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.

The Silver Bullet ~ Antlers



Synopsis
: A young teacher discovers her troubled student’s father and younger brother harbor a deadly supernatural secret. Taking the boy into her care, the teacher must fight for their survival against horrors beyond imagination.

Release Date:  TBD 2020

Thoughts: Never judge a book by it’s cover and never judge a movie by its title.  The first time I heard about a horror film coming out called Antlers, I wrote it off as another nature run amok schlock fest.

Wait though, take a look at that poster.  It’s kind of creepy and a little intriguing.  Ooo…it’s produced by Oscar-winner Guillermo del Toto (Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark)?  It’s starring Keri Russell (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) and Jesse Plemons (Game Night), two interesting actors that seemingly make intelligent, thoughtful choices on their projects?  Hey now, you say it’s directed by Scott Cooper, the same guy that gave us Crazy Heart and Out of the Furnace and it’s being distributed by indie offshoot Fox Searchlight?  Ok, but let’s wait and see about the trailer.

(Watches trailer with its eerie imagery and scant details that give little about the plot away that hasn’t already been provided in the promotional materials.)

OK. I’m sold.

Movie Review ~ Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

1

dawn_of_the_planet_of_the_apes_ver6

The Facts:

Synopsis: A growing nation of genetically evolved apes led by Caesar is threatened by a band of human survivors of the devastating virus unleashed a decade earlier.

Stars: Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, Keri Russell, Toby Kebbell, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Enrique Murciano, Kirk Acevedo, Judy Greer, Karin Konoval

Director: Matt Reeves

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 130 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  Okay, so we’re halfway through the summer movie season and, like every May-early August that has come before it, I think we’ve had our shares of high highs (Godzilla, Edge of Tomorrow, The Fault in Our Stars) and lowly lows (Jersey Boys, A Million Ways to Die in the West, Blended).  Some have incorrectly scoffed that Transformers: Age of Extinction will bring about the end of humanity but I say those critics just forgot to change out of their fuddy duddy pants.  Then there’s Tammy, the worst of the worst…the bubonic plague of the summer.

Don’t retreat to your lake cabins yet or focus solely on training for a fall marathon because July is just getting started and if Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is any indication, summer is about to heat up.  The sequel to 20th Century Fox’s 2011 surprise hit franchise reboot manages to be a hell of a good ride, emerging as a film that knows what it wants to achieve and uses it’s talent, budget, and running length wisely.

Three years ago I didn’t get much of a rise out of Rise of the Planet of the Apes.  Though the motion capture technology produced some impressively lifelike rendering of apes, it was bogged down by saggy leads (James Franco and Freida Pinto) and focused too much time on the human side of things.  It’s when the apes took center stage that the movie found its shape…but by that time the movie was nearly over.  Luckily, director Matt Reeves (Let the Right One In, Cloverfield) came onto the project wanting to make it an apes-first film so the sequel jettisons what didn’t work previously and gives us more time with the simian nation.

I’ll admit that the first 20 nearly wordless minutes of the picture had me squirming in my seat.  See, I’ve been trained so far in 2014 for my summer action flicks to come out swinging so it was jarring (but welcome) for a film of this magnitude to make the bold choice of starting off quiet, letting the audience get used to a world ravaged by disease where apes are the dominant species.  The beginning of the sequel re-introduces us to several hairy friends we got to know back in 2011, finding them communicating mostly in sign language (over half the film is subtitled) until they learn to literally raise their voices.

Caesar (performed by a flawless Andy Serkis, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug) is king of the colony of apes that escaped to the California forests 10 years ago.  In their getaway a deadly virus was unwittingly released, ravaging the majority of humanity that wasn’t genetically immune.  After a decade of toil, human and ape meet up once again when a small band of survivors led by Jason Clarke (Lawless, The Great Gatsby, Zero Dark Thirty), Gary Oldman (RoboCopThe Dark Knight Rises) & Keri Russell (Austenland) venture into the forest in hopes of using technology inside an abandoned dam to help power their dying city.

Meanwhile, Caesar battles rebellion within his own tribe as those less trusting plot to launch a deadly strike at the humans before they can destroy the apes.  With his scarred body and milky eye, vengeful rebellion leader Koba looks straight out of a nature run amok horror movie, which makes sense because he’s the scariest villain I’ve seen in quite some time.  Like Caesar, Koba is no ordinary ape and his subversive rampage is more Shakespearean in nature than paint-by-numbers evil-doer.

What I enjoyed most about the film wasn’t the nearly seamless blending of visual effects and live action but in the way it found room for good storytelling as well.  If we’re being honest, the plot isn’t much more than the oft-told mutinous parable of dissention within but it’s in the way that screenwriters Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, and Mark Bomback (The Wolverine) weave parallel themes of family, trust, and honor throughout the film that makes it more than your standard action sequel.

The motion capture technology has come a long way in the past three years, allowing Serkis and a full range of gifted performers free range to flesh out their primate characters.  While Serkis’ Caesar and Toby Kebbell’s Koba sometimes look a tad too animated, there are moments when the visuals are truly astounding and you start to wonder how Reeves directed two wild animals to perform with such vigor.  Best of show goes (once again) to orangutan Maurice who is not only amazingly played by Karin Konoval but rendered with 100% believability by the gigantic visual effects team.

If I’ve left out talking about the humans, it’s only because reviews sometimes have to leave out secondary characters which Clarke, Oldman, Russell, et. al certainly are.  Not knocking their talent or value to the overall effect of the picture but Reeves and his screenwriters have purposefully kept all humans on the sidelines and I’m positive that’s why the film works as well as it does.

Packed with action sequences that will keep you on the edge of your seat (check out the bravura and dizzying 360 degree shot on top of an armored tank and a high wire battle late in the film) and with an assured eye on the prize attitude from all involved, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is another step in the right direction for this happily burgeoning franchise.  I’m interested to see what’s next…as long as the future chapters keep those damn dirty humans at bay.

The Silver Bullet ~ Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

1

dawn_of_the_planet_of_the_apes_ver2

Synopsis: A growing nation of genetically evolved apes led by Caesar is threatened by a band of human survivors of the devastating virus unleashed a decade earlier. They reach a fragile peace, but it proves short-lived, as both sides are brought to the brink of a war that will determine who will emerge as Earth’s dominant species.

Release Date:  July 11, 2014

Thoughts: I find that my fear of primates grows with each new “crazy ape” film I subject myself to.  Officially gone are the days when I cried at the end of King Kong Lives and wished that Project X had turned out differently.  Though I think 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes was notable mostly for the amazing motion-capture work from Andy Serkis as smart ape Caesar, there was enough decent material remaining to warrant a sequel now three years later.  James Franco and the awful Frida Pinto are thankfully gone, replaced by new leads Jason Clarke (The Great Gatsby, Lawless) and Keri Russell (Austenland) with some added support from Gary Oldman (The Dark Knight Rises).  This first teaser may not make you pound your chest in ecstasy but it’s a nice whetting of your whistle for more ape antics coming in July.

Movie Review ~ Austenland

austenland

The Facts:

Synopsis: Obsessed with the BBC production of “Pride and Prejudice”, a woman travels to a Jane Austen theme park in search for her perfect gentleman.

Stars: Keri Russell, J.J. Feild, Bret McKenzie, James Callis, Jennifer Coolidge, Jane Seymour, Rupert Vansittart, Georgia King

Director: Jerusha Hess

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 97 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: Oh boy…rough waters ahead my dear readers.  Look, I’m no Jane Austen purist so I’m totally in favor for all these new slants on the world that Austen has created.  You want some Zombies with your Pride and Prejudice?  Great!  How about putting a few Sea Monsters in Sense and Sensibility?  Go for it!  Have an idea to take Emma and morph it into a high school comedy with valley girls Beverly Hills?  Go write Clueless!  Just for the love of Mr. Darcy, make it interesting…and good.

Sadly, the makers of Austenland didn’t heed my advice and instead have brought Shannon Hale’s novel (which I haven’t read) to gloomy life in a film that with this cast and this story would have been better suited to play on the Lifetime channel.  Everything about the film is mediocre, from the milquetoast lead performance of Keri Russell to the bland direction from Jerusha Hess (making her directing debut after co-writing Napoleon Dynamite and the epically awful Nacho Libre).

The exceedingly thin set-up has our Austen-obsessed leading lady (named Jane, natch) who blows her entire life-savings on an immersive experience at Austenland, a retreat in England that caters to every custom of the time period in which Austen’s characters lived.  It’s a very novel (pun!) concept, actually, that’s sadly not taken as seriously as is necessary if the writers had really wanted to go the distance.  I would have preferred the film be truly immersive and have these modern characters go without any modern trappings and show what comedy comes from the complete absence of the 21st century influences.  Instead we have a film with its high button shoes planted ungainly in both time periods.

For a film that’s idolizing one of the most popular female writers in history, the women are probably the least interesting people on screen.  In addition to Russell’s non-mesmerizing turn we have Jennifer Coolidge recycling her dim-bulb shtick that gets old before the actress has time to squeeze herself into a corset. Every facial expression, every line reading is given a hypodermic shot of Looney Tunes (the animated kind, not the state of mind) and it rubs you the wrong way like parmesan cheese on a rusty cheese grater.  One notch down from Coolidge is Georgia King (from the dreadful and thankfully cancelled TV comedy The New Normal) who plays her character as if Marilyn Monroe had waltzed into Mansfield Park.  Literally hopping from one scene to the next, King’s comedy is more puzzling than hilarious.  Jane Seymour’s (Live and Let Die) role is so uninteresting that the movie itself forgets about her two thirds of the way through.

If the movie has any success, it’s thanks to the men.  As the man standing in for the Mr. Darcy type, JJ Feild gets nearly everything right…from his initial exasperation at another troupe of ladies arriving in the fantastically designed countryside estate to his gradual realization that he’s kinda falling for Jane (though she’s so wishy-washy you have to wonder why).  Flitting through his dandy role, James Callis is tasked with fending off Coolidge’s cougar-like advances and seems to have a great time with the cat and mouse game.  Flight of the Conchords star Bret McKenzie (The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey) helps loosen Russell up and their scenes have a nice pop to them.  Who will wind up with whom turned out to be different than I thought, the only real surprise the movie has to offer.

I have to laugh at some of the critics that have called out the fact that there aren’t a lot of guests at Austenland.  With servants outnumbering the paying customers about 70 to 1, I found that element of the movie totally believable.  Promising an experience tailored to each visitor in which they are the only focus, why wouldn’t the powers that be want to keep the guest list small to achieve the kind of escapade that they are going for?  It’s a non-issue when there are so many other things wrong with the movie.

Perhaps this one would be good for people to discover at home on cable…which is where the movie should have premiered.  Its ambitions are so small and its potential so low that it’s hard to fathom why the movie was released in theaters at all by Sony Pictures Classics.  It’s a bargain basement affair…even with the handsome production design and strong supporting turns by a stable of game male actors.  If only the women weren’t so terribly tedious…Jane Austen wouldn’t approve.

The Silver Bullet ~ Austenland

austenland

Synopsis: Obsessed with the BBC production of “Pride and Prejudice”, a woman travels to a Jane Austen theme park in search for her perfect gentleman.

Release Date:  August 16, 2013

Thoughts: Jane Austen has it all.  Endless TV and movie adaptations from and inspired by her handful of popular novels and now her very own theme park.  Well, at least the theme park created for Austenland, a frothy looking comedy that feels like it should have played on the Hallmark Channel over the Labor Day weekend.  Don’t get me wrong, I think the film looks nice and breezy thanks to some comedic input from Jennifer Coolidge but there’s something a little lacking in star Keri Russell.  It almost feels like this was intended to be a star-vehicle for someone else and Russell was a fourth or fifth choice.  Still, never underestimate the power of Austen and her ticket selling abilities.

The Silver Bullet ~ Dark Skies

dark_skies

Synopsis: As the Barret family’s peaceful suburban life is rocked by an escalating series of disturbing events, they come to learn that a terrifying and deadly force is after them.

Release Date:  February 22, 2013

Thoughts: Poor Keri Russell, she just can’t catch a break.  Despite a winning performance in 2007’s Waitress, it seems that the former Felicity star keeps getting involved with projects that can’t get off the ground.  Dark Skies is yet another of the countless horror films that are made fast and cheap…if they drum up the normal healthy business in its first week of release the film could potentially be profitable even if it’s a stinker.  Audiences are catching wise to this formula, though, so Dark Skies will have to be especially strong to compete with a swath of similar titles arriving in late January/early February.