Thursday, May 24, 2018

SOLO: A Passable STAR WARS STORY With No Real Surprises

Opening tonight at every multiplex from here to a galaxy far, far away:

SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY

(Dir. Ron Howard, 2018) 


Now that we’re starting to get used to the idea of having a new STAR WARS movie every year, here’s the highly anticipated young Han Solo adventure which fills in the intergalactic space smuggler’s back story. 

Fans will finally get to see how Han meet Chewbacca (and give him his nickname, Chewie), how he got his treasured blaster, how he won his beloved ship, the Millenium Falcon, from Lando Calrissian; and how the hell he ran the Kessel Run, first mentioned in the original 1977 film *, in under 12 parsecs.

Alden Ehrenreich plays the 28-year Han (we also see how he got his last name, and it’s kind of GODFATHER PART II-ish) who we first meet as a street thief in the lawless world of Corellia. Han and his girlfriend Qi’ra (a brunette Emilia Clarke, you know, the blonde who loves dragons from Game of Thrones) scheme to escape the drudgery of Imperial shipyard slums, but they get separated after a lightspeeder chase.

Han ends up joining the Empire to become a pilot, but because he’s Han, he gets expelled from the academy, and he meets up with a gruff as usual Woody Harrelson as Tobias Beckett, a criminal scoundrel with a crew who will give Han lessons in how to be a criminal scoundrel. One of the first lessons is, of course, trust no one.

Finnish basketball player Joonas Suotamo takes over from Peter Mayhew for Chewbacca whose first encounter with Han I won’t spoil, Westworld’s Thandie Newton plays Beckett’s lover/crime partner, and most importantly, a smooth as ice Donald Glover steps into Billy Dee Williams’ shoes as the iconic Lando, stealing every scene he’s in.

With respect to not spoiling plot points, I’ll just say that the premise involves a heist (will all the STAR WARS STORIES be heist flicks?) in which Han and crew set about stealing some of the plutonium-like Coaxium (McGuffin!) from mines on the planet Kessel for the slimy yet dapper crime lord Dryden Voss (Paul Bettany), who appears to have Han’s love, Qi’ra, under his command.

All the things you’d expect in a STAR WARS movie are here from tons of blaster fights, scrapes with storm troopers, quipping robots (Lando’s droid, L3-37, played by Phoebe Waller-Bridge fulfills that function), gripping space battles with TIE Fighters, etc. Well, everything, that is, except the Force.

For the first time, the Force isn’t part of the story. Nobody has it or speaks of it - I didn’t see any lightsabers - so this may be why Han doesn’t believe in it when we catch up with him in Episode IV.

SOLO is a fine sci-fi adventure that keeps moving so there is a fair amount of fun, but it was pretty much what I expected. Ron Howard, who took over from Phil Lord and Chris Miller (THE LEGO MOVIE, the 21 JUMP STREET films), assembles all the elements from the crisply coordinated set-pieces to the marks of the colorful ensemble with his well polished style, but I still would love to see what Lord and Miller would’ve done with it.

I was entertained plenty, but I still craved something more. There was nothing that I was surprised by - even a secret cameo in the third act didn’t mean much to me. Aldenreich is good in the title role, but I can’t say I really bought him as being the same character that Harrison Ford made so iconic. That’s probably because I’ve lived with Ford for forty years as the legendary scruffy headed nerfherder. A friend said that Aldenreich doesn’t look like Ford, but he looks like the character. I guess I can go with that, but it’s still hard to not think of Ford.

I can go with Glover’s Lando though – maybe he’s the one who should’ve gotten his own movie.

So SOLO is a predictable package that’s a passable STAR WARS STORY. The way it leaves room for a sequel is also really expected - i.e. there's no Jabba the Hut and Greedo here so that could be featured in a follow-up that’ll serve as yet another prequel to the first film. It’s obvious that Lucasfilm is planning on filling every gap in the shared universe of these narratives, so that there will be nothing left to the imagination. Forget the other franchise of the same name, this is the real NEVERENDING STORY.


* Click to find out why I’ll never refer to the first STAR WARS as A NEW HOPE.

More later...

Thursday, May 17, 2018

DEADPOOL 2: Very Familiar Formula, But Funny Enough

Now playing at a multiplex near everybody:

DEADPOOL 2 (Dir. David Leitch, 2018) 



Ah, Deadpool. You remember Deadpool, right? C’mon, you know him – he’s Marvel’s most meta character whose wise-cracks, crude antics, and bloody kills carry him, and us, through another familiar round of explosive action sequences.

And that’s what we’ve got in this follow-up to his 2016 debut, which I then called “the most hilarious Marvel movie yet.” This sequel doesn’t top the original, but it stands nicely beside it as it contains roughly the same amount of genuine laughs.

Ryan Reynolds, who also co-wrote and co-executive produced, again brings his extreme snark to the quipping anti-hero - anti-hero because he ends up killing more people than he saves – who we first become re-acquainted with as he attempts suicide via lying a top several big barrels of fuel and flicking a cigarette in the air to fall into one of them and blow himself to bits - which he does.

Of course, this being Deadpool, we know he survives this, but before we see his fate, Reynold’s Wade Willis (Deadpool’s real name - keep up!), tells us through voice-over that six weeks earlier he was on top of the world going on globe-trotting missions, and planning to have a family with his girlfriend Vanessa (Morena Baccarin), but (Spoiler!) she’s killed by some goon, and Deadpool loses his mojo big time.

A James Bondian credits sequence, or joke credit sequence, as no real names are displayed only lines like “Starring somebody who obviously didn’t want to share the spotlight,” follows which amusingly features a perfectly overwrought power anthem called “Ashes,” sung by CĂ©line Dion (that’s right).

After that, Deadpool sulks in misery around his friends from the first one - taxi driver Dopinder (Karan Soni), and bartender Weasel (T.J. Miller), but is given a new chance by the also returning Colossus (a CGI-ed Stefan Kapicic) to become a member of the X-Men, but as a trainee as he keeps getting reminded, mostly by, again another returning character, Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand), who now has a girlfriend, Yukio (Shioli Kutsuna).

On Deadool’s first day on the job, he encounters a 14-year-old boy (Julian Dennison) named Russell who calls himself “Firefist” and is threatening to burn down his orphanage, the Essex House for Mutant Rehabilitation, because he was abused by the Headmaster (Eddie Marsan at his ghastliest). At the stand-off, Deadpool breaks the X-Men’s rule of not killing anyone, and is captured along with Russell and taken to a prison for mutants called 
The Icebox. 

Meanwhile, in a very TERMINATOR-esque scenario, a mercenary mutant named Cable (Josh Brolin) from the future travels to the present to avenge the death of his wife and kid who he traces as being the work of Russell/Fire Fist. After a massive, chaotic prison break setpiece, Deadpool realizes his calling is to protect the kid from Cable, and, with Weasel’s help, recruits a crew to get him out of prison.

The team, which Deadpool dubs “X-Force” despite its derivativeness, that they assemble includes Terry Crews as Bedlam, who can manipulate electrical energy; Lewis Tam as Shatterstar, a really arrogant alien; Zazie Beetz as Domino, who says her power is being lucky; Bill Skarsgard as Zeitgeist, whose super power is spewing acidic bile; Vanisher, who’s invisible so they don’t know if he’s really there or not; and Rob Delaney as Peter, who has no powers, but saw the ad and thought it’d be fun.

A big over-the-top, and all-over-the-place sequence 
(which sort of reminded me of MACGRUBER) involving the X-Force assaulting a prison truck, transporting Russell, and other mutants, introduces (Spoiler?) Juggernaut, a giant ogre that was first introduced in “X-Men” comics in the ‘60s. Juggernaut, who is credited as being played by “Himself,” goes up against Colosus in the third act which takes place at the Essex House, where Deadpool bargains with Cable for 30 seconds to talk Russell out of killing the headmaster. 

Yes, a lot of these plot points, and a lot of the jokes, can be seen coming, but the film, directed by stuntman/filmmaker David Leitch who co-directed JOHN WICK, moves fast through them with a high ratio of gags that land hilariously. Of all of the many one-liners, I think I liked “I was fighting this caped badass, until I found out that his mom is also named Martha” the best. 

Despite its satiric trappings, Reynolds actually gets to effectively flex some dramatic chops a few times in scenes involving his lost love. Brolin puts in another strong stoic performance as Cable, coming right on the heels of his stand-out work in AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR, which is referenced here in a Thanos joke because of course it is.

DEADPOOL 2 is another round of more of the same. More riffing on WOLVERINE, more mockery of genre conventions (“tell me they got that in slow motion”) and the competition (“So dark. Are you sure you’re not from the DC Universe?”), more self-criticism (Deadpool calls out “lazy writing” more than once), and more ironic song cues including Dolly Parton’s “Nine to Five” and “The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow” from “Annie” playing during scenes of stylish violence. There’s even another jab at GREEN LANTERN, something Reynolds will likely be making fun of for the rest of his life.

But because the movie is consistently funny throughout I can let all this familiarity slide, and I bet audiences can too.

More later...

Friday, April 27, 2018

AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR: The Best And Worst Of Marvel Movie Motifs All In One Place

Now playing at every multiplex in the MCU:

AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR

(Dirs. Anthony Russo & Joe Russo, 2018) 


This highly anticipated superhero epic begins with the familiar montage of imagery of iconic characters quickly blending into the logo for Marvel Studios. The “I” and “O” in the capital letters though are highlighted this time as a “10,” which seems to shout “10 years of kicking every other franchise’s ass!”

And it’s true, since IRON MAN came out in 2008, the studio, under the wing of Disney, has put out an interlocking series of nearly 20 blockbusters that have formed a business model that very other movie series, from DC to STAR WARS and beyond, has been trying to emulate. I.e. everybody wants to have a Cinematic Universe just like Marvel’s.

AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR has been teased throughout Marvel’s movies mostly in after credits stingers which have featured a big bad ass villain named Thanos (a CGI-ed Josh Brolin, who wonderfully chews through CGI setpiece after CGI setpiece), and the ongoing MacGuffin of the infinity stones – six powerful highly sought after different colored gems that can be used to destroy planets and conquer the universe.

So the Avengers join forces with the Guardians of the Galaxy, Dr. Strange, and Black Panther, among others, to stop Thanos from getting the Infinity Stones through another round of over-the-top battles that really wore me out in its crammed packed last third.

But large chunks of the movie are a lot of fun. Robert Downey Jr., whose ninth time this is in the role of Tony Stark/Iron Man, is again an enjoyably funny presence as he continues his mentorship to Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tom Holland), and snarkily sparring off with Benedict Cumberbatch as Dr. Strange, and an equally amusing Chris Pratt as Peter Quill/Starlord.

The Guardians of the Galaxy, who hit the screen to the Spinner’s “Rubberband Man” (an obvious nod to their ‘70s mixtape soundtrack trope), are granted with a lot of screen-time as Gamora (Zoe Saldana) is Thano’s daughter, something that I guess was revealed in a previous movie but I didn’t remember it, and Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and a now teengage Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) split with the others including Mantis (Pom Klementieff), and Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista) to accompany Thor (Chris Hemsworth) to some other realm to get some weapon to take Thanos down with.

The audience I was in cheered when the movie cut to the lavish, and, of course, fictional African nation of Wakanda, ruled by T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), obviously because his film, BLACK PANTHER, which just came out a few months ago was one of the biggest hits of the MCU (and of all-time), and considered a game changer for the franchise. Boseman’s T’Challa brings the goods, but his part despite that Thano’s army of crazy four-armed alien creatures invades Wakanda, is essentially a glorified cameo.

Same goes for Chris Evans returning as Steve Rogers, the retired Captain America, which is maybe because his last movie was basically an AVENGERS entry that he was the star of. Also on the side is Rogers’ buddy Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), along with Paul Bettany as Vision, and Elizabeth Olsen as Wanda Maximoff /Scarlet Witch, who figure in because Vision has one of the Infinity Stones embedded in his head, but, as committed as Bettany and Vision are in their parts, the characters have never really resonated for me.

What also didn’t do much for me was a lot of strained quasi-Shakespearean exposition between or during action sequences that came off like with the actors over emoting about gods, the cosmos, the universe and everything in order to elevate the proceedings (even Peter Dinklage, in his appearance as Eitri the Dwarf King, lays it on a bit thick). Like everything else in the last 45 minutes or so, this was a bit much.

I preferred the comical elements such as Mark Ruffalo’s exasperating and failing struggle to Hulk out throughout the film, the multitude of one-liners like Quill telling Stark, “Let’s talk about this plan of yours - I think it’s good, except it sucks, so let me do the plan, and that way, it might be really good,” and, no surprise here, the Stan Lee cameo.

So AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR is the best and worst of all of the Marvel movie motifs all in one place. It’s overstuffed, overlong, and at times overwrought, but a lot of it is immensely entertaining, and often hilarious. Most fans will love it – or most of it – while non fans will dismiss it as a bunch of nonsensical bombast. You know, like every other Marvel movie.

James Cameron, who has multiple AVATAR sequels in the works, was recently quoted as saying that he hopes “we’ll start getting AVENGER fatigue here pretty soon.” Well, fatigue has set in before in the franchise (see IRON MAN 2, the first two THORs, DR. STRANGE, etc.) and did indeed set in towards the end of this, but its satisfyingly dark cliffhanger of a conclusion made my second (or third?) wind kick in. That helped to get me through the thousands of names of SFX Technicians, and Digital Artists to get to the post credits scene, which is something you’ll want to wait for too.

More later...