Year in Review: 2018 on Thomas J! (Part 1 of 2)

It has been some time since I went overboard and put together one of these long-winded end-of-year summaries; I think the last time I did anything like this was when I last “hosted” my own little version of the Academy Awards presentation — circa 2016, I think? Long-time readers remember this annual feature as The DigiBread Awards — this was back in the day when the site was Digital Shortbread, a name that I changed in January of 2017, mostly out of a feeling that too many people thought I was trying to start a bakery or confectionery or something.

I would like to take this time to thank my incredible (and patient) readers for staying aboard this choo-choo train, slowly but surely chugging along. This year has been the least active year I have had since beginning the site seven years ago, yet here we are — at the precipice of another. Proud of being able to see things through when the going got tough. And though it saddens me to see so many familiar faces disappearing, that is how life works. There is a thing called change, and while I am not quite ready to move on yet from this, I understand why others have. Blogging is a really time-consuming activity that can easily become a grind.

Now that we have all of the mush out of the way, here is a month-by-month breakdown of what went down on Thomas J in 2018. But so as to not completely overwhelm, I am breaking this . . . break-down into two parts. This post includes reviews posted from January until June. Part 2 will feature reviews done July through December.


January

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Oh yeah, that’s right! I took January off. Writer’s block reared its ugly head early, despite a few pickings that looked quite good (Molly’s Game, the directorial début of the master of walk-and-talk-scenes Aaron Sorkin; the profusely praised Call Me By Your Name expanded wide; also Mom and Dad, a whacko-sounding genre film featuring Nic Cage and Selma Blair as parents who “maniacally turn on their children while in the grip of a mysterious 24-hour frenzy;” and The Insult racked up impressive critical ratings but I never had a chance to seek it out).

February

And now Thomas J shows some signs of life. Two new reviews. A few Oscar predictions. (You can check those out as part of my monthly round-up right here.)

The Commuter: a decent post-Taken Liam Neeson thriller that offered the same kinds of thrills fans have come to expect from the actor-director (Jaume Collett-Serra) tandem, albeit on a more mellow level. You may not get any memorably threatening lines delivered over the phone here, but there is a pretty cool song by Cosima (“Unnamed”) that pops up in a passenger’s headphones/as part of the soundtrack. So that was cool.

 

The Cloverfield Paradox: Man, this thing really wasn’t very good. But you know what? I am just as not-very-good at going back to give things a second chance. I ripped this supposed franchise-expanding chapter a new black hole, but I probably went too hard on it. No, I didn’t? Well that’s good to know. Now I don’t have to go back!

 

March

On the positive side, March was the month that delivered Annihilation*. I was fortunate to catch Alex Garland’s follow-up to his exciting début (the high-concept sci fi trip from 2014, Ex Machina) in theaters. So I thank March for that. Unfortunately, March also saw the passing of iconic physicist Stephen Hawking. I was actually quite saddened by that loss, so I wrote a tribute to him.

Annihilation: from my review — “The best of Annihilation plays upon the deepest recesses of the mind, opening the floodgates for extrapolation and interpretation.” Further, I add (in a typically sensationalist way) that “Annihilation is the reason why I love not only going to the movies, but writing about my experiences with them as well. I felt transformed by this.”

 

 

Unsane: A heady, twisty-turvy psychological thriller that benefits from star Claire Foy’s strong turn. This was my introduction to the British actress, playing a young woman fearing for her safety after her stalker appears to have tracked her down at a mental institution. Given that director Steven Soderbergh decided to shoot the film on an iPhone, I’m sure more people will remember how the film was made rather than what it was about. And while the grainy quality of the picture at times was indeed a distraction, I was pretty impressed with the amount of tension that was wrung out of the narrative.

One and Not Done: With the 2017-’18 college basketball season coming to a close, I thought it would be appropriate to talk about this 30 for 30 film, which explores the career of collegiate basketball coach and gadfly John Calipari. If you consider yourself a college basketball fan, this is mandatory viewing.

 

 

April

April showers bring . . . what’s this? Awesome horror debuts? That’s right, folks. Everyone’s favorite Office drone puts on a brave and bearded face in his very first horror feature. April showers also bring: a bunch of crap. (Rampage; Blumhouse Presents: Truth or Who Cares**; the hilariously poorly titled The Humanity Bureau, etc . . . )

A Quiet Place: narratively taut, effectively tense and occasionally terrifying and featuring an innately likable family doing their best to survive in a post-apocalyptic world overrun by creatures that hunt by sound, A Quiet Place announced John Krasinski as a stud of a first-time horror director. Though I really need to stop using that phraseology. The guy has made movies before, but this one really hit in a big way with critics and audiences alike. Good for him, he deserved it.

 

Isle of Dogs: who can resist a Wes Anderson movie — one rendered in stop-motion and about man’s best friend, no less? I adored Isle of Dogs. It was exactly what I expected — even if there is a bit more of that ” . . .as well as for worse” starting to subtly creep in. Anderson is an incredibly visually inventive storyteller, but comedy-wise he is rather predictable. (I say that now; he could prove me wrong by making something entirely different in his next film. Somehow I doubt it, and I will welcome it all the same. Charming is Wes Anderson’s middle name.)

May

Another mini blogging vacation. This was a planned break. I barely saw any movies this month***, however I did manage to see Tully, a sweet but hardly sentimental drama about a single mom trying to make ends meet. While it featured a great Charlize Theron as Marlo, alongside an equally fascinating Mackenzie Davis as the title character — a night nanny named Tully — the film, written by Diablo Cody, concluded in such a bizarre way that I thought took a lot away from the authenticity that made the rest of the film so engrossing.)

June

Found me playing a little catch-up.

Deadpool 2: did you see Deadpool 1? There you go. (At least I was able to prevent Ryan Reynolds from dominating my review this time.)

 

 

 

Solo: A Star Wars Story: not everyone wanted a Solo spinoff. But we got one, oh boy did we ever get one! Alden Ehrenreich bravely stepped into the cynical shoes of Harrison Ford’s bad-boy space cargo pilot, and while it wasn’t the performance of the decade — I realize no one’s hanging posters of Ehrenreich on their bedroom walls — he surprised me with his confidence. This movie was really a lot of fun and you’re just a party-pooper if you resisted the Force on principle. Come on! Like this thing as much as me!!!!!

Tag: a fairly inconsequential movie but far from a waste of time, this based-on-a-true-story action/comedy finds a group of adult friends wildly devoted to perpetuating their favorite childhood game. From my review — “A bromantic occasion in the vein of The Hangover, yet somehow even less “culturally, aesthetically and/or historically significant,” this is the kind of entertainment that goes down GREAT with buttered popcorn (or even unbuttered . . . if you’re weird).”

Stay tuned for Part 2 . . . 


* correction, March was actually when i published my reaction. The film came out February 23, and given its really limited run in theaters, it is highly unlikely I actually waited until March to see it.
** ACTUALLY TITLED TRUTH OR DARE, BUT SERIOUSLY . . . WHO CARES? 
*** FORGOT ABOUT INFINITY WAR, OF COURSE. 

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