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Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker (2019)

DIRECTOR: J.J. Abrams

CAST: Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Billy Dee Williams, Ian McDiarmid, Richard E. Grant, Domhnall Gleeson, Keri Russell, Kelly Marie Tran, Joonas Suotamo, Anthony Daniels

REVIEW:

In my previous reviews, I considered J.J. Abrams’ The Force Awakens—the first installment of Disney’s continuation of the Star Wars saga after acquiring Lucasfilm from creator George Lucas—to be (despite some valid criticisms about it being more-or-less a reworked variation of A New Hope) a promising launching pad. Alas, that promise was squandered by the follow-up, Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi, which received some praise but proved deeply divisive among fans and which I unfortunately came down on the negative side of, considering it both narratively unwieldy and having the feel of a Star Wars movie by someone who doesn’t like Star Wars and determined to deconstruct and subvert expectations at every turn for its own sake without having anything satisfying to replace them with. And now, with J.J. Abrams retaking the director’s chair—reportedly due to Lucasfilm head honcho Kathleen Kennedy deciding to go in a “safer” direction after the mixed response to The Last Jedi—we get Overcorrection: The Movie. In fairness to Abrams, he came back onboard with strikes against him: Johnson undoing some of the groundwork he’d laid in the first place, as well as the offscreen death of Carrie Fisher. Unfortunately but perhaps unsurprisingly, Abrams has not succeeded in righting the ship enough to end on a strong note. Rise of Skywalker is scattershot and convoluted, filled with extraneous characters, a poorly-focused narrative, and an overly frenetic pace that seldom slows down enough to make much sense of anything (not that there’s much sense to be found).

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Knives Out (2019)

DIRECTOR: Rian Johnson

CAST: Daniel Craig, Ana de Armas, Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, Katherine Langford, Jaeden Martell, Lakeith Stanfield, Christopher Plummer

REVIEW:

With Knives Out, writer-director Rian Johnson has wholly redeemed himself for his disappointing Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi. Johnson and Star Wars were not a good fit, but he has returned here from playing in another’s sandbox to writing and directing his own material where he has been consistently intriguing (I’m a big fan of his 2012 time travel thriller Looper, for example) and churned out something we don’t see often, an original murder mystery of the type that Agatha Christie might have written (plus some modern sensibilities). Boasting a star-studded ensemble cast obviously enjoying itself, a slickly “keep you guessing” screenplay, and a quirky sense of humor, Knives Out is a deliciously twisty-turny and hugely entertaining morsel for anyone who appreciates a good whodunit. Johnson and his cast obviously relished making this movie, and they’ve given us something to relish eating up in turn.

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A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019)

DIRECTOR: Marielle Heller

CAST: Tom Hanks, Matthew Rhys, Susan Kelechi Watson, Chris Cooper

REVIEW:

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, loosely based on a 1998 Esquire article “Can You Say Hero?” by journalist Tom Junod (with some names changed), is a well-intentioned, feel good ode to beloved television icon Fred Rogers (better-known simply as Mr. Rogers), whose children’s show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood ran from 1968 to 2001 (Rogers passed away in 2003). To that end, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is an inoffensive, sweetly sentimental little movie whose quietly affecting moments sometimes get lost amidst its own treacly earnestness (though, considering I might apply those last words to the show it’s depicting, maybe I’m just not the target audience). Those with nostalgic fond memories of the late Mr. Rogers might find it a moving experience, while those indifferent or unfamiliar with the subject might be unimpressed.

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Ford v. Ferrari (2019)

DIRECTOR: James Mangold

CAST: Matt Damon, Christian Bale, Jon Bernthal, Tracy Letts, Josh Lucas, Caitriona Balfe, Noah Jupe, Ray McKinnon

REVIEW:

Ford v. Ferrari, director James Mangold’s (Walk the Line, Logan) docudrama chronicling events leading up and involving the 1965 and 1966 Le Mans, is likely to appeal to the same audience that appreciate Rush, Ron Howard’s similarly-themed docudrama. The key difference is that the central dynamic here, rather than the “frenemies” there, is in full-blown “buddy movie” mode—albeit not without a little tension—but both movies do an effective job of balancing visceral racing sequences with strong human drama.

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Dark Waters (2019)

DIRECTOR: Todd Haynes

CAST: Mark Ruffalo, Anne Hathaway, Tim Robbins, Bill Camp, Mare Winningham, Victor Garber, Bill Pullman

REVIEW:

Dark Waters is a cinematic cousin to the likes of The Post and Spotlight; like those films, it tells the true story of a real-life legal battle pitting underdogs—in those two films, investigative journalists, here a corporate lawyer turned whistleblower and victims’ advocate—against Goliath “villains” (in The Post, it was the Nixon administration, in Spotlight it was the Boston Roman Catholic Church, here it’s chemical mega-corporation DuPont). To that end, it’s a stately, well-crafted, albeit unexceptional drama that both provides some viewers with an eye-opening education (albeit one some viewers might have preferred to have gone without) and stokes a little justifiable outrage about a corrupt self-protecting system.

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Doctor Sleep (2019)

DIRECTOR: Mike Flanagan

CAST: Ewan McGregor, Kyliegh Curran, Rebecca Ferguson, Cliff Curtis

REVIEW:

Thirty-six years after publishing The Shining, Stephen King published a follow-up, Doctor Sleep, further expanding on themes and concepts he had introduced in the first novel through the life of now-adult Danny Torrance. For Warner Bros., the allure of making a sequel (of sorts) to The Shining (adapted to film by Stanley Kubrick in 1980) was too much to resist, but screenwriter-director Mike Flanagan had a tricky task ahead of him, both adapting one of King’s dense, complicated, thematically rich works, and attempting to bridge a long-standing divide: being both reasonably faithful to King’s book while also doing some tweaking to serve as a more direct sequel to Kubrick’s film, which differed from the book in some significant ways (and which King famously disliked). Flanagan has mostly succeeded. While a little overlong and drawn-out, Doctor Sleep largely stands on its own (apart from the climax), telling a very different kind of story from The Shining but serving up some of the same slow burn. Perhaps most welcome, it serves up complicated concepts rather than a lazy reliance on jump scares and conventional horror tropes. In fact, it’s more a drama/thriller than a horror movie, which might disappoint some viewers attracted by its connections to The Shining.

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Midway (2019)

DIRECTOR: Roland Emmerich

CAST: Ed Skrein, Patrick Wilson, Woody Harrelson, Luke Evans, Mandy Moore, Dennis Quaid, Aaron Eckhart, Nick Jonas, Keean Johnson, Luke Kleintank, Darren Criss, Tadanobu Asano, Etsushi Toyokawa

REVIEW:

One goes into “a film by Roland Emmerich” with tempered expectations. I wasn’t expecting the next great war epic, but I had—I thought—reasonable expectations of something along the lines of Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor; some big-scale war action intermixed with corny human drama. Alas, even for those modest expectations, Midway fails to deliver, once again begging the question of why such a hack as Emmerich continues to have his relentless mediocrity rewarded with gigs directing big-budget disaster/war movies. In fact, while I’m no Michael Bay fan, one could say that at least Bay knows he makes big, dumb action flicks where lots of stuff blows up real good. Emmerich occasionally displays pretensions of helming historical epics, and here (as usual) his reach exceeds his grasp.

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Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)

DIRECTOR: Tim Miller

CAST: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton, Mackenzie Davis, Natalia Reyes, Gabriel Luna

REVIEW:

And now in the latest of far too many examples of Hollywood’s dearth of original ideas, the long-running—and long-suffering—Terminator franchise once again proves itself even harder to kill than its titular killer cyborgs, despite the fact that it passed its sell-by date quite a while ago (for my money, all the way back in 1991). While Dark Fate‘s promotion made much ta-do out of the “return” of James Cameron (who gets a producer and co-writer credit but did not retake the director’s chair, which is occupied by Deadpool‘s Tim Miller, leaving it questionable how much direct involvement Cameron really had) and Linda Hamilton (who hasn’t taken part in the franchise since 1991’s Judgment Day, turned down a chance to reprise her role in 2003’s Rise of the Machines, and should have turned this one down too), neither Cameron nor his ex-wife’s names in the credits signals a return to the quality of the first two installments, which slipped after Cameron moved on and has never been regained. Dark Fate ignores the existence of every entry since T2 and acts as a direct sequel to the first two and the first two alone—which many fans would likely have been okay with—but alas it doesn’t replace them with anything superior. It’s probably better than its immediate predecessor Genisys (no great accomplishment), but finds its own new ways of dumping on the series mythos.

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The Current War (2019)

DIRECTOR: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon

CAST: Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Shannon, Nicholas Hoult, Tom Holland, Katherine Waterston, Matthew Macfadyen, Tuppence Middleton

REVIEW:

Filmed in December 2016 and originally slated for a 2017 release, The Current War has finally found its way into theaters two years later after becoming collateral damage of the Harvey Weinstein sex scandal and the subsequent downfall of The Weinstein Company (after the beleaguered Weinstein Company sold off The Current War‘s film rights, they were eventually bought by little-known 101 Studios). This finally released version comes out under the label “The Director’s Cut”, claiming it represents director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s original vision before Harvey Weinstein got his hands on it and, as was notoriously his wont, started chopping and editing (this is supposedly the original version which played at the Toronto Film Festival in 2017, not Weinstein’s edit, which was never released). In retrospect, the film’s turbulent and meandering behind-the-scenes journey to its low-profile delayed theatrical release might have been a more eventful story than the film itself. A movie about the fledgling electrical grid and the men vying for dominance over it is not inherently cinematic, and no matter much director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon tries to spice it up with visual flair, The Current War remains a rather drab history lesson that fails to use a promising cast to its full advantage.

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Maleficent: Mistress of Evil (2019)

DIRECTOR: Joachim Ronning

CAST: Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Michelle Pfeiffer, Harris Dickinson, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Ed Skrein, Sam Riley, Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple, Lesley Manville, Robert Lindsay, David Gyasi, Warwick Davis

REVIEW:

2014’s Maleficent, a “reimagining” of the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale which turned the story on its head by casting Maleficent more as a wronged tragic anti-heroine than cackling villainess, was a lightweight and mediocre fantasy adventure, but it did well enough at the box office to warrant a sequel. Nevertheless, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil will likely appeal to the same audience who enjoyed the first movie and likewise not convert those who were unimpressed. Despite a somewhat “bigger” story and expanded world-building, it doesn’t take things appreciably further than its modestly successful predecessor.

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