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:

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CHEF (2014)

June 16, 2014

chef Greetings again from the darkness. Sometimes it’s nice to to just sit back and enjoy a pretty simple and familiar story with (mostly) likable people and an uplifting message. Don’t worry, I’m not going soft on movies … it’s just that I found this little movie made me laugh and smile, and despite the formulaic approach (it plays like a sports movie) it made me care what happened to the characters (even though there was never any real doubt).

Jon Favreau plays Carl Casper, the chef at a swanky L.A. restaurant owned by Dustin Hoffman. When a powerful food critic (Oliver Platt) is headed their way, chef and owner butt heads like the true artist and bean-counter they are. The Chef wants to wow the critic with a unique meal, while the owner wants to stick to what’s been filling seats for a decade. Guess who wins? Once the Chef’s public berating of the critic goes viral on social media, the soul-searching begins. Our hero soon learns that all phases of life – including parenting and cooking – work out much better when passion and full attention are in place. The film is a not so subtle reminder to all of us that our attitude determines our altitude (thanks to Zig Ziglar).

This is a remarkable cast, many of which appear on screen for only a short time. The Chef’s lead assistants are comprised of Bobby Cannavale and John Leguizamo. The maitre’d is Scarlett Johansson. Chef’s ex-wife is played by Sophia Vergara, and her other ex-husband is Robert Downey Jr in a hilariously mind-muddling scene. Amy Sedaris has a funny scene as the fast-talking publicist and comedian Russell Peters plays a photo-happy Miami Beach cop. Even Emjay Anthony, as the young son Percy, has some nice moments.

Mr. Favreau has had a remarkably varied film career as a writer, director, producer and actor. He wears all of those hats here. It’s clearly a personal project for him and he wears it well, though a bit of script tightening could have elevated the film a notch. You might remember him from writing and starring in (with Vince Vaughn) Swingers in 1996, and of course, he more recently directed colossal blockbusters Iron Man and Iron Man II. It’s been quite a career, and it’s nice to see him take on the smaller, more personal projects again.

The best “foodie” movies I can recall are Mostly Martha (2001), Eat Drink Man Woman (1994) and the animated classic Ratatouille (2007). This latest culinary comedy from Favreau definitely holds it’s own, and gives us an exceptional soundtrack and road trip from Miami to New Orleans to Austin and back to LA. My only wish was that the language had been toned down for a PG-13 rating so that more families could enjoy it together.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF:  a low-budget, star-studded, charming, funny road trip foodie movie with father-son bonding is just what you need in the midst of blockbuster summer season.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF:  a fluffy comedy utilizing the gimmickry of superstars in brief roles is too lightweight for your movie tastes.

watch the trailer:

 

 


THE WOLF OF WALL STREET (2013)

December 28, 2013

wolf Greetings again from the darkness. A brilliant and expertly made film that is excruciatingly painful to watch, yet impossible to look away. That would be my one line review. Of course, that line could be followed by a 10 page essay, to which I won’t subject you. How to do justice to this extraordinary three hours of excess and debauchery? How to give due credit the craftsmanship of director Martin Scorcese? How to acknowledge the pure physicality and kinetic energy of Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance? How to heap praise on a project so lacking in morality and decency? There are no easy answers to these four questions, but there is plenty to discuss.

Let’s be clear. This is a vulgar film telling the disgusting story of a crude and egotistical scam artist who defrauded many innocent people. Jordan Belfort’s autobiography serves as the source material for the screenplay from Terrence Winter (“The Sopranos”, “Boardwalk Empire“). Leonardo DiCaprio (in his fifth collaboration with Martin Scorcese) portrays Belfort as the talented stock broker who soaks up lessons from both his mentor and the real world stock market crash of 1987. That Black Monday led him right into the world of penny stocks and huge commissions. Those commissions and his stunning sales skills take him right into a world that rivals that of Caligula or Fellini’s Satyricon. This is certainly DiCaprio’s most free and limitless performance to date … it’s also his most comedic.

wolf5 Sex. Drugs. Rock and Roll. Sorry, that’s not enough for Belfort. He is also driven by money, greed, power and the need to take advantage of the weak. I lost count, but surely Belfort displays more than seven deadly sins. Everything is extreme. Nothing in moderation. Belfort is both smart and stupid. He is the worst of human nature, and when combined with his charisma, becomes very dangerous. Watching him give his invigorating and over-the-top pep talks to the team recalls the cult evangelists we have seen over the years. His religion is money and winning … never accepting “no”. His followers eat it up.

While most of the movie is pedal to the metal, there are two exceptional scenes that really stood out. When a young, eager, new to Wall Street Belfort has lunch with his mentor (played by Matthew McConaughey), we sense him soaking up the lessons … we see the wheels turning to a new way of thinking. McConaughey is in top form here. The other standout scene takes place aboard Belfort’s yacht as he interacts with the FBI agent played by Kyle Chandler. This agent is the closest thing to a moral barometer the movie allows and their dance of dialogue and acting is pure cinematic magic.

wolf6 Jonah Hill as Belfort’s business partner is his physical opposite, and possibly even less morally-centered than Belfort. He is also extremely funny in a demented way. Three very talented film directors have supporting roles. Rob Reiner (in a rare acting gig) plays Belfort’s bombastic dad and firm accountant. Jon Favreau is the high priced attorney fighting off the SEC and FBI. Spike Jonze plays the boiler room manager who first schools Belfort on penny stocks, and sets the wheels in motion. There is also a very sexy, funny performance from Margot Robbie as Belfort’s second wife.

My words don’t do justice to the manic existence and frenzied scenes of sex, profanity and drug use. The black comedy mixed in prevents this from being the bleak portrayal that it could have been, but don’t underestimate the depths to which the characters will stoop to get what they want. This one makes a similarly themed American Hustle look like a Disney flick. Consider yourself warned … and don’t think you can just turn away from the screen.

**NOTE: the soundtrack is quite diverse and complements the pace of the film.  The musical director is Robbie Robertson, who was part of The Band when Martin Scorcese directed The Last Waltz

watch the trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iszwuX1AK6A

 


IRON MAN 3 (2013)

May 5, 2013

iron man1 Greetings again from the darkness. My initial reaction upon seeing this opening day was that some fanboys are not going to be happy. Of course, this happens every time Hollywood makes changes to the original comic book material in hopes of attracting massive box office numbers. While I recognize many of the “flaws”, I found this to be an interesting and entertaining turn on the Tony Stark/Iron Man series.

Shane Black was brought in to direct and help write the script. Mr. Black is best known for his crackling buddy dialogue in movies like Lethal Weapon and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (also with Robert Downey Jr), but doesn’t have significant directorial experience (his most recent effort was KKBB 5 years ago). My belief has always been that what sets this franchise apart is Robert Downey Jr’s take on Tony Stark. A wiseiron man4-cracking billionaire playboy technology and mechanical genius searching for his true identity. Mr. Black re-focuses the story on Stark. In fact, he basically takes everything away and has him start over.

Regardless of the story, many line up for these movies to see the special effects and the bad guys. The special effects are everywhere … and loud … and massive. The trailer shows a clip of Stark’s Malibu mansion being destroyed, but the entire segment is quite impressive. The number of Iron Man suits seems unlimited at times and the big finale gave me the same feeling of a 4th of July fireworks display when it ends with so many clumps of fireworks being fired at once, that the impact is dulled. As for the bad guys, The Mandarin is one of the most fierce opponents faced by Iron Man in the comics. His portrayal here by Ben Kingsley is a blast to iron man2watch, but will undoubtedly upset the true fanboys. Guy Pearce plays Aldrich Killian, a demented mastermind, once snubbed by Stark – in a scene we witness in flashback.

My preference here is to focus on the fun elements since that’s clearly what Marvel and Black are shooting for. Jon Favreau directed the first two entries in the franchise and here takes on a slightly bigger acting role as head of security for the Stark corporation … and he provides some comic relief. Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) finally gets to do more than roll her eyes, but she still has her damsel in distress moments. Don Cheadle returns as Col. Rhodes … or War Machine … now re-branded as Iron Patriot, but mostly he is just waiting for his own movie. Rebecca Hall has some screen time as a smart woman who is not so wise in her choosing of partners. No comment. Ty Simpkins plays Harley, a country boy who helps Stark in his time of need. James Badge Dale, Miguel Ferrer, William Sadler, and Dale Dickey all have strong moments, but therein lies what may be the film’s biggest weakness.

iron man3 It’s an incredibly impressive film to watch … giant visuals, really good actors and quick, witty dialogue. But there seems to be an overload of each of these things. Guy Pearce’s character is woefully underdeveloped. I so wanted more of his backstory and motivation. Same with Harley, the boy. Much could have been done with that. Miguel Ferrer, always a worthy opponent, must have had his best scenes left in editing. The scene with Ben Kingsley, Don Cheadle and Robert Downey Jr, may have been the best in the movie simply because we got a real peak at each of these character’s personality. That’s way more fun that another explosion!

The film pummels us with action, probably has too much Tony Stark and too little Iron Man for the fanboys, throws in a hard-to-swallow sub-plot regarding Anxiety issues for Stark (thanks to his Avengers escapades), and underutilizes Guy Pearce in what could have been a world class evil doer. Still, despite all of that, it’s fun to watch and Robert Downey Jr will always be Iron Man!

*NOTE: the expected Stan Lee cameo occurs during the Beauty Contest scene (he plays a judge)

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are fan of the Iron Man franchise … it delivers what we want and what we expect

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are expecting something wildly different from the first two Iron Man movies – the tweaks are minor and mostly effective

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aV8H7kszXqo


TMI (1-5-12)

January 5, 2012

TMI (Today’s Movie Info)

 ELF, the 2003 blockbuster that has since become a Christmas TV tradition, stars Will Ferrell as Buddy the Elf.  Did you know that Jim Carrey was originally slated for the role?  In one of the first scenes, Ming Ming the elf is played by Peter Billingsley … better known to most as Ralphie Parker from A Christmas Story (1983).  Leon the Snowman is voiced by Leon Redbone, who also sings “Baby It’s Cold Outside” with Ferrell and Zooey Deschanel, and “Christmas Island” on the soundtrack.  Lastly, the director Jon Favreau also directed Iron Man and Iron Man II, and wrote the script for Swingers (1996).

And don’t forget “to stick to the four main food groups: candy, candy canes, candy corns and syrup!


COWBOYS & ALIENS

July 31, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. With such a wonderful title, creative concept, stellar cast, the director (Jon Favreau) of Iron Man and Elf, and the collision of two distinct film genres – Westerns and Sci-Fi, we had every right to expect cinematic genius. Instead we get OK, just fine, and kind of entertaining. I believe that qualifies as a letdown.

My view of the film is that the western/cowboy portion is outstanding. The setting and characters are realistic and intriguing. Heck, there is steely-eyed  Daniel Craig as the outlaw Jake Lonergan; grumpy Harrison Ford as Col. Dolarhyde who runs the town with iron fist; loony tunes Paul Dano as Dolarhyde’s son who is itching for respect; bespectacled Sam Rockwell as a barkeep called Doc; porcelain Olivia Wilde as the not-from-around-here beauty whose presence no one seems to question; and Keith Carradine as the Sheriff trying to do the right thing. We even have the obligatory kid (Noah Ringer from The Last Airbender) and a loyal dog.

 The weakness of the film is with the aliens. Many have said the film would be better without the aliens. Well, wouldn’t that make the title a bit ridiculous? We just needed BETTER aliens. These aliens are smart enough for intergalactic travel but they can’t outsmart a bunch of rustlers? And how many times did they capture Daniel Craig just to have him escape? Not to mention that their power seems to come from gold … and there is a shortage on their planet and ours! The beginning of the film is really, really good. It’s 1837 and Lonergan wakes up in the middle of nowhere, just outside the unfriendly town of Absolution. He is wearing a metallic bracelet/shackle around his wrist and no memory of who he is or where he came from. Although there are some terrific scenes, the film kind of drifts downhill after that.

 All I will say about the story is that the aliens attack Absolution by kidnapping a few residents and stealing gold. The cowboys fight back with six shooters, Lonergan’s bracelet, Wilde’s knowledge, and some help from the Indians.

What really bothers me about this one is that it should have been so much FUN! Instead, it’s mostly bleak with only a few comic lines tossed in. My guess is having NINE writers associated with the film was a real problem. Each of the characters holds some interest, but the story just kind of meanders with little direction.

 A couple of minor irritants for me: Lonergan wakes up and mugs three crusty old cowboys and winds up with perfectly tailored chaps, pants, shirt and vest; Olivia Wilde wears the same dress all the time but never really gets dirty; the cowboys shoot the aliens with guns, arrows and spears – sometimes they die, sometimes they don’t; and supposedly the aliens don’t see well in daylight. Tell that to the numerous cowboys and Indians who get slaughtered in the climatic battle. Lastly, Olivia Wilde’s character is the only one of her type. Where were her fellow “countrymen” to assist on her mission?

As I said, the cast is spectacular. It’s always nice to see Buck Taylor in a western. Clancy Brown plays the preacher. You will remember him as the prison guard in The Shawshank Redemption. Mr. Brown maintains his top position as the largest cranium of all actors. Walton Goggins (“Justified”) plays one of Lonergan’s old gang, and brings a touch of humor. And the fiddler is played by first time actor Rex Rideout. Nothing to say about that other than congrats on a terrific screen name!

The film is entertaining, but just falls short of what could have been, even what should have been. Watching Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford match wits in the old west is almost enough!

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: Daniel Craig in chaps and Harrison Ford in full curmudgeon glory are enough to justify the price of a ticket

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you think it will be as much fun as the title suggests

Watch the trailer:


IRON MAN 2 (2010)

May 9, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. No secret that I really enjoyed the first Iron Man movie a couple of years ago. For 2, we get the return of key players: Robert Downey, jr as Tony Stark, Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts, and Jon Favreau in the director chair. We also get an onslaught of new players: Mickey Rourke as Ivan Vanko/Whiplash, Sam Rockwell as Justin Hammer, Scarlett Johansson as Natalie/Natasha/Black Widow, Garry Shandling as Senator Stern and Don Cheadle (replacing Terence Howard) as War Machine.

Onslaught may be the best word I can use to describe the film. It is an onslaught to the senses. There are so many characters – both good guys and bad. There are so many explosions, fights and booms that we resist the urge to blink. There is so much overlapping and oddly paced dialogue that we strain to fill in the blanks. And what of the inside jokes and “advertising” for future Avengers fun? OK, maybe “Fun” is the key word, not onslaught. These characters are a blast (pun, slightly intended). Watching a creepy Mickey Rourke plot revenge in the Russian darkness is terrific. Sam Rockwell chewing scenery is not to be missed. Garry Shandling’s snarky senator is a hoot, especially at the end. And I have been surfing the net all night searching for a suitcase sized Iron Man suit. OK, not really … but that was super cool.

I’ve got it!  “An onslaught of fun!” The great and talented Justin Theroux was brought in to script the multitude of players and story lines … he must be a master juggler as none get cheated in their screen time. Even Samuel L Jackson as Nick Fury is given a much heavier workload than in part one – setting the stage for his NINE scheduled film appearances as Mr. Fury.

The film is huge and spectacular, but falls just short of the first one for a single reason. The wow of discovery can only be had once. That’s not a knock on this one, but timing is crucial. Must also mention the brilliance of Robert Downey, Jr who seems born to play Tony Stark. Of course, the brilliance of Mr. Downey is that he always seems born to play his roles. He is a great actor … check his ability to spout wise cracking one-liners and then mix in a couple of actually tender moments with Paltrow’s Pepper Potts. Not many actors could do that effectively. He pulls it off seamlessly.

What really matters is that it’s a fun trip to theatre. Don’t expect this year’s Best Picture winner. Expect to laugh and be visually wowed. I certainly was.  If you liked the first one, chances are good that you will appreciate this well made sequel.