Friday, December 20, 2019


Now playing at every multiplex from here to a galaxy far, far away:

(Dir. J.J. Abrams, 2019)

So, here we are. The highly anticipated ninth episode of the Skywalker saga is here and it’s a chaotically overblown piece of pure spectacle. By the end of its two hour and 21 minute running time, I was too worn out to judge whether it was a satisfying conclusion to the series that started back in 1977, so I’ll try to hash that out here. 

This last time deals with the battle between the Rebels and The Empire – sorry, that’s the Resistance and The First Order. Darth Vader wannabe Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) discovers that dark lord, Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), last seen being thrown into the Death Star’s reactor by Vader in RETURN OF THE JEDI (1983), is still alive and has assembled a massive fleet of Star Destroyers. 

After conferring with General Leia Organa (the late Carrie Fisher in footage mostly cut from THE FORCE AWAKENS), our heroes Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega), Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), and the droids C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), and the roly-poly cutie BB-8, set out to find a McGuffin, a Sith Dagger to be exact, that will possibly lead them to Palpatine. There is also another McGuffin, a Sith Wayfinder – a small pyramid shaped compass that also may lead them to the former Emperor of the Galaxy. I think. 

Amid these plot points are bombastic light saber duels between Kylo Ren and Rey, who still have the Force connection going for them, as well as some sexual friction; blaster-fire aplenty, and a ginormous space battle that is like the similar finales of STAR WARS and RETURN OF THE JEDI times a hundred. 

I didn’t mind the obvious bits of fan service as it was fun to see Billy Dee Williams reprising Lando Calrissian, or Chewie cheating at holochess, Wedge, Ewoks, Jawas, and a few surprise cameos, but when it comes to Palpatine – is he really enough of a fan favorite to resurrect? I like McDiarmid, but it seems they couldn’t come up with a good enough villain and had to reach back 30 years for one. 

Director Abrams, who co-wrote the screenplay with Chris Terrio, has fashioned a spectacle-filled behemoth that equally overwhelmed and underwhelmed me – sometimes at the same time. Just as many times as I got thrilled with how they were recreating the STAR WARS from my youth, I got bored at how they were recreating the STAR WARS of my youth. 

I grew up with the original trilogy (1977-1983), then pretended the prequels (1999-2005) didn’t exist, but came back into the fold with THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015) which captured the old vibe. I liked the followup, THE LAST JEDI (2017), more than most fans but will concede that its flaws are hard to ignore.

I enjoyed RISE OF SKYWALKER quite a bit, but I’m feeling fatigue from the whole damn series. I’ll still watch The Mandalorian (love Baby Yoda!), but after this exhausting and sometimes incoherent entry, I hope they take a long break between RISE and another STAR WARS movie. 

I feel that I, and the hoards of over-critical fans, deserve it.

More later...

Sunday, December 15, 2019

The Nicest Living Man Plays The Nicest Non Living Man

Now playing:

(Dir. Marielle Heller, 2019)

Firstly, Tom Hanks, despite the recent revelation that they’re related, looks and sounds nothing like Mr. Rogers. Yet that doesn’t matter much because within the first few minutes, the nicest living man in the world convincingly embodies the nicest non living man with winning grace and aplomb.

But the real protagonist of this film by Marielle Heller (DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL, CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME?) is journalist Lloyd Vogel, portrayed by Matthew Rhys, mostly known for his role as a Russian spy on the FX series, The Americans.

Set in the late ‘90s, Lloyd, who is a fictionalized version of writer Tom Junod, is given the assignment by of profiling Mr. Rogers for an issue of Esquire about American heroes. Considering it a “puff piece,” Lloyd is hesitant about doing the piece on someone that “plays with puppets for living.”

Lloyd’s editor (Christine Lahti) insists and soon the cynical scribe is the orbit of the popular PBS children’s TV host with trips back forth from New York to Pittsburgh (where Mister Rogers' Neighborhood was taped), and many calls from Fred Rogers to Lloyd, with even Lloyd’s wife Andrea (This is Us’s Susan Kelechi Watson) getting some phone time with her childhood idol (Andrea: “Oh, God - Lloyd, please don’t ruin my childhood”).

While folks going in should not expect a dramatized version of last year’s excellent documentary WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOOR?, there are some recreations of moments from Mr. Rogers’ long-running show including the funny scene in which the host struggles with setting up a tent. Also, FORREST GUMP-style, Hanks’ Mr. Rogers is inserted into clips with Arsenio Hall and Oprah Winfrey.

A downside to the whimsical, life-affirming message of the movie is a subplot concerning Lloyd’s blustery estranged father Jerry (Chris Cooper). It’s a clich├ęd premise, done to death, with Cooper desperately trying to make amends with his son, and us knowing that Mr. Rogers’ teachings will lead the way to love.

But there are several nice touches that somehow make elements like that fit in the framework like the use of miniature for nearly every exterior shot in the tradition of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood’s colorful models.

The edgy friendship which turns warm and fuzzy between Hanks’ Fred Rogers and Rhys’ Lloyd Vogel is endearingly well acted. They may be in the neighborhood of make-believe, but there are some touching human moments even in the well worn father and son side story.

With its largely successful attempt to show how Mr. Rogers interacts from people in the world away from his show, A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD is a nice companion piece to the documentary. It’s also a mediation on kindness, and how much the world needs more of it now.

More later...