‘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: ‘Pacific Rim: Uprising’ Has a Few Interesting Moments Buried Within an Indifferently Presented Spectacle

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CREDIT: Legendary Pictures/Universal Pictures

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

Starring: John Boyega, Scott Eastwood, Cailee Spaeny, Charlie Day, Rinko Kikuchi, Burn Gorman, Jing Tian

Director: Steven S. DeKnight

Running Time: 111 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Kaiju Guts, Tech Sparks, and Human Cuts and Bruises

Release Date: March 23, 2018

Pacific Rim: Uprising does not offer much in the way of a new paradigm in the annals of giant mecha or giant monsters. Honestly, the first Pacific Rim did not really offer that either. To be fair, this series’ purpose in terms of concept and design has never really been about establishing something groundbreaking (to my eyes, anyway). It has been more about the distillation of the gigantic tech and creature genres into something approaching an ideal form. That approach is all well and good as an academic exercise, but it does not have enough inherent oomph to ensure a fully entertaining feature-length film.

It is ten years since humans won the war against the interdimensional beings known as the Kaiju. There has been no hint of another breach by these creatures into Earth, but the training programs designed to fight against them are still operating. There is a weird mix between a sense of security that the threat has been permanently neutralized and an ever-present emphasis on defense. This seeming paradox is never commented upon, which gives the sense that this film has an ill-defined understanding of its own world. But it doesn’t really matter, because sure enough the Kaiju do return, and it is a good thing that the Jaeger program never folded.

The Jaegers were the one great concept of the first Pacific Rim, but in Uprising, their usage is rather perfunctory. As the mental stress is so great, these metallic war machines must be simultaneously operated by two pilots. They are neurally connected to each other, creating a partnership so intimate that they share not just responsibilities but memories and physiology as well, for a connection that lies somewhere between artificial and chemical. The main partnership this time is that between Jake Pentecost (John Boyega), the son of a hero from the first film who gets his personality across mostly through his ice cream eating habits, and Amara (Cailee Spaeny), who gets cool points for building her own Jaeger but mostly comes across as the thinnest of archetypes. These two have only one notable memory-sharing moment, and it registers as little more than just hitting a necessary story beat.

The PR:U trailers position Boyega as the star, and while he does lead the way in screen time, the only notable degree of star power among the cast comes from Charlie Day, returning as the eccentric Dr. Newt Geiszler. He is emblematic of how this film has no idea what to do with its best assets. Newt has been in a bit of a mind-meld relationship with a Kaiju specimen, which might just have something to do with why they have returned. So to a certain extent, he is the main villain this time around. But inexplicably, he spends the entire climax just overlooking the action and not participating in it at all. This is a film that has its toys lined up but little in the way of a plan (or an interesting plan, that is) for how to deploy them.

Pacific Rim: Uprising is Recommended If You Like: Kaiju Fever, John Boyega Making Himself a Sundae, Charlie Day Given Plenty of Space (But Not Enough) to Go Crazy

Grade: 2 out of 5 Kaiju Wives

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Detroit’ is a Nauseatingly Intense Portrait of Abuse of Power

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Annapurna Pictures

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

Starring: John Boyega, Will Poulter, Algee Smith, Anthony Mackie, Jason Mitchell, Jacob Latimore, Jack Reynor, Ben O’Toole, Hannah Murray, Kaitlyn Dever, John Krasinski

Director: Kathryn Bigelow

Running Time: 143 Minutes

Rating: R for a Real-Life Waking Nightmare

Release Date: July 28, 2017 (Limited)/Expands Nationwide August 4, 2017

To sum up my feelings on Detroit, I feel compelled to borrow from Trevor Noah’s take on the footage of the Philando Castile shooting: I can’t really recommend that anyone watch it, even though I think everyone needs to see it. Director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal’s dramatization of the 1967 Algiers Motel incident is often sickening and rarely allows for any catharsis, even in its slower moments. Even the epilogue title cards, which typically let some light shine through and or at least offer some hope, are just as depressing. The ending left me on edge, about to break down and cry. The point of Detroit is not depression porn, or value posturing, but capturing a moment of a social ill that is not just a moment but a lingering epidemic. Its message needs to be heard, and it is presented in a manner in which it cannot be ignored.

Going into Detroit, I knew little about the specifics of this incident beyond its racial overtones. But soon enough the truth became depressingly obvious. As the film descends into the pit of its most harrowing moments, it becomes clearer and clearer what sort of terrible ending it is headed towards. We have seen this absence of redemption and justice again and again. The smallest of comforts can be drawn from the fact that this is not a new tragedy, but that only leads to the realization that we may be suffering through a never-ending cycle of violence.

Some of the details of the real-life July 1967 event remain in dispute, and the film makes sure to acknowledge that. What is clear, though, is that three black men died that night and that nine other motel residents – seven more black men and two white women – were badly beaten. Without the ubiquitous recording technology of today, it is impossible to know exactly what happened, but it is not hard to accept Detroit’s version of events.

The narrative unfolds in three portions. The opening is a survey of the racial tension of the country in general and Detroit specifically, with an animated prologue explaining how the end of Civil War and its resulting migratory patterns led to this crisis. The conclusion is a pointedly abrupt courtroom drama. But the significant majority is the middle, which reenacts the night at a seemingly real-time pace. It plays like a horror film, with the Detroit police as the home invaders. The Michigan State Police and National Guard offer some chances to escape the terror, but only in a way that protects themselves and provides no long-term relief.

Detroit features a notably large cast for such a painfully intimate setting, and each individual is given their moment to illustrate the major themes. As a security guard attempting to aid both the police and the victims, John Boyega is the personification of internal conflict. As a brazenly, sadistically racist officer, Will Poulter makes it difficult to hold on to the belief that no person is intrinsically evil. A certain well-known actor shows up late and plays strikingly against type as the officers’ lawyer. And Algee Smith has a star turn as one of the victims. He plays Cleveland Larry Reed, a singer attempting to break through with up-and-coming R&B group The Dramatics. You can see his soul withering away at every turn, but just enough brightness shines through on his face to suggest that maybe, just maybe, a happy future could be in store.

Detroit is Recommended If You Like: Fruitvale Station, Home Invasion Horror, Getting Righteously Angry

Grade: 4.5 out of 5 Death “Games”

This Is a Movie Review: The Circle

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This review was originally published on News Cult in April 2017.

Starring: Emma Watson, Tom Hanks, Karen Gillan, Patton Oswalt, John Boyega

Director: James Ponsoldt

Running Time: 110 Minutes

Rating: PG-13, Because When You Have Cameras Everywhere, You’re Gonna See Something

Release Date: April 28, 2017

As the tagline to The Circle informs us, “Knowing everything is good. Knowing everything is better.” As the plot of The Circle demonstrates to us, nailing a tone is good; nailing several different tones is really hard.

This film’s titular company should feel intimately familiar to anyone alive and plugged-in in 2017. The Circle is basically Google and Facebook combined, and considering the extensive connectivity in today’s major tech and social companies, that combination is not exactly far from reality. Throw the NSA and its massive data collection into this stew, bandy about disturbing maxims like “secrets are lies,” and you’ve got yourself a formula for a relevant paranoid (or not so paranoid) thriller.

Success in such an endeavor requires a protagonist that makes sense or at least one whose motivations can be tracked. Alas, Mae Holland (Emma Watson), the Circle’s latest recruit, swings wildly between suspicion and full-bore acceptance of the surveillance state. She is wildly uncomfortable in a standout early scene when she is indoctrinated into the corporate culture, but soon enough she is working alongside the company heads (Tom Hanks and Patton Oswalt) and pushing forward their most privacy-invading initiatives. A mysterious Circle employee (John Boyega) warns Mae about the dangers of what lies ahead, and it is never clear if she trusts him or completely ignores him. Ultimately, she seeks to expose those at the top, but an oddly pitched final shot prompts the question, “To what end?”

The one unqualified success of The Circle is the series of online comments that populate the screen at various points. Mae volunteers to record her whole life to demonstrate her belief in putting cameras everywhere, and her online followers chime in with their various observations. Most of them are along the lines of “You go, Mae!” or “Should we be watching this?” But every tenth one is some hilariously banal declaration like “making a sandwich” or “time to go poo.” This type of humor hits you sideways and buoys The Circle – if only this sort of controlled unpredictability could have been maintained throughout.

The Circle is Recommended If You Like: Nerve, Evil Tom Hanks, YouTube Comments, One More Chance to See Bill Paxton on the Big Screen

Grade: 3 out of 5 Cheeses From Last Year