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.

watch the trailer:


VOICE FROM THE STONE (2017)

April 29, 2017

USA FILM FESTIVAL 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. A painful death bed scene and a teary-eyed child saying goodbye to their beloved caregiver kick off this film that immediately downshifts to a deliberate pace after those two emotional peaks. The first feature from director Eric Howell is adapted by Andrew Shaw from Silvio Raffo’s novel, and it excels in delivering atmosphere and visual unease created by the stunning setting of a fogged-cloaked Tuscan castle that is itself a key character in the film.

Emilia Clarke (“Game of Thrones”), and those expressive eyebrows of hers, stars as Verena, a rehabilitation nurse who specializes in helping traumatized children. Verena is spunky and confident as she arrives at the Gothic-esque home of artist/sculptor Klaus (Marton Csokas) and his son Jakob (Edward Dring). It’s been more than 7 months since the death of his mother (Caterina Murino, Solange in Casino Royale), and also since young Jakob last spoke even a single word. Verena expects to succeed where other nurses have failed.

1950’s Tuscany is beautiful despite, or maybe because of, the dreary and minimal natural lighting and the mysterious elements of the ancient castle and surrounding forest and stone quarry. It’s also a bit creepy and that allows the measured pace of the story to work – it comes across as we are going through the slow process with Jakob and Verena. Well, it works until it doesn’t. The character shifts for Verena and Klaus occur too abruptly – almost as if pages in the script were skipped. Both transformations seem out of place with the film and are jarring to watch … and not jarring in the way that we expect from a suspense thriller.

Most won’t be surprised at where the story goes, but just in case, no spoilers will be discussed here. It should be enough to state that the look and feel of this one should appeal to those who enjoyed such films as The Others, Rebecca, The Sixth Sense, Crimson Peak, and the stories of Edgar Allan Poe. The execution of the story might not be at that level, but the atmosphere and mood certainly are. Oversized sculptures, life-sized portraits, an untouched death bed, and even a grand piano allow for more texture than any cheap jump-scares.

Gothic, romantic, supernatural suspense thrillers are pretty tough to pull off, but even getting close allows for some cinematic viewing pleasure. As an added bonus, the lovely score from Michael Wandmacher never screams at us, and Amy Lee (Evanescence) delivers a beautiful and fitting song “Speak to Me” as the film ends.

watch the trailer:

 


ME BEFORE YOU (2016)

June 2, 2016

me before you Greetings again from the darkness. Who doesn’t enjoy a good cry in a dark movie theatre? The first feature film from director Thea Sharrock is taken directly from the tear-jerker novel by Jojo Meyes (who also wrote the screenplay). Although I try to avoid using the term very often, it’s very much a by-the-numbers chick flick … complete with the heart-of-gold working class girl trying her best to “save” the handsome rich guy to whom life has dealt a tough hand. For fans of the book and the genre, it should deliver the desired effect … the studio even provided movie logo tissues for the screening.

For most of us, the effectiveness of this type of movie comes down to the characters. Luisa is the effervescent working class girl hired as a personal assistant to the extremely wealthy quadriplegic Will Traynor. Emilia Clarke (“Game of Thrones”) does everything in her power to make us (and Will Traynor) like Luisa. To describe her as optimistic is like saying Eric Clapton can play guitar. Calling her perky would be like saying Donald Trump has hair. Both statements are true, but hardly capture the totality of reality. In stark contrast, Sam Claflin (The Hunger Games: Mockingjay) purposefully underplays Will … the one time cliff-diving, James Bond birthday video type now confined to a wheelchair.

Lu is a constant toothy smile complemented by expressive and active eyebrows that somehow overshadow her chatty bedside manner, and kaleidoscopic and geometric clothes and shoes … all encompassed with an ever-bouncy step that would make Tigger envious. Lu mostly shares the screen with Will and the personal nurse and therapist Nathan, played by Stephen Peacocke. The camera certainly loves all three of these faces, and director Sharrock wisely adds Janet McTeer and Charles Dance as Will’s parents. They bring a regal presence to what otherwise could have played a bit too cutesy.

Despite the heavy dose of “awww”, the story deserves credit for touching on the “right to die” or “dying with dignity” debate. While those closest to Will selfishly proclaim they don’t understand his plan to head to Switzerland, it’s Nathan who says it best … ‘who am I to judge’. While a full on discussion of the topic would be out of place here, the film does a nice job of not shying away from the process.

Other recognizable faces in the cast include Jenna Coleman (“Doctor Who”) as Lu’s sister and confidante, and Matthew Lewis (Harry Potter series) as Lu’s fitness freak boyfriend who isn’t very understanding … of either Lu or her job. There’s also an odd but welcome wedding cameo from Joanna Lumley. My biggest issue with the story is that I just never understood how or when Lu fell so deeply in love with Will. Sure, I get the appeal of the castle, the concertos, and the tropical vacations, but where was the real personal connection? Was it simply that she thought she could charm Will into changing his mind on the big decision?  That’s not really love. Another piece that’s difficult to take … the numerous musical interludes seemingly designed to make sure viewers are in the proper state of melancholy. There was another segment that I found not just ironic, but actually annoying; however, discussion of the “Live boldly” advice would give away the film’s ending … something I’m not sure even matters since it’s made pretty clear throughout, but it still goes against my movie code.

watch the trailer:

 


DOM HEMINGWAY (2014)

April 17, 2014

DALLAS INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL (2014)

dom Greetings again from the darkness. Maybe I should apologize, but I won’t. This was hands-down my favorite from the Dallas International Film Festival. It was probably the least favorite of many others. With the most outlandish and uncomfortable opening scene in recent memory, the movie comes across a rough blend of early Guy Ritchie and The Wolf of Wall Street.

Given that description, no movie lover would expect Jude Law to be the star who dominates most every scene. Yes, pretty boy Jude Law has gone “ugly” the way fellow pretty boy Matthew McConaughey went “indie”. It’s a shock to see Mr. Law looking shaggy and paunchy … in his best moments! He holds nothing back in his portrayal of this vulgar, verbose ex-con so full of swagger.

Joining Dom is his old buddy Dickie, played by Richard E Grant – whose smooth comedic delivery is a terrific complement to the harshness of Dom. After serving 12 years in prison, Dom is on a mission to get the money he is due from a Russian mobster played by Demian Bichir (yes, Mr. Bichir is Mexican). Of course, nothing ever goes as planned in Dom’s life, so a coke-fueled night of celebration at a glamorous French château leads to one of the most startling cinematic car accidents, leaving Dom penniless.

The story now veers off the Dom’s attempt at redemption … reconciliation with his daughter played by “Game of ThronesEmilia Clarke. The bi-polar aspects of Dom’s persona comes through when comparing his “criminal” scenes and his “daughter” scenes. The contrast does provide relief from the relentless raucous dialogue delivered with the most extreme cockney accent possible. Still, the redemption story line takes away from what makes Dom such a force of nature and so much fun to watch on screen. Writer/director Richard Shepard gave a very enthusiastic and passionate Q&A after the screening, and it was quite obvious he “liked” this character, despite the flaws.  Mr. Shepard was responsible for one of my favorite little known gems, The Matador (2005).

This is a violent, vulgar character delivered in blaringly over-the-top mode by an actor that has previously shown no such tendencies. As with all comedy, and especially such raucous, irreverent black comedy, the audience will be divided by those who find this extremely entertaining and those who think it’s a waste of time and talent. Expect no guarantees from me on which camp you might fall into.

**NOTE: the movie contains quite striking primate art, as evidenced by the movie poster shown above

watch the trailer: