STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER (2019)

December 18, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Ending the final trilogy of trilogies that covers 42 years of storytelling, was never going to be easy. And, given the rabid fan base’s backlash from the penultimate episode, the ending was unlikely to appease all (or even most?).  Keeping respectful of the sensitivity associated with this franchise, no spoilers are included here, certainly nothing that hasn’t already been dissected and debated after the trailers were released.

As I approached the theatre, it was impossible not to chuckle at the irony of seeing the life-sized marketing prop for KNIVES OUT in the lobby. Of course, that current release is directed by Rian Johnson, who caused such an uproar with the aforementioned STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI (Episode VIII), a franchise entry that happens to be one of my personal favorites. But we are here for Episode IX, the wrap-up of George Lucas’ masterful vision. JJ Abrams (STAR WARS: EPISODE VII – THE FORCE AWAKENS) is back in the director’s chair, and knowing what a fanboy he is, it’s not surprising to see the familiarity and tributes to the franchise interjected throughout.

In fact, this finale leans heavily on nostalgia and humor, while tying up most loose ends – as well as some that weren’t even all that loose. Writers Derek Connolly, Colin Trevorrow (originally slated to direct), Chris Terrio, and Abrams seemed intent on giving each beloved character their moment, as a sign of appreciation for their contributions to a legacy that covers a period longer than the lifespan of some of the biggest Star Wars fans. As one who stood in line in 1977, it’s an approach that I respect and have no problems with – knowing full well that some will.

Any attempt to tie up previous threads must focus on the odd, mystical relationship between Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and Rey (Daisy Ridley). Both are still conflicted and attempting to come to grips with who they are. Rey especially is struggling with her identity and roots. One of my favorite elements from The Last Jedi was inner-head conversations blended with cross-dimensional physical interactions between Kylo and Rey, and it’s used beautifully here.

So, the biggest complaint from me is that despite its nearly two-and-a-half hour run time, there is simply too much crammed in. Too much story and too many characters and too many things that get a glimpse or mention, but no real development. This movie is jam-packed, and ‘convoluted’ would not be too strong of a word to describe. There are times we aren’t sure where the characters are or what they are doing or why they are doing it. We do know that everything good is dependent on ‘this mission’, a mission that seems to change direction about every 12 minutes. In fact, the “new” players – Rey, Poe (Oscar Isaac) and Finn (John Boyega) – spend very little time together on screen. And really, Finn is given almost nothing to do except look worried most of the time. On the bright side for characters, Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) and C3PO both get their own sub-plots. Anthony Daniels (as C3PO) becomes the only actor to appear in all 9 episodes, although R2D2 joins C3PO as characters appearing in all.

There are many old familiar faces, both good and evil. Some of these play key roles, while others are brief cameos. Much has been speculated about how Carrie Fisher’s role as Leia will be handled. Archival footage, combined with special effects and camera angles, allows her to be present throughout, and yes, she gets the send-off she deserves. There are even some new characters/creatures introduced, including a cute new droid (never underestimate or under-market a droid) that is already for sale in Disney stores.

No matter one’s feelings or expectations, an area that surely will not disappoint is the visual effects. Somehow, this one is even more impressive and awe-inspiring than the others. In particular, a couple of scenes filmed in and around an angry sea left me dumbfounded, mouth-agape. However, what’s most amazing is the consistency of the visuals throughout. It’s just a stunning film to look at.  Some of the story may be a bit confusing or cheesy, but some parts of the film are truly great. Cinematographer and Special Effects guru Dan Mindel deserves special mention, as do Production Designers Rick Carter and Kevin Jenkins. Of course the visual effects team is without peer – and take up about 5 minutes in the closing credits.

Lastly, composer John Williams gets to add his well-deserved personal stamp on this final chapter with new work added to the already iconic score. Very few moments compare to the opening notes blasting away on the theatre sound system as a Star Wars film begins. And as much as we’d like to treat this as the end, we all know Disney will find a way to keep us interested in a galaxy, far far away.

RIP: Peter Mayhew and Carrie Fisher

watch the trailer:

 


STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015)

December 23, 2015

star wars Greetings again from the darkness. In what can justifiably be termed a cultural event, director J.J. Abrams brings us Episode VII in a film franchise (developed by George Lucas, now owned by Disney) that date backs almost 40 years. While I was one of the lucky ones who waited patiently in line to see the first Star Wars on opening day in 1977, I can only be described as a series fan rather than a Star Wars geek. My bond is with Han Solo and Chewbacca, so I’m not here to debate the minutiae of costumes, timelines and weaponry.

What I can happily report is that Mr. Abrams (he’s also directed Star Trek and Mission Impossible films) has found just the right blend of nostalgia, science-fiction, and geeky gadgetry to appeal to the widest of all audiences. The film is an honorable tribute to the previous six in the series, yet it’s more than entertaining enough to stand alone for new comers.

As we expect and hope for, the screen is filled with fantastical visuals that somehow push our imagination, while at the same time, feel realistic to the story and action. The aerial dogfights are adrenaline-pumping and spectacular in their vividness, and the more grounded action scenes feature Stormtroopers who have clearly had lots of target practice since the previous films.

You need only watch the trailer or read the credits to know that some of the old familiar faces are back: Harrison Ford as Han Solo, Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker, Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia, Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca, and of course, our old pals C-3P0 and R2D2. Also back is the remarkable composer John Williams – likely to receive his fiftieth (yes, 50!) Oscar nomination for his work here. In addition to the familiar, new faces abound: John Boyega as Finn, Daisy Ridley as Rey, Adam Driver as Kyle (don’t call me Ben) Ren, Oscar Isaac as Poe, Gwendoline Christie as Captain Phasma, and Domhnall Gleeson as Captain Hux. There is also the magic of Andy Serkis as Supreme Leader Snoke, and an all-too-brief sequence featuring Max von Sydow. Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o voices Maz Kanata, and there is an impressive list of other cameos available online if you are interested (Daniel Craig being the most eye-raising).

Abrams along with action cinematographer extraordinaire Daniel Mindel take full advantage of all available technical aspects in creating stunning visuals and spine-tingling sound. It’s a film made to be watched on the biggest screen with the best sound system, so ask around if you aren’t sure. If you are a long-time fan of Han and Chewy, you’ll enjoy catching up with old friends. If you are unfamiliar with the Star Wars galaxy, this latest will hook you into the force.

watch the trailer:

 


ELIZABETH TAYLOR remembered

March 23, 2011

Even though she flirted with illness and death countless times over the last 50 years, it still came as a shock to hear the morning news of Elizabeth Taylor‘s passing.  Unless you are a movie buff or over 40 years old, you can’t understand what a glamorous, elegant movie star she was.  She truly was the last of Hollywood’s Golden Era.

She burst onto the scene as a 12-year-old in 1944’s National Velvet, but with the current release of Jane Eyre hitting theatres, it should be noted that she had a small, yet eye-opening role as a dying girl in the 1943 version with Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine.  For the next 68 years, Elizabeth Taylor never stopped opening eyes!

 Don’t make the mistake of thinking her popularity and notoriety came only from her beauty.  She was an immensely talented actress who received 5 Oscar nominations and won the award twice.  At the age of 18, she seduced (onscreen) Montgomery Clift into killing his girlfriend (Shelley Winters) in A Place in the Sun.  Movie watchers totally understood why he did it.  Those unique violet eyes set off by rare double eye-lashes (a genetic mutation), made her a stunning beauty to go along with her captivating spirit.

 She sizzled onscreen in back-to-back Tennessee Williams scripts: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) and Suddenly Last Summer (1959).  In 1963, her life changed dramatically.  When approached to play the title role in Cleopatra, she laughed off the producers and told them “only for a million dollars”, which was an unheard of salary for an actress in the day.  When they agreed, she became the first million dollar actress, and more importantly, met and fell in love with Richard Burton during filming.  “Liz and Dick” became worldwide phenomenons as stars and celebrities.  Living the “high life” was a normal day for these two.

 1966 brought about what I call the first Reality Show … Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe?  With an explosive performance by Liz,  many assumed their characters mirrored the couple in real life.  The film received a dazzling 13 nominations, including a win for Ms. Taylor.  There were many additional performances after this, but by 1967’s The Taming of the Shrew, she had a 20 year career that was multi-dimensional and astounding.

Speaking of astounding, the only thing more amazing than her career was Elizabeth Taylor’s personal life.  She grew up in the public eye and never left.  EIGHT marriages, including two to Mr. Burton.  When husband Mike Todd was killed in a plane crash, she fell into the arms of his best friend, Eddie Fisher.  Unfortunately, Mr. Fisher was married at the time to American icon Debbie Reynolds (Singin’ in the Rain) and they had a daughter, Carrie Fisher (the future Princess Leia of Star Wars).  Of course, Mr. Fisher ended up on the short end after Liz met Burton … but you start to get the idea.

After she divorced Burton the second time, she married U.S. Senator John Warner and became a true politician’s wife.  Her final starring role was in 1981, but she became renowned for her charity work … best known for her tireless fundraising for AIDS research – stemming from the loss of her friend, Rock Hudson.  They remained close after filming Giant (James Dean‘s last role).  Later, she became a friend and trusted advisor to the enigmatic Michael Jackson.  She was probably one of the few who could relate to his level of fame and the baggage it brought.

 While there will be no shortage of obituaries and tributes to Ms. Taylor, this may be one of the few that ends with a SPORTS story.  In 1989, Jerry Jones invited Elizabeth Taylor to perform the official coin toss at a Dallas Cowboys – Washington Redskins football game.  Ms. Taylor flubbed the moment when she actually called “heads” after flipping the coin … thereby requiring a re-toss.  Even at mid-field, she was a star!