Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker – DeaconsDen Reaction

After 42 years, the story of Skywalker has come to a close with Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. Episode IX sees the return of Rey, Finn and Poe as the heroes of the Resistance trying to defeat the mighty First Order. J. J. Abrams returns to helm his second adventure in a galaxy far, far away after 2015’s The Force Awakens

I don’t think there’s anyway around the subject, but you can’t discuss this film without discussing 2017’s The Last Jedi. In Episode VIII, director Rian Johnson decided to take the franchise in a different direction. It was a bold move, one I felt positive about as you can see in my thoughts from back then. However, it was divisive amongst audiences despite being praised critically. The Force Awakens set things up for the sequel trilogy, but The Last Jedi sought to be something different. Fast forward to 2019. Abrams now has to bring two different cinematic viewpoints back together to close out this the long running space fantasy. How do I feel about what we got?

My feeling after walking out of the theater were that this was a fun and entertaining Star Wars adventure. I think the aspect I enjoyed the most was seeing Rey, Finn and Poe all together for what really is the first time in this trilogy. It was great seeing Daisy Ridley, John Boyega and Oscar Isaac play off of each other and participate in the main events of the film. Even though Luke, Han & Leia were split up during The Empire Strikes Back, there was a little time with them at the beginning and we didn’t get that for The Last Jedi since it picks up immediately after The Force Awakens. So having the trio together was a huge positive. On another character front, I felt things were wrapped up appropriately for Kylo Ren, one of the franchise’s most complex characters, maybe perhaps its most complex.

I thought the film was amazing to look at. I enjoy Abrams work in these space spectacles like Star Wars and Star Trek. It’s one I can’t wait to revisit in HD once the blu-ray arrives. The space battles were spectacular and the set pieces really well done.

Now to get into the crux of the film. Even though I enjoyed my time with The Rise of Skywalker, there are issues that hold it back from being one of the top films in the series. The biggest problem is having to straddle a wobbly fence and close out all threads presented in the first film, while having to expand on the themes and subversions presented in the second film. I personally felt the film tries its best to provide a fair experience to those who were satisfied by what both films tried to do. Sadly based on reviews and what I’ve seen on social media, it has split reception just as the prior film did. However it does provide some great moments that remind you of all the experiences people have had watching these films. As a whole, though it doesn’t quite have the impact of a concluding chapter the way Return of the Jedi did in 1983 or even Revenge of the Sith in 2005.

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, while an enjoyable adventure full of cool moments, just slightly missed the landing as a result of trying to balance two different films while closing out a 42 year epic story. Yet, at least for me, despite these flaws, I still had a lot of fun watching this.

2001: A Space Odyssey- Classic Reaction

I don’t remember how old I was, maybe 11 or 12, but I do remember watching the Preview Channel (I’m 34 so yes I did grow up with that scrolling station) and I saw that 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY was on PBS. It was about 10pm on a Saturday night. I grew up watching older science fiction films with my father and was a fan of Star Trek (Original series and Next Generation in particular). This was one my father had told me about, but never really knew about it. The description was simple, two astronauts battle a killer computer. Sounded simple enough. Definitely sounded entertaining. The film was already on so I had missed about an hour of it, however I wanted to see whatever I could see of it. Once I changed the channel, I saw the image of Keir Dullea’s Dave Bowman pleading with HAL 9000 (Douglas Rain) to “open the pod bay doors.”

I watched until Dave made it back to ship and began to disconnect HAL. I fell asleep not long after, missing the rest of the film. After that, I was determined that this movie was one I was going to watch from start to finish. Eventually I found the DVD and on one Saturday afternoon, I finally sat down to watch it.

2 hours and 22 minutes later, I was lost. Really lost.

2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY begins with The Dawn of Man, witnessing a group of hominids as they deal with the dangers of the land. Eventually they come into contact with a mysterious black monolith. Due to this contact, they learn how to use a bone as a weapon and history begins.

Fast forward millions of years later and we are introduced to Dave Bowman and Frank Poole, assigned to the spacecraft Discovery One for a voyage to Jupiter. Along for the ride is their supercomputer HAL 9000. The two men become suspicious of HAL and his capabilities to continue when he makes an incorrect analysis on a part that’s said to have needed repair.

The aftermath of the situation on the Discovery takes us in a otherworldly direction as the future of mankind is revealed.

Yea. I was still lost.

2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY was a watershed moment for me as a person who loves movies. It was the first time I came across a film that didn’t explain itself to me right away. Honestly it never explains itself at all, but has the viewer piece together what they feel it is about. It is truly the first time I got to have my own read on a film. It was also the first time I was exposed to the work of Stanley Kubrick who I thought was very weird based on this film (then I learned everyone thought he was odd). Over the years, I would seek the rest of his filmography and the man would end up becoming one of my favorite directors.

An aspect in particular of 2001 I want to speak on is the film’s pacing. It’s a slow burning two plus hour science fiction film. Yet when I watch it, it speeds by like lightning. The only exception to this is on the big screen. I had the privilege to see it in IMAX in 2018 for its 50th anniversary and while I never want to act as a film purist and say “this is how movies should always be seen,” it definitely was a new experience. I felt the pace move slower, but I had time to experience the awe that Kubrick created.

It took me years to come to a conclusion on what I thought 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY was about. I was excited to read that Kubrick intentionally left the film ambiguous to spur discussion. To some this may seem pretentious, but when I look at the events that occur in the film, it’s great to hear and read the thoughts of others. This is the type of film you can see a totally valid point of view that’s nowhere near your conclusion, but you see how they reached it. It is an odyssey in the truest sense, and this is why I love it and it is one of my absolute favorite films ever.

Joker – DeaconsDen Reaction

JOKER as a film manages to capture the essence of The Joker as a character. Anchored by an amazing performance by Joaquin Phoenix, JOKER is a look into a man’s descent to darkness.

Phoenix is Arthur Fleck, a man with issues who lives with and takes care of his sick mother Penny. Arthur works as a clown for hire while suffering from mental health concerns where he takes many different medications. He also has aspirations to become a stand-up comic. From the outset, we are made to sympathize with Arthur’s situation and you do for a time. He’s picked on, he’s ignored, he’s in dire straights. However all of that changes and Arthur begins a transformation that will have lasting consequences for the city of Gotham.

There have been many questions and thoughts about JOKER. One being about its director Todd Phillips. Could the director of THE HANGOVER trilogy handle something so volatile? I would say depending on your read of the film, that could be yes or no. For me it was a yes. The reason going back to my opening line, the way this film is constructed, is similar to that of the Clown Prince of Crime. It’s hard-hitting, it’s chaotic, it’s indecisive. After leaving the theater, I can see this one being discussed for years. The polarization of the film is why I found it a great watch. This isn’t a BATMAN v SUPERMAN type of split, this is something different. And honestly, I love seeing something like this for the comic book movie genre. Even if it was widely disliked, I like that this managed to get released.

The construction of the film is outstanding. Phillips and his team really recreated a decaying urban American city in the 1980s. This isn’t the stylized Gotham of the Tim Burton/Joel Schumacher films. This is more like the origin of the decline of Gotham seen in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy. Despite the grimy look, there is a beautiful sheen to the look thanks to gorgeous cinematography by Lawrence Sher (who should get awards consideration).

Then there is the haunting score by Hildur Guonadottir. She brings an underlying note of tragedy to the film. The score is strong, but never intrusive. It doesn’t have a distinct theme for the character like Hans Zimmer or Danny Elfman have in the past. I found that a positive because it really highlights the fact that one of Gotham’s biggest threats came from an ordinary citizen.

Much has been made of the film’s lack of a stance. I felt this was by design since the character of The Joker has no stance. I would not disagree with those whose criticisms see it as shallow and empty, this is true, I however saw it as true to the character. The Joker never commits to anything. Never an ideal, never a purpose except mayhem. Even the use of certain song once Arthur’s transformation is complete feels in line with the character as I can see him doing something like that, just to get the rise out of people. Honestly, the character is empty, which is why his battles with Batman are always intense due to Bruce Wayne’s mission. The Joker’s perspective on the world is always made known by him. To accomplish this. JOKER the film is built entirely on Arthur’s perspective. We descend as he does. You question what you see because you know something isn’t right with Arthur. We don’t get the answers, and I loved that. I love a film intentionally setting itself up for different views. The film is intentionally ambiguous in its leanings which lend credence to the whole “multiple choice” path the character takes when describing his origins. While JOKER definitely feels like a one and done origin, I must say I would love to see a short film, set 10-20 years down the line, that includes a conversation between Phoenix’s Joker and his future nemesis.

JOKER is a fascinating piece of entertainment that I am happy to have taken a moment to experience for myself. Its open ended structure and viewpoints are perfectly aligned with the character it covers. It’s a sad, uncomfortable and when it needs to be, visceral film showing the decline of a man. We may say the movie feels empty, but no matter which side of the fence you fall on the film, you will feel something. Arthur becomes the Joker, and the audience knows definitively that they are not.

Ad Astra – DeaconsDen Reaction

AD ASTRA is the latest in a line of existential, thought provoking science fiction films. It clearly shows its inspirations from movies like, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, SOLARIS and even more recent fare like GRAVITY.

Brad Pitt is Roy McBride. After an accident that is the result of powerful surges that threaten the safety of the earth, McBride is recruited to search for the source of the surges. It is believed that they are the result of experiments performed by his father Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones), who disappeared on a mission to search for intelligent life called the Lima Project.

To understand what AD ASTRA is, you need to understand what it is not. This film is slow burning personal odyssey despite the huge stakes presented at the opening. Action sequences are lightly peppered in the film. As these sequences occur, more individuals who are part of the mission Roy has to accomplish are removed resulting in each instance, Roy having to compete the objective on his own. As I mentioned earlier, this is more along the lines of a film like SOLARIS and not STAR TREK.

Brad Pitt gives another great performance in 2019. In AD ASTRA, he portrays Roy as far more reserved and somewhat conflicted about his demeanor and its influence on those around him. Throughout the film, Roy is subjected to psychological evaluations that he must prove he has shed emotion and will accomplish his mission objectives pragmatically and logically. The organization Roy works for SpaceCom what’s all emotion she and Roy has to dig into those emotions so that he can do what needs to be done. In a way, it sort of presents an effort to fight back against the coldness of a film like Stanley Kubrick’s 2001. My only issue is that the film brings up questions about the search for life outside of the Earth and it actually answers that question. However, I don’t feel that was needed as the main text of the film was very prominent and that was just a secondary plot device in retrospect.

AD ASTRA begins with a mission to discover life beyond our solar system, yet what it manages is to ask another question. What good does it do to explore outside our space, if we’ve not yet understood ourselves and the reasons why we choose to explore? AD ASTRA reminds us that we have to carry these things with us. There is no future without them.

Rambo: Last Blood – DeaconsDen Reaction

Sylvester Stallone returns to screen as Vietnam veteran John Rambo in the fifth installment of the Rambo series of action films that began in 1982 with the thriller FIRST BLOOD. This is the first film in the franchise since 2008’s RAMBO which was directed by Stallone. This go around, he is directed by Adrian Grunberg with Stallone sharing script duties with Matthew Cirulnick. How does LAST BLOOD fare?

LAST BLOOD involves Rambo traveling to Mexico to rescue his niece from a sex trafficking cartel. From there the story moves to a bloody version of HOME ALONE.

There really isn’t much to discuss about LAST BLOOD. It’s said to be a send off for the character of John Rambo, but this film doesn’t do that at all. It’s a competently made action-revenge thriller but it never felt like it was in the world of Rambo. Even with the often parodied action of FIRST BLOOD PART II and RAMBO III you always managed to remember the man who was harassed in FIRST BLOOD. In this film, the character may be named Rambo and you may have flashbacks to prior films, but this easily could have have a different title and character name without changing a thing. That’s how standard it is. Now I like standard, I love seeing stuff blow up, but I really thought this was going to close the story of the Rambo and it never was that. In all honesty, the 2008 film does a better job of that and it’s not even a swan song.

As far as the action goes, it’s brutal and bloody just like the 2008 film. It definitely showcases the the effect these various weapons have on the human body. That violence is a criticism I slightly disagree with only because it’s something that was already present in a prior film. Another talking point is the portrayal of the Mexican antagonists in the film. Now I’m someone who grew up watching action films with all sort of nationalities used as villains. I’m not saying to ignore it, more so that it’s something I was already familiar with, however in the current sociopolitical climate, it’s something that is to be noted. So for that mileage may vary with the viewer, but I fully understand the apprehension with the choice.

RAMBO: LAST BLOOD is not the send off it claims to be. Despite its pretty cool end credits (which it did not earn) and well staged action, it’s does nothing to close out the story of John Rambo. It’s passable action at best and maybe loathsome at worst depending on the viewer. Would I watch it again? Sure. Yet I’m also sure nothing will ever revisit the broken man from FIRST BLOOD.

Ready or Not – DeaconsDen Reaction

Every year I see a movie that seemingly comes out of the blue, and ends up being one of my favorites of the year. This film is never one of the major releases that I’m already planning to see from the moment it’s announced, it’s typically a much smaller film. Last year it was A SIMPLE FAVOR. In 2017 it was HAPPY DEATH DAY. Along the lines of both of those films comes READY OR NOT, which is the most fun I’ve had at the movies this year.

Directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, READY OR NOT is the story of Grace (Samara Weaving), a woman who is getting married to Alex, a member of the wealthy Le Domas family. The craziness begins once Grace agrees to play a game on her wedding night which is a tradition of the Le Domas family to initiate new members into the family. Unfortunately for Grace, the luck of the draw gives her hide and seek. This results in the family taking up arms to hunt her down throughout the night.

READY OR NOT juggles multiple genres. There are elements of horror, thriller and comedy and it manages each of them perfectly. Normally this can be difficult for films, but this one manages to shift gears near flawlessly. One moment you are on the edge of your seat as Grace fights to survive and then you are bursting into laughter at the family’s failed efforts.

As the matter of performances go, Samara Weaving proves to be quite the lead with her comedic timing, physicality and a dash of vulnerability. Obviously with a character being in a situation like, you may expect one type of performance from the lead, but Weaving weaves (pun intended) from moment to moment just as the film’s tone changes. An honorable mention has to go to Adam Brody who gives a very conflicted performance as Daniel, who is at odds with his family’s garish history and his role in it. Also I must give a shoutout to Andie MacDowell, who it is always great to see.

It’s not just blood and laughs in this film. READY OR NOT has something to say as well. I felt it similar to Jordan Peele’s GET OUT, another recent horror release that also doubled as commentary. Here we have a comedic takedown of the concept of the wealthy and how it can be interpreted what they fee they must do to maintain that wealth and power. There is a reason the Le Domas family hunts Grace. The social subtext of the film becomes quite evident and enhances the experience.

READY OR NOT is a ride. With a length of 95 minutes, it covers a lot of ground early and covers it quickly while losing not an ounce of it triple decker of thrills, laughs and commentary.

“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” A DeaconsDen Reaction

Director Quentin Tarantino has entertained audiences as well as polarized them since bursting onto the scene with Reservoir Dogs in 1992. His work has mixed and matched a range of genres that show the man’s love for movies and movie history. So how does he fare when he jumps in a time machine and recreate 1969 Hollywood? It is here that Tarantino crafts a historical fairy tale with “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.”

“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” stars Academy Award winners Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt as Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth respectively. Rick is an aging television who starred on the series “Bounty Law” and Cliff is his longtime friend and stunt double. The film focuses on the two men as they navigate the changing landscape of the entertainment industry. Simultaneously, a young actress whose career is on the rise arrives named Sharon Tate, played by Academy Award nominee Margot Robbie. Lastly, in the background creeping its way to the forefront is a cult with a powerful following that may play an integral role in shaping events to come.

My initial reaction to “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is that it felt like the nexus of Tarantino’s career. Everything that made the man who he is cinematically, from the dialogue to the references, the music choices and yes even the violence seemed to meld to a perfection where no one of these elements overtook the others. It feels like Tarantino’s most humane and mature film. 1997’s Jackie Brown would also fit into those categories, but part of that I attribute to it being an adaptation. There is a thoughtfulness and dare I say, sweetness that permeates the film. This is due to the strength of the three lead performers and their characters. First let’s look at Rick and Cliff.

The crux of the story is Rick’s path to recapturing his former stardom. He senses his entertainment mortality where he wants an opportunity but isn’t keen on just any opportunity. Once he finally takes on a job, we witness his struggles and insecurities and take joy in once things begin to turn up for him. DiCaprio’s performance is outstanding as a man who is uncertain of his future. Then there is Cliff. Cliff’s present and future are tied to Rick as he is Rick’s gofer and driver. He is a character I’m sure folks will deep dive into in subsequent writings. Cliff also has issue with getting work, but that could be due to the possibility that he may or may not be a criminal who got away with something with nary a consequence. There is an ambiguity that Tarantino plays with Cliff’s character that leaves it up to you. Pitt is so charismatic in the role and presents Cliff where you might or might not actually be able to trust what he says. I love when the interpretation is left to us. As far as Rick and Cliff’s relationship, it is described in the film as more than a brother, but less than a wife. Tarantino presents a very mature friendship between two men where they speak on their highs and lows and there is a level of openness that I don’t believe we are used to in a Tarantino film.

Then there is the third part of this trifecta, Sharon Tate. The story of Sharon Tate is well known as she was tragically murdered by members of the Manson Family in 1969. This has made Sharon a tragic character and at times it takes away from the potential she possessed and would never get to share with the world.

The moment the film was announced along with its subject matter, there was concern over how Tarantino would handle the events on screen. Another issue arose when the question of Margot Robbie’s screen time was brought up. I won’t speak on the handling of the historical events due to spoiler potential, however even though Robbie may not get the screen time as equal to DiCaprio and Pitt, her impact might be the strongest in the entire film. It was one of the most expressive and physical cases of acting I’ve seen. There is a scene about halfway through where we basically spend the day with Sharon while she is out. She spends the day surrounded by people and you know what? It worked. We know what the history is, but I felt Tarantino did something special with Margot Robbie and that was to give Sharon her story back. For the duration of the film, I felt close to Sharon. I felt I got to know her dreams and ambitions and not see her through the lens of infamy. It’s a touching performance. If Rick and Cliff are the fading past, Sharon is the light leading the way for the new generation of superstar.

“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” instantly made a spot in the top 3 of Quentin Tarantino films for me. It’s a patient and reflective piece. You do not have to be an actor to relate to its themes. Time passes, and things will change for us all, but that doesn’t mean it has to be the end. There is still an opportunity, there is always still time.