Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

Posted on December 18, 2019 at 6:23 am

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sci-fi violence and action
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended sci-fi/action-style peril and violence, sad death, characters injured and killed, some disturbing images
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: December 19, 2019

Copyright 2019 20th Century Fox
Nine episodes in, not counting the countless auxiliary expansions and storylines, “Star Wars” is still a place I love to go. But nine episodes and more than four decades since the original film, now called “Episode IV: A New Hope,” the franchise faces some daunting challenges, including balancing the weight of precedent with the need for something new and the expectations, and in many cases encyclopedic knowledge of the fans. I liked this last in the original storyline, despite some problematic elements I will do my best not to spoil — and alert to any possible spoilers before I even get close, I promise. Here’s the non-spoiler headline: I predict that this episode will divide the fans into two camps. Those who liked the last two films, “The Last Jedi” and “The Force Awakens” will not like this one as much. Those who were disappointed by those will like this one better.

Now, go see the movie if you do not want to hear more, and come back afterwards to see what else I have to say so you can argue with me.

Once again, the heart of the story is Rey (Daisy Ridley), the former scavenger turned student of the force and Jedi trainee with Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), and her friends and colleagues, former Storm Trooper Finn (John Boyega) and hotshot, hothead pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac). Let’s take a moment to honor their superb performances, which have given so much to the series. In the midst of all of the action and hardware and locations and just-in-time rescues, all three of them have created vital, vibrant characters who give us a reason to care about all of the action. We also get to see the characters from Episode IV, including Carrie Fisher as Princess (now General) Leia, Hamill as Skywalker, Harrison Ford as Han Solo, and Billy Dee Williams as Lando Calrissian, along with droids C-3PO and R2D2 and the Wookiee, Chewbacca. And the conflicted nemesis Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is back, along with General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson). There’s a brief surprise appearance that had people in the theater cheering, and a return to an iconic location.

So, much is familiar. At the end of “The Last Jedi” the rebel forces were almost entirely wiped out, with no response to their distress signals. And the bad guys who are ruthless fascists, want to take over that galaxy far, far, away. You might think there are only so many times someone can say “If this mission fails, it’s all been for nothing,” but I admit freely, for me, at least a couple more.

Remember how “New Hope” kicked off by sending a secret spy message to Obi-Wan Kenobi? Well, here we are again, with a message from a mole — perhaps we might call him/her a whistleblower — inside the bad guy organization. I do not want to give too much away by saying what they are calling themselves now or who is behind it. I will only say that the message shows they are planning some very bad stuff and the Death Star looks like a slingshot by comparison with what they have now.

So It is time to get Rey back from Luke’s remote island retreat, something between a spa and boot camp. One question is whether Kylo Ren will be on board. He is literally offered “everything” if he will just prove himself by killing Rey, and the glints of red reflecting in his eyes suggest that rage is still his primary motivation. His connection to Rey, including a sort of psychic Skype communication they have with each other across the galaxy, could make him waver. Or, it could make her waver. He offers her the same “everything” he is tempted by.

This is not about the set-up, though; it is about the adventure, and J.J. Abrams takes us from one planet to another, with chases, escapes, explosions, and new characters. I was disappointed that this movie did not pick up on some of the most intriguing elements of “The Last Jedi” and even more disappointed that it countermanded one I considered among the most significant, SPOILER ALERTS tilting some of the series’ most fundamental existential premises away from individual determination toward a less appealing notion of destiny pre-ordained. I did not care for some new Force powers, which also undermine the original trilogy’s premises, or for some of the developments of the last half hour. I did enjoy some new characters, including one from Poe’s past played by Keri Russell and a rebel alliance-friendly group who ride horse-like creatures and even use a bow and arrow, a nice break from all the laser beams and spaceships. There’s a kind of nutty detour to a sort of Ren Faire that was a hoot. One of my favorite characters continues to be the Millennium Falcon (pronounced both FALL-kin and FAAL-kin here!), and I loved every minute it was on screen. I got a kick out of the callbacks, including an “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”

Abrams was given thousands of threads to tie together, and if what he wove is uneven it is heartfelt and mostly a lot of fun to watch. That is all the force I need.

Parents should know that this film includes extended sci-fi/action peril and violence with some graphic and disturbing images, sad deaths, and characters who are injured and killed.

Family discussion: How did what she learned change Rey’s ideas about herself? Why did Leia pick Poe?

If you like this, try: the other “Star Wars” films and the work of Joseph Campbell, who was one of George Lucas’ inspirations in creation the series

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Terminator: Dark Fate

Posted on October 31, 2019 at 5:15 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for violence throughout, language and brief nudity
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Pharmaceutical drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Extended very strong violence, many characters injured and killed, graphic and disturbing images
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: November 1, 2019

Copyright 20th Century Fox 2019
Can we please send someone back from the future to suggest that we really do not need any more Terminator movies?

Okay, I have to admit it’s pretty entertaining. The action scenes are fun and there are some good characters. It’s nice to have the original Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) back. It’s not bad; it’s just unnecessary. And its very unnecessariness makes it ordinary and that retroactively diminishes the quality of the ground-breaking original and the first sequel.

It’s like they ran the first film through a slightly broken copier machine (not a scanner) and what came out was fuzzy and off-kilter. So, from the first movie: a terminator comes back to the present day from the future with immeasurable powers of strength, speed, and strategy, and, most important, total tunnel vision, complete, implacable, single-mindedness. There is no plea, no bribe, no argument possible. The only hope, and it is a slim one, is escape.

From the second movie: someone else comes back from the future to protect the vulnerable target of the new Terminator. This time, though, it is an enhanced or augmented human, a kind of souped-up cyborg. What makes this interesting is that we do not exactly know what her powers are (also interesting that she is a female), but we quickly learn that she has some significant vulnerabilities. Her name is Grace (a terrific Mackenzie Davis, outstanding both in the action and the acting departments). She is enhanced for a sprint, not a marathon; she is very powerful in short, intense spurts, but if the fighting or running away is too prolonged she will urgently need a collection of powerful pharmaceuticals.

And Grace will not tell us (until a crucial plot point) why the young woman she is protecting is so important. That young woman is Dani (Natalia Reyes). And, this chapter’s smartest and strongest element, our old friend from the first film is back, Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor, and if there is ever an Oscar for being amazingly fit, they should give it to her and retire the trophy. Hamilton is the star of the show here, clearly enjoying being an action hero who is more than a little deranged (see “Terminator 2: Judgement Day” for this part of the origin story). She even gets to say, wait for it, “I’ll be back.”

On the other hand, you-know-who is also back, Arnold Schwarzenegger as our old friend the T-800 (I will not dwell on why a robot ages), and when he says, wait for it, “I won’t be back,” it is too much of a wink at the audience.

We do not really have time to object, though, because there’s another chase, another battle, another what-are-we-trying-to-be-Fast-and-Furious-umpteen-here set piece to enjoy. Davis is great. Hamilton is awesome. There are some thrill-ride moments. But if you go, you might wish someone came back from the future to tell you to rent the first one again instead.

Parents should know that this film includes extended very strong violence, many characters injured and killed, graphic and disturbing images, strong language, pharmaceutical drugs, and brief non-sexual nudity.

Family discussion: Why didn’t Grace tell the truth about Dani earlier? How do Sarah Connor’s actions change the future and what does not change? How are Sarah and Dani different?

If you like this, try: the other Terminator movies

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Zombieland: Double Tap

Posted on October 17, 2019 at 5:25 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for bloody violence, language throughout, some drug and sexual content
Profanity: Constant very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol and marijuana
Violence/ Scariness: Extremely violent and gory zombie peril and action with many characters injured and killed and many gruesome images
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: October 18, 2019
Date Released to DVD: January 20, 2020

Copyright Columbia 2019
Start lining up the cast for part three; we’re going to need another one of these every decade or so. The original Zombieland was a brash, grimly funny story about a post-apocalyptic world in which characters who would otherwise be unlikely to meet, much less spend time together, identified only by their home towns, form a kind of family in the midst of zombie attacks. They are the high-strung but determined Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), the tough, peppery cowboy Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), and two survival-savvy sisters who are skeptical of anyone else, Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) and Wichita (Emma Stone).

As Zombieland: Double Tap opens, the group is moving into the White House, now surrounded by fields of overgrown vegetation. It makes a good fortress and there are lots of cool things to play with, from a Twister game to Presidential portraits and gifts given by dignitaries over the years. Columbus and Wichita are a couple, but there is a problem. In this era of chaos and unpredictability, everyone has different ideas about what makes them feel safe. Columbus keeps making lists of his rules for survival (humorously displayed on screen) and wants to make the relationship official by proposing — with the Hope Diamond, which, like everything else, is up for grabs. But Wichita feels safest not having any connections, except for her sister, and Little Rock, now a teenager, wants to find someone her own age. So they leave.

On a “retail therapy” expedition to a shopping mall, Tallahassee and Columbus meet Madison (Zooey Deutch), who has been living there. Deutch just about steals the movie with one of the truly great comic performances of the year as the perfectly ditsy girl whose understanding of what is going on may be dim and who may not be willing to shoot zombies, but who has a knack for survival on her own terms. Just as she and Columbus get together, Wichita returns. Little Rock has run off with a guitar-playing pacifist named Berkeley (Avan Jogia). So, the group goes on the road to find her, running into some new characters, including many zombies, now faster, stronger, and smarter than before, an Elvis fan near Graceland, and a duo who seem uncannily parallel to Columbus and Tallahassee (Thomas Middleditch and Luke Wilson, both terrific).

Like the original, the zombie attacks and shoot-outs are punctuated with deadpan (maybe the correct term is undead-pan) humor, brilliantly delivered by the powerhouse cast. From the opening Columbia logo showing the lady using her torch to bash some zombies, the film moves briskly along with a gruesomely delightful mix of mayhem, romance, and humor. It’s a story about family, resilience, courage, and staying limber — with a great scene over the credits featuring a not-too-surprising guest star.

Parents should know that this film includes constant zombie peril and violence with many graphic, bloody, and disturbing images, characters injured and killed, constant very strong and crude language, sexual references and non-explicit situations, and alcohol and marijuana.

Family discussion: Why did Wichita say no to Columbus? What rules do you follow?

If you like this, try: the first “Zombieland” and “Sean of the Dead”

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Ad Astra

Posted on September 19, 2019 at 5:31 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some violence and bloody images, and for brief strong language
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Peril and violence, characters injured and killed, some startling and disturbing images
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: September 20, 2019
Date Released to DVD: December 16, 2019

Copyright 20th Century Fox
James Gray, the writer/director of Lost City of Z. has given us another story of a father and son who leave women behind to explore unknown territory. “Lost City of Z” was based on the true story of Percy Fawcett, who traveled through South America in search of the legendary city of gold, inspiring a generation of adventurers. In “Ad Astra” (“to the stars”) an astronaut goes to the farthest reaches of the solar system in search of answers that range from the most cosmic and existential to the most deeply wrenching and personal.

In both films, Gray is better with the settings than the characters and better with the characters than the storyline. And Brad Pitt’s acting is better than every other part of the film.

The look and sound of “Ad Astra” is spectacular. It creates a completely believable, fully-imagined near-future look and feel of an era of space travel and planetary colonization. It is difficult in a sci-fi movie not to want to show off the coolness of the technology, and make the most of the extrapolations of our time into the worst (or occasionally best) possible outcomes, for example, Earth destroyed by human failings or hubris. But this film makes its imagined future all the more believable by making it fit seamlessly into a world that seems just minutes from where we are now. So of course there will be bomb-sniffing dogs in the rocket hanger; just because we develop the technology for routine travel to outer space does not mean we will develop a safer world at home. And of course there will be a Subway (the sandwich place, not the mode of transportation) in a space outpost because why wouldn’t fast food corporations line up whatever territory they can.

I will not spoil the adventures along the journey; I will just say that the characters acceptance of them as ordinary and expected also underscores the vastness of the imagined world and deepens the impact of the dangers Roy faces.

The score by Max Richter, cinematography by Hoyte van Hoytema (“Intersteller”), and the sound design by Grant Elder shape the story-telling, making the exploration seem so completely realistic that we can believe it is already an ordinary part of our daily lives, but keeping things exciting and suspenseful when the time comes.

And then there is the story. Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is an astronaut, like his father Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones), who disappeared on a voyage to Neptune when Roy was a child. Now someone needs to go to Neptune to investigate a mysterious electrical surge that is creating great damage on earth. And it seems possible that Clifford is involved somehow, that he has survived all this time.

The astronauts are required to do regular self-assessment check-ins on their mental and psychological states to determine whether they are stable enough for space travel. But it is not at all clear as Roy goes through the list of questions whether he is saying what he really feels or what he knows they want to hear. “I am focused only on the essentials,” he says, “I do not allow my mind to linger on that which is not important.” Can anyone believe that is possible? Or that it should be possible? What Roy’s superiors know is the data that they have received, showing that his pulse never goes above 80, even when the situation is very dire. So, should he have one of those “Houston, we have a problem” complications, they believe they can count on him to be level-headed and focus on practical solutions instead of getting emotional, frightened, or angry.

And so he seems to be the right choice for “a crisis of unknown magnitude,” unprecedented electrical surges that put all human life at risk and that seem to be connected to Clifford’s long-ago mission. Roy agrees to go to Neptune, requiring stops on the moon and Mars, to see if he can find and stop the surges. But there’s a warning. “We have to hold out the possibility that your father may be hiding from us.” “I remain mission ready,” Roy assures them.

But we learn that Roy understands rage. He has seen it in his father and he feels it in himself. There will be sacrifices along the way, and decisions with tragic consequences. I found the ultimate encounter less than satisfying, not up to the ambitions of the premise and the settings. But Pitt’s performance and the world of the film provide more than enough reason to watch and wonder.

Parents should know that this film includes sci-fi style violence with peril and some disturbing and graphic images, themes of parental abandonment, characters who are injured and killed, and some strong language.

Family discussion: Was Roy honest in his answers about his emotional state? How was he like his father and how was he different? Would you like to explore space?

If you like this, try: “2001,” “Gravity,” “The Martian,” and “Silent Running”

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Spider-Man: Far From Home

Posted on June 28, 2019 at 7:32 am

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence, some language and brief suggestive comments
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended comic book/action-style peril and violence, mayhem, destruction, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: July 3, 2019
Date Released to DVD: September 23, 2019

Copyright Sony 2019
Okay, three key points before we get into the details of “Spider-Man: Far From Home.” First, see this smart, funny, heartwarming and entertaining movie on the biggest screen possible, IMAX if you can. Second, yes, you have to stay ALL the way through the credits. There are some big developments/revelations/surprises you will need to know. Third, if you have not seen “Avengers: Endgame” be aware that there are spoilers, so watch that first if you can, so you will better understand some of the conflicts and believe me, you don’t want to be distracted by figuring out what you missed because this movie deserves your full attention.

Just a reminder, as we’ve had a variety of Spider-Men on film, including Tobey Maguire, Andrew Garfield, and a whole bunch of Spideys including a pig and an anime girl in the Oscar-winning “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.” In this version of the Spider-verse, Tom Holland has played high school student Peter Parker in “Spider-Man: Homecoming” and in two Avengers movies. Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) took a special interest in Peter, and had his aide Happy (Jon Favreau) act as messenger and mentor.

Now that that is all out of the way, let’s get into it, unless you have not seen “Avengers: Endgame,” in which case stop reading now as there will be spoilers. The movie begins with an in memoriam tribute to the characters who died in that film, as Whitney Houston sings “I Will Always Love You.” It’s touching but it’s cheesy and sappy and we find out why: it’s on a high school closed-circuit news program with student announcers who help bring us up to date. The people who turned to dust when Thanos snapped his fingers have been returned and their absence is called The Blip. But the returnees are five years older, while for the people who were not dusted no time had passed. Everyone is still getting used to the idea that the world has been saved and beginning to get back to normal or get used to the new normal.

Peter thinks he deserves time time off, so when Nick Fury calls, he does not answer his phone. Even though Tony Stark left him in charge of the Avengers, his priority is to go on the class trip to Europe and let Mary Jane (Zendaya) know that he likes her. As in “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” this film combines adolescent angst and romance with special effects superhero extravaganza fights (remember what I said about the big, big screen), with a skillful blend of humor, action, and growing up. Sometimes that combination creates a problem for Peter, as when he gets jealous of a rival for MJ’s affection and accidentally calls a drone strike on the tour bus.

The school trip provides lots of picturesque (before they get trashed) European locations, including Venice and Prague, as Nick Fury keeps “upgrading” the trip to reroute Peter to where the action is.

I know I always say that the make or break for superhero movies is the villain, but I don’t want to tell you too much about the villain here because the details should be a surprise. So I will just say that the surprises are great and this one is a lot of fun, with a very clever updating of the comic book version of the character that create an opportunity for some trippy and mind-bending visual effects. And Peter gets a great gift from Tony Stark — be sure to listen carefully to what the acronym EDITH stands for.

The settings, fight scenes, and special effects are all top-notch, but it is the cast that really brings this story to life. Holland is a little less soulful than Maguire or Garfield (or Shameik Moore), a little more heart-on-his-sleeve energetic, with a natural athleticism that lends a gymnastic, almost balletic grace to his web-swinging and slinging. Zendaya’s MJ is smart, edgy and vulnerable. The villain is…surprising, and a welcome relief after the stentorian-voiced blowhards we have too often seen in superhero movies. Plus, Led Zep, Samuel L. Jackson gets to say, “Bitch, please,” and we get to see London Bridge (or the equivalent) falling down. This is just what a summer movie is supposed to be — fresh, fun, exciting, and with a wow of a post-credit scene to shake things up for the next installment. This one made my spidey-sense tingle.

Parents should know that this film includes intense comic-book/action-style peril and violence with massive destruction and mayhem, with characters injured and killed. The movie also includes teen kissing, some strong language, a crotch hit, someone giving the finger, and mild sexual references.

Family discussion: Should Peter have answered Nick Fury’s call? Why did Tony Stark pick him? What does it mean to say “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown” and where does that expression come from?

If you like this, try: the other Marvel movies and “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

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