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.”

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Captain America: Civil War

'Captain America - Civil War' movie poster

Release: Friday, May 6, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Christopher Markus; Stephen McFeely

Directed by: Anthony & Joe Russo

Standing in a line of about 200 rabid fans an hour before the screening I was asked by a woman in line — a hot mom actually — if this was the line for the Avengers movie. I really wanted to tell her, “No, this is for Captain America,” but who am I kidding, this is totally an Avengers movie. And so I was like, “Yeah,” and she was like, “Cool,” and then we both just went back to our lives.

That Captain America: Civil War is closer in spirit to one of those ultra-blockbusters is actually good news for me as I’ve never really stood behind Captain America. The Boy Scout/super-soldier kind of ruffles my feathers for some reason, and that’s through no fault of Chris Evans either. Nevertheless there I was, middle of a mob on a Saturday afternoon, the manufactured product of a month-long brainwashing program designed to win my allegiance toward either Team Steve or Team Tony.

Civil War is a film whose emotional upshot takes an eternity to eventuate, but when it does it’s actually well worth the two-and-a-half-hour sit. Steve and his embattled friend Bucky, a.k.a. The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) are at the heart of a complex moral, emotional and psychological battle that divides the Avengers — all but Hulk and Thor, of course, who are off galavanting elsewhere — straight down the middle when they are asked to sign the Sokovia Accords, a peacekeeping effort drawn up by the United Nations in response to the concerns of a growing population that thinks the Avengers are doing more harm than good.

After yet another disaster, this time in Wakanda at the hands of Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen, who has completely given up on trying to sound Russian at this point), in steps Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt) to give everyone a choice: either agree to the sanctions, to be potentially overruled in any given situation if it is deemed necessary . . . or retire from the superhero biz.

And then everyone seems to get really mad. Needless to say, the stakes are high this time, higher than they were when Loki was trying to divide and conquer from within all those movies ago, if you can believe it . . . (wasn’t it pretty much doomsday then, too?) One side argues for their continued autonomy while the other, surprisingly spearheaded by a guilt-ridden Tony, believes having a watchdog might help prevent future awkward encounters with any living relatives of people he has inadvertently killed.

Thanks to Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, two writers keen to redress familiar characters under this new guise of bitterness, distrust and uncertainty, there are equally compelling reasons to join either camp. In fact as Civil War progresses it gets ever more entrenched in the complexities of this ideological conflict. The appearance of a cold German militant named Baron Helmut Zemo (Daniel Brühl), the one behind an earlier attack on the UN that claims the life of Wakanda King T’Chaka, father of T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), inspires Steve to ignore new-age protocol as he attempts to stop Zemo from unleashing a secret arsenal of other Winter Soldiers being kept in cryogenic stasis at a Hydra facility in Siberia.

Civil War, like Tony and Steve, has a lot on its plate, but it wisely (and creatively) spreads the workload across its many players. Even if Downey Jr. takes this opportunity to effect a more somber version of his character than we’re used to seeing, that famous acerbic wit is never lost with the integration of Scott Lang/Ant Man (Paul Rudd) and Tom Holland’s amazingly acne-free Peter Parker/Spider Man. Black Panther digs his claws in with menacing presence and a lot of righteous anger. Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye returns as do Anthony Mackie’s Falcon and Paul Bettany as the visionary . . . Vision.

Even though giving each their time to shine means taking some away from Evans, extended interactions between less famous figures are more than welcome and give these individuals purpose within the context of the cinematic retelling of their own journeys. Bettany is perhaps the highlight, his loyalty to protecting the lone Maximoff twin from destruction following her actions in Wakanda offering a miniaturized version of the conundrum facing Iron Man and Captain America. And then there’s Black Panther’s determination to take out the one responsible for his father’s death.

For all of the potential devastation that is implied Civil War isn’t a dour affair. It doesn’t dwell in misery, and it really could have. There’s a melancholy vibe here, but the Russo brothers seem comfortable conforming to Marvel’s standard of finding levity amidst dire circumstances, injecting humor into scenes that would otherwise trend DC-dark. (God forbid that ever happen.) A movie with ‘war’ in its title going the comedy route is a risky proposition, and though this isn’t devoid moments of weakness, the continued expansion of a world parallel to ours allows them to pass quickly. There’s so much going on that Civil War all but demands repeat viewings. Eight years into the game, that’s a very good thing for the MCU.

I wonder what the hot mom thought about all of it.

Screen Shot 2016-05-09 at 1.03.32 AM

Recommendation: With the slightly-famous actors as comfortable as ever in their respective roles, Civil War benefits from the intersection of emotionally resonant performance and thoughtful, crafty storytelling. People like me — non-Captain fans — benefit greatly from the distraction of the other people around him fighting for what they believe is right for the future of the Avengers. A solid realization of a very complicated time, and the balance struck herein makes it one of my favorites of the entire MCU canon thus far.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 146 mins.

Quoted: “Okay, anybody on our side hiding any shocking, or fantastic abilities they’d like to disclose, I’m open to suggestion.” 

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Mortdecai

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Release: Friday, January 23, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Eric Aronson

Directed by: David Koepp

Charlie Mortdecai has a sensitive gag reflex. He endearingly calls it a ‘sympathetic gag.’ After seeing Johnny Depp embrace an entirely new level of bizarre here, I’m pretty sure I’ve developed something similar, except mine’s not out of sympathy. I’m genuinely disgusted by how bad this movie is.

If like me at my apparently most vulnerable you were unfortunate enough to stumble into a theater only to have Johnny Depp harass your sense of humor and goodwill for slightly more than an hour and a half, you might agree that there is a huge difference between the gags featured in decent comedies and the ones provided here. Two types of gags activating two completely different parts of your body.

The apple of Charlie’s eye, his so-called great love Johanna (Gwyneth Paltrow), gags in the film because she is taken aback by her man’s interest in sprouting hair on his upper lip. A fashion faux pas at the very least, the mustache might be the funniest bit of the entire film. Mortdecai is an unmitigated disaster from start to finish. If anyone’s in need of an explanation as to why I would willingly put myself through something that sounds this bad, I need only to refer you to some of the media I have included with this review. I hardly gag in response to a mustachioed Olivia Munn. No siree. Nope.

A plot synopsis is as follows: Depp aims to get to the bottom of the theft of a particular Goya painting, or something or other. As a man who dabbles in more than just facial hair and beautiful women, his character caricature is both financially and personally invested in the stolen art. His recent coming into debt compels him to find it, as does a recent visit from Inspector Alistair Martland (Ewan McGregor, the poor chap), a man who has had a thing for Johanna ever since he first laid eyes on her. (When she’s saddled with a douchebag of Mortdecai’s stature, who can blame him?) Together, the art snobs and Constable Can’t Get Any travel the world over to locate the missing Goya, thought to bear a code somewhere on it potentially leading to a stash of untold amounts of Nazi gold.

The prime suspect is — well, it doesn’t matter who that is. Essentially everyone’s a suspect, even Mortdecai but after he’s kidnapped by Russian mobsters and his very ability to reproduce is threatened in no small way — how about some electrocuted bollocks to go along with this heaping helping of what the fuck? — it’s clear that Mortdecai, in spite of himself, hasn’t actually taken the precious artwork for himself. Jock will back him up on that, too. Jock (Paul Bettany), referred to as Mortdecai’s man-servant no less than 70 million times because repeating already lame jokes always seems to do the trick with audiences, is a good bloke despite his zipper problems. That he’s always got Charlie’s back takes precedence over his incredible womanizing abilities. Believe it or not, he’s the most likable character of the whole lot. I’m still scratching my head though as to why he signed on for this one.

People are going to be gunning for Depp after this one. That much is certain. But his colorful performance actually triggered some chuckles deep within. Maybe I feel dirty for admitting that. But he’s not the overriding issue with David Koepp’s impossibly dumb movie. The real killing blow is Mortdecai‘s inability to realize it’s potential. Or to even care about it! It can’t take itself seriously for even one second. Majority of the gags do not land, save for the physical ones that land on the floor; the characters are off-the-map ridiculous (Olivia Munn as a nymphomaniac — makes sense, if you’re going to cast someone that beautiful she may as well be a sex addict too; Jeff Goldblum is in the frame for all of two minutes, but suddenly collapses after being poisoned — I’m not sure if that was in the script or just his subtle way of saying “get me out of this farce”); the humor is too low-brow and monotonous even if occasionally it strikes a nerve. Nothing scatological here, but nothing memorable either.

An adaptation of Kyril Bonfiglioli’s comedy anthology, Don’t Point That Thing At Me, this movie is elegant in its failings. It’s difficult to imagine this squeezes out any of the zest of that book series. Unfortunately this is a production so feeble in its construction and so ill-advised in its overwhelming inanity it’s highly unlikely I’ll get around to checking out the source material. For higher-quality entertainment, you’d be better off getting your balls zapped by some angry Russians.

johnny-depp-and-paul-bettany-in-mortdecai

1-0Recommendation: This was pretty bad. I . . . I don’t know if I recommend Mortdecai on any level to anyone outside of those with a penchant for s. (I think that’s what led me into this theater, along with the three other poor saps that were there with me. Here I was, thinking my taste in movies was pretty decent . . . )

Rated: R

Running Time: 107 mins.

Quoted: “I had no idea I was so deep in Her Majesty’s hole!”

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Transcendence

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Release: Friday, April 18, 2014

[Theater]

Lol, uh. . .wut?

Well, this WAS supposed to be the ‘don’t-give-up-yet-on-Johnny-Depp’ movie, one that would give the colorful thespian room to breathe without his usual cloak of weirdness. . .no Captain Jack Sparrow accent, no scissor hands and no crazy Tonto face paint this time. In a cruel twist of fate, Depp is rewarded for his refreshingly restrained performance by playing one of the most outlandish characters he’s ever been handed, an ill-fated scientist who ends up having to communicate through an advanced computer system in what can only be described as the best performance ever committed via Skype.

Sound strange? That’s barely the tip of the iceberg.

This, the debut film from acclaimed cinematographer Wally Pfister — yes, Christopher Nolan’s Wally Pfister since Batman Begins  starts out as a rather unsuspecting sci-fi/mystery but quickly devolves into a thoroughly unbelievable and downright laughable affair that only gets more mysterious by the minute (a compliment, that is not). First-time direction from Pfister, coupled with Jack Paglen’s first major motion picture screenplay, creates an atmosphere that recalls a particularly acid-trippy episode of The X Files. So much for Depp coming across as normal.

Drs. Will (Depp) and Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) Caster are brilliant scientists on the cutting edge of technology with their research in the field of artificial intelligence. Together they yearn to create a computer with the collective human consciousness uploaded to it — an advanced machine like the world has never seen before. Such experiments have of course drawn massive publicity of both the positive and negative variety, and after a presentation one afternoon Will is gunned down by some anti-technology extremist. The shot itself isn’t fatal, but unfortunately for Will and Evelyn the bullet was coated in radioactive material which has infected his blood. In his dying days, Will watches as his wife and their long-time friend and fellow researcher Max (Paul Bettany) tempt what they only think is conceivable and not necessarily doable at the moment.

(Please don’t laugh at me in the comments when you read the next part. I am just the messenger here.)

They will try and upload Will’s consciousness into their computer system and keep him alive digitally since his brain/mind is in tact but his physical body clearly has been compromised. Just typing that conjures up images of a less gory Re-Animator. Except wacky, old Herbert West the med student might have had a more logical experiment going on in his lab.

Ethical boundaries begin to be flirted with (and later on prove to be violated) as Evelyn refuses to acknowledge the fact that once he’s dead, her husband will cease to be the man she has loved, and instead will only exist in some weird, nebulous cyberspace as a collection of pixels arranged on a screen his face happens to appear on. Pfister, in one of many ill-advised directorial movies, has Depp’s voice echo in a surround-sound like fashion whenever he’s on-screen following the. . .transformation. . . .to place emphasis on the concept that this man — this lunatic — hasn’t just merely disappeared inside a computer. He’s transcended human existence and can quite literally play God with the wealth of information and knowledge he now has.

The film’s only rational character Max isn’t so sure about the idea of his best friend being resurrected in a digital form. What good is going to come of this, he wonders as he notices Evelyn becoming more obsessed with the idea of keeping her husband alive. Meanwhile, the audience has checked out and is currently noticing that the cupholders in these particular armrests have no bottom to them so that’s why whenever you put your cell phone in there they fall right to the floor. Well, cool. Mystery solved!

In the meantime, Transcendence continues talking to itself in a language only it can understand. The characters are unsympathetic because they are completely kept out of our reach — we can’t really identify with or get behind any of them. Perhaps Max, but even then this connection is rather fleeting. The script is much too interested in stuffing technobabble down our throats than drawing us in with character development. In an area where Hall typically excels, she gives it her all to seem saddened by her loss as Will succumbs to radiation poisoning, and it comes close to making us feel somewhat human in this doggedly mechanical affair.

Boring, confusing and more often downright nonsensical, Transcendence fails to engage on any level and is perhaps the first film of 2014 that should be outright avoided at the theater.

rebecca-hall-in-a-white-hall

The very white Rebecca Hall in a very white hall. She looks even more cheesed off about the irony than I am. I guess that makes sense.

1-5Recommendation: Considering I’ve only just gotten over my sobbing about my disappointment in this final cut, I would have to pretty much recommend getting pneumonia over seeing this one. Well, okay. Maybe not pneumonia; that’s a bit extreme. Maybe a cold, though. It is quite simply ridiculous from the ground floor-up, on every level this movie makes no sense and refuses to try to explain itself.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 119 mins.

Quoted: “Where are you going?”

“Everywhere.”

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