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Spoiler Free Rise of Skywalker Plus Bombshell, Cats and Hidden Life

George Wolf George Wolf Spoiler Free Rise of Skywalker Plus Bombshell, Cats and Hidden LifePhoto via IMDb
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Is The Rise of Skywalker a fitting capper to the latest Star Wars saga? Is Cats as bad as it looks? Does Bombshell‘s entire cast look as eerily similar to their real life counterparts as Charlize Theron does? How’s Terrence Malick’s latest? 

We have all the answers!

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

by George Wolf

Not that long ago in a galaxy near and dear to us, J.J. Abrams brilliantly re-packaged our Star Wars memories as The Force Awakens. Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi took an opposite approach two years later, bringing a challenging and welcome nerve that sent a clear signal it would soon be time to move on.

Abrams is back as director and co-writer to close the saga with The Rise of Skywalker, which ends up feeling less like a course correction (which wasn’t needed) and more like a sly meeting of both minds. The fan service is strong with this one, indeed, though it never quite smacks of panicked fanboy appeasement.

In fact, the echoes of Johnson’s vision only make Abrams’s franchise love letter more emotionally resonant. We were told this goodbye was coming, and now here it is, so grab hold of something.

And that doesn’t mean just tissues (though you may need them), as Abrams delivers action that comes early and more than often. From deep space shootouts to light saber duals amid monstrous ocean waves, the heart-racing set pieces are damn near nonstop and seldom less than spectacular.

But let’s be real, this is the Rey and (Kylo) Ren show.

We knew their fates would collide, we wanted that collision, and here we get it, propelled by two actors in Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver who are able to fully embrace the weight of their respective arcs. As all our questions are eventually answered, Driver and Ridley never let us forget what drives their characters: the closure of identity.

And from a new hope to the last hope, it is precisely those bloodlines and destinies that have always driven this entire franchise. Abrams makes sure he honors that legacy with a satisfying sendoff bursting with fandom in nearly every frame.

Yes, you’ll find some awkward dialogue and underused characters, but that’s not a bad scorecard considering all that The Rise of Skywalker throws at us. From welcome hellos (Lando!), to sad goodbyes (Carrie Fisher is handled with heroic grace), political relevance (“there’s more of us” in the resistance), to stand up and cheer moments, this is a one helluva farewell party.

Grade: A-

Bombshell

by Hope Madden

Bombshell, Jay Roach’s depiction of the unrepentant sexual harassment that poisoned the work atmosphere at Fox News, is equal parts cathartic and depressing.

Buoyed by strong lead performances in a trio of unerring talent—Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman and Margot Robbie—the film also leans on an incredible and sizable ensemble to deliver a surprisingly nuanced look at the shades of grey, of complicity and responsibility when it comes to sexual harassment.

“It’s no one’s job to protect you,” Theron’s Megyn Kelly tells newbie Kayla (Robbie).

“It’s all of our jobs,” she disagrees.

No surprise the script comes from The Big Short scribe Charles Randolph. Roach’s film benefits from the same kind of thoughtful, informative, funny and “can you believe” this approach, but Bombshell lacks much of the rage and outright comedy of an Adam McKay film.

Like McKay, Roach left comedies behind in favor of headier, sharper, more political material. Also like McKay, his comedic sensibilities breathe some life into the efforts, helping this film serve the dual purpose of entertaining and informing. And, like McKay, Roach knows how helpful a well-placed comedian can be.

Kate McKinnon actually does a lot of the film’s narrative heavy lifting. (Is it wrong I wanted her to play Rudy Giuliani as well?) As a Bill O’Reilly producer who befriends Kayla and helps her better understand the Fox News world, she allows Roach to make salient points about the network and the way it’s run, but because McKinnon is naturally funny and incredibly talented, it feels organic.

Her character’s position when it comes to rocking the boat also offers a clear-eyed take on why toxic work environments can go unchecked for so long. Since McKinnon’s character is in many ways the one the audience will most relate to, this is a sly and successful maneuver to keep us from feeling too superior and enabling us to better empathize with characters we may not like as well.

Enough cannot be said for the work of Roach’s makeup department, especially that of prosthetic make up designer Kazu Hiro. Theron’s imperceptible prosthetic—along with her own posture and voice work—turn her into an alarming replica of Kelly. Ditto Nicole Kidman, and John Lithgow, whose performance also delivers a wallop.

Not that any of this matters if the three central performances lacks in any department. They don’t. Characteristically, Theron, Kidman and Robbie deliver exceptional work, each willing (as they always are) to depict a woman who is not always (or, in some cases, is rarely) likable but who deserves respect and empathy for their suffering and courage.

Wisely, Roach and team don’t get swept away by the bracing change and empowerment of victory. Indeed, Bombshell’s final act is a smack I still feel. But it’s power is its honesty.

Grade: B+

Cats

by Christie Robb

People say that you’re either a cat person or a dog person. I’m a cat person, but definitely not a Cats person. But if you are, there’s a lot to enjoy in the new film version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1981 musical based on poems by T.S. Eliot.

How else could you possibly get tickets to see a show with this cast? Taylor Swift. Idris Elba. Rebel Wilson. James Corden. Jennifer Hudson. How else can you watch a feline Dame Judi Dench curl up convincingly in a basket? Or glimpse Sir Ian McKellen lap from a bowl of milk?

A movie is a very egalitarian way to enjoy a Broadway musical. This one is about an assemblage of cats who have gathered together under the full moon to decide which one of them will be chosen to be reborn into a new life. Their best life. They pitch their case by singing the song of themselves. There’s very little in the way of traditional narrative structure although director Tom Hooper (Les Misérables) does tinker around with the play a bit to try to tease one out. It’s more like a musical revue designed around a central theme.

Initially concerned about falling into the uncanny valley of CG feline effects on the actors’ familiar faces, after some early creepy moments I got used to it. The realistic tail twitches and subtle changes in the angle of an ear serve to give additional cues as to the interior life of a cat that facial expressions alone can’t provide. (The opportunity to see emotional reactions through closeups is another advantage of a screen version.) Occasionally the feline illusion is broken (most often by Swift and Elba) and instead of seeing a cat you are confronted with a dancing furry naked person with Barbie-doll genitalia. But most of the time, it works.

Wilson and Corden are amusing. Watching Francesca Hayward (principal ballerina at the Royal Ballet) dance the role of Victoria is a delight. But the true star of this show is Jennifer Hudson as Grizabella, a former “glamour cat” now old and suffering through hard times. Hudson’s performance of the signature song “Memory” far outshines every other musical number here, and is likely what you’ll be humming as you walk out of the theatre.

Grade: C+

A Hidden Life

by George Wolf

“Sign this paper and you’ll go free.”

“I am free.”

One man’s moral courage provides the anchor for A Hidden Life, writer/director Terrence Malick’s affirmation that a life well-lived is a beneficial one, no matter how small the spotlight.

Malick brings his dreamlike focus to the story of Franz Jagerstatter, a conscientious objector who refused to fight with the Nazis in World War II.

Franz (August Diehl) and his wife Frani (Valerie Pachner) are living happily in an Austrian farming village with their three young daughters. The work is hard, but the peasant villagers share a strong communal spirit, still untouched by the winds of war.

Malick showcases the mountain landscape with his customary visual brilliance, teaming with cinematographer Jorg Widmer to envelope us in an expansive and idyllic old-world setting among the clouds. But those clouds soon turn literally and figuratively stormy. As Hitler’s rhetoric is parroted by the villagers, Franz’s commitment to conscience turns him into a prisoner and his family into outcasts who “sin against the village.”

Franz finds little comfort from his church elders, who urge appeasement and seek a compromise. But even an assignment away from the front would require an oath of allegiance to Hitler and the Nazi cause – a line Franz refused to cross.

The hushed voiceovers, forced perspectives and dreamlike imaging that served Malick so well in his masterfully personal The Tree of Life here seem a bit ill-fitting when paired with someone else’s legacy. A frequent return to lingering shots such as clasped hands thrust into the air, lose resonance with repetition, creating a subtle tedium that betrays the nearly three-hour running time.

Not that Malick’s latest doesn’t deliver emotional power, it certainly does, most pointedly during Franz’s visit with a church artist. Suffice to say the exchange features some of Malick’s most brilliantly concise dialogue, using one man’s honest introspection to frame another’s moral quandary in a heartbreakingly beautiful new light.

Try hard, and you can imagine Malick working in a purely historical context, giving a deserving salute to a lesser-known man for all seasons.

But on its face, the film presents a climate that is all too familiar, one where a rising tide of hate divides families, reduces religious tenets to twisted rationalizations, and where blind rage requires no subtitles. A Hidden Life is at its best when those stakes are clear, and Franz’s unwavering conviction is a sobering history lesson.

Grade: B+

Also opening in Columbus:
Dabangg 3 (NR)
Only Cloud Knows (NR)
When Lambs Become Lions (NR)

Read more from Hope and George at MADDWOLF and listen to their weekly movie review podcast, THE SCREENING ROOM.

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