Richard E. Grant

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019, J.J. Abrams)

It is a dark time for the Star Wars franchise. Although the second highest grossing film franchise of all time, white men really weren’t okay with Kelly Marie Tran getting a lot to do in the last “trilogy” movie, not to mention women telling ostensible alpha Oscar Isaac what to do, and nobody wanted to go see the Harrison Ford spin-off not starring Harrison Ford, so there was a lot of damage control on Rise of Skywalker. Not to mention Carrie Fisher died and instead of letting her rest, the Rise filmmakers instead decided to resurrect her with unused footage and CGI compositing. Suffice to say, none of it works—with Daisy Ridley not believable acting “opposite” the artificial Fisher—seriously, they couldn’t keep doing takes until they got a better one; despite costing a fifth of a billion dollars, Rise often feels like they went way too cheap on things… especially with the rebel base stuff (meaning “Fisher,” Ridley, Tran—who’s demoted to cameo level support staff because Disney, at least the Lucasfilm division, are cowards—Isaac, and John Boyega). There’s one sequence where they really need to make the base shine and the movie can’t gin up any enthusiasm for it. Partly because it can’t gin up any enthusiasm for anything, partly because the sets appear to be way too small.

Rise of Skywalker, despite being really long, feels really reductive. Director Abrams and co-writer Chris Terrio would really rather not get too far into anything in the script, which has one actual big reveal but ought to have two. It turns out Ian McDiarmid’s back (hey, wasn’t Luke originally supposed to defeat the Emperor in Episode IX in Gary Kurtz’s Empire-era series outline), but Abrams and Terrio stick that reveal in the opening crawl. Rise’s opening crawl is so bad, so defeated—where’d all of Abrams’s enthusiasm for this franchise go—it makes you wish they’d brought back George Lucas to cameo write it; he couldn’t do worse. Speaking of cameos, let’s just get the John Williams thing out of the way now.

There’s barely any original music and it’s at best mediocre. But it’s barely there. On one hand, John Williams is 87 years old and he gets some slack. On the other hand, Rise of Skywalker is supposed to be the end of a storied, beloved franchise. You’d think they’d want the best score possible. But they don’t. They want a John Williams score. They want a Carrie Fisher credit. It’s not a question of Abrams and company playing it safe; it’s not like Disney Star Wars has ever taken any real chances because it’s Disney, but Rise is like a capitulation. Even when Abrams is able to hit some good nostalgia moments, it’s because old John Williams music really does work well, it’s because his actors are still taking their jobs seriously, even with the crap script. Ridley’s big reveal, teased since the first Disney Star Wars, somehow manages to result in negative character development. It’s incredible how good Abrams and Terrio are at coping out of narrative decisions. They’re not just inert with it, they actually manage to toggle the tide in reverse. The wind in Rise of Skywalker doesn’t blow, it sucks.

Very low okay direction from Abrams. He’s in way too much of a hurry, especially for almost two and a half hours, though he doesn’t get much help from editors Maryann Brandon and Stefan Grube. Everyone seems to have a different pace for the film—Abrams, both as director and screenwriter, the actors, the editors, the music. Rise of Skywalker feels slapped together, like the bad opening crawl is to compensate for the addition of McDiarmid after they started shooting but didn’t have enough time to get any real scenes with him and Adam Driver, who ping pong balls around the film, showing up whenever needed to give Ridley some conflict, sometimes with lightsabers.

What’s maybe strangest about Rise of Skywalker is how well Driver and Ridley make out, performance-wise. Ridley’s got a shit part. Like, she plays second fiddle to Driver even when she’s running a scene—and, ostensibly, the entire plot (buds Isaac and Boyega accompany her on her mission because they’re a family and she needs boys to make sure she’s all right)—but she still manages to turn in an okay performance. She acts better than the script gives ever, implying some kind of character development… within reason. Abrams, as writer and as director, works against her. He doesn’t work against Driver, however, who ends up with a great part. I mean, as great a part as you can have in Rise of Skywalker, but a good showcase anyway. Lots of range. And some of the character development Ridley should’ve gotten.

Though Ridley does get friends. Driver doesn’t not just get friends, the movie sets him up having sidekicks and then he never interacts with them. And he’s barely got any time with fellow Imperial baddies Domhnall Gleeson and Richard E. Grant. Grant has the closest thing to fun in Rise. Gleeson’s got what should be a fun part (finally) and he manages to screw it up. Whatever. At least he’s not an E.T. or something.

Isaac and Boyega get to continue their bromance, albeit neutered and straight-coded thanks to romantic interests (name cameo Keri Russell who might only actually be in one shot and the rest a voice performance for Isaac and more… mainstream appropriate Naomi Ackie for Boyega). Now, funny thing about Boyega—who gets no time with previous movie love interest Tran—and Ackie… while the script plays it like they have chemistry, they don’t have any chemistry. And they don’t play for it either. Boyega’s interested in Ackie as a comrade with shared history, but there’s no attempt at sparking. Isaac and Russell’s disembodied voice are at least cute together.

Isaac’s effortlessly charming and not much else. Boyega’s a lot of forced smiles and enthusiasm. Though even his enthusiasm runs out.

What else….

Billy Dee Williams is back for a glorified cameo—seriously, if Carrie Fisher hadn’t died he wasn’t going to be in the movie, was he—and it’s nice to have him around. He’s really not in it enough.

Anthony Daniels has a story arc, but it gets dropped in the third act. So much for the droids being the Saga constants.

All production problems aside, the film relies way too heavily on the scale CGI can provide. Rise of Skywalker tries to supersize its threats and just makes them more and more absurd, which isn’t a bad thing because it covers a lot of what would otherwise just be plain stupid.

Rise of Skywalker is a disappointing conclusion to a forty-two year-old story. But it’s a far less disappointing conclusion to that story than the one Disney Star Wars started for Ridley, Driver, Boyega, and Isaac four years ago. Though it still manages to be a more disappointing sequel to the previous entry two years ago. Abrams succeeded faster at failing Star Wars than even George Lucas. It took Lucas sixteen years to chooch the franchise with the first prequel. Abrams did it in two.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by J.J. Abrams; screenplay by Chris Terrio and Abrams, based on a story by Derek Connolly, Colin Trevorrow, Terrio, and Abrams and characters created by George Lucas; director of photography, Dan Mindel; edited by Maryann Brandon and Stefan Grube; music by John Williams; production designers, Rick Carter and Kevin Jenkins; costume designer, Michael Kaplan; produced by Abrams, Kathleen Kennedy, and Michelle Rejwan; released by Walt Disney Pictures.

Starring Daisy Ridley (Rey), Adam Driver (Kylo), John Boyega (Finn), Oscar Isaac (Poe), Anthony Daniels (C-3PO), Joonas Suotamo (Chewbacca), Keri Russell (Zorii), Naomi Ackie (Jannah), Kelly Marie Tran (Rose), Billy Dee Williams (Lando), Domhnall Gleeson (Hux), Richard E. Grant (Pryde), and Ian McDiarmid (Sheev).


Logan (2017, James Mangold)

The strangest thing about Logan, at least in terms of the plotting, is how director Mangold is desperate to reference a film classic–one with a plot perfectly suited to what he’s purportedly trying to do with Logan–and he doesn’t follow it through. In any of the neat ways he could. Instead, he goes for obvious and superficial.

Mangold is not Logan’s worst enemy, however. He certainly doesn’t help matters, but the script–which he did cowrite–is the big problem. It’s entirely wrapped up in itself; Logan has a long list of contrivances (mostly with the ground situation but also with plot developments and revelations) and, for whatever reason, the script wants to get into all of them. And all the explanations are lame.

Even still, the film would be able to survive if it weren’t for a nightmare third act when the film tries to get away without a protagonist for a while. It’s called Logan, of course, so one would think it’d always be about Hugh Jackman’s aged mutant killing machine who just wants to chill out and live in hiding. He’s got a big secret to keep–one of the ground situation contrivances the film cops out on dealing with entirely–not just from the audience, but from his sidekicks too. See, in retirement from mutant killing machining, Jackman has become a limo driver. He works long hours and then goes home to Patrick Stewart and Stephen Merchant. Stewart’s sick and Merchant’s the live-in nurse and maid, basically. There’s more to it, but not enough. Because there’s never enough in Logan. Everything is supposed to be implied.

Jackman suffers the worst for all those implications. Mangold’s constantly letting other people take the scene in Logan, whether it’s Stewart (who doesn’t exactly steal the show, but only because the script fails him miserably too) or tough guy villain Boyd Holbrook or even pointless cameoing Eriq La Salle. The script demotes Jackman, Mangold does too.

Logan wants to be a lot of things. It wants to be a family bonding movie–not a family movie about bonding, but a movie about family bonding–it wants to be future commentary (Mangold’s weakly executed future setting is another of Logan’s many painfully obvious problems), it wants to be a tough action movie, it wants to be deep. It really, really, really, really wants to be deep. Mangold loves the symbolism here; sadly he can’t decide on how he wants to convey it, so it’s another thing Logan could’ve done and doesn’t.

Even so, Jackman and Stewart are showing up to do the work. They’re trying to deliver that really, really, really, really deep movie. Dafne Keen–as the young mutant Jackman and Stewart are protecting–is pretty good for most of the movie. When she runs into problems, it’s because the script veers into its crappiest.

It’s a lazy script. It’s a weak and lazy script; Mangold doesn’t have the chops to make it work. He’s never distracted, he’s never interested, he’s always detached, always professional. Logan completely lacks personality. The fight scenes are lame, especially when they should be great. Mangold’s got no rhythm to them. John Mathieson’s capably bland photography doesn’t help, neither does the editing–Michael McCusker and Dirk Westervelt are capably bland. Marco Beltrami’s score is one of his best and it too… bland. François Audouy’s production design–his vision of this mutant-free 2029–isn’t capably bland. It’s just weak.

Jackman’s got enough of a presence to get the film to the finish line. Unfortunately, there’s no one waiting there to finish the movie for him. And Stewart’s fun. Shame the script wasn’t there. Shame Mangold couldn’t bring it together. Logan wants to be anything but mediocre and it ends up being nothing but.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by James Mangold; screenplay by Scott Frank, Mangold, and Michael Green, based on a story by Mangold; director of photography, John Mathieson; edited by Michael McCusker and Dirk Westervelt; music by Marco Beltrami; production designer, François Audouy; produced by Simon Kinberg, Hutch Parker, and Lauren Shuler Donner; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Hugh Jackman (Logan), Patrick Stewart (Charles), Dafne Keen (Laura), Boyd Holbrook (Pierce), Stephen Merchant (Caliban), Elizabeth Rodriguez (Gabriela), and Richard E. Grant (Dr. Rice).


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