek out A Hidden Life are far likelier to appreciate the painstaking process of lucid misfortune.
The spellbinding synthesis of stunning compositions and James Newton Howard (scoring his only Malick feature just like other heavyweights in his field like Hans Zimmer, James Horner and Alexandre Desplat) assisted by choice classical selections is a faintly familiar, breathtaking catharsis. The firm defense of selflessness and unshakable fealty at the expense of subjective logic, let alone the traditional execution of plot, is what affirms the film's greatness. A Hidden Life finds an American legend back in tune with the potentiality of his innovative formal singularity and fervid spiritual resolve.
To keep it brief...
Soon to Come:
The Invisible Man
and overdue takes on
"So what've you been up to?"
"Escaping mostly... and I escape real good."
- Inherent Vice