REVIEW: “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker”

RISEposterWhat a roller-coaster adventure the last two years have been for Star Wars fans. Fair or not, Rian Johnson’s “The Last Jedi” sparked all sorts of fan backlash, enough to prompt some to even blame it for the 2018 “Solo” movie’s disappointing box office numbers. Without question much of the outrage was over-the-top which caused many of the legitimate criticisms to be lost in the noise. But equally over-the-top was the critical praise, some of which heralded it as “the best Star Wars movie ever made”. Much of that was rooted in a needless lust for subversion and rabid contempt for fandom.

In reality “The Last Jedi” had problems but it wasn’t the franchise killing disaster some have painted it as. Actually, outside of about 30 minutes of wildly uneven (and arguably bad) storytelling, it’s a movie with an assortment of big thrills and exciting moments. More importantly it left the story in a promising place and gave the characters plenty to reckon with. It ultimately set the table for “Rise of Skywalker” and the return of director and co-writer J.J. Abrams.

STARWARS1Abrams clearly listened to the criticisms which has already triggered the predictable whines of “fan service” from certain critic circles. But Star Wars has always been about continuity and connection. Even the “stand-alone” movies are inherently connected to the films that came before them. So it makes sense that Abrams would try to rein in some of Johnson’s care-free creative choices. And as a movie tasked with wrapping up an entire four decade-plus saga, you almost have to expect some level of “fan service”.

Here’s the important thing, the “fan service” we get in Episode IX isn’t half-baked or intrusive. Most of it is entertaining, nostalgic, and ultimately satisfying. Cool callbacks of all kinds pop up throughout the movie, lots of it genuinely in service to the story while other bits are simply there for the fun of it. Do they go a little overboard? Perhaps. But whether or not it is a dealbreaker for you probably depends on how you’re approaching this film as a whole.

“Skywalker” gets off to a shaky (and frankly concerning) start. The first twenty minutes or so sees Abrams and co-writer Chris Terrio bouncing us from one location to another while never letting us plant our feet. There is some snazzy scenery and a couple of decent action sequences, but they’re kinda lost in the film’s manic rush to get the story and the characters to where they need to be. But once the narrative pieces are put in place, the movie slows down a bit and gets into a more manageable rhythm.

STARWARS3The movie’s most captivating storyline remains the mysterious connection between young and raw Jedi extraordinaire Rey (Daisy Ridley) and tortured dark sider Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). Rey works hard to hone her skills but is still haunted by questions of her identity. Kylo (who steals the movie) uses every ounce of rage he can muster to smother out the glimmer of light within him. Both Ridley and Driver approach most of their scenes with a steely intensity befitting of their characters and their inevitable collision course.

As for another big plus, “Skywalker” finally gives the trilogy’s heroes some meaningful screentime together. Rey, Poe (Oscar Isaac), Finn (John Boyega), Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), and of course BB-8 go off on a Sinbad-like quest (look that reference up kids) to find an artifact once sought by Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). It’s believed to contain the location of a Wayfinder that will lead them to a Sith planet where a new dark force has emerged.

It turns out Kylo Ren has a Wayfinder of his own and has ventured to the sinister planet. While there he discovers a way to turn his terrorizing First Order into a bigger and truly unstoppable force. But it requires that he kill his one biggest threat – Rey. So as the rag-tag band of heroes look for a way to the Sith planet, the First Order scours the entire galaxy in pursuit of them.

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Despite the seriousness of their mission, there are always moments of levity especially between playful best bros Poe and Finn. But it’s C-3PO who turns out to be the biggest ham. He’s the perfect punchline for several jokes but he also has some cracking comedic lines of his own. It’s just a shame R2-D2 was left back at the Rebel base with practically nothing to do. The same could be said for Lando (Billy Dee Williams). Who wasn’t thrilled to see the good-hearted gambler returning to the franchise? But he just conveniently pops up with little explanation and then quickly fades into the background.

And as you might expect, we get several new characters entering the galaxy far, far away for the first time. Among the best, Keri Russell’s Zori Bliss, a shady old acquaintance of Poe’s. It’s not a big role, but Zori has a background fans will love to explore. Richard E. Grant is a hoot playing the sour and ever-serious Allegiant General Pryde of the First Order. Grant chews up his lines in classic imperial officer fashion. We don’t quite get enough of his story, but he’s a fun and interesting presence. And Star Wars knows how to do droids. New here is D-O, affectionately called “conehead” by Poe. Again, small role but tender and quite funny.

STARWARS4Abrams does do some patchwork to several of Rian Johnson’s more controversial choices: Rey’s parents, Supreme Leader Snoke, etc. The movie addresses them in a way that should please many of the fans while infuriating those who couldn’t care less about Star Wars continuity or lore. But let’s be serious, “The Rise of Skywalker” had no chance of pleasing everyone. It was a hopeless proposition. So, do you follow Johnson’s lead and kick more sand in the eyes of long-time fans? Or do you make a movie for the devoted fanbase and face the ire of scorned critics?

Sadly, an unnecessary chasm between critics and fans is all but certain and is already blazing across social media. The film will probably be held to a ridiculously high standard (by fans AND critics) and unhelpful comparisons to the original trilogy are all but inevitable. It’s a shame because “Rise of Skywalker” is pure entertainment – fun, at times thrilling, with a steady tinge of franchise nostalgia and an emotional punch at the end. It’s far from perfect. The story is messy, there’s enough plot to fill two movies, and some of its characters need more attention. But this is still very much a Star Wars film and will evoke many of those same old feelings of kid-like joy and excitement for those who will allow it.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

Bergman 101: “The Silence” (1963)

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The second film in Ingmar Bergman’s inadvertent Trilogy of Faith is to me the most disconnected of the three. I’ve read far smarter film critics than me share their idea on how “The Silence” ties together with the earlier “Through a Glass Darkly” and “Winter Light”. Still I’ve yet to make a satisfying connection and find that this particular Bergman picture stands more firmly on its own.

“The Silence” opens with two seemingly miserable women traveling on a train with a young boy. We learn the three are on their way “home” but are forced to stop for the evening in an unidentified city (at least never identified with certainty) because of one of the women’s unidentified illness. Moreover the unidentified city seems to be involved in or preparing for an unidentified war. That’s a lot of stuff left unidentified but frankly none of those specifics are especially important for what Bergman is up to. They would help thicken a more plot-driven story but this movie isn’t much for plot.

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After checking into a fancy hotel suite the sickly Ester (Ingrid Thulin) immediately climbs into bed while Anna (Gunnel Lindblom) prowls around the apartment in various states of undress. It’s an uncomfortable first glimpse of Anna’s unbridled carnality as she seems to relish the perplexed yet inquisitive gaze of her young son Johan (Jörgen Lindström). Without question Johan is the real victim of the story, caught in the crossfire of two warring sisters. You could cut the tension between the women with a knife and to them the child is collateral damage.

Both Ester and Anna are worldly women without the slightest bit of spiritual conflict and both seem to be on different yet equally self-destructive paths. Ester attempts to drown her unspecific and possibly terminal pain with cigarettes and alcohol. LOTS of cigarettes and alcohol. And her biggest concerns are dying away from home and jealously judging her sister’s every lascivious act. At least she seems to care for her nephew, but her twisted obsession with Anna’s bad behavior often takes precedent.

Anna would rather be out on the town catching the lustful eye of potentially new boy-toys than spend time at the hotel with her son. She blithely flirts with a local waiter followed by a sexual encounter which she relays to Ester with a perverse satisfaction. In fact it seems that Anna is driven by hurting her sister as much as (if not more than) personal pleasure.

The genesis of this bitter and toxic animosity between siblings is another of the film’s unresolved mysteries. So we are left in a similar position as Johan – perplexed, often alone, and in a constant state of observation. Bergman spends a lot of time with Johan particularly as he roams the largely empty halls of the hotel. Johan isn’t a perfect picture of innocence. At one point he pees in the hallway with no shame whatsoever. Later he swipe’s some cherished family photos from the hotel’s elderly porter and then stuffs them under the carpet. Simply put, it’s hard to figure out what Bergman is trying to say through Johan.

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And speaking of the porter, he’s played by Swedish actor Håkan Jahnberg, a veteran of both stage and screen. He’s one of the film’s few glimpses of light. Whenever Ester buzzes he’s there in snap, bringing more booze, collecting soiled sheets, even helping her into bed during one of her spells. Funny thing is we never understand a word he says (there is not a single subtitle when he speaks). Yet his gentle smile and thoughtful mannerisms speaks volumes.

And that’s really all there is to “The Silence”. It plays out like a series of snapshots, linked together by the thinnest of plot threads. No doubt there is plenty of subtext and symbolism that Bergman wants us to wrestle with, much like the previous two films of the trilogy. But unlike those movies, finding any discernible ‘meat to chew on’ here is a chore. The performances are strong as is the cinematography by Bergman favorite Sven Nykvist. But not only is it hard to connect this film to the previous two, it’s just as difficult to connect it to any meaningful point. I can certainly speculate about what it means to me, but where “Through a Glass Darkly” and “Winter Light” made me feel something, “The Silence” left me cold.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

3-5-stars

REVIEW: “Snakes on a Plane” (2006)

 

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Let’s be honest, the very title “Snakes on a Plane” tells you all you need to know. And if you went into this 2006 thriller thinking it would be anything other than a wacky and absurd B-movie romp, you really have no one to blame but yourself. Now whether or not you find it entertaining is another question altogether, but don’t expect anything profound. This is silly big screen escapism through and through.

“Snakes on a Plane” gained an enthusiastic internet fanbase well before the movie even hit theaters. Story goes that David Dalessandro, a college administrator at the time, wrote the script which taps into two common fears – snakes and flying. After the title began circulating online a big web following developed giving rise to all sorts of fan fiction, parodies, and art.

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The movie opens in Hawaii where a Red Bull chugging dirt biker named Sean (Nathan Phillips) witnesses a brutal murder at the hands of powerful crime boss Eddie Kim (Byron Lawson). With a contract on his head, Sean is rescued by FBI Agent Neville Flynn (Samuel L. Jackson) and convinced to fly back to Los Angeles to testify against Kim in federal court.

As a diversion a private government plane is used as a decoy while Agent Flynn and Sean take a commercial airliner, commandeering the first-class section much to the chagrin of the flight attendants and some passengers. But wouldn’t you know it, Eddie Kim has eyes everywhere and enacts a plan to sabotage their flight. Not by tampering with the mechanics or planting a bomb. No, instead he smuggles hundreds of deadly snakes into the cargo bay and rigs a pheromone to be unleashed once the plane hits 30,000 feet sending them into a lethal frenzy. I’m not making this up.

Before the flight takes off we get one of those tried-and-true survival movie sequences – a scene briefly introducing an array of characters (in this case passengers) many of whom will amount to nothing more than snake fodder. We get a rap mogul/germaphobe, a single mother and her baby, a low-rent Paris Hilton clone, a jerky businessman, and so on. They all are pretty paper-thin but there are a couple you can’t help but root for (or in some cases against).

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Once the high altitude mayhem kicks in you can see the movie trying to one-up itself on how preposterous it can get. Believe or not that’s the film’s one big strength. I admit, I laughed quite a bit. We get ridiculous lines like “Well that’s good news, snakes on crack.” And numerous CGI snake kills that are almost as goofy as the dimwitted victims. I’m sure all of this sounds like a slam but it’s actually what keeps the movie in the air.

So as a thriller/comedy/horror/survival mashup “Snakes on a Plane” squeaks by simply because it unashamedly embraces its cheesiness and absurdity. Obviously that doesn’t make it a good movie, but it does make it entertaining. And sometimes that’s all you’re really looking for.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

3-stars

RETRO REVIEW: “Seven” (1995)

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In David Fincher’s dark, grisly crime thriller “Seven” atmosphere is as essential as dialogue. Nearly every camera shot from cinematographer Darius Khondji finds some way to contribute to the ugliness of the film’s decaying big city setting. The heavy shadows, grimy color palette, perpetual rain – it makes for a visual experience that is consistently raw and depressing. Its effectiveness still stands out today.

Fincher’s crime thriller works within a pretty familiar genre framework. Two police detectives, one old and seasoned, one young and headstrong, follow clues left behind by a by a twisted, methodical serial killer. But “Seven” comes off as something more than your standard police procedural. The film deals heavily with the psychological effects left by this bleak unnamed city and the gruesome violence that emerges from its rotten core.

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Morgan Freeman plays Detective William Somerset, a veteran officer of nearly 30 years. Somerset is well-respected and good at his job, but police work in a city of such moral decline has taken its toll. With only a few days left until retirement he is partnered with Detective David Mills (Brad Pitt), an impulsive but idealistic rookie who just recently moved to the city with his wife Tracy (Gwyneth Paltrow).

Somerset and Mills are called on to investigate a gruesome murder where an obese man had been bound and forced to eat himself to death. Clues lead to a second crime scene and eventually a deadly pattern is discovered. The detectives surmise that the killer is preaching a sermon and basing each of his murders on the seven deadly sins (gluttony, greed, lust, etc.). Each murder scene is meticulously framed and hidden within them are hints to this John Doe’s next victim. Somerset and Mills must find a way to get in front of the killer before he can complete his sermon.

One strength of the story is found in its handling of its killer. He is a madman who is unquestionably insane but he’s no imbecile. He never loses control and is always one step ahead of the detectives. Fincher and screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker keep John Doe under wraps only revealing him in the final few scenes. For those who haven’t seen the film I won’t reveal who plays him. But let’s say its a brilliantly uncomfortable performance from an equally uncomfortable actor.

“Seven” is an absolute showcase for Morgan Freeman, a consummate professional with an ever-present strength and gravitas. He is the film’s most grounded character and more subtly impacted by the vile urban mire. Pitt is given the much broader task of playing an ambitious young firebrand eager to make a name for himself in the department but impervious to the effects Fincher’s hellscape has on his family. Very different performances but seamlessly woven together by a persistently unsettling script and setting.

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As “Seven” maneuvers its way forward you see it fully embracing its sense of unease and dread. It ends up in a place befitting of a more disturbing horror genre entry and it’s final moments will shock you to your core. Suffice it to say it’s not a movie for the squeamish yet Fincher doesn’t show a lot of violence. Instead it is insinuated through the investigation and glimpses of the effects are in each crime scene. It’s intensely effective.

“Seven” isn’t an easy watch and it still packs the same visceral gut punch it did 25 years ago. Fincher’s bleak and oppressive second feature film shook up the crime thriller genre and set the stage for the litany of copycats that would come after it. And while it may best be remembered for its notorious ending, it’s the aforementioned atmosphere that gets under your skin and stays there.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4-5-stars

REVIEW: “Stronger”

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There are many ways a movie like “Stronger” could go astray. We’ve seen it before – filmmaker gets hold of a meaty true story, they exploit the conflict, crank the melodrama up to 10 and wring it of every drop of emotion in what often becomes the same old biopic fodder. On the flipside, when a filmmaker sinks his/her teeth into the material and gets down to what makes the characters and their story fascinating you often have something special. David Gordon Green does that with “Stronger”.

It’s based on the true story of Jeff Bauman, a Boston native and Costco deli worker who was a victim of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. His injuries resulted in the amputation of both legs just above the knees. Over time Jeff became a reluctant symbol of the “Boston Strong” slogan for many well-meaning but impervious people.

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“Stronger” spends a little time leading up to the bombing but its main focus is Jeff’s struggle with the mental and physical aftermath. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Jeff in what may be the best work of his career. With the aid of some digital wizardry, Gyllenhaal is extremely convincing in every facet of his performance. He’s fantastic in conveying the mental deterioration brought on by the trauma and by the overwhelming expectations of his family and community. And he’s just as good on the physical side portraying a man trying to cope with new and severe physical limitations.

Equally good is Tatiana Maslany who plays Jeff’s on again-off again girlfriend Erin. She is more grounded and responsible than the charming but flighty Jeff which has led to their numerous breakups. But in an effort to convince her of his love Jeff shows up at the marathon to root her to the finish line. After the bombing Erin puts her life aside and is a far more of a stable caretaker than Jeff’s family. But it’s a punishing journey for her too. Maslany’s instincts are spot-on and she walks her character through an emotional minefield always with the perfect level of intensity.

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Green deserves a lot of credit for managing his material with an intimate, character-centered emphasis. He and screenwriter John Pollono keep things on the ground level, only occasionally hitting us with the traditional biopic highlight moments that you can’t help but notice. But it’s the small touches and scenes of Jeff managing everyday struggles that are so potent. Once simple tasks such as using the bathroom are difficult to watch. Or it may be something as subtle as a glance into a sock drawer. These moments hit hard.

David Gordon Green’s career has been an interesting one. From his breakout hit, the obnoxious “Pineapple Express”, to 2013 where he had two strong films “Prince Avalanche” and “Joe”. We definitely see him hitting his stride with “Stronger”. It’s an incredible true story that deserves to be told and Green allows his characters to do just that. I can’t imagine a viewer not being effected by this film.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

Blind Spot Review: “Shane” (1953)

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On the surface “Shane” may appear to be routine Western genre fare. A mysterious stranger with a lightning fast draw helps a family harassed by a gang of unsavory types. But beneath its seemingly simple exterior is a movie that prods us to look beyond the familiar.

“Shane” was directed and produced by George Stevens and adapted from a 1943 Jack Schaefer novel. While not Stevens’ first choice, Alan Ladd was cast as the title character Shane. Story goes that after Stevens couldn’t secure his actors of choice he asked a Paramount executive for a list of those under contract. Ladd was a quick choice.

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Our first glimpse of Shane sees him riding to the backdrop of the gorgeous Tetons. It’s a beautiful introduction to Loyal Griggs’ Oscar-winning cinematography. Shane comes upon a small homestead ran by a rancher Joe Starrett (Van Heflin), his wife Marian (Jean Arthur in her final feature film role) and their peppy young son Joey (Brandon deWilde). The family takes to Shane and asks him to stay as a ranch-hand. Shane sees the invite as a chance to put aside his past ways and start fresh.

Shane makes every effort to forget his mysterious old life. He hangs up his holster and sixshooter. He buys some new regular man’s clothes. He quickly begins to find and enjoy his place among the community of homesteaders. But as Shane himself says later in the film “A man has to be what he is.”

While the film never delves too deep into Shane’s past, a key (and frankly obvious) element of it eventually comes much more into focus. The Starretts along with a handful of other local settlers are being squeezed by greedy cattle baron Rufus Ryker (Emile Meyer) who wants their claims for himself. As his henchmen’s terrorizing heats up and a hired gun shows up (played by a menacing Jack Palance), Shane is forced to unearth the past he is trying hard to bury.

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There are several other interesting plot angles Stevens plays around with. There is a subtle romantic tension between Shane and Marian. You have the starry-eyed young Joey whose idealized view of Shane is sometimes at odds with his perception of his father. Even Ryker’s motivations are rooted in a place that reveals surprisingly more character depth than you would expect.

Its $3 million budget made “Shane” one of the most expensive movies ever made at the time and you can see the money on the screen. The Wyoming Territory setting is exquisitely captured and the sheer visual craft behind some sequences is undeniable. One particular scene between Palance and Elisha Cook, Jr. is one of the genre’s best mainly due to Stevens’ camera. But “Shane” works in large part due to the attention given to the characters. It’s certainly a film of its time, but good characters and well told stories about them never get old.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars