Musings on Star Wars: Rise of the Skywalker (2019)

So here we are… forty two years after the first ever Star Wars film opened in 1977, the final chapter of the Skywalker saga is released. There was a huge anticipation for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, naturally, given its place in the franchise history as the final conclusion. In preparation for this, my hubby and I saw Return of The Jedi the night before (and we actually saw Empire Strikes Back in October as part of MN Orchestra LIVE in concert series).

When I finished watching the movie, I turned to my hubby and whispered, they might as well call this franchise SPOILER ALERT (highlight to read) ‘evil space grandpas’ If you’ve seen this movie, I think you know why. Just like what I did on The Force Awakens, this post is not a review per se, more of my random thoughts about the film and the franchise as a whole, so proceed with caution if you haven’t seen the movie yet.

Unsurprisingly, I have a lot of the same quibbles with this one as the 2015 movie that JJ Abrams also directed… mainly the excessive amount of nostalgia, as some critics have rightly called ‘fan pandering,’ and lack of suspense throughout. Yes there are some fun moments, but the big moments are pretty much predictable. The key phrase ‘no one’s ever really gone’ uttered by Luke Skywalker at the end of The Last Jedi came up again in this movie. Beloved Carrie Fisher returns as General Leia Organa (via the use of repurposed unreleased footage), but she’s not the only one.

In fact, the entire movie is basically a road trip of sort to find a supposedly dead Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) who now resides on the planet Exegol. Apparently he’s so NOT dead after all, in fact he’s been a puppet master to Snoke, Supreme Leader of The First Order. But before Rey, Poe and Fin could get to Exegol, they had to find a device called Sith Wayfinder. I feel like that plot is basically a way to reunite Rey & co. with yet another returning character Lando Calrissian. The crew looked practically giddy to be meeting Billy Dee Williams in that scene, and vice versa, that it took me out of the movie a bit. That’s what nostalgia does… while I enjoy seeing certain actors back in a certain franchise, it distracts me from the actual story that unfolds before me.

Speaking of the story… there’s a lot of ‘more of the same’ in The Rise of the Skywalker. Interesting that there were some rumbles on the interweb that JJ Abrams was subtly dissing Rian Johnson‘s The Last Jedi, saying that it was “a story that I think needed a pendulum swing in one direction in order to swing in the other.” Now, whether Abrams was throwing shade at Johnson or not, the fact of the matter is, the two filmmakers didn’t seem to see eye to eye. As a more casual fan of Star Wars, I actually like the fact that Rian had the guts to do something different and subverting the franchise. Unfortunately I’m in the minority and because many die-hard fans hated what Rian did, so naturally he’s not invited back to helm this one.

The biggest ‘twist’ of this movie is in regards to Rey’s (Daisy Ridley) identity. “People keep telling me they know me. No one does,” She quipped in frustration. But her reluctant ‘nemesis’ Kylo Ren claims he does, then he just said it blatantly who her parents really are. It’s supposed to be a gasp-inducing moment, but for some reason it was just ‘meh’… in fact, Rey’s similar lineage situation that bears such resemblance to Luke’s and Kylo’s feels like convenient (read: lazy) writing to me. The part I like most about Rey when she’s first introduced in The Force Awakens is that she’s just a scavenger with no Jedi blood in her, and that her parents are just ordinary people.

In The Last Jedi, Kylo himself told her ‘You come from nothing. You’re nothing’ which undeniably made him even more furious that she could wield as much power as he does. Then the ending that film (the scene with the young boy) also hinted that there are other ‘ordinary’ people with no prominent lineage who could use the Force. I love that message that people are more than who they’re born to be and where they come from, that we do have the power to become more than what’s been imagined for us. So by making Rey as a Palpatine obviously undermined the storyline that’s been set before and render many other plot points meaningless. I don’t know in what other cinematic franchise is that ever a good thing??

I have to say that the nostalgic moments have different degrees of impact. I said I enjoyed seeing Leia and Lando, and the final arc of General Leia Organa is a memorable moment. But the now decrepit Palpatine is mostly eye-roll inducing (especially since the scene of Vader throwing him down the space abyss is still fresh in my mind). Not only would it seem impossible that he survived that fall, but just when did he have time to have a son who later becomes Rey’s dad?? On top of that, he’s also mighty enough to build an entire armada and hides ALL of them from every single creature until the opportune time dictated by the script to reveal it.

I barely have time to ponder on that as there’s a ton of stuff going on in this movie… the crew frenetically jumped from place to place in search of that Wayfinder thing-y, which eventually leads to the main battle between Rey and Kylo. No doubt the lightsaber duel of two crucial characters, on top of the remains of the second Death Star no less, looks epic. With the waves and torrential rain, it’s an atmospheric scene to be sure.  It’s got some wow moments, but overall the scene just didn’t have as big an emotional impact as I thought it would.

SPOILER ALERT (proceed with caution as I’ll mention key plot details below)
Since Force Awakens, I’ve grown to appreciate Adam Driver more and more (you could even say he’s my current cinematic crush), but I gotta say Kylo’s got the short end of the stick here in terms of his character. Yes he’s a Darth wannabe from the start, longing to be a powerful Sith leader like his grandpa, but this final movie just renders him into nothing more than a conflicted man-child. It pains me to see Driver, who’s so excellent in Marriage Story which I saw just two months prior, barely given much to do here than looking mostly dazed and discombobulated.

Now, given how powerful Rey’s become, the outcome of the duel and what she did afterwards didn’t really surprise me. In a key moment in the movie, suddenly Han Solo turned up again… Was it a dream? A hallucination? Was Kylo delirious? Does it matter?? In another nostalgic scene, Harrison Ford revisited his most famous ad-lib in Empire Strikes Back as his prodigal son struggled to find the words to say … that part made me smile, but I find this dramatic scene more schmaltzy than genuinely moving.

Still, Driver at least still has a compelling arc and a dignified resolution… gone is Kylo Ren’s toxic power-hungry machismo, in the end he’s Ben Solo after all, and he’s got an honorary ‘death’ as a Jedi. But where is Rose Tico?? The spunky mechanic with a big heart had a big role in The Last Jedi… Kelly Marie Tran was a great addition to the Resistance crew. But here she’s hugely sidelined for most of the movie while Fin is off doing his heroic duty with a new compatriot, Jannah, a Resistance sympathizer. Now, Naomi Ackie is fine in the role, but I can’t help missing Rose in the journey with the Resistance fighters.

Now, after teasing us for four years whether Rey will finally turn to the dark side… well, the final answer is something so utterly predictable. Once again our heroine, just like the original hero of the saga, is facing a family member [yawn]. Rey matters because she’s part of an important, all-powerful family. It’s treading familiar [and familial] grounds the fact that bloodline and lineage is the key to achieving real power, that is the ability to use the Force. Perhaps the fact that we’ve seen all before, the action-packed battle of ‘all of the Sith’ VS ‘all of the Jedi’ barely holds a candle of the original battle between Luke vs Vader/Palpatine. It’s what follows that would likely be the talking points about Rise of Skywalker… yep, it’s all about Reylo.

Not satisfied with just an epic battle of good vs evil, we’ve got to have some controversial romance thrown in. I wonder how the convo goes in the Writers Room… ‘hey wouldn’t it be surreal to have Vader’s grandson making out w/ Palpatine’s granddaughter?’ I supposed Kylo’s longing look every time he sees and ‘feels’ Rey from a distance (boy that came out SO creepy) has suggested he has feelings for her from the start. And who could forget that shirtless scene during a Force-bond in The Last Jedi that bothered Rey so much she asked him to put something on? But yet, I still wasn’t prepared for the kiss… it feels like it came out of nowhere. I mean all the mutual pull between the light and dark side that haunts both these poor souls is SO massive… it took so much out of them with huge stakes on both sides that you would think romance is the last thing on their minds. Naturally plenty of fans have always wanted to ship the two of them, as Reylo has been the subject of a plethora of fan-fiction, which makes the kiss feels obligatory. There’s been a lot of shared motifs in Star Wars and Shakespeare–we’ve seen the Romeo and Juliet plot between Anakin and Padmé before, so I guess their grandson is bound to share similar fate.

All in all, The Rise of Skywalker is an enjoyable but also frustrating film. I was caught up in the rousing nostalgic moments and even felt emotionally moved by some of them, but as soon as the movie’s over, I was left with an overwhelming sense of meh. It’s not a bad movie per se… I mean the actors did a good job in their roles, production design & special effects are top notch, John Williams‘ music is obviously still iconic, even Abrams’ direction is enjoyable… but at the end of the day, Chris Terrio and Abrams’ script is serviceable at best.

It proves that no film, no matter how beloved the franchise it, can simply ride on nostalgia alone. At the end of the day, as a film fan, we crave innovative storytelling that sparks one’s imagination… I don’t think JJ Abrams gave us that with this one. Honestly, after nine films, I’d be hard pressed to know just what the Force is supposed to be about since the franchise’s overall narrative is so discordant and inconsistent. Perhaps it’s a good thing this is the final installment of the cinematic Skywalker saga, but of course, with Disney+, no franchise is ever really gone. Especially one as lucrative as this one.


So for those who’ve seen this one, what did you think of The Rise of Skywalker?

 

FlixChatter Review – UNCUT GEMS (2019)

Having seen the brothers Josh and Ben Safdie‘s 2017 crime thriller Good Time, I was more than excited to see their next feature film, Uncut Gems, starring Adam Sandler, with Martin Scorsese serving as an executive producer. Sandler stars as Howard Ratner, who is a gambling addict and narcissist in New York City’s Diamond District. The idea for the film was inspired by Safdie brothers’ own father and his time working in the same Manhattan Diamond District and the script was co-written by the brothers and their friend Ronald Bronstein. Ratner, a Jewish jewelry shop owner and profiteer, is already over his head taking out loans to feed his gambling habits and constantly dealing with loan sharks who chasing after him.

The film starts with Ethiopian miners finding a fantastic gem, an uncut opal that has numerous sparking and shining properties. This uncut gem finds its way to Howard Ratner, just as he is opening his shop for NBA superstar Kevin Garnett, who is in the middle of a title run with the Boston Celtics. Garnett and his posse come in to shop for some unique jewelry pieces and Ratner offers them various different things such as diamond watches and a diamond-covered animal creature with creepily moving eyes. Garnett doesn’t seem interested and is ready to leave, so while Howard’s assistant Demany (Lakeith Stanfield) distracts Garnett with some small talk, Ratner and his assistant/girlfriend Julia (Julia Fox) open up a freshly delivered package containing the shiny uncut opal.

Not having the ability to contain himself, Ratner shows Garnett the opal and Garnett instantly wants to buy it. Refusing to sell it, Ratner makes a deal with Garnett to let him hold onto it for good luck at his game that night, putting up his Celtics championship diamond ring as collateral. While being pursued by his own brother-in-law loan shark Arno (Eric Bogosian) and his goons, Ratner immediately runs off to a pawn shop to pawn Garnett’s ring in exchange for some quick cash he can gamble with. More specifically, Ratner plans to bet it all on Garnet having a personal best night at the basketball game he is playing in that night, scoring a personal best and helping the Celtics win the game.

In his personal life, Howard is dealing with his estranged wife, Dinah (Idina Menzel), who intends to divorce him after Passover (but doesn’t want to confront him in front of their kids) and his assistant/girlfriend/mistress Julia. Howard gets jealous when he finds Julia at a concert with The Weekend (plays himself) making out in the bathroom. Howard kicks Julia out of the apartment he is renting for her, without his wife’s knowledge. Things get worse for Howard when Demany tells him that even though Garnett won his game the previous night and Howard made some money, Garnett now wants to keep the opal for a considerable time longer. This is a problem for Howard as he intends to sell the opal at a high-end auction that is mere days away.

Howard gets jumped at his daughter’s school play by Arno and his bodyguards Phil (Keith Williams Richards) and Nico (Tommy Kominik), who strip Howard naked and lock him in the trunk of his own car, forcing him to call Dinah to unlock it for him. Prior to locking Howard in the car trunk, Arno tells Howard that he placed a stop on the bet that Howard had made on Garnett’s game, as the bet was made with money owed to him. Garnett contacts Howard prior to the auction and offers him $175,000 to purchase the opal but Howard refuses, thinking that it would make more money at the auction. Howard convinces his father-in-law Gooey (Judd Hirsch) to bid against Garnett at the auction, but Garnett senses something is off and bows out before the opal reaching Howard’s minimum price of $200,000, forcing Gooey to purchase it with Howards own money. Arno, Phil and Nico confront Howard in front of the auction and end up punching him in the nose as Howard falls into the nearby fountain in front of the building.

Kevin Garnett, still wanting the opal, reaches out to Howard to try one more time to purchase the opal for $175,000, and this time Howard agrees. But instead of paying back Arno, Phil and Nico the money he owes them, Howard tells his recently reconciled with assistant/girlfriend Julia to take the money and place a bet on Garnett’s basketball game at a nearby casino. Howard locks Arno, Phil and Nico in his jewelry shop’s security area between doors and watches Garnett’s basketball game from inside his shop.

SPOILER ALERT (highlight to read) Howard wins big (over one million dollars) and when he releases Arno, Phil and Nico from in-between the doors to his jewelry shop, Phil shoots Howard in the head at point-blank range, also shoots and kills Arno, and Phil and Nico rob Howard’s shop. The camera zooms inside Howard’s bullet hole.

Adam Sandler gave a tour-de-force performance. Not only does he deliver on of his best dramatic performances ever, Sandler also delivers a one of a kind equally impressive comedic performance that makes his audience squirm and laugh nervously in their seats, not knowing when a punch would be thrown his away making the situation time times more uncomfortable. Additionally, Kevin Garnett is realistic and believable, playing the NBA Basketball Champion, looking for a lucky gem that would help him win his next championship. The interaction between Sandler and Garnet is at times scripted but often improvised. Sander finds a way to make the crazy compulsive gambler and jewelry salesman character relatable and somewhat compassionate but also someone Garnett could go toe-to-toe with and still be fearful of him.

The other supporting cast Eric Bogosian, Lakeith Stanfield and Idina Menzel all pull their weight in their respective scenes, but it is newcomer Julia Fox who stands out as Howard’s assistant and on-and-off again girlfriend. Fox, who is making her first feature film appearance in Uncut Gems, is a standout in the film, making a perfect partner for Howard and Julia’s toxic and yet very, very hyper-romantic relationship (at least according to co-director, co-writer Josh Safdie). I can see both Sandler and Fox being recognized for the originality as well as their codependency in making their onscreen relationship work.

Uncut Gems is one of best films I’ve seen this year, in what has been an overall fantastic year for cinema and original storytelling. This Safdie Brothers crime thriller is definitely in my top-ten list and I can see it winning multiple awards in the next month or two (Sandler is already getting heavy Oscar buzz).

– Review by Vitali Gueron


Have you seen UNCUT GEMS? Well, what did you think? 

FlixChatter Review – CATS (2019)

Directed by: Tom Hooper
Screenplay by: Lee Hall, Tom Hooper

Most people who know me probably think I’m a huge Cats fan; I’m a choir nerd and a crazy cat lady (my Instagram account is mostly pictures of my boyfriend’s three adorable kitties), so a musical that combines two of my loves sounds tailor-made for me. Honestly, though, I never really got into it. I saw it at the Orpheum during an anniversary tour, and while I appreciated the beautiful music, clever choreography, and elaborate costumes, I had trouble connecting with the story- unsurprising, considering it’s based on a collection of T.S. Eliot poems. When I heard the musical was being adapted into a movie, though, I figured I would give it another shot.

Cats is about a group of alleycats called the Jellicle Cats (no, I STILL don’t know what Jellicle Cats are; based on the songs, it sounds like they’re basically just normal cats but some of them are maybe magic?) preparing for the Jellicle Ball, an event where their leader, Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench) chooses one cat to ascend to the “Heavyside Layer,” basically a cat heaven where they will be reborn into a better life. The cats each perform for Old Deuteronomy in order to convince her to choose them. However, a nefarious cat named Macavity (Idris Elba) is also trying to be chosen, and is doing his best to get rid of his competition.

Okay, let’s get the obvious out of the way: the uncanny valley CGI character design. It’s not quite as bad as I was expecting-at least close up. The CGI fur is very realistic-looking, and it seems to be combined with practical costuming and makeup in some cases. That said, the full body shots looked so much creepier, and I am still super weirded out by how aggressively human the faces look. They put so much detail into the bodies, but the faces are mostly left as is, save for some CGI whiskers and occasional tufts of fur. Couldn’t they have done something with makeup or prosthetics? As it is, all I could think of was that scene in What We Do in the Shadows where Jemaine Clements’s character tries to turn into a cat.

Besides the unsettling character design, the movie is mostly pretty to look at. The production design is beautiful, and the choreography is impressive (if not necessarily well-shot); mainly casting professional ballet dancers was one of the best things they could have done for the movie. Some of the “cat-like” movements are a little uncomfortable, though. There’s this weird sexual energy about it, which for some stories or musicals is totally fine, and I know the stage show has a similar vibe, but knowing that it’s about literal cats makes it kind of awkward.

The other big topic I obviously have to comment on is the music. Overall, it’s decent; the Andrew Lloyd Webber classic hasn’t endured as long as it has for nothing. Several of the songs are fun, catchy, and in some instances, haunting. I liked the ensemble numbers, although the orchestration sometimes drowns out the vocals in some parts. Jennifer Hudson as Grizabella  obviously sounds fantastic in the best-known number, “Memory.” Jason Derulo gives a solid performance as the flirty and energetic Rumtumtugger; his diction suffers a little because he’s trying to sing with a Cockney accent, but I still really enjoyed his voice. Steven McRae as Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat is especially delightful; he has such a clear, bright, strong tone.

Taylor Swift’s Bombalurina only has one song, Macavity, and it’s…fine. She was obviously a stunt cast, because they gave her a song that’s not that vocally taxing. The song itself has this sultry vibe that Taylor’s breathy voice sort of works for, although it some parts it sounds more breathless than breathy, and I really would have loved to hear some more power behind the chorus. My biggest issue with the music was the shoehorned in Oscar-bait song, Beautiful Ghosts. It was written by Swift and Webber, but it definitely sounds more like the pop star’s song than the Broadway composer’s and doesn’t really fit the rest of the show’s tone. Worse still, it comes immediately after Grizabella’s first snippet of “Memory,” and having this slightly pretty but underwhelming song follow it dampens the effect of that moment.

The rest of the cast quality is pretty mixed. Judi Dench as Old Deuteronomy and Ian McKellen as Gus the Theatre cat are amazing actors in general and could make reciting the phone book sound good, so they do well with what they’re given. Rebel Wilson as Jennyanydots and James Corden as Bustopher Jones are pretty groan-worthy; they’re the comedic relief, but they have way too much addded dialogue that’s basically just the individual actors’ brands of humor, and it doesn’t mesh with the rest of the movie. Idris Elba tries so hard, and he’s clearly giving it his all, but his character has been rewritten from a mysterious and malevolent presence to a cartoon villain, so there’s not much to salvage there. Lastly, newcomer Francesca Hayward as the abandoned kitten Victoria is, again, fine. She’s primarily a dancer, so her acting and singing aren’t spectacular, but she does okay with what she’s given. Her role in the movie is mostly as an analogue for the audience-someone for the other cats to explain the plot to- so there’s not much needed from her acting-wise.

This movie isn’t great. It’s not even so bad it’s good, which would at least be fun. Honestly, the source material just doesn’t lend itself to being adapted to a movie. Even with the added dialogue explaining the weird plot, the lyrics are still pretty bonkers and the anthropomorphized felines writhing around is uncomfortable, and  and while that might work on stage, it just doesn’t in film. Even if the character design hadn’t been terrifying CGI and the cast had been stronger, I don’t think anything could salvage Cats as a movie.

laura_review


Have you seen CATS? Let us know what you think!

FlixChatter Review – BOMBSHELL (2019)

Directed by: Jay Roach
Screenplay by: Charles Randolph
Starring: Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, Margot Robbie, John Lithgow

Bombshell follows a group of female news anchors as they confront Fox CEO Roger Ailes (John Lithgow) for sexual harassment and attempt to dismantle the toxic atmosphere he created as head of the network. Previously they all had served as clone-like soldiers in Ailes’ army of perfectly manicured blonde newswoman army. Each was complicit in and helped to build the culture, however they are eventually forced to decide which side they will take, pursuing the truth or following the network and Ailes.

From its opening scene, our lead character addresses the camera/audience directly (in news-like fashion) breaking the 4th wall. Bombshell toys with the “uncanny valley” hypothesis. While it is trying to warm you to the main characters by bringing you into the story both literally and figuratively (giving you a behind the scenes look at the inner workings at Fox) it leaves much unexamined. This choice was made to protect the Women whose testimonies were used to create this film, as all who participated in the settlement with Fox were forced to sign nondisclosure agreements.

Director Jay Roach also wrestles with this through his characterization of real life people he is portraying. Charlize Theron is uncanny as Megyn Kelly in Bombshell. She is well known for blending into a character and becoming unrecognizable and she once again does a stellar job as Megyn. There is a lot of empathy given to her character as she faces her many pitfalls over the course of 2016 which leads to this amazing performance. But at times it also feels a little creepy watching Charlize as Megyn.

The dichotomy of wanting to tell the story while protecting sources creates an underdeveloped narrative. The film isn’t able to fully delve into the complicated emotional nature of this subject as well as it should. Which in turn contributes to a lack of central structure throughout the film. This in no way affects how well the film is acted or how important it is to highlight these women but left me feeling like Fox was not being properñy held accountable.

Although it affected the film’s flow, I think this choice rang very true. Everyone who suffers sexual harassment suffers some silencing or minimizing of their experience. They must make a choice about how much they will share and how much backlash they can take when sharing their experience. In the end this film is very much about autonomy and commodification, selling sex as a brand, selling a candidate, as well as your identity/story, and the truth.

What Megyn Kelly did was very brave, especially in a pre-Weinstein, pre-#MeToo era. This is compounded because she is a hard working ambitious person who knew exactly what she was putting on the line by speaking up. The risk to her career and reputation was very real. There are so many moments that are so familiar, this film clearly portrays the way women have to navigate predators with power. It does a really good job of highlighting the grey areas of this morally complex issue. A person can be a mentor, a father figure, someone you respect and still act problematically. Each person ends up negotiating their limits and ultimately trying to do the right thing.

– Review by Jessie Zumeta


Have you seen BOMBSHELL? Well, what did you think? 

Trailers Spotlight: TENET and DOWNHILL

Happy Friday, folks! I was going to post TENET trailer last night when it first arrived, but didn’t get a chance to do so. Then his morning, I received a trailer news release of a movie I didn’t even know was being made, DOWNHILL. Well, as I always like to mix the tone/genre/style when posting trailers, these two are perfect to highlight.

TENET

An action epic revolving around international espionage, time travel, and evolution.

Every single trailer of Christopher Nolan‘s movies always had me salivating and wish I could see it as soon as possible. Well, the same with TENET, which plot is still shrouded in mystery, but based on the deliberately-vague IMDb description and poster, it has an INCEPTION vibe all over it. I’m already sold when they said it’ll be a a time travel spy movie!!

I LOVE seeing John David Washington in the lead role, who was excellent in BlacKkKlansman. He sure has the screen presence like his thespian father Denzel, not to mention an enigmatic charisma. The movie itself teases something ominous, as Washington’s character and Clémence Poésy‘s talking about preventing world war III and dealing with something worse than a nuclear holocaust.

One thing is clear that there’ll be time traveling involved… it shows Washington’s character dying then coming back to life. When Martin Donovan‘s character said ‘welcome to the afterlife’ it literally gave me the chills!

As for the cast, I’m becoming more and more interested in seeing Robert Pattinson on screen, and though he doesn’t speak in the trailer, I think his role is an important one. Then of course there’s the Nolan’s regular, Michael Caine and Kenneth Branagh. Aaron Taylor-Johnson gets top billing on IMDb for some reason, not sure what role he’ll play. Also nice to see Elizabeth Debicki and Himesh Patel among the ensemble cast.

Everything about this trailer looks mysterious and thrilling. Ludwig Göransson‘s score sounds terrific too, but then again most of Nolan’s  films have such fantastic soundtrack. Billed as Nolan’s most ambitious movie yet (boy that’s saying a lot!) comes with a reported budget of more than $220 million. It’s shot and will be released in the IMAX format, but unfortunately, we’ve got such a long wait as the movie isn’t released until July 17, 2020.


Barely escaping an avalanche during a family ski vacation in the Alps, a married couple is thrown into disarray as they are forced to reevaluate their lives and how they feel about each other. Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell star in this biting comedy.

I’m sold on the two leading cast for this one, which is based on the Swedish film Force Majeure. I hadn’t got a chance to see that acclaimed film, which also took place in the French Alps. I haven’t seen Julia Louis-Dreyfus in any movie before, but the pairing with Will Ferrell as husband and wife sounds like a genius idea!

Comedic writing duo Nat Faxon and Jim Rash won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for The Descendants, a familial comedy during a vacation that deals with a rather difficult subject. Their co-writer Jesse Armstrong, is a British writer who did In the Loop and creator of the HBO show Succession. So plenty of acclaimed talents behind this one. This black comedy is released just in time for Valentine’s Day next year for those who prefer something darker than a rom-com.


What do you think of these trailers? 

FlixChatter Review – JUMANJI: The Next Level (2019)

When I first reviewed Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle back in 2017, I said that director Jake Kasdan closed the door to the idea of there being another sequel. Yet, here we are; two years and millions of dollars later, Welcome to the Jungle became a critical and commercial success and was just begging for another sequel. So Kasdan, along with his co-writers Jeff Pinkner and Scott Rosenberg, decided to capitalize of the success they saw from Welcome to the Jungle, with great actors and a compelling story, to make Jumanji: The Next Level. As you can probably guess, the sequel offers many of the same characters from the first movie; the four main characters are back: Spencer Gilpin (Alex Wolff), Anthony “Fridge” Johnson (Ser’Darius Blain), Bethany Walker (Madison Iseman) and Martha Kaply (Morgan Turner).

Also returning are their avatars; Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), a very rugged and muscular explorer who is also an archaeologist, Franklin “Mouse” Finbar (Kevin Hart), a short in height zoologist, Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan), a commando, martial artist, and dance fighter and Professor Sheldon “Shelly” Oberon (Jack Black), cartographer, cryptographer, archaeologist and paleontologist. In Welcome to the Jungle, the game Jumanji let the humans choose who they their avatars to be and see what happens to them when they get to be someone else inside a video game. This isn’t necessarily the case this time around…more on that later. This time around, the movie opens with the friends returning home from college on winter break. We are introduced to Spencer’s grandfather Eddie (Danny DeVito) who’s staying with family due to his deteriorating health. Also we meet Eddie’s long-lost friend and business partner Milo (Danny Glover).

One night when Spencer goes missing, Martha (Turner), Bethany and Fridge (Blaine) discover that he’s actually gone back inside Jumanji. They decide to go back inside the game and seemingly one by one, they are transported inside. But what they don’t realize is that they’ve accidentally brought Eddie and Milo with them inside the game. This is where it takes a while to realize which avatar belongs to which real human. It turns out that this time Fridge ends up in Jack Black’s avatar, Sheldon “Shelly” Oberon. Also, Eddie and Milo find themselves in the form of the strapping Dr. Bravestone (Johnson) and the tiny zoologist Finbar (Hart), respectively. While Bethany is not taken inside the game, Martha is back as Ruby Roundhouse (with extra humor from Gillan). At first, they start inside a jungle terrain, much like the first sequel. But soon thereafter, they are transported into a desert wilderness where they are being chased by a pack of ostriches.

Dwayne Johnson is hilariously on point with DeVito’s somewhat signature northern New Jersey accent and Kevin Hart also is pretty funny with Glover’s elderly, more serious and statesmanlike accent. The avatars soon learn that they must snatch the jewel called “the Falcon’s Heart” from a ruthless warlord named Jurgen The Brutal (Game of Throne’s Rory McCann), who’s responsible for the deaths of Dr. Bravestone’s parents. Also returning in The Next Level are Nick Jonas as Jefferson “Seaplane” McDonough: the real world Alex (Colin Hanks)’s avatar who is a young aircraft pilot we know from the first sequel and Cyclone, a black Pegasus (horse) who is actually SPOILER alert (highlight to read): Bethany’s avatar. The players have to free the Falcon’s Heart jewel to escape the game once and for all, but they must do so in only three given lives (as in Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle) or forever be lost inside the game.

In The Next Level, director Jake Kasdan doubles down on the audience not knowing which real player is playing which avatar and finds a way (through some magical waters) to be able to switch the avatars (and characters’ voices) midway through the movie. This gives each actor the ability to show off their abilities to embody the different characters; the overly confident jock, a jittery nerd, a prissy cheerleader, and a cantankerous elderly persona. It is not right away that is revealed where Spenser is this whole time. SPOILER ALERT (highlight to read) In Jumanji: The Next Level, Spencer is in the avatar of Ming Fleetfoot, who specializes in burglary, pickpocketing, and lock-picking. This avatar is masterfully played by Awkwafina.

In my opinion, it isn’t Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart or Jack Black that are the standouts of Jumanji: The Next Level, – it is Awkwafina! Kasdan even finds a way for Awkwafina to take on Danny DeVito’s signature accent – and she does so brilliantly. There are many impressive video game-esque CGI scenes, including floating bridges, aggressive and menacing mandrills, and an absolutely amazing ostrich herd vs dune buggy race (it’s worth every penny!)

But if there aren’t the impromptu moments between Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Jack Black, Karen Gillan and Awkwafina, then Jumanji: The Next Level won’t have the same commercial and critical success that the first sequel saw. Luckily for us, these moments are absolutely there with this movie and they are an absolute treat. What Kasdan and his team do next with Jumanji is anyone’s guess, but he does leave the door open for yet another sequel. So don’t rush out the door before you’ve seen the very last ostrich exit stage left!

– Review by Vitali Gueron


Have you seen JUMANJI: The Next Level? Well, what did you think? 

FlixChatter Review: HONEY BOY (2019)

Director: Alma Har’el
Writer: Shia LaBeouf

Honey Boy surprised me. I expected it to be intense, but the film exceeded those expectations. Young Otis Lort (played by Noah Jupe, who, among other victories, perfectly nails his American accent) has started to make it in Hollywood. His father, James (Shia LaBeouf), shuttles him between their motel and set on his motorcycle every day, fathering him as well as he can, but inhibited by his personal demons. Honey Boy cuts this story with one of young adult Otis (Lucas Hedges), who is spinning out of control. A drunken encounter with the police lands him in rehab where he must confront the demons he inherited from his father. Honey Boy is an emotional whirlwind sprinkled with magical realism: a beautiful film that is finely coated with a layer of grime.

Noah Jupe with Shia LaBeouf

Alma Har’el’s direction of Honey Boy is exceptional. The emotional intensity of the movie is at a constant high, but Har’el skillfully controls the tone, keeping the audience so invested that it is only once the ending credits begin to roll that we realize exactly how emotionally taxing watching the film is. Har’el safely and elegantly navigates her actors (especially Jupe) through fraught emotional terrain while maintaining a beautiful visual aesthetic. She also notably lets the script’s snark about rehab shine through without minimizing rehab’s positive impact on Otis.

Lucas Hedges

All that said, I am so curious what the on-set relationship between LaBeouf and Har’el looked like. Although LaBeouf is only officially credited as writer and actor, it seems inevitable that LaBeouf would have had some directorial insights for such a personal project.  (As I’m sure you’ve already heard, writing this screenplay, based on his life, was part of LaBeouf’s recovery process). This curiosity especially comes into play in scenes like the one where LaBeouf plays James Lort at an AA meeting. Tears quivering in his eyes, James describes his love for his son, his deep pain, and how that pain often inhibits the expression of his love. How much of this moment was pure LaBeouf? How much was Har’el? I. am. so. curious.

Noah Jupe and FKA Twigs

LaBeouf’s inherent empathy for and understanding of his father (and Har’el’s ability to portray their fraught, but undeniably close relationship) is exactly why this movie works so well. In a therapy session, the young adult iteration of Otis Lort insists that his father is not the cause of his problems: James Lort is the reason that Otis has been successful. Despite all the pain, all the arguments, all the questionable parenting choices, Otis understands that at his father’s core it was all love. The fact that his father’s love was frequently overshadowed by his demons is as irrelevant as it was painful.

There are no weak actors in this film. You will love FKA Twigs despite yourself: she will make your skin crawl. Lucas Hedges is the eye of a hurricane: a ball of angry energy waiting for any excuse to snap. Byron Bowers is funny and subtle. Noah Jupe, surrounded by strong performers, still somehow carries the film on his tiny, twelve-year old shoulders. He perfectly captures a double-sided coin of innocence and premature adulthood. I dare you not to cry when his parents use him as a literal conduit for one of their arguments. And, of course, Shia LaBeouf will rip your damn heart out.

There are so many smart, artistic choices to unpack in Honey Boy. For one, I think it’s safe to assume that LaBeouf’s choice to rename himself Otis is in reference to Odysseus’ renaming himself “Outis” [ie “nobody”] when he encountered Polyphemus. And there is so much to discuss about that choice. For another, the magical realism that is otherwise a delightfully glowing subtext to the story, peaks toward the end of the film when young adult Otis and his father share a moment that is almost guaranteed to make your head spin. Visually majestic, contextually complex, and full of award-worthy performances, Honey Boy is not a film to miss.

I can only hope that LaBeouf continues to write. He is a gifted storyteller and we’re lucky to have him.


Have you seen HONEY BOY? What did you think?