Friday Flicks December 20: “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” & “Bombshell”

M.V. MoorheadDecember 20, 2019
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Opening wide this weekend:

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker—Final thirds of trilogies of trilogies don’t come along every day. Yet, here we are marking the last chapter of the nine-movie Star Wars cycle that began in 1977, and it feels, to me at least, if not a non-event, then just another blockbuster movie. In the film, the heroes visit a festival on a planet that, C-3PO tells us, is only celebrated “every 42 years.” But I haven’t had much similar feeling of grand occasion about the 42-year anniversary this movie represents.

This may be because, at this point, the Star Wars franchise is so embedded in our culture that there’s no sense of it ever really going away; prequels and spinoffs and TV shows can and likely will continue for decades to come. But maybe it’s also because Star Wars, by remaining so inviolate in its look, in its onscreen conventions and in its actors, has never been “rebooted” like the Marvel movies or Star Trek or the other big sci-fi fantasy series it made possible. And thus it’s come to seem a little quaint, old-fashioned, something for hardcore older fans to squabble over while younger moviegoers mutter “OK Boomer” under their breath.

Or maybe my perception is completely wrong on this, and the movie-going world has been trembling with anticipation for this day. In any case, it’s quite an enjoyable movie.

Turns out Emperor Palpantine (good old nasty, raspy Ian McDiarmid) is not quite dead after all, and he has diabolical plans for Skywalker-gone-bad Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and warrior woman Rey (Daisy Ridley). Soon the ragtag band of heroes — reformed Stormtrooper John Boyega; hotshot pilot Oscar Isaac, Chewie (Joonas Suotamo) and chic warrior Naomi Ackie etc etc — are searching for the Emperor’s lair, or rather for some McGuffin that will lead them to his lair.

This leads them across multiple worlds, and I appreciated how director J.J. Abrams and the filmmakers tried to create some new planetary looks. There’s a sort of Pacific Northwest beach planet where the gang visits the wreckage of the Death Star, and another stop that looks like a medieval village in winter.

The spectacle is splendid and the actors agreeable; top-billed Carrie Fisher lends her potent presence via previously unused footage, and other cast members from the earliest films turn up. The dialogue hits with a thud now and then, but that’s true throughout the series. The episodic set pieces are, in their way, as important as the overarching saga; my own favorite here, I think, was the encounter with a giant cotton-mouthed sand snake. And as is true these days of almost any mythic tale, especially any involving corrupt hatemongering villains, it’s hard to shake a vague sense of allegory for our troubled times.

On that note…

Bombshell—No bloated alien monster in the history of the Star Wars series was ever quite as grotesque and repellent as Fox News honcho Roger Ailes, played here by John Lithgow. He even mentions being referred to as “Jabba the Hutt” at one point. It’s to the great actor’s credit that, as usual, he gives us a glimpse of the defiantly miserable human under the blanket of moral rot. Ailes, who died in 2017, less than a year after stepping down as CEO of Fox, is alleged to have sexually harassed numerous women over his long career.

Charlize Theron plays Megyn Kelly, watching from the sidelines as her fellow on-air talent Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) is fired for defying Ailes, and retaliates with a lawsuit. Both stars are terrific; Kidman with her frazzled former-beauty-queen dignity, and Theron capturing Kelly’s deep, companionable, one-of-the-boys tones superbly. There are third and fourth blondes, too; Margot Robbie plays a “composite” character representing the CEO’s typical target, and Robbie and coworker Kate McKinnon make, improbably, one of the cuter movie couples of the year.

Directed by Jay Roach of the Austin Powers flicks and featuring a huge cast including Malcolm McDowell as Rupert Murdoch, Allison Janney as Susan Estrich and Richard Kind as Rudy Giuliani, the film is fast-moving, funny and snarky, something in the manner of 2015’s The Big Short. The scenes dramatizing the encounters between Ailes and his victims are hard to watch, pathetic and squalid and infuriating, and of course necessary for the film to have any validity, and there’s an undeniable pleasure in seeing him (sort of) defeated.

But if Bombshell doesn’t score a direct emotional hit, it may be for an unfair partisan reason: Harassment happens everywhere, of course, regardless of political ideology or sexual preference, but considering the stated values of the place these women worked, well, what did they expect? “I’d love to be slut-shamed,” remarks an office drudge in this film; that’s probably an accurate representation of the mindset of many women in that sort of environment, and also, alas, a longtime justification for the men around them.