Double feature: Mark Burger reviews ‘The Return of Skywalker’ and ‘Little Women’
Once more in a galaxy far, far away …
Star Wars: The Return of Skywalker – or “Episode IX,” for those keeping score at home (and many are) – marks the well-publicized return of Billy Dee Williams as Lando Calrissian and the almost as well-publicized return of Ian McDiarmid as the nefarious Emperor Palpatine, whose seeming demise at the end of Return of the Jedi (1983) was evidently premature. Besides, in a film such as this, death is not necessarily the end of a character.
More importantly, the film marks the conclusion of the epic franchise begun 42 years ago with Star Wars: Episode IV- A New Hope (1977), certainly one of the most seminal American films ever made – for better and for worse. The baton has passed from George Lucas to co-writer/producer/director J.J. Abrams, who helmed Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) and was also responsible for resurrecting Star Trek as a big-screen franchise.
There are, of course, those zealous fans (or “geeks,” if you will) who will debate and scrutinize every single frame with the sort of assiduousness usually afforded to Scripture. That’s all well and good – for them – but for those simply willing to sit back and enjoy the ride, The Rise of Skywalker ranks with the very best of the series, bringing closure to the mythos in a satisfying, often spectacular, fashion. It’s stuffed but not overstuffed, long but not overlong, and delivers great and grand entertainment for all ages.
Although the late Carrie Fisher (Leia Organa) and Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker) are afforded top billing, theirs are relatively small roles, with the main action shouldered by the next generation of heroes. By now, Oscar Isaac (Poe Dameron), Daisy Ridley (Rey), and John Boyega (Finn) have established a comfortable, appealing chemistry that goes a long, long way – in a galaxy far, far away, no less – in the success of this trilogy. They play their roles with a charismatic, earnest assurance, although not without moments of humor. On that count, top marks to series veteran Anthony Daniels, whose C-3P0 is in rare form here, stealing scenes aplenty. Adam Driver, who’s had quite a year (following The Report and Marriage Story), provides the perfect counter-balance as the tormented antagonist Kylo Ren, enlisted by Emperor Palpatine to lead the First Order in its efforts to vanquish the Resistance forever. Yet, he has his own agenda, as well as his own demons.
As befits the Star Wars tradition, this is a tale of loyalty, courage, self-discovery and—in some cases—self-sacrifice. There are the requisite gadgets and gizmos, a menagerie of creatures both familiar and fresh, and a dazzling array of special effects. The Rise of Skywalker is everything a fan could want – and perhaps a bit more. It’s also far superior to Lucas’s middle trilogy, which seemed to lack heart if not visual virtuosity.
Discounting the inevitable prequels or spin-offs (including the much-praised series The Mandalorian, which was recently renewed for a second season), if this is how Star Wars ends, it ends up on top.
The lives and loves of the March sisters
Having made a successful transition from actress to filmmaker with the critically acclaimed and Oscar-nominated Lady Bird (2017), Greta Gerwig now tackles the latest screen version of Louisa May Alcott’s classic 1868 novel Little Women.
As a filmmaker, not unlike Jordan Peele with Us, Gerwig has parlayed her earlier screen success to enjoy her biggest-budgeted and most elaborate film to date, with the added and not inconsiderable bonus of adapting an acknowledged classic as both screenwriter and director, with a star-studded cast, to boot – some of whom (including Gerwig herself) may well find themselves in the running for awards consideration.
The titular “little women” are the March sisters: Jo (Saoirse Ronan), Meg (Emma Watson), Amy (Florence Pugh), and Beth (Eliza Scanlan). While their father (Bob Odenkirk) is away fighting the Civil War, they’ve become quite self-sufficient, thanks in large part to their mother, the tirelessly benevolent Marmie (Laura Dern), whose wisdom and compassion they’ve clearly inherited.
Gerwig clearly revels in the period trappings of the film, which boasts first-rate production design, lush cinematography by Yorick Le Saux, gorgeous costumes by Oscar winner Jacqueline Durran (2013’s Anna Karenina), and an appropriately rich score by two-time Oscar winner Alexandre Desplat (2015’s The Grand Budapest Hotel and 2017’s The Shape of Water). This is truly an example where the money’s where it belongs – on the screen.
Timothee Chalamet is particularly good as Laurie, the handsome young neighbor who simply can’t resist the March sisters, Meryl Streep dithers delightfully as the bossy and eccentric Aunt March, and Chris Cooper is noteworthy as Laurie’s father, a character sometimes overlooked in earlier versions of this oft-told tale. The leading ladies have a relaxed and appropriate sisterly chemistry. It’s important to note that, although earlier adaptations veered into soap-opera territory, this one admirably refrains from that.
In an effort to perhaps put a fresh spin on the familiar narrative, Gerwig adopts a non-linear approach that shifts back and forth chronologically, often making an already episodic storyline even more so and occasionally hampering the cumulative impact. Gerwig’s attempt to “mix things up,” as it were, aren’t always successful, but it’s easy to applaud the attempt, which is undoubtedly sincere, and in the end, she has made quite a respectable, and quite respectful, version of Little Women.
See Mark Burger’s reviews of current movies on Burgervideo.com. ©2020, Mark Burger.