In the year of our Ford 2019, trying to make sense of people’s wildly divergent Star Wars opinions opens up a murky frontier of epistemological questions that Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, in theaters now, only complicates all the more. Epistemology concerns the nature of knowledge and justified belief. I believe that people believe what they believe when they share their Star Wars opinions but I often wonder how they acquired those opinions in the first place. There’s a precedent for Jedi mind tricks in the Star Wars universe and it leaves me questioning whether some opinions were planted in people’s minds, Kenobi-style, or whether they were genuine reactions that people formed on their own. Like, “Hey, have you Change.org petitioners perchance been inceptioned by the Kremlin?” Or, “Hmm. You journos been getting all chummy with Rian Johnson, listening to him sing subliminal karaoke at film festival bars?”
Discussing Disney’s sequel Star Wars trilogy online is like venturing into a mad minefield decorated with the same bad blood as George Lucas’s prequel trilogy. As the young Lando Calrissian tells us in his Grammy-winning music video: this is America. When J.J. Abrams stepped back into the director’s chair for The Rise of Skywalker, there was always the lingering fear that a big ol’ landmine was planted right under that chair, just waiting to detonate. In 2015, Abrams rescued the franchise, restoring its cultural clout with the $2 billion success of The Force Awakens. Now, he’s essentially trying to re-rescue the franchise from a re-polluted water cooler. This translates visually when The Rise of Skywalker introduces an ocean moon that’s polluted with the wreckage of the second Death Star.
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Within the war movie genre, the American Civil War hasn’t beget as many classics as World War II or Vietnam. One indisputable classic, however, is Glory, the powerful 1989 film based on a true story about one of the first all-black volunteer regiments in the Union Army. Denzel Washington won his first Oscar for this movie. You may recall the scene where his character, Trip — the defiant slave turned soldier turned AWOL shoe-hunter — tries to keep a stiff upper lip but starts leaking tears as he’s whipped across his back, which already bears the scars of a runaway slave.
This year, at an AFI tribute to Washington, Michael B. Jordan cited those scars as the inspiration for Killmonger’s in Black Panther. Glory is a film where a similar transference of legacy can be felt in the actors’ performances. Bolstered by one of the all-time great film scores (composed by the late James Horner and featuring the Harlem Boys Choir), it’s a movie that seeks to pass the generational torch, putting viewers in touch with the past so that its forgotten sacrifices can help light the way forward to a better tomorrow for all.
Seeing “Old Glory,” the flag, wave in Glory, the film, as Americans fight other Americans on the battlefield at Antietam Creek certainly hits close to home in 2019, when the country feels less united than ever, up a different kind of creek. With HBO’s Watchmen having recently drawn attention to the Tulsa Race Massacre, Glory offers another indelible screen depiction of an important episode in American history. Rewatching it on its thirtieth anniversary, here at the tail end of the 2010s, is an emotional experience: at once humbling and cathartic and inspiring all over again.
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Studio Ghibli fans, mark your calendars for two weeks from today. On Tuesday, December 17, 2019, the beloved Japanese animation studio will finally release its complete library of films on digital home media in the U.S. and Canada. Ghibli’s North American distributor, GKIDS, has announced through a press release that the studio’s entire catalogue will be available to download for the very first time on all major transactional platforms, including Apple TV, Amazon VOD, Vudu, Google Play, Sony, Microsoft, and Fandango Now.
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R2-D2 may not always fare well on stage in Tokyo, but Kylo Ren does. While the U.S. was celebrating Thanksgiving this last Thursday, Japan’s capital was celebrating Star Wars with a kabuki stage play. The special one-night performance adapted parts of The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi in the style of Japanese kabuki theater. If you weren’t there, not to worry: Disney livestreamed the event and it’s now online where anyone can watch it.
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(Welcome to The Unpopular Opinion, a series where a writer goes to the defense of a much-maligned film or sets their sights on a movie seemingly beloved by all. In this edition: The Irishman is a regression on multiple fronts for director Martin Scorsese.)
In ancient Egypt, pharaohs would be entombed with everything they needed for the next life: all their treasures and their mummified cats and even their living servants. This was before someone had the bright idea that you could just make lifelike models of the servants and not have to bury people alive. Obviously, in this case, the models weren’t CG … but you get the point. The Irishman sees Martin Scorsese, our greatest living filmmaker — the Ramses II of cinema — nesting below his pyramid, snug in his bed of mob movie hits. At this point, Scorsese has nothing left to prove. He’s made his masterpieces. We can look on his mighty works, and rejoice.
In this one instance, I will not rejoice, because— like Peter Griffin assessing The Godfather — “I did not care for” The Irishman.
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Martin Scorsese’s sprawling new mob epic, The Irishman, opens with a tracking shot through a nursing home. We’re a long way from the Copacabana in Goodfellas, but that nightclub, too, makes an appearance later, and the shot in question here is still soundtracked by a golden oldie. “In the Still of the Night” takes the place of “Then He Kissed Me.” The camera glides past senior citizens with cane walkers to a place where a white-haired old man in tinted glasses sits, looking like a shadow of his former Casino self.
Scorsese’s nine-time feature film collaborator, Robert De Niro, plays Frank Sheeran, a war veteran turned trucker turned labor union official turned nostalgic wheelchair occupant who paints himself as a Mafia assassin in flashbacks. That’s not the only “painting” we’ll see him do, either. “When I was young, I thought house painters painted houses,” Sheeran says at the top of his voiceover. Hearing these words in this context, it’s not hard to think of Henry Hill in Goodfellas, narrating, “As far back as I can remember, I wanted to be a gangster.” In Sheeran’s world, it turns out painting houses entails splattering their walls red with people’s blood.
Without delving into spoilers beyond the opening shot, it’s enough to say that cinephiles versed in the visual language of Scorsese’s films will be able to pinpoint many such callbacks when The Irishman hits Netflix on November 27 (it’s playing in limited theatrical release right now). Among other things, the movie serves as the summation of cinema’s greatest director-and-actor collaboration. Critics have described it in almost oxymoronic terms, calling it “a bold and shattering epic of old age.” Beyond the hype lies a film about human frailty, with one foot in the grave and one foot in the almighty past.
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Stephen King fans, if you haven’t been keeping up with Castle Rock this season, now might be a good time to do an emergency binge-watch. Like The Leftovers, Hulu‘s streaming series — which is set in the ever-expanding King multiverse — may have alienated some viewers in its first season, even as it managed to serve up episodes of great television like the Sissy Spacek showcase, “The Queen.” In the age of crowd-sourced show-solving, however, having some viewers fall away may have actually primed Castle Rock to do what The Leftovers did and get better and more wildly unpredictable in its second season.
So much of the buzz, these past few weeks, has been circling around HBO’s Watchmen that it feels like Castle Rock has been operating under the radar. The two shows premiered the same week in late October and have been progressing on parallel tracks. Both of them remix pop culture behemoths and they scratch the same itch for twist-filled, character-focused, mythology-rich TV (Watchmen‘s showrunner, Damon Lindelof, also co-created The Leftovers). Yet Castle Rock has been overshadowed at the water cooler by its sexier superhero cousin.
This week, showrunners Sam Shaw and Dustin Thomason took advantage of that by springing a whopper of a revelation on their unsuspecting audience. In season 2, episode 7, “The Word,” Castle Rock blew the lid open on its own secrets, offering up the juiciest twist yet in a season full of them. It goes without saying that we are about to enter that camper in the woods, with the chamber known as the Filter, where the Voice of God whispers heavy spoilers.
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Netflix’s Earthquake Bird, which hit the streaming service last Friday, uses expat life in Tokyo as the backdrop for a murder mystery. Scored by Atticus Ross, the film stars Alicia Vikander, Riley Keough, Jack Huston, and Japanese actors Naoki Kobayashi and Kiki Sukezana—the latter of whom recently played the central antagonist in AMC’s The Terror: Infamy. Ridley Scott also serves as a co-producer here, as he did with that series.
There’s a long line of Hollywood movies set in Japan, many of which betray a decidedly ethnocentric perspective. When we first meet Vikander’s character, she’s working as a translator, doing subtitles for Scott’s 1989 yakuza thriller, Black Rain. As a Netflix film, Earthquake Bird comes on the heels of last year’s The Outsider, another such thriller that cast everyone’s least favorite Joker, Jared Leto, in the role of an unlikely yakuza enforcer. In contrast to that movie’s hollow posturing, Earthquake Bird is much more grounded in some semblance of recognizable reality. It isn’t a perfect film, but parts of it ring truer than the typical “gaijin in Tokyo” flick, because it was made with an eye toward authenticity by a director who lived in Japan and an actress who committed herself to learning Japanese.
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Netflix’s The King is a reverse Hobbit: instead of adapting one book into three movies, it adapts three plays into one film. Shorn of Shakespearean dialogue, this loose retelling of Henry IV, Parts 1 & 2 and Henry V gets by on character and plot. Timothée Chalamet brings a brooding intensity to the Henry V role, which sees him following in the footsteps of classically trained luminaries like Sir Laurence Olivier and Sir Kenneth Branagh. That he can hold his own as a screen presence, even in comparison to thespians such as those, bodes well for his starring role in next year’s Dune.
The King also reunites director David Michôd with Joel Edgerton and Ben Mendolsohn, two actors who broke out internationally after appearing in Michôd’s 2010 Australian crime drama, Animal Kingdom. Edgerton serves as Michôd’s co-writer here, just as he did for the 2014 dystopian outback Western, The Rover, starring Guy Pearce. Michôd brings back Robert Pattinson from that movie; like Chalamet, Pattinson is no stranger to heartthrob status, and he’s set to headline a future tentpole (just a little movie called The Batman).
The King arrives in a post-Game of Thrones landscape where at-home audiences have become inured to watching court intrigue play out in medieval settings. Yet its source material predates Game of Thrones by centuries. Writer George R.R. Martin drew from the same period of history as Shakespeare’s Henriad, the cycle of plays that this movie partially adapts. Among other things, The King depicts the muddy hell of the Battle of Agincourt, the original inspiration for the Battle of the Bastards. This may not be Westeros, but war is still bloody and mud underfoot is an apt symbol for the innocence-to-experience arc that Chalamet’s conflicted prince undergoes as he dons his father’s crown and enters the moral quagmire of adulthood.
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Last year, when showrunner Damon Lindelof posted a letter to Instagram about his upcoming Watchmen series for HBO, he classified it as a “remix.” On the one hand, this was good news for fans who were trepidatious about seeing the greatest comic book story of all time receive another direct sequel or adaptation. On the other hand, remixes already dominate the dance floor in Hollywood. When creators and critics use that word now, it either feels like industry code for a thinly disguised remake (amid all the other official remakes that are currently flooding the market), or it feels like a pejorative term for the repackaged greatest hits of a beloved IP.
By way of an example, this very week, we’ve got a new Terminator movie hitting theaters, which reviewers have likened to The Force Awakens of the franchise. However, if the first two episodes are any indication, that’s not what Lindelof’s Watchmen remix is. Instead, what it looks to be is a fascinating re-contextualization: a show that sets us down on familiar ground but updates it and makes it feel different enough that its echoes of Watchmen and other past superhero tales lay submerged within a fresh story.
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