‘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: I Have No Idea How to Make Sense of ‘The Nutcracker and the Four Realms,’ But At Least It’s Vaguely Enjoyable

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CREDIT: Laurie Sparham/Disney Enterprises

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

Starring: Mackenzie Foy, Keira Knightley, Matthew Macfadyen, Eugenio Derbez, Richard E. Grant, Helen Mirren, Morgan Freeman, Misty Copeland

Directors: Lasse Hallström and Joe Johnston

Running Time: 99 Minutes

Rating: PG for Mildly Scary Rodents

Release Date: November 2, 2018

In The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, Mr. Stahlbaum’s (Matthew Macfayden) wife has recently passed away, so now he wants to make sure that he and his children are able to keep it together. What does he believe is the best way to do so? Why, dancing, of course! They head off to a Christmas ball, where he insists to his headstrong daughter Clara (Mackenzie Foy) that she must save one dance for him. When they arrive, she has no interest in dancing, but by the end, the entire Stahlbaum family is dancing together. How does she end up changing her mind? I guess it must have something to do with her impromptu journey through a magical, Narnia-like realm, but I’m not sure show. This movie resembles a hero’s journey in which lessons are learned, but it is not particularly clear what those lessons are, beyond the simple “be brave” and “appearances can be deceiving.” But regardless, Mr. Stahlbaum’s wish for dancing is fulfilled, so … mission accomplished?

Beyond Clara’s internal fortitude, the main potential attraction in the Four Realms is Keira Knightley’s weirdly affected performance as the Sugar Plum Fairy. As one of the leaders of the realms, she sounds like a body snatcher doing an impression of a ditzy supermodel. She speaks in baby-talk neologisms that make her sound like a character from Rugrats. The way she says “Oh, poo” is transcendent.

Basically, what it boils down to is this: I have no idea how closely this film resembles the original 1816 short story, and I do not care to look it up. (I’m guessing the plot doesn’t matter all that much in the ballet.) The Nutcracker and the Four Realms lacks a sense of of clear purpose and meaning and comes with a psychedelic edge that often goes along with misbegotten fantasy family movies. I would not expect such a surreal flavor from either of its co-directors (Lasse Hallström and Joe Johnston), but accidental surrealism is often the best surrealism.

The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is Recommended If You Like: I have absolutely no clue.

Grade: 3 out of 5 Mice

This Is a Movie Review: Melissa McCarthy, Richard E. Grant, and Jane Curtin Bring the Literary Forgery Biopic ‘Can You Ever Forgive Me?’ to Deliciously Caustic Life

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CREDIT: Mary Cybulski/Twentieth Century Fox

This review was originally published on News Cult in October 2018.

Starring: Melissa McCarthy, Richard E. Grant, Dolly Wells, Jane Curtin, Ben Falcone

Director: Marielle Heller

Running Time: 107 Minutes

Rating: R for Naughty, Foul-Mouthed Witticisms

Release Date: October 19, 2018 (Limited)

I would like to begin my review of Can You Ever Forgive Me? by first saying how happy I am to see Jane Curtin on screen in a role worthy of her talents. Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant are going to get the most praise out of this cast, and rightly so, as they play the two main characters with wonderfully caustic aplomb, but I want to make sure that Ms. Curtin does not get lost in the mix. Whenever I see her in old SNL clips, I wonder how she is not still one of the biggest comedy superstars around (at least she still is in my heart). Sure, few folks have ever maintained such a status into their seventies, but Curtin remains spry and clearly capable of throwing out some deadly zingers. And as Marjorie, the (understandably) impatient literary agent of an unruly client, she is doing exactly what any Jane Curtin fan wants to see.

That client is Lee Israel, who achieved a bit of success in the ’70s and ’80s with biographies of the likes of actress Tallulah Bankhead and game show panelist Dorothy Kilgallen. She is now struggling to pay her bills, partly because she insists on only writing about people who were popular decades ago and partly because she is too antisocial to hold down any regular job or maintain any human relationship. So she turns to penning letters that she passes off as the work of famous writers like Dorothy Parker and Noel Coward, selling the forgeries to collectors who are willing to play top dollar. Melissa McCarthy may not seem like the obvious choice to play Lee, though her aggressive comedy chops certainly lend themselves well to cynical wit-slinging. McCarthy actually benefits immensely from being able to underplay a bit. Lee is just as unapologetic as McCarthy’s normal stable of characters, so in a way Lee is actually right in her wheelhouse, but with fewer temptations to go more over-the-top than is bearable.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a bit of a two-hander, with a significant chunk of the runtime consisting of the shenanigans between Lee and her drinking buddy/partner-in-crime Jack Hock (Grant), a bon vivant in similarly dire financial straits. I know Grant primarily as the villainous puppetmaster Dr. Zander Rice in last year’s Logan, but fans of his breakthrough performance in Withnail and I will likely find plenty to recognize and love here. And those unfamiliar with Withnail should be happy to discover his infectious comedy chops. Lee and Jack are a salty-and-tart odd couple; they’re both gay, but also somehow kindred spirits. Their friendship fuels each of them to find a purpose in life, although their relationship is a bit volatile, as much of it is built around a criminal enterprise. Can You Ever Forgive Me? Resembles redemption narrative, but not quite. Instead, it is a story of self-actualization that manages to have as much of a naughty good time as it can.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is Recommended If You Like: Withnail and I, All About Eve, Sideways

Grade: 4 out of 5 Forgeries