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Friday, December 20, 2019

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker



The Last Skywalker

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is everything: the conclusion of the 42-year, 9-film Skywalker Saga, the last of the Disney sequel trilogy, the death of cinema, the end of the Star Wars franchise (to hear some lament it), the biggest, craziest, balls-to-the-wall, overstuffed, most ridiculous Star Wars movie of all - take your pick. Hell, take more than one thing. The Rise of Skywalker is like one of those booths where you stand still and money flies around you - in this case, instead of money, it's Star Wars references and your nerd love itself for the galaxy far, far away - and you just grab everything you can to keep as yours. It's not a movie as much as it is a checklist the length of a CVS receipt. It is a jaw-dropping disaster from a structural, screenwriting, and editing (certain) point of view. Overflowing with a trilogy's worth of half-baked ideas, it is hellbent on cramming anything and everything - this is "the last one", after all - into a manic 2 1/2 hour runtime. It is the light and the dark. It is a mess. So, I, uh... I kinda loved it.

Full disclosure: After falling deliriously in love with Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which reignited the warm, fuzzy feels of the Force inside me that I hadn't felt since I was a child, sometime after the toxic malaise surrounding Star Wars: The Last Jedi and the who-gives-a-shit failure of Solo: A Star Wars Story, I became emotionally divested from Star Wars. I've never given a whiff (or a Whill) for the expanded universe; I only like the movies but I don't really care about the galaxy far, far away like so many seem to. Therefore, whatever director J.J. Abrams ended up doing with The Rise of Skywalker, as long as the damn thing didn't bore me, I figured I'd be fine. Well, The Rise of Skywalker wasn't boring, I'll tell you that much. Half the time, I had no idea what was going on or why the characters were doing what they were doing to get this ludicrous movie from plot point to plot point, but never once was I bored. And there were even moments, like when Rey (Daisy Ridley, as beautiful and wildly charismatic as ever) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver, probably in his trailer complaining to his agent after every "CUT!") Force dueled over an escaping transport and Rey shot Force lightning from her hands, that I gasped in delight. Because I was having fun thanks to being gobsmacked at this insane movie relentlessly going for broke every single second.

The screenplay by Chris Terrio and J.J. Abrams is like a fairly decent second draft that needed a serious polish but instead got workshopped by a bunch of eleven-year-olds. To recount the plot would lead me to madness but, suffice to say, somehow Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) is still alive because some Sith weirdos cloned him but they cloned him to still be a decrepit old man for some reason. Not unlike how Spectre retconned Daniel Craig's (himself a Star Wars veteran) James Bond movies so Blofeld (Christoph Waltz) was the main villain all along, Palpatine is now the man who was behind everything from Ben Solo's fall to the Dark Side to become Kylo Ren to Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong'o) losing her goggles, probably. Palpatine has been busy in the last 30 years not just being alive but also somehow building a gigantic fleet called the Final Order where every Star Destroyer now has a planet-killing Death Star laser cannon. What's the plan, Sheev, you mastermind? Blow up every planet in the galaxy so no one has anywhere to live except Star Destroyers? Probably. Doesn't matter. Palpatine gives Kylo Ren marching orders: kill Rey. Except he doesn't really want Rey killed; he needs her to transfer his life essence into so she can become Empress Palpatine. For you see, Rey's full name is Rey Palpatine and she's Sheev's granddaughter. Whatever I feel about this (I feel fine), it's washed down with a spoonful of sugar because Jodie Comer from Killing Eve cameos as Rey's Mom (for me, personally, this is the best thing in the movie).

It's cool to see Rey running off into a breakneck, fly-by-the-seat-of-their-pants adventure with Finn (John Boyega), Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), BB-8, C-3P0 (Anthony Daniels), and their new Droid friend D/O (who I loved). R2D2 got left behind because too many Droids, I guess? Who can say? Things just have to keep moving, everyone has lots of places to be. From a new desert planet to a new seedy underworld planet to the old forest moon of Endor, Rey and the Gang are busy bees and they even break into Kylo Ren's personal Star Destroyer for reasons I can no longer remember, if I even knew what they were to begin with. Regardless, Rey is chasing after a McGuffin, a Sith wayfinder device that points the way to Palpatine. Lots of crazy stuff happens like mind-wiping Threepio, meeting a new helmeted ally and ex-flame (?) of Poe's named Zorri Bliss (Keri Russell), and Rey Force healing a giant snake that wandered in from the Harry Potter set. On Endor, Finn - who spends the whole movie trying to tell Rey a secret and then never actually getting to say it - meets another ex-Stormtrooper named Jannah (Naomi Ackie) while Rey briefly fights herself as Dark Rey before spending a lot longer fighting Kylo Ren on the ruins of the Death Star. That is, until General Leia Organa (the late Carrie Fisher worked in as smoothly as possible using old footage) decides to give her life to briefly distract her son so Rey can kill him. But, like many other deaths in this movie, it's a fakeout that doesn't stick.

For the record: people who died in The Rise of Skywalker but came back to life: Rey, Kylo Ren (mortally wounded but healed), Chewbacca (believed dead but wasn't). People who died for reals: Leia, Ben Solo, General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson), Allegiant General Pryde (Richard E. Grant), Palpatine, Snap Wexley (Greg Grunberg). People who were dead but showed up as ghosts: Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill, who can do shit as a Force ghost like catch a lightsaber and raise his own X-Wing from the sea), Han Solo (Harrison Ford - which I really liked even if it makes maybe less sense than the stuff ghost Luke did). Geez, I haven't even mentioned Billy Dee Williams returning as Lando Calrissian or all of the guest voice cameos like Hayden Christensen as Anakin Skywalker, Ewan McGregor and Alec Guinness as Obi-Wan Kenobi, Samuel L. Jackson as Mace Windu, and Liam Neeson as Qui-Gon Jinn. I mean, this movie is, as stated before, ridiculous, but it's the 'last one' so whatever, throw it all in there, who gives a shit? Oh, Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) is in this too and she got seriously turfed because they couldn't think of anything for her to do. But at least there were more space horses in this movie. Oh my God, the Knights of Ren were in this too and boy, weren't they just worth the wait? 

And yet, it all comes down to Rey, the hero of this saga, facing off against her grandfather Emperor Palpatine alongside the newly redeemed Ben Solo while the biggest fleet of Star Destroyers ever takes on the biggest fleet of Rebel ships ever. After she saves the galaxy, knowing full well that the last name "Palpatine" would lead to doors all over the galaxy slammed in her face, Rey adopts the slightly less tainted last name Skywalker, thereby inheriting everything that was her grandfather's and everything passed down from Anakin to his twin children to Leia's prodigal son - and she deserves it. A constant theme in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is characters announcing, "If this doesn't work, everything we did will have been for nothing" and the movie itself seems to be desperately aware of this too. So, did it work? Did this bombastic, turducken of a final film deliver? As someone who truly likes Rey, my agenda of Give Rey Everything was completely shared by J.J. Abrams. By the end, Rey is the Last Jedi, the first of the new Jedi, she gets her first kiss (finally!), and she even visits the old Lars/Skywalker homestead on Tatooine and looks at the setting twin suns with BB-8 at her side. So, for me, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker worked as well as it possibly could have. I wish Rey Skywalker the best and look forward to seeing her again someday because, as The Rise of Skywalker reminds us, no one's ever really gone.

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Watchmen HBO


I didn't expect to become fascinated by Damon Lindelof's Watchmen on HBO but the new series has enthralled me. I'm in, wherever the show takes me, I'm in. Here are my collected Screen Rant Features about Watchmen, the world, and the characters - because nothing ever ends.

Friday, November 22, 2019

Frozen II



Frozen II is the Beverly Hills Cop II of the Frozen franchise. It's not as good as the original Frozen but at least it's not a complete retread. Gorgeously animated but with a curiously flat story, Frozen II reunites the entire cast and digs deeper into the mythology and origin of Elsa's (Idina Menzel) awesome powers as well as what happened to the parents of Elsa and Anna (Kristen Bell), who were lost at sea six years prior. "Their parents are dead," Olaf the Snowman (Josh Gad) helpfully reminds everyone as part of multiple callbacks to the first movie, which really only serves to remind everyone how much better Frozen was. 

Picking up the story three years after Elsa was crowned Queen of Arendelle, things are going pretty well for Elsa and Anna but autumn is coming and the cold winds are rising. In his few years of being alive, living in a castle, and being part of Elsa and Anna's 90210 gang along with Anna's boyfriend Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) and his reindeer Sven, Olaf has hilariously mastered gallows humor and muses about everyone's mortality. (Olaf's observations about the inevitability of death are the best jokes in the movie.) Meanwhile, Elsa is hearing voices - a literal siren song coming from the sea - but typically, she doesn't tell anyone until the elements literally attack Arendelle and force an evacuation. Earth, Wind, Fire, and Water aren't just a Motown band in the 1980s, they're spirits that have come to right a terrible wrong, and it all ties into a deep dark secret from Arendelle's past and Elsa and Anna's family. Elsa, Anna, Kristoff, Sven, and Olaf venture into an enchanted forest to get some answers and run into some weird stuff: a tribe called the Northultrans and a battalion of Arendelle's soldiers who have been trapped in the forest for the last 34 years but their uniforms and appearance look good as new.

Everything ties into an incident between Arendelle and the Northuldrans three decades prior that led to war between the two peoples. The mystery plays into how Elsa and Anna's father, King Agnarr (Alfred Molina) met their mother Queen Iduna (Evan Rachel Wood) and how the sisters are actually the product of a union between the two peoples because it turns out Iduna is Northuldran - a fact that apparently was never mentioned before to anyone in Arendelle because Elsa and Anna had no idea. In fact, the sisters know next to nothing about their parents and they also had no clue what a bastard their grandfather King Runeard (Jeremy Sisto) was. A lot of discovery of inconvenient truths happened for Elsa and Anna but they took most of it in stride. Anna also mostly takes Elsa once again pushing her away and going off solo to the magical island of Ahtohallan - the secret source of Elsa's magical powers - in stride. Well, Anna was pissed but she winds up saving the day when she figures out the great dam King Runeard built for the Northuldrans is really the thing that's killing the magic in the forest. 

Frozen II has a handful of awesome action sequences: Elsa using her powers to cross the sea and tame Nokk, the water spirit in the form of a magical seahorse, Anna provoking the enormous stone giants to break the dam by throwing boulders, and Elsa racing to save Arendelle from a tsunami that would level the kingdom are all incredible to behold. There are also several laugh-out-loud moments, mostly from Olaf's one-liners. A scene in Ahtohallan where Elsa moves through ice sculptures of her past and she shudders at the memory of herself singing "Let It Go" scores a good knowing laugh. But the thing is, Frozen II desperately needed "Let It Go" or a new song of that caliber. Say what you will about "Let It Go" but once you hear it, you'll remember that song for the rest of your life, and the same can be said for some of Frozen's other songs. Frozen II is nearly wall-to-wall songs but none of them are memorable, not even the three that get repeated during the closing credits. Frozen II's songs end up being mostly expository but they're instantly forgettable; like an ice sculpture set upon by a blowtorch, it's like they were never there at all.

The payoff for Frozen II's mysteries turns out to be exactly what you'd expect if you took even a wild guess at who Queen Iduna really is or who really started the war between Arendelle and the Northuldrans, and the answers don't come off as satisfying, much less surprising. The movie has no actual villains and it's also weirdly paced, with a meandering second act that has some of the characters like Kristoff left with literally nothing to do until every character is called upon to do One Specific Thing to get the story to the finish line. The movie's ending also feels almost as rushed as the final season of Game of Thrones; the last ten minutes of the movie feature several resurrections (Elsa, Olaf) and massive paradigm shifts (Kristoff proposes to Anna, Anna is now Queen of Arendelle, Elsa has a new life as the superpowered protector of the forest) that whiz by without the movie properly establishing what each change really means. (For example, are the people of Arendelle cool with the sudden switch of queens? Wait, did Anna and Kristoff get married? Is he the king now?). As Frozen II ends, Olaf asks if nearly all of them getting killed is going to be a regular thing and Elsa answers, "No, this is it for us." That's probably for the best, especially for the perpetually alarmed and confused people of Arendelle because it's been a weird six years for them and their idyllic seaside Northern hamlet may not be able to handle a Frozen III.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Terminator: Dark Fate



The venerable science fiction series about villainous killer robots, Battlestar Galactica, has a saying: "All of this has happened before, all of it will happen again." This credo also applies to producer James Cameron and Deadpool director Tim Miller's Terminator: Dark Fate, which, if you were to ask them, is Terminator 3. What's that, you say? There already was a Terminator 3? Silly rabbit, there have been several Terminator 3s: in order of release, this includes the Universal Studios theme park ride Terminator 2 3D: Battle Across Time (which boasted the three stars of Terminator 2: Judgment Day in its cast), then 2003's Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, then 2008's TV series Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. Three separate timelines, three sequels to Terminator 2. Well, Terminator: Dark Fate says to throw them all in a vat of molten metal and toss in 2009's Terminator: Salvation and 2015's Terminator: Genisys for good measure. None of them count anymore. There's only one Terminator 3 now and it's Terminator: Dark Fate, got it? Come with it if you want to live.

Like nearly every Terminator movie, Terminator: Dark Fate rehashes all of the (all-too) familiar beats of the original 1984 film, The Terminator: A killer cyborg from the future is sent to kill an innocent young woman who is destined to make a difference in a future war against the machines. The ragtag human resistance sends a lone warrior, a protector for that woman. This time, the target is a Mexican girl named Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes) and her protector is Grace (Mackenzie Davis), an augmented human who can physically go toe-to-toe with a Terminator... for a little while. As a badass action heroine, Davis does her best in the reimagined and gender-swapped Kyle Reese with robot muscles role but, through no fault of her own, she ends up being overshadowed by the franchise all-stars, Linda Hamilton and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Coming for their heads is the newest Terminator model, the Rev-9 (Diego Luna) and, since this is the new Terminator 3, it's basically a newer version of the T-X (Kristanna Loken) from T3; the twist is that the Rev-9 can separate its liquid metal form (icky black goo like Venom, this time, instead of cool silver mercury) from its endoskeleton so they can tag team some humans. Luna plays the Rev-9 with a little bit of charm and it integrates better with humans than any other Terminator model in the movies. However, despite all of its abilities and killing power, the Rev-9 gets smacked around a lot and, amusingly, it seems to get real frustrated at how its targets uncooperatively won't let it do its job and terminate them. The climactic showdown even starts with the Rev-9 urging those defiantly-unwilling-to-die humans to just give up already. It's weird to see a Terminator negotiate terms after chasing them from Mexico City to Laredo, Texas. But what would have made Dark Fate really super-duper great is if the Rev-9's liquid metal form talked to his endoskeleton and they bantered and complained about what a pain in the ass this mission is.

Meanwhile, Hamilton reprises her role as a grizzled, grey-haired, heavily-armed Sarah Connor. A lifetime of fighting Terminators has ravaged her once-youthful looks and Sarah is more tragic than ever because, after everything she went through in the first two films, it turns out Skynet sent multiple Terminators after her son John Connor (Edward Furlong, who reappears as a 14-year-old via digital wizardry). A couple of years after they stopped Judgment Day in T2, one of those Terminators (Schwarzenegger) caught up with them at a Guatemalan beach and put a cap in John. And thus, the franchise that could never figure out what to do with John Connor followed the example set by Terminator: Genisys and got rid of him, seemingly for good. After all, there's no need for John Connor to lead the Resistance in a future that's now null and void. After John literally bit the bullet, Sarah spent the last 22 years following the marching orders of a mysterious sender of text messages; every text was the coordinates of where a Terminator was and Sarah somehow terminated all those Terminators all by her lonesome. Okay, sure. When one particular text sends her to Mexico City (she's wanted in all 50 states), Sarah Connor runs across Dani and Grace and finds herself involved in a brand new battle to save the future - but it's one that, for once, she isn't the centerpiece of.

Miller's Dark Fate serviceably checks off all the boxes in the Terminator movie checklist: naked Terminator coming through a time bubble, check. A car chase with the Rev-9, check. "I'll be back!" (said by Sarah this time), check. And so forth. For the most part, the tropes are done pretty well but Dark Fate also feels rote and overly mechanical because it's all too familiar. Still, even though it takes two-thirds of the movie to be over until he shows up, the highlight of Dark Fate turns out to be Arnold Schwarzenegger, who once more plays the classic Cyberdyne Systems Model 101 series T-800 Terminator... named Carl. Yes, he is the same Terminator who killed John Connor in Guatemala (something Sarah, understandably, has a hard time letting go of) but after that, Carl, a 72-year-old Terminator, gets interesting!

With his mission over - in fact, now that the timeline has been rejiggered, Carl is the only Terminator who has ever successfully accomplished a mission to terminate a target (but he's not one to brag) - and no Skynet in the future to come back to, Carl realized he has the rest of his life ahead of him. So he did what no other Terminator has done: he found himself a woman, helped her raise her kid, got a job cleaning drapes, bought a house, started drinking beer and watching football, and waited for Sarah Connor to show up in his doorway one day. What's great about Carl is that even though he terminated John Connor, he actually fulfilled everything John tried to teach his T-800 in T2: Carl learned the value of human life. Further, Carl felt such remorse for killing John that he was the one who secretly sent Sarah all of those texts telling her where all the other Terminators were. (He could have helped her hunt them too but that's neither here nor there.) As Carl, Schwarzenegger finally finds a new way to have fun playing the Terminator and, as he correctly points out, he is extremely funny. But he's also ready to join Sarah, Grace, and Dani to do some terminating and future-saving because once a Terminator, always a Terminator.

Unfortunately, Dark Fate's final act is actually its worst: the climactic action sequences involving the Rev-9 fighting all of the humans in a cargo plane, the humans escaping in a humvee that plummets into a lake, and then everyone fighting the Rev-9 in a hydroelectric dam ('the killbox') is so badly shot and staged, it's literally an excruciating eyesore to look at. Not to mention the frenetic action really should have killed everyone, especially old lady Sarah, long before they got to the dam. Regardless, when the T-800 and the Rev-9 go Terminator e Terminator some of the old thrills do emerge, especially during Carl's final sacrifice to save his human friends. Thematically, Dark Fate ends with a cool twist where Dani isn't the new Sarah Connor, she's actually the new John Connor, destined to be the leader of humanity in the future war against the new Skynet (which is called Legion in 2042). When Sarah and Grace end up being the final two left alive, the switcheroo that Sarah kind of spiritually gets her son John back in the form of Dani and Sarah gets to teach her how to be the future leader of humanity is a rather nice and poignant touch.

Ultimately, bringing James Cameron back to the franchise indeed worked necessary wonders because, at its best moments, Dark Fate does legitimately feel like a real Terminator movie and not like the clunky fan fiction the scrap heaps of Rise of the Machines, Salvation, and especially Genisys felt like. All in all, like a slightly better version of a cell phone, Terminator: Dark Fate does turn out to be an upgrade as the new Terminator 3, if only incrementally. While it wraps up in a tidy fashion, Dark Fate's ending leaves the door open for another movie, unfortunately, and it's not hard to imagine that, despite Carl's promise that he "won't be back", somehow they can finagle Arnold to come back again for another one if Dark Fate makes money. So, now that the newest model of Terminator 3 has arrived and doesn't completely suck, the next step (if there is one) for the franchise is finally stop rebooting Terminator 3 and start rebooting Terminator 4.

Friday, October 4, 2019




Watching Joker, I imagined how his Gotham arch criminal cohort, Harvey Two-Face, must feel like all the time. I was of two minds watching director Todd Philips' film: it's impossible to deny that Joker is a stunning cinematic achievement from an acting, direction, production, and cinematography standpoint. Joker creates a startlingly authentic Gotham City (New York City overdosed on steroids and vomit) circa 1981 and plunges a degenerate fiend into the very heart of it. Alternately, Joker is a grotesque journey into that degenerate fiend's heart and mind; sometimes the movie asks you to empathize or sympathize with Joker and his miserable - unfair in certain ways - existence, but in the end, it's impossible to (and if it isn't, if you agree with Joker, please keep it to yourself). Joker is the riveting and absorbing tale of who the murder clown is and how he came to be but, to quote his predecessor Jack Nicholson's Joker 30 years ago, "I didn't ask."

A supernatural Joaquin Phoenix stars as Arthur Fleck, the sad sack who is destined to become the Joker. Life hasn't been good to him; physically and psychologically abused as a child, Arthur developed a neurological condition that makes him laugh hysterically at inappropriate times. He's on 7 different types of medication and none of it seems to help. Perpetually down on his luck, misunderstood, and offputting, the laughter makes him a pariah and a target of ridicule and abuse. He's eternally puffing on a cigarette held by fingers with nails he's chewed off. Arthur dreams of "bringing joy and laughter into the world" by becoming a standup comedian but he is the opposite of funny. Scoping out nightclubs and scribbling notes and his own original "jokes" as he surveys stand up comedians, Arthur can, at best, replicate the physical beats but he has no understanding of actual humor. Yet, Arthur worships Gotham's favorite late-night talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro) and yearns to be his guest and make the audience laugh.

Instead, Arthur ekes out a grim and thankless living as a clown for hire until, one day, he brings a loaded gun into a children's hospital, which gets him fired. This puts his dire financial situation in even more jeopardy since he is the lone caregiver of his elderly and sick mother, Penny Fleck (Frances Conroy). Mother Fleck subsists by writing desperate letters to Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), Gotham's top billionaire who's making a bid to become Mayor; Penny was a maid for the Waynes in the 1950s and claims that Arthur, whom she nicknamed Happy, is Thomas' bastard son. She dreams, in vain, of the great Thomas Wayne whisking them both away from their squalor.

One night on a train, Arthur's uncontrollable laughter provokes three drunken Wayne Finance stockbrokers who were about to molest an innocent woman. The assholes violently attack Arthur, who pulls out his gun and shoots them all dead - this is the flashpoint that gives birth to the Joker, or rather, released the Joker within Arthur - while also setting off a powderkeg in Gotham. Suddenly, Gotham's underclass regard the Clown Vigilante as a hero, which sparks protests and riots with hundreds of people donning clown masks. To Arthur, it means he's finally being seen and he takes it as proof of his existence. But when he discovers that his mother believes he's the son of Thomas Wayne, Arthur decides to visit Wayne Manor: he gets as far as the gate but he meets the 8-year-old Bruce Wayne (Dante Pereira-Olson), who is destined to be his greatest enemy in a future we'll never see (of this version anyway), but we also know Batman and Joker are destined to do that dance forever. When Arthur forces his way into Wayne Hall to confront Thomas Wayne, his "father" (who really isn't) disappoints him with a punch to the face. The final straw that breaks Arthur and turns him into Joker is when he learns his mother was an inmate in Arkham State Hospital, was delusional about Thomas, adopted young Arthur, and she stood by while he was abused as a child. Admittedly, matricide is a crime the Joker hadn't committed before but Joker checks that off his long list of career murders.

Powerfully (and quite obviously) evoking producer Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, the newly and fully clownified Joker achieves his dream of appearing on The Murray Franklin Show. To say Joker a nightmare guest is an understatement but it's in the crucial final act that Joker and Joker shift the blame fully onto society for his crimes and murders. It's true Gotham's brutality bears the brunt of the blame for Arthur Fleck's miserable life but his multiple murders are, ultimately, no one's fault but Joker's. And yet, rather sickeningly, Joker is held up as a hero, applauded by the clown-masked rioters who have 'taken Gotham back' in their "Kill The Rich" riots - which includes Thomas and Martha Wayne (Carrie Louise Putrello), who are shot dead in an alleyway by a Joker acolyte (as they are destined to be), leaving young Bruce an orphan. 

What we're left with at the end of Joker is the awe that is due for an admittedly mesmerizing display of cinema attempting to elevate the 'comic book movie' to the level of high art coupled with the harrowing feeling of watching an empty vessel caked in clown makeup murdering people who 'aren't nice to him' unchallenged. There's nothing aspirational or inspirational in the Joker's origin and his self-actualization is Joker embracing his destiny as a homicidal maniac, so... ha ha? Altogether, Joker is simultaneously enthralling and disturbing, absorbing and repellant. Most of all, Joker illustrates how much he needs Batman and, further, how much any Joker story needs the counterbalance of Batman - even more specifically, Joker proves how much we, the audience, need to see the Joker punched in the face by Batman over and over. Many Bat times and many Bat punches.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Downton Abbey



Downton Abbey, creator Julian Fellowes and director Michael Engler's splendid feature film of the Emmy and Golden Globe award-winning TV series, is a pristine snowglobe where you peer into a lost and impossibly luxurious world that may never have existed quite like that but that's escapism of fantasy, isn't it? Downton Abbey picks up 18 months after the series finale and continues the stories of the Crawley family upstairs and the dauntless servants who live downstairs. As always, there's so much to do and there's no time for introductions; just as one cannot simply enter the magnificent estate of Downton Abbey and poke around willy-nilly, the film isn't for first-timers or someone just wandering in off the street. You have to know your Lady Marys from your Mr. Molesleys to truly appreciate what's happening. Downton Abbey may be for fans only but for the devotees, this is a glorious reunion that puts everyone's best foot forward.

When Downton Abbey begins, tremendous news arrives: King George V (Simon Jones) and Queen Mary (Geraldine James) are touring Yorkshire in the North of England and will stay at Downton for the night. This is a great honor for the Crawley family - Robert, the Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), Cora, Countess of Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern), Lady Mary Talbot (Michelle Dockery), Tom Branson (Allen Leech), and Violet, the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) - but for the servants below-stairs, the arrival of the Royal staff only means one thing: invasion. Chuffed that the Royal Family will sample their food and hospitality, Downton's irrepressible servants Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan), Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nichol), Daisy (Sophie McShera), Andy the Footman (Michael Fox), Mr. Molesley (Kevin Doyle), Mrs. Baxter (Racquel Cassidy), Anna (Joanne Froggatt) and Mr. Bates (Brendan Coyle) are furious when Mr. Wilson, the Royal Butler (David Haig) and the snooty Royal Chef Monsieur Courbet (Philippe Spall) lay down a new pecking order: they have all been replaced by the King's men and women. Meanwhile, Lady Mary is concerned that Barrow (Robert James-Collier) isn't up to snuff as Downton's butler and recruits Carson (Jim Carter) to return to lead the staff and defend Downton's reputation. Carson, surprisingly, finds himself in over his head but so does Barrow, who discovers his first gay night club and gets himself in trouble. Luckily, his new friend, the King's valet Mr. Ellis (Max Brown) is there to bail him out. 

While all that happens downstairs, there's plenty of drama upstairs. Indeed, Downton Abbey has more characters and concurrent storylines than Avengers: Endgame. Violet is ready for a confrontation when she hears her distant cousin Lady Maud Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton) is joining the King and Queen at Downton; Bagshaw refuses to name Robert Crawley the heir to her estate and instead plans to leave it all to her maid Lucy (Tuppance Middleton) - which prompts Isobel, Baroness Merton (Penelope Wilton), Violet's best frenemy, to serve as peacemaker. Captain Chetwode (Stephen Campbell Moore), a mystery man, recruits Branson - who's both Lord Grantham's son-in-law and an Irish Republican - for some sort of plot against the King. Edith, now Marchioness of Hexam (Laura Carmichael), arrives with her husband Bertie, the Marquess of Hexam (Harry Hadden-Paton) with happy news that she's pregnant but she receives unhappy news that the King requires Bertie to go on a tour of Africa just as their child will be born. The Crawleys also learn that Princess Mary (Kate Phillips) is unhappy in her marriage - oh, the Royals! They're just like us!

With so many characters and stories and so much opulence and pageantry, it's fascinating who falls into mere supporting roles (Lord Grantham, Mr. Bates) and who emerges to the forefront. As much as anyone's, the movie belongs to Tom Branson, Daisy, and Anna Bates. Anna masterminds the defense of "the glory of Downton". She leads the revolution downstairs where Downton's staff engineers the dismissal of the King's people so that they would have the honor of cooking and serving the royal dinner - which Mr. Molesley almost ruins in the film's most gasp-inducing moment. Daisy, more confident and spirited than ever, reveals that she's not a monarchist and asserts herself throughout the film before deciding it's time to marry Andy (a story thread that will perhaps be picked up in a sequel). And cheerful, noble Branson is literally the hero of the hour: he prevents a dastardly assassination plot on the King and finds a new romance with Lucy, who, it really comes as no surprise to anyone who remembers Lady Edith's storyline with Marigold, is actually Lady Bagshaw's daughter. Of course, if Tom marries Lucy, her vast inheritance would go to him - a delicious scheme Violet is calculatedly perpetrating from the shadows. Speaking of Violet, there's a moment between her and Lady Mary that harkens back to Spock telling Valeris that she is meant to succeed him in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country that's both sad and lovely - no doubt, it will work out better for the Crawleys than it did the Vulcans.

Despite the rich drama (and the notable absences of Lily James as Lady Rose and Samantha Bond as Aunt Rosamund), there is lovely heart and humor all throughout Downton Abbey and nary a villain to be found upstairs. Even the King and Queen turn out to be decent and affable people who are "quite used to people acting strangely" around them. Indeed, the film, like Downton Abbey the series, is about second chances, looking closer past a facade to find the (often beautiful) truth underneath, and celebrating people above and below, in all stations of life. Thankfully, Downton Abbey saw no need to reinvent the wheel or transform what the series was into something it isn't to please the masses. As a feature film adaptation of a beloved TV series, Downton Abbey is superior to and more fulfulling than its peers like X-Files: Fight The Future, Star Trek Generations, and the Veronica Mars movie. Downton Abbey, like the great house, the Crawley family, and the traditions they cling to, refuses to change (too much) and, in these troubled times, that's its greatest and most reassuring strength.