Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

This is an overstuffed and slightly convoluted entry in the Star Wars series that still manages to be an entertaining adventure with some good scenes, genuine laughs, and fun characters.

The story follows Rey, Finn, and Poe as they try to track down a thing that will lead them to another thing that will lead them to the bad guy in order to stop his nefarious plan. Everything in the movie is given important sounding names, the Sith way-finder, but really it’s just a series of items and events that are designed by the writers to create spectacular set pieces. There’s a chase through the desert that’s fun and really well shot. There’s a water soaked battle on wreckage that is full of unique visuals. There’s a fun sequence in which two characters duel even though they’re in different locations.

Anchoring it all and elevating the movie is Daisy Ridley. Her deeply expressive eyes convey genuine emotion that carries the audience through all the stuff. Her team of friends feels like they have a real friendship and connection. Their banter and moments together are the best part of the movie. This movie has a core group of friends that is the beating heart of the movie. Oscar Isaac and John Boyega deserve praise for their chemistry and ability to give small moments big impacts.

C-3PO is given a bigger part in this movie, and it is wonderful to have him back. He hasn’t had much of a roll in the last few movies, but his presence here fills the movie with comic relief and a hit of that sweet nostalgia so many in the audience are looking for.

The character work in general is really nice in this movie. Small rolls are filled perfectly. Characters are fleshed out with some nice details and new characters have just the right amount of time to establish themselves in the story without bogging things down.

The movie has a lot of problems though. The villains nefarious plan is dumb. He states his plan then a minute later he achieved his goal without executing the plan. He says he wants Rey dead, then says he never wanted Rey dead. The villain is Emperor Palpatine resurrected (somehow). That’s not a spoiler. He’s all over the trailers. Anyway, without Ian Mcdiarmid playing him that character would be nothing. His command of his voice and the delicious way he savors his words completely makes up for how silly Palpatine is. His plans don’t make sense, and his motivations don’t exist. He’s just there to be a big bad ghoul in the background.

There’s a big light saber duel in which the characters just hack away at each other. There’s no tension as these characters fight, no suspense as to who will win. It’s better than the absurd baton of the prequels, but it’s not great. Some combination of the editing and the choreography just causes the fight to fall flat. Though even this scene is saved by the actors. They convey so much in the moments when they aren’t trying to whack each. The fight falls flat but their looks and physicality conveys a lot.

The grand finale has a lot going on, but it feels more like a generic Marvel movie finale with the heroes fighting a seemingly insurmountable enemy in extended cgi sequences.

The movie tries too hard to satisfy too many people. It floods the screen with cameos and surprise visits from original trilogy characters. It abandons new music for John Williams original score. It tries so hard to undo everything that happened in the previous that it often feels like a guy begging his ex girlfriend to take him back.

Star Wars fans will hate this movie for a number of reasons. Most likely because it’s not exactly what they expected or wanted it to be. The problem with judging a movie against the one you’ve imagined is that the real movie will never match up. It’s the same reason people always think books are better than their movies. If you walk into the movie with preconceived ideas about what the movie is supposed to be it’ll disappoint you. walk in with an open mind and it’ll provide plenty to enjoy.

Personally I had a lot of fun. It evoked all the right emotions for me. While I can see the flaws, the movie generated enough good feeling and positivity that I can honestly say I liked it a lot.

It’s my cup of tea. B+

Die Hard

A classic action movie that is also just a good movie period, Die Hard has been refined in recent years as a Christmas movie.

For anyone who hasn’t seen it, the story follows John McClane, a New York Corp who travels to LA to see his estranged wife at her office Christmas party. The building is taken over by terrorists with a perfect plan. They just didn’t plan on John McClane.

There are a couple of truly wonderful things about this movie, the first is the story. Aside from everything else that happens in it, it is about a stubborn man trying to reconnect with the woman he loves and trials tribulations he has to go through to become the man who deserves to get her back. It’s a really simple heart that keeps the action grounded and makes the movie more than a cop taking on terrorists. Bruce Willis and Bonnie Bedelia make this story work. Without their dedication to the reality of this marriage and the weight of their shared history this movie would have felt like one of the thousand heartless knock offs that have come out since this movies release.

The supporting characters are wonderful across the board. There’s Powell the cop with a bad past who finds redemption in this adventure. There’s Ellis, the smarmy dingus who snorts coke and is arrogant enough to try to negotiate with the terrorists, yet even this potentially one note character is given at least a little redemption by not giving the whole game away. Then there are the villains, the henchman driven mad by his desire for revenge. And of course Hans Gruber, the ultimate mastermind villain. he’s played by Alan Rickman, and was there ever a better villain than Alan Rickman? He is charming, sophisticated, and witty. He is cold, calculating, and cruel. He is in total control of the screen whenever he’s present. It’s worth seeing just for him.

This movie is most well known for its action. Its action is legendary. What makes this action most enjoyable today it’s refreshingly practical nature. Practical in terms of practical effects achieved without computers. Practical also in terms of the logical progression of events that John takes as he tries to stop these villains. He doesn’t jump to wild superhero antics. He does everything he can think to do as a regular guy. His solutions to problems would be my solutions to those problems.

The most important and controversial question regarding this movie is whether or not it falls within the Christmas movie canon. There is debate every year. Personally, I do not define it as a Christmas movie. To me it is a movie set at Christmas time. My reasoning for this is that while it is set at Christmastime, it does not explore the holiday. It doesn’t look at what Christmas time is or means. If the party was a launch party or a New Years party it would be the same. Finally, a Christmas movie to me is one that can’t be watched throughout the year. It feels weird watching A Christmas Carol in April. It’s a Wonderful Life doesn’t have the same effect in October. Die Hard can be viewed and enjoyed year round. The bottom line is that this is a great movie. If Christmas gives you an excuse to watch it, then watch and enjoy.

Definitely my cup of tea. A

Christmas Vacation

Did those who like a dose of cynicism with their holiday cheer, check out this absurd and hilarious Christmas comedy.

The third in the National Lampoons Vacation series, this movie follows the Griswold family as patriarch Clark tried his hardest to give everyone the perfect “fun, old-fashioned family Christmas.”

Of course insane hijinks ensue. Starting with wonderful stunt driving and ending with a SWAT team destroying the house. there is a bit for everyone in this movie. Puns? They’re here. Sex jokes? Plenty of them. Prat falls and physical bits? Absolutely. Insane destruction straight out of a Bugs Bunny cartoon? There’s plenty of it.

Anchoring it all is Chevy Chase as Clark Griswold. He gives a great comic performance that somehow balances a deeply cynical interior with a man who somehow believes that through sheer tyranny of will he can make everything perfect. His rant toward the end in which he finally loses it is one of the best bits of comic rage ever filmed.

So much of this film was clearly written from memory. Not memories of specific events, I doubt anyone has ever had a squirrel and a pit bull rampage through their Christmas get together, but memories of the feelings of Christmas. There’s a scene in which Clark walks downstairs and faces a bickering family crowded around the breakfast table, and he goes to the other room and looks out the window. Who hasn’t had a moment like that. Faced with the noise and chaos of the family at Christmas time some times it’s better to stand by the window and wait. Another great line that stands out is when the teenage son Russ complains about having to get a tree and waste a whole Saturday. The whole scene perfectly evokes that feeling of being a frustrated teenager who wants to do anything but hang out with his family. The movie is full of these moments that capture a snapshot of the reality of Christmas.

Of course the comedy launches into overdrive when Cousin Eddie shows up. Played by Randy Quaid, Eddie is a force of absurdity. His turn of phrase is classic “girl is in the clinic getting cured off the wild turkey.” His wardrobe is iconic a bathrobe, a bathrobe, leather hat and no pants is perfect. And the fact that he thinks that having a bigger heart than a brain is a compliment all add up to a fantastic and hilarious character.

It doesn’t all work, and it doesn’t all work for everybody. The neighbors are annoying and don’t really add much. The dog and squirrel chase is just too much and too long. But the film provides a madcap and hilarious look at the holidays from a perspective we don’t often get.

My cup of tea. A-

Scrooge (1951)

With an impeccable lead performance from Alistair Sim and a few creative licenses with the source material, this 1941 adaptation of a Christmas Carol holds up and offers a lot to a modern viewer.

The story is well worn. An old miser is visited by ghosts and changes his ways. However this adaptation adds a lot to the story. It keeps it fresh and adds a lot of depth to Scrooge himself.

The first of these changes comes at the beginning when Scrooge is shown lamenting the status of work on Christmas and coldly rejecting the pleas of a man indebted to him. Sim brings a dispassionate quality to these scenes. He conveys a man without a soul or at least a man who misplaced his soul and hasn’t bothered to look for it.

The story progresses in the standard fashion. In all honesty, Marley is a disappointment. He’s not frightening. He’s not interesting. He doesn’t look like a ghost. He’s just kind of a guy.

However once the first ghost shows up, the movie launches into a new and inventive sequence that surprises and delights. The ghost of Christmas past shows Scrooge more past Christmases than any adaptation. It develops his relationship with his sister. It shows who she was and why she was so important to him and the effect it had on him when she passed away.

It also charts in depth his descent from decent young man to money grubbing miser through the years. In every adaptation Scrooge’s fiancé says he’s changed. This is the only one that shows the extent of his change. This psychological aspect is refreshing and so interesting to see. It’s a fantastic and fascinating addition to the story.

There are some really nice cinematic flourishes throughout, but for the most part the filmmaking is pretty standard and paint by numbers.

The real wonder of the movie is Alistair Sim. He inhabits the role as few have. A soulless miser. A man in conflict with his past. A man whose heart breaks for the sickly Tiny Tim. A man who is so full of the joy of Christmas that he has dances about the room. Sim really nails it. With his big eyes and perfect delivery he makes the film.

This one is tough to track down, but is well worth it for anyone who wants a little different take on the story. My cup of tea A-

Dr. Seuss’s The Grinch (2018)

A generic and forgettable adaptation of the classic Dr. Seuss story, The Grinch has a few cute and charming moments, but it’s ultimately a bland disappointment.

Stepping into this film, I put all thoughts of previous adaptations out of my head. I didn’t compare or contrast this with other versions. I wanted to experience this film on its own terms without thinking about Boris Karloff’s delicious performance affecting my review. Too many people review movies based off previous versions or preconceived notions about what the movie should be.

After viewing the film with clear eyes and a clean perspective, its still not very good. The animation is generic. The story is confusingly told with too many extra elements cluttering the narrative. And the characters are all flat.

The film was produced by illumination. They made the Minions, and The Lorax. This film looks identical to those films. There’s literally no difference in the look and style of this film compared to every other film the company has produced. The characters look and move the same. There is no character revealed through movement when everyone moves in the same cartoonish way.

The story follows a town that loves Christmas to excess. They have to fly in a tree so large it eclipses the sun. The Grinch hates Christmas. He decides to stop it from happening. His plan is to steal all the Christmas trappings in the town thus ending Christmas. The problem is they weigh down that simple narrative with complications and subplots that don’t add much except to pad the run time.

In one sequence, the Grinch’s sad childhood is revealed. It explains that he was an orphan who never got to celebrate Christmas as a child, and that’s why he hates it. Nobody invited him to celebrate, so he hates it. The problem is that the film shows many people inviting him to celebrate Christmas. He hates Christmas because he feels excluded, but people are now trying to include him. This is just a messy muddled motivation that confuses the whole story rather than adding depth.

The same with Cindy Lou Who. She’s a precocious kid who wants Santa to help her mother. She’s a single mom who’s struggling to take care of three kids and grueling overnight work schedule. The problem is Cindy is constantly running out and plotting to see Santa instead of helping her mom. If she just helped her mom take care of the house and the other kids her mom probably wouldn’t be so exhausted, and there’d be no reason to talk to Santa. This is clearly supposed to be a sweet subplot, but it’s so undone by its own illogical nature that it falls flat.

Finally the characters. The grinch isn’t so much a grinch as he is a hipster who rejects Christmas because it’s cool. He just gives off this hipster attitude that is so irritating to sit through. It also softens the character and undermines his central conflict with those around him. How the hipster stole Christmas just isn’t as interesting a movie.

Now there are moments of genuine sweetness and quality here. It has a couple of nice touches. Animated dogs are always wonderful. The problem is the movie is just forgettable. It goes down easy, but doesn’t last. Within a day of watching it I’ve forgotten most of it.

You can do worse this Christmas season, but if you’re skimming Netflix looking for a family movie to watch skip this one and watch Klaus instead.

Not my cup of tea. C

Klaus

This wonderful little animated film telling the story of Santa Claus plays on the heartstrings like YoYo Ma plays the cello. It is delightful, surprising, and heartwarming. A perfect holiday movie the family will love.

The movie has a pretty simple and standard setup. A spoiled young rich guy named Jesper is sent by his father to a remote and inhospitable village to start a post office. Is he going to learn valuable lessons and grow to love this village? It’s not hard to guess, but the film does so much more with this premise. It grows, develops, and surprises all along the way.

The first surprise is the animation itself. It is clearly done with computers, but has a hand drawn quality that is enchanting and gorgeously rendered.

The bigger surprise is not that the village changes him. It’s that he changes the village. He teams up with a reclusive toy maker to receive letters and send packages. Their acts of kindness and generosity transforms the people of the village. So many Christmas movies make grand statements about how it’s better to give than receive, but this movie proves that message by showing its effects on everyone. The whole village becomes a better place because of the simple acts of goodness that take place. As the villages changes so do the main characters. The shot of the toy maker as he watches the first child open the first present is transcendent. In the instant his character changes and the moment is captured artfully as possible.

The humor is also a delightful surprise. It isn’t manic like some kids films. It’s not winking adult humor crammed awkwardly into a children’s movie. It is genuinely clever and fun, and I laughed a lot.

The ending of this film packs a huge emotional wallop. It reduced me to tears. It warms the heart. It affirms human goodness and kindness. It has one of the best film lines of any movie. It is an emotional powerhouse of a movie.

Is it the best movie of the year? No. It has flaws and faults. It’s slow to start. It doesn’t really get its traction going until the end of the first act. And for all it’s invention and surprises there are very predictable moments. However the good feelings it generates and the fantastic and timely themes it expresses more than make up for it.

Personally I loved this movie. It feels like what Disney movies used to be. It’s good. It’s original. It’s worth watching again and again. It’s currently available on Netflix. Watch it with the kids. Watch it by yourself. It’s well worth your time.

Definitely my cup of tea. A

The Muppet Christmas Carol

Michael Caine gives a fantastic and resonant performance in spite of his felt costars in this goofy kids version of the classic story.

This has to be stated from the outset. I’m not a fan of the muppets. They’ve just never worked for me. They’re too manic, too aggressive with their humor, and too reliant on puns for my taste. This movie has all of those issues, but the story overcomes my issues to be charming and enjoyable.

The film tells the classic Dickens story of Ebenezer Scrooge and Christmas visitation from three ghosts. The film introduces Dickens as the narrator played by a muppet with an annoying rat sidekick. These two offer narration as well as jokes and commentary on the story. The commentary only really serves to undermine the dramatic weight of the story. A deeply felt scene in which young Scrooge loses his love is spoiled by jokes from the rat. The drama and fear instilled by the ghost of Christmas future is undone by Dickens and the rat commenting on how scary he is. The muppets are always going for the joke which would be fine if the whole film were a comedy. It’s not. It’s real drama undone by puns and muppet slapstick.

Michael Caine plays Scrooge, and he could not be better. He is heartbreaking. He is funny. He is scary. His transformation rings true. He is so wonderfully mean to everyone at the start, and his gleams with delight as he issues forth his cruelty, but those same eyes are full of warmth, joy, and spirit by the end. He is fantastic. The fact that he’s acting opposite an army of attention seeking muppets trying to steal the spotlight makes his performance more impressive.

There are just too many muppets. Instead of Bob Cratchit being Scrooge’s only employee, in this film Scrooge has about twenty rats working for him. These rats talk constantly all trying to get the last joke in. It’s just noise. Scrooge had one business partner in the boom. In this he has two. Both competing to see who can deliver the worst joke. Throughout the film this is the case. Too many characters too many bad jokes.

Which is why it’s so fun to see a muppet character work. The ghost of Christmas present is a delight. Everything about him works. His jokes, his design, his movements all work brilliantly. He is a wonderful creation that is a true delight.

The production design is also fantastic. This movie looks amazing. The filmmaking is impeccable. The camera work and cinematography are excellent. The sets are stunning. They look like Dickens words come to life. It’s worth watching this film just to look at it. The design team did a phenomenal job.

The highlights in this movie are really high. Michael Caine is great. The production design is wonderful, and when the muppets work they really work. When I rewatch this I’ll probably watch the parts I love and skip the rest.

This one is about half a cup of tea for me. B

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