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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AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR (2018)

April 25, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. We are at the 10 year mark of the new Marvel cinematic universe that began with the revolutionary IRON MAN (2008). This 19th movie in the franchise is actually Part 1 of 2 films that will (supposedly) be the lasting legacy of The Avengers. The second “half”, much of which was filmed simultaneously with this one, is set for 2019. Co-directing brothers Anthony Russo and Joe Russo were responsible for the two most recent Captain America movies (and also one of my all-time least favorites: YOU, ME AND DUPREE), and have now taken on the biggest budget, biggest cast, and longest run time yet of any Marvel movie. In fact, it’s so big, it could only be named ‘Infinity’.

Being that the fan base for this movie is highly sensitive to anything resembling a hint, much less a spoiler, this review will tread very lightly, and instead function as an overview with very general observations. There are a few key points, most of which are quite obvious from either the trailers or the previous movies in the series. First thing to realize is that this is a Thanos movie. He’s the first big (I told you everything was big), bad, nearly omnipotent villain. It should be noted that Thanos sees himself as misunderstood, which leads to the second key point: melodrama abounds – moreso than any previous comic book movie. It seems to be reminding us that Superheroes are people too (but are they really?). The third point is that if every character with a speaking part simply said “I am Spartacus”, it would still likely be the longest ever comic book movie. There are at least 28 characters with “key” roles – and that’s not counting the end credit stinger, or the missing characters we thought we would see, or the one that gets a logo tease as a coming attraction for part 2.

Co-writers Stephen McFeely and Christopher Markus had their hands full in working to come up with a coherent story, while allowing so many familiar characters to have at least one moment in the spotlight, if not a few. The fact that AVENGERS: CIVIL WAR divided the group actually allows for multiple segments to play out concurrently. Though we never doubt these fragmented cliques and isolated individuals will fight to save the galaxy, that doesn’t necessarily mean they get the band back together. In fact, it’s the Guardians of the Galaxy who are a much more cohesive group than our beloved Avengers. But fear not … there is plenty of fighting and action to go around.

Thanos claims he is saving many interplanetary civilizations and restoring balance with his plan to eliminate half of all living beings. While there might be some scientific evidence to back up his plan, it doesn’t sit well with the good guys. More focus is given to his cravings for ultimate control and power provided by tracking down all six Infinity Stones (Tesseract/Space, Mind, Time, Power, Reality, and Soul) to complete his Infinity Gauntlet. Many of these stones are in quite inconvenient locations and require some ingenuity and brute force from Thanos.

Perhaps the travel agent had the biggest challenge as portions of the film take place in New York City, Knowhere, and Wakanda (good luck finding a brochure on those last two).  We also get a budding romance from Vision and Scarlet Witch, as well as annoying quasi-romantic banter between Tony Stark and Pepper Potts. And while we are on the “TMZ” portion of the review, it should be noted that both Black Widow and Captain America (introducing himself as Steve Rogers) both have new hair styles – though only one of them sports a beard.

In the realm of comic book movies, this would be considered an epic. It has stunning action sequences, remarkable special effects and some terrific comedy mixed in. Of course, you’ll have to accept the melodramatic emotions and fear that we haven’t been previously subjected, and know that the final finality doesn’t arrive for another year. It’s very long (more than 2 ½ hours) but it seems to go pretty quickly. The filmmakers have mostly succeeded in the monumental task of remaining true to the history in order to keep comic book fans satisfied, while also creating something that most should be entertained by. Despite lacking the upbeat, feel-good ending we’ve grown accustomed to, there is a welcome Stan Lee cameo, a post credit stinger (after about 10 minutes of rolling credits). And to top it off, we get “Rubberband Man” from The Spinners. Now that’s big!

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JOURNEY’S END (2018)

March 15, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. R.C. Sheriff wrote this 1928 play based on his experience as a British Army officer in WWI. The play’s successful two year run led to a 1930 big screen adaptation directed by James Whale and starring Colin Clive – two legends of cinema who also collaborated on FRANKENSTEIN and BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN. Now, exactly 100 years after “the Spring Offensive”, director Saul Dibb (THE DUCHESS, 2008) delivers screenwriter Simon Reade’s version of Sheriff’s story and a tribute to those who served in the Great War.

It’s the Spring of 1918 and a stalemate in the trenches of Northern France has occurred during the fourth year of the war. Fresh from training, a baby-faced Lieutenant named Raleigh (Asa Butterfield, HUGO) is assigned to a front line unit whose commanding officer is his former school mate, Captain Stanhope (Sam Claffin, THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY). The others in the unit include Trotter (Stephen Graham), who eats and talks incessantly to mask his anxiety; Hibbert (Tom Sturridge), who suffers from shell-shock; Mason (Toby Jones), the cook who brings subtle comedy relief: and Osborne (Paul Bettany), the heart and soul of the team.

Slowly cracking under the untenable pressure is Captain Stanhope. His coping method involves a problem with whiskey which drives his raging temper. That temper masks a not-so-obvious commitment to his men … men who walk on eggshells around him. Most of the movie takes place in the dugout over 6 days, and though the soldiers spend much time in a holding pattern, the battle sequences involve an ill-planned surprise attack on a nearby German hold, and of course, the famous battle that kicks off the Spring Offensive – a 3 month run that cost the lives of more than 700,000 from both sides.

With military orders such as “hold them off for as long as you can”, this is no romanticizing of war. Bravery and courage in the face of likely death are balanced with overwhelming human emotions. Confusion and disorientation abound as bombs explode in an environment that offers no place to hide or escape. The war ended later that year on November 11, and trench warfare would never again be the predominant strategy.

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AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON (2015)

May 17, 2015

Avengers Ultron Greetings again from the darkness. Joss Whedon returns as writer/director for the sequel to his 2012 blockbuster The Avengers, and this time he juggles an exceptionally large, diverse and talented group of characters and actors who are not only involved in good versus evil, but also in the battle for screen time.

There is no shortage of write-ups from film critics and fanboys who have analyzed every aspect of the movie from every possible angle, and while I admit to taking that same approach to most movies, there is something about the Marvel franchise that cause me to flip off the film critic part of my brain and just sit back and enjoy. And enjoy I do. The characters are fun and interesting and the action is at times breath-taking.

Since there are, by my count, at least 23 actors who deserve mention, it makes little sense for me to list them here. It is worth noting that the key actors all reprise their roles as Avengers, and many of those in supporting roles are back as well. This time there are also many significant newcomers, and those include “The Twins” – Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch. Other newbies include Linda Cardellini (“Mad Men”,” Bloodline”) as Hawkeye’s wife, Claudia Kim as Dr Helen Cho, Thomas Kretschmann as Strucker, and Andy Serkis as Ulysses Klaue. Though each is a nice addition, it’s the stellar voice work of James Spader as Ultron that really makes this movie click. Somehow Mr. Spader manages to convey a powerful presence despite maintaining a (mostly) even keel throughout. It’s masterful voice acting.

Missing this time out are Pepper Potts and Loki, though we hardly notice thanks to the first look at Vision (Paul Bettany) and Thanos (Josh Brolin) … plus the unveiling of Iron Man’s Hulkbuster armor. If you thought the first Avengers movie made it difficult to keep up with the characters, this one will have your head spinning. It’s probably the only quibble I have with it … character overload at the expense of character development. The Hawkeye family farm represents a meager attempt to have this group of superheroes set in a “normal” environment, but it just doesn’t quite work. The Avengers are at their best while snipping at each other or saving the planet … fortunately the movie offers plenty of the latter.

watch the trailer:

 


MARGIN CALL

October 22, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. It is absolutely understandable if you have reached your limit for dissecting and analyzing the 2008 financial crisis. However, if you can’t get enough, or are still trying to find someone to blame for looting half your retirement plan, this film offers a different perspective and one that proves more identifiable and personal. Wall Street is the new favorite bad guy in Hollywood these days and here we get faces for the targets.

Hopefully you saw Inside Job, a fine documentary that provided an overview of the collapse. HBO’s Too Big To Fail gave us a glimpse inside the Fed’s decision making process during the crisis. This movie narrows the focus down to a singular investment bank. Writer/Director JC Chandor serves up a dramatized story that begins with massive layoffs. We see the hatchet crew arriving replete with security escorts, as high paid executives are led out to the sidewalk. Stanley Tucci plays a middle manager in the Risk-Analysis department. As he is headed to the curb, he hands a flash drive to one of his young analysts (Zachary Quinto) and tells him to finish it and “be careful”.

 Flash forward a few hours and the surviving staff heads out for celebratory drinks while Quinto’s character starts churning away on Tucci’s formula. Once he realizes that the risk formulas on MBS (mortgage backed securities) show threatened stability of the firm, he places an emergency call. It is quite interesting to see how this emergency escalates as we are introduced, one rung at a time, to the hierarchy within the firm … Paul Bettany, Kevin Spacey, Demi Moore, Simon Baker. This culminates in a late night conference room meeting when the CEO (Jeremy Irons) arrives by helicopter.

 There are so many facets to this story. We see how some are in the game for money. Penn Badgley says it’s all he ever wanted to do, but his obsessive behavior over the income of each manager shows us why. Paul Bettany is a middle manager who realizes the “killers” such as Simon Baker have passed him by. Demi Moore plays the type who doesn’t mind finding a fall guy, as long as it’s not her. Kevin Spacey is 30+ year career man who has survived many crisis by being loyal to the firm, while also doing right by the client. Jeremy Irons is the charming, powerful CEO who laughs about being as smart as a Golden Retriever, but laser-focused on keeping the firm viable.

 What you can’t help but notice is the number of managers who point out that they don’t understand the charts and graphs and numbers, and just need someone to explain it to them in “plain English”. We also see self-preservation at its finest/worst and the struggle that some of the characters have in deciding what is the “right thing to do”. It is not surprising, yet frightening still, to see that the red flags were flying before anyone acknowledged their presence. No one wants to be the one to shut down a party.

When the CEO says the three ways to win are to: “be first, be smartest or cheat”, we realize huge decisions are made only in the best interest of the firm … not the economy, and certainly not an individual investor. Although this investment firm remains nameless through the film, I did find it interesting that Irons’ character name is John Tuld.  John Tuld … Dick Fuld … Just sayin’!

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want as many perspectives as possible on what caused this latest financial meltdown OR you have any remaining doubts that corporations make decisions based on their own best not interest.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: 2008 is in your rearview mirror and you have no interest in looking back OR your blood pressure shoots up any time someone mentions Wall Street, investment bankers, etc.

watch the trailer:


THE TOURIST (2010)

December 12, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. Ahh, beautiful people in beautiful places. That’s a good start! Throw in some amazing film blood lines: directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (The Lives of Others), writers Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects), Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park) and Jerome Salle. Salle wrote and directed the 2005 French film that this one is based on – Anthony Zimmer. The stellar cast is led by Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp, and includes Paul Bettany, Timothy Dalton, Rufus Sewell and the always solid Steven Berkhoff. No way to mess this one up, right??

Somehow, despite all of that, the final product is a jumble of tired visual stunts, lame dialogue and a twist so obvious it might as well have been in the trailer. The aim was a thriller with involvement of mobsters, stolen millions, boat chases, rooftop shootings, crackling dialogue intertwined with dangerous settings and high fashion. The biggest failing is with the dialogue … so many wasted moments. The give and take between Depp and Jolie is just outright lame.

 Where is the payoff for sitting through the endless string of stupid moves from Scotland Yard inspectors? The police tail on Jolie’s character looked like something from the Pink Panther movies … only it is played straight! Same with the interactions between the two stars. How about some playful banter? Did Depp’s character need to be so dull? A math teacher from Wisconsin. Really? And poor Angelina. She is used as a flesh and blood Jessica from Who Framed Roger Rabbit. EVERYTHING about her is exaggerated! Yet, she still flashes her glances like her characters from Salt or any other action film she has upgraded over the years. The film just can’t decide what it is … thriller, farce, comedy?? It just doesn’t work here.

And I have to mention the absurdity of the chase scenes through the Venice canal. It’s not very often a boat chase scene is limited to 4 knots speed. How could the shooters miss time after time? At least we were treated to some stunning shots of Venice. That’s the only positive I can offer for this one.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: Three beautiful things is good enough (Angelina, Depp, Venice) OR you want to see the slowest boat chase scene in history

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you expect crackling dialogue OR you prefer your thrillers to actually have moments that thrill