BIRDS OF PREY: AND THE FANTABULOUS EMANCIPATION OF ONE HARLEY QUINN (2020)

REVIEW BY LL SOARES

(NOTE: As I write this, they’ve changed the name of this movie to HARLEY QUINN: BIRDS OF PREY, in the hope of boosting its box office appeal after a first week that was a little short of expectations.)

I wasn’t a big fan of SUICIDE SQUAD (2016), but I was a fan of Margot Robbie’s turn as anti-heroine Harley Quinn. So when I heard she was coming back in a new BIRDS OF PREY movie, I was happy that more Harley was on the way, but my biggest question was “Why Birds of Prey?” Why not just a solo Harley movie?

I found myself wondering the same thing watching the BIRDS OF PREY movie. Robbie is terrific again as Harley, and since she is also the narrator of our story, there’s lots of her onscreen (a lot more than in SUICIDE SQUAD). So that made me happy. But everything else in the movie is just…mediocre superhero stuff that could have been better written and more compelling.

The movie begins with Harley on her own now that she and the Joker (we don’t see the Joker, but then again, we don’t have to, this ain’t his movie) have broken up for good (quick recap: Harley was originally a psychiatrist who tried to analyze the Joker, and instead they fell in love and she became his accomplice in crime), and she suddenly realizes that the reason she was able to get away with so much insane behavior in the past was because she had the Joker’s protection. Now that they’ve broken up, that’s no longer the case, and now everyone who has a gripe against Harley is free to wipe her off the face of the earth. Except, she’s not going that easily.

Instead, she buys a pet hyena (named Bruce after “that hunky billionaire guy”), and blows up a chemical plant that was important when Harley and “Mistah J” were together. Then she sits back in her apartment and plans her next move.

Oh, and there’s a kinda psychotic guy named Roman Sionis, aka The Black Mask (Ewan McGregor, “Trainspotting,” 1996, and “Doctor Sleep,” 2019) who wants to be the new crime kingpin of Gotham City, and wants Harley dead.

But these plans will lead to her becoming involved with the other “Birds of Prey,” superhero women who also have their own issues. Dinah Lance, aka Black Canary (Jurnee Smollet-Bell, from the shows “Friday Night Lights,” from 2009 – 2011, and “True Blood,” 2013-2014) is a lounge singer in the club Sionis owns, but moonlights as a butt-kicking vigilante who, when she needs it, has a voice that can actually break glass and send bad guys flying; Helena Bertinelli, aka the Huntress (Mary Elisabeth Winstead, “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” 2010 and “10 Cloverfield Lane,” 2016), a gangster’s daughter who is out for revenge against the rival mob that killed her family, with some martial arts skills and a crossbow; Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez, “White Men Can’t Jump,” 1992, and “Fearless,” 1993), a tough cop who just know is going to get kicked off the force at some point for taking matters into her own hands; and Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), who I guess is a future Batgirl in the comics, but here is just a young pickpocket who ends up stealing a diamond that everyone wants, especially Black Mask, who is willing to kill for it.

For some reason, watching this movie kept reminding me of DEADPOOL 2 (2018). Both are R-rated films about anti-heroes who like to curse a lot and who have very crazy personalities. Also, both DEADPOOL 2 and BIRDS OF PREY hinged somewhat on the anti-hero having to protect a kid who the bad guys want to eliminate. I don’t know why these kid storylines are so appealing. To make the unhinged heroes seem more human? But it totally negates the point of the R-rating, which is to NOT HAVE TO BE A FAMILY-FRIENDLY MOVIE. In both cases the kids are annoying, badly written, and among the blandest characters in their movies. In both cases, the kids should have been jettisoned and replaced with A BETTER SCRIPT.

So that’s it in a nutshell. See BIRDS OF PREY for Harley Quinn. Margot Robbie was a genius to latch on to this very popular character, and I’m sure she’s got a bright future. She’s great, and we’ll be seeing more of her.  But the plot and the other characters (for the most part) are pretty much the same old same old, and there’s not a lot else here to recommend it. McGregor seems to be having fun as Black Mask, and he’s entertaining enough as a bad guy, but he seems a bit restrained at times (he doesn’t go all the way with the crazy persona, which is why he could never replace the Joker). Chris Messina (of the show “The Mindy Project,” 2012- 2017, and the HBO mini-series “Sharp Objects,” 2018),  is good as Black Mask’s sadistic henchman, Victor Zsasz, although it would have been more interesting if he had some kind of powers/alter ego as well. Huntress isn’t very well developed, but there is some nice banter between her (she’s so serious!) and the snarkier Harley. The other characters range from bland (Black Canary, Montoya) to just unnecessary (the kid, but we’ve already covered that), which is too bad because I like Jurnee Smollett-Bell and Rosie Perez – their characters just aren’t fleshed out enough to be interesting.

Oh, and I wish there had been more of the CGI hyena.

It’s directed well by Cathy Yan, whose previous film was 2018’s DEAD PIGS, with a script by Christina Hodson (who also wrote “Bumblebee,” 2018, and the upcoming film version of “The Flash, 2022), that handles Harley well, but could have had a much better story for her to appear in.

I give it three knives, mostly for Robbie’s performance. Again, whether you like this movie or not will depend on how much you like Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn. Let’s hope her next adventure is a much more dynamic (and insane) one, a movie that reflects the character and doesn’t restrain her.

Oh, and she doesn’t need to be part of a team anymore, dammit! Robbie as Harley is already scheduled to appear next in the rebooted SUICIDE SQUAD (2021), as well as an upcoming Joker/Harley Quinn project and GOTHAM CITY SIRENS (which sounds kinda like BIRDS OF PREY). How about a plain old HARLEY QUINN solo flick? Why is that so hard for Hollywood to get its head around?

© Copyright 2020 by LL Soares

 

LL Soares gives BIRDS OF PREY ~ 3 KNIVES!

Stab_2Stab_2Stab_2

1917 (2019)

Review by LL Soares

Growing up, I was never a big fan of war movies, but there are obvious standouts. Oliver Stone’s PLATOON (1986), Stanley Kubrick’s FULL METAL JACKET (1987), and Coppola’s APOCALYPSE NOW (1979) come to mind. Which I realize now, looking at them, are all about the war in Vietnam (I’d also add Michael Cimino’s excellent THE DEER HUNTER, 1978, to that list). Kubrick’s earlier war movies, PATHS OF GLORY (1957, set during WWI) and DR. STRANGELOVE OR: HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB (1964, and set in WWIII?) are also favorites, as are Samuel Fuller flicks like THE STEEL HELMET (1951), and THE BIG RED ONE (1980). But there’s a point, with many war films, where I kind of lose interest. I was half-way through Christopher Nolan’s well-made DUNKIRK (2017) when this happened. I’m not sure why.

1917 sounded intriguing. Partly because it’s nominated for this year’s Oscars, and because it’s directed by Sam Mendes (AMERICAN BEAUTY, 1999, ROAD TO PERDITION, 2002, REVOLUTIONARY ROAD, 2008, SKYFALL, 2012), who is a pretty reliable filmmaker (he wrote the script for 1917 with Krysty Wilson-Cairns, who also worked on Mendes’s terrific Showtime TV series, PENNY DREADFUL, 2014-2016). Also because it involves World War I. We think we know a lot about World War II, the Vietnam War, and even the current wars going on in the Middle East, because they have been portrayed in so many films. Such isn’t the case for WWI, which seems under-represented. The motivations and goals of the war are murky. Just what was gained by it? The style of warfare was messy and arduous: those awful trenches and low-tech slaughter. For most people, it’s hard to understand why it happened at all.

Mendes’ 1917 doesn’t really explain much of the whys (mostly treaties where countries agreed to go to war if their allies did, resulting in a complete shitshow), but it does give us a feel for what it was like for young, undertrained soldiers who fought in the war. Lance Corporals Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacCay) are chosen for what just might be a suicide mission. A regiment of British soldiers are about to attack Germans who appear to have fled their post, but, thanks to aerial photography, it’s revealed to be a trap. But there’s no way to communicate with the regiment to warn them. So the two soldiers have to get to them before they are slaughtered. Oh, and the regiment includes Schofield’s brother, Lieutenant Joseph Blake (Richard Madden).

Once they are given their mission, the two young men then embark on a perilous journey, shot as an intense, non-stop barrage, filmed in such a way to look like a series of long takes where the camera follows them without breaks (until we reach a few points where the film fades to black before starting all over again). The cinematography (by Roger Deakins, THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, 1994, SICARIO, 2015, and numerous films by the Coen Brothers and Mendes) is astounding and often breath-taking, and clearly Oscar-worthy. The soundtrack by Thomas Newman is also very effective, but not in the overly manipulative way that some Hollywood blockbusters use music.

That’s pretty much the plot in a nutshell, as we follow Blake and Schofield through a man-made hell. The film is very fast paced, and often heart-wrenching, such as a scene where an act of empathy is rewarded with violence, reducing the two-man messenger team to one.

Will the message be delivered in time to save thousands of lives? Will the final messenger survive to deliver it? For those questions, you’ll have to see 1917 for yourself. But you’ll find it a powerful cinematic experience.

I give 1917 ~ four knives.

© Copyright 2020 by LL Soares

 

LL Soares gives 1917 ~~ 4 knives!

Stab_2Stab_2Stab_2Stab_2

JOJO RABBIT (2019)

REVIEW BY LL SOARES

Director Taika Waititi is definitely having a moment. I think I first heard of him when his first feature came out, EAGLE VS. SHARK (2007), but what made that movie stick out for me was that it starred Jemaine Clement of the comedy series FLIGHT OF THE CONCHORDS. Clement, along with Bret McKenzie, played New Zealand musicians trying to find their place in New York on FLIGHT, which was on HBO from 2007 – 2009. Waititi, a fellow New Zealander, even directed a few episodes of FLIGHT OF THE CONCHORDS.  Waititi’s other films include WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS (2014), a hilarious documentary-style film about vampires that was spun off into a series for FX, HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE (2016), and the movie that made him a household name, THOR: RAGNAROK (2017).

JOJO RABBIT is his first film after RAGNAROK, and he goes from a Marvel blockbuster to a smaller, more personal film (like the ones that made up most of his career so far). Waititi also wrote the screenplay for JOJO, based on the novel “Caging Skies” by Christine Leunens. I have to admit, I wasn’t in a hurry to see it when it first came out. I’m not sure why. Maybe the idea of a comedy about a little boy whose imaginary friend is a silly version of Adolf Hitler put me off. It sounded like something similar to Roberto Benigni’s LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL (1997), a comedy of sorts about a father and son in the middle of the Holocaust, that was controversial at the time (despite that, Benigni won an Oscar for Best Actor), that I still have mixed feelings about. I guess I was put off by the chance that JOJO RABBIT could be a “cutesy” take on similar material. But some friends who really liked this movie, and that fact that it has been nominated for six Oscars, convinced me to give it a chance.

Finally seeing JOJO RABBIT, I feel less ambiguous about it. It’s definitely a better film than LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL, and it works at what it’s going for. A lot of this has to do with the performances. Newcomer Roman Griffin Davis is pretty terrific as Jojo, a young, awkward boy in Hitler’s Germany. His performance works, because he’s truly earnest in the role. Growing up in German society at the time, it makes sense that Hitler would be Jojo’s hero, mostly since he wants so desperately to belong somewhere.

JoJo’s is raised by his mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson, currently the Black Widow in the Marvel movies, do I really need to say more?), while his father has been away for awhile (JoJo is told he is a solider in the war). Johansson does a great job as Rosie, because she feels like a well-rounded heroine. In another movie, she would have been more subdued and overly serious, but here she has something of a mischievous streak in her, that often rises to the surface. She does not seem particularly cowed by the hostile environment around her, and she seems like she would be a fun mom, despite the world she’s trapped in.

JoJo’s best friend is another awkward boy, the overweight and kind Yorki (Archie Yates), and when the movie opens, JoJo and Yorki are going off to a kind of summer camp for Hitler Youth, led by Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell, also in MOON, 2009 and THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI, 2017), an officer who was demoted for some blunders and who is now forced to get children ready to become the soldiers of tomorrow. Klenzendorf clearly resents that his career has taken this particular turn, and doesn’t always take his job seriously. His second-in-command, Fraulein Rahm (Rebel Wilson, also in PITCH PERFECT, 2012, and currently in CATS) is much more gung-ho about it all.

And then we have Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie, also in LEAVE NO TRACE, 2018, and THE KING, 2019), an teenage Jewish girl who is hiding in JoJo’s house (his mother is protecting her from the Nazis). JoJo stumbles upon her by accident, and is first afraid of her (especially after all the anti-Semitic bullshit that’s been drilled into him), and contemplates turning her in to the authorities, but slowly, they becomes friends, and he even starts to falls in love with her.

Other standout characters include Stephen Merchant (who was a co-creator with Ricky Gervais of the original British version of THE OFFICE, as well as acting in it. He’s also wrote and directed the wrestling comedy FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY, 2019) as Deertz, the very creepy head of the secret police, who come snooping around JoJo’s house; and director Waititi, of course, as JoJo’s imaginary friend, Hitler, who is played broadly as a buffoon who alternates between being JoJo’s friend, and a childish bully who tries to get him to tote the party line. He’s actually completely child-like, which makes sense, since he’s the creation of a child.

The real heart of the film is the relationship between JoJo and Elsa, and how she gets him to realize that what’s right and wrong isn’t always what the people in power tell us it is. The fact that there is humor along the way just adds to the humanity of it all.

JOJO RABBIT was a much better film than I was expecting, and by the end it had won me over. It’s a strong film, and I left the theater feeling glad that I had given it a chance and finally seen it. You should see it, too.

I give JOJO RABBIT a score of four knives.

© Copyright 2020 by LL Soares

 

LL Soares gives JOJO RABBIT ~ 4 knives.

Stab_2Stab_2Stab_2Stab_2

TAMMY AND THE T-REX (1994)

REVIEW BY LL SOARES

I guess “thank you” to Vinegar Syndrome is in order for saving yet another obscure cult movie from oblivion. Strangely, I hadn’t heard of TAMMY AND THE T-REX before, but upon checking it out, I’m glad I saw it.

This is one wacky flick, made memorable by a pretty cool animatronic Tyrannosaurus Rex, and early starring roles for Denise Richards (former Mrs. Charlie Sheen, and star of STARSHIP TROOPERS, 1997, and WILD THINGS, 1998) and Paul Walker (the celebrated actor from the FAST AND THE FURIOUS films).

It’s directed by Stewart Raffill, who previously made family fare like THE ADVENTURES OF THE WILDERNESS FAMILY (1975) and the notorious McDonald’s-linked E.T. ripoff MAC AND ME (1988), as well as a few more interesting films like THE ICE PIRATES (1984) and THE PHILADELPHIA EXPERIMENT (also 1984). The story goes that some guy who ran a theme park had a great big animatronic T-Rex that he was selling to a buyer in Texas. There was a short window before it’s being moved to its new home, and director Raffill was offered the chance to use it in a movie. But he only had the dino for just two weeks for filming. So he had to make every second count.

Needless to say, with this kind of deadline, the script had to be whipped up fast, and because of that, TAMMY AND THE T-REX is one of the craziest flicks I’ve seen in a long time. It doesn’t make a lot of sense – but then again, it’s not really supposed to. It’s supposed to entertain you, while making use of a limited-time-only robotic dinosaur. And, with those goals in mind, it mostly succeeds.

So we get one of those completely over-the-top stories that were so common in the 80s and 90s. Tammy (called “Tanny” in the credits for some bizarre reason), a high school cheerleader played by Denise Richards, is sweet on football quarterback Michael (Paul Walker). They talk, they flirt, and they inch closer and closer to going on an actual date. That is until Tammy’s ex-boyfriend, Billy (George Pilgrim, also in TIMEMASTER, 1995) who is some kind of psychotic gang leader (although his “gang” doesn’t look very tough), gets wind of it. He shows up with his gang and proceeds to start a fight on the school lawn. It gets broken up, and the cops take Billy away, but not before he vows to kill Michael if he ever goes near “his girl” again. Since Tammy shows absolutely no interest in Billy, it’s obvious that their relationship, now that it’s over, is all in Billy’s mind. Not that that stops him from threatening anyone he sees as competition for her affections.

It’s obvious that Tammy avoids dating because she knows it will end with Billy having a psychotic episode, but Michael perseveres (by the way, he’s a high school quarterback, but we never see any of his football buddies. Wouldn’t they want to get in on the fight with Billy’s gang to protect one of their own? I never saw a handsome quarterback kid who was complete loner before!). When he sneaks up to Tammy’s bedroom window, some of the neighborhood snitches call Billy, who shows up, acting like a lunatic again. He bursts into the house, despite Tammy’s parents objections (he isn’t afraid of them, and doesn’t listen to anything they say – so why don’t they call the cops?), and forces his way into Tammy’s room, catching Michael.

His gang drags Michael outside, and they take him to the local zoo, where they leave him in what looks like a wide open area with wild animals! Michael wakes up, not realizing where he is, and then is promptly mauled to death by a lion.

When the body is found, a wacko mad scientist named Dr. Gunther Wachenstein (Terry Keiser of WEEKEND AT BERNIE’S, 1989) shows up to abscond with Michael’s brain. His goal is to put into the body of a big animatronic dinosaur (of course). When we first see the dinosaur, it’s being controlled by one of the doctor’s henchmen from a control room, but after the operation is a “success,” the dinosaur is able to move around on its own. The doc says that he’ll do a lobotomy on the brain in the morning, so that he can better control his new mechanized slave, but overnight, before he can do that (of course) the dinosaur wakes up and runs off on its own, spreading havoc across the town as Michael tries to get revenge on Billy and his thugs.

Other characters of note include Dr. Wachenstein’s tough lady sidekick named Helga (Ellen Dubin, also in NAPOLEON DYNAMITE, 2004), who does his dirty work, and Tammy’s best friend is Byron Black (Theo Forsett, also in the TV-movie M.A.N.T.I.S., 1994), who is black, gay and witty, and who is constantly running afoul of his dad, who happens to be the local sheriff (J. Jay Saunders). Sheriff Black also has two hillbilly deputies who make occasional racist and homophobic comments throughout that are supposed to be funny, I guess, but seem really creepy now (ugh!).

For the most part, the actors in TAMMY AND THE T-REX do their best to ham things up, especially Keiser and Pilgrim. Richards, Walker, and Forsett stand out, not because they’re amazing actors, but because they’re pretty good compared to the rest of the cast.

Meanwhile, during his rampage, T-Rex Michael spares Byron’s life when he’s chomping on kids at a party (his victims include Billy and his gang), and later he crosses paths with Tammy, who quickly realizes who he is (“Oh my Michael!”) and is determined to get his brain back in a human body (in one scene, Byron shows DinoMike bodies in a morgue to see which one he wants to come back as). She does everything she can to make sure he isn’t destroyed by the cops or lobotomized by Dr. Wachenstein!

The movie is as completely bonkers as it sounds, but it’s also way more fun than it has any right to be, considering how quickly this one was thrown together. While this isn’t going to make anyone’s “Best Movies” list, it’s an entertaining ride, and if you’re into this kind of campy exploitation flick, you’ll have a good time with it.

© Copyright 2020 by LL Soares

 

(Note: In 2020, I’ll be reserving ratings for new releases only)

CATS (2019)

Review by LL Soares

I’ll admit, CATS isn’t a movie I would normally go to see. But I went after hearing how awful it was, hoping it would be an experience, like THE ROOM, where it was so bad it was entertaining. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. Maybe, with a receptive, responsive audience (like the one for THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW or THE ROOM), this one could be a lot of fun. But sitting there with a quiet audience (in a less than half-full theater), it was kind of like torture. For the record, I’m not a fan of the original Broadway production of CATS (never saw it) and I’m not a fan of musicals overall, so I was never the intended audience for this one.

For those not familiar with the story, it’s about a cat named Victoria (dancer Francesca Hayward), who is thrown (in a bag) into an alleyway by some awful human and emerges to find herself surrounded by other curious cats. The cats call themselves Jellicles, which is never really explained. Once a year, all the Jellicle cats gather for a great contest, where their leader, Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench) chooses a winner, who then floats up in the sky to the “Heaviside Layer” to be reborn in some mysterious way.

In the meantime, we then get to meet various cats, some of which will be performing in the contest, and others that won’t, until we get to the big finale.

These other cats include Jennyanydots (Rebel Wilson, giving it all she’s got), a stay-at-home tabby who has a musical number that includes mice and cockroaches; Macavity (Idris Elba), the villain of the piece, who eliminates anyone who might beat him in the contest by sending them to a strange boat, where they sit in chains, watched by a blustery old cat named Growltiger (Ray Winstone); Rumpleteazer (Naoimh Morgan) and Mungojerrie (Danny Collins), two mischievious (and kind of sinister) cats who briefly take Victoria under their wing, until they betray her; Rum Tum Tugger (Jason Derulo), a swaggering braggart of a cat; Grizabella (Jennifer Hudson), a formerly glamorous cat who has been reduced to a gutter stray after becoming involved with Macavity the year before; and Bustopher Jones (talk show host James Corden), a fat, gluttonous cat, who provides some comic relief.

There’s Gus the Theater Cat (Ian McKellan), one of the contestants, who spouts Shakespeare and reeks of sadness. Taylor Swift has a brief turn as Bombalurina, one of Macavity’s allies, and has one big musical number. Victoria’s friends, the cats who actually try to help her, include Munkustrap (Robbie Fairchild) and Mr. Mistoffelees (Laurie Davidson), a “magical cat,” who is quite likeable here.

There are no slackers here, the cast does all they can to make it work, but they’re underminded by a weak (almost non-existent) plot and creepy effects that take the elaborate costumes of the stage version and replace them with CGI fur, making all the cats looks really odd with slightly oversized, human faces stuck atop furry bodies. Instead of being fantastical, the effects just make everyone look really strange, which is distracting throughout.

Idris Elba does his best to inject some menace in his role as Macavity, but he’s not really suited for a musical, and only Hayward really emerges from the whole thing with her dignity (she’s one of the few pluses here). Since I didn’t care about the musical numbers, there wasn’t an awful lot here that I enjoyed. Instead, I was mostly bored. The only thing that maintained my attention throughout was the pure creepiness of it all.

Oh, and poor Jennifer Hudson. Almost every time she’s onscreen, she has snot dripping down into her mouth and it made me really nauseous. Why couldn’t they let her be more dignified?

As I said, with a receptive, rowdy crowd that’s in on the joke, this fairly unpleasant film could be quite enjoyable. But on its own, I found it to be rather tedious. Director Tom Hooper (who also gave us THE KING’S SPEECH, 2012, and LES MISERABLES, 2012) has made a film that plays almost like a bad acid trip. And unless you’re a fan of the music, there’s really not much here for you (or so I found). If you are a fan of the musical numbers, then there’s a good chance you’ll enjoy it more than I did.

I give CATS a rating of one knife, mostly because everyone really tries to make the movie better than it is, especially leading lady Hayward. But it’s a pretty bad one.

© Copyright 2020 by LL Soares

LL Soares gives CATS ~ 1 KNIFE

Stab_2

TOP 10 MOVIES OF 2019

MY TOP 10 FILMS OF 2019

(As compiled by LL Soares)

This was one of the easiest Top 10 lists I’ve had to write to years. 2019 was a great year for cinema.

NUMBER 10 – TIGERS ARE NOT AFRAID – Made in 2017, but not distributed in the U.S. until this year (it’s currently available on the streaming service SHUDDER), my number 10 movie of 2019 is the Mexican film TIGERS ARE NOT AFRAID. Directed and written by Issa Lopez, it features homeless kids being pursued for a stolen cellphone, murderous cartel members, and three wishes. An interesting mix of realistic and supernatural elements, it’s worth checking out.

NUMBER 9 – US – not everything makes sense in Jordon Peele’s follow-up to GET OUT, but US is an atmospheric, creepy film about the day everyone’s doppleganger shows up to play. Starring Lupita Nyong’o (who turns in two amazing performances), Winston Duke, Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker. Once it starts explaining why all this is happening, not all the pieces fit perfectly, but I really didn’t care or overthink it, because I was having such a great time. A strong, effective horror film with powerful imagery that will stick with you.

NUMBER 8 – DOCTOR SLEEP. This completely underrated sequel to THE SHINING, performs an impressive high-wire act, acting as both a sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 classic film (that, notoriously, Stephen King has never liked), as well as an adaptation of Stephen King’s novel of the same name. With Ewan McGregor as a grown-up Danny Torrance, the impressive Kyliegh Curran as a very powerful little girl, and the terrific Rebecca Ferguson as villainous Rose the Hat, leading a group of rogue “shiners,” who kill without remorse. Directed and written for the screen by Mike Flanagan (GERALD’S GAME) with suspense throughout, compelling characters, and a big showdown at the Overlook Hotel, which is just the way we remember it.

NUMBER 7 –  JOKER – Todd Phillips, who previously gave us comedies like OLD SCHOOL and THE HANGOVER gets serious with this twisted origin tale, the  bleakest comic book blockbuster of all time. With Joaquin Phoenix distorting himself mentally and physically as a man named Arthur Fleck who is tormented by just about everyone, until the day comes when he decides he wants to do the tormenting for a change. Phoenix is just amazing here, with strong supporting performances by Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, and Frances Conroy as Arthur’s mom.

NUMBER 6 – THE NIGHTINGALE – Jennifer Kent gives us her follow-up to the much-praised THE BABADOOK (2014), this time transporting us to 1800s Tasmania when the British were in charge, and everyone else was either imprisoned (it was all originally a penal colony, afterall) or treated like slaves. With Aisling Franciosi spellbinding as Clare, a woman who loses everything and is determined to get revenge; Sam Claflin as a sadistic officer named Hawkins; Baykali Ganambarr as Billy, an aborigine guide who reluctantly agrees to help Clare, and eventually becomes her ally; and the great Damon Herriman as Ruse, the vilest of Hawkins’ men. Gritty, violent, and heartbreaking, I thought this one was a big step up from BABADOOK.

NUMBER 5 – PARASITE – Bong Joon Ho’s masterpiece is a tale about a family of unemployed grifters (the Kims) in Korea who find a way to inbed themselves as servants and tutors in the home of a rich family (the Parks), whose lives they take charge of in the process. They think they’ve won, until some unexpected monkey wrenches mess everything up, culiminating in a violent and shocking conclusion. A movie filled with twists and turns that I don’t want to reveal here.

NUMBER 4 – THE IRISHMAN – Martin Scorsese’s best movie in years is the epic tale of Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), a trucker who becomes a mob enforcer, and how he becomes the right hand man of mobster Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and the confidante of Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). A great script, and a cast that makes it even better, make this one movie you’ll remember long after its over.

NUMBER 3 – UNDER THE SILVER LAKE – After David Robert Mitchell wowed us with IT FOLLOWS (2014), he followed it up with this movie, which pretty much got panned at Cannes in 2018 and was shelved for awhile, before it finally came to Netflix this summer. Slammed for having too much going on and being “overindulgent” by some critics, this turned out to be exactly the kind of movie I love. Andrew Garfield plays a young guy without a purpose in his life, who gets one when a girl who moves into his apartment complex, named Sarah (Riley Keough) disappears. He takes a journey into the underbelly of the community of Silver Lake in California, meeting all kinds of strange characters along the way, including a weird comic book artist, a reclusive songwriter, and a bird woman. I totally enjoyed this one.

NUMBER 2 – MIDSOMMAR – the best horror movie of 2019 is written and directed by Ari Aster, who gave us last year’s breakout hit, HEREDITARY. This one is totally different in every way, bringing us in to the bright light of the sun as we follow Dani (Florence Pugh), her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) and their friends as they journey to Sweden to take part in a pagan festival. Let’s just say things take a turn for the awful. I loved every minute of it.

 NUMBER 1 – ONCE UPON A TIME…IN HOLLYWOOD – Quentin Tarantino gives us one of the best films of his career with this mix of drama, humor, and revisionist history featuring TV cowboy Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio in maybe his best performance ever), who sees his career fading fast and who wants to hit the big time; his stuntman and best friend Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), all zen and calm strength; and Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate, the actress wife of Roman Polanski who was killed by the Manson family in 1969. But don’t expect it all to play out like it’s supposed to, because this movie has a mind all its own. Pitt is always good, but I think DiCaprio brings a new level of vulnerability here, and Robbie lights up the screen whenever she’s on it. With a cast of familiar faces including Margaret Qually as a Manson girl named Pussycat, Mike Moh as Bruce Lee, Timothy Olyphant as James Stacy, Al Pacino as Rick’s new agent, Marvin Schwarz, and Julia Butters as a child actress wise beyond her years. An instant classic.

HONORABLE MENTIONS:

MARRIAGE STORY – Noah Baumbach’s gripping, exhausting tale of a theater director (Adam Driver) and an actress who wants to return to Hollywood (Scarlett Johansson) who seem like best friends and good people, until they decide to get divorced and then they, and everything around them, turns ugly.  With an amazing supporting turn by Laura Dern as Johansson’s lawyer, and great performances by Alan Alda, Ray Liotta, and Julie Haggerty. And it’s always great to see Wallace Shawn, even in a small role!

EL CAMINO: A BREAKING BAD STORY – I guess this one counts more as a TV-movie, but it was shown on Netflix and was the length of a feature film, so I’m including it here. A sequel to the amazing series BREAKING BAD, this movie is about what happens to Jesse Pinkman after the TV show ended. When we last saw him, he was escaping from a white supremacist compound, where he was being kept as a prisoner, driving the El Camino of the title. In this strong, suspenseful movie, we see both where he’s going, and where he’s been (flashbacks to his captvitiy that we never saw before). Written and directed by series creator Vince Gilligan. This was like a hammer, and as satisfying (if not more so) as most theatrical releases this year.

READY OR NOT – The great Samara Weaving (who really seems to be a rising star this year), plays a new bride named Grace, who just got married to the heir to a board game fortune. She gets to know her new family during a night-long bout of hide and seek, where if she gets found, she will be murdered violently. Except, the eccentric Domas family wasn’t expected such a smart and badass quarry. This movie was a real surprise – it exceeded my expectations and was a ton of fun along the way. Directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett.

CLIMAX A modern dance troupe finds out the punch is spiked with acid, and everyone tumbles into the mother of all bad trips, as Gaspar Noe gives his latest journey into hell. Normally, a new Noe movie would probably make my Top 10. This isn’t his best (towards the end, it becomes a bit tiresome), but it has some memorable moments.

JOHN WICK 3: PARABELLUM – The third entry in this non-stop, violent action movie series is nothing short of pure gun violence satisfaction. Keanu Reeves has found his perfect role.

© Copyright 2019 by LL Soares

If you liked this article, also check out:

Dan Keohane’s Favorite Movies of 2019

William Carl’s Favorite Movies of 2019

Nick Cato’s Best Films of 2019

Matt Schwartz’s Favorite Movies of 2019

And Philip Perron’s Top 10 Films of 2019 — coming eventually.

Thoughts About STAR WARS

Instead of just diving into a review of the new Star Wars flick, THE RISE OF SKYWALKER (2019), I thought I’d look back on the series as a whole first, since the franchise has been in existence for a large chunk of my life. I’ll share my thoughts about each installment, leading up to what is supposed to be the last entry in the Skywalker Saga.

WARNING: THIS ARTICLES CONTAINS LOTS OF SPOILERS

THE FIRST TRILOGY

STAR WARS (1977)

I was 14 when this movie came out. The perfect age to experience it. There was a huge wave of hype; this one was destined to be a humungous blockbuster before it even came out. It was described as a B-movie with an A-movie’s budget, and was considered cutting edge for its time. This is the one that introduced us to Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness) and Darth Vader (David Prowse, the bodybuilder from A CLOCKWORK ORANGE was under the mask, with a voice by James Earl Jones). Also, Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), and the droids R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) and C-3PO (Anthony Daniels). It was also cool to see Hammer Studios veteran Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin. In 1977, STAR WARS was something brand new, and exciting. It was a phenomenon right from the start. A huge movie.

I refuse to call it A NEW HOPE, since when I saw it in a theater it was just called STAR WARS.

THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980)

I saw this one in a theater in Pennsylvania, visiting friends. There was big anticipation for it. I remember liking it, but not as much as the first one. I remember this one most for introducing us to Yoda, which bummed me out because he was so obviously just a muppet. They didn’t even try to make him look realistic. He even had Fozzie Bear’s voice (Frank Oz). It kind of lessened the magic for me. We also get to hang out with Boba Fett (Jeremy Bulloch), who was never used as much as he should have been, and we met Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams). We found out that Vader was Luke’s father, which I guess was a really big reveal at the time. The bad guys win, which was a cool way to end it, but it’s also such an obvious cliffhanger ending that it never felt like a whole movie to me, just something to hold the place until the next installment. I liked it, but already I was getting a little disenchanted with the series.

RETURN OF THE JEDI (1983)

Emperor Palpatine has a bigger role (he was introduced in EMPIRE, but actor Ian McDiarmid was uncredited). This time he’s just credited as “The Emperor.” I really liked the storyline about Jabba the Hut. But then we visited the planet of the Ewoks, and it all fell apart for me, even if one of them is played by Warwick Davis, who would go on to star in WILLOW (1988) and the LEPRECHAUN movies (1993 – on). If I hated how Yoda was so obviously a muppet, I hated the Ewoks even more. Even though they were obviously inspired by H. Beam Piper’s novel “Little Fuzzy.” Obviously the Ewoks, those cute little living teddy bears, and Yoda, weren’t really meant for me; they were there to draw in the kids. But they made the story a lot less exciting, and a lot more…silly.  This is when it started to go downhill for me.

THE SECOND TRILOGY (THE PREQUELS)

THE PHANTOM MENACE (1999)

This is when I first noticed the movies getting numbers in their titles. THE PHANTOM MENACE is Episode One, of course.

I remember there had been rumors of a new trilogy for years, and then people started to wonder if it was ever going to happen. Sixteen years later, George Lucas finally got off his butt and made a new one. You’d think the promise of a big payday would be enough to make him more productive. This was the most anticipated movie of 1999, when it finally came out. It also was the first time I saw a Star Wars movie get negative reviews. A lot of people didn’t like it, which astounded me. All that waiting, just to be disappointed. By the time this one came out, I was already far from being a Star Wars fan anymore. I just didn’t care. I didn’t even bother to see this in a theater. When I started to hear the negative buzz, I just avoided it. I didn’t actually see it until 2004.

This one introduces us to Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best), who is universally hated and only shows up in brief cameos after this movie. Frankly, the fact that he is so loathed makes me kind of like him. This one also starts the storyline about the origin of Darth Vader, here a kid named Anankin Skywalker, played pretty badly by Jake Lloyd. Vader as an annoying kid? I definitely was not the target audience for this one. We also get a young Obi-Wan Kenobi (now played by Ewan McGregor, the junkie from TRAINSPOTTING, 1996, a movie I enjoyed a lot more than this one), along with a new Jedi knight named Qui-Gon Jinn, played by Liam Neeson, and the young Queen Amidala, also called Padme (Natalie Portman, fresh off THE PROFESSIONAL, 1994). This one also has Samuel L. Jackson in it as Jedi Mace Windu (motherfucker!). Palpatine, younger here, but still played by Ian McDiarmid, is just a Senator, not yet having achieved the title of Emperor.

This movie also introduces us to Darth Maul (portrayed by Ray Park, with a voice by Peter Serafinowicz). Darth Maul looks very cool, like a devil, and  and even has a double-bladed light saber. Everything about him visually is impressive. They promote him pretty heavily in the advertising, but when I finally see the movie I find out his big scene is pretty short, and he’s hardly used at all. A complete waste of probably the most exciting new character to the series.

ATTACK OF THE CLONES (2002)

After the fiasco that was PHANTOM MENACE (at least among Star Wars fans), I also avoided the next one, ATTACK OF THE CLONES. I did not see it in a theater. When I finally did see it, Vader, my favorite character from the series, has changed from being an annoying kid to becoming a boring adolescent played by Hayden Christensen. Everyone seems to hate Christensen, and I get to see why a few years later. We find out that the stormtroopers are clones and all look like Jango Fett (Temuera Morrison, who was in the much better ONCE WERE WARRIORS in 1994).  Senator Palpatine has been promoted to Supreme Chancellor Palpatin. This time, the bad guy is Count Dooku (also known as Darth Tyranus, according to the credits), played by the great Hammer Studios actor Christopher Lee. Twenty-five years after Peter Cushing was in the first one, they finally get around to having Christopher Lee in one of these films. Lee being in this was a BIG deal, at least to me; too bad his character is so underwhelming (and Dooku, what a stupid name!).

2004 OR SO…

The hype machine goes into overdrive before the release of the next installment, which is promoted as being the movie where wimpy Hayden Christensen finally becomes Darth Vader. Since I’m still a bit of a Vader fan at heart, I go back and watch the previous two films – finally – on video after having avoided them for a few years. Neither film is as completely awful as I expected. Both have some good moments, and the story is interesting enough. But they don’t make me a fan again. I just want to play catch-up before the big transformation comes out and we finally see the origin of Darth Vader.

REVENGE OF THE SITH (2005)

I actually went to the theater for this one. There’s a big showdown with Count Dooku (at least Christopher Lee got to be in two movies!). In a scene that was a bit reminiscent of the classic FRANKENSTEIN (1931), an injured Anakin Skywalker is transformed into Darth Vader by the evil Supreme Chancellor Palpatine. Like the previous two, which I delayed seeing, I thought it was okay, but not spectacular. In fact, I remember feeling disappointed by the time I left the theater. The second trilogy isn’t as awful as everyone said it was. But it wasn’t all that amazing, either.

At this point, I haven’t been a fan of the series for awhile now, and the second trilogy does nothing to change that.

THE THIRD TRILOGY (THE SEQUELS)

THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015)

George Lucas takes his sweet time coming up with the next trilogy (right from the start he said this story would be made up of three trilogies). The fans start to get grumpy. Not only did they have to wait 16 years last time between Trilogy 1 and 2, but most seemed pretty disappointed with the second trilogy.

Disney decides to speed things up, buying the Star Wars franchise from Lucasfilms. George Lucas gets a monumental payday, yet he still grumbles a bit about losing control of the series. Disney hires director J.J. Abrams, who became a hot commodity on television, producing and co-creating shows like FELICITY, ALIAS, and the biggest of all, LOST. After he hits it big in movies, directing popular installments of the MISSION IMPOSSIBLE franchise, and bringing STAR TREK back to the big screen, he has enough Hollywood clout to get the nod from the Mouse.

This time, we meet a lot of new characters, including Rey (Daisy Ridley, since in MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS, 2017, and OPHELIA, 2018), a girl from humble means who is destined to become the next big Jedi; a stormtrooper named Finn (John Boyega, previously in ATTACK THE BLOCK, 2011) who leaves the Empire to join the good guys (I guess not all stormtroopers are clones anymore); and Poe Dameron, a cocky fighter pilot played by Oscar Isaac (INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS, 2013, EX MACHINA and A MOST VIOLENT YEAR, both 2014). The new bad guy is Kylo Ren, played by Adam Driver (previously on the HBO series GIRLS, and currently in the Netflix drama MARRIAGE STORY), who works for Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis, from RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, 2011, and Gollum in Peter Jackson’s LORD OF THE RINGS movies, playing another creepy CGI character). Along for the ride are plenty of old characters from the very first trilogy, including Luke, Leia, Han Solo, and Chewy. While I’m a big fan of Adam Driver, his Kylo Ren never seems to be completely evil, or formidable like Darth Vader was. He just doesn’t have his heart in it. We find out that Kylo is really Ben, the son of Leia and Solo. Kylo even goes so far as to kill his own father (the Star Wars franchise sure has father issues)—which didn’t bother me in the slightest since the old timers here aren’t all that compelling this time around—but I’m still not convinced he’s a hardcore villain.

Some people accuse Abrams of pandering to the fans this time around, and there’s some truth to that. This movie, while well made, seems to be assembled just to make the fans who have been waiting 10 years for this movie happy. To the point where it seems way too safe. If Lucas’s movies were uneven, at least they weren’t completely predictable. You got a surprise once in awhile. There don’t seem to be too many surprises in THE FORCE AWAKENS. Of course, it goes on to make tons of cash anyway, so who cares.

THE LAST JEDI (2017)

Disney decides to make up for lost time, getting the next movie ready to come out just two years later. In the meantime, they even come out with some spin-offs: ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY (2016) – which goes back in time to show us previously unknown characters who took out the Death Star from the original trilogy – I won’t go into any detail about this one, because I thought it was the most boring entry in the franchise – I didn’t care about the story or the characters. By the time SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY (2018), about the adventures of a young Han Solo, came out, the money started to thin out, and word was that maybe Disney was pumping these movies out a little too quickly, oversaturating the market. I’m not sure if that was the case, but I didn’t bother to see SOLO.

Back to THE LAST JEDI.

This time the director is Rian Johnson, who previously directed some interesting smaller films like the high school noir flick BRICK (2005) and the imaginative sci-fi time travel flick LOOPER (2012). I thought Johnson was an interesting choice for a big franchise movie. He also refused to play it safe, not necessarily coloring within the lines when he got his chance to carry on the story from THE FORCE AWAKENS. This time, we get more of Rey, Finn and Poe. More of Luke and Leia. And some new characters like Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), and Benecio Del Toro as a dude named DJ. We get to see more of the tormented Kylo Ren, who still tries to be a badass, but always has this chunk of vulnerability that makes him seem uncommitted when it comes to being truly evil. He just never seems all that dangerous. We see more of a psychic rapport between Kylo and Rey, making them easily the two most interesting characters in the new trilogy. This one is memorable mostly because it has a lot more for Luke Skywalker to do (yay, Mark Hamill!), and there’s a character played by Laura Dern (Vice Admiral Holdo), who seems more dynamic when she’s onscreen than anyone else in the cast.  In fact, she’s so charismatic, that of course they kill her off before the movie’s over.

Another so-so installment in the series. So far the new trilogy isn’t exactly wowing me.

And now, THE RISE OF SKYWALKER (2019).

Forty-two years after the first film, we finally get the conclusion to this mighty epic. Except it’s not all that mighty anymore. There was a lot of controversy about some of the things Rian Johnson did in THE LAST JEDI, so they bring J.J. Abrams back for the big finale. I went in thinking this one would be catering to fans (I think the word is pandering, actually) to the same degree that THE FORCE AWAKENS was, and while there is a bit of that, I thought RISE was a better movie, overall. Which isn’t saying a lot.

We finally get some closure involving the whole Rey/Kylo Ren dynamic. Poe and Finn help save the day. Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) is back! Richard E. Grant plays a suitably sinister General Pryde. Keri Russell pops up as mercenary from Poe’s past Zorii Bliss, except we never see her without her helmet, so how can we be sure it’s her? Turns out that Emperor Palpatine is pulling the strings, as he was from way back, and he’s got something called The Last Order that plans to put down all rebellion forces and  reinstate the glory of the Empire. Luke comes back as an avenging ghost to help Rey. Kylo makes the ultimate sacrifice to prove he wasn’t completely evil afterall (but we already knew that). While I guess some things are technically surprises, they don’t ever feel very surprising.

I could go into more detail, but frankly, I don’t feel like it. By this time, I’m just so not a fan anymore that you could almost call me an anti-fan. It’s all just familiar faces and voices and great pronouncements, and to me, it’s a whole lot of noise signifying nothing.

Once again Rey and Kylo Ren are the only characters I find interesting at all, and when they’re not onscreen, the story lags. Poe Dameron is probably the most boring character in the final trilogy, with Finn not far behind (so much for the new breed). I went in expecting to hate it, and left thinking it was…okay. “Meh” might be the perfect description. Better than expected, but still no great epic. This series ran out of truly creative juice a long time ago, and now just seems to be retreading the past with different names.

And so we come to the end of the three trilogies. I’m sure that we haven’t seen the last of many of these characters. We already know there are going to be plenty of spin-offs, and one-shot “Star Wars Story” films, and there’s already a new trilogy in the works, involving different characters in another part of the galaxy. And STAR WARS, as a brand name, will probably go on forever.

But, for me, it’s done. The three trilogies that George Lucas originally envisioned are over. The story has come to a close. Whether it was satisfying or not, I’ve somehow endured the whole thing and reached a point of closure.

And that’s my complete STAR WARS experience in a nutshell. For most of my life, these movies have been playing in the background, continuing to keep the myths alive and the fans hungry for more. I stopped really caring awhile ago, and whatever spell these movies cast on me at age 14 has long worn off.  But I stuck with it to the end. I’m not entirely sure why I stuck with it.

But it feels great to finally say that.

The end.

© Copyright 2019 by LL Soares