SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY (2018)

May 24, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. The second feature film directed by STAR WARS creator George Lucas was AMERICAN GRAFFITI in 1973. It starred a fresh-faced 19 year-old (mostly) TV actor named Ron Howard. Now 45 years later, Mr. Howard directs a prequel in the STAR WARS universe designed to fill in the gaps on the background of the beloved iconic character Han Solo – a role made famous, of course, by Harrison Ford.

Alden Ehrenreich stars as young Han Solo, and like most everything in this film, he is fine. Some will recognize Mr. Ehrenreich from his two starring roles in 2016 – the Coen Brothers 2016 film HAIL, CAESAR! and Warren Beatty’s RULES DON’T APPLY. He was also fine in both of those. His boyish Han Solo is wide-eyed and already sarcastic, though the familiar grizzled cynicism of Ford’s version has yet to emerge.

Since the film’s purpose is to fill in the gaps, here is what we learn (the questions only, no answers provided here):

What did Han do before the Rebellion?

How exactly did he win the (shiny) Millennium Falcon in a card game?

What is the origin of his name?

How did he first become linked with Chewbacca?

How strong are Wookies?

How exactly did he make the Kessel run in less than 12 parsecs?

Each of these questions is answered in the film, and of course will not revealed here

When we first meet Han, he is basically a Juvenile Delinquent plotting an indentured labor escape with his girlfriend Qi’ra (played by Emilia Clarke, who is fine). Qi’ra evolves the most of any character in the film, but it’s still just fine, not surprising or revolutionary. The film starts slowly but there is a minor spark once Han meets rebels Beckett (Woody Harrelson) and Val (Thandie Newton). What follows is an extravagant and jaw-dropping train heist – the kickoff of many set pieces of which the filmmakers are quite proud and eager to show off.

The supporting cast consists of Joonas Suotamo (taking over for Peter Mayhew who is physically unable to play the role) as Chewbacca, rising star Phoebe Waller-Bridge as L3-37, and Paul Bettany as bad guy Dryden Vos. There is also voice work from Jon Favreau and Linda Hunt, and quick but fun scenes with Warwick Davis (STAR WARS regular beginning with 1983 STAR WARS: EPISODE VI: THE RETURN OF THE JEDI) and of course, Ron Howard’s good luck charm, his brother Clint Howard. The real gem of the film is Donald Glover as Lando Calrissian – a less than honorable gambler in the game of Sabacc.

The film is co-written by the father-son team of Jonathan Kasdan and Lawrence Kasdan. Given the pre-production issues – original directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller were let go over “creative differences” – the film stands just fine on its own. The timelines will likely be debated by STAR WARS aficionados, but the fun action sequences and dazzling special effects make it entertaining enough after that slow start.

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POPE FRANCIS: A MAN OF HIS WORD (2018, doc)

May 18, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Director Wim Wenders has had a varied and diverse career dating back 50 years with both narrative and documentary films. He is probably best known for PARIS TEXAS (1984), WINGS OF DESIRE (1987), and PINA (2011). As a filmmaker, he seems to excel at finding a slightly different way of looking at a subject or topic, and because of this, some of his projects are better received than others. This time out he is granted remarkable one-on-one access to Pope Francis, as well as some terrific archival footage obtained from the Vatican.

Jorge Mario Bergoglio from Buenos Aires, Argentina became Pope in 2013, and he chose Francis as his papal name. Director Wenders spends much of the movie making the connection and correlation to his namesake St Francis of Assisi – some 800 years ago. Wenders’ artistic flair comes through in the black and white dramatization sequences, which are meant to send us back to the time of Assisi so we can grasp the parallels.

This is no sales pitch for Catholicism, but rather an introduction to the man, his vision and approach. It seems clear that this “reformer” is what was needed after the ultra-conservative Pope Benedict “retired” (an unprecedented step). Rather than harp on the prior missteps, the film focuses on this most engaging and sincere man who is devoted to the causes of poverty and immigrant rights. He believes we should follow the Law of Nature: we should all live in harmony; and that we are all responsible for the world and community in which we live. Pope Francis tells us of his 3 T’s: terra (land), trabajo (work), and techo (housing), and how those are the foundation of a future named “hope”.

Beyond those elements, this is no sound bite film. It is quite humbling to listen to a man so universal in thought. He has zero tolerance for pedophilia inside the church or out, and he firmly believes in the rewards of listening – yet another dot Wenders tries to connect with St Francis of Assisi. The camera (and hence, us) travels the globe with the Pope – Africa, Brazil, Greece, the United States, Israel and more. So many countries, religions and races are touched. He even symbolically washes the feet of the less fortunate.

There is a good deal of talking head interviews with the Pope himself, and he never shies away from a question … leading us to the single criticism of the film. Wenders, acting here as narrator and facilitator, simply doesn’t push hard enough on some of the difficult topics that could lead to real insight and debate. So we are left to ponder if this wonderful man can mitigate change within a Church that is not much known for it (check out the demographics of the group of Cardinals Francis addresses). Wenders delivers an affectionate glimpse of the man, and we leave with a bit more admiration and hope – not such a bad thing.

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DEADPOOL 2 (2018)

May 16, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. We couldn’t help but ask “why?” when the sequel was announced, even though we knew the answer was money. There was little hope in improving on the first DEADPOOL (2016), and since that film’s director, Tim Miller, was tied up with upcoming projects for X-Men and Terminator, there was understandable concern that changing the recipe could result in huge disappointment. While it may not be an improvement on the first, only those with unrealistic expectations are likely to be disappointed … the rest of us will spend most of two hours laughing and enjoying the spectacle.

Director David Leitch exploded onto the scene with last year’s surprise action hit ATOMIC BLONDE, and his stuntman experience is once again on display with even more frenzied action and fight sequences this time out. As you might expect, there is no easing into the comedy routine here. The Opening Credits are laugh out loud funny and the only thing better may be the closing credits sequence, which is an instant classic.

No punchlines will be spoiled here, and it’s an obvious statement, but clearly no topic or subject, or at least very few, are off-limits. Targets of barbs include LinkedIn, YENTL, FROZEN, Fox & Friends, and well, the list goes on and on. You’ll likely miss 20 percent of the dialogue whilst laughing. The “Merc with a Mouth” (Ryan Reynolds) breaks the 4th wall in atypical fashion – blurring the line through dialogue incorporated into the story. The self-awareness is comical in its own right.

Some familiar faces are back. Wade’s main squeeze Vanessa (Marina Baccarin) kicks off the “kids” discussion (Yikes!) and the couple seems to have settled into cohabitant bliss – never a good sign in a superhero movie. TJ Miller (despite his recent headlines) is back running Sister Margaret’s Bar, though his minimal presence is noted. Also back is Colossus (voiced by Stefan Kapicic), and his expanded role finds him turning Deadpool into an X-Men trainee at Professor Xavier’s School for the gifted. This occurs after tragedy strikes and we are introduced to some new players. Julian Dennison (so good in HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE) plays FireFist, and of course, the arrival of Cable (Josh Brolin) shows us what happens when a time-travelling Terminator type is out for revenge.

Snarking, mocking and irreverence remain in full force throughout, but if you happen to pay attention to the story, you’ll notice a (not-so) subtle transition taking place. The renegade superhero shifts from loner to team player, and even picks up some life lessons along the way – mostly related to loss and collaboration. Deadpool even forms his own team called X-Force, and one of the more interesting members is Domino (Zazie Beetz), whose superpower is luck (yep).  We do get a surprise cameo, and there’s even a shot of Deadpool with no pants … and it’s markedly unsexy. The music selections are inspired, however, if you are unsure whether this movie is for you … it probably isn’t.

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ANYTHING (2018)

May 14, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. If you’ve always wanted to see a movie about “Andy Griffith’s sad brother”, this is the one for you. That’s actually the description one of the characters has for Early, the depressed widower we come to know. Houston-born writer/director Timothy McNeil’s first feature film is adapted from his own stage production. It’s surprisingly intimate and emotional while avoiding many of the clichés we might be braced for, given the subject matter.

John Carroll Lynch (FARGO, ZODIAC) plays Early as a soft-spoken, mild-mannered gentleman from Mississippi. In the immediate aftermath of the tragic death of his wife, Early is dazed. He is sleep-walking through life right up to the point of an attempted suicide. Faced with the choice of a psychiatric hospital or moving cross country to live with family, Early obviously chooses the Brentwood home of his studio executive sister Laurette (Maura Tierney).

Sister Laurette means well, but her controlling persona and determination to “fix” things, leads Early to find his own place. He picks a sketchy apartment complex with ‘eclectic’ neighbors, one of which is Freda (Matt Bomer), a transgender sex worker. Though they appear to be from different planets, she is drawn to his inherent kindness and strength of character, while he is drawn to her vitality and courage. A bond develops.

It’s fascinating to watch the friendship grow, and despite another neighbor, Brianna, (Margot Bingham) calling him “cracker” and do-gooder, it’s clear there is mutual respect amongst the complex residents. When Early invites his family to a dinner party with Freda, awkward and cruel are merely the first adjectives that come to mind. It doesn’t go well, and harsh judgments abound.

Early is a simple man, but Mr. Lynch’s performance ensures he is never a simple character. Mr. Bomer is terrific as Freda, though some will surely protest that a transgender actor was not cast. Plenty of sharp humor accompanies the deep drama, and we are reminded that love is really about the acceptance of others, and finding meaning and connection in life. It’s a small scale film that draws us into the characters, and we find ourselves grasping at hope for each of them.

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OVERBOARD (2018)

May 4, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s interesting that movies and TV sitcoms are fair game when it comes to remakes. We don’t find authors re-writing Hemingway or Fitzgerald. A painter who copies Picasso is labeled a forger. Even when a pianist interprets a Chopin piece, it’s still clearly Chopin. Ahh, but movie remakes are to be accepted as new art – a shiny new creation. Of course, any movie lover worth their salt (is that still an acceptable phrase?) will compare new to old – remake to original. And since first impressions aren’t allowed a do-over, we typically find the remake somewhat lacking.

Director Rob Greenberg and co-writer Bob Fisher simply flip the 1987 original concept from writer Leslie Dixon, where she had Goldie Hawn as the rich heiress and Kurt Russell as the blue collar opportunist. This gender-switch differs from what typically makes headlines these days, and is meant to add a contemporary feel to the story. Anna Faris takes on the role of Kate, a single mom working multiple jobs as she raises 3 daughters while also prepping for the Nursing exam. Mexican movie star Eugenio Derbez (INSTRUCTIONS NOT INCLUDED) may be best known in the U.S. for introducing COCO at this year’s Oscars ceremony, and here he plays Leonardo, a do-nothing playboy heir to a corporate empire. Leo’s typical day is spent on his $60 million birthday yacht enjoying the company of supermodels while mostly ignoring the crew, except when he needs mango or papaya.

Act 1 is the set up where we acknowledge that Leo is a spoiled brat representing the evil one-percenters, and Kate is the good-hearted working class hero we are supposed to root for. Their initial confrontations are poorly handled and soon both have taken the film’s title to heart – she after being pushed by him, and he after conking his head and winding up washed ashore with amnesia. The gist of the story is that Kate conspires to have the concussed Leo act as her husband until he pays her back for her work and she can complete her nursing studies.

The only real interesting things to discuss here are the choices of the filmmakers. Mr. Greenberg is known mostly for TV sitcoms, and it’s quite obvious with how the comedic scenes play out. Admiration and respect go out for allowing much of the film to be bi-lingual (yes, with subtitles), and for taking a risk on the crossover appeal of Mr. Derbez as a leading man. However, what doesn’t work is pretty much everything else. We never buy Faris as a working class mom cold-hearted enough to pull off this scheme. Plus, she is simply not a very good actress and has poor comedic timing throughout the movie. Likeable? Yes. Effective in the role? No.  There is also a weak attempt to comment on the working conditions of manual laborers, and it just falls flat.

Thank goodness for the supporting cast. John Hannah as Colin, the chief of the crew, is far too talented for this production, and shines in his too-few scenes. Eva Longoria plays Kate’s friend Theresa, and her relationship with husband Bobby (a terrific Mel Rodriguez) would have made a far superior movie to what is presented here. There is also a brilliant use of Mexican TV soap operas contrasted with the Norwegian yacht crew watching Leo on the closed-circuit system. Despite these sparks of hope, the film mostly lacks the charm of Kurt and Goldie, although judging from the audience response, many will disagree.

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TULLY (2018)

May 3, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody first collaborated on the filming of her debut script JUNO in 2007. Four years later they made YOUNG ADULT with Charlize Theron, and now all three reunite for this latest tip of the cap to motherhood and self-care. Simpatico is the word that comes to mind here with the perfect lineup of writer, director and actress. The biggest question is how to label it. Some will call it a comedy, while others will proclaim it a serious drama. As with much of life, there is a bit of laughter, a touch of drama, and a dash of most every emotion.

Ms. Theron stars as Marlo, mother of three. There is 8/9 year old daughter Sarah (Lia Frankland), 6 year old son Jonah (Asher Miles Fallica) who lands on the autistic spectrum, and now an unplanned newborn that threatens to rock a family already barely getting through each day. Sarah is a lovely sister and daughter, but the typical adolescent insecurities are magnified by her getting lost in the shuffle due to her two more needy siblings. Jonah gets booted from mainstream kindergarten by a principal who labels him “quirky” … an awkward description people use when they are trying to be polite (even though it’s exactly the opposite).

Ron Livingston plays Marlo’s husband Drew, a traveling businessman who, though a nice guy and loving father, is clueless to the stresses of running the homestead. Also in the mix is Craig (Mark Duplass), Marlo’s brother who is equal parts wealthy and smug. When Craig offers the gift of a night-nanny to Marlo, she is tempted, but her pride gets in the way as she compares herself to the ‘cupcake’ super moms who always seem to have their act together. Ultimately, the relentless pressure and sleep deprivation, bring the young night-nanny Tully (Mackenzie Davis) into the home. She and Marlo hit it off immediately leading Marlo (and us) to question if Tully is too good to be true.

As Tully entrenches herself, it becomes clear that her value is to Marlo more than the baby. The two ladies become friends, and Marlo confesses her fears and insecurities as Tully acts as a life coach encouraging her through some tough moments. Despite the surreal feel to these interactions, Diablo Cody’s dialogue crackles with cynicism and realism. The quips we’ve come to expect from her writing are delivered by her best developed character to date. There is a depth to Marlo, and her exchanges with Tully take us places a teenage JUNO couldn’t possibly.

Charlize Theron proves again that she is truly an elite actress when she commits to a role. Her 50 lb weight game adds the necessary realism, but it’s her emotional teetering that is most impressive. She is like a supermodel who also plays rugby – a rare blend of beauty, talent and skill. Mackenzie Davis is a revelation. She holds her own in every scene and it’s quite interesting to see her free-spirited modern day Mary Poppins with tats.

If a previous movie has dealt with the challenge and stress of motherhood with this level of depth and realism, it doesn’t come to mind. The movie kind of creeps up on you with a message regarding the importance of dealing with lost youth, while also never losing sight of yourself as an individual … all with incisive humor and pulling no punches on being an overwhelmed mom. Just don’t call it quirky.

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THE RIDER (2018)

April 26, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Sometimes the universe creates its own balance. Watching this little independent gem the day before watching the new Avengers movie reinforces what a diverse art form the cinema provides. Writer/director Chloe Zhao continues to make her presence felt as a filmmaker, and movie lovers are the beneficiaries.

While filming her feature film debut SONGS MY BROTHER TAUGHT ME on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota in 2015, Ms. Zhao met Brady Jandreau, a rising young star on the rodeo circuit. She knew a movie was in their future, but it wasn’t until the following year when the story wrote itself. Brady suffered a severe head injury after being bucked by a bronco. He was in a coma for 3 days, and a metal plate was screwed into his skull. Doctors warned Brady that riding a horse again could kill him.

This is not a documentary, but it’s pretty darn close. Brady Jandreau plays Brady Blackburn, a rodeo bronco rider and horse trainer who is recovering from a severe head injury. Mr. Landreau’s real father Tim and sister Lilly also appear as themselves. In fact, most of the characters are locals rather than actors, and many (including the Jandreaus) are part of the Oglala Lakota Sioux tribe on the reservation. Also playing himself is Lane Scott, Brady’s best friend who is now paralyzed and unable to speak – the tragic result of another rodeo ride gone wrong. These two are like brothers, and their interactions provide some of the most emotional moments in the movie.

The film is more cycle of life, than circle of life. It’s about having a lifelong dream snatched from your clutches. We follow Brady as he searches for his new place in life. Campfire confessions with his rodeo buddies portray the bond created by risking life and limb. His mother is dead, and Brady’s dad has spent a lifetime telling him to “cowboy up” – meaning, be a man and fight through every situation. Now dad is telling him to “let it go” and “move on”. This contradicts his friends who encourage him to not give up on his dream.

Brady’s moments with his sister Lilly are some of the sweetest and most poignant. Despite her autism, Lilly is precious as she sings songs and offers clear insight to her brother. This is less about acting and more about being. Guns, horses, and pot play significant roles throughout, as does the stunning South Dakota landscape as photographed by cinematographer Joshua James Richards. The intimacy of Brady’s internal struggle somehow dwarfs the breathtaking sunsets. His quietly simmering intensity is masked by a stone face that only seems to brighten when around friend Lane, sister Lilly, or training yet another “unbreakable” horse.

Rather than traditional story arc, this is simply a compelling way of life for people who put up no false fronts. Brady is trying to figure out how to be a man after life has stolen his dream. One’s purpose is essential to one’s being, and thanks to filmmaker Zhao we witness how one tough cowboy fights through.

watch the trailer: