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…

Spies in Disguise Box Office Prediction

Opening on Christmas Day, Will Smith and Tom Holland lend their vocal stylings to the animated comedy Spies in Disguise. The pic comes from Blue Sky Studios, who have successfully distributed the Ice Age and Rio franchises. Nick Bruno and Troy Quane make their directorial debuts and supporting mic work comes from Rashida Jones, Ben Mendelsohn, Reba McEntire, Rachel Brosnahan, Karen Gillan, and DJ KHALED!!! (I think I’m contractually obliged to type his name in caps with exclamation points).

Blue Sky’s previous effort was two years ago and it also opened over the holiday season. Ferdinand dared to debut directly against Star Wars: The Last Jedi and managed a $13.4 million opening (lower than the studio is accustomed to). In 2019, competition for Spies is equally fierce. The Rise of Skywalker will be in its second weekend while Jumanji: The Next Level should still be raking in cash in its third frame.

The star power should help a bit and so should the fact that there’s plenty of money to be spent by family audiences over its five-day release. I’ll say a gross in the low to mid teens for Friday to Sunday and that should be matched by a roughly equal amount on Wednesday and Thursday.

Spies in Disguise opening weekend prediction: $13.6 million (Friday to Sunday); $27.4 million (Wednesday to Sunday)

For my Little Women prediction, click here:

https://toddmthatcher.com/2019/12/17/little-women-box-office-prediction/

For my Uncut Gems prediction, click here:

https://toddmthatcher.com/2019/12/22/uncut-gems-box-office-prediction/

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/

Jumanji: The Next Level Box Office Prediction

One of the biggest box office successes of 2017 was that of Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, the reboot of the 1995 Robin Williams family adventure. Considered to be a bit of a gamble at the time, Jungle ended up developing amazing legs at multiplexes and grossing just over $400 million domestically. In doing so, it edged out Spider-Man as Sony’s highest grossing stateside effort.

The inevitable sequel finds Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Jack Black, Karen Gillan, Nick Jonas, Alex Wolff, Morgan Turner, Se’Darious Blain, and Madison Iseman reprising their roles. Newcomers to the game include Danny DeVito, Danny Glover, and Awkwafina. Jake Kasdan returns to the director’s chair.

Before Jungle went on its moneymaking run, it opened at #2 to the sophomore frame of Star Wars: The Last Jedi. It opened over the long Christmas frame two years ago on a Wednesday, earning $36 million over the traditional Friday to Sunday portion with a six-day holiday haul of nearly $72 million.

In 2019, The Next Level gets the jump on Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker by a week. And while this hopes to develop minor week to week drops like its predecessor, the sequel looks to make more than mid to high 30s out of the gate for the regular weekend.

Some estimates put this at around $40 million while others have it inching towards $50 million or possibly a bit more. I’ll say a gross in the high 40s is my range as this hopes for positive word-of-mouth and smooth sailing ahead like Jungle before it.

Jumanji: The Next Level opening weekend prediction: $48.7 million

For my Black Christmas prediction, click here:

https://toddmthatcher.com/2019/12/05/black-christmas-box-office-prediction/

For my Richard Jewell prediction, click here:

https://toddmthatcher.com/2019/12/06/richard-jewell-box-office-prediction/

Knives Out Box Office Prediction

In his first feature since dividing audiences and critics with Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Rian Johnson has come up with a comedic whodunit in Knives Out. The pic debuted at the Toronto Film Festival back in September and critics have pointed it out as a winner. Its Rotten Tomatoes score is 97%. Daniel Craig leads a cast of familiar faces including Chris Evans, Ana de Armas, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, Lakeith Stanfield, Jaeden Martell, and Christopher Plummer.

Rolling out over the long Thanksgiving holiday (with previews scheduled for this Friday to build anticipated word of mouth as an audience pleaser), Knives hopes to generate a #2 debut behind the second weekend of Frozen II. It will likely compete with the sophomore frame of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood and perhaps Ford v Ferrari for that distinction.

I believe this should serve as a solid option for adults over the Turkey Day period. A start in the mid to high teens for the traditional Friday to Sunday portion and mid 20s for the five-day looks probable. That doesn’t get it near the $28 million earned two years ago in November by Murder on the Orient Express. However, if moviegoers enjoy what they see, Knives should succeed in avoiding sharp declines in the weekends ahead.

Knives Out opening weekend prediction: $18.5 million (Friday to Sunday); $27.7 million (Wednesday to Sunday)

For my Queen & Slim prediction, click here:

https://toddmthatcher.com/2019/11/21/queen-slim-box-office-prediction/

Oscar Watch: Knives Out

Good old fashioned whodunnits are rare on the silver screen, but Rian Johnson has one on deck with Knives Out. It’s premiered in Toronto and early reaction indicates a major crowd favorite that has killer box office potential. The Looper and Star Wars: The Last Jedi maker has apparently fashioned a laugh out loud comedy that makes fine use of its all-star cast led by Daniel Craig. We also have Chris Evans, Ana de Armas, Jamie Lee Curtis, Toni Collette, Don Johnson, Michael Shannon, Lakeith Stanfield, and Christopher Plummer onboard.

So when it comes to this genre, will Knives follow in the path of Robert Altman’s Gosford Park (multiple nominations) or Kenneth Branagh’s 2017 version of Murder on the Orient Express (nada). The likelihood is that nods in the major categories could be elusive even if it strikes a chord with crowds. The best hope could be with Johnson’s original screenplay or supporting turns that have been singled out, like Evans and especially de Armas.

The better bet is a nomination for Production Design, which has been praised in every write up I’ve scanned. Bottom line: Knives Out has announced itself as a probable hit and there’s at least a chance that Academy voters could notice. My Oscar Watch posts will continue…

Solo: A Star Wars Letdown

There aren’t a whole lot of films that could open to over $100 million at the box office and legitimately be considered a major disappointment. Those pictures generally belong in the Marvel Cinematic Universe or other massive franchises. For instance, if next month’s Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom only makes that figure, that would be bad news for Universal Pictures and the series long-term viability.

Of course, there is no franchise bigger than that of Star Wars. Spanning over four decades and now on its 10th feature, there had yet to be a true example of an entry coming in well below expectations. Until now. Solo: A Star Wars Story, just a week ago or so, was projected to set the Memorial Day weekend record by outpacing the $139 million earned in 2007 by another Disney property, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End.

It didn’t. Like… at all. The current four-day estimate (final numbers tomorrow) puts Solo at $103 million. I had pegged it at $151 million. Oops. That actually puts it at just #7 as far as the holiday goes. That’s not only behind Pirates, but after Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, XMen: The Last Stand, Fast & Furious 6, XMen: Days of Future Past, and even The Hangover Part II. Ouch.

So the natural question… why? Predicting where the money earned by moviegoers at the box office is a tricky proposition… I try to estimate it every week. Sometimes I’m great at it and sometimes not (this would obviously be a case of the latter). Solo is the second stand-alone effort in the franchise behind 2016’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. While they’re not expected to make the coin that the official episodes take in, Rogue debuted to $155 million in three days just a year and a half ago.

This latest entry focuses on an iconic character that has more name recognition than all the people (with a notable exception or two) in Rogue One put together. Sure there’s backlash about an actor other than Harrison Ford playing him, but that wasn’t expected to spark a hugely worrisome backlash as far as box office numbers.

Could it be the reviews? That might be a bit of it. Solo stands at 70% on Rotten Tomatoes and that’s low for this franchise. Yet that rating isn’t terrible or anything. My own review used the word ambivalent for my overall reaction to it:

https://toddmthatcher.com/2018/05/27/solo-a-star-wars-story-movie-review/

And therein could lie the true key. Looking over the lengthy history of the series, Star Wars films have truly been Event Pictures. Ones that are breathlessly awaited and spawn endless speculation prior to their releases. The original trilogy saw three-year gaps between releases. It was then 16 years before the second and considerably less regarded trilogy arrived and they also saw three-year waits between servings. Those like me that remember the buildup to 1999’s The Phantom Menace (no matter how much it disappointed upon release) would argue it rivaled and probably exceeded that of The Force Awakens in 2015.

Since Disney took over the release reigns, we have been guaranteed a Star Wars pic a year. That tremendously dilutes the Event Picture status. Rogue One had the benefit of arriving a year after Force Awakens set every box office record. The Last Jedi didn’t match the grosses of Awakens… to the tune of $316 million less. That said, its $620 million haul is nothing to be too worried about.

Solo arriving only five months later and with so-so buzz left it as the least anticipated Star Wars experience to date. The barely nine figure gross out of the gate showed that audiences were a bit ambivalent about it.

Will that cause the Mouse Factory to rethink the release date pattern? It’s probably a good thing that Episode IX won’t be out until December 2019. The official episodes, by the way, will always have an anticipation factor that the stand-alone variety will not. And Disney might want to consider making those side projects feel a little more special or that ambivalence might continue to grow.

Solo: A Star Wars Story Movie Review

I have an ambivalent feeling about this. And there I am with Solo: A Star Wars Story, which is competently directed and acted, has the impressive battle scenes you expect in this franchise, and manages to be underwhelming at the same time. It is the first occurrence of Disney’s resurgence of the forty-year plus series seeming inconsequential, a feeling that didn’t permeate Rogue One (2016’s first stand-alone entry in the galaxy far far away).

Here is a franchise, more than any other, that elicits strong emotions from its legions of fans both positively and negatively. After all, the original episodes IV-VI trilogy has inspired generations of filmmakers and other blockbusters. Episode I-III sparked a backlash where its multitude of detractors still foam at the mouth speaking of it. Even last year’s The Last Jedi had vigorous supporters and naysayers extolling its virtues or pitfalls.

Solo shouldn’t be picked part in that manner. Oh, it probably will. Yet my reaction is it doesn’t really deserve that much scrutiny. This is basically a breezy heist flick transplanted into a familiar cinematic universe. The backlash of casting a younger actor to fill the shoes of a role Harrison Ford made iconic? It’s not a disaster by any means, but Alden Ehrenreich isn’t memorable either. No surprise but when you hear the words Han Solo after viewing this, you’ll think of the older one with fondness.

The picture shows us a youthful Han wishing to become a pilot and willing to team up with unsavory characters to do so. He has an insubordinate streak that naturally rejects the evil ways of the Empire, but he hardly considers himself a hero. We know better. The love of his current life is Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke), who he’s separated from and makes a vow to rescue from Imperial servitude from villainous Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany). Han needs a ship to make that happen and that costs money. His mission leads him to partner with thief Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson) and his crew. Oh and there’s a notable Wookie involved and a swagger filled Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover). And that ship he finds… like you don’t know…

Han’s journeys take him to multiple galaxies with a second half that feels like one continuous action sequence. There are, of course, nods to the franchise lore. Solo, though, feels the most removed from everything we’ve seen before. If it often has the vibe of a cash grab to fill time between traditional episodes, that’s because it kind of is. Ron Howard took over the behind the camera duties after the well-publicized removal of Christopher Miller and Phil Lord months into production. I didn’t have a strange sense of competing visions while viewing it. If anything, Howard certainly seems like the filmmaker here with its workmanlike sensibilities and lack of genuine style.

The cast is filled with familiar faces putting in serviceable performances. Glover gets a couple of moments to shine, but my favorite supporting work came from the more unfamiliar Phoebe Waller-Bridge as the voice of sassy droid L3. Bettany is a decent villain in a series with previous monumental ones. As mentioned, the conventions of the heist genre are all present with double crosses aplenty.

The Star Wars series is one in which the fans rarely forget a detail. Solo: A Star Wars Story is ultimately rather forgettable. Sure it’s an easy watch, but focusing deeply on it seems like giving it too much credit.

**1/2 (out of four)

Oscar Watch – Solo: A Star Wars Story

Since Disney took over the Star Wars franchise, the three released pictures have combined for 11 Oscar nominations in the past three ceremonies. Let’s break them down, shall we?

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

Nominations: Original Score, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Film Editing, Visual Effects

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)

Nominations: Sound Mixing, Visual Effects

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)

Nominations: Original Score, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Visual Effects

You will note 11 nods, but no wins for the multi-billion dollar series and that all recognition has been in technical races. This Memorial Day weekend, Solo: A Star Wars Story flies into theaters. So the question must be asked: will it manage to score some Academy love as well?

Solo has the lowest Rotten Tomatoes rating (71%) of the bunch. That could serve as a hindrance for even tech nods, especially with MCU heavy hitters like Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War in the mix, among others.

Perhaps it could play in the Sound races and perhaps Visual Effects, but competition could potentially leave Solo as the solo entry in the franchise with no Oscar attention.

My Oscar Watch posts will continue…