Sunday, February 16, 2020

My Top Ten Films of 2019

               And now, the last chapter. With all awards, yes, even the (amazingly good this time!) Oscars accounted for and my Top Score list out, here it is. My final take on the films of 2019.

               It was a year that, a few exceptions aside, felt rather empty and slow until the very end, when a crush of amazing films all came out at once. Still, this year it was a rather easy and straightforward process for me to make this list. As always, the ranking are my own and purely subjective, so absence from this list in no way means I didn't like whatever movie you now hate me for not granting a top spot to. Let's get to it!

Honorable Mentions: Tell Me Who I Am (documentary), The Irishman, 1917, I Lost My Body, Boy Soldiers: The Secret War in Okinawa (documentary), A Hidden Life

10. How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World (Dean DeBlois)

               Last chance for me to get this franchise on a Top Ten list, and I ain't wasting it. All things considered, the first film probably remains the best on an individual level, but the degree to which this final installment committed in following through on not ending with easy solutions, or things turning out the way the heroes hoped. There is always new life and new love, but growing up in this world involves risk, and risk can't always be faced without losing something one holds dear, and can never really have back again. Never before has the story of a boy and his dragon been told so truly and honestly.

9. Us (Jordan Peele)

               Peele's follow-up to his Oscar-winning debut Get Out might not be on quite the same epic level- though to be honest, that's par for the course when directors try to follow a career-defining masterpiece- but Us is still a challenging, unique use of the horror genre to force the audience to question the complicated interactions between race, class, and personal trauma in American society. All while finding yet more ways to make shots of nothing more than a person's eyes genuinely horrifying. Lupita Nyong'o adds another masterful double-lead performance to her resume, further establishing herself as one of the most insanely capable actresses in the business today. I could watch these two team up forever.

8. John Wick 3- Parabellum (Chad Stahelski)

               The John Wick franchise continues to be an insanely fun, no-holds-barred reinvention of the 80's genre of Unstoppable Action Demigods. Keanu Reeves and his crew have mansged to not only reestablish himself as a star presence in the world, but to also provide some of the most gripping, astounding, and influential action sequences in the game this side of the superhero arena. Each film finds more ways to leave action fans like myself gaping in awe and wondering, "Who the hell thought THAT up?" It's silly, it's so over-the-top, and I am so here for it.

7. Knives Out (Rian Johnson)

               Rian Johnson not only did not let the utterly depressing level of hate The Last Jedi received get to him, he came right back out of the gate swinging with his next film. Knives Out is a broad riff on classic sleuth films, right down to gloriously pompous closing-in shots of the master detective readying his next monologue, and yet it keeps finding new ways to twist things just enough to go places you don't quite expect. The writing and filmmaking are sharp as, well, knives, and the entire cast is game, especially the lovely Ana de Armas and Chris Evans doing a far, far better job of casting off his Avengers persona than Robert Downey Jr.

6. Marriage Story (Noah Baumbach)

               Noah Baumbach uses his own personal history to help fuel arguably the best film he's yet made, headlined by Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson giving some of the best performances they've yet achieved, and supported by a rock-solid supporting cast, especially the Oscar-winning Laura Dern. Loaded with filmmaking choices, writing, and nuanced bits of acting that fill out the screen with a wealth of detail about two mostly-sympathetic people utterly failing to bring their lives back together- plus one of the year's best scores- you can't help but get swept up by the emotions driving the story to its painful (though not hopeless) end.

5. Little Women (Greta Gerwig)

               Greta Gerwig continues to amaze, and Saoirse Ronan continues to refuse to give me my heart back. I've still not read the original novel, nor have I seen any of the other classic adaptations, so I came into this film entirely new, and it swept me right off my feet, as if I, too, were dancing with Jo and Laurie on a darkened porch in the middle of a party. This film is imbibed with a love of the drive and passion that leads people to create, and, most crucially, allows space for both the disappointment and the elation that the process of creating and trying to find success brings. It is a tender and loving story of people, trying to live and thrive amidst disappointment and struggle, and I simply adored it.

4. The Lighthouse (Robert Eggers)

               Hark, those who may enter here, for toxic men we are, and toxic men we is! This most twisted and deranged film of the year, featuring a dynamite duo of Pattinson and Dafoe, can be interpreted on so many levels, a whole treatise could be written on how the film manages to work in themes of mental illness, repressed sexuality, restrictive and nonsensical social mores, toxic masculinity, and even Greek mythology into one incredible filmgoing experience. Brilliantly shot in a square frame, using black-and-white imagery and featuring meticulously researched dialogue, this film works as a period piece, as a blackbox character drama, and as a Lovecraftian Fantasy/Horror mashup all at once. Let no one dare question the quality of this film's lobster.

3. Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Celine Sciamma)

               This is one of those rare films that is simply perfect- every piece of dialogue, every shot, the framing of every scene, how lighting and music are used, how themes of fear, longing, and loss are woven into every bit of the film's fabric- all of it fits seamlessly together into the whole. Masterfully paced, directed, and acted, this is a French lesbian love story that puts male-gaze-oriented films like Blue Is The Warmest Color to absolute shame. Not that the film is modest- not at all- but the more downplayed way it paints the growing emotional (and eventually, physical) passion of its heroines is all the more potently erotic as a result. After seeing this, I knew I would never be able to listen to Vivaldi the same way again.

2. Parasite (Bong Joon-ho)

               Ah what joy, when the top Oscars actually go to one of the year's best and most ambitious films! For one glorious year, justice reigned, for Parasite truly is one of the year's absolute best, a cinematic tour de force that swings wildly from genre to genre and tone to tone without ever losing control of itself. Beyond its qualifications as an excellent film, impeachable as they are, the movie also has an awful lot of sociopolitical commentary packed into it, a direct challenge to notions of capitalistic meritocracy that suffuse every frame, especially in its bonkers second half.

1. Jupiter's Moon (Kornel Mundruczo)

               I still can't believe it, but somehow, a Hungarian director following up a film about a literal dog uprising with one about a Syrian refugee ended up making possibly the best Superman film yet made. Combining hard-core, ground-level commentary on the plight of refugees and discrimination within modern Europe with flights of visual fantasy, there is no other film that uses the both the concept of flying and literal flight quite like this. This film has only gotten extremely limited distribution and so far, almost no one has seen it, which is a crying shame, because, like Parasite, this is one of those gems everyone needs to experience.

-Noah Franc

Friday, February 14, 2020

My Top Film Scores of 2019

               At long last, it is time; as much fun as I have piecing together my Top Ten Best Films list each year, I get just as much joy out of revisiting the best in new music from the year, since film music continues to be one of the most underappreciated plaes for original music these days. For my money, these were the films that had the most memorable musical contributions that not only made their respective films better, but stand out on their own as amazing artistic creations in their own right.  Let's begin.

8. 1917 (Thomas Newman)

               Much like the film itself, the score for 1917 really kicks into high gear when the main characters embark on their mission and enter the utter hellscape of No Man's Land. The entire sequence of them picking their way, step by excruciating step, through wave after wave of death and destruction, was made all the more intense by the music laying on an extra layer of unease and dread about what lay around every corner.

7. The Lighthouse (Mark Korven)

               What a wild, strange, bizarro, and much-needed descent into toxic, masculine madness this film was, and the booming, bleary score underlying it perfected the atmosphere. The pounding sounds of the lighthouse itself are worked into the music, boring it into out heads just as much as it bores into the detiorating mind of Robert Pattinson.

6. Star Wars, Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker (John Williams)

               Alright, we all know that TROS dropped so many balls under its own feet, it slipped hard enough to fly off into the sun, Team Rocket style. However, if one part of the film never hit a wrong note (literally!), it was- what else?- John Williams giving us the very final chapter in what is not only one of the defining works of his career, but one of the best collections of music ever written. The entire Star Wars discography, every blessed bar of it, is and shall remain untouchable.

5. I Lost My Body (Dan Levy)

               This amazing and wholle unique film (available on Netflix, so no excuses!) is a prime example of the incredible range of stories animation is able to tell. The music, a bizarre, synthetic, creation, mimics the strange vibes of the strange story, providing the perfect accompaniment.

4. Marriage Story (Randy Newman)

               The two opening sequences of this film, parellel internal reflection of two people about to get divorced about what they originally loved about the other, showcase their respective themes for the film to come. In so many ways, it's like a reversal of the famous Up opening; rich, beautiful music overlaying a montage of a married life. Except here, it's merely the prelude to a very chaotic coming apart.

3. Parasite (Jung Jae-il)

               Parasite was just about perfect in every conceivable way, and its amazing score is no exception. Like the film itself, there's not much I can say about it except, if you haven't experienced it yet for yourself, then it's time to treat yo' self.

                                    Image result for treat yo self

2. Little Women (Alexandre Desplat)

               Desplat has consistently turned in some of the best scores in film the past few years, and his work on Little Women is no exception. It has the feel of a classical hollywood soundtrack, with its broad, sweeping orchestral sound. It has an energy and a jump and a joi de vivre to it, not unlike the irrepressible souls of the titular women we see grow up over the course of the film. Little Women as a whole was another soaring height in the careers of Greta Gerwig and her cast, and the same can be said for Desplat and his music.

1. How To Train Your Dragon 3: The Hidden World (John Powell)

               Last time around to give this franchise the praise it's long deserved, particularly the singularly astounding music provided to each film by John Powell. Listening to each film's score makes me think of times and places lost to history, tinted nostalgic memories that call to me, but that can never be fully re-created. At its height, this is that rare breed of music that makes me physically feel like I am soaring over the clouds, though my feet be firmly on the ground. The movies themselves are fun and funny, but Powell's is on another level entirely. This is the sort of artistic creation human yearning is made of.

-Noah Franc

Monday, January 6, 2020

Star Wars, Episodes I through IX: The Definitive Ranking

               Well, TROS is out, and I've finally had enough time to digest the many, mostly sad feelings I had about it. I wrote in my first review of TFA, way back when it came out, that I held many reservations about the capacity of a Disney-driven new trilogy to break new ground in the Star Wars universe, especially after it proved so eager to drop the old EU like a sack of hot potatoes. And in the end, while TFA still holds up fine and TLJ has a permament place among my all-time favorite movies, many of my concerns proved prescient. After Rian Johnson left the franchise (in my own words) "freer than it's ever been going forward," the Disney Lords just couldn't let a good thing be, and I, like most, found TROS unable to bear the very, very heavy loads placed upon it.

               The good thing, as always, is that Star Wars is so large, so inimitably vast, that the good always finds a way to separate itself from the bad and endure regardless. And now that we have three whole trilogies to contemplate and compare before us, spanning over four decades of cinematic history, it's time to take stock of all that has come before. Here is, for the sake of posterity, Noah Franc's official ranking of all nine of the official Star Wars movies.  Beware, spoilers abound!  

9- Episode II: Attack of the Clones

               Yep, it's still as bad as we all remember. As someone who ended up seeing this one a lot as a kid, there are many small things around the edges of the film that I will always have a soft spot for- Christopher Lee is never boring to watch- but there is simply no getting over the movie's severe writing and story issues, coupled with a suffering main cast that at no point looks like they are having fun with any of this. The prequel trilogy were the films that (unjustly!) soured me for a very long time on Natalie Portman- it took half a decade, plus Black Swan, to finally jolt me back to my senses- and this film's entire middle act represents the nadir of her performance and the terrible writing she was saddled with. Bad writing, bad acting, horribly aged effects, this is arguably the one main Star Wars film with almost no rewatch value.

               Except for Christopher Lee and Yoda going at it with lightsabers; I will always be there for that.

8- Episode I: The Phantom Menace

               Time and hindsight have allowed many of us to mellow out and realize that the first of the prequels was neither The Worst Thing In History, nor even the worst Star Wars movie. If nothing else, it has plenty of fun stuff in the production design, Ewan McGregor as Obi-Wan is easily the most solid bit of casting in the entire prequel trilogy, and John Williams' score, though universally excellent in every Star Wars film, might just be at its best here.

               Buuuut it is still pretty bad, with a lot of terrible dialogue, uneven narrative structure, and poor casting that drags it all down pretty far into the gutter. Jar-Jar remains one of the strangest and most inexplicable creative choices in all of Lucas' career, although the toxic shit the actor was subjected to as a result is beyond excuse. It unfortunately sets a lot of the narrative stumbling blocks in place that would hamper the later film's ability to effectively tell the tragic story of Anakin Skywalker and his fall from grace.

               All that said, there is a fascinating alternate universe where just a few different choices in how this first film was structured would have made worlds of difference and may have even made the prequels pretty great. For a glimpse into what might have been, I highly recommend Belated Media's amazing series, What If The Star Wars Prequels Were Good?. I don't agree with every suggestion he makes, but the results he arrives at are pretty amazing, and would undoubtedly have made for far more challenging, memorable, and maybe even great films than the ones we ultimately got. They are absolutely worth your time.

7- Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker

               Here, too, I can envision many scenarios where just a few better, more daring creative leaps could have made this last film far more palatable to me than it was. It is, certainly, far more competently made than the prequels from a purely technical standpoint, it has plenty of individually excellent scenes, and despite plenty of rough screenwriting, the chemistry between the leads still shines in a way that of the cast in the prequels never did, espeically where Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver are concerned.

               Alas, the story ultimately veered far too far into forbidden lands trying to appease the absolute worst corners of the Star Wars fandom. A nonensicle shoehorning-in of Palpatine into a narrative that at no point needed him is never explained or handled in a way that makes a lick of sense. Force powers, though always fuzzy enough to be fitted to your story as needed, are stretched to places they never should have gone. The pacing is relentless, refusing to let up even at places where letting us breath and sink into the world a bit more would have done us good.

               For me, though, the absolute greatest sin this film commits is one of cowardice, in giving in to the worst impulses of fandom in ways that drag down and ruin the potential Rian Johnson practicaly gifted Abrams on a silver platter. The backwards-bending reveal of Rey as a "Palpatine" is neither fulfilling for her character, nor does it make any sort of in-universe logic, and is the worst sort of instinct in fantasy worlds where everyone of consequence, even in an entire galaxy to play with, must still somehow be connected with each other. Oscar Isaac has become extremely clear that he saw Poe as bisexual, and that fear from the studio executives was what prevented that promise, yearned for by so many fans, from being fully utilized. The effort at clearly making all main characters straight while tossing another stupid cameo bone to the LGBTQ community by Disney is, at this point, frankly sickening.

               The worst example, in my book, is the in-film disappearance of Rose, who has only a handful of scenes and makes no major contribution to the plot whatsoever. After Kelly Marie Tran proved one of the most delightful parts of one of the best Star Wars films ever, and after her reward for such great work was to be harassed off social media by MAGA trolls, making her just as central to the final film should have been a no-brainer. Instead, like with that fucking Ghostbusters reboot, the studio opted to "listen to the fans" instead of taking a stand of consequence.

               What a damn shame.

6- Episode III: Revenge of the Sith

               Though it still has much of the same problems that laid its predecessors low, and features some of the dumbest moments in the entire prequels trilogy, ROTS still, somehow, manages to rise above itself. It is a mess on so many levels, but 'tis a gloriously campy mess. It is, by far, the best of the prequels, and still has plenty nostalgic rewatch value. This happened to be the first Star Wars movie I ever saw on the big screen, and it left a powerful impression on me, one that later awareness of the film's problems could never wholly dent. Lucas always had an ability, at his best, to provide images that can stick in the mind for a lifetime, and he recaptures just enough of that magic in the last Star Wars film he ever ended up making.

               Unlike the two other prequels, where the action beats usually ended up being dreary, CGI-laden messes, a lot of the fights in ROTS are coherent and thrilling enough to still be fun to watch, despite a lot of the effects being dated. While the lightsaber battle to end TPM is rightfully regarded as a classic, the lightsaber combat reaches a peak here that would not be matched until the magnificent throne room sequence in TLJ. For all the problems with Hayden Christensen's performance and the bad writing that plagued both his character and Ewan McGregor's Obi-Wan (McGregor also hits his best moments in this movie), once the film has all the pieces in place for their climactic clash at the end, set in a brutal battlefield of lava and machines, the result is truly spectacular.

5- Episode VI: Return of the Jedi

               Though it is definitely the weakest of the original trilogy, and people's mileage regarding the Ewoks tends to vary widely, ROTJ is still a classic that holds up very well. The speeder chase and nearly everything in the final throne room sequence- not to mention the film's opening act in Jabba the Hutt's hellish lair- are some of the most iconic parts of the entire Star Wars canon, old and new. Though we had gotten glimpses of the Emperor in TESB, it was here where we finally met Ian McDiarmid in all his glory, and villains were never quite the same again.

               What really sets this film as the demarcation line between the really good Star Wars movies from the "just okay" or downright bad ones, though, is the core cast. A strong central cast with fun banter and tangible chemistry is, TROS notwithstanding, invariably part of any great Star Wars movie, and it is the biggest and clearest deficiency in the prequels compared to both the earlier and later trilogy. Personal favorite example of this; Carrie Fisher getting to pull a little role reversal on Han's famous "I know" line from the previous film, the sort of tiny detail that is easy to miss, but makes all the difference in making these performances truly iconic.

4- Episode VII: The Force Awakens

               The degree to which this film relies on rehashing of many of the same threats and plot threads of the original trilogy, while not nearly as egregious as TROS, still rankles me enough to keep me from considering this one to be truly great. That said, the energy and passion that the actors bring to their roles is undeniable. It is just too much fun to watch these people interact with each other, especially the ways that Rey bounces off Harrison Ford and Finn and Poe form a powerful friendship (that should have been more, but alas...). Kylo Ren makes his entry into the Star Wars universe, a character torn between destinies that Adam Driver never fails to play the hell out of, even when the writing in this and TROS leaves him a little short.

               One thing I especially appreciated about the newer trilogy was how its production design gave a sense of size and scale that the original trilogy didn't have the capacity to create. Shots of the ruins of Walkers, or Star Destroyers, or the wreckage of the Death Star have an immense hugeness to them that add a grandiosity to the world these characters inhabit. Rey's introductory sequence has a lot of this, a quiet, aesthetic embrace of the surroundings that, in the best Star Wars material, makes everything feel real and lived-in.

3- Episode IV: A New Hope

               Four decades on, and the magic that suffuses the first Star Wars movie, the one that changed everything, is still undeniable. Other films have since surpassed it; we've gotten better writing, better acting, better effects, and more thrilling images since then, and there are moments where the acting feels more stilted than it does later in the original trilogy, like the actors were still in the process of breaking in the roles that would go on to define their careers.

               And yet. And yet. That opening in medias res fight sequence in space, with the first-ever reveal of Darth Vader and our introduction to Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia. Luke staring into the double sunset. Obi-Wan's quiet description of the old, fallen world of the jedi. The cantina. The Falcon. The entire escape effort to save Leia, ending with the first-ever lightsaber fight in history. That indelible final space battle around the Death Star. All immortal moments of cinematic magic that will endure for as long as movies endure.

               This movie is so filled with the sort of things that make movies wonderous acts of imagination that it's hard to even try counting them all. Other movies have been bigger, flashier, and in many ways, just plain better. But A New Hope is the giant on whose shoulders they built their empire, and nothing can ever take that away from it.

2- Episode VIII: The Last Jedi

               Honestly, picking between either this or the next one as the "best" film in the Star Wars is a matter of personal taste. It can go either way and I will not argue with anyone who would switch them. Ultimately, I gave nostalgia the edge here, so TLJ comes in at number #2.

               This is the sort of film with so many layers to its screenplay and how its plot is constructed that I can imagine revisiting it endlessly throughout my life, and always finding something new to pick up on and savor. Rey, Finn, and Poe each have strong beginning and end points within the film that both build on what we already knew about them from TFA, but also provide clear moments of growth and change for them all; Finn, finally deciding to not run and embracing the moniker "rebel scum," something he spent two full films denying; Poe, having had one trigger-happy idea after another bite him in the ass, finally realizing what Leia was trying to tell him the whole time and calling for a retreat; Rey, seeing how futile her notions about Kylo Ren being "saveable" were, turning away from him and flying off in the Falcon.

               And let's not forget Mark Hamill, who gives just about the greatest return performance that has even been given in a sunset role. Here, too, the movie jumps into real, meaty, metaphysical stuff about what Luke Skywalker has come to mean for both the people of the Star Wars universe and us as fans. Luke has fallen far, but still has enough grace and strength left to realize that, yes, we can place too many expectations on our heroes, but that there is still meaning in someone standing up as a symbol for something greater than themselves. Luke's final moments, as well as the film's final, stunning scene, will be with me for as long as I live.

1- Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back

               For many, this was the film that made Star Wars truly great, that made due on the promising start of A New Hope and really set off imaginations across the globe. Everything all the other great Star Wars movies does, this one does better. It's effects and battle sequences hold up remarkably well, particularly a concluding lightsaber fight that, for my money, remains the most emotionally tense saber duel we've ever gotten on the big screen. The main cast is fully into their respective roles, we finally get a sense of the power and terror of the Emperor, Billy Dee Williams makes his entrance, and, of course, there will always be Yoda.

               Like LTJ, this remains either best or second-best because of how it feels the most like its own, special thing, not too beholden to what came before to strike out in ways that challenge the viewer. Both end on spectacular final shots, with much having been lost but the hopeful suggestion that things will go on and that good can still find a way, even in the face of endless adversity. No other Star Wars movie has ever hit on just that right balance, though I certainly hope it could, one day, happen again.

               Ultimately, as with all great storytelling worlds, even the worst of these films can never fully dim the unending supernova that is Star Wars. I love this universe so much and I would never give it up for the world. I am all for a good long break from the movies, but I know I can never stay away for too long. None of us can.

-Noah Franc

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Review: Klaus

Klaus (2019): Written by Sergio Pablos, Jim Mahoney, and Zach Lewis, directed by Sergio Pablos. Starring: Jason Schwartzman, J. K. Simmons, Rashida Jones, Will Sasso, Joan Cusack, and Norm Macdonald. Running Time: 97 minutes.

Rating: 3.5/4

               The scene of holiday films has been a rather stuffed one for a long time. The canon of truly great Christmas films seems set in stone, and most new ones that come out fail to make much of an impact and are easily forgotten, if indeed anyone sees them at all. Every so often, though, one breaks through, one that finds a new angle on a tale so worked over I expected I could never be surprised again. Klaus, the directorial debut of Sergio Pablos after a long career of animating for both Disney and Dreamworks, is one such film. It's a sweet and charming alternative take on the origins of Santa Claus that just hit Netflix, and whose discovery added an extra sparkle to my holidays.

               We begin in as different a setting as any, a military-like complex for postmen, where Jesper, the lazy and wholly unambitious son of the owning family, is finally forced to take responsibility for his life when he is sent far, far north to Smeerensburg. The freezing, ice-covered town has a legendary reputation for its gloomy, despondent, and backwards atmosphere, stoked by a long-running "Hatfield/McCoy" style fued between its two main families, the Ellingboes and the Krums. He is given a clear goal of 6,000 postmared letters to be sent within the town by year's end, otherwise he'll be stuck there and cut off from the family riches.

               His introduction to the place is as hilariously inept as you would imagine, and he soons starts to worry that he's got no chance in hell of meeting his target. His despair at ever finding a way out of the place is further stoked by the local boatman (Norm Macdonald) and schoolteacher (Rashida Jones), both of whom have long since given up ever changing the poisonous dynamics of the town. Things start to turn, though, when he decides to make one last effort and travel across the island to the home of a lonesome woodsman, the physically huge Klaus. Voiced by the ever-magnificent J. K. Simmons, he is reticent and surly, but has a clear love and passion for making children smile. After discovering that the man is a gifted craftsman of toys and has a whole warehouse filled with amazing contraptions, Jesper decides that this could be his ticket out; he begins to slowly improvise and spread tales of the magical Klaus through the children of the town, eventually convincing them to abandon bad behavior and the fights of their parents in favor of good deeds and writing letters (postmarked by Jesper personally, of course) in the hopes of getting a new toy by the next morning.

               The animation is CGI, but with a different look and texture that makes it feel fresh and unique; the images are beautiful and flowing, yet look almost like woodcuts, or hand-drawn images from an old children's book. The town starts out forbidding and gray, but color and light, as well as wind, are used to great effect in bringing the screen to life when the story needs it most. The score is equally affecting as well, though the movie could have gone without the handful of moments when a pop song comes up, as those are the parts of the film most likely to feel dated later on.

               The voice acting is a lot of fun as well, with Simmons as the clear highlight; he is a perfect voice for Santa, a voice so fitting that a) I can't believe it took this long for him to do the role, and b) I don't know if I can ever go back to another Klaus again. The take on what leads to him becoming the bringer of joy and gifts is a different angle as well, a man of true heart struggling to deal with his own past while still not losing that spark of love that makes him a truly special person. There is a backstory, but it's handled effectively without overindulging in unneeded details, and the resolution at the end of the film involving both his and Jesper's fate is (without spoiling) genuinely magical.

               If there are quips to be had, it's where the fact that this is a children's film clearly affected the narrative in a few places; the conflicts that occur between the "good" characters are set up and resolved along very typical lines, and they are moments the film could very well have done without. The heads of the respective families in the town, who have a vested interest in the miserable status quo continuing unchanged, insert themselves to provide a reason for a third-act action setpiece that, again, is well-done, but isn't anything we haven't seen before and simply isn't as interesting as the budding friendship between Klaus and Jesper.

               No matter. The film is content to be what it is, and what it is is a beautiful animated film that is here to offer us something new to enjoy over the holidays. This is one worth seeing with the whole family.

-Noah Franc

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Review- Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019): Written by J. J. Abrams and Chris Terrio, directed by J. J. Abrams. Starring: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Adam Driver, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fischer, Anthony Daniels, Kelly Marie Tran, Domhnall Gleeson, Lupita Nyong'o, Richard E. Grant, Naomi Ackie, Billy Dee Williams, and Ian McDiarmid. Running Time: 142 minutes.

Rating: 2/4

               The spoilers are with me. Always.

               I suppose it figures. I first expressed my doubts that J. J. Abrams could really handle the scope of something like a Star Wars trilogy way back after the garbage fire that was Star Trek Into Darkness, but after The Force Awakens proved far better than I'd expected, those doubts were largely quited. What remained of them was then blasted out the Death Star trash compactor by The Last Jedi, easily the most emotionally challenging film in the entire Star Wars canon. I specifically wrote in my review at the time that the Star Wars franchise now felt freer from all previous baggage than ever before, truly able to break out and give us something really new.

               Sadly, the contingent of emotionally dead man-boys determined to make us regret ever inventing the word "fandom" have been relentless in trying to drag Rian Johnson's name through the muck ever since, and at least part of their whinging clearly reached the ears of Abrams, ever one to try to please. The end result, a movie that (rather unfairly) carries the expectation of wholly tying together and resolving an entire generations' worth of storytelling around the Skywalker family tries so, so very hard to please everyone, but while parts of the film do soar with the best Star Wars has to offer, it makes several very clunky missteps that will, over time, only diminish its standing.

               With the Resistance still on the run and trying to regroup and the First Order reestablishing the Empire, a surprise broadcast in the voice of the supposedly-dead Emperor Palpatine (we'll get to that plot point, don't worry) sends both sides scrambling to find a way to locate the legendary homeworld of the Sith. Kylo Ren gets there first, discovering that the Emperor is indeed, somehow, still alive (unless it's a clone we're seeing, ala the old Extended Universe, but that's beside the point). He's been rebuilding a fleet equipped with planet-destroying weapons swiped from Death Star technology, and offers it and his powers to Ren in exchange for him finally tracking down and either killing or "turning" Rey. This comes with another major story reveal about Rey's parentage, which, yes, we'll get to that too.

               Rey, meanwhile, is being trained by Leia to hone her powers at the rebels' new base of operations. The reveal that Leia actually did train as a Jedi, but willingly gave up her lightsaber after deciding it wasn't her true path, is something I found rather fitting for her character, and an acceptable answer to my gripe from TFA about Leia seemingly having done nothing with her Skywalker lineage in the intervening decades. According to Abrams, the way they worked what remaining footage of Leia had into this movie allowed them to mostly match the story they had planned for her anyway, and this is one aspect of the film that is amazingly well-done. We know they had to cheat a bit to keep Leia alive, but it works remarkably well, and allows her character an exit that fits far better than simply having her die between films or CGI-ing her in would have. Your mileage may vary, but for my money, this is as fitting a farewell to our Princess as I can imagine.

               When word reaches the Rebellion that, not only is Palpatine indeed still kicking, but also threatens the galaxy with more destructive technology, Rey, Finn, and Poe, plus Chewbacca, BB-8, and C-3P0 set out to find a special piece of Sith tech that should allow them to find the Sith homeworld. This puts them on a collision course with Ren, once again seeing out Rey with the help of the strange bond they seem to share through the Force, as well as a time crunch to assemble allies and ships before the new Sith fleet can set off to wreak havoc on the galaxy.

               The film is long and packed with action and exposition, but for the most part it flows fairly well. Abrams is a solid filmmaker and knows how to provide spectacle while still pacing things at a comfortable clip. Even his usual lens flare isn't nearly as irritating, though it IS there. John Williams' score is wondrous, as always. His music has remained the unassaibly masterful part of every single film in this franchise, a level of crowning artistic achievement on par with Howard Shore's LOTR score, or the entire discography of Joe Hisaishi. I think it would be only fair to see him take home one more Oscar for this one as a mirror to the one he took home for A New Hope, oh so many years ago.

               The cast also continues to do wonders; Ridley, Boyega, and Isaac have had as wonderful and refreshing a chemistry between them as any, and their mutual scenes will be among the moments from this new trilogy that will always stand out in my mind. Adam Driver has thoroughly established himself as one of the best young actors in the business today, having proven able to take the raw, online-troll matter of Kylo Ren and make him one of the most interesting and memorable villains in the Star Wars canon. And, while his presence in this film is problematic on so, so many levels, there are good reasons why Ian McDiarmid's sneering and endlessly hateful Palpatine has become so indelibly iconic.

               Kelly Marie Tran is excellent as well, but here we cross into the troubling parts of the film, nearly all of which have to do with storytelling and narrative decisions. Tran has gone on record about being bullied off social media after The Last Jedi by the usual Gamergate/Pepe the Frog suspects, and their insufferable whining is the only reason I can think of why Rose is given such short shrift in this film. She's there and present, but very clearly shunted off to the side, having no part in the various "quests" in the film's middle act. Even more depressing, her potential romance with Finn, which provided The Last Jedi with one of its most potent scenes, has been seemingly erased entirely. As much as I found plenty to like in this film, the erasure of Rose as someone of emotional consequence to the other main characters strikes me as nothing less than an act of deep cowardice.

               This could, perhaps, have been salvaged if the final film had fulfilled the very real promise of Finn and Poe coming out as bisexual and ending up together, something that Oscar Isaac appears to have endlessly teased as something he was very much ready for. Here, too, that is punted away, with both getting new female side characters as potential past and/or future love interests as a way for the film to canonically insist that, "NOPE, no queerness here, carry on!" Again, cowardice, plain and simple.

               And with that, let's talk about Palpatine and Rey's parentage, the two greatest signs that, for all Rian Johnson's efforts, the powers-that-be in charge of Star Wars simply can't bring themselves to actually let the past die so that something new can take its place. I can think of many scenarios where an appearance in some form of Palpatine, as another spectre of the past rearing its head, could have thematically worked in this film as a way for Rey and the Resistance to truly end the Empire once and for all. But one where he had seemingly gained literal immortality and SOMEHOW survived being tossed down an air shaft in a space station about to get blown to smithereens- the sort of DBZ-esque erasure of Death that just about never works- was not one of them. It simply stretches the imagination beyond all reason, especially since Kyle Ren would have functioned well enough as a final villain for Rey to overcome.

               Rey's parentage might be the bigger betrayal of this trilogy's potential, though. Here, too, The Last Jedi had done the series a great service by being willing to toss out any lingering fan theories about Rey being a descendant of Luke, or Obi-Wan, or whoever, because the real power of both that film and the Star Wars universe in general was its promise that greatness can come from anywhere. That simple, final scene of a cleaning boy with Force powers, gazing at the stars and dreaming of more, is precisely the sort of thing that gave Star Wars its magic in the first place, the narrative importance of the Skywalkers notwithstanding.

               But of course, Abrams and his mystery box just couldn't let that be. Instead, we get a tired and drawn-out reveal about Rey being the direct granddaughter of Palpatine himself, which, no. I won't bother trying to list the ways that makes zero storytelling sense, because I respect both myself and my readers far too much to subject us all to that. Rey is a wonderful character, and the nature of the Force allows for plenty of conflict between Light and Dark without having to tie blood lineage into it. The Force truly is universal, and not the prerogative of a few families. To reduce her to just another ancestral figure, both with the reveal of her parentage as well as her symbolically adopting the Skywalker name at the end of the film, reduces her weight and imact as a person who can offer a new, different future to her world.

               This is all so frustrating because, in spite of it all, there are still plenty of grand, magical moments in this movie. All the Star Wars films, even the bad ones, have bits in them with that spark, and there is plenty of that here. Rey connecting with all the past Jedi, their voices ringing out as she gazes through light-years' worth of stars, culminating in it being Luke's voice saying that the Force will be with her, always, is an incredibly powerful sequence, as is her final visit to Luke's old home and her gaze into the dual sunset, BB-8 at her side. Even Kyle Ren's brief "turn" back to being good, though that too had its flaws, was salvaged by him at least having to sacrifice his life to ensure Rey's survival (I swear, Kylo Ren living happily ever after would have been the one unforgiveable sin, had this movie gone there). The final ship battle has a size and scale to it that I marvel at.

               This is not one of the worst Star Wars films, but it had a clear path to being one of the great ones, and in several key ways deliberately chooses to not take that path. In a way, I find that more frustrating than the bonkers, but often still admirable, ways that Lucas' prequel trilogy fell on their faces, because there was at least a clear vision being followed that didn't care what I thought about it.

               Star Wars is so many things to so many people. I don't like everything about this new trilogy, but this is a universe big enough for us all. I have the Star Wars stuff that I love, and I choose to remember and focus on that. That includes The Last Jedi, but only time will tell if I can make my peace with The Rise of Skywalker.

-Noah Franc

Monday, December 16, 2019

Films for the Trump Years, Part 16: Ken Burns' The Vietnam War

               The US War in Afghanistan began less than a month after the September 11th terror attacks, with initial military operations commencing on October 7th, 2001. Though many can and do quibble over how to separate and define the war's various "phases," the conflict has continuted unabated since then, and last year it surpassed Vietnam as the longest continual military conflict in American history. Casualty estimates, obviously, vary widely according to the source, and it will likely be decades after fighting ceases before solid numbers can really be established, but the most up-to-date figures range between 170,000 and 190,000 killed thus far, including over 3,500 NATO forces (US included), 60,000 apiece from the Taliban and the Afghan government, and as many as 40,000 civilians, with countless more wounded or turned into refugees.

               Almost 16 years later, on September 17th, PBS aired the first episode of The Vietnam War, the latest series by Ken Burns, arguably the most monumental documentarian of American history to ever live (the whole series is currently available on Netflix). With a total runtime topping 17 hours, split into 10 episodes, the show delves deep into the weeds of modern Vietnamese history and the thousand steps that, bit by bit, drew the US further into a tragic path enabled by a poisonous mix of ignorance and active obfuscation of the truth by those in power, a concerted propaganda effort that involved administrations from across the political spectrum.

               Earlier this month, on December 9th, 2019, the Washington Post released a massive, 6-part series titled "The Afghanistan Papers." Based on a huge trove of newly-released documents, interviews, and testimonies from a huge swath of the policymakers and military figures who drove US policy in Afghanistan, up to and included Donald Rumsfeld himself, it lays bare the degree to which every facet of America's conduct of the war, up to the present day, has been built on a web of lies, ignorance, and institutional malaise on par with Vietnam. It's long been fashionable to refer to Iraq as "my generation's Vietnam," but, while that comparison remains bitterly fitting, the Afghanistan Papers make it painfully clear that Afghanistan has an equally strong claim to that uniquely American moniker.

               How lucky are we; we've so thoroughly failed as a society to learn a damn thing from our history that we are now saddled with the fallout of not just one, but two Vietnams. And, almost two decades on, neither of them are even over yet.

               Even before it ended, the Vietnam War stood as a frighteningly prescient example of what happened when the blind lead the blind, where the powerful on high are so far removed from the effects of their decisions that they are incapable of altering course, even when the magnitude of their failures becomes impossible to ignore. While the war effort continued to deteriorate, the governing institutions in Washington responded by simply locking down into systematic, pervasive patterns of deflection and denial. Those at the very top, especially Secretary of State Robert McNamara, couldn't hide the reality from themselves, but that didn't stop them from pulling every lever within reach to hide it from everyone else. Until, of course, the release of The Pentagon Papers, when the whole facade finally came crumbling down like a house of cards before a great wind.

               In a just, or at least moderately sane, society, the Afghanistan Papers would be every bit as much an earth-shattering scandal as the Pentagon Papers were. The Pentagon Papers were a seminal moment in American civic society, a breaking point that, for the first time in the modern era, pushed an especially large number of Americans (particularly White Americans) into a place of permanent distruct for the government and any related institutions of power, a fundamental attitude that continues to have ripple effects in our politics today.

               Sadly, they will not. They have already passed from the top of the Washington Posts' website and generated only limited coverage in other outlets. To a certain extent, with an active impeachment process going on and another climate conference having taken place around the same time, that is to be expected. But in other respects, it further reflects the tragic nature of the media environment we live in today, where the drumbeat of terrible news about terrible people doing awful things- which, obviously, includes Trump, but is in absolutely no way limited to him or even to the United States- is so overwhelming, so all-encompassing, that none of us have the time or strength to properly consider a single thing like this, no matter how severe and major a problem it may be.

               But the importance of such things is not entirely dependent on our attention spans, and with the increasingly global problems and conflicts that the current crisis are bound to spark, it is more essential than ever that as many of us as possible make the effort now to learn the lessons of the past that we didn't earlier. This includes the continuing military and humanitarian disasters in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, all of which mirror the many things that went wrong in Vietnam in too many ways to ignore.

               The Vietnam War was Murphy's Law in action, a cascading series of mistakes and misunderstanding and bad decisions, consistently made worse by bad faith efforts to keep as many people as possible in the dark about just how little the United States knew what it was doing in Vietnam and why. Burns' latest documentary carries many of his now legendary stylistic choices, like editing together video clips and moving photographs to draw the viewer into their stories and prevent them from feeling static or detached from us in the now. This, combined with the length of time he takes to ensure every facet of the story possible is worked in, including wide-ranging interviews with both American and Vietnamese people from every possible side of the conflict, gives this series crucial depth. To be fair, watching it requires commitment; the whole thing is long, often hard to watch, and has so many threads at once that it is very hard for the mind to wrap itself around it. Which makes it, effectively, a miniature taste of what the war itself was; a long, messy, vast thing that so many individuals ended up lost inside of forever.

               There are so many ways we can be better. There are so many ways we can do better. But we can't start with them until we find a way to end the wars we are still fighting now, so as to finally put at least a part of our history as a nation to rest. It is hard, bitter work, and I can't say I am optimistic we can pull it off. Yet, in the end, we really don't have a choice.

-Noah Franc

Previously on Films for the TrumpYears:

Part 1- Selma

Part 3- 13th

Part 4- Get Out

Part 7- Human Flow

Part 9- Black Panther

Part 12- [T]error

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Review: Frozen II

Frozen II (2019): Written by Jennifer Lee, directed by Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck. Starring: Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel, Josh Gad, and Jonathon Groff. Running Time: 103 minutes.

Rating: 3.5/4

               Bit by bit, the new wave are Animated Disney Princess Musicals are improving. Moana remains my personal favorite, but Frozen II is able to stick to its guns in a way the first movie wasn't able to pull off; I still consider the first half of Frozen to be very near perfect, but the drop-off following the dynamite "Let It Go" sequence is pretty steep. That, plus the long-running, legendary shitiness of nearly everything in the Disney sequel canon, made me very cautious entering Frozen II, even though the trailers certainly did make it look like the studio was putting real muscle into it this time.

               Thankfully, they did, and the result is a solid improvement over the first movie in every measurable way. It's been a few years since the last story ended, and the kingdom enjoys peace. Elsa, however, is growing restless, as a strange, ethereal voice coming from the North comes to her with increasing frequency. Her agitation and worry grows until, in a stunning flight-of-fancy sequence, she accidentally unleashes four long-dormant, elemental spirits, that begin to plague Arendelle to thoroughly that the entire place soon flees to the hills.

               Elsa knows that, whatever she did, her power is what is needed to set it right, sets off to the North with Anna, Kristoff, and Olaf. Their goal is the legendary Enchanted Forest, where, according to their father, a conflict between Arendelle and an indiginous tribe called the Northuldra so incensed the spirits that the forest was sealed away behind a magical fog.

               The journey that results is, as Olaf immediately points out, destined to change them all. Answers regarding Elsa's powers and purpose, the identities of the spirits, and the reasons why Arendelle and the Northuldra went to war await, as does a series of jarring reveals about Elsa's and Anna's parents and their lineage. In the side story, Kristoff has been planning to propose to Anna for some time, but can't seem to stop tripping over himself whenever he tries, and he struggles to reconcile his feelings of love with the rocky paths life keeps throwing in their way.

               As with the first movie, Elsa's ice powers provide a lot of ways to get creative with the animation, and the results are staggering. While the first film has now aged a bit, this one is filled with one stunning visual image after another. This is the sort of film that still shows off the power of seeing things on big screens, since the sheer grandeur of some of the films best moments will never be fully captured by a television screen.

               The songs, written once again by the Lopez duo, do not include another show-stopping "Let It Go," but in leui of one, mind-bending monster hit, the soundtrack has a much more complete and thorough feel to it. One of my criticisms of the first Frozen was that, while the first half was appreciatively filled with songs, a few of them felt distinctly different from the score, and by the film's end the songs were abandoned almost entirely (except for that damn troll song, which I still refuse to re-listen to). There is one notable example here, Kristoff's primary number "Lost in the Woods," but it's such a clear parody song and works so much better as "the comedy song" than anything in the first, that I can't hold that against it.

               The rest of the tracks have a much more fluid feel to them, constantly incorporated both the melody of the disembodied voice haunting Elsa and the refrain of a lullaby the two sisters recall from their childhood, a chilling melody that holds an important clue as to where the story is going. Idina Menzel gets two belty tunes ("Into The Unknown" and "Show Yourself"), but after reflecting on it, I think my favorite might be Anna's key number, "The Next Right Thing." It's a solid song that also serves as a huge character moment at the darkest part of the film, where she has every reason to believe that she's lost everything.

               Here, too, the recurring focus on two sisters, struggling to understand and grasp their histories while still adjusting and adapting their adult relationship to each other contains levels of maturity and wisdom that not too many Disney films manage to achieve. It's so rare to say something like this about a Disney film, especially since we are right in the middle of the Desolation of Disney Live Action Remakes, but it's pleasantly refreshing.

               Kristoff and Olaf are both relegated to comedy relief, as to be expected, but here too Kristoff gets some really profound scenes: he's not an egotist, and not plagued by toxic masculinity or easily hurt by Anna always being distracted with worries about her sister. He gets two particular lines that offer a really quiet, powerful example for any boys in the audience wondering how to become decent men in the 21st-century.

               This is a fun, enjoyable film with a lot of good, important things to say. It doesn't take any major chances, but it is beautiful to look at and pleasant to the ears. For God's sake, watch this film and not the live-action remakes. Disney's animation department still has it, and they deserve our support way more.

-Noah Franc