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Movie reviews: 'Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker' brings a decades-old saga to an end
Published Friday, December 20, 2019 9:00AM EST Last Updated Friday, December 20, 2019 10:55AM EST
STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER: 3 STARS
It has taken 42 years, but the story of the Resistance that started in “Star Wars: A New Hope” comes to its conclusion in “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.” With an amped-up story, featuring flying Stormtroopers and much talk of destiny, confronting fear and inner turmoil, the ancient conflict between the Jedi and the Sith promises to deliver big at the box office, but will it satisfy old school fans who have waited a lifetime for the film’s final showdown?
The events of “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” and the passing of Carrie Fisher presented challenges that helped shape the plot of the new film, but you’ll get no spoilers here. I will say that old footage of Fisher as General Leia Organa from “The Force Awakens” appears alongside new work from Darth Vader's grandson, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), Jedi apprentice Rey (Daisy Ridley), Stormtrooper-turned-Resistance-fighter Finn (John Boyega), Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) and the First Order's General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson).
Add to that new characters like diabolical First Order Allegiant General Pryde (Richard E. Grant), Spice Runners of Kijimi leader Zorii Bliss (Keri Russell) and returning faves Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) and Mark Hamill's Luke Skywalker (in what form I will not say) and you have a blended “Brady Bunch-style” family in space.
Tasked with wrapping the Skywalker saga up in a pretty bow, director J.J. Abrams has made a film that is part fan service—many familiar faces come along for the ride—and part homage to the Original Trilogy. He replaces subtext with action, rehabilitates one character’s tarnished, cranky old man reputation (NO SPOILERS HERE) and essentially delivers the movie you expect.
Abrams knows there are no do overs on this one. “Do or do not; there is no try,” comes to mind. It is the wrap to one of the most popular and talked about film franchises of all time. Expectations are high with the possibility of fan backlash ever present. Questions are answered—Rey’s parentage chief among them—quips are thrown, Chewbacca howls and star ships are blasted to Kingdom Come as “The Rise of Skywalker,” for better and for worse, replaces the nuanced take of Rian Johnson’s “The Last Jedi” with the more tried and true Star Wars tale of nature vs nurture and good vs evil.
Jam packed with action and plot, “The Rise of Skywalker” gets bogged down with exposition and tying up loose ends. Worse, it often drifts from the thing that made “Star Wars” great in the first place—the characters. They’re all present and accounted for but are often overshadowed by the whiz bang pacing and over-abundance of story.
Having said that, the film’s final third, the payoff to the saga, hits several emotional high points. It’s the end of the saga and, therefore (NO SPOILERS HERE JUST THE FACTS) the final appearances of several members of the original cast. Their exits are handled with sensitivity and should generate a sniffle or two from hard-core fans.
The core of the movie is the anguished dynamic between Rey and Kylo. The push and pull between their logical vs biological family commitments is the most compelling part of the story. It also provides for several of the film’s most visually interesting scenes, including a climatic lightsaber battle on the wreckage of the Death Star.
“Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” ticks a lot of boxes for fans but—again, no spoilers—the mythic battle of good vs evil, of finding balance in the Force, that has fuelled the franchise for 40 plus years, was really only going to resolve itself in one way. As such, the metaphysical struggle is about the journey and not as much about the actual conclusion.
CATS: 1 ½ STARS
“Cats,” the mega-musical composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber and based on T.S. Eliot's “Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats,” has had nine lives.
Opening in London’s West End in 1981, it ran for 21 years and 8,949 performances, while the Broadway production ran for 18 years and 7,485 performances. It has played in over 30 countries in 15 languages and has been seen by more than 73 million people worldwide. The showstopping hit song "Memory" has been recorded by everyone from Liberace to Barbra Streisand. It is truly a show that always lands on its feet.
Oscar-winner director Tom Hooper puts out the litter box one more time in an all-star film that tells the tale of a tribe of cats called the Jellicles. The all-star cast, including James Corden, Judi Dench, Idris Elba, Jennifer Hudson, Ian McKellen, Taylor Swift and Rebel Wilson, hidden under layers of CGI fur and whiskers, spend one-night singing and dancing as Old Deuteronomy (Dench) makes the Jellicle choice to decide which cat will be sent to the Heaviside and reborn into a new life. The film version, with dialogue that links many of the tunes, does a better job of expressing the story, but perhaps it’s best to remember what Webber said to Hal Prince
when he asked the composer if “Cats” was a political metaphor. “Are those cats Queen Victoria, Gladstone and Disraeli?" the Broadway legend wondered. “Hal,” the composer replied, “this is just about cats.”
Let’s not pussyfoot around. “Cats” will go down in history as the weirdest studio movie of 2019. With actors who appear to have been put through the full-body Snapchat cat filter, a Ziegfeld Follies-style chorus line of dancing cockroaches and felines with human hands and feet, you’ll wonder if the theatre popcorn is laced with catnip.
It’s an example of spectacle over substance. The songs are catchy, the cats swing and sway in a manner that would make Cirque du Soleil envious, but the story, such that it is, is still simply a collection of show tunes bound by theme but unconcerned with the niceties of plotting. In other words, instead of a story, “Cats” is essentially a cluster of songs of introduction based on a weird, plotless collection of Eliot's poems.
Where director Tom Hooper’s “Les Misérables” worked to downplay the musical’s theatricality, “Cats” embraces it, allowing the felines to slink about the set, part ballet, part pantomime, part cat in heart. It’s big and silly, but unfortunately the high-tech veneer of the CGI costumes and sets erases much of the charm present in the more modest stage versions. One of the movie’s highlights is one stripped of (almost) all artifice. Dame Judy stares down the camera to deliver a playful, "The Ad-dressing of Cats," which has the kind of simple, absurd fun the rest of the film lacks.
There are other not-so-bad moments. Laurie Davidson’s "The Magical Mr. Mistoffelees" has a touch of, well, magic and Taylor Swift sashays convincingly through Bombalurina’s number but while the cast works hard to sell the material, the film is so unrestrained, so in search of meaning in a story that offers up religious resurrection metaphors but not much else, that I suspect audiences will make the Jellicle choice and go see “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” instead.
BOMBSHELL: 4 STARS
“Bombshell,” the new film starring Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman and a cast of thousands, is set at a time when dinosaurs roamed the earth. The dinosaur in the room in this story is Roger Ailes (John Lithgow), the chairman and CEO of Fox News. Much of the action is set in 2016 but the attitudes on display are positively prehistoric.
Ailes died on May 18, 2017, aged 77, but when we first meet him, he reigns supreme. He helped elected presidents, walked the halls of power with confidence and, most importantly for the purposes of this story, created the conservative cable news juggernaut Fox News. Specializing in covering stories that, according to producer Jess Carr (Kate McKinnon), “will scare your grandmother and piss off your grandfather,” Fox became Ailes’ mouthpiece to counter “liberal” CNN.
Ailes altered how Americans consumed the news, making stars out of Greta Van Susteren, Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity and the two women at the heart of “Bombshell's” story, Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) and Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron). Kelly is one of the network’s biggest stars, an outspoken lawyer engaged in a war of words with then candidate Donald Trump. The feud was good for ratings, so despite his pro-Trump stance, Ailes allowed it to continue. Not as good for the ratings was Carlson, a former prime-time anchor demoted to midafternoons following disagreements with her boss.
Eventually fired, Carlson leveled accusations of sexual misconduct against her former boss, alleging she had been fired for rebuffing Ailes' advances. When the expected support from other women inside Fox who had been auditioned by Ailes with the words, “stand up and give me a twirl,” or “lift your skirt up higher so I can see your legs,” Carlson fears her allegations will fall on deaf ears.
On the inside, Kelly weighs her options. Despite a “Support Roger” campaign from colleague Jeanine Pirro (Alanna Ubach), she bides her time before opening up about her own experiences.
The title “Bombshell” is a double entendre, referring to Ailes’ objectification of his on-air talent and to the accusations leveled against him, which sent ripples throughout the male dominated corporate world of news.
“Bombshell” echoes the story recently told in the mini-series “The Loudest Voice.” Both tell of a toxic workplace where one man ruled by intimidation, sexual harassment and micromanagement. “We have two, three and four doughnut days,” says Ailes’ executive assistant (Holland Taylor). “These aren’t doughnuts he eats. They’re doughnuts he throws.” His, “if you want to play with the big boys you have to lay with the big boys,” credo is dramatized in his interactions with Kayla Pospisil, a composite of several Fox employees, played by Margot Robbie. It was the days before #MeToo and the film does a good job of showing the apprehension some of the abused women feel about revealing their lurid treatment by Ailes.
At the film’s helm is Theron, with the aid of an incredible makeup job, disappears into the role of Megyn. She pierces the icy demeanor of Kelly’s on-air persona to reveal a heroine torn between loyalty to a man she knows has done terrible things and doing the right thing. It’s tremendous work that humanizes a character often portrayed in the real-life press as a divisive figure.
“Bombshell” is a torn-from-the-headlines story about the people behind the headlines that serves as a reminder of the importance of the #MeToo movement in shining a light on the kind of inappropriate behavior that placed women in peril in the workplace. Good performances, aided by makeup and prosthetics, bring the story to vivid life.