Daily Streaming Guide: March 18th Edition

Continuing on with my Daily Streaming Guide for worthy titles available on various services – let’s call today the Alex Garland Edition. He’s the director behind both science fiction titles that are highly worthy of a look:

Netflix

We begin with his intelligent 2015 effort about artificial intelligence – Ex Machina starring Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, and Alicia Vikander. Made for a reported lowly $15 million, this is the type of sci-fi that Stanley Kubrick probably would have been proud of. Machina even won the Oscar for Visual Effects over high-profile features like Mad Max: Fury Road and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. It also features one of the greatest out of nowhere dance sequences in cinematic history in my view.

Hulu

Garland’s excursion into high minded sci-fi continued with Annihilation, his 2018 follow-up. The visually stunning experience featuring Natalie Portman and Isaac (again) has themes that will stick with you post credits. And just like Ex Machina features a scene that floored me, so does this. The former involved dancing. The latter involves a human and a bear sharing the same voice. You’ll see what I mean. It’s terrifying and thrilling simultaneously.

I’ll be back at it soon, folks! Until then…

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker Movie Review

We talk about the Star Wars franchise the same way we speak of politics or sports. With passion and fervent opinions and disagreements. Perhaps we are giving it too much credit, but it’s become an American cinematic pastime. No group of films has inspired as much thought and re-thought. So we arrive at the ninth episode, The Rise of Skywalker, with all that baggage and more. After all, this one is tasked with closing out the saga that began at a time far, far away in 1977. Returning to direct with that weight on his shoulders is J.J. Abrams, who kickstarted the series for new owner Disney four years ago with The Force Awakens.

He does so two years following The Last Jedi from Rian Johnson, which sharply divided fans and critics by going in unexpected directions. Even Luke Skywalker himself, Mark Hamill, didn’t jive with the choices Johnson made with his character shuddered on an island and not wishing to utilize his Jedi skills. That was one compliant from some diehard fans, among others. You could say they had their knives out for it, so to speak.

I found The Last Jedi to be flawed and disjointed, but also filled with great moments. There aren’t many of them here in Skywalker. As I ponder it, episodes VII-IX do follow a similar arc as the iconic I-III. The Force Awakens was tasked with introducing new and exciting characters from these galaxies. It also had to mix in Luke and Leia and Han Solo and Chewie. I felt, for the most part, that it did so successfully. That especially applies to Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). In fact, their little therapy sessions from The Last Jedi were highlights of the whole trilogy. The common critique of Awakens is that it was a rehash of the first Star Wars. While this is with some merit, it didn’t take away my immense enjoyment of it.

As mentioned, The Last Jedi was more of a mixed bag. Yet with Johnson’s sometimes confounding but often daring choices, it was also the boldest. This is where a comparison with 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back seems fair. Don’t get me wrong. It’s nowhere in its league, but it did take what happened in the predecessor and take it in unexpected directions.

And now The Last Skywalker. Like 1983’s Return of the Jedi, this trilogy finale has to wrap it all up. Allow me to throw in this disclaimer – I don’t hold Return of the Jedi anywhere near the regards of what came before it. While I feel there are terrific moments, there’s a lot that didn’t work me and not just the Ewoks. It often felt a little tired and unsure of what to do with itself for a chunk of the running time. That applies to Skywalker and there’s aren’t as many terrific moments.

The similarities don’t end on just a quality level. Ultimately, the main plot here finds Rey facing a choice of whether to stay a Jedi or follow her lineage to the dark side… just as Luke did in Jedi. By the way, those lineage inquiries are addressed. Another complaint in Rian Johnson’s script was how he handled that aspect. Rey’s supporting cast is around with Finn (John Boyega) and Poe (Oscar Isaac) marshaling support to take on Kylo. And as the trailer suggested, Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) is back in the mix, too. So is Billy Dee Williams as cocky fighter pilot Lando. His return isn’t exactly as pined for as what we got with Luke, Leia, and Han. As for Leia, Carrie Fisher does return utilizing unused footage from Awakens and Last Jedi. It’s handled delicately.

There are new players with Richard E. Grant joining Domhnall Gleeson as one of Kylo’s top lieutenants. Abrams throws some small parts to Keri Russell and Dominic Monaghan (who both starred in his TV shows). The short shrift is given to Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), who had more of a presence in Last Jedi, but is basically ignored. That’s not exactly a problem as this is the Rey and Kylo show. Once again, both Ridley and Driver’s performances are first rate. Truth be told, though, Johnson wrote their dynamic better the last time around.

For the major detractors of The Last Jedi, perhaps this episode will feel like a return to Star Wars normalcy. I’m happy to listen to an argument that Johnson’s effort pairs well with the return of Abrams, but it would take lots of convincing. Skywalker often reeks of a course correction. This is becoming more common with franchises. We just saw Terminator: Dark Fate ignore the three pictures ahead of it. The X-Men series had to get creative with their timeline and do away with it under specific circumstances.

Those franchises aren’t Star Wars. The meeting between Han Solo and his son Kylo in The Force Awakens was a memorable, emotional, and surprising one. Whatever Mark Hamill and others might think about his treatment in The Last Jedi, a brief reunion with his sister in it was marvelous. In Skywalker, Abrams goes for a lot of those moments. And it felt, well, forced. The visual splendor and incredible production design (and the rousing John Williams score) is intact. A few scenes with Rey and Kylo work. Ultimately, I suspect my feelings about The Rise of Skywalker will be somewhat similar to Return of the Jedi – as an inferior product to its two predecessors.

**1/2 (out of four)

Oscar Watch – Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

One day before its galactic release, the review embargo for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker has expired and the news is not so great. The ninth chapter of the ginormous franchise sits at 59% on Rotten Tomatoes. For all the talk about the mixed reaction to predecessor The Last Jedi in 2017, its RT score was 91%. Even last year’s mostly disregarded spin-off Solo: A Star Wars Story managed 70%.

So… what does that mean for Oscar attention? Well, any remote possibility of Skywalker playing in top line categories like Picture is gone. Yet possibilities for tech nods remain intact. When counting the eight official episodes and spin-offs Rogue One and Solo, the series as a whole has gathered 34 total nominations and won seven. Six of them went to the 1977 original with another for 1980’s sequel The Empire Strikes Back. That’s right… it’s been almost 40 years since a Star Wars pic has nabbed a competitive gold statue. And I don’t expect that streak to end here.

In this currently trilogy, 2015’s The Force Awakens received five nominations: Score for the legendary John Williams, Visual Effects, Editing, and both Sound categories. The Last Jedi got the same nods minus Editing. I anticipate Skywalker will probably be recognized for the same four as Jedi and win none. Interestingly, there’s a solid chance it loses three of them (Score and the Sounds) to 1917. As for Visual Effects, that could go to The Irishman or another epic Disney franchise finale Avengers: Endgame. 

My Oscar Watch posts will continue…

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker Box Office Prediction

Blogger’s Note (12/19): Hours before its opening, I am revising my estimate down from $206.4M to $191.4M

The ninth episode in the galaxy is not far, far away as Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker arrives in a theater near you next weekend. Capping the third trilogy of the landmark franchise, the film finds J.J. Abrams returning to the director’s chair after Rian Johnson (currently having his own box office hit with Knives Out) handled duties on previous entry The Last Jedi in 2017. The familiar faces introduced four years ago in The Force Awakens return with Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, John Boyega, and Oscar Isaac headlining. Stars from the original trilogy are back including Carrie Fisher (via unreleased footage from previous efforts), Mark Hamill, Anthony Daniels, and two cast members making their respective first appearances since 1983’s Return of the Jedi and 2005’s Revenge of the Sith – Billy Dee Williams as Lando Calrissian and Ian McDiarmid as Palpatine. Other notable performers returning include Domhnall Gleeson, Lupita Nyong’o, and Kelly Marie Tran. Newcomers to the series are Naomi Ackie, Keri Russell, and Richard E. Grant.

Disney took over the reigns of George Lucas’s creation a few years back and the results have been billions more into the Mouse Factory’s considerable coffers. That said, the last two years have shown some chinks in the once impenetrable armor. The aforementioned Last Jedi divided audiences and critics and came in $300 million under Awakens. A few months later in May of 2018, prequel and spinoff Solo: A Star Wars Story was the first picture in the series that was a genuine disappointment and actually lost money.

In Star Wars world, “disappointing” numbers are relative. The Last Jedi took in $220 million for its start on this same weekend two years ago, ending its run at $620 million domestically (that’s still good for #9 all-time). Yet, as mentioned, that’s considerably below the $936 million that Awakens achieved. It continues to stand at #1 overall in terms of stateside dollars.

Estimates for Skywalker show a pretty wide range. Some are as low as $175 million. Only in this franchise and the Marvel Cinematic Universe would that number be called low. Despite the mixed Jedi reaction and Solo grosses, I have a hard time buying that this last entry of the trilogy could come in with $45 million less than its predecessor.

The more reasonable anticipation is that this manages to top $200 million. There is certainly more serious family competition than Last Jedi had with Jumanji: The Next Level being in its second frame (it was the inverse in 2017 with predecessor Welcome to the Jungle arriving the week after Jedi).

My projection here gives Skywalker the seventh biggest debut ever, in between MCU titles The Avengers and Black Panther. 

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker opening weekend prediction: $191.4 million

For my Cats prediction, click here:

https://toddmthatcher.com/2019/12/11/cats-box-office-prediction/

For my Bombshell prediction, click here:

https://toddmthatcher.com/2019/12/11/bombshell-box-office-prediction/

The Kitchen Box Office Prediction

Melissa McCarthy and Tiffany Haddish go out of their comedic comfort zones next weekend with the release of The Kitchen. The crime thriller casts the two performers alongside Elisabeth Moss as the wives of incarcerated gangsters who take over Mob operations in New York. The late 70s set pic marks the directorial debut of Andrea Berloff and is based on a comic book miniseries. Costars include Domhnall Gleeson, James Badge Dale, Brian d’Arcy James, Margo Martindale, Common, and Bill Camp.

If McCarthy and Haddish were headlining a high profile slapstick comedy, my estimate for The Kitchen would likely be considerably more (easily double). However, I’m skeptical that a wide audience is eager to see them in this. If solid reviews pop up in the coming days, that could potentially change the dynamic a bit. I think it’s going to have difficulty reaching double digits.

The Kitchen opening weekend prediction: $8.3 million

For my Dora and the Lost City of Gold prediction, click here:

https://toddmthatcher.com/2019/07/31/dora-and-the-lost-city-of-gold-box-office-prediction/

For my Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark prediction, click here:

https://toddmthatcher.com/2019/07/31/scary-stories-to-tell-in-the-dark-box-office-prediction/

For my The Art of Racing in the Rain prediction, click here:

https://toddmthatcher.com/2019/07/31/the-art-of-racing-in-the-rain-box-office-prediction/

For my Brian Banks prediction, click here:

https://toddmthatcher.com/2019/08/04/brian-banks-box-office-prediction/

The Little Stranger Box Office Prediction

Debuting this weekend in theaters is the gothic horror tale The Little Stranger, based on a 2009 novel by Sarah Waters. The pic is director Lenny Abrahamson’s follow-up to his Oscar nominated Room. The cast includes Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson, Will Poulter, and Charlotte Rampling.

Stranger rolls out on a rather low 475 screens over the long holiday weekend. That severely limits its prospects at the box office. I’ll estimate of the five new releases this weekend, this will place fourth just ahead of Ya Veremos.

The Little Stranger opening weekend prediction: $2.6 million

For my Operation Finale prediction, click here:

https://toddmthatcher.com/2018/08/21/operation-finale-box-office-prediction/

For my Searching prediction, click here:

https://toddmthatcher.com/2018/08/14/searching-box-office-prediction/

For my Kin prediction, click here:

https://toddmthatcher.com/2018/08/21/kin-box-office-prediction/

For my Ya Veremos prediction, click here:

https://toddmthatcher.com/2018/08/27/ya-veremos-box-office-prediction/

A Futile and Stupid Gesture Movie Review

David Wain’s A Futile and Stupid Gesture centers on a Golden Age of comedy while attempting to tell a conventional biopic story line somewhat unconventionally. At times, it succeeds. In others, it strains itself. The overall effect is a retelling of moments that led millions of us to some of our biggest laughs in print and onscreen, even if the humor here is hit or miss.

The film’s central figure is Doug Kenney (Will Forte) of Chagrin Falls, Ohio (as he constantly reminds us). He grew up in that affluent Ohio suburban setting in the 1950s with uppity parents and a family tragedy that seems to inform his feeling of self-worth. However, he’s got one whip smart sense of humor and it translates to his time at Harvard. He partners with fellow humorist – the ironically pipe smoking Henry Beard (Domhnall Gleeson) and they excel at producing the “Lampoon”, the university’s premier comedy publication. While this Ivy League duo could pretty much get any job, Doug convinces Henry to expand the magazine nationally. Hence the “National Lampoon” and the treasure trove of history that follows.

Kenney and Beard’s venture turns out to be a runaway success that provides a platform for brilliant writers such as Michael O’Donoghue and P.J. O’Rourke and performers Chevy Chase, Gilda Radner, John Belushi, and Bill Murray to shine. It’s obvious to say that “Saturday Night Live” never would have existed without Kenney and Beard and that’s acknowledged here. Some of these later famous faces are given seconds of screen time and others considerably more. In a movie about the advent of ironic comedy in many respects, there’s some casting irony here. Joel McHale is Chevy Chase, an actor who dealt with the well-documented difficult nature of Chevy himself on the set of “Community”. Martin Mull is the narrator of Gesture as the older man who Kenney himself never became. The screenplay gleefully acknowledges the many clichés that come with making a biopic. The drug use, strained romantic relationships, and family drama are presented here, but with a winking eye.

The picture often plays like a greatest hits of Kenney’s accomplishments. His contributions to the big screen were short but monumental with National Lampoon’s Animal House and Caddyshack. The screenplay doesn’t linger long on either and perhaps it could have benefited with more minutes spent on the party atmosphere of the former and the coke fueled chaos of the latter.

A Futile and Stupid Gesture is clearly made by a team who reveres its central subject. It doesn’t delve too far into Kenney’s considerable issues in an attempt to keep the tone fairly light. Yet it also doesn’t fully enjoy the opportunities to spend time with these young upstarts who would become comedy legends. That creates a sometimes unwieldy mix. Forte certainly impresses in the lead and there’s a few memorable supporting turns, including Matt Walsh as the magazine’s beleaguered financier and Ed Helms in a brief, but devastatingly biting scene as interviewer Tom Snyder.

There are segments of Gesture that remind us to thank our lucky stars for the existence of the people chronicled here. It doesn’t fully succeed as a stand-alone movie that ironically apes the biopic genre that it finds itself in, though it tries hard. In fact, it sometimes tries a little too hard to be ironic. The makers of the “Lampoon” shown here probably would have known how to make it a little funnier and let the serious moments be a tad more subtly rewarding.

**1/2 (out of four)