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 ~ Solo: A Star Wars Story


The Facts
:

Synopsis: During an adventure into a dark criminal underworld, Han Solo meets his future copilot Chewbacca and encounters Lando Calrissian years before joining the Rebellion.

Stars: Alden Ehrenreich, Woody Harrelson, Emilia Clarke, Donald Glover, Thandie Newton, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Joonas Suotamo, Michael K. Williams, Ian Kenny, Warwick Davis, Clint Howard, Paul Bettany, Jon Favreau

Director: Ron Howard

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 135 minutes

TMMM Score: (5.5/10)

Review: I was one of the few people that didn’t latch on to 2016’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Most thought it was one of the best (!!) entries in the Star Wars universe but I found it to be a cash-grabbing, gap-filling, problematic undertaking that brought to lax life characters and situations we had heard about in the original trilogy of films. It just didn’t go anywhere for me because it had nowhere to go. We knew what was going to happen so, like Titanic, audiences were waiting around for a couple of hours for the ship to sink.

Like Rogue One, Solo: A Star Wars Story reaches back into galactic history to the origins of Han Solo, the character first portrayed by Harrison Ford. Unfortunately, the same problems of storytelling and purpose existed for me while watching Solo, which, though a marked improvement in pace and plot over Rogue One, still had me struggling with the question of “Why?” Even for a slightly-more-than-casual-fan of the Star Wars series like myself, I kept wondering when the story would take a surprising turn or stake its claim as the original tale it claims to be. Despite some stray sparks of ingenuity, Solo winds up being another strange miss by Lucasfilm that finds itself yet again playing it safe with its cash cow franchise.

Bursting into action before the title is even on the screen, the problems I had with Solo also started pretty early on. For one thing, the cinematography by Bradford Young (A Most Violent Year) is so dark that I half-believed something to be wrong with the projection. Large stretches of the movie are so dim that facial features are fuzzy and action sequences feel like they were filmed inside a dank warehouse that forgot to pay their electric bill. Introduced to wannabe pilot Han (Alden Ehrenreich, Beautiful Creatures) as he wriggles out of a sticky situation with his band of criminals on Corellia, taking his girlfriend Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke, Terminator Genisys) along with him. In the first of several well-staged space chases, Han and Qi’ra attempt to evade capture with Han’s flying skills put to the test. Though Han escapes the planet, Qi’ra isn’t so lucky. Pledging to return to save her, Han joins the Imperial flight academy and gains his last name in the process. Flash forward three years to find Han has been kicked out of the academy and is now a grunt on the ground doing battle.

It’s in the wages of war that the resourceful Han buddies up with a cadre of thieves led by Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson, Now You See Me 2) and Val (Thandie Newton) but not before almost being torn apart by a muddy Wookie named Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo, Star Wars: The Force Awakens). Befriending the hairy beast, Han and Chewie join Tobias and Val on a mission that sets the stage for a whole new world of trouble and adventure. Along the way Han plays cards with the charming Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover, The Martian) in the hopes of winning his prized ship the Millennium Falcon, avoids a band of mysterious space pirates, and runs afoul of Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany, Avengers: Infinity War) who has a familiar face from Han’s past in his employ. Then there’s Han’s first experience with the Kessel Run, a hyperspace route known for its treacherous tendencies that plays a factor in Han’s later years.

It’s well known that Solo had a bumpy go of it during its production. Original directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller were fired when filming was nearly complete and producers brought in Oscar winner Ron Howard (Splash!) to oversee the rest of the process and film additional scenes. There were also rumors certain stars had to work with an acting coach to beef up their likability factor. Strangely, this isn’t unusual for this franchise; in several of the recent Star Wars films (and Rogue One), the director was replaced at some point during filming or just prior to getting underway. Lord/Miller are known for their comedies (21 Jump Street) and Howard couldn’t be any different in style as a director – it’s a credit to the film that you can’t always tell where the Lord/Miller material ended and the Howard contributions began.

Where the film falls flat is in the dull script by Lawrence and Jonathan Kasdan. Lawrence has a long history with this series, dating back to writing The Empire Strikes Back while Jon is the newbie yet neither bring the type of history or fresh voice that feels necessary. It’s the same dusty triple cross heist tale we’ve seen done before and far better. Only Glover’s memorable Lando and especially Phoebe Waller-Bridge (Goodbye Christopher Robin) as Lando’s wry droid L3 create any real excitement. Both Glover and Waller-Bridge are known for their writing so one wonders what this film could have been had producers colored outside the lines a bit more.

As he has shown in previous roles and especially in Hail, Caesar!, Ehrenreich is an easy-going presence and it’s not hard to see why he was sought out for the role. Strangely, it’s Ehrenreich that was supposed to have needed additional help to increase his matinee-idol appeal and I’m also guessing Clarke benefited greatly from Howard’s more nuanced work with actors. Harrelson is doing his usual grizzled shtick while Bettany feels like he’s played this role multiple times before. The less said about Jon Favreau (Iron Man) voicing a CGI member of Beckett’s group, the better. Bonus points if you spot other key figures from the Star Wars universe who aren’t always playing the characters they are most known for.

I’m sure hardcore fans will find a lot to enjoy here as there are many tidbits discussed in later films that are introduced (yes, you’ll find out how Han gets his blaster) and which likely will cause a ripple of knowing laugher in well-versed crowds. There is a strange abundance of annoying periphery players and it says something when the star of the movie isn’t even one of the Top 3 interesting characters of the film. Personally, I wish the film had reached a bit farther back in Han’s tale instead of starting so late in his game but that would likely be a whole movie unto itself. Aside from a scant few twists and one major head-scratching appearance near the end there’s little here in his first real adventure that hasn’t been seen before.