REVIEW: STAR WARS-THE RISE OF SKYWALKER (2019)

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STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER (2019)

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The Rise of Skywalker is the ninth and supposedly final chapter in the Star Wars saga, or at least the Skywalker family involvement in it. It takes place a year after The Last Jedi with the galaxy horrified at a signal sent out claiming to be that of the Emperor himself, Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid). The Sith lord has amassed a fleet of Star Destroyers, all with Death Star-like cannons and plans to take over the galaxy once and for all. Now Rey (Daisy Ridley) must bring to bare all her Jedi powers and find a Sith device that will lead the rebels to where Palpatine and his doomsday fleet are hiding, to strike them before they can deploy. Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and his Knights of Ren are in pursuit and rebellion heroes Finn (John Boyega), Poe (Oscar Isaac), Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) along with General Organa (Carrie Fisher) and the legendary Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) must somehow unite a galaxy against this overwhelming threat.

This final chapter is written and directed by J.J. Abrams (The Force Awakens, Star Trek) who co-wrote the script with Chris Terrio. As you can tell by the plot synopsis, this is an overloaded mess, but it’s an action-packed and entertaining one. It is still an improvement over the lackluster retread that was The Force Awakens and more fun than the moody Last Jedi. What will really irritate hardcore Star Wars fans is Abrams takes a lot of liberties here with the mythos, giving new force powers whenever he’s written himself into a corner, like Rey having healing powers and Palpatine able to drop fleets of ships out of the sky with his fingertips. We also have yet another doomsday weapon…or fleet of them…that can easily be stopped by blowing something up. Will the Empire ever learn? Speaking of which, when Palpatine re-emerges, the First Order seems to just disappear like a small company being absorbed out of existence in a corporate merger. Suddenly everyone, except for a vengeful Hux (Domhnall Gleeson), seems to now work for The Emperor. The flick also jumps from one place and adventure to another very quickly as Rey tries to find her way to a lair that Palpatine wants her to come to all along. Why not just send her an invite with a nice fruit basket? A lot of it seems to be made up as it goes along, though it’s not an unpleasant ride. First off, we are all pretty endeared to the new characters and Abrams does let us visit the classic characters one more time. Also, there is a lot of spectacular action and it might be the most visually impressive Star Wars flick yet, with so many worlds and characters to visit. It’s a fun 142 minutes, even if you will be scratching your head at times as to where it’s all headed and if you are inflexibly loyal to the classic canon, you might be in for a rough ride. At least the very last scene does sentimentally provide a nice farewell, yet also hints that maybe we haven’t seen the last of Rey, now that her involvement in the Skywalker saga is at an end.

There is a big cast here. Daisy Ridley has really grown into Rey and it would be fun to see her strike out in her own series of adventures now free of this storyline. Ridley is charming and likable and can exude a strength that make her ascension to powerful Jedi believable. Issac and Boyega are good as her rebel buds Poe and Finn and there is a bit of a rivalry between the three that was fun, though underdeveloped. Driver is once again good as the conflicted Kylo Ren/Ben Solo, though his story thread didn’t end with the impact it should have, especially during the very convoluted final confrontation. We get to see Carrie Fisher (unused footage from the previous installments), Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford and even Billy Dee Williams again in various incarnations and it was nice to see the classics one more time. If one thing Rise of Skywalker gets right is all the nods to the previous films. We even get some Ewoks. As for new characters, most go underdeveloped and were unnecessary at this point…spin-offs maybe?…but at least Kelly Marie Tran got some better dialogue as Rose and seemed more sturdy in a somewhat abbreviated role. There are also some vocal cameos, see if you can catch them all.

Overall, chapter nine is a bloated mess of a series finale, though one that still manages to dazzle and entertain. The story is convoluted from the beginning and sometimes seems made up as it goes along. It is filled with some spectacular action and eye-popping visuals and it’s final frames are satisfying as a goodbye to this classic series. Now as Rey was one of the best things to come out of this sequel trilogy, maybe she can strike out with her own adventures, the character deserves more attention and Ridley could certainly carry her own flicks. As a whole, this trilogy disappointed and did not give us the send-off to the classic characters that we wanted, but there was some spectacular action along the way and we did get some new characters worthy of their own adventures, or at least a Disney streaming series.

-MonsterZero NJ

  3 (out of 4) Millenium Falcons.

 

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BARE BONES: THE DEAD DON’T DIE (2019)

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THE DEAD DON’T DIE (2019)

If one ever said that eclectic indie filmmaker Jim Jarmusch would make a zombie film, or Bill Murray would make two, one would initially be thought mad…but here we are. Flick takes place in the small, rural town of Centerville where a group of eccentric characters including Police Chief Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray) are dealing with a bizarre situation. The Earth has been thrown off it’s axis and now the dead are returning to life. As the town population dwindles, Robertson and Officer Ronald Peterson (Adam Driver) must battle the increasing army of the flesh eating living dead.

Flick is written and directed by Jarmusch and is filled with atmosphere and the director’s trademark dry humor. There is a lot of strange stuff going on and a host of oddball characters, but the film doesn’t always click and it does have the pace of, well…a funeral. There are some amusing moments and some bloody ones, too. The familiar tropes are present and Jarmusch does play with them a bit. The cast is quite impressive and amusing, such as Tilda Swinton’s sword wielding Scotswoman, but the movie on a whole never really seems to find it’s footing and rambles on like one of it’s zombies. Considering that it’s Jim Jarmusch actually making a zombie film, one would expect something a bit more special. Also stars Iggy Pop, Selena Gomez, Danny Glover, Chloë Sevigny and Tom Waits as “Hermit Bob”.

 

-MonsterZero NJ

2 and 1-2 star rating

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REVIEW: STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI (2017)

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STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI (2017)

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The Last Jedi is a true middle chapter of a trilogy as it has barely what could be called a story, opening not long after the end of The Force Awakens and obviously not wrapping much up by it’s end. The film has Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) rousting The Resistance from it’s hideout and following General Organa’s (Carrie Fisher) remaining ships in hot pursuit, picking them off one by one as they run out of fuel. Meanwhile, Rey (Daisy Ridley) learns more about her power while trying to convince reclusive hermit Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamil) to get off his arse and come save the galaxy…and that’s it.

This chapter is written and directed by Rian Johnson (Looper) and is an improvement over the lackluster retread that was The Force Awakens…though not by much for the first two thirds. There are some nice moments and some solid action, though the film seems to drag it’s flimsy story out too long and some sequences, like a silly trip to a casino planet, seem like filler. The last act is when it really kicks into gear and we get the thrills we came for. It was also nice to see Daisy Ridley expand her character of Rey a bit more and that the film sets up an interesting connection between she and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), who also is given some more depth. Finn (John Boyega) and Poe Dameron (Oscar isaac) aren’t as lucky, given not all that much to do, however, and new character Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) never seems to rise above sidekick status and has some of the film’s weakest lines. The real treat is seeing Hamil, as the conflicted and tormented Luke Skywalker and the late Carrie Fisher in an expanded role as Leia. Reminds us why they were so magical in the original (middle) trilogy. The action scenes we get are spectacular, though seem more relegated to the first and last acts, and Johnson has a visual style that gives this a look and feel unlike the previous chapters, but never alienating itself from the series. There are some cool surprises and even if it drags at times, The Last Jedi, overall is a satisfying installment, though lacks the aura of legend that New Hope, Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi had. Last year’s Rouge One was refreshingly adult and very intense, this one seems to return to the more family friendly tone of cute critters, comical robots and corny moments, with the intensity being only occasional. Too bad, Rouge One is one of the best of the entire series, IMO and felt more strongly like a Star Wars movie than this new trilogy, so far.

As for our cast…Johnson can certainly director actors. As stated Ridley gets to show some real strength as Rey learns to manipulate The Force and become more of a hero. She’s a good actress and gives the role depth even when script weaknesses leave it all up to her. Driver is given some nice conflict to play with within Kylo Ren/Ben Solo and does a good job with it. He’s becoming a solid villain. Serkis is fine as Snoke who is basically an Emperor Palpatine retread. Hamil is great as Luke and gives one of his finest portrayals of the character, as does the late Carrie Fisher as his sister Leia. She will be missed moving forward and it was a welcome return for Hamil. Boyega and Isaac, sadly are given little to do and their characters don’t really grow that much from when we last saw them. Kelly Marie Tran is a bit bland as resistance mechanic Rose. Her character came across as a bit two dimensional and cliché. She didn’t leave an impression. Rounding out is Laura Dern doing nicely as a tough resistance Admiral and Benicio del Toro giving some life to his mysterious scoundrel.

So, overall, chapter eight is an improvement over the weak chapter seven, but still pales when placed up against chapters four through six. It had some good action, some striking visuals and did do some new things with some traditional Star Wars tropes. It’s weaknesses are it’s paper thin story and that it seems a bit dragged out considering it’s 150 minutes long and not a lot is accomplished till the last act. With Chapter IX awaiting us in 2019, there is obviously a lot left open, though it’s not quite an outright cliffhanger like Empire. Hopefully this series can really wrap this trilogy up with a bang for that final chapter, so far it’s not quite hit the mark, lofty though that mark may be.

-MonsterZero NJ

  3 Millenium Falcons.

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REVIEW: MIDNIGHT SPECIAL (2016)

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MIDNIGHT SPECIAL (2016)

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Take Shelter director Jeff Nichols’ film is a science fiction/chase thriller that evokes John Carpenter’s Starman yet, is very much it’s own movie. Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) is a boy with some very unique and unexplainable powers. These powers have earned him a religious cult built around him that believes he can protect them from the coming Judgment Day. As he can receive communications of even the most top secret kind, the government is very interested in him as well. His father Roy (Michael Shannon) and friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton) kidnap Alton from the cult and now flee across country to a place and time the boy insists he must be. With both government agents and cultists in hot pursuit, will they get there in time…or at all?

If you can imagine John Carpenter at his prime teaming with Steven Spielberg in his earlier years than this flick is what you might have gotten. Nichols writes and directs a tale of a mysterious and special boy on the run from those who seek to use his gifts for their own purposes. What makes this work especially well is the emotional depth it’s given being presented from the perspective of a loving father accepting his son for who he is and willing to give his life to see him safe. It’s this emotional core that makes this work beyond the well-executed SPFX sequences of Alton’s powers at work…which are used sparingly, but to full effect. There is certainly suspense and some tense sequences, which are all deftly handled, but it is the film’s sense of wonder and the flesh and blood characters that really draw us in. Even if the Spielbergian finale is a bit more on a Disney level than the more intense and sometimes violent rest of the film, it still works and leaves us effected even after the credits role, as Nichols doesn’t just present it, but shows us some of the effects on those around it. It gives the SPFX filled moment weight…and a sense of wonder. The director/writer takes a familiar tale and really makes it something fresh and fills it with some very three dimensional characters which give it a realism and keeps it grounded, despite the science fiction elements. It’s a really enjoyable film with a heart, as well as, SPFX, action and suspense. There is an effective score by David Wingo and some Dean Cundey-esque cinematography from Adam Stone to add to an already exceptional movie.

The cast couldn’t be better. Michael Shannon again proves he is one of the most gifted actors around as Alton’s caring and self-sacrificing father, Roy. Jaeden Lieberher is enchanting as Alton, who is more than he seems and we really endear to him despite his sometimes dangerous abilities. Joel Edgerton, fresh off The Gift, is again solid as the state trooper who is willing to break the laws he holds dear to help his friend and his son. We also have Kirsten Dunst in a touching role as Alton’s mother who loves him enough to possibly let him go, if it means his safety. Sam Shepard also appears as cult leader, Calvin Meyer and rounding out the leads is Adam Driver as a sympathetic government official who decides to help Alton find what it is he is looking for. A top notch cast that make their characters very real.

A emotionally strong and highly enjoyable thriller about a special boy and the race to keep him safe. Alton is a bit of a mystery at first, but as we journey with him, we slowly learn just how fantastically special he is. The film has a big heart with some tense action and suspense, along with a sense of wonder and some very effective SPFX moments. But unlike the CGI laden big budget FX spectacles of today, this film has a very human center at it’s core, about a parents love for their child and the lengths they will go to see them safe. Great movie that reminded me of John Carpenter in his prime and the earlier works of Steven Spielberg. Highly recommended.

-MonsterZero NJ

Rated 4 (out of 4) Altons.

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REVIEW: STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015)

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STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015)

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It’s been a decade since the last Star Wars movie Revenge Of The Sith, but the beloved franchise is back, powered by Disney and J.J. Abrams, who wonderfully rebooted the Star Trek series in 2009…sadly, he is not quite as successful here.

The story begins decades after the events of Return Of The Jedi with Luke Skywalker disappearing into self-imposed exile after losing one of his star Jedi pupils to the dark side with disastrous results. From the ashes of the fallen Empire come The First Order, who are basically Empire 2.0 complete with Sith Lord leader, his metal masked lackey, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and yet another destructive super weapon…will they ever learn? A droid named BB8 is entrusted with a map that divulges the location of Skywalker (and who made this map if no one knows where he is?) and The First Order wants it in fear his return would bring back the Jedi and halt their evil plot. A young scavenger named Rey (Daisy Ridley) and an ex-stormtrooper named Finn (John Boyega) find the droid and try to return him to his owner, resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) with the help of a crotchety old Han Solo (Harrison Ford).

One of the biggest problems that The Force Awakens suffers from…aside from being about 15 minutes too long…is that it feels more like an expensive fan film than an actual Star Wars movie. J.J. Abrams certainly incorporates a lot of the elements we expect from this series, but the spirit seems absent. It feels like an imperfect imitation much like his Super 8 felt like a slightly-off copy of a film Steven Spielberg might have made in the 80s. The magic isn’t there. Another thing is the script by Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt is weak and offers a thin plot that Abrams stretches out over two hours. There is also a disturbing amount of conveniences that move that plot along, like characters who just happen to bump into each other in the vastness of space or characters who just happen to have crucial information that saves our heroes from doing any real work to get it. If you thought the Empire had crappy security, wait till you meet The First Order. Too many characters are also in the right place at the right time too often. Yet another problem is that while I admire Abrams’ decision to use as much practical effects as possible, the lack of enhancement for the settings makes them remain very Earth-like and I never felt it was in a galaxy far, far away. Aside from the actual scenes taking place in space, the film always looked like it took place on earth. Lucas created some interesting worlds even in the worst of the prequel flicks, here it always looks like exactly where it was shot and some of the sets actually look cheap without a little matte painting or cgi background help. Like them or hate them, the prequel flicks had an epic look and feel. This feels like a TV show sometimes. Even John Williams delivers quite possible the weakest of his Star Wars scores with very little memorable aside from the classic marches and themes.

There are definitely some pluses. The action does move, though even all these years later, tie fighters vs X-wings is getting a bit tiresome. I did like Daisy Ridley’s Rey and Boyega’s Finn. They show promise that when the torch is passed solidly, they may be quite engaging in their own adventures and both actors add charm in their thinly written parts. Oscar Issac’s ace fighter pilot, Dameron is less successful and is kinda bland and doesn’t do much. I wasn’t all that impressed with Adam Driver’s Vader-wannabe Kylo Ren, either. He basically seems like a Sith spoiled brat acting out and for reasons I won’t spoil, that’s kinda exactly what he is. As for the much hyped Captain Phasma (Gwedoline Christie), blink and you’ll miss her. Harrison Ford seemed like he was having a good time returning as Han and he is one of the highlights of the film, as is Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew). It was also nice to see Carrie Fisher back as General Leia and she looks tired and weary as a character fighting a prolonged war should be. BB8 has a lot of personality as the film’s main droid character and should sell a lot of toys. While C3PO and R2D2 do make appearances, they take a back seat to the new droid in town. There are other familiar faces too, but I’ll leave them for you to discover.

So, overall, the new Star Wars was OK in certain ways, but disappointing in others. There is some nice nostalgia, but Abrams has a weak script and thin plot…which he is partially responsible for…to work with and stretches that thin story out over two hours. There are far too many conveniences to forgive, even when the action gets fun and the film is uneven character-wise as the heroes are engaging, yet the villains are weak and mostly forgettable. There are a lot of holes as to how we got to this point in Star Wars history and certain plot elements, some I won’t reveal, just don’t add up. Hopefully we’ll learn more in the upcoming Abrams-less sequels and maybe that Star Wars magic can yet be revived, but for now Force Awakens is a mediocre return for this beloved franchise.

-MonsterZero NJ

  2 and 1/2 Millenium Falcons.

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BARE BONES: PREY FOR ROCK and ROLL and WHILE WE’RE YOUNG

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PREY FOR ROCK & ROLL (2003)

Obviously, a movie with Gina Gershon and Drea de Matteo as female rockers already has a built in appeal and it’s too bad the film chooses to wallow in the darker aspects of the rock scene, as well as, some tragic melodrama, for us to fully enjoy it. Story is from a play by Cheri Lovedog who co-wrote the script with Robin Whitehouse. It focuses on Jacki (Gina Gershon), a bi-sexual rocker who’s just turned 40 and wonders if her all-girl rock band Clamdandy will ever make it out of the bar scene. That’s about it story-wise. Along the way we are treated to all the rock clichés and some dreary smatterings of beatings, rape and even a tragic death as Jacki tries to decide if it’s time to do something new with her life. As directed by Alex Steyermark the film already tries too hard to be a ‘rock’ movie but, then wallows in the scenes of drug abuse, abusive relationships, rape, death and even the traditional ‘screwed by a record label’ sub-plot. Despite Gershon giving Jacki her all and equally good performances out of de Matteo, Lori Petty and Shelly Cole as her band mates, the material is too familiar and too dreary to make this really enjoyable and lacks the energy in it’s few music scenes to overcome that. Also stars Buffy The Vampire Slayer’s Marc Blucas as the ex-con brother of Cole’s Sally. The film is far more depressing than it is entertaining.

2 and 1-2 star rating

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WHILE WE’RE YOUNG (2014)

OK comedy/drama has aging hipsters Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts) struggling with getting older and maybe having missed out on some of the important things, such as kids. They meet a pair of younger hipsters Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried) and decide maybe they don’t have to act their age as Josh and Jamie collaborate on a film project. Things get weird as Jamie comes up with a potentially successful documentary idea while Josh’s has been languishing in development hell for ten years. Directed and written by Noah Baumbach this flick can be funny and sentimental at times but, can also be cliché and a bit pretentious at others. The story of an aging character/characters falling in with young people and not acting their age has been done to death and the filmmaking angle only adds a slight deviation from this. The outcome of that is fairly predictable as are the conclusions the characters come to. There are some good performances across the board but, the film never really rises above pleasantly mediocre.

2 and 1-2 star rating

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 -MonsterZero NJ
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