‘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: ‘The Little Stranger’ is Obscure Gothic Horror in an English Manor

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CREDIT: Nicola Dove/Focus Features

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

Starring: Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson, Charlotte Rampling, Will Poulter, Liv Hill

Director: Lenny Abrahamson

Running Time: 111 Minutes

Rating: R for Properly Disturbing Behavior

Release Date: August 31, 2018 (Moderate)

Many of the crucial events in The Little Stranger are never fully seen. A dog attacks a girl behind a curtain. The bells used to call on the housemaid ring furiously even though nobody is ringing them. And the main character, Dr. Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson), is plagued by repressed memories and his own unconscious behavior. Or at least that’s what he suspects and what the editing leads us to believe. It all begins with Faraday arriving at Hundreds Hall, a large country manor that wrings plenty of gothic horror out of its perpetual state of dreary English autumn. He is there to treat Roddy Ayres (Will Poulter), a disfigured veteran with PTSD.

The house is a bit of a totem for Faraday, as his mother worked as a maid there when he was a young boy. He is a sort of Jay Gatsby figure, coming from modest means and existing so closely to, yet so far from, the rarefied air of respectable society. Unlike Gatsby, he does not crave glamor so much as acceptance. He has never really been rejected by the type of people he treats, but he still yearns to ensure his place among them. It looks like he has fully secured it via a romance with Roddy’s sister Caroline (Ruth Wilson). But tragedy is hellbent against a happy ending coming to fruition. And what is the agent of that tragedy? Like so much of this movie, it prefers to keep itself obscure.

The Little Stranger is based on the novel of the same name by Sarah Waters, who also wrote Fingersmith, which was adapted into the 2016 Korean film The Handmaiden. Both films deal with themes of class and traffic in plot twists involving major reversals uncovered by seeing an earlier scene from a different vantage point. The major thrill of The Handmaiden is when it fully reveals its machinations for a mindblowing conclusion. The Little Stranger is much more subdued, to a fault. It asks its audience to soak in its mystery without much hope for full answers. Its craft on its way to the anticlimax is plenty chilling, but it winds up in a corner that is too dark to draw any satisfying conclusion.

The Little Stranger is Recommended If You Like: Some Dreary British Mashup of The Great Gatsby and The Handmaiden

Grade: 3 out of 5 Repressed Memories

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: The Tom Cruise-Starring Biopic ‘American Made’ is a Rollicking Indictment of Governmental Abuse of Power

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CREDIT: Universal Pictures

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

Starring: Tom Cruise, Sarah Wright Olsen, Domhnall Gleeson, Caleb Landry Jones, Jayma Mays, Jesse Plemons, Lola Kirke

Director: Doug Liman

Running Time: 117 Minutes

Rating: R for High Stress Profanity and a Quick Sex Montage

Release Date: September 29, 2017

Did Barry Seal live the American Dream? The marks of such an achievement are all there. The former TWA pilot rose from relatively modest means, married a beautiful woman (Sarah Wright Olsen), had three beautiful kids, was enriched by his own government, used those riches to move his family into a huge plot of land, and now Tom Cruise is playing him in a biopic. But if this is indeed the American Dream, ideals are not immune to being warped by the harshness of reality. Spoiler alert for a true story: Barry dies at the end. He still manages to accrue an insane streak of good luck, and the deadliest parts of his story are filled with mythic iconography, but his example is a stark reminder that this country’s greatness is not always so straightforward as it purports to be.

As American Made portrays him, Seal is an opportunist, but the opportunities come straight to him, from sources that are pretty hard to say no to. A mysterious CIA agent (Domhnall Gleeson) shows up out of the blue and offers him a deal to fly reconnaissance missions and then act as a courier to the Latin American political figures that the U.S. government covertly supports. His presence leads him into the clutches of Pablo Escobar and the Medellín cartel, who strongarm him into smuggling their product. You might think this would be the end of the road for Seal, but the U.S. is kinda-sorta allies with the Medellíns (anything to oppose the commies!).

Seal’s smuggling does attract the ire of just about every major American law enforcement agency, but he keeps sliding free. While the bulk of his work is illegal, it is also mostly government-sanctioned, even when the CIA erases his existence from their files. Ultimately, though, his government – the same one that made him very rich – hangs him out to dry. As the affairs in Latin America ultimately lead to the Iran-Contra scandal, it becomes unavoidably clear that the highest echelons of government are populated by international geopolitical criminals. And yet it is the Barry Seal’s of the world, who nominally remain private citizens, who bear the bulk of the suffering. True, he chooses to play his part and is not exactly the most upstanding person, but he is never really free to live as he pleases. His life looks pretty fun, but it is not hard to notice the gross abuse of power underneath that slick veneer.

With American Made and 2014’s Edge of Tomorrow, director Doug Liman is now a specialist in subverting the aura of Tom Cruise. If you know nothing of the actor’s personal life, it is pretty much impossible not to be charmed by him. And even if you do know about the Scientology shenanigans and all the rest of it, he still might win you over a bit despite yourself. Cruise cranks the charm at full throttle to get Seal out of so many sticky situations, but it only works if the powers that be say so. American Made shows that his star still shines on but also that he (just like the myth of the American Dream) only endures because powers greater than any one individual allow it to.

American Made is Recommended If You Like: Top Gun, Re-evaluating Top Gun, Deconstructing Tom Cruise, Narcos

Grade: 4 out of 5 Kilos

This Is a Movie Review: mother!

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I don’t want to get into too many specifics, or really any specifics at all about mother!, even though I could just include a spoiler alert, and I imagine plenty of people reading this review have already seen it anyway. The plain truth is, this movie benefits particularly from going into it with as few preconceived notions as possible, perhaps more so than any other movie ever (give or take a Cabin in the Woods). The marketing has been so vague that anyone who feels like they’ve been misled really shouldn’t feel that way. For those who knew that they were getting into something unpredictable, there have been some criticisms that it is too heavy-handed, too unsubtle, and/or too cacophonous to effectively work as metaphor. And that may well be, but the whole thing is too deliriously energetic to not be enjoyable. This is… cinema.

One more note: if she weren’t already famous with her SNL persona, Kristen Wiig could easily establish a reputation as a character actress specializing in publicist/agent/manager roles.

I give mother! my acknowledgement that it exists.