Movie Review ~ Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker


The Facts
:

Synopsis: The surviving Resistance faces the First Order once more as Rey, Finn and Poe Dameron’s journey continues. With the power and knowledge of generations behind them, the final battle commences

Stars: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Adam Driver, Billy Dee Williams, Lupita Nyong’o, Domhnall Gleeson, Kelly Marie Tran, Joonas Suotamo, Keri Russell, Billie Lourd, Naomi Ackie, Richard E. Grant, Mark Hamill, Anthony Daniels, Carrie Fisher, Dominic Monaghan, Greg Grunberg

Director: J.J. Abrams

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 141 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: Here’s the thing.  I grew up with the Star Wars movies in my orbit but they were never exactly part of my universe.  Does that make sense?  Every time I went over to visit my cousins I vividly remember the posters of the movies on their wall and playing with their Millennium Falcon…or, rather, playing around the famed ship because I wasn’t quite cool enough to actually hold the majestic piece of plastic in my hand yet.  I was relegated to a storm trooper whenever we were reenacting scenes and I was too young to have seen any of the original trilogy in their first release.  I was probably twelve or thirteen years old before I ever saw the movies and even then I didn’t quite get the appeal.

Now, all these years later I was preparing to see the final (for now) installment of the current Star Wars saga and went back and watched all of the films in chronological order.  That meant starting with the much-reviled prequels, which haven’t aged well, followed by the recently released Solo and Rogue One which already feel even more extraneous than on their first watch.  If anything, getting through those five films makes arriving at the three landmark entries that started it all that much sweeter because you appreciate the level of storytelling and creative filmmaking that was used.  These were crafted when people were pushing limits higher, not just seeing how crazy the limits could be.

In 2015 when director J.J. Abrams (Star Trek Into Darkness) brought viewers back to a galaxy far, far away with The Force Awakens, he tapped into what made those earlier blockbusters so lasting – a sense of discovery blended with heart and humor.  Introducing new characters that interacted with fan favorites, it may have felt slightly like a redo of A New Hope but ultimately it acquitted itself nicely for even the harshest of naysayers.  The same can’t be said for 2017’s The Last Jedi which, though popular with critics (and this one right here) was somehow, bafflingly so, seen as a horror show for longtime fans.  Raging against new writer/director Rian Johnson (Knives Out) and going above and beyond in some nasty spikes toward cast members, the fandom showed its ugly side for a movie that didn’t deserve the vitriol.

Back to bring this new trilogy to a close (replacing Jurassic World’s Colin Trevorrow who was let go before filming began), Abrams evidently was tasked with addressing some of the chief fan complaints from The Last Jedi while still steering important events toward their conclusion.  Watching the movie you get the feeling Abrams wasn’t entirely happy with the path Johnson had taken and was painted into a corner trying to undo a knot that was tightly bound.  Some of the ideas Johnson hinted at had to be considered or simply thrown out.  In doing so, there is sometimes an overcorrection, resulting in a bit of an unwieldy but ultimately supremely satisfying final chapter in what is surely seen as the event picture of 2020…sorry Avengers: Endgame.

We’re going to keep this thing spoiler-free as much as possible – but I know fans consider even the slightest detail a spoiler so it’s up to you if you want to continue on.  Know that I’m keeping your best movie-going experience at the forefront of my review!

The familiar opening text crawl has never quite caught my attention as much as it has in The Rise of Skywalker.  The very first line after the title sent a little shiver up my spine and set the tone for the opening sequence following Kylo Ren (Adam Driver, Marriage Story) traveling to a planet spoken of as a legend to find an old foe.  The isolated location is a fairly scary opening, testing the limits for young children right out of the gate, but it was great fun for the big kid in me that enjoyed a little bit of the old monster movie feel to the set-up.  Hoping to join forces with the driven but haunted son of Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher, This is My Life) and Han Solo (Harrison Ford, Blade Runner 2049) this powerful enemy proves to be a worthy villain for this last movie – even if their somewhat miraculous return after quite a long time isn’t ever fully explained.

Meanwhile, Rey (Daisy Ridley, Murder on the Orient Express) has been completing her training under Leia’s watchful eye but is distracted by her continued psychic bond with Kylo.  Taunting her by dangling the truth about her lineage just out of her reach, Kylo now seeks her out, having learned a new truth about her from his dangerous ally…a truth that, once learned, will change the direction of the First Order and the Resistance forever.  Traveling with Finn (John Boyega, Detroit), Poe (Oscar Isaac, A Most Violent Year), and Chewbacca to a distant planet in hopes of finding a rare artifact, Rey embarks on a galaxy spanning adventure that will lead her to confront her past and embrace her future.

There’s a little bit of the video game leveling up aura to The Rise of Skywalker, with our characters coming head to head with various bad guys, curious creatures, and strange new worlds all in the hunt for pieces to an overall puzzle.  I didn’t mind this episodic feel and found the two and a half hours to fly by at near light speed.  A great deal of attention has been paid to fans wanting one last look at favorite characters or desiring to see a storyline tied off with a nice bow.  True, it may be too tidy for some but at least there is some finality in place by the time the credits roll.  I’m not one to delve deep into the psyche of a character and decry actions as “not something their character would do” or anything like that, though it’s evident Abrams and gatekeeper producer Kathleen Kennedy wanted to be clear about particular story arcs and less ambiguous on others.

Receiving top billing, Carrie Fisher may be the first person to get that honor without being alive when the movie started filming.  Fisher’s performance was reportedly put together from unused footage from The Force Awakens and it’s blended seamlessly in; there’s no creepy faces put on other actors or janky editing going on.  With limited footage, Leia is a bit more on the reserved side and has less to say…but Abrams doesn’t wallow in sentimentality, just as Fisher wouldn’t have wanted him to.  There are plenty of other surprises for fans both hardcore and casual along the way, just keep your eyes (and ears) open because you never know what might pop up.

The performances in this entry might be the strongest so far, with Ridley nailing Rey’s increasing resolve to always face her fears head on.  What started as a nice discovery of a new talent back in 2015 has evolved into a respected performer that rises above the material and brings a different gravitas to her scenes.  She matches well with Driver’s brooding would-be leader who can’t forget Rey even though he knows she stands in his way of running the show.  I’d like to know how much of the scenes where Kylo is in his revised helmet is actually Driver, just like I want to know if Keri Russell (Austenland) was in fact on set as a former flame of Poe dressed in a galactically skintight suit and aerodynamic helmet.

There’s going to be many opinions about the 9th episode of Star Wars and my advice is to go in and see for yourself.  Just because I liked it doesn’t mean you will and even if you read a terrible review that shouldn’t automatically sway you to see Jumanji: The Next Level instead (seriously, don’t).  We so rarely get true event movies like this and around the holidays when you can go with family and friends makes it that much more special.  Celebrate the season, catch a movie, and make it The Rise of Skywalker.

Movie Review ~ Booksmart


The Facts
:

Synopsis: On the eve of their high school graduation, two academic superstars and best friends realize they should have worked less and played more. Determined not to fall short of their peers, the girls try to cram four years of fun into one night

Stars: Beanie Feldstein, Kaitlyn Dever, Jessica Williams, Will Forte, Jason Sudeikis, Lisa Kudrow, Mike O’Brien, Molly Gordon, Billie Lourd, Skyler Gisondo, Noah Galvin, Diana Silvers, Mason Gooding, Victoria Ruesga, Austin Crute, Eduardo Franco, Nico Hiraga

Director: Olivia Wilde

Rated: R

Running Length: 102 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: We’re right at the crest of the wave where the end of the school year is about to crash into full blown summer and there couldn’t be a better time for a movie like Booksmart to arrive in theaters.  True, being released in the midst of a bevy of bombastic blockbusters might make its chances of doing big business opening weekend a tad slim but this has sleeper hit/future cult classic/definite midnight screening written all over it.  It’s a movie meant to be discovered and then shared, not one you necessarily make an appointment to see.

I’d heard about the film for a while after it received a positive reception at March’s South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, TX and deliberately avoided watching the trailer or reading anything more about it until I saw it. This is one I wanted to come to on my own without any ideas on what it should be, or pre-conceived notions on what to expect.  The way we are inundated with information on content it’s hard to go in blind to something but thankfully, I was able to come to Booksmart with a blank slate.

So now, after all that talk of going into the movie with little knowledge, of course I’m going to ask you to read a review of what I think about it – makes total sense, right? Really, I won’t be offended if you stop now and come back after you’ve seen the movie.  Seriously – it’s AOK.  But come back!  Promise?

You’re back? Great!  Wasn’t it good?  I know, right?

It’s the last day of school and Molly (Beanie Feldstein, Lady Bird) is ending the school year on top.  She’s class president and set to go to an Ivy League school in the fall.  By keeping her nose to the grindstone and focusing on her studies she has achieved all of the goals she’s set and has her future planned out not only for her but for her best friend Amy (Kaitlyn Dever, Beautiful Boy).  We all either knew a Molly in high school or were a Molly so it isn’t hard to completely get this character – and the way she looks down on those that didn’t put the same effort forward in school, or at least the effort she’s deemed worthy.

When Molly finds out that several key people she originally had written off as destined to be losers for life are also moving on to luxe post-high school careers, she realizes she could have had fun all four years of high school and still made it big. Thus begins a quest for Molly and Amy to get their party on by any means necessary, leading them through a seemingly endless night of encounters with oddball characters and a journey of self-discovery before their graduation ceremony the next morning.

Much of Booksmart follows a typical trajectory of high school comedy that feels safe and familiar but the movie is as unpredictable as they come.  You have your stock characters that flow through (jock, tramp, brain, etc) but all are given a neat little bounce by screenwriters Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Katie Silberman (Isn’t it Romantic), and Susanna Fogel.  No one is quite who you expect them to be…and no one ends the film in quite the same way they start out.  Actress Olivia Wilde (The Lazarus Effect) makes her feature directing debut and shows a real knack for establishing a tone and a rhythm for Molly, Amy, and the strange people they find themselves hanging out with over the course of the evening.

Aside from introducing us to a host of interesting characters (and fresh-faced actors), the film is routinely laugh-out-loud funny as the girls find themselves in increasingly bizarre situations. These moments spring forth naturally and the comedy never feels forced, while there is a lot of physical humor there’s quite a bit of verbal banter that elicits laughs.  Audiences are used to being shown what’s funny but it’s rare for a movie to ask them to listen – you’d almost need to see it twice to get all the humor that is thrown in, though I don’t think it would be a hard sell to get people to screen this one a second time.

The movie wouldn’t work at all if the two leads hadn’t had the kind of chemistry they do. As much as romantic chemistry plays a part in convincing viewers that people are in love, chemistry between friends is almost harder to generate because it requires an intimacy that isn’t always physically shown but more emotionally present.  You buy that Feldstein and Dever would be friends in the movie and in real life and while Molly is the more alpha of the two, Amy is no shrinking violet at the end of the day.  We know from the start that Amy is a lesbian and the film wisely starts with the whole “coming out” story long since told – now she’s just finding her way and I appreciated that she was treated like everyone else in the movie looking for love and just as confused as the rest of them.

With so many memorable performances in the movie, from Billie Lourd’s (Star Wars: The Last Jedi) scene-stealing party girl to Skyler Gisondo (Vacation) as a try-hard looking to impress Molly, it seems wrong to single out just one actor but Feldstein is the true breakout star of Booksmart.  Ably holding her own against Bette Midler on the Broadway stage in Hello, Dolly! two years ago and proving a good foil for Saoirse Ronan’s Lady Bird (a role quite similar to Molly) in 2017, Feldstein finally steps fully into the spotlight and earns her place in the sun.  As much as Molly deserves to be taken down a notch or suffer through an embarrassing situation…if it weren’t for Feldstein’s irrepressible charm you’d be ready to push her off a cliff but instead you completely get where she’s coming from.

If we must talk negatives, I can drudge up a few. Personally, I wasn’t a fan of the soundtrack to this (sorry/not sorry) or an unnecessary subplot involving a teacher-student relationship and that’s what ultimately keeps the movie from being in the true upper echelon of high school comedies. Even that being said, Booksmart almost instantly earns a right to walk the hallowed halls of high school fame.  It’s fun, it’s riotously funny, and I enjoyed having absolutely no clue how it would end — that’s saying a lot for a genre comedy that’s been done many times before.