REVIEW: “Solo: A Star Wars Story”

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Star Wars fans can be a surly, cynical, and often overly protective bunch. Trust me, I’m not saying that as some outside observer with his nose in the air. I myself am a proud, passionate, card-carrying member of that bunch. I adore Star Wars and it is indelibly etched into my entire life story. I have vested interests and sharp opinions on “Han shot first”, the midi-chlorian controversy, and the merits of the prequels. In other words I am a bonafide Star Wars geek.

Having defined myself, let me say I was one who had a handful of questions upon hearing of Disney’s “Solo: A Star Wars Story”. Is this a film we really need? Is it simply a cash grab or is there truly a great story to be told? Could they actually pull it off considering the iconic role wouldn’t be played by the man who made it – Harrison Ford?

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“Solo: A Star Wars Story” answers most of the questions lobbed it’s way, yet I still found myself having to make some fairly big mental adjustments. That mainly comes from the casting of Alden Ehrenreich in the title role. The film’s Herculean task of selling us a new Han Solo is absolutely essential. If we can’t buy into Ehrenreich the entire movie fails. That’s a brutal responsibility that I would never have the guts to take on. But Ehrenreich does take it on and does an impressive job of respecting the character while also making it his own. And while I didn’t always see him as the lovable scoundrel from my childhood, it’s a solid portrayal that doesn’t undermine what the movie is going for.

The film is written by franchise vet Lawrence Kasdan along with his son Jonathan and I wouldn’t say their story adds a ton to the vast Star Wars universe. But fans of the character will find more than enough to connect this movie to the Han Solo mythos. It answers a lot of questions you probably never had but has a lot of fun doing it. An unbridled fanboy like me had a blast seeing how Han acquired his iconic (that word again) blaster, learning about the Kessel run, and seeing him first lay eyes on the Millennium Falcon. Cool nuggets like those are spread throughout. Only the final act reveals things that shake up the universe in a very cool way.

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Ron Howard took the directing reigns from Phil Lord and Christopher Miller who were let go due to “creative differences”. Figuring out where Howard’s influence comes in is pretty difficult as the movie maintains a fairly consistent flow. It’s a bit slow out of the gate as it deals with Han’s life on the criminally-ran planet of Corellia. He and his love Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) make a vow to leave the oppressive planet together. Of course it’s never that easy. The two are separated during a failed escape and Han finds himself off-world with the smuggling crew of Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson). For Han it’s about making some quick money and going back for Qi’ra. Did I mention it’s never that easy?

The film picks up steam and uncurls into an exciting action-packed adventure. Throughout Han’s quest characters are brought in which give the story more weight. None are more welcome than Chewbacca who for the first time is treated as more than a Wookiee sidekick. For Chewie there are stakes to consider and meaningful decisions to be made. Then there is Donald Glover’s Lando who slickly captures Billy Dee Williams’ suave but slimy charisma. He’s a hoot. Both of these characters not only bring an entertaining nostalgic flavor to the overall movie, but both serve to give Han more depth and zest. Observing their growing relationships and camaraderie left my inner fanboy pleased.

As far as the new characters, Harrelson’s Beckett and Clarke’s Qi’ra, while dramatically different, both offer some interesting twists to the story. The film’s new droid (because they always seem to have one) is Lando’s navigator and companion L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) – an amusing character sure to tickle the political fancies of some while being downright bizarre to others. Also Paul Bettany shows up as Dryden Vos, a ruthless crime boss who has a history with Beckett and a connection with Qi’ra.

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“Solo” certainly delivers on the action. From its speeder chases to its gun fights to its space battles, it all has a very ‘space western’ feel. There’s plenty of CGI, most of it very good, but the film also seemed to incorporate a surprising amount of practical effects. That’s always good to see. And while the movie looks good as a whole, I was a bit concerned early on. For the first quarter of the movie the muted dark color palette became an issue. I think it was intended to show an ugliness of the world it was depicting, but I found it be too dim and dreary for its own good. Thankfully it’s a problem solved once we begin seeing other locations.

“Solo” is making news for not coming out strong at the box office the way Star Wars films have in the past. While it’s still making good money, many are already trying to figure out why it is underperforming. There are a number of potential factors, but I do hope it finds a bigger audience. Howard, Ehrenreich and company craft a fun and compelling romp that carefully walks the line between Star Wars fan service and old-school action/adventure. It doesn’t hit every note the way it wants, but it certainly came out far better that I expected. I appreciated its more narrow focus, I loved Chewie and Lando, and was excited by a final act that’s sure to confuse some and exhilarate others. Count me among the exhilarated ones.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

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Blind Spot Review: “Stranger Than Paradise”

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Jim Jarmusch’s reputation as a master of minimalist storytelling and an independent cinema trailblazer found its genesis in his 1984 film “Stranger Than Paradise”. This medley of low-key drama and deadpan comedy was startling at the time but would soon uniquely define much of Jarmusch’s work that would follow.

Going back to Jarmusch’s cinematic roots has been a joy. I came to his work late, first seeing and loving “Only Lovers Left Alive” and then last year’s “Paterson” which I loved even more. “Stranger Than Paradise” wasn’t Jarmusch’s first film. That would be his 1980 New York University senior project “Permanent Vacation”. But “Paradise” was his first major project despite its tiny budget. It would win the Caméra d’Or for best first feature at the Cannes Film Festival and go on to earn widespread critical acclaim.

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One of the funny things about “Stranger Than Paradise” is that it basically tosses out everything Jarmusch learned in graduate film school. From the very start it’s clear there is nothing traditional or conventional about the film. Take the decision to shoot it in beautiful and fitting black and white. Or the thinly plotted story with three rather aimless characters as the focus.

But perhaps the most profound departure from traditional cinema is the movie’s structure. Jarmusch shoots a collection of short scenes, each bookended by a fade-in and then a fade to black. Within every scene you’ll notice very little camera movement and not a single close-up for the entirety of the movie. They are individually staged segments which are then put together to tell the story. It’s an cool and crafty technique that helps give the film a unique personality.

The story is pretty simple and can be broken down in three acts that take place in three locations – New York, Cleveland, and Florida. Willie (John Lurie) immigrated from Hungary several years ago and has worked hard to perfect his vision of a bonafide New Yorker. That vision includes sleeping late in his tiny apartment, eating TV dinners, catching some movies, and earning some dough playing poker.

Willie’s routine is interrupted when he gets a call saying his cousin Eva (Eszter Balint) from Hungary is paying him a visit. She needs a place to stay for ten days then she’ll be off to Cleveland. At first she cramps Willie’s big city style and he lets her know about it. Even when his buddy Eddie (Richard Edson) takes a liking to her Willie is quick to shoot him down. But the longer she stays the more Willie likes having her around and when she heads off to Cleveland he misses her.

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Eventually Willie and Eddie decide to borrow a car and drive to Cleveland to visit Eva. Later the three of them take a road trip from Cleveland to Florida. Jarmusch plops us in the passenger seat and we ride along observing their laid-back adventure. There isn’t much to it really, yet it seems harmonious with the care-free aspirations of the characters. And the dry dead-pan humor feels perfectly in tune with the film’s style and tone.

Throughout “Stranger Than Paradise” I couldn’t help but feel a hip French New Wave vibe in the vein of early Godard, Truffaut, and Chabrol. The movie defines its own unique set of rules and then maneuvers them at its own pace. Jarmusch would go on to make several movies defined by their idiosyncratic flavor. They would often focus more on mood and character than plot. You see the roots for all of it in “Stranger Than Paradise” and even today it remains a fresh kick in the pants the film industry still needs.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “The Shape of Water”

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No one can deny Guillermo del Toro’s willingness to utilize every trick in the cinematic playbook to create a magnificent visual experience. He has built worlds through several genres including dark fantasy, gothic horror, superhero, and even creature features. Yet despite his keen eye, vivid imagination, and a consistent backing from critics, “Pan’s Labyrinth” is his only film I would call truly great.

His latest movie “The Shape of Water” has generated a ton of awards buzz and is even being compared by some passionate del Toro fans to 2006’s “Pan’s Labyrinth”. Regardless of some things it does well, “The Shape of Water” is no “Pan’s”. But enough with counterproductive comparisons. The point is “The Shape of Water” has a big following and a ton of momentum heading into Oscar season.

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“The Shape of Water” could be called many things – an offbeat fairytale, a political fable, an unconventional love story, an allegory for del Toro’s view of the world today. All of those descriptions fit to some degree or another, and del Toro plays with them with varying levels of success.

Del Toro’s story, with its pulsating Cold War vibe, takes place in 1962 Baltimore. The wondrously expressive Sally Hawkins plays Elisa, mute since birth, who lives in an apartment above an old movie house. She and her next door neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins) spend their time together watching old musicals and sharing their struggles. Both fit into one of del Toro’s more obvious themes – the plight of the marginalized.

Elisa works the night shift as a janitor at a secret government facility along with her close friend Zelda (a very good Octavia Spencer) who also fits within the marginalized theme. The facility has just acquired an “asset” pulled from a South American river – a tall, gilled amphibian-man accompanied by Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon). He is there to oversee the study of the creature and he’s clearly the film’s chief antagonist. Shannon is great and it’s a role he could probably do in his sleep. And as you would expect he is completely committed.

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But while undeniably menacing, Shannon (of no fault of his own) is also terribly on the nose. Much of del Toro’s more cynical point of view is encapsulated in Shannon’s character. He’s written to fit the mean old-fashioned Red State stereotype and through him del Toro gets to comment on religion, race and a host of other topics. But there is no subtlety whatsoever. You can practically hear del Toro beating his pulpit through much of Shannon’s dialogue.

Elisa’s curiosity and empathy help her to form a bond with the creature (yet another among the marginalized). She sneaks in the labratory and shares her lunch with the creature and plays it music on a portable record player. How is she able to have so much unguarded access to what is called “the most sensitive asset to ever be housed in the facility” and something we find out the Russians are after? There’s not a good answer to that, but they form a bond nonetheless. And after Elisa overhears talk of dissection, she knows she needs to bust the creature out.

As you watch you can’t help but see allusions to “The Creature From the Black Lagoon”, “King Kong” and even “Beauty and the Beast”. But del Toro pushes his creature fantasy further than any of those pictures. For some the film is genuinely romantic but I never had that sensation. The pacing doesn’t give the relationship time to germinate. And there are other things that get in the way – del Toro’s weird use of sexuality; a brief but bizarre dance number (I’ll leave it at that); and one scene which some have called the most beautiful moment in the film yet I couldn’t get over the sheer absurdity of how it played out. For me all of this underserved the romance the movie is trying to establish.

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While it has it’s narrative imperfections you can’t help but love the world del Toro visualizes. Inside the laboratory has a cold, harsh, metallic look. But outside the film takes on a gorgeous glow. Many images stand out for their beauty. It may be a bead of water dancing down a bus window or a brief camera pan across a movie house marquee right after a rain. The creature itself (played by long-time del Toro collaborator Doug Jones) is a fantastic creation made from traditional effects over CGI. Then you have Alexandre Desplat’s lovely, waltzy, heart-warming score which may be the best of the year. And of course the performances which are top-to-bottom fabulous.

It’s tough to know where to land on “The Shape of Water”. On one side you have a world so beautifully visualized, an enchanting classic movie vibe, top-notch performances, and a score that swept me away. On the other hand you have some glaring storytelling issues – an underserved romance, heavy-handed messaging that spells out instead of engaging, peculiar injections of nudity and graphic violence (sorry kids), and key scenes undercut by their goofiness. Yes, I know this is a fantasy picture and maybe I should be more imaginative, but when I’m thinking about these things as the movie plays – that’s a bummer. But did I mention how pretty the world is?

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “Star Wars: The Last Jedi”

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The mammoth success of 2015’s “The Force Awakens” shouldn’t have surprised anyone. Star Wars fans had ten years of anticipation built up since the last movie and when Disney purchased the property from George Lucas they immediately began touting a new installment. Now just two years later (not counting last year’s stand-alone film), an incredible $450 million for the latest episode’s opening weekend indicates the fire hasn’t died down one bit.

“The Last Jedi” is the eighth film in the series proper, the ninth Star Wars film overall. And while it has been intensely popular and profitable, the reactions have been all over the map. Some have heralded it “the best Star Wars film since Empire” while others are petitioning Disney to have it removed from canon. Regardless of where you land, everyone has to agree that “The Last Jedi” continues the franchise trend of epitomizing the ‘space opera’ concept.

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J.J. Abrams hands over the reins to Rian Johnson who both writes and directs episode VIII. Johnson has shown himself to be an intriguing filmmaker as evident by his movies “Brick” and the sci-fi mindbender “Looper”. But a Star Wars film is an entirely different animal, heavy with high expectations and an extremely passionate (and vocal) fanbase.

Johnson’s story offers franchise fans plenty to smile at and just as much to chew on. Several scenes call back to the original trilogy and the inspiration is undeniable. “The Force Awakens” not so subtly but effectively followed the blueprint of 1977’s “A New Hope”. You could say Johnson’s film is a melding of “The Empire Strikes Back” and “The Return of the Jedi”. The structure of some scenes are so similar you can’t help but recognize it.

But fear not, this is no ‘copy and paste’ rehash. Johnson has numerous fresh strokes and narrative angles that makes “The Last Jedi” feel completely of its own. Some of Johnson’s decisions have stoked the ire of certain fans, but he’s clearly trying to develop his own take on the universe. Because of this a couple of characters handed off by Abrams don’t quite get the attention. Is it because they don’t completely fit within Johnson’s vision? I’m not sure.

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“The Force Awakens” ends with Rey (Daisy Ridley) finding Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) on a remote island. Johnson drops his anchor and spends a lot of time on the island with Rey trying to convince Luke the Rebel Alliance needs him. She also seeks his help in understanding the Force and the powers she has discovered. But Luke has become a disillusioned hermit conflicted about his own legend and convinced the time of the Jedi has passed. Hamill’s performance may be his best yet and Ridley is such an asset. The two share several good scenes – some funny and some emotional.

Elsewhere in the galaxy the young rebellion led by General Leia (Carrie Fisher) is forced to evacuate their base after Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and the menacing First Order arrive. The pursuit that follows takes a big chunk of the film and includes the return of impetuous hot-shot pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), former stormtrooper turned resistance superstar Finn (John Boyega), and droid-of-all-trades BB-8. Fisher brings out a whole new layer of humanity to Leia that’s hinted at in the previous film but truly realized in this performance (sadly her last following her recent passing). Speaking of new layers, Kylo Ren has several of them and Johnson has made him into the most intriguing character of the new series.

“The Last Jedi” is the longest Star Wars film by a good 15 minutes and unfortunately you can tell. The first half has some big moments but it’s also a bit slow getting its footing. Johnson spends a tad too much time on the island only giving us baby steps of progression with Luke and Rey until finally getting in gear in the second half. The pursuit segment also has a few stumbles particularly involving a side mission with Finn and a new character Rose (Kelly Marie Tran). Aside from some pretty obvious logistical issues, their mission lacks energy. It also features a pretty bad CGI-heavy chase sequence that felt completely out of sync with the rest of the movie.

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At the same time there are many more things Johnson gets right especially in the second half where the intensity really amps up. I especially love the stress on characters and the personal bonds many of them share. And there is also the connections between the old and the new. I’ll be intentionally vague but this can be tricky ground for a filmmaker. Johnson nails it and none of these moments feel contrived or meaningless. Some had me wanting to cheer. Others brought tears to my eyes. The film also ends with an exhilarating final sequence that leaves the story in an interesting place, ready to be picked up in episode IX.

I can certainly understand fans having a lot of questions. I do myself. But that’s a big part of the fun when it comes to a Star Wars movie – wondering and speculating. “The Last Jedi” has some early pacing issues and a few things that simply don’t make sense. But it’s still a fantastic Star Wars experience filled with excitement, emotion and nostalgia. It also features a few of those truly great moments that franchise fans will forever link with this film. I know I won’t forget them and my inner fanboy is getting a bit giddy just thinking about them.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

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REVIEW: “Saw”

saw posterHere’s some useless information you may not know about me – I’ve never seen any of the “Saw” movies. At least not in their entirety. I’ve seen bits and pieces here and there but not enough to tell them apart or to even care. Frankly it’s a brand of horror that doesn’t appeal to me and what I’ve seen has given me no reason to spend my time on them. Yet that’s exactly what I did.

I decided to watch 2004’s “Saw” for several reasons. 1) It’s the Halloween season and what better time to catch up on some horror movies. 2) I discovered that the original “Saw” marked the feature film directorial debut for James Wan, the man behind the two “Conjuring” films which I happen to really like. 3) “Jigsaw”, the eighth film in the franchise (yes I said eighth), came out over the weekend. 4) It just happened to be on television.

Despite my general apathy for this franchise it has been incredibly successful. Starting in 2004 one “Saw” movie came out every year for seven years. Each film was made with a tiny budget yet each cleared $100 million at the box office with the exception of one. But it all sprang from Wan’s film which turned out to be a tad smarter and craftier than I expected.

The “Saw” franchise is synonymous with the term “torture porn” and deservedly so. But that’s a title earned by the sequels. Wan’s film is an exception. It’s unquestionably a horror film, but it’s just as a much a suspenseful mystery told with a surprising Hitchcockian flavor. Now don’t get me wrong, “Saw” doesn’t break new ground nor is it particularly good. But it is a far cry from what the franchise would become.

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A huge part of the movie takes place in one space – a filthy rundown bathroom. Inside two men wake up with no prior knowledge of how they ended up there. They are chained to walls opposite of each other and between them lies a body in a pool of blood. We learn the first man is Lawrence (Carl Elwes), a successful oncologist, husband, and father. The younger man is Adam (screenwriter Leigh Whannell), a streetwise photographer.

With seemingly no connections, the two try and piece together who put them in the room and why they are there. This is the basis for the mystery aspect of the story.  The horror side comes from Lawrence and Adam’s efforts to escape. There are some pretty graphic scenes but more of the focus is on the psychological. None of it is particularly scary but it’s just engaging enough to keep your attention. Danny Glover pops up as a police detective whose own case intersects with this one. Monica Porter is good playing Lawrence’s wife Alison.

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While a chunk of the film takes place in the bathroom, we spend a lot of time with Glover as well. Unfortunately his hunt for truth is fairly generic. There is also a lot of narrative backtracking through flashbacks that Wan leans heavily on. For the most part it works but it also feels like a necessary device. And while all the story pieces do eventually fit together, there is still a lot that we are expected to simply accept.

“Saw” is an interesting debut from James Wan. It should be commended for attempting to tell a compelling story and for extending itself beyond its tiny budget. But despite its good efforts “Saw” never fully clicks. It’s a far cry from the ridiculous gore-soaked torturefest the franchise has since become, but it still isn’t particularly good horror. At the same time it is a bit better than I expected.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

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 REVIEW: “Spider-Man: Homecoming”

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The film rights history for Spider-Man could best be described as complicated and a bit messy. Throughout the 80’s and early 90’s production woes, bankruptcies, and lawsuits all factored into the rights being shuffled from one studio to another. In 1999 Spider-Man was licensed to Columbia Pictures and parent company Sony and their first film landed in 2002. There was no sign of a Marvel Cinematic Universe in the works but surely the deals for Spider-Man, X-Men, and Fantastic 4 helped make it happen.

But then you get to the bad side of the deal. The MCU took off and has become a gold mine for Marvel Studios/Disney. The problem is those old deals are still in place meaning some of Marvel’s biggest properties couldn’t be a part of their shared world. But it’s amazing how a few missteps can change perpsectives. After their original series ran out of steam and they misfired on an attempted reboot, Sony has now partnered with Marvel Studios to allow Spider-Man into the MCU while Sony maintains their rights to the character.

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That brings us to “Spider-Man: Homecoming”, the webslinger’s first solo foray into the MCU. Well, sort of. It’s a solo Spider-Man movie in that Spidey is the main focus. At the same time “Homecoming” goes to great lengths to show off and stress its connection to the MCU. Watching it juggle these two ambitions is often exhilerating while at other times simply frustrating. In one sequence it feels like a Spider-Man story. Then the next scene has them telling us “Hey, remember this an MCU movie!”

The brightest spot in the entire film is Tom Holland who offers up the best Spider-Man to date. Writers Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Dale ask him to navigate through a lot of material, but they wisely skip putting us through yet another origin story. Instead we join Holland’s Peter Parker fresh off of his sample size of Avengers fame (as seen in “Captain America: Civil War”). He impatiently awaits another call to action from Tony Stark aka Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.). Tony doesn’t feel Peter is ready for the big stage but that doesn’t stop Peter’s incessant youthful badgering.

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So in the meantime he spends his nights fighting neighborhood crime and his days making his way through his sophmore year of high school. Getting back to a younger Peter Parker is a welcome change and Holland is a fun fit. His best moments are inside the suit. He’s no highly polished professional superhero. He sometimes flubs up and makes a mess of things which feeds some of the film’s funniest moments. There are genuine emotions of fear and uncertainty as well. But there is also the boyish wisecracking which Holland and the screenwriters handle better than anyone from the past films.

Outside of the suit things get a little murkier but at no fault of Holland. Instead it’s the hit-or-miss mishmash of expanded characters particularly his schoolmates. Take Peter’s best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon), a one-dimensional character with some funny lines but who is never allowed outside of his role as nonstop comic relief. Then there is Liz, a senior and Peter’s love interest. She’s played by 27 year-old Laura Harrier who not only looks older than the other students but barely musters a spark of chemistry with Peter. There are also re-imagining choices that are sure to drive some Spidey fans nuts – Tony Revolori as an utterly unconvincing Flash Thompson and Marisa Tomei plays a more modern, sexier May Parker. Not certain why we needed that.

But those aren’t the only areas “Homecoming” attempts to rewrite. Gone is the simple Spider-Man suit of the past secretly made by a smart, innovative kid from Queens. This is the MCU therefore Tony Stark has a hand in everything. That means a Spidey suit with an advanced holographic interface, drone technology, and the most jarring addition, a built-in AI companion (voiced by Jennifer Connelly). Another example of the film stripping the character from the intimacy of his world for the sake of the franchise.

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But it doesn’t stop there. There is yet another story thread featuring the film’s antagonist Adrian Toomes. He’s played by the always entertaining Michael Keaton. Toomes is no psychopath intent on taking over New York. He has a down-to-earth complexity which Keaton handles with ease. He disappears for chunks at a time which is a shame. Keaton is really good and I would have loved to have spent more time with him than with some of the mandatory franchise stuff.

“Homecoming” has been met with some high praise but I’m still unsure where I land on it. It gets a lot right most importantly Tom Holland and a perfect tone for a young budding Spider-Man. Keaton is fantastic, Downey, Jr. is as quick-witted as ever, the humor often lands, and many of the franchise connections work. But those same franchise connections constantly yank the film away from its more intimate story. A handful of creative choices do the same. Pulling a movie away from its roots for the sake of modernization and in service to a franchise isn’t always a good thing. Thankfully the strengths of “Homecoming” outweigh the weaknesses, but just barely. 

VERDICT – 3 STARS

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