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:

 


GOODBYE CHRISTOPHER ROBIN (2017)

October 19, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Are you ready for a family-oriented movie based on the origins of the universally beloved children’s character “Winnie the Pooh”? Well, despite the PG rating, this is not one for the kids – no matter how much they adore the cuddly, honey-loving bear. When you realize it was directed by Simon Curtis (WOMAN IN GOLD) and co-written by Frank Cottrell Boyce (MILLIONS), filmmakers known for their crowd-pleasing projects, the final version could be considered borderline deceitful.

It’s 1941 when we first see A.A. Milne and wife Daphne receiving an unwanted telegram whilst tending the English garden. We then flashback to 1916 when Mr. Milne was serving on the front lines of WWI, and returned with a severe case of shell-shock (described as PTSD today). His episodes can be set off by bees, balloons, and bulbs. This affliction also has him in a deep state of writer’s block accompanied by a need to write an important anti-war manuscript.

Domnhall Gleeson plays the famous writer and Margot Robbie his wife. The 1920 birth of their son Christopher Robin makes it clear that lousy parenting exists in every era. Neither father nor mother have much use for their offspring, so they enlist the help of a Nanny Olive, played by Kelly Macdonald. Does it sound like a wonderful family flick so far? Well things do pick up when C.R. is shown as an 8 year old played by screen wonder Will Tilston. His bright eyes and dimples so deep we wonder if they are CGI, bring joy to the viewers, even if the parents remain icy and self-centered.

The film’s middle segment allows father and son to bond on long walks through the 100 acre wood, and we are witness to how the toys become the familiar icons of children’s stories: Winnie the Pooh, Eeyore, Piglet, Kanga, Roo, and of course, Tigger. The picturesque English countryside makes a beautiful setting for the adorable and energetic C.R., known at home as Billy Moon (nicknames abound in the Milne household).

Unfortunately, the father-son segment leads to even more atrocious parenting. After the book is first published in 1926, young Christopher Robin becomes little more than a marketing piece for the family business. The walks in the woods are replaced by radio interviews and publicity appearances. No matter how Nou (the nickname for Nanny Olive) tries to bring normalcy to the boy’s life, the parents remain oblivious to what is happening.

Alex Lawther appears as the 18 year old Christopher Robin. He’s committed to serving his duty in WWII after surviving boarding school bullying and hazing. Equally important to him is escaping the shadow of the celebrity childhood, and finding his own identity – one that is not associated globally with a fuzzy bear. The innocence of childhood stolen by selfish parents is painful to watch, whether 90 years ago with the Milne’s, or today with any number of examples.

The 3 reasons to watch this film are: the photography is beautiful (cinematographer Ben Smithard), those other-worldly dimples of a smiling boy, and the near-guarantee that you will feel better about yourself as a parent (if not, you need immediate counseling, and so does your kid). In this case, being a well-made movie is not enough. The film is a bleak downer with the few exceptions teasing us with the infamous whimsy of the classic stories. Sometimes pulling the curtain back reveals a side of human nature akin to war itself. We are left with the impression that the audience and readers are to blame – being held accountable – for the misery suffered by the real Christopher Robin. Crowd-pleaser? More like the blame game.

watch the trailer: