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:

 


BRIGSBY BEAR (2017)

August 10, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Many kids get obsessed with their favorite TV show and characters. Perhaps it’s Minnie Mouse, Sesame Street or even Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Whatever or whomever it is, they typically enjoy sharing their experiences with their friends. When we first meet James, he is staring, fully-engaged, at an odd, poorly produced show that appears to be a relic from the 1970’s. His room is packed with franchised merchandise like a bedspread, a lamp, toys, and even a stuffed animal. We immediately notice two problems: we don’t recognize this talking TV bear and James appears to be not a child, but a twenty-something with a 3 day beard growth.

Kyle Mooney has gained a following with his work (especially his quirky short films) on “Saturday Night Live”. Here he collaborates with director Dave McCrary (another SNL stalwart) and co-writer Kevin Costello on their first feature film. Mr. Mooney also stars as James, the “Brigsby Bear” expert who was kidnapped as an infant, held captive in a desert bunker and brainwashed by his captor “parents” Ted and April (an excellent Mark Hamill, Jane Adams).

Being confined and isolated in a controlled environment with only artificial culture in no way prepares James for the long-delayed release back into the wild known as society. His biological parents Greg and Louise (Matt Walsh, Michaela Watkins) are thrilled to reunite with their long lost son, and very patient with James’ struggles to assimilate.

James is unceremoniously dumped into the real world without his one security blanket: a TV bear that doesn’t exist. He goes from being disconnected from the outside world to being disconnected inside a new world he doesn’t know or recognize. Despite the pressures he is up against (police, family, new friends), he refuses to let go of his obsession.

It’s at this point where we really root for Mooney and McCrary to embrace the weirdness. Instead, the story takes a bit of a conventional turn and we find ourselves no longer reveling in oddity, but instead cheering for James to continue influencing those who initially viewed him as the proverbial fish out of water. The film ends up as a creative story about creativity … if that’s what it’s about (or if it’s about anything).

Strong supporting work is provided by Greg Kinnear as Detective Vogel (with a secret passion), Ryan Simpkins (sister of Ty) as James’ somewhat reluctant sister, and Alexa Demie and Jorge Lendeborg Jr as the new friends who come to appreciate him for his perspective. Claire Danes is a misguided psychiatrist, Buck Bennett is a detective, Andy Samburg appears an acquaintance, and Kate Lyn Scheil is Arielle (and Nora).

The film can best be described as Funny-Sad, and a blend of ROOM (isolated and held captive), NAPOLEON DYNAMITE (a quirky dude), BEING THERE (an innocence that influences others), and ENCINO MAN (a guy being introduced to a new world). It has an emotional and heartfelt climax that is crowd-pleasing, and certainly deserves bonus points for not being a superhero movie, remake, sequel or reboot. Still, it leaves us wondering what direction this could have gone had the filmmakers remained true to the cause of embracing the weirdness.

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:

 


KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE (2015)

February 16, 2015

kingsman Greetings again from the darkness. In 2010, writer/director Matthew Vaughn turned the superhero genre on its ear with the hit Kick-Ass. With this most recent film (back with co-writer Jane Goldman), he has done the same thing to spy-thrillers.  We get the well-tailored look made famous by Roger Moore’s James Bond, the fanciful and lethal gadgets from early Bond films, the ever-present umbrella (put to new uses here) of “The Avengers” John Steed, and the ultra-suave and debonair manners of Napoleon Solo from “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.”  We get all of that in a surprisingly effective and fun action performance from Colin Firth.

Fun is the operative word here. It’s clear all parties involved are having a great time, especially Mr Firth going drastically against type. There are two action-packed and pretty humorous (in a demented way) fight scenes. One is early on inside a London pub, and has Firth flashing his particular set of skills against a group of thugs. The other (and even more raucous) fight occurs inside a church and is set to Lynryd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird”. The body count piled up as fast as the guitar licks.

As spectacular as the fight scenes are, the real fun here is in the characters. The old guard of the Kingsmen includes Firth as Galahad, Mark Strong as Merlin, Jack Davenport as Lancelot, and Michael Caine as Arthur. This long-standing group is one part international spy, one part Knights of the Round Table … and these gentlemen are extremely well trained and impeccably well dressed. When one of their agents dies on the job, the recruitment boot camp kicks into gear. Made up of a group of relative newcomers to the movie world, the two most interesting are Roxy (Sophie Cookson) and Eggsy (Taron Egerton). Adding to the intrigue, Eggsy is the son of a former Kingsman, and has some skills that aren’t initially apparent.

Of course, what would a spy-tribute movie be without a colorful villain? Samuel L Jackson plays lispy megalomaniac Valentine, who has a quick gag reflex when it comes to violence. Fortunately his henchman Gazelle (Sofia Boutella) is equipped with razor sharp leg prosthetics and some ultra-crazy fighting skills.  We even see Mark Hamill as Professor Arnold … fans of the Mark Miller/Dave Gibbons graphic novel will appreciate the irony.

Firth and Egerton play off each other quite well in the mentor-pupil relationship, and Egerton is clearly set up for the franchise sequels … as is his friend and fellow Kingsman, Ms. Cookson. For those who think the Daniel Craig Bond films are too dark and serious, this provides a flashback to lighter Bond fare (minus the misogyny). Many hot topics are touched on: class warfare, domestic abuse, racism, etc, but mostly this can be taken as a rollicking good time because “it’s not that kind of movie”. It does, however, remind us that “manners make the man”.

watch the trailer: