Film critic Scott Wilson welcomes in 2020 by taking a look at the big films from the holiday season.
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker – ★★★☆☆
The final part of a trilogy in a trilogy of trilogies, The Rise of Skywalker (finally?) draws the Skywalker saga to a close after nine films and 42 years. Following on from Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi, JJ Abrams returns to direct following his success helming Episode VII: The Force Awakens, which kickstarted this latest run of films from a galaxy far, far away back in 2015.
This directorial to’ing-and-fro’ing may be The Rise of Skywalker’s legacy. To say The Last Jedi split the Star Wars fandom is an understatement. Some hailed Johnson’s take on Star Wars as refreshing and brave, subverting many expectations set up in The Force Awakens, introducing more diverse characters, and pushing what we know of established characters and our understanding of how the force works. Others ranged from disliking its tonal shifts away from the norm, to offensive hostility towards Kelly Marie Tran’s character of Rose, who they accused of being a diversity hire – it shouldn’t be possible to tell someone’s politics from their opinion on a film, and yet.
Which makes The Rise of Skywalker’s choice to ignore much of The Last Jedi all the more disappointing. This is Abrams back in control telling the story he wanted to tell when he made The Force Awakens, for better or worse. What remains is Rey’s continuing battle with Kylo Ren and the dark side. She’s determined to rid the galaxy of the powers behind The First Order, working alongside the Resistance who have received intelligence of an old familiar threat.
The Rise of Skywalker is a good time, but taken as seriously as it deserves to be, it lacks any real imagination.
The plot is standard blockbuster fare: the goodies have to defeat the baddies, the tension racks up, the battles get bigger and bigger. What sets Star Wars apart is how massive it is, and with that grand sense of scope, it has the freedom to go wherever it likes. Unfortunately, Abrams plays it safe, bottling many of the intriguing plot strands Johnson set up in The Last Jedi. It’s a disappointing end to what had been a sigh of relief after the misjudged prequel trilogy. That’s not to take away from some thrilling set pieces, the camaraderie between Finn and Poe, and a certain level of acceptable fanservice. The Rise of Skywalker is still a good time, but taken as seriously as it deserves to be, it lacks any real imagination.
Worst of all is the treatment of Rose. Pushed to the sidelines, her screentime is below that of new characters, such as Dominic Monaghan’s Beaumont Kin whose importance is negligible. Behind the scenes reports suggest brutal cuts involving her and Carrie Fischer’s Leia, with the team struggling to balance that material with the rest of the movie. But it’s symbolic of Abrams’ approach to The Last Jedi while bowing to a particularly virulent part of the Star Wars fanbase. Regardless of the why, the trolls are seen to have won, and in the process, it sums up the whole problem with this final chapter: in trying to please rabid diehards, it satisfies no one.
Cats – ★☆☆☆☆
Tom Hooper isn’t incapable of commercial, critical, and award recognition. His last three films – The King’s Speech, Les Miserables, and The Danish Girl – all received Oscars, and all of them made the kind of money that helps studio execs sleep at night.
Which makes Cats all the more intriguing. It is quite the disaster, and the blame does appear to lie at his feet.
That the story of a bunch of cats all hoping to be chosen by a matriarchal elderly cat for another chance at life, by being sent somewhere called the Heaviside Layer, is bonkers isn’t his fault. The songs work, and how much they work comes down to personal preference. His cast commit, particularly Ian McKellen, Jennifer Hudson, and Taylor Swift, who know what’s asked of them and do it without a wink in their eye, treating the source material with an absurd level of respect which sees them emerge from this mess unscathed.
But Hooper and his team are responsible for the ‘digital fur technology’. Inexplicably taking an all-star cast and hiding them beneath ungodly interpretations of feline physicality – has Hooper ever seen a cat? – makes for a genuinely surreal watch. At points it is uncomfortable, as they shake their entirely human breasts, while they disproportionately contort in ways no human nor animal has ever moved. It barely requires saying, but: no one here actually looks like a cat.
It barely requires saying, but: no one here actually looks like a cat.
Had the film featured this exact cast in leotards and a more realistic setting, it might have been salvageable as an entertaining mess. But Hooper’s misjudged CGI is only part of the problem. Given that all plot and characterisation is driven by the stories in the songs, it’s unforgivable how incomprehensible much of the singing is. Often, vocals are buried below the instrumentation. Sometimes, choruses are so loud that all words are indistinguishable.
Dance numbers are haphazardly put together, with random shots cutting mid-performance, which is a particular shame given Francesca Hayward, the audience-surrogate cat Victoria, is a world-class ballerina. Hopefully her debut feature isn’t also her final feature.
Cats has chosen not to campaign for any Oscar nominations after its severely negative reception, a decision which did drum up some sympathy for the beating it’s receiving. It’s often fun to take part in a pile-on of a big film gone wrong – a real cat-astrophe, am I right? – but when something is this misjudged, there’s a value in taking a closer look to find what is at fault. In the eyes of this critic, it’s not the plot, it’s not the songs, it’s not the cast, but it is Tom Hooper. Now we eagerly await stories of a troubled production in the years to come.
Little Women – ★★★★★
For audiences sick of remakes, reboots, sequels, and adaptations, the announcement of another Little Women was met with a shrug. This is a familiar story with deep personal reverence to many the world over, but with many versions of the story already available, there was a feeling of disappointment that this is what Greta Gerwig decided to focus on after the runaway success of her solo-directing debut Lady Bird.
As with Lady Bird, she excels. Choosing to focus on the themes of Little Women over its plot, this is a non-chronological telling of a classic tale, reframing what we know of these characters in the process. While Jo, here played by Saoirse Ronan, is the core of the narrative, she now shares its weight with her sisters, Amy (Florence Pugh), Meg (Emma Watson), and Beth (Eliza Scanlan).
It’s the kind of film people will want to live in.
By revealing certain plot twists in the first ten minutes, Gerwig has confidence in the lives of these characters to take precedence over the outcomes of romances. There’s no better descriptor than to say it’s the kind of film people will want to live in. The March house is homely and colourful, and when Timothée Chalamet’s Laurie fondly observes the sisters caring for each other, he’s basking in the same glow we are. This is a family that cares for each other through tough times (sickness, absent parent) and often with little means (money and the lack of it looms large).
What makes Gerwig such a perfect fit for Little Women is how impossible it is to tell between lines she created for the adaptation and lines lifted verbatim for the book. Writers do find an affinity with Jo, who represented Louisa May Alcott, the novel’s author. Gerwig adds to this layer of meta storytelling by taking Jo, who’s really Alcott, and creating Jo, who’s really Gerwig (but who’s really Gerwig by way of Alcott…you get it). While this may be deep-dive behind the scenes chat for those interested in long-form interviews and podcasts, it justifies another version of this story. Gerwig finds how Little Women exists in 2020 and what that means, like being fairer to Amy, like interpreting Jo’s original words and giving her even more of a voice to convey her feelings. It is actually quite astounding, and might just be this critic’s favourite film of 2019.
Jojo Rabbit – ★★★★★
It’s not hard to imagine how a comedy about a boy in the Hitler Youth who interacts with Hitler as his imaginary friend might prove divisive. Taika Waititi has found continued success with his very particular type of Kiwi humour, delivered with dry monotony and a knack for choosing the funniest words at his disposal. But that was with vampires, Thor, and a wholesome story of a runaway wannabe gangsta teenager. Not Nazis.
Those films found acclaim across the board, but Jojo Rabbit is having a harder time. With the world in the grips of far-right populism, finding humour in Nazism won’t be to everyone’s tastes. Most of Hitler’s followers are shown to be stupid, spreading word that Jewish people are cartoonish monsters and spending their time designing more fashionable uniforms. There’s a worry this amount of silliness makes them likable.
An impactful watch with plenty of laughter and tears, and the kind of hope we need for kicking off 2020.
But the film isn’t the straight-forward slapstick laugh-a-thon it’s sold as. Young Jojo’s militant belief in the Third Reich is inherently scary, and he has to come to terms with the fact his mum is hiding a Jewish girl, Elsa (Thomasin Mackenzie, who gave one of 2018’s best performances in Leave No Trace), in the walls of their home. That knowledge puts all three of them in danger, so while working out what to do, Jojo spends more time with her to learn about the threat of Jewish people.
Comparisons to Moonrise Kingdom – Moonreich Kingdom? – are obvious, but it has more threat than most Wes Anderson films. Its airy jokes only heighten the tension when there’s a random house inspection, suddenly making the film feel very real.
Waititi has described Jojo Rabbit as an anti-hate satire. It’s a film about fanaticism through the eyes of a young boy who doesn’t know any better, and what can be done about that. It’s undoubtedly a reactionary piece to the state of the world, and in many ways it’s a hopeful one which believes in love and an innate goodness in humanity. It’s also hilarious. Finding humour in something as terribly dark as Nazi Germany isn’t easy, and critics are divided on Waititi’s success. For this critic, it’s an impactful watch with plenty of laughter and tears, and the kind of hope we need for kicking off 2020. I’m a fan, but not everyone will be.