STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER (2019) – Doesn’t Offer Much of a Rise

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STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER (2019), the final film in the epic nine movie STAR WARS saga, is indicative of what the series has ultimately become. It’s a superiorly crafted movie in which everything looks amazing but without compelling storylines and characters, there’s simply not all that much to be excited about.

Ouch!

But it’s true.

When the original STAR WARS (1977) came out, I was in 7th grade, and I absolutely loved it. I loved its sequel, THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980) even more, so much so that today all these years later it remains my favorite in the series.

But then came RETURN OF THE JEDI (1983). I was in college for this one, and it marked the first time I was disappointed with a STAR WARS movie. It’s not just the Ewoks either, although they were my least favorite part of the film. I thought the pacing and the way it went about telling its story was all off, especially following upon the heels of EMPIRE.

The prequels in the middle of the series, which chronicled the back story of villain Darth Vader, were meh, although I did enjoy STAR WARS: EPISODE III – REVENGE OF THE SITH (2005).

And while the latest three STAR WARS films— THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015), THE LAST JEDI (2017) and now this one, have successfully recaptured the spirit and feel of the original trilogy, at the same time introducing new characters and closing the book on some of the original characters, they have hardly been game changers.

The biggest culprit? The writing.

I don’t mean to imply that the folks writing these movies are bad writers, but rather, that good writing is not the priority with these films. In other words, time and energy is spent on the technical side of these movies rather than on the written word. As a result, very little of what happens on screen has any resonance.

Here in STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER, new character Rey (Daisy Ridley) is still searching for answers regarding her parentage, still training to become a Jedi, and oh yeah still busy battling the villainous First Order. Yup, she has a lot on her plate.

Likewise, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is still busy with his quest to take over the galaxy, which means sometimes leading the First Order and other times wooing Rey to join him in order to become the galaxy’s all-powerful super couple. He has trouble with his past as well, since his parents are Han Solo— who he killed in THE FORCE AWAKENS—- and Princess Leia— but his granddaddy is Darth Vader. He kinda wants to be like his grandpa, only more powerful.

To complicate matters, it’s learned that the dastardly Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) didn’t really die at the end of THE RETURN OF THE JEDI but has been secretly hibernating waiting for his chance to crush the rebellion once and for all.

Yadda, yadda, yadda.

Yup, we’ve heard this all before. Like the TERMINATOR franchise, the STAR WARS series also suffers from serious plot redundancy.

All this being said, I certainly enjoyed STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER. It’s an entertaining piece of filmmaking. It’s just not an entertaining piece of storytelling.

Regarding the two main characters, I like them both a lot, so that’s not a problem. Rey is the most compelling character in this new trilogy, and Daisy Ridley is superb in the role. She strikes a nice balance between serious intensity, angst over her unknown familial roots, and a sense of caring and strength not really seen in any of the other characters. She makes for a much more interesting Jedi than either Luke Skywalker, Ben Kenobi, or Anakin Skywalker. And it’s refreshing to have the most powerful character in the new series be a woman.

She’s the best part of this final trilogy, and the story here doesn’t really let her down either. The answers provided regarding her parentage are adequate.

Kylo Ren has grown on me throughout the series. I was not a fan back in THE FORCE AWAKENS, but he won me over in THE LAST JEDI. Adam Driver is excellent as the tortured wannabe villain who strives to outdo the memory of Darth Vader but can’t seem to shake the influence of his parents Leia and Han Solo.

The other new characters I have not enjoyed as much. Both Finn (John Boyega) and Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) have only been okay, although they enjoy some of their best moments in the series in this movie. They’re the energetic wise-cracking resistance fighters, and they do a nice job filling in the for the spirit of Han Solo, but nearly all of their banter seems rehashed from the original series. It definitely suffers from the “having seen this all before” issue.

And of course, since this is being billed as the final film in the series, it attempts to wrap everything up nicely from all the previous movies. Sort of. There are some glaring omissions. More on that in a bit.

Mark Hamill returns as Luke Skywalker, but don’t expect too much from him here, since he’s relegated to appearing in Force-ghost form, since the character died in the previous movie.

Carrie Fisher returns sporadically in archive footage as Princess Leia since Fisher passed away before this movie was filmed.

Old friends Chewbacca, C-3PO, an R2D2 are all back, with Chewie and 3PO getting the best moments. Billy Dee Williams returns as Lando Calrissian, who serves as a sort of cheerleader to Finn and Poe, telling them that in his day neither he, Luke, Leia, or Han, knew exactly what they were doing either, and they just relied on each other and made things happen, which is a point well taken as it inspires Finn and Poe to get off their butts and save the galaxy.

Now back to those omissions. For a movie wrapping up the final chapter of a nine film series not to include Darth Vader, Ben Kenobi, or Yoda, that’s just flat-out weird, and disappointing. Darth Vader was the larger than life villain in the first trilogy, and then the second trilogy was devoted to his back story, and for him here to receive nary a mention other than his beat-up helmet is simply odd.

As I said, the screenplay by Chris Terrio and J.J. Abrams fails to really resonate on any level other than the superficial. The story itself is a rehash of earlier movies— the rebellion is outmanned and outgunned, how will they ever succeed? Yadda, yadda, yadda. And the characters are hardly exciting.

The two best characters, Rey and Kylo Ren, enjoy the best moments in the film, but even these moments aren’t original. For example, Rey has her “I am your father moment” and Kylo Ren has his “I love you. — I know,” moment, but neither one is as good as the original scenes from which they’re inspired. And that’s because little that happens to these two feels new at all.

J.J. Abrams returned to the director’s chair for this one. He had also directed THE FORCE AWAKENS.  He takes great care to carve out various homage moments throughout, all the way down to the final scene, and these bits are enjoyable and appreciated.

But any emotion gets lost in an incredibly fast pace which features one action scene after another. THE RISE OF SKYWALKER is the kind of movie I generally do not enjoy, one that never stops to take a breath or seemingly have a meaningful conversation. The drawback obviously is the characterizations suffer mightily and you end up with a movie with characters you don’t care about. The only saving grace is we’ve met these characters before, so we know who they are, but it still makes for boring storytelling.

It’s one of the reasons the MARVEL superhero movies are generally always good. They never sacrifice character development, even in the AVENGERS movies which featured a ton of main characters. Great care is spent on these folks’ personalities so that nearly every time they’re on-screen something notable is happening. That’s not the case in the STAR WARS series.

The special effects are amazing as always, but are there memorable images and action sequences? Not really, no.  For example, one sequence featuring a raging ocean has potential, but when it plays out, it’s all so smooth and harmless, and then it’s on to the next action scene.

STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER is the ninth film in the STAR WARS series, and it seems like it. If you’re a fan of the series, you no doubt will enjoy its Jedi vs. Dark Side angst, eye-popping space action sequences, and colorful wise-cracking quips, but for those of us who see tons of movies year in and year out, these films are hardly on the meter for what constitutes the best in modern cinema.

Sadly, this wasn’t always the case.

After all, “May the Force be with you” didn’t enter the cultural lexicon by accident.

—END—

 

 

 

 

Luke Skywalker is Back in Action in STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI (2017)

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At long last, Luke Skywalker speaks!

As much as I liked STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015),  I was left disappointed by the fact that after characters spent the entire film searching for the elusive Luke Skywalker, he shows up for a mere half-second in the final reel and doesn’t utter a word.

Hey, it’s Luke Skywalker!  Cue end credits.

So, for me, the thing I was most looking forward to about STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI (2017), the latest chapter in the STAR WARS saga, was seeing Luke Skywalker back in action. And since he finally gets to speak some dialogue and then some, his presence here was easily my favorite part of the movie.

STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI picks up immediately where its predecessor, STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015) left off.  And so we find the Resistance fighters led by General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) battling the evil First Order led by Leia’s and the now deceased Han Solo’s son Ben, who goes by the bad-guy moniker Kylo Ren (Adam Driver).  Yup, you might say the current STAR WARS battles are more of a domestic dispute!

Actually, the villain who is calling the shots is the supremely evil Snoke (Andy Serkis), as Kylo Ren works for him, but any acute viewer can spot the writing on the wall a mile away, that the real villain in this new trilogy is no doubt the conflicted Kylo Ren.

Things are not looking good for our merry band of Resistance fighters.  They are outgunned and outmanned by the superior First Order forces, even with the presence of young new heroes Finn (John Boyega) and Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac).

And so it’s up to young Rey (Daisy Ridley) to convince the Last Jedi, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) to come out of retirement and help their cause, which is no easy task since Luke is a cranky old man now, disillusioned with the world, and he wants no part in any more of its conflicts.

It takes old friend R2D2 to point out that years earlier it was another old Jedi who was asked to help the cause, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Kenobi said yes.  And when Luke still hesitates, the spirit of Yoda arrives to set him straight.

In spite of the box office records that STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI is currently setting, the film really is a mixed bag.

For me, the best part of this film was seeing Luke Skywalker back in action on the big screen. His scenes are clearly the best in the movie.

Just as interesting are the scenes with newcomer Rey (Daisy Ridley).  Her scenes with Luke resonate.  As she tries to convince Luke to join the Resistance, she’s also trying to learn more about who she is, and just why it is that the Force is so strong with her.

And as much as I enjoyed Luke in this movie, and most of this is due in large part ot Mark Hamill’s performance, the two most interesting characters in the film are Rey and villain Kylo Ren. As Rey searches for answers to her identity, she becomes increasingly connected to Kylo Ren, as their strength with the Force allows them to communicate with each over vast distances, and each wants to convert the other. Rey wants to turn Kylo Ren from the Dark Side, while Kylo Ren wants Rey to join him in his ambitious plot to pretty much take over the galaxy.

And Kylo Ren is also connected to Luke Skywalker, since Luke had tried to train his nephew years earlier, but failed when Ren turned to the Dark Side.

Kylo Ren is a very interesting character, with some pretty neat conflicts.  He sees himself as the next Darth Vader, but he continually falls short, and part of this is he’s the son of Han Solo and Princess Leia, and their connection is also strong with him.  Yet, to shut them down, he murdered his own father in the last movie, and this time around he promises the same fate to his uncle, Luke Skywalker.

All these parts of the movie work and work well, and the good news is these three characters do make up the bigger portion of this movie.  However, the other stories, the ones involving the Resistance led by Leia, and featuring subplots with Finn and Poe Dameron, pretty much fall flat.  They suffer largely from a “been there, done that” situation. We’ve been down this road before in previous STAR WARS films.

The First Order’s pursuit of the small Resistance fleet which takes up the entire movie is rather boring, and the smaller plot where Finn and Poe try to incapacitate the Rebel ship chasing them is rather redundant and could have appeared in any STAR WARS movie.

I found myself only interested in the story which featured the triangle of Rey, Kylo Ren, and Luke Skywalker.

Written and directed by Rian Johnson, known for his science fiction thriller LOOPER (2012) starring Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, a film I liked a lot, STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI looks as amazing as you would expect.  The special effects are all top-notch, and it does contain some decent scenes.  When Luke and Kylo Ren finally face each other, the moment is up there with some of the most dramatic and memorable scenes in the series.

But running at 152 minutes, making it the longest STAR WARS movie, it does tend to be a bit overlong and does struggle somewhat with the pacing.  Let’s put it this way.  It felt like 152 minutes.

It was great seeing Mark Hamill back on the big screen as Luke Skywalker.  Hamill is a very good actor who has been missed in the movies over the years, as his career took a different path which saw him do more voice-over roles in animated features.  For those of us who grew up watching young Luke Skywalker take on the Death Star and eventually become a Jedi to confront his own father Darth Vader, it’s a special experience to watch him here as an older man once again drawn into another conflict, but this time as the older, wiser force. If there’s any downside here, it’s that the film doesn’t include enough Luke Skywalker.

That being said, both Daisy Ridley as Rey and Adam Driver as Kylo Ren are strong enough performers that they appear more than up to the task to take on the next movie on their own. I like Daisy Ridley a lot, and I enjoyed her here every bit as much as I enjoyed Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker.

I was lukewarm to Adam Driver as Kylo Ren in the previous movie, but he really has grown into the role, and he’s much more of a formidable presence here.  Even better, his inner conflict does not appear forced, and so he’s that rare villain who isn’t just flat-out dark and evil. It’s a neat performance.  He also gets rid of his silly mask in this movie, and that’s definitely a plus.

The rest of the actors are all okay. Of course, Carrie Fisher passed away shortly after filming her scenes for this one.  She’s fine here as Leia, but honestly, the character doesn’t fare as well as Luke Skywalker does in this movie or as Han Solo did in the last.  She’s simply not as interesting a character, nor does she have a whole lot to do in either film.  Still, it was sad to watch her in this film, knowing that in real life, she’s gone, and the character will not appear again.

Both John Boyega as Finn and Oscar Isaac as Poe Dameron are fine in their roles, but they’re stuck in storylines that aren’t so interesting.

Andy Serkis is on hand doing what does best, performing as a CGI/motion capture character, this time playing the villain Snoke, and when he’s on-screen he’s sufficiently menacing, but he’s not onscreen all that much.  I enjoyed Kelly Marie Tran as newcomer Rose Tico, who helps Finn here, and it was also fun to see Domhnall Gleeson return as General Hux, who constantly operates in the shadow of the bigger evil villains.

And the amazing John Williams returns once again to score yet another STAR WARS movie, and once more, the music is excellent.

The screenplay by director Johnson is okay.  Again, the Luke/Rey/Kylo Ren arc is the best part, while the rest seems like a rehash of previous STAR WARS movies.

Also, in general, the whole conflict in these “star wars” just isn’t all that interesting.  In fact, it’s pretty darn boring because the writing in these films has never been good enough to spark interest in its larger universe.  The best stories have been the small ones, the conflict between Luke and Darth Vader, Vader’s conflict between the Dark Side and the good, and here the conflicts with Rey, Kylo Ren, and Luke.

Whenever the stories revert to the larger conflict at hand, which is what a lot of the second trilogy did and is largely why those three films were so lifeless, the tales fall flat. I don’t really care about the Rebellion, or the Resistance, or the politics of these worlds because, again, the writing has never been good enough to make me care.

So, every time characters and events in STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI dealt with the ongoing conflict between the First Order and the Resistance, I yawned, but when it focused on the very specific conflicts between Rey, Kylo Ren, and Luke Skywalker, I was all in.

STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI will not be the last STAR WARS movie, but with Rey and Kylo Ren poised as the future of the STAR WARS universe, it may be the last one to look so keenly on its past.

—END—

 

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

For The Love Of Horror cover

Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

 

 

 

MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (2017) – All-Star Murder Mystery an Exercise in the Mundane

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Kenneth Branagh as Hercule Poirot in MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (2017)

I consider myself a Kenneth Branagh fan.

I have absolutely loved every Shakespeare play he has brought to the big screen, from his masterful debut with HENRY V (1989) to his wonderfully witty MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING (1993).  But his non-Shakespeare films haven’t been as successful, and I’ve never been exactly sure why.  His MARY SHELLEY’S FRANKENSTEIN (1994) didn’t work, and his THOR (2011) was just an OK Marvel superhero movie.

Branagh both directs and stars in today’s movie, MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (2017), which is based on the novel by Agatha Christie, and is a remake of the 1974 film of the same name directed by Sidney Lumet and starring Albert Finney as detective Hercule Poirot.  It featured an all-star cast of train passengers, including the likes of Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Jacqueline Bisset, Richard Widmark, and Sean Connery, to name just a few.

In this new 2017 version, Branagh plays Hercule Poirot, and he too has assembled an all-star cast of passengers, which for me, was the best part of this movie.  The cast is superb.

MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS opens in the middle east in the early 1930s where famed detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) is busy solving yet another impossible crime.  His job done, he climbs aboard a train for some rest and relaxation, but things don’t go as planned when there is a murder committed on board, and suddenly Poirot finds himself once again trying to solve a complicated mystery.

And this is a mystery, so the less said about the plot the better.

As I said, the best part about MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS is its cast, and I’ll get to that in a moment, but for the film itself, it’s a mixed bag.  The biggest knock against this movie is it just never reached out and grabbed me.  There is never a defining moment in the film where I felt, okay, this is where it gets going.  It just move along at a steady pace with no sense of urgency or dramatic build-up.  It’s all rather listless.

It certainly looks good.  The shots of the train travelling through the snowy mountains are picturesque, and the costumes and set design are impressive.  But director Branagh seems satisfied to film a period piece drama without giving much emphasis on the suspenseful side of things.  This film just never gets going.

But the cast is fun, starting with Branagh himself as Hercule Poirot.  Branagh seems to be having a good time with the role, and he’s convincing as the meticulous borderline-OCD Poirot.  And his full mustache is so noticeable it’s nearly a character in itself.

Johnny Depp makes for an excellent gangster-type, and his was one of my favorite performances in this film.  I’ve grown tired of some of Depp’s off-the-wall acting roles of late, and it was fun to see him actually play a character.  He does a fine job, and I wish he would do this more often, play someone who actually seems like a real person.

I also really enjoyed Michelle Pfeiffer, and although she wasn’t as memorable as she was in MOTHER (2017) earlier this year, she’s still very good.  We haven’t seen a whole lot of Pfeiffer in recent years, and I hope this changes because she remains a strong talent whose presence has been missed in the movies of late.

Likewise, Josh Gad was particularly effective as Hector MacQueen, the right hand man and attorney for Depp’s Edward Ratchett.  While Gad was more memorable as LeFou in the recent live-action remake of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (2017), he’s still pretty darn good here.

Also in the cast are Daisy Ridley, Leslie Odom Jr., Penelope Cruz, Derek Jacobi, Judi Dench, and Willem Dafoe. Now, all of these folks are fun to watch, but none of them do a whole lot.  Like the film as a whole, no one really has any signature moments.

Michael Green wrote the screenplay, based on Christie’s novel.  It’s a decent screenplay with believable dialogue and interesting characters, but it doesn’t score all that well as a whodunit mystery.  There is a murder, and Poirot investigates.  This in itself is interesting, but without compelling dialogue and conversations, and without energetic directing, the process of solving the crime somehow all becomes rather mundane and lifeless.

There are some good moments, like when Poirot says he’s reached the age where he knows what he likes and doesn’t like, and he partakes fully in all that he likes and completely ignores what he dislikes.  For those of us who have reached a certain age, this line rings true.  It’s too bad the same can’t be said for most of the other dialogue and situations in the film.

Green was one of the writers who wrote the screenplay to BLADE RUNNER 2049 (2017), and he also worked on the screenplay to LOGAN (2017).  Of these three, the Marvel superhero film LOGAN is clearly Green’s best credit.

Another drawback to this film is if you’ve seen the 1974 movie, it’s hard to forget, and this new version doesn’t really offer anything that is new.  I’m going to guess that if you haven’t seen the 1974 movie, you might like this version better than I did.

I found MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS to be simply okay.  It didn’t wow me, didn’t have me on the edge of my seat, or scratching my head wondering who the murderer was, but it did hold my interest for the most part, in a rather routine pleasant sort of way, which for a period piece murder mystery, doesn’t really cut it.

—END—

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

For The Love Of Horror cover

Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.