Solo: A Star Wars Story

Release: Friday, May 25, 2018

→Theater

Written by: Jonathan and Lawrence Kasdan

Directed by: Ron Howard

Though Ron Howard is among my favorite directors I wouldn’t have pegged him as a candidate to helm a Star Wars movie, even a spinoff. But this is good news people — no longer do you have to suffer through The Dilemma to find Howard trying something new. While he has been into space before, sacrificing full autonomy in the franchise setting is unfamiliar territory for this director. His entry into the Star Wars universe may not bear any essential canon material and it isn’t his best work but his reliable craftsmanship ensures this new chapter is both entertaining and worthwhile.

In a plot twist no one saw coming the stand-alone Solo film details the coming-of-age of Han Solo. Specifically, this is the part where you get to see your favorite space smuggler learning how to space smuggle in under 12 parsecs, coming into contact for the first time with some of the iconic personalities and essential gadgetry that have helped identify franchise creator George Lucas as someone doing financially better than you. And yes, much of Solo is unabashedly just for you, the fan. Or at least it was supposed to be. The experience is less contingent upon the strength of its narrative than its sister spinoff Rogue Onewhich detailed the Rebels’ desperate last-bid attempt to recover the Death Star schematic. Of course, that 2016 film also had great timing and was every bit the beneficiary of resurgent new energy created in the big bang that was Episode VII, the long-awaited return of Star Wars to the big screen the year prior.

By comparison, the major developments in Solo feel less urgent and aren’t as concept-driven. Don’t mistake a lack of originality for a lack of excitement or intrigue however. Solo is technically a heist film, the great tilting train robbery and later the harrowing Kessel Run arguably its most distinguished features — with the latter sequence in particular acting as a crucial test of character (or is that of ego?). The narrative develops episodically, stitched together as a series of not-so-chance encounters and mischievous escapes that never feel universe-shaking but are plenty entertaining on the virtue of the surprisingly solid performances and undeniable team chemistry.

On the shipbuilding world of Corellia, orphans like Han (Alden Ehrenreich) are kept in line by the very wormlike Lady Proxima (voice of Linda Hunt). In exchange for shelter, food and protection the various inhabitants of this miserable planet are forced into a life of crime. Han has a plan to escape once and for all, but when his beloved Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) gets captured he is forced into a Plan B that finds him joining the Imperial Army, anxious to become a pilot and for the next opportunity to return for what he has left behind.

Yes, I forgot to mention this is also a grand romantic drama, one made all the more romantic by the various inconveniences Han must endure en route to fulfilling what he believes to be his destiny. He gets expelled from the Academy for insubordination, finds himself temporarily on the wrong side of a raging Wookie — thank goodness for Han being bilingual — to eventually link up with a group of criminals posing as soldiers in a war zone led by Woody Harrelson‘s Tobias Beckett. He hopes to curry favor by offering to help on a mission transporting some precious cargo to the ruthless crime lord Dryden Vos (Paul Bethany). Oh, the things we do in the name of love (or, perhaps, out of misplaced faith).

This brings us to another set of revelations — and yeah, okay, maybe ‘revelations’ is too strong a word to throw around here given that we not only have experienced these things before (and if not these exact elements/characters then variations thereof) but we anticipate the pieces fitting into this puzzle. Because coaxium — a rare kind of fuel that enables ships to jump to hyper speed — makes driving down the galactic interstate rather complicated, the crew, which includes Tobias’ wife Val (Thandie Newton) and the alien Rio Durant (Jon Favreau), need a ship that can get them from Point A (Kessel) to Point B (Savareen) very quickly, not to mention the pilot that can navigate cosmic storms the size of the Milky Way. The Millennium Falcon would do nicely, but Han must negotiate with one Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) for the keys first.

Howard, who was brought in to replace original directors Christopher Miller and Phil Lord who were let go over “creative differences,” has always considered himself a fan of history with successes behind him like the survival drama Apollo 13 and the American political scandal detailed in Frost/Nixon. His inclusion in the Star Wars fraternity has given him the opportunity to play a role in the history of one of the most famous cinematic franchises. Solo isn’t exactly cutting-edge stuff, and he didn’t write the script. That job was wisely left to Lawrence Kasdan, a Star Wars veteran (joined by his son Jonathan). Despite all that and more besides, this proves an accessible film for viewers like me. Viewers who find it best to enjoy it as a product of Ron Howard rather than the soulless cash grab many are no doubt viewing it as.

Going for a Kessel Jog

Recommendation: As a Ron Howard apologist, I took flight with Solo in a way that was exciting and unexpected. Disregarding all the fan service, I found Alden Ehrenreich a solid and stoic revelation and even if he doesn’t have the gravitas of a Harrison Ford, he proves he has certainly more range than a heartbroken cowboy. And when it comes to the romance, if you’re looking for a typical damsel-in-distress story you’re better off looking elsewhere. This is Emilia Clarke we’re talking about after all. She’s better than that. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 135 mins.

Quoted: “If you come with us, you’re in this life for good.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

July Blindspot: Swingers (1996)

Release: Friday, October 18, 1996

→YouTube

Written by: Jon Favreau

Directed by: Doug Liman

It is all too easy to assume certain things about a movie titled Swingers. Oh, how does that expression go? The project that launched the careers of both its leads as well as the director is, yes, very much a “dude-flick” preoccupied with the pursuit of happiness via the pursuit of women, but the way in which it extracts genuine, honest emotion out of such simple ambitions is really impressive.

Steeped in the Swing Revival period that swept over America in the late ’90s — a curious echo of the 1930s and ’40s when Benny Goodman was King of Swing — Doug Liman’s break-out comedy is both an homage and a movie of its era. Sampling everything from contemporary revivalist groups like Big Bad Voodoo Daddy to ’50s jump blues icons like Louis Jordan, Swingers builds much of its swagger through its eclectic soundtrack. Luckily there are performances to match the up-tempo musical stylings.

Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau are a comedic dream playing struggling actors in Tinseltown who spend their days looking for work and their nights for a good time. Trent (Vaughn) is the quintessential Ladies’ Man whose sense of connectedness to this earth is defined entirely by his gift of gab. He’s not the type to invest his energy into anything long-term, anything real. The only commitment he knows is to playing the field. His prototypical extrovert stands in stark contrast to Favreau’s Mikey who, six months after the fact, is still reeling from a break-up from a longtime girlfriend whom he left behind in New York in pursuit of his dreams out west.

Whereas Trent only looks forward to the future (and his next cocktail), Mikey can’t stop looking back. His obsession with the past has really done a number on his self-esteem and his ability to connect to others in the here and now. Favreau’s nuanced performance captures the pain of being socially graceless and, perhaps because his character is also uncannily me, should have received more than a Best Newcomer award. His A-list status today may somewhat belie his true talents. The role is proof that Favreau is an actor first and a director second. Who knew the guy could do awkward and repressed so convincingly?

After an impromptu trip to Las Vegas* fails to revive a heartbroken Mikey, Trent and a few other actor friends — Rob (Ron Livingston, also playing a version of himself as a fresh hopeful in the City of Broken Dreams), Charles (Alex Désert) and a boy named Sue (Patrick Van Horn) — decide that enough is enough. It’s time to rally around their fallen comrade. Famously the refrain becomes “You’re so money, baby, you don’t even know it.”

Though it is a collective effort, it’s really Trent who tries to instill in Mikey all that he knows about the “unwritten rules” of the social scene. However, when push comes to shove, none of the advice seems to help. His boy is too much of a “nice guy,” which concerns Trent because he knows nice guys finish last. But Swingers (Favreau‘s first screenplay) posits this is an outmoded attitude, even in the ’90s. “Finishing last” could mean meeting a Lorraine (Heather Graham, whose well-placed cameo suggests that timing is the only thing that really matters). Ever so subtly the tone shifts away from crassness and towards something approaching genteelism. It becomes apparent after awhile that there are actually drawbacks of being a Trent. It’s probably a stretch to call the film socially responsible, but its flirtation with romance is a wholly unexpected diversion.

Swingers is a movie of simple pleasures and it’s decidedly low-budget. On first watch you’ll probably notice some technical stuff like the shadow of the camera-man against the wall as he climbs stairs in pursuit of the actors. Visible boom mics in a number of shots. Some of the effects are badly dated. If you ask me, all of this adds to the purity of the experience. The movie has such a big heart it just barely manages to wear it on its sleeve. Its passion is persuasive. Its enthusiasm contagious. Swingers is a born winner. And the music ain’t bad either.

Curious about what’s next? Check out my Blindspot List here.

* Fun trivia: the scene that takes place on the side of the highway on the return trip wasn’t shot legally. Permits for shooting are required, and the production team neither could afford one nor would have ever been able to acquire one for this particular location for red-tape-related reasons. So Liman had to improvise and make it appear as though they weren’t working even though they were. Apparently as the undercover shoot took place local cops were standing by, just out of frame.

Recommendation: Fun, uplifting, unexpectedly wholesome. You won’t want to throw it on for family movie night, but if you’re going through a rough patch Swingers is one hell of an antidote. Whether you’re a Trent or a Mikey there’s a lot to be gained out of this treatise on social dynamics — and though times have definitely changed, our innate desire to find happiness in another person has not.

Rated: R

Running Time: 96 mins.

Quoted: “So how long do I wait to call?”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.youtube.com 

Spider-Man: Homecoming

Release: Friday, July 7, 2017

[Theater]

Written by: Jon Watts; Jonathan Goldstein; John Francis Daley; Christopher Ford; Chris McKenna; Erik Sommers

Directed by: Jon Watts

The only thing that’s slightly unconvincing about the high school experience as depicted in Jon Watts’ re-re-freakin’-re-boot is the distinct lack of oily skin and pimples. Nobody ever looks as liberated from acne at this stage, not unless you have a parent working for a skin-cleansing company. Or maybe you were just more amazing than Spidey himself way back when.

Otherwise, holy crap. Spider-Man: Homecoming gets it. Tom Holland definitely gets it. The high school awkwardness. Being so young and impressionable. Being willing, perhaps overeager, to prove yourself. These clumsy first steps toward adulthood are so earnestly rendered this played out as a flashback of my drifting through Farragut High, a school originally designed for 1,800 but whose population was, at the time, swelling to over 2,100. I was reminded of the cliques and the cliches, of Toga Nights and canned food drives that epitomized our silly little rivalry with the Bearden Bulldogs. And, more generally, the undeveloped idealism that inspires 18-year-olds to “change the world.” And, of course, how few school dances I went to wasted time and money on.

Although Spider-Man: Homecoming almost made me nostalgic for those days, it’s not a film completely defined by its knack for triggering trips down memory lane. It’s a superhero origins film, through and through. It’s far less formulaic than many are inevitably going to give it credit for. While significant chunks of character development take place within the confines of the fictional Midtown School of Science and Technology, the story follows a proactive Peter Parker (Holland) as he attempts to stop a newly emerging threat and thus prove himself worthy of Avengerdom. He’s also taking part in academic decathlons and learning how to drive and talk to girls. Because of its placement within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Watt (along with half of Hollywood’s screenwriters, apparently) choose to keep the world of . . . World-Saving on the periphery, effectively ensuring the film has a personality and trajectory all its own.

This is undeniably one of the most assured installments in the MCU yet — some feat, considering we are nine years into this thing now. It’s thrilling because of what it suggests for the future of the MCU and future standalone films, yet the production remains fully connected to the present and focused, careful in the way it blends spectacle with human drama. In the process it leapfrogs past Andrew Garfield’s two outings and at least two of Tobey Maguire’s. Arguably all three, for as cuckoo as Doc Ock may have been, Michael Keaton’s villainy is far superior both in terms of impact on the story and the menace introduced. Spider-Man: Homecoming may be about teenagers, but it carries a surprising amount of gravitas. Driven by the exuberance of the youthful Londoner, the saga is bolstered further by the mentor dynamic established earlier between Tony and Peter in Captain America: Let’s All Hate Each Other Temporarily.

We’re first introduced to one Adrian Toomes (Keaton), who has been profiting from the salvage of scrap metal and precious recovered alien technology in the aftermath of the Battle of New York. Shut down by the intervening Department of Damage Control, jointly created by Tony Stark and the feds, the already desperate Adrian finds himself turning to more shady activity all in the name of providing for his family. Cut to eight years later, and to the unassuming residential sector of Forest Hills, Queens, New York. The architectural wonder that is Stark Tower looms large on the Manhattan skyline. Peter, in a makeshift outfit, sets about fighting pick-pocketers and other small-time crooks after school. To satisfy his ever-curious Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), he explains that he’s busy taking part in “the Stark internship.”

We know the drill by now. Secrets don’t stay secrets for long when you are living a double life. The tension’s familiar — Peter having to come up with ways of defending Spider-Man (“he seems like a good guy”) all while excusing himself from his normal activities with little to no warning. But the execution here is confident and creative, a consideration of what must be in place first before one goes from part-time to full-time superhero. Several recurring motifs are presented, but they’re buried convincingly within the drama more than they ever have been. Keaton redefines the role of the antagonistic father with a mysterious alter ego all his own. Best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) is the first Average Joe to become privy to Peter’s abilities. The girl is right there in front of Peter, yet she couldn’t be further from reach.

Mercifully, the film avoids a retread of the “great power” lecture. Tomei and Holland brilliantly internalize the pain created in the wake of the death of Uncle Ben. This frees up the quasi-origins story to explore the specific challenges of maturing into a bona fide superhero. Feeling suppressed under the supervision of Tony’s personal assistant, Happy (Jon Favreau), Peter is often left frustrated by the red tape he must deal with from his idol, a point of contention that frequently paints him, no matter how naturally aligned our perspective is with his, as a kid with a lot of learning ahead of him — an homage to the Tony Stark that was before he engineered his way out of a terrorist cell. One of the best scenes in the movie is when Tony chastises the 16-year-old for not fully understanding the consequences of his actions.

Question is, does director Jon Watts (Cop Car; Clown) realize the consequences of his? A bar has been raised. Will it remain out of reach? It’s no accident that Spider-Man: Homecoming is the most solid MCU offering since Iron Man (in effect, the inception of the MCU itself). It’s a fluidly paced, two-plus-hour movie that passes by in what feels like five minutes. It balances dramatic elements with high entertainment value, all while introducing highly advanced tech, with yet another new, sleek suit sporting over 500 different web combinations (thanks, Dad!). More compelling than the suit, though, is the way Holland acquits himself with regard to the burden of expectation placed upon him. Maybe that’s what reminds me most of Iron Man. That movie wasn’t supposed to be that good.

So, yeah. With great power comes . . . well, you know the rest.

What a fun movie.

Spidey chillin in HisTube

Recommendation: Buoyant, heartfelt, surprisingly moving. Spider-Man: Homecoming proves that not only was a new iteration possible, it was essential to our understanding of where the MCU goes from here. Speaking from the point of view of someone who never read the comics, I just fell in love with Spider-Man. I really did. I can’t wait to see more. With any luck, the more committed come out feeling the same way. It’s a testament to the quality of the film when it thrives even without J.K. Simmons. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 133 mins.

Quoted: “What the fu — ” 

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Chef

chef

Release: Friday, May 9, 2014 (limited)

[Theater]

THE USE OF THIS VERY BAD MOVIE POSTER IS INTENTIONAL. IS THIS THE WORST MOVIE POSTER OF THE YEAR?

Finding his full-time position as an under-appreciated bodyguard to the world’s most famous egomaniac, Tony Stark, to be a complete chore, Jon Favreau recognizes that the time is now to break out of Dodge. Life’s too short to spend it being harangued by insecure billionaires.

It’s almost poetic, this shift in focus for the 22-year acting veteran, a big guy with a big spirit whose comedic timing and amiability will never cease to be in high demand. Favreau is an increasingly ubiquitous name, an actor who sets aside equal time for the epic action adventure as well as stories that have much more modest ambitions by comparison. In the case of his latest creation Chef, a delicious slice of cultural and culinary appreciation, he’s very much content with small, tasty appetizers before heading back into serving up main courses once more, and inevitably.

Not that there’d be anything wrong with seeing the dude pop up in more Marvel epics. For the time being, though, it’s nice to see him this passionate for material of this sort. Though the film is beautiful, there’s less glory in these films, a fact Favreau must surely acknowledge but is willing to accept as well.

Chef tells the story of an acclaimed cuisinier at a top-tier Los Angeles restaurant who simply lives to cook. Carl Casper has an idealogical struggle with the restaurant manager, Riva (Dustin Hoffman), who insists that, on the night when a high-profile food blogger plans on dining there and reviewing the experience, Carl and his kitchen staff stick to the same old menu the restaurant has always relied upon. Considering the significance of the occasion, Carl feels it would be in the restaurant’s best interest to mix things up.

Of course, this is a movie; things will not be getting mixed up. At least, not in a way that’s quite so obvious. The reviewer comes, he eats, but he does not conquer. He also does not concur with what has been served to him on this occasion. His subsequent review slashes the establishment, and the blogger — a prickly man named Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt) — goes to particular lengths to make the review a personal attack against Carl. The combination of the bad review and the struggle he faces with Riva together become the catalyst for Carl’s resignation. Hence, the narrative’s refocusing on how his changing career path will come to affect friends, family and most importantly, his character as both food enthusiast and father.

Favreau’s positively mouth-watering film is anything but original in terms of its conclusion, or even its design, yet it remains a creative and rich production. It cleverly combines this fictionalized yet authentic world that Carl inhabits with current social trends. Although Twitter’s inexplicable popularity isn’t likely to double overnight, Chef admittedly makes such cross-promotion feel less like a cool gimmick and more of a narrative tool, a natural development of a relationship forged between a wayward father and a desperate son, two characters both more in need of one another than either would ever care to vocalize. It is through Carl’s passion for cuisine he has the opportunity to make up for time lost.

As Carl figures out what the next step in his life will need to be, earnest drama simmers at the heart of this story like the hot juicy center of a tender steak. Favreau beautifully sells the indecisiveness of his character, as he struggles to make sense of what has just happened to him following the negative review and the actions he took to try and rectify it. It’s just the right amount, as well — there’s neither excessive fat nor such a lack thereof to make it a tough chew. Favreau deserves credit for having an eye for interesting subject matter, above all else.

What’s more universal than the appreciation of good food? (Well, other than good beer, of course. 😉 )

chef-movie-poster-16

4-0Recommendation: Fan of Jon Favreau? Fan of food? Why not unite both passions in one by seeing this delightfully funny and heartwarming treat from an enviable talent. Equal parts endearing and insightful, Chef mostly works because of its rock-solid performances — including a Favreau that might never have been better — and a genuinely grounded-in-reality vibe. You can almost smell the food through the celluloid. I wouldn’t blame anyone for trying to eat the screen, either. . .and if ever there’s been a film that deserves my shortbread pie rating system, it’s this one.

Rated: R

Running Time: 115 mins.

Quoted: “There are chefs who cook food that they believe in, and that people will try because they are open to new experiences and will end up liking it!”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Iron Man 3

99943_gal

Release: Friday, May 3, 2013

[Theater]

“Did you see that?!” Yinsen, the doctor, implored a despondent Tony Stark to try and grasp the severity of the situation that lied before both of them, “Those are YOUR weapons. . . in the hands of those murderers! Is this what you want? Is this the last act to define the great Tony Stark…?”

All those years ago, back in that damp, dark cave the character and morality of one Tony Stark was called into question as his own company’s precious goods wound up in the hands of a terrorist organization. How he would respond to such a moment — whether to take action or to just sit by while terrorists reaped the benefits of his life’s brilliant and ambitious work — would not only come to define our lead character, but it would set the tone for our future enjoyment of Marvel’s latest creation: the Iron Man trilogy.

Indeed, Stark has come a long way since then. His character over the last four or five years has been idolized; his iron — okay, fine, his titanium alloy suit —  adored and dissected by fans and critics alike. But with the arrival of the third and final installment, Stark is faced with new challenges — ones that seem to echo the sentiment of that one question Yinsen had asked, before Stark made his first stab at being the high-tech hero in 2008. With the threat of the dreaded Mandarin, he must again look within himself for a way to not be selfish, to put what matters the most before him. Can he change? And what kind of events are going to transpire to make him want to?

Iron Man 3 is a departure from the previous two for a few reasons, while managing to cling on to many of the qualities that have made Downey Jr’s Iron Man the lovable character that he’s become. One difference is who’s in the director’s chair: Shane Black takes over for Jon Favreau, who this time is in front of the camera playing Pepper Pott’s hilariously overzealous body guard, Happy Hogan. Another deviation from the other films is this one catches Tony at his most introverted. He will have to look inside himself to find a way to fight the evils that face him here:  his home comes under attack, as does Pepper and Stark now finds himself having to revert to basics to protect that which matters most to him now. Whereas in the first, and in particular the second one, most of the story was spent developing the world of Tony Stark, what he had within his physical capabilities.

The third iteration of the Iron Man is no novel idea, however. We’ve seen a plot like this in many other hero stories that have been converted to the big screen. Being the capstone to one of Marvel’s more successful franchises, Iron Man 3 pretty much necessitated that the plot be more formulaic than original. This is not to say it’s boring, or that the story is baseless. With a few exceptions, the Marvel comic’s story is well-adapted. As the audience for the contemporary story, we’ve reached a point where we feel we intimately know the man behind the suit, and with Black’s brand of humor infused in virtually every element, we get a script and story we not only like but deserve. Black’s tongue-in-cheek is a great send-off for Stark and while we can’t help notice the well-worn territory we walk through, the hilarious and heartfelt nature of Black’s storytelling is well worth the entry fee. And then some.

Extremis, a miraculous breakthrough ‘medicine,’ developed by another brainiac named Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), gives people the ability to regenerate body parts that have been lost to injury, birth defect or disease. Originally applied to plant life by another doctor years ago, Extremis is the latest business enterprise peddled by the overly excited Killian who is now trying to convince Pepper Potts, now CEO of Stark Industries, to invest in his think tank’s genius new idea. Seeing the obvious drawbacks to the methodology — in order for this to work, one has to have their DNA encoding manipulated, and you know, that just sounds kinda risky — Pepper turns Killian’s offer down. This sets in motion a series of events that will pit Stark’s love for himself against his love for another person in what can only be described as a battle of epic and laugh-out-loud proportions.

While the nature of being the final chapter in a trilogy tends to drown a piece in sentimentality, perhaps more than it rightfully should, the way Iron Man 3 closes out is surprisingly understated — despite the requisite gigantic action sequence at the end. I suppose that could easily be identified as a weaker ending than some might expect, but I honestly thought the conclusion fits quite well.

Along with a few rather large surprises, there is opportunity aplenty to go see this film multiple times in theaters and discover some new fun within its warped and twisted metal and gadgetry. In particular, Downey Jr.’s interaction with a Tennessee boy when he crash lands there on part of his mission to discover where and when the Mandarin has been attacking, is particularly entertaining, despite also being the movie’s most cliched moment. Thanks to the new director, it is actually these otherwise cheesy moments that wind up being some of the more humorous and attention-keeping. Black saw the second film, then realized that a Transformers-esque action-sequence that lasts forever does not a good movie make. He decides to play to his strengths, and fortunately, his strengths play much to our appeal.

oh-fuck-tony

4-0Recommendation: As a whole, the new Iron Man films have been very well received the world over. This third edition is as reliable as any of them for the thrills, laughs and commanding screen presence from Robert Downey Jr. Iron Man 3 also marks the reuniting of actor and director from the tongue-in-cheek 2005 murder-mystery Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. If that is any kind of marker, it is a decent predictor of the comedic rapport we’re going to experience between Shane Black and the Iron Man. Those who loved the first two are likely to not change their mind with this. And, of course, the story’s ultimate armor  is that even non-fans of the comic are apt to take warmly to this farewell.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 130 mins.

Quoted: “All right? Just play it cool, otherwise you come off grandiose.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com