Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker review

For F*** Magazine

STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER

Director: J.J. Abrams
Cast : Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, Carrie Fisher, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Anthony Daniels, Naomi Ackie, Domhnall Gleeson, Richard E. Grant, Lupita Nyong’o, Keri Russell, Joonas Suotamo, Kelly Marie Tran, Ian McDiarmid, Billy Dee Williams
Genre : Sci-fi/Action/Fantasy
Run Time : 2 h 22 mins
Opens : 19 December 2019
Rating : PG13

42 years after the original Star Wars movie redefined cinema and started an enduring worldwide phenomenon, J.J. Abrams rings the curtain down on the Skywalker Saga with this film. While this certainly will not be the last piece of Star Wars media or indeed the last Star Wars movie ever, it’s still momentous that this marks the conclusion of the overarching core story of a galaxy far, far away.

Rey (Daisy Ridley), Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and Finn (John Boyega), the heroes of the Resistance, are flung together for a high-stakes mission with the fate of the galaxy hanging in the balance, as it always seems to. Under the leadership of General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), the Resistance continues its fight against the First Order, led by her son, Supreme Leader Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). The resurgence of the ancient evil known as the Sith, locked in a never-ending conflict with the Jedi, unearths long-buried secrets as foes and allies both old and new are drawn into the fray. Rey’s struggle to find her place in the galaxy and Kylo Ren’s own long-standing inner conflict take both characters to places they never imagined they would go.

You know the Aesop’s Fable about the man, the young boy and the donkey? The one about how you can’t please everyone? One imagines director/co-writer J.J. Abrams as the man in that story. There is no denying that making The Rise of Skywalker was a daunting undertaking, overwhelming in breadth (if perhaps not depth) as a story that must function as the conclusion to not just one trilogy, but three. Taking this into consideration, there is a lot in this film to enjoy.

From the word ‘go’, The Rise of Skywalker is unrelenting, and it is this propulsive kinetic energy that keeps the movie going and going and going, making its 142-minute runtime zip by. Our characters jump from set-piece to set-piece, planet to planet, taking the audience along with them. There are several involving action sequences and the lightsaber battle between Rey and Kylo Ren on a barge in a roiling sea is among the best in the whole series.

Rey, Finn and Poe spent most of The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi apart, and The Rise of Skywalker makes it a point to have these three characters share multiple scenes. We see how each of these characters has grown and evolved and how the events of the past two films have shaped them. The interplay between them, especially between Finn and Poe, is often entertaining. The resolution of the struggle between Rey and Kylo Ren will not please everyone, but there is an elegance in its execution, and it winds up being satisfying while also being unsatisfying, which seems like the intention.

There is a palpa…ble affection for the movies that came before, and as a result one can sense how hard Abrams, co-writer Chris Terrio and crew were trying to create something that honours the films of the past while also not directly contradicting what has been established earlier, which is easier said than done. This is, if nothing else, a big “points for trying” scenario.

The aforementioned Aesop’s Fable ends with the man and his son, carrying the donkey suspended by a pole on their shoulders, falling off a bridge into the river below and drowning. It sometimes feels like The Rise of Skywalker is doing just this. In nostalgia-driven franchises, fans are especially wary of “fan-service” – moments geared to elicit a positive reaction simply by reminding said fans of something they like. The Rise of Skywalker is stuffed with these moments. As a Star Wars fan, this reviewer did enjoy many of them, but after a while, it can get a bit tiresome when one realises this might be getting in the way of the storytelling. It’s like eating dessert for dinner: it’s fun at first, but by the end it’s too much of a good thing.

Much was made about how The Rise of Skywalker would apparently ‘retcon’ the events of The Last Jedi. While on the surface it seems like nothing here contradicts the events and the revelations of that film, one can tell that the vocal backlash against it did affect this movie – one would argue negatively. For all The Last Jedi’s perceived flaws, it was at the very least interesting. It was challenging in the way The Rise of Skywalker never is. Whatever was interesting about The Last Jedi feels flattened here.

Perhaps The Rise of Skywalker just doesn’t need to be challenging and people actually prefer it this way, but as the Skywalker Saga bounds to the finish line, it feels like narratively, the series as a whole has taken a step backwards. The film was originally set to be directed by Colin Trevorrow, and Trevorrow still receives a “story by” credit alongside Derek Connolly, Abrams and Terrio. Perhaps it was in the reworking of Trevorrow and Connolly’s original script that things got messy.

The breakneck pacing means that the movie is never boring, but there sometimes is the sense that it serves to paper over the cracks and stop audiences from pausing to look around them. The film’s haste also means that several important revelations and developments just whiz by without a chance to meaningfully explore them.

There is a sentimentality to The Rise of Skywalker, but it can be argued that the stories that have endured through the ages are often sentimental. Much of that sentimentality arises from seeing familiar faces, including C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams), on new adventures that contextualise their relationships to the other characters. The two main new characters introduced here, the warrior Jannah (Naomi Ackie) and the helmeted spice runner Zorii Bliss (Keri Russell), both feel very Star Wars-y.

Considering how poorly a section of Star Wars fans have conducted themselves and how they have expressed their vitriol over certain instalments of the series, making hating something a core part of their personality, there is a comfort in seeing the characters embrace and express their affection for each other. Many elements of The Rise of Skywalker might seem overly engineered, but the positivity and the message of people uniting to defend what they hold dear is sincere.

The film’s greatest accomplishment is in bringing Carrie Fisher’s Leia to the screen one last time. Through an ingenious and nigh-seamless combination of unused footage from The Force Awakens, body doubles, compositing and possibly a soundalike voice actor, the late Fisher delivers a stirring, dignified and supremely moving final performance. This is, after all, the conclusion to the Skywalker saga and this movie does place the family, the surviving members of whom are Leia and Kylo Ren, front and centre. There is a reverence which makes The Rise of Skywalker sometimes trip over itself, but the Skywalkers are given their due and then some here.

The Rise of Skywalker has myriad flaws, but it closes out the nine-film cycle in grand fashion. In straining to please fans, the film will probably end up divisive, just in a different way from The Last Jedi. Regardless, The Rise of Skywalker is still an achievement and it might not be the conclusion to the saga that this reviewer was hoping for, but we’re not quite sure how else we would have done this.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The Hitman’s Bodyguard

For F*** Magazine

THE HITMAN’S BODYGUARD

Director : Patrick Hughes
Cast : Ryan Reynolds, Samuel L. Jackson, Gary Oldman, Élodie Yung, Salma Hayek, Joaquim de Almeida, Kristy Mitchell, Richard E. Grant, Sam Hazeldine
Genre : Action/Comedy
Run Time : 1h 51m
Opens : 17 August 2017

This reviewer has long thought that The Hague would be a cool setting for an action movie to unfold. Imagine this scenario: a brutal dictator is brought before the International Court of Justice, but his sympathisers disrupt the trial, taking the judges, witnesses and other attendees of the trial hostage. It’s up to a John McClane-style hero to save the day. The Hitman’s Bodyguard uses a similar premise, but with a comedic twist.

Michael Bryce (Reynolds) is a triple-A rated executive protection agent, and his services are highly sought-after by arms dealers, warlords and other shady figures with a long list of enemies. After a botched job, Bryce’s career is in the dumps. His shot at redemption is a job escorting hitman Darius Kincaid (Jackson) to The Hague, where Kincaid is set to testify against Belarusian dictator Vladislav Dukhovich (Oldman). Kincaid agrees to testify on the condition that his wife Sonia (Hayek), herself a career criminal, is released from prison. Bryce’s ex-girlfriend, Interpol agent Amelia Roussel (Yung), has learned that there is a mole within Interpol and Bryce, being on the outside, is the only person she can trust to protect Kincaid. The catch: Bryce and Kincaid have been sworn enemies for years, Bryce finding himself caught in Kincaid’s crosshairs countless times across their respective careers. Kincaid insists that he doesn’t need Bryce’s protection, but the unlikely duo must rely on each other to survive the onslaught of Dukhovich’s mercenary army.

The Hitman’s Bodyguard seemed promising: there’s plenty of potential in teaming up Ryan Reynolds and Samuel L. Jackson, and the marketing campaign that riffed on the 1992 film The Bodyguard was reasonably witty. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite work out that way. Director Patrick Hughes, who helmed the mediocre The Expendables 3, struggles to make the film seem fresh or genuinely thrilling. Despite the obvious chemistry its stars share, there’s only so much expletive-laden bickering one can take before it just gets tiresome. The conflict between Bryce and Kincaid is meant to be amusing, but it just feels like a single joke that’s stretched out. As written by screenwriter Tom O’Connor, the back-and-forth between Reynolds and Jackson isn’t nearly clever enough to keep our interest.

The Hitman’s Bodyguard also suffers tonally: a bloody bar brawl scored to Lionel Richie’s “Hello”, and Atli Örvarsson’s over-the-top Bond movie-esque score indicate that the film is aiming for ironic self-awareness. However, the villain is depicted committing full-on war crimes, and one character’s tragic backstory is depicted in a dark flashback. Then there’s general silliness, like when our protagonists hitch a ride on a bus full of nuns. The Hitman’s Bodyguard doesn’t commit to full-tilt madcap comedy because it also wants to be a cool action flick, and ends up stranded in between. The action sequences are mostly filmed in shaky-cam so they’re difficult to enjoy, but the boat chase through Amsterdam’s canals and the explosive finale are reasonably fun set pieces.

Reynolds and Jackson play strictly to type: the former is a wisecracking action hero, and the latter is a foul-mouthed badass who doesn’t suffer fools. While they appear to be enjoying themselves, the dysfunctional buddy cop dynamic falls short of the fireworks one would expect from the pairing of performers who, in the right roles, can be supremely entertaining. The incessant arguing between the pair does draw out a few laughs, but most of the would-be zingers Reynolds and Jackson exchange fall flat. You might find yourself wondering how this would go if Reynolds and Jackson were playing Deadpool and Nick Fury respectively – that would be more exciting.

Gary Oldman can always be counted on to play a fantastic villain: he can throw a shouting fit like few others. He’s good here, no surprise, but he seems to have wandered in from a different movie. The character is introduced committing war crimes, that introductory scene feeling uncomfortably out of place in what is ostensibly a light-hearted action comedy.

Hayek is ridiculous amounts of fun, swearing up a storm and putting in a performance that’s markedly different from what we’ve seen from her before. Yung doesn’t make much of an impact, but it is fun to imagine Deadpool and Elektra being former lovers.

The Hitman’s Bodyguard seems like it should’ve been an entertaining lark, but it comes off as generic and oddly lethargic, despite trying hard to come off as funny. While its action sequences are unremarkable and its comedy is largely forced, The Hitman’s Bodyguard can thank its leads for wringing some laughs out of the material.

Summary: It’s mostly a rehash of buddy action movie clichés and the fights and chases are nothing to write home about, but even when given middling material, Ryan Reynolds and Samuel L. Jackson make some of this work.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Logan

LOGAN

Director : James Mangold
Cast : Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Dafne Keen, Stephen Merchant, Richard E. Grant, Boyd Holbrook
Genre : Action/Drama/Thriller
Run Time : 2h 17min
Opens : 2 March 2017
Rating : M18 (Violence and Coarse Language)

The conclusion to the Wolverine trilogy sees our rough beast slouching towards Bethlehem not to be born, but to face his reckoning. It is 2029, and most of mutantkind has died out. Logan/Wolverine (Jackman) lays low as a limo driver in El Paso, Texas, now almost 200-years-old. The adamantium with which his bones were laced is poisoning him from the inside out, and his powers are waning. Logan makes medicine runs for Charles Xavier/Professor X (Stewart), a now-senile nonagenarian who is cared for by the albino tracker Caliban (Merchant). Logan finds himself in danger upon encountering Laura Kinney/X-23 (Keen), a young girl who was cloned from him and bred as a super-soldier by the evil scientist Zander Rice (Grant). Rice sends the Reavers, a cybernetic mercenary army led by Donald Pierce (Holbrook), after Logan, Charles and Laura. The makeshift family unit must traverse the United States to make it to Eden, a fabled oasis for mutants in Canada.

Hugh Jackman has portrayed Wolverine for 17 years – and to think it all began when the initially-cast Dougray Scott had to drop out of X-Men due to a scheduling conflict with Mission: Impossible II. Loosely inspired by the Old Man Logan story arc in the comics written by Mark Millar and illustrated by Steve McNiven, Jackman bids farewell to his signature role in grim, heart-rending fashion. Audiences feel fatigued from comic book movies in part because of how every franchise craves longevity, how every film must now set up the next few instalments in the series. The X-Men movies will not end with Logan, but there is a finality to this film that sinks its claws into the viewer, at once satisfying and sad. Logan does not busy itself with dropping breadcrumbs for fans to speculate about how this story will continue, nor is there some shadowy, ultimate villain who makes a cameo before manifesting in a later film.

Executive meddling is often bemoaned by fans – we’ve all heard too many stories of a director’s specific vision being cramped by the suits fretting over the bottom line. Seeing how expensive most superhero blockbusters are, it’s justifiable to a certain extent. After the explosive success of Deadpool, a movie which Fox repeatedly tried to prevent from coming to fruition, it seems the higher-ups at the studio have learnt their lesson. Director James Mangold seems completely free to make the movie he wanted to. A neo-western with a post-apocalyptic tinge, the Wolverine character suits the scenario which Mangold has placed him in to a tee. Mangold’s influences, from Mad Max to Johnny Cash to the 1953 Western Shane, create a rich tapestry, imbuing a linear, simply plotted film with genuine depth and resonance.

Much has been made of Logan’s R rating. At first, it was cynically rationalised as only being a direct result of the R-rated Deadpool being a hit. However, one would argue that if any superhero deserved an R-rated movie of his own, it would be one with metal claws extending from his knuckles, and who frequently flies into a ‘berserker rage’. Make no bones about it: Logan is brutal. Dismemberments, impalements and arterial spray abound. However, rather than relishing in the violence, Mangold uses it to make a point, to emphasise that all bets are off and that the consequences are realer than ever. Because it largely eschews elaborately-designed set-pieces in favour of visceral bloodshed, the spectacle in Logan might not be as memorable as in some of the earlier X-Men films, but it works.

Many tentpole genre films have claimed to be “character-driven”, and Logan is one of the few that deserves that label. Jackman’s swansong packs quite the punch. He essays a tenderness which the nigh-invulnerable Wolverine rarely exhibits, and it does ache to see the ravages of time finally catch up with the character. His worn visage partially hidden behind a scraggly beard, this is some of the finest acting Jackman has done in his career.

Stewart’s Xavier provides some of the film’s most gut-wrenching moments. Just as it is painful to see the powerful Wolverine reduced to a shambling ghost of his former self, it stings to see Professor X’s formidable mind rendered to mush. The kindness, wisdom and glimmers of mischief that have been visible throughout Stewart’s portrayal of Xavier remain, but we see it flickering and desperately want to capture it before it’s altogether extinguished. Giving beloved characters such fragility after so many years makes viewers cherish them, and is key to why it’s so easy to engage with Logan.

Keen’s Laura rounds out this dysfunctional but sympathetic and compelling family. The X-23 character, who debuted in the animated series X-Men: Evolution and who has now taken on the mantle of Wolverine in the comics, has great cinematic potential. The idea of a child grown in a lab who is mal-adjusted to the outside world and who forms a bond with a parental figure is not new, but Keen’s quietly stirring presence and X-23’s own formidable abilities make it feel like this is something we haven’t seen before. The distastefulness of imperilling a child for dramatic tension is mitigated by the fact that X-23’s own abilities are equal and perhaps outstrip those of Logan himself.

Previous X-Men films have suffered from trying to parcel out attention between way too many characters, and Logan benefits from keeping the circle small. English stand-up comic Merchant, known for his lanky proportions and awkward demeanour, delivers a surprisingly dramatic turn as Caliban. Holbrook’s Donald Pierce is little more than a hired gun, but it serves the story and his snarling manner is just the right pitch of evil. Similarly, Grant refrains from chewing the scenery as a stock mad scientist, his inhuman coldness towards his victims quite unnerving. There is a quiet interlude in which small-town farmer Will (Eriq Lasalle) invites Logan and company into his home, and they share a meal with Will and his family, a good example of letting the story breathe.

While Logan’s individual components might not break much new ground, they add up to something astounding, something powerful. If one has felt any kind of attachment to the Wolverine character as played by Jackman over the last 17 years, this heartfelt, visceral journey will tear you to shreds.

Summary: As thoughtful as it is brutal and as fresh as it is familiar, we can’t think of a better way for Wolverine to ride off into the sunset.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

Jackie

For F*** Magazine

JACKIE 

Director : Pablo Larraín
Cast : Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup, John Hurt, Max Casella, Richard E. Grant, Caspar Phillipson
Genre : Biography/Drama
Run Time : 1h 40min
Opens : 16 February 2017
Rating : NC16 (Some Disturbing Scenes)

jackie-posterJacqueline “Jackie” Bouvier, the wife of John F. Kennedy, is among the most iconic First Ladies in U.S. history. This biopic pulls back the curtain on the queen of Camelot, limning the immediate aftermath of her husband’s assassination. Jackie (Portman) hosts a journalist (Crudup) at her home in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, sitting down for an interview. It is not long after the assassination of president John F. Kennedy (Phillipson) in Dallas. The film depicts Jackie’s interactions with her brother-in-law Robert F. Kennedy (Sarsgaard), her confidante and the White House social secretary Nancy Tuckerman (Gerwig) and a priest (Hurt) who counsels Jackie on the day of the funeral. Jackie must also explain JFK’s death to their young children Caroline (Sunny Pelant) and John Jr. (Aiden and Brody Weinberg).

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Jackie aims to pierce the iconography that has surrounded Jacqueline Kennedy. Director Pablo Larraín and screenwriter Noah Oppenheim seek to unearth the woman behind the elegant style icon, while also sidestepping the expected tropes of an awards season biopic. The framing device of Jacqueline Kennedy’s interview with journalist Theodore H. White (who is unnamed in the film) contextualises several vignettes which are deliberately placed out of order. This creates a disorienting effect and makes it more challenging to follow Jackie’s emotional journey, but in a strange way, is also more engaging. However, this does lead to a choppiness, and there’s the possibility that without this structural trickery, the story would be boring and straightforward.

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Part of Jackie is a flashback to the filming of the 1962 television special A Tour of the White House, in which Jackie guides audiences nationwide through the executive mansion after the extensive remodelling she had spearheaded. Real footage from that TV special is spliced together with footage shot for this film, giving the subconscious effect that we are given a privileged look at the angles the TV cameras did not see. While much of Jackie is dedicated to how the title character processed the trauma of sitting beside her husband as he was violently killed, the film also explores how she cultivated her image and crafted the First Family’s legacy. Jackie discusses JFK’s fondness for the musical Camelot with the journalist, and a scene in which she stands in the otherwise empty Oval Office with the musical’s title song playing in the background is positively haunting.

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Since winning the Best Actress Oscar for Black Swan, Portman hasn’t taken on many high-profile roles, and has recently turned her attention to directing. Jackie puts her back on the awards season map, and her Oscar nomination for this film is well-deserved. It’s a bravura yet nuanced turn, and if the prospect of playing such a well-known public figure intimidated her, Portman never shows it. While she looks and sounds the part, Jackie is about more than how its title character looked or sounded. Portman conveys the profound sorrow and the pressure of life in the public eye, while also essaying Jackie’s impish appeal. The glimpses of fire behind her eyes are impactful, and when the camera locks on her face as she weeps, one cannot look away.

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Because of the film’s laser focus on Jackie herself, the supporting players are largely relegated to the background. Crudup’s Journalist is not even named in the film and is meant to be a cipher, therefore there’s not much personality he’s able to bring to the part. Sarsgaard’s Robert, also crumbling from grief and pressure, is magnetic and volatile. This reviewer was hoping for the relationship between Jackie and her close friend and White House employee Nancy Tuckerman to get more screen time than it did. The late John Hurt is a comforting, warmly authoritative presence even though it’s a small part.

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Director Larraín cuts through the narrative of the Kennedy clan as a tragic American fairy-tale, while not necessarily undercutting the notion. This film gives Jackie her due, and is a star vehicle that ideally matches Portman’s talents. First Ladies have been often appraised mainly for their style rather than their own merits, with Jackie inadvertently becoming the poster child for that. Jackie finds the woman behind the coiffed bob, Chanel coat and pearls, painting a vivid portrait of Camelot’s queen.

Summary: A biopic which plays with the genre’s conventions just enough, Jackie features an entrancing turn from Natalie Portman and is respectful of its subject while avoiding blandness.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong