‘Chaos Walking’ is an Impenetrable But Fascinating Piece of Dystopian Sci-Fi

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Chaos Walking (CREDIT: Lionsgate)

Starring: Tom Holland, Daisy Ridley, Mads Mikkelsen, David Oyelowo, Demián Bichir, Cynthia Erivo, Nick Jonas, Kurt Sutter, Óscar Jaenada

Director: Doug Liman

Running Time: 109 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Wham-Bam Action

Release Date: March 5, 2021

Chaos Walking is one of those movies where I’m not entirely sure what’s going on, but I kind of wish I did know more, because the things that I can make sense out of really do grab my attention. It’s an apt title then. Chaos really is walking everywhere, baby! That’s most obvious in the form of its signature visual motif: a swirl of inner thoughts dancing around people’s heads known as “the Noise.” All the men on this planet are afflicted by this condition, and it’s presented so matter-of-factly and therefore so effectively. I initially found it jarring, almost overwhelming, but within ten minutes it made all the sense in the world. I wish I could say the same thing about the plot, though. It’s driven by some sort of fight to figure out the secrets underpinning society, as is the case with so much dystopian sci-fi. I can tell that Tom Holland is earnest and well-intentioned and that Daisy Ridley is probably the key to everything and that Mads Mikkelsen doesn’t want them to succeed because he’s so grumpy, but beyond that, I feel like I needed to study the novel trilogy the film is based on to really understand the specifics.

If you can’t quite follow a movie’s storyline, you can at least vibe with it a bit if you can get on the wavelength of its action energy and its stylistic approaches. From a production design standpoint, Chaos Walking‘s decor is basically Hunger Games-esque arboreal but without the whiz-bang flamboyance. On a thematic level, it clearly has something to say about religion, though who’s to say what exactly that something is, though it’s at least fun to hear characters shout things like “I am the sinner! Purify my sin!” And on the action front, director Doug Liman is a reliable pro. He can even make you absolutely compelled by a chase scene that’s clearly a ripoff of Return of the Jedi‘s speeder bike sequence. (It even features Star Wars‘ very own Daisy Ridley, to boot!)

In many ways, Chaos Walking struck me as shouty, empty, and stitched-together. But I don’t want to dismiss it entirely, because it also struck me as intriguing, unique, and unburdened by expectations. This is a movie that’s comfortable being its own damn self, almost a little too much so. But that qualification is also why I admire it. At first glance, it looks like a generic slice of dystopian YA, but sticking with it allows it time to reveal that it’s a bit of an odd beast. Chaos is  indeed walking, and it’s reigning supreme, and I can’t argue with that.

Chaos Walking is Recommended If You Like: Lots of trees, Visually loud neuroticism, Differences between boys and girls writ large

Grade: 3 out of 5 Spackle Noises

‘The Rise of Skywalker’ is Frustrating and Deeply Satisfying – It’s So Great to Be Alive!

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CREDIT: Lucasfilm

This whole review discusses plot points in detail, so … spoiler warningggggggggggg!!!

I guess J.J. Abrams isn’t the one to cure Star Wars of its reputation for clunky and/or imaginative dialogue. So many of the lines in The Rise of Skywalker are variations of “Go! Go! Go!” or “I love my friends.” Except for C-3PO. Man, that guy is golden! Does Anthony Daniels write his own dialogue? I would like to nominate 3PO for Most Consistently Charming Character in Franchise Movie History. I mean, quips like “You didn’t say my name, sir, but I’m all right” – how can one droid bless us so much?!

I liked The Rise of Skywalker more than I didn’t. But for a movie that I like (love even!), there sure are a lot of elements that drove me  batty! And some of them could have been just fine (or brilliant even) if they had been carried out a little differently. I’ll get to the big one in a bit, but first off, why is the first hour or so of this movie a hunt for a McGuffin? When characters are on the run in Star Wars, their purpose is clear and meaningful. It’s not just a hunt for a whatever device. Maybe it wouldn’t have felt so McGuffin-y if the danger weren’t dispatched so easily…

Speaking of, I’m fine with the “death” of Chewbacca turning out to be a bait and switch, but maybe give us at least five minutes to think that he might have actually died, so that it can resonate when we discover that he’s actually fine. Similarly, I think it’s perfectly okay that C-3PO’s memory wipe isn’t permanent, but let’s draw out some more mileage of the recovery of those memories. I’m sure they can easily get a tight five out of R2-D2 catching him up to speed.

Now for the big Big BIG one: I suspect that J.J. Abrams had decided that Rey was Palpatine’s granddaughter when he made The Force Awakens. But since he didn’t convey that explicitly, that left The Last Jedi free to say that her parents were nobodies. So Skywalker combines both origins, which tracks logically enough, but changes the message. Rey rejecting her Sith parentage is resonant, though it’s not as unique a message as the idea that powerful Jedi can come from anywhere. That message isn’t refuted, but it’s not underscored as much as I suspect would have been beneficial. So if JJ was married to the Palpatine-Rey connection, what if he were to instead make it a King Herod situation, wherein Palpatine senses Rey’s remarkable power and becomes dead set on hunting her down and either recruiting her or destroying her?

Hey, here’s another question I have: what did Finn need to tell Rey? My suspicion was that it was a confession of love, since he was obviously so smitten with her when they first met, and I think they’ve always been great together. But then he had possible sparks with Rose and then he has a connection with Jannah (not to mention Poe, although any romance there was only ever speculative). Meanwhile, Rey and Kylo Ben are getting ever closer to form that dyad. So maybe I misread what Finn needed to say. But whatever it was, it was clearly important to him, and it just never came up again! Why not add 30 seconds for some unburdening?

But for all those miscues, I am massively satisfied by the ending, particularly Rey declaring herself a Skywalker and the entire trilogy-wide resolution of her arc. When all those Jedi voices reach out to her, it’s transcendent. Why not have more moments like that?! But what we got is enough to leave me happy, and The Last Jedi‘s contribution of the conviction that great Jedi can come from anywhere remains intact. And the aesthetic Star Wars qualities like droids beeping and Babu Frick tinkering are as lovely as ever.

TL;DR: increase the bleep-bloops and good kind of mystical woo-doo, decrease the bad kind of mystical woo-woo.

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Peter Rabbit’ is Fun Enough for the Kiddos, But It’s Also Kind of Insane

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CREDIT: Sony Pictures

This review was originally posted on News Cult in February 2018.

Starring: James Corden, Domhnall Gleeson, Rose Byrne, Daisy Ridley, Margot Robbie, Elizabeth Debicki, Matt Lucas, Sia, Sam Neill

Director: Will Gluck

Running Time: 93 Minutes

Rating: PG for Cartoonish, But Quite Dangerous, Violence

Release Date: February 9, 2018

For the most part, Peter Rabbit is just another trifling kids movie with CG-animated animals. It is not the worst of the menagerie, though it is far from the best. But like many movies of this ilk, it also raises some weird metaphysical conundrums that I do not think it ever planned on grappling with but that it cannot avoid entirely. When you have anthropomorphic animals interacting with humans, especially when those humans are played by live-action actors, you have to decide how much the humans can recognize the critters’ extraordinary abilities. When the beasts talk to each other, does it just sound like animal noises to people? Or can they hear it perfectly, thus forcing the animals to be discreet? Or maybe there is only Dr. Dolittle-type, going mad over the loneliness of his interspecies communication powers.

In this case, Peter (James Corden), his triplet sisters Mopsy (Elizabeth Debicki), Flopsy (Margot Robbie), and Cottontail (Daisy Ridley), and their cousin Benjamin Bunny (Matt Lucas) are quite sneaky, and as their schemes become more and more elaborate, there is no reason to pretend that they are not fully intelligent creatures. The confirmation that they can in fact talk to humans is a rather sloppy reveal, as it begs the question: how have they hidden this secret for so long? Regardless of what mysterious machinations they have pulled off, the narrative requires that they spill the truth, considering that Peter is responsible for extensive property damage, and furthermore, he wants to apologize to Bea (Rose Byrne), the human that he loves, and make peace with Thomas McGregor (Domhnall Gleeson), the human that he has been torturing. This all makes for a resolution that is sweet but with disturbing subtext.

But beyond that, this is a fairly typical entry for this genre, as typified by its soundtrack of the pop hits of the past twenty years. Len’s “Steal My Sunshine,” Basement Jaxx’s “Do Your Thing,” and Portugal. The Man’s “Feel It Still” will keep the kids bouncing in their chairs without challenging their soundscapes. Lady Bird can take note that Peter’s use of Dave Matthews Band’s “Crash Into Me” is not similarly profound. Elsewhere, the film’s raison d’être is excessively painful physical gags, including a truly worrying number of electrocutions (this is nowhere near as gentle as Beatrix Potter’s source material). There is a rake gag that I must admit I chuckled at, though I am concerned that the target audience will not realize how heavily indebted it is to The Simpsons. And that is indicative of the whole: a satisfying diversion, but with some worrisome implications.

Peter Rabbit is Recommended If You Like: MouseHunt, Dr. Dolittle, the Pop Dance Hits of Today!

Grade: 3 out of 5 Winking Rabbits

This Is a Movie Review: Kenneth Branagh’s Take on ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ Has a Killer Instinct But Not a Killer Execution

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CREDIT: Nicola Dove/Twentieth Century Fox

This review was originally posted on News Cult in November 2017.

Starring: Kenneth Branagh, Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr., Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, Marwan Kenzari, Olivia Colman, Lucy Boynton, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo

Director: Kenneth Branagh

Running Time: 114 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Stab Wounds and Attempted Gun Wounds

Release Date: November 10, 2017

Kenneth Branagh’s take on Hercule Poirot, one of the most famous and prolifically portrayed detectives in English literary history, is the sort of man who cannot enjoy his breakfast unless his two eggs are perfectly symmetrically arranged. As he puts, “I can only see the world as it should be.” His skill at identifying culprits so precisely derives from his distaste for his surroundings being askew in any capacity. And when a crime has been committed, things are certainly askew. For a Poirot newbie like myself, this thesis statement is clear and compelling enough. It points to a tradition that has led to a recently predominant style in which brilliant detectives do not fit on a normative intellectual scale.

As for how this version of this most classic of Poirot cases plays out, Branagh is eager to put his many new spins on locked room mystery tropes. But first, certain typical patterns are unavoidable. Each passenger must be introduced with just enough color to make everyone a legitimate suspect, and the camerawork must be painstakingly particular to note every cabin, door, and hidden compartment. But once the setup is through, there is fun to be had (or at least attempted) in mixing up expectations. Oftentimes, characters in these stories try to get away with little lies or hide pieces of their identities that ultimately prove to be quite telling. In this case, the experiment – and alas, mistake – is that everyone gives themselves away with such dishonesty.

A good mystery should be a few steps ahead of most of its viewers. Branagh does indeed pull that off, but he is also a few steps ahead of his own movie, which is not similarly advisable. The result is an end product in which the love for the genre is clear, but the volume at which it is being poked and prodded is too much weight to bear. Most of the performances are overly stiff, stuck in roles within roles in which the unnatural seams start to show. Only Michelle Pfeiffer manages to truly cut loose. Branagh’s formal openness is a good start, but ultimately a star-studded affair like this one requires much more lasting personalities to really hit.

Murder on the Orient Express is Recommended If You Like: Agatha Christie completism, Marvelous mustaches, the Michelle Pfeiffer Renaissance

Grade: 2.75 out of 5 Symmetrical Arrangements