Thursday, October 11, 2018

FIRST MAN: The Film Babble Blog Review

Opening tonight at multiplexes from here to the stars:

(Dir. Damien Chazelle, 2018) 

Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to his Oscar-winning smash LA LA LAND, is a quietly profound adaptation of James R. Hansen’s 2005 biography of Neil Armstrong. Chazelle re-unites with his LA LA LAND lead Ryan Gosling, who brings his patently stoic presence to the part of Armstrong as we follow him on his epic journey from edgy test flights to the historic Apollo 11 mission to the moon in 1969.

Even though one knows exactly how this film will end, Josh Singer’s (SPOTLIGHT, THE POST) screenplay provides a strong sense of danger as the road to space is littered with casualties including Ed White (Jason Clarke), who was the first American to walk in space; Elliot See (Patrick Fugit), and Gus Grissom (Shea Whigham).

This is never off the mind of Armstrong’s spouse, Janet Shearon, played by The Queen’s Claire Foy, who makes the most of the standard worried wife back at home role. Foy, utilizing a convincing American accent, appears to have trouble emotionally connecting with her husband, who Gosling coldly plays except for in the scenes set in space. The point apparently being that Armstrong’s real love was the stars. This is probably why they got divorced years later (not covered in the film, of course).

Aided by cinematographer Linus Sandgren, who shot LA LA LAND, Chazelle paints an impressionistic picture of the space race era in which they show more than they tell what went down. This adds to the film’s dream-like feel at times, especially in dealing with haunting flashbacks to before Armstrong’s 2-year old daughter died, something that reminded me of the abstract approach of Denis Villeneuve’s ARRIVAL.

Since I’ve grown up on the stories of the moon mission, and seen countless re-tellings of how the men and women of NASA struggled to reach the final frontier (in other words, there’s no way this wouldn't have some of the stuff that’s in THE RIGHT STUFF), many of the aesthetics here are very familiar – having 2001-ish style strings during one sequence for instance – but the lucidity of how authentic everything comes across from the period stylings to how dead on the imagery of the moon looks made for an immersive experience all around.

Cazelle wisely decides to stick with what the astronauts – Gosling’s Armstrong, and Corey Stoll’s Buzz Aldrin – saw through cramped capsule windows, or their lunar helmets, and the effect makes you feel like you’re getting what the incredible experience really looked like.

For much of FIRST MAN, the only thing that broke up the visually poetic spell for me was Gosling’s dead eyed performance. But when his eyes light up at the view of the heavens that very few humans have seen (also when giving a speech about said experience), one can get what the film has to say about the character, the real man, and his fantastic adventure that is faithfully and beautifully recreated.

More later...

Thursday, October 04, 2018

VENOM: A Complete Tonal Misfire With No Sense Of Fun

Opening tonight at a multiplex near everyone:

VENOM (Dir. Ruben Fleischer, 2018)

o get this straight, this isn’t a Marvel movie – it’s an “In Association With Marvel” movie. That means that it’s not part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe; it’s the beginning of Sony’s Marvel Universe because Sony owns Spider-man, and Venom started out as a character in the Spidey-verse.

Or something like that. Anyway, I only knew Venom from SPIDER-MAN 3, in which he was played by Topher Grace, as I’m pretty comics illiterate, so I had no real expectations for this origin story. I was just hoping for a fun sci-fi action picture, but what I got was this terrible, tortured slog – an ugly, sticky, tangled mess, much like its title character.

Tom Hardy, with a strained American accent, plays Eddie Brock, an investigative journalist with a TV show (think Anderson Cooper as played by Jeremy Renner), who loses his job after going after evil genius billionaire Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed). This also ends Eddie’s engagement to his love, Anne (Michelle Williams with long straight blonde hair that doesn’t move), who immediately leaves him.

Meanwhile, there’s been these alien symbiote things that have been taking over people’s bodies wrecking havoc and Ahmed’s Drake is trying to control them in his Life Foundation lab which is built into a mountain side across the bay from San Francisco as we see in countless establishing exterior shots. Jenny Slate (SNL, OBVIOUS CHILD) plays one of Drake’s scientist assistants who decides to be a whistle blower and expose her boss’s deadly experiments with the help of Eddie, who she brings to the lab.

You know what happens then – Brock gets this thing “up his ass” (his words), and becomes embedded with powers which makes him a sweaty, always hungry, spastic, obnoxiously over-the-top jerk, who take out leagues of attackers with black, shiny shard like arms thrusting from his body. It’s not pretty.

Eddie also hears the symbiote, who hates being called a “parasite,” talk through him in a garbled, jarring voice (Hardy’s voice modified) that goads him on, puts him down (calls him “pussy” when he takes an elevator instead of jumping out a window of a high rise), and throws out one-liners, many of which fall flat.

The rest of the narrative is un-engaging, and poorly paced as it goes through the motions of a motorcycle chase through the streets, battles with a bunch of standard issue black-clad thugs, a count-down to a launch that must be thwarted, and tons of empty spectacle made up of unimpressive CGI.

VENOM is a complete tonal misfire which can be largely blamed on its dreadful, witless screenplay by Jeff Pinkner, Scott Rosenberg, and Kelly Marcel which even tries to make “Have a nice life” be a burn more than once. Even at its most watchable, the whole movie just feels off. Hardy does his damnest, but just doesn’t gel with the character – either character of Eddie or Venom, and at times his hyper acting made me cringe with embarrassment for him. However, I blame the material because I’ve seen him do way better before.

Despite it being a dud, fanboys will just have to see it because you know completism, and there’s, of course, a few stingers – a mid-credits scene that has an intriguing cameo, and an extended post credits teaser for the animated SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE movie coming out this December.

Those tagged on bits are actually fun, but that so calls attention to how all the VENOM nonsense that preceded them so wasn’t.

More later...

A STAR IS BORN: Bradley Cooper & Lady Gaga Soar In Stellar Remake

Opening tonight everywhere:

(Dir. Bradley Cooper, 2018)

I had a feeling going in, from the high amount of positive buzz, that this film was going to be good, but I really didn’t expect it to be the emotionally powerful experience that it is.

Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut is the third remake of the 1937 classic, A STAR IS BORN, but you don’t have to have seen that, or the 1954 or 1976 versions to recognize the premise: a tragic romance in which one star rises while the other one fades.

Cooper, who also co-produced, co-wrote the screenplay, and co-wrote some of the songs, plays Jackson Maine, a country rock star who we first meet shredding his guitar in front of thousands of cheering fans. Well, actually the first shot is of him taking pills and downing some liquor backstage before that moment, but I digress.

We follow the drunk Jackson after the show as he gets his driver (Greg Grunberg) to take him somewhere, anywhere that serves alcohol only to find himself at a drag bar being serenaded by Lady Gaga as Ally, the one woman they let perform at the place because, well, she’s Lady Gaga.

Jackson is immediately smitten with Ally, and so is Cooper’s cinematographer, Matthew Libatique (PI, REQUIEM FOR A DREAM, BLACK SWAN) who gives Gaga gorgeous close-ups throughout the film. Jackson and Ally hit it off and have a wonderfully rambling evening together in which she punches a fan for being pushy, and they end up in a grocery store parking lot with her hand wrapped up in a frozen pea bag with tape – Jackson’s concoction, of course.

In a sweet moment, Ally improvises some lines to a new song and before you know it the movie has its big signature anthem “Shallow,” which he gets her to shake off her stage fright and perform with him at his show the next night. It’s a glorious scene that trailers and T.V. spots have been right to milk.

You know how it goes from there – Ally’s star is on the ascent with a new album, image, and tour, while Jackson goes deeper down into the bottle. But as predictable as that sounds, it plays out beautifully here with every scene having thoughtful weight.

The strong supporting cast well play their needed notes too – Andrew Dice Clay proves that his performance in BLUE JASMINE was no fluke with a great turn as Ally’s limo driver/ex-crooner father , the always reliable Sam Elliot gives great gravitas as Jackson’s brother/manager, Dave Chappelle pops up to help Jackson and Ally get married while making some patently laid-back wisecracks, and the lesser known Ravi Gavron puts in a sharp appearance as Ally’s ambitious agent.

Adding greatly to the portrait of this couple’s relationship is how the film values the song-writing connection that Jackson and Ally have together. How they bond over words scribbled on notebook pages that become crowd-pleasing ballads is one of many factors that had me tear up at times.

This helps make the film’s soundtrack – a rich mixture of country and pop songs – a seriously stellar collection. Through the concert scenes, some of which were filmed at Coachella, the song performances really sold me on these characters feeling like real people caught up in the spotlight. In that vein, Gaga owns her first leading role by coming across more like a real person than any time I’ve seen her before. She is bound to get award season action a-plenty for her stunning work here.

Cooper will surely get some attention too for his touching take on the star on the way down. Jackson has a lot of charisma despite his sloppy drunkenness, and mean moments of jealousy towards Ally, and Cooper is equally skilled in bringing out both his charms and flaws.

A STAR IS BORN is one of the best remakes ever, and one of the best films of the year. It’s a joyous, romantic, funny, tragic, uplifting, poignant, heart-string-pulling, beautiful, and, what I said up-front, emotionally powerful piece of pure entertainment.

More later...

Thursday, September 20, 2018

LOVE, GILDA Doesn’t Go Deep Enough, But Is Still Adorable

Starts today in the Triangle at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in Raleigh:

LOVE GILDA (Dir. Lisa D’Apolito, 2018)

ormer actress Lisa D’Apolito’s full length feature debut is a fine primer to the life and career of comedy goddess Gilda Radner (1946-1989), who as we hear the voice of David Letterman say at the outset “was the very first chosen for the cast of Saturday Night Live.” But while it works as an overview for newcomers to Radner, folks who grew up with the woman’s work may find that it glosses over too many details to really be the thorough and essential portrait that she deserves.

Largely narrated by Radner herself via audiotapes she had recorded while writing her 1989 autobiography “It’s Always Something,” and various interviews; LOVE GILDA touchingly also features some of her many modern day disciples such as Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, Bill Hader, and Melissa McCarthy reading from her diaries.

As images of Radner and her notebook handwriting animatedly fill the screen, we see her go from being a chubby kid living in Detroit that loved to play act (“I’d be glued to the television, and then I’d go act out things like it in the backyard”) to becoming a stage performer in Toronto getting her first major job in a 1972 production of the religious musical 
Godspell, the cast of which included Eugene Levy, Andrea Martin, Dave Thomas, Martin Short, and Paul Shaffer.

After stints in the Second City improvisational troupe, and the National Lampoon Radio Hour, Radner’s big break was, of course, joining the line-up of NBC’s Saturday Night Live in 1975. 

Her popular characters such as Weekend Update commentators, the confused, elderly Emily Litella (Radner: “I was the first one to ever say bitch on television, and the censors let me do it because they said it was a nice, sweet old lady saying it”), and the obnoxious, big-haired Roseanne Roseannadanna, along with her Patti Smith-esque punk rocker Candy Slice, and her Barbara Walters parody, Baba Wawa, made her famous and won her an Emmy.

Along the way we see that Gilda dated a lot – she once complained that it was hard to watch GHOSTBUSTERS because she had dated each of its three leads – Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, and Harold Ramis. She also had an on again/off again relationship with Martin Short in the pre-SNL days (Paul Shaffer: “They were some form of power couple, but it was comedy power”). Her brief first marriage to rock guitarist G.E. Smith goes by in a blur.

Montages of clips from her SNL appearances, merge with many photos of her from the era set to a bouncy disco beat as this was the glitzy late ‘70s entertainingly enough, but when the film comes to Radner’s one woman Broadway show it doesn’t give enough context. As many SNL folks were involved, the production was seen by many to be a competitive effort towards her fellow cast members Aykroyd and John Belushi’s Blues Brothers project to the point in which Paul Shaffer had to choose sides and lost out being in THE BLUES BROTHERS movie.

But this isn’t discussed in this biodoc, nor is that the resulting record and film, GILDA LIVE, flopped. Except for HANKY PANKY, the comic thriller that she made with later husband Gene Wilder in 1982, her film career isn’t given much space either. But in a 90 minute biodoc that’s understandable as her filmography wasn’t that stellar and ended on a sad note with her second collaboration with Wilder, HAUNTED HONEYMOON being a critically lambasted dud.

The last third of the film, dealing with Radner’s fight with ovarian cancer, is unsuprisingly quite sad. If hearing her on tape begging for her health, and bemoaning the loss of her hair doesn’t get you, the video she had made of one of her chemo sessions in which she is as chipper as she can be surely will. Even in the middle of such severe circumstances, Gilda could still come alive and light up a room on camera.

As it’s filled with so many pretty pictures, loving memories, and funny footage of Radner, there’s a lot to love in LOVE, GILDA even if it doesn’t go as deep as this comedy geek would’ve liked. I don’t know if I was hoping for the intense lengthy examination that Judd Apatow did for Garry Shandling (HBO’S THE ZEN DIARIES OF GARRY SHANDLING) or what *, but what the woman contributed to pop culture certainly could stand up to that sort of scrutiny.

But the takeaway from this film is that it finds Gilda to be forever adorable, and, despite the tragedy of her death at 42, D’Apolito’s biodoc offers ample evidence that she had a blast making people laugh throughout her all too short life.

*Radner’s last major appearance was actually on It’s Garry Shandling’s Show in 1988.

More later...

Friday, September 07, 2018

THE WIFE: The Great Woman Behind The Not So Great Man

Opening today at an art house near me:

THE WIFE (Dir. Björn Runge, 2018) 

Oscar speculation is high for Glenn Close in her role here as the wife of a famous writer who has just won the Noble Prize for Literature. Jonathan Pryce portrays her husband, the pretentious Professor Joe Castleman, who jumps up and down with his spouse, Joan, on their bed when he gets the news via a phone call in the middle of the night.

The couple fly to Stockholm for the awards ceremony, and on the flight are approached by a sly Christian Slater as journalist Nathaniel Bone, who is determined to be Joe’s biographer. Annoyed, Joe shoes him away, and even discourages him from talking to their son, David (Max Irons) as he returns to his seat.

Amid the parties and intense adulation for Joe, one can sense that something is off about their relationship – much in the way of Close’s subtle reactions to the attention her husband is receiving. David, an aspiring writer himself, feels like his work is largely dismissed by his father, and shows his discomfort at tagging along with his parents to this event.

Bit by juicy bit, we learn through flashbacks in which we see the young Joan, played by Annie Starke, as a writing student at Smith College. Her professor Joe (Harry Lloyd) recognizes Joan’s talent, and it’s obvious that she’s the one with the gift as he leaves his marriage for her, and she helps him complete his first novel or basically fixes it as she notes that his characters are wooden and his dialogue unconvincing.

Slater’s Nathaniel suspects this, and over drinks with Joan, tests out his theory. We also learn of Joe’s affairs over their 40-year relationship, and how Joan looked the other way.

Close’s performance is stoic yet layered as Joan maneuvers through her husband’s world of critical praise as the Noble ceremonies go on, and her discomfort is palpable when she listens to Joe’s acceptance speech in which he says “Without this woman, I am nothing” and attempts to paint a picture of her as his most valued muse. This disgusts her and she leaves the building with her bemused husband following, hoping to get her to come back.

It’s a “behind every great man, there’s a woman” scenario, but the man here, portrayed by Pryce in one of his finest roles, is far from great. The premise involving the long suffering lady being the real one responsible with the work that has given her lover great acclaim has been explored before in such films as IRRECONCILABLE DIFFERENCES, BARTON FINK, and, more recently, BIG EYES, but THE WIFE doesn’t tread over the same ground as it has its own 
elegant, thoughtful, and at times an acidic approach, one that makes for absorbing emotional drama. 

Based on Meg Wolitzer’s 2003 book of the same name, Jane Anderson’s sharp screenplay tells a tale of resentment lurking under a highly cultivated facade, and Close plays every note with poise, grace, and an inner, yet detectable, sense of what Joan has gone through in her life, and how she finally needs to confront it.

Close definitely deserves the Best Actress Oscar this time; it’s hard to believe she’s been previously nominated six times and has never won (that’s more noms without a win than any other actor). Her performance as Joan Castleman here is so masterful that it’ll be impossible for the Academy to ignore.

More later...

Friday, August 24, 2018

Of Puppets And Puzzles

These two vastly different movies open today at multiplexes (and some art houses in PUZZLE’s case) near us all:


(Dir. Brian Henson, 2018) 

This movie, directed by a son of Jim Henson no less, about felt getting filthy, is getting savaged by critics but it’s not really that bad. It’s a premise that’s not exactly new – i.e. underneath the warm and fuzzy front is the sleazy, foul mouthed, and raunchy side of show biz * – but it has its moments largely due to its cast made up of Melissa McCarthy, puppeteer Bill Barretta, Joel McCale, Maya Rudolph, and Elizabeth Banks.

The plot revolves around the serial killings of a ‘80s TV show, The Happytime Gang, which Barretta voicing the burnt out private detective Phil Phillips is partnered with McCarthy as Detective Connie Edwards to investigate.

Now it’s a pretty standard film noir-ish scenario which isn’t very interesting on its own, but it moves along briskly aided by a bunch of crude sight gags and tossed off one-liners. 

There are good some good ideas batted about such as the bigotry that puppets face from humans but it really doesnt do much with that, and I wish the material was more inspired than jokes like the “asshole says ‘what?’” running gag that was old when it was used in WAYNE’S WORLD two decades ago, but for a throwaway comedy in these dog days of summer, I’ve seen a lot worse.

* Some folks are crying that this movie is a rip-off of Peter Jasckson’s MEET THE FEEBLES, which incidentally is on YouTube in its entirety right now. You
’re welcome.

And now for something completely different:

PUZZLE (Dir. Marc Turtletaub, 2018) 

Kelly Macdonald (TRAINSPOTTING, GOSFORD PARK, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, Boardwalk Empire, among numerous other notable credits) is superb in this story of a lonely woman finding her niche by putting together jigsaw puzzles with an eccentric Indian inventor (Irrfan Khan *).

Macdonald portrays Agnes, an awkward Connecticut housewife, with two college aged sons (Bubba Weiler and Austin Abrams), and a mechanic husband (David Denham, best known as Roy, Pam’s ex-fiancé on The Office US), who is given a 1000-piece puzzle of a world map for her birthday, and finds that she has a skill for putting it together quickly.

Agnes visits a puzzle shop in New York to buy more puzzles and sees a flier that says “Champion desperately seeking puzzle partner.” She takes home the number in one of the film’s most charming moments she texts “Hi. My name is Agnes. I think I might be good at this. Puzzles I mean.” Her nervousness is priceless here as it’s her first text ever as she was just given an iPhone by her son for her birthday.

Agnes soon meets up with Robert (Khan), who lives in a spacious apartment in the city, and they pull their puzzle-making talents together for a shot in a competition. Agnes keeps that she’s going to work on puzzles with Robert secret from her husband, telling him she’s going to help her Aunt who broke her leg a few times a week. As one might guess, a romance develops between Agnes and Robert, whose poetic philosophy regarding puzzles makes Agnes swoon (hey, it won me over too), but it’s handled with such poignant precision that nothing cringe-worthy happens.

PUZZLE is a quiet, lovely film with a gentle, thoughtful screenplay by Oren Moverman (JESUS’ SON, I’M NOT THERE, LOVE AND MERCY). Macdonald, who should really be a household name, puts is a highly affecting performance in service of an ultimately uplifting story in which all the pieces fit together perfectly (the movie is called PUZZLE so, of course, I’m gonna work in a line like that).

So the bottom line on these two new movies is that unless you’re looking for cheap laughs, skip the filthy puppets and seek out PUZZLE. I bet you’ll be glad you did.

* Khan is also an actor who should be a household name - he's done many films for Bollywood, Britain, and Hollywood including roles in SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE, THE DARJEELING LIMITED, LIFE OF PI, and JURASSIC WORLD. A film that I highly recommend of his is THE LUNCHBOX (read my review).

More later...

My Last Night At The Rialto

Last night was my final shift working at the Rialto Theatre in Raleigh.

A little back story: I first started working at the Colony Theater, owned by Ambassador Entertainment, in late 2009. I had previously worked at the Varsity Theater in Chapel Hill throughout most of the 2000’s, but quit when I got married and moved to Raleigh earlier that year.

It must also be noted that the Varsity was closing down then, which I wrote about in this blog post: My Last Night At The Varsity Theater & THE HANGOVER (June 4, 2009).

The Varsity later re-opened later that year which I also blogged about: The Historic Varsity Theater In Chapel Hill NC Is Reopening! (October 26, 2009) and Visiting The New Varsity Theater On The Verge Of Its Reopening (November 23, 2009).

So I began working at the Colony Theater in December, 2009, and also started working at their sister theater, the Rialto, shortly after. Sometimes I worked at both theaters on the same day; many Fridays I worked matinees at the Colony, then went to work the evening shift at the Rialto.

Sadly, the Colony closed in late 2015. The empty space and blank marquee still remains.

After that, I continued to work at the Rialto, but am leaving now to pursue other opportunities (more on those in future blog posts). I will miss the Rialto greatly as I’ve worked with great people there, and seen many great movies via their first run roster of indies, foreign films, documentaries, and the revival series Monday at the Movies and Cinema Inc.

This last summer has been a great one for the theater as they’ve shown three superlative docs: RBG (about iconic Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg), WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR? (about iconic children’s TV show host Fred Rogers), THREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS (read my review here), and Spike Lee’s excellent BLACKKKLANSMAN (read my review here).

BLACKKKLANSMAN is the movie that was playing on my last night at the 76-year old movie palace, so I highly appreciated that my final shift was in service of a great film (my last movie at the Varsity nearly a decade ago – THE HANGOVER – wasn’t so great a film to leave on).

Heres a pic of the audience waiting to see Lees latest on my last night:

I’ll still visit the Rialto and my friends there, and I’ll still post pictures of its great marquee on this blog. It’s such a grand venue; a real historic part of Raleigh that I hope will be around a long time.

In weeks to come, I’ll update you dear readers (I’m betting there’s more than one of you) with my new adventures and continue spreading Film Babble Blog goodness as I’m still going to be involved heavily with the world of movies.

Farewell Rialto! Thanks so much for all the movie memories!

More later…

Friday, August 10, 2018

BLACKKKLANSMAN: An Instant Classic That's One Of Spike Lee's Best Films

Opening today at an art house near me:

BLACKKKLANSMAN (Dir. Spike Lee, 2018) 

Believe the hype – Spike Lee’s newest joint is an instant classic and among his best films including DO THE RIGHT THING, MALCOLM X, 25TH HOUR, and INSIDE MAN.

It’s been quite a while since he’s made a truly relevant movie, but this true story adaptation of former police detective Ron Stallworth’s 2014 book about infiltrating the Klu Klux Klan in the ‘70s may be his most relevant movie ever.

Stallworth, sharply portrayed by John David Washington (son of Denzel), was the first black police officer in the Colorado Springs Police Department, and we follow his rise in the ranks to the Intelligence Unit. Stallworth’s first assignment is to go undercover to observe the crowd reaction to a speech by ex-Black Panther member Stokely Carmichael, who had just changed his name to Kwame Ture.

At the event Stallworth has a meet cute with student activist Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), and asks Ture (Corey Hawkins) if he really thinks a race war is coming. “Arm yourself, brother, ‘cause the revolution is comin,’” Ture strongly stresses.

Stallworth comes upon an ad for the KKK in the newspaper, and calls the number on a classic black rotary phone that gets some dramatic close-ups to find himself talking to a recruiter saying that he hates blacks, Jews, Mexicans, Irish, Italians, and Chinese, “but my mouth to God’s ears, I really hate those black rats, and anyone else really that doesn’t have pure white Aryan blood running through their veins.”

This hate speech gets him invited to meet with members of the local charter, but, of course, he can’t go himself so he gets a fellow cop, Detective Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to go in his place and use his name (Stallworth used his real name when calling them because he didn’t know at the time that there would be an investigation).

Zimmerman or Stallworth #2 meets with some scary redneck types played by Ryan Eggold, Paul Walter Hauser, and Jasper Pääkkönen, who suspects that their new recruit might be Jewish, and even tries to get him to take a lie detector test.

There are a number of likewise close scrapes where the detectives’ covers almost get blown including one riveting segment in which Washington’s Stallworth is assigned to be security for KKK Grand Wizard David Duke played with polished smarm by Topher Grace.

While the love interest was fabricated – the character Harrier plays is fictitious – what went down is reportedly accurate in this excellent film that’s part tense thriller, part powerful drama, and part history lesson. Being a Spike Lee Joint it has its fair share of well placed humor, but it’s too serious minded to get very silly.

It’s striking but not surprising that much of the rhetoric used by Duke and the other Klansmen is largely identical to the racist utterings of our current commander-in-chief, and his slogans such as “America first,” and “Make America Great Again” are also spouted. There’s even a moment where Stallworth is confounded by the idea that someone with this bigoted ideology could someday be elected President.

Lee arranged for this film to be released on the eve of the one-year anniversary of the tragic Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in which a counter protester, Heather Heyer, was killed. The movie ends as a tribute to Heyer, and we’re left with the horrifying thought that this shit is still happening with the flames being fanned by the asshole in the highest office in the land.

Lee knows that this story doesn’t need any flashy stylistic touches so he mostly plays it straight via cinematographer Chayse Irvin
s solid camerawork, but he does include some titled angle split screens, and he busts out one of his trademarked moves – the dolly shot - towards the end and it kills. He also employs his trusty longtime collaborator Terence Blanchard to provide the films often stirring score.

BLACKKKLANSMAN is a vital, piercing piece of work that is one of the best films of the year. With hope it will get some awards season action, especially since Lee really deserves to get something more than that Honorary Oscar he got a few years back.

But more importantly this movie deserves big audiences and to be in the national conversation. I know he doesn’t want to call it a comeback, but, dammit, I’m really glad that Lee has returned with the goods.

More later...

Friday, August 03, 2018

A Tale Of Triplets With Tons Of Twists And Turns

Now playing at an art house near me:

(Dir. Tim Wardle, 2018) 

It’s been a great summer for documentaries. On the heels of the excellent Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Fred Rogers docs, comes this terrific tale of triplets that were separated at birth in 1961, had no idea of the others’ existence, and, by chance, found each other when they were 19 in 1980.

It started when Robert Shafran, on his first day at Sullivan County College in upstate New York was warmly greeted by many fellow students who he had never seen before who called him Eddy. Eddy Galland had attended the school the previous year. One of Eddy’s friends, Michael Domnitz, deduced that they were brothers, and they contacted Eddy and arranged a meeting.

The story of the re-united brothers makes national headlines, and a third twin, Queens College student David Gellman, sees their picture in the newspaper and gets in touch with them. The trio become fast friends, they make the talk show rounds (clips of them on Donahue and being interviewed by Tom Brokaw are prominently featured), have a cameo in a Madonna movie (DESPERATELY SEEKING SUSAN), and even open a New York restaurant together named Triplets.

But after the feel good montage of the brothers partying it up in the Big Apple set to Katrina and the Waves’ “Walking on Sunshine” (of course) fades, things get a bit dark. Turns out that none of the respective adoptive parents knew that their children had siblings, and we learn that the triplets were part of a psychological experiment in which they were filmed, monitored, and documented under the guise of a child development study.

This revelation causes another pair of twins to find one another – two sisters who were both film students when they met among other similarities.

Shafran and Gellman appear in newly filmed interviews conducted by director Wardle alongside family members, friends, and New Yorker writer Lawrence Wright, whose research provides insights into the case, despite the study on the brothers having never been published, and the files are sealed until 2066.

It may be a spoiler to tell what happened to the third brother, Galland, even if it’s well reported online, so I’ll just cease my description of the narrative right here in case you want to go in unspoiled.

The endlessly fascinating THREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS that takes one on a highly emotional ride. It’s a well constructed work via Michael Harte’s fluid editing, and how its subjects guide the viewer through the testimonials without narration.

Containing more twists and turns than most thrillers, this is a must see documentary that deserves big audiences.

More later...

Monday, July 30, 2018

DON’T WORRY, HE WON’T GET FAR ON FOOT: The Film Babble Blog Review

(Dir. Gus Van Sant, 2018) 

Once again, Joaquin Phoenix puts in an outstanding performance in a film very few people are likely to see.

This touching, and funny adaptation of the memoir of controversial cartoonist John Callahan is only playing at a handful of theaters in my area (the Triangle in N.C.) so it’ll probably come and go under most moviegoers’ noses and that’s a shame.

Callahan (1951-2010) was a Portland, Oregon-based hippy who became a quadriplegic after a drunken automobile accident in 1972. We learn about his life via an array of different threads including Phoenix’s Callahan as the speaker at a college event, giving a confessional at a AA meeting, and showing his ink-drawn cartoons to a group of kids who come to his aid when he falls out of his wheelchair in the street.

The film flashes back to the 21-year old Callahan’s last day when he could walk before the accident in Los Angeles, in which he parties hard with a mustached, side-burned Jack Black as Dexter, a guy he had just met at a party.

They leave that party to head to what Dexter says is a better party, stopping at a bar along the way to get even more wasted. The drunk duo drive around aimlessly, ride a rollercoaster at an amusement park, puke, and pass out – well, Callahan passes out while Dexter at the wheel of Callahan’s Volkswagen Bug smashes into a light pole at 90 mph.

Callahan comes to and is told by a doctor that he’s possibly paralyzed for life, and he goes through the various stages of his physical recovery in which a blonde, short-haired Rooney Mara with a Swedish accent shows up for some reason – she might be his massage therapist, I dunno - to tell him he’s very good looking.

Then we’ve got a slimmed-down Jonah Hill with long blonde hair who’s great as Callahan’s sponsor, Donnie, who lives in a lavish mansion he inherited where he holds support group meetings. In a few of the movie’s best scenes, Callahan gets to know his fellow recovering alcoholics like Beth Ditto as the outspoken Reba, Mark Webber as the angry Mike, and Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon as the acerbic Corky (another indie rock icon, Sleater Kinney and Portandia’s Carrie Brownstein appears as Callahan’s case worker).

But despite Donnie and the group, Callahan still drinks, but around the film’s halfway mark he has an epiphany where he has a vision of his mother (Mireille Enos) that had abandoned him when he was a kid and this inspires him to change his ways.

Callahan starts to scribble crude cartoons with edgy captions, and, as he later tells his audience at the aforementioned speaking engagement, he realized that he “should’ve been a cartoonist, a gag man, all along.” Throughout the narrative, Callahan’s black and white cartoons, one of which the title of the film comes from, get a bit of the animation treatment, but it doesn’t come off as too gimmicky. 

Rooney, now a flight attendant, pops up again for some romance with Phoenix’s Callahan, but the rest of the film mostly concerns his getting recognition for his cartoons when they are published by such notable outlets as the New Yorker, Penthouse, and Playboy, and many newspapers. Some folks don’t take too kindly to the taboo teasing nature of his work, so they are many complaint letters and people telling him off in public but he develops a thick skin and perseveres.

And that’s what this fine film, one of Gus Van Sant’s most personal works, is about – persevering. It could have been a cheesy inspirational biodoc – Robin Williams was originally slated to play Callahan and it could’ve been another PATCH ADAMS - but with Phoenix’s invested performance, its excellent cast, and its sincere, unpretentious approach via Van Sant
s very thoughtful screenplay, DONT WORRY, HE WONT GET FAR ON FOOT is a strong drama dealing with addiction and overcoming disabilities while finding oneself in the process. The laughs that come through Callahan's cartoons are the icing on the cake.

More later...

Thursday, July 26, 2018

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – FALLOUT Is The Best Yet In The Long Running Series

Opening tonight at a multiplex near us all:
(Dir. Christopher McQuarrie, 2018)

These movies are getting better and better. It’s true, the sixth installment of the 22-year old series based on an over 50-year old TV show is the best one yet.

It starts with a stellar pre-opening credits sequence largely set in Berlin in which Ethan Hunt (a 56-year old Tom Cruise, looking like he’s 40), and his returning IMF (Impossible Missions Force) crew made of Benji (Simon Pegg) and Luther (Ving Rhames) attempt to retrieve three plutonium cores from a terrorist group called the Apostles (an offshoot of the Syndicate from the previous M:I film, ROGUE NATION).

They fail to get the plutonium, but were able to capture weapons expert Soloman Lane (Sean Harris, reprising his role from RN), and, joined by Henry Cavill as a CIA operative, travel to Paris to again try to capture the plutonium from the Apostles.

Of course, right away, we (or I) suspect Cavill’s character to be John Lark, the leader of the Apostles as his identity is unknown, but he tells CIA Director Erica Sloane (Angela Bassett) that he thinks Hunt has turned and he is Lark. Now, this is quite a leap for us to buy that the protagonist of a six entry series has now become the bad guy, but it’s a plot point that works and leads to something the franchise does best – a satisfying fake-out.

IMF Director Alan Hunley (the also returning from RN) Alec Baldwin, gets out of the office and into the field with the team for the Paris mission which involves Hunt in a killer motorcycle and car chase around the Arc de Triomphe.

The action moves to London where a rooftop foot chase (always got to have one of those), in which Hunt is shown a picture of his wife (Michelle Monaghan) and told that her life is threatened.

Then we move on to Kashmir (globetrotting!) where Hunt and his team, along with the also returning Rebecca Ferguson as former MI6 agent Isla Faust, try to de-activate the bombs before they kill billions of people. This involves an incredible helicopter chase in which Hunt fights to get the detonator from the bad guys.

Sure, there are contrivances – the goons always being bad shots in the shoot-outs, and a 15-minute countdown taking a lot longer than 15 minutes among them – but the stakes feel real, and the rush of the spectacle after spectacle is constantly exhilarating.

For sure the best sequel of our current sequel cluttered climate, MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: FALLOUT is a cleverly constructed action thriller with a great gritty look, a sharp screenplay, lots of well placed humor, and a bunch of mesmerizing moments that make it more engaging and entertaining than any other action thriller in recent memory. 

Writer/Director McQuarrie, the only director who has made two M:I movies, is getting to be a old hand at making movies with Cruise (he previously directed the actor in JACK REACHER and MI:RN, and wrote the screenplays for VALKRIE, EDGE OF TOMORROW, and THE MUMMY), and this time he really pulls out the stops. 

Cruise, again doing many of his own stunts, once more excels as Hunt, who while mostly confident shows believable fear and worry when in the middle of all the effectively dangerous feeling activity. You could say he puts in a performance that's fearlessly fearful.

I’m not sure when Cruise will be considered too old to be doing these movies (he’s almost the age Roger Moore was in his last 007 adventure, A VIEW TO A KILL *), but it doesn’t seem like it’ll be anytime soon.

*Moore was 57, and later said that he was four hundred years too old for the part.

More later...

Friday, July 06, 2018

ANT-MAN AND THE WASP: As Fun As It Is Forgettable

Now playing at every multiplex from here to the quantum realm:


(Dir. Payrton, Reed) 

It’s getting harder and harder to write reviews of these Marvel movies. I feel like I’m writing the same thing over and over whether I like or dislike whatever newest one or not.

I note where the newest falls in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), i.e. the subject here, the sequel to 2015’s ANT-MAN is the 20th film in the franchise, and it comes in the second half of Phase Three of the series.

I run through the cast and premise, i.e. Paul Rudd returns as Scott Land/Ant-Man, but shares equal billing with the also returning Evangeline Lilly as Hope van Dyne / Wasp, (who gets to kick a lot of ass), as they try to rescue her mother, Janet van Dyne / the first Wasp (Michele Pfeifer) from being trapped in the quantum realm with the help of a tunnel built by Hope’s father, Hank Pym/the first Ant-Man (Michael Douglas, also back). Lawrence Fishburne, as an old colleague of Pym’s who may not be on the up and up, and Hannah John-Kamen as Ava Starr / Ghost, who can phase through walls ‘n whatnot, round out the busy cast.

I identify the MacGuffin: a laboratory building, encasing a quantum tunnel (Ant-Man: “Do you guys just put the word ‘quantum’ in front of everything?) that can be shrunk down to the portable size of a 12-pack box of beer. Hank and Hope want it so they can save Janet; and Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins), a slimy black market dealer wants it because he sees its potential for profit, so it gets thrown around a lot.

I refer to the obligatory tropes: action sequence settings, Stan Lee cameo, tell folks to stay for the end credits stingers, etc.

Sure, many folks will say I’m writing the same review repeatedly because they’re making the same movie repeatedly, but, despite the familiar formulas, I can’t completely agree. This year’s previous Marvel movies, BLACK PANTHER and AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR had their inspired, and worthwhile moments, but, yeah, I can concur that there’s a lot of predictable Marvel material here.

I enjoyed quite a bit of ANT-MAN’s second adventure (or third if you count his part in CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR). Rudd charms his way through it – a scene where Pfeiffer’s Janet takes over his body and talks through him is cute – and there a lot of laughs along the way, many provided by Michael Peña (also from the first one), who now runs a security service named EX-CON, and the effects are flawless.

There’s a lot of fun in watching Rudd shrink (a bit where he masquerades as a kid at his daughter’s elementary school made me giggle), and get huge in the climatic chase sequence through the streets of San Francisco, but I doubt those parts will really stick in my memory.

So there it is, even with its fair share of laughs and thrills, ANT-MAN AND THE WASP is as fun as it is forgettable.

More later...

Thursday, June 14, 2018

INCREDIBLES 2: Predictable Plotwise, But Still A Solid Sequel

Opening tonight at a multiplex near everybody:

Dir. Brad Bird, 2018) 

t the screening of this long awaited sequel, there was a mini-featurette before the movie began in which the film’s stars – Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, and Samuel L. Jackson – stress more than once that while it’s been 14 years since the original, this’ll be well worth the wait. For the most part it is.

Mere months after the events of the first installment, we catch up with the crime-fighting Parr family – Bob/Mr. Incredible (Nelson), Helen/Elastigirl (Hunter), Violet (Sarah Vowel), Dashiell/”Dash” (Huck Milner), Violet and Jack-Jack Parr (Eli Fucile) – as they are trying to thwart a bank robbery by the returning supervillain, the Underminer (voiced by Pixar regular John Ratzenberger).

This results in a pretty thrilling, funny and gorgeously animated opening sequence involving the Incredibles, with the help of the icy touch of Lucius Best/Frozone (Jackson), pulling together to stop a ginormous drilling machine from reaching its Metro Bank destination, and the follow-up is off to a great start.

Things settle down a bit when the premise is introduced by a couple of new characters, telecommunications CEO Winston Deavor (a slick Bob Odenkirk), and his tech saavy sister, Evelyn (a more energetic than usual Catherine Keener). The Deavors wants to arrange a campaign that will make the use of super powers legal again, and recruit Elastigirl to go off and fight crime in the dangerous city of New Urbrem, while Bob stays home to take care of the kids to his great disappointment.

But while stranded at home, Bob learns that Jack-Jack has an array of super powers (17, he says at one point) including being able to shoot lasers out of his eyes, teleport through walls, turn himself into fire, and change into a scary red monster (sort of a like a fiery Tazmanian Devil) if he’s denied a cookie.

Since Odenkirk’s Winston is such an unabashed fanboy of the Incredibles who knows the words to all of their individual theme songs, he stands out as a candidate for the film’s secret bad guy, but gladly screenwriter Bird knows that would be too obvious.

As for the film’s up front villain, there’s the Screenslaver, dressed in black with big goggles like a cartoon Kylo Renn, who can hypnotize people through their screens. There’s also the thread that the secret baddie (I won’t Spoil their identity) has devised glasses that control the wearer in order to frame them doing acts of evil.

That’s a pretty predictable plotline that’s been done to death, but the action and laughs come so fast and frenetically in the film’s last third, which is set on runaway ship headed to crash into New Urbrem, that it really doesn’t get in the way of the extreme entertainment factor.

Sure, the overall world of the INCREDIBLES doesn’t feel as fresh as it did in 2004 (still looks really cool though), but despite its formulaic flaws, it’s a joy to spend time with these characters again on another fast paced ride. INCREDIBLES 2 is a solid sequel that should please the many big fans of the first one, as it did a casual fan like me. Thanks for the update, Bird, Pixar, and all the great voice talent – see you in another 14 years!

More later...

Friday, June 08, 2018

Paul Schrader’s Profoundly Powerful FIRST REFORMED

Now playing:

FIRST REFORMED (Dir. Paul Schrader, 2018) 

Paul Schader’s 21st film as director is his most vital work since 1997’s AFFLICTION (though I do admire his somewhat wacky 2002 Bob Crane biopic, AUTO FOCUS). FIRST REFORMED tells the intense tale of Pastor Ernst Toller, a minister at a tourist church (historical because it was once a stop on the Underground Railroad) in upstate New York where he preaches sermons to pews with only four or five people.

Toller’s temple of the title is figuratively in the shadow of a megachurch that owns it, Abundant Life headed by celebrity preacher Pastor Jeffers (Cedric The Entertainer, credited as Cedric Kyles). A young pregnant woman, Mary (Amanda Seyfried) seeks out Toller in hope of having him counsel her husband, Michael (Philip Ettinger), an environmental activist who wants his wife to have an abortion because he can’t stand the idea of bringing a child into such a doomed world.

After their first discussion, in which we learn that the Pastor lost his son in the Iraq war and that destroyed his marriage, Toller researches what Michael is tormented by – the overwhelming scientific predictions of environmental disaster - and it triggers an existential crisis that gets worse the more glasses of whiskey he downs (he drinks more than his character in the 2012 horror film SINISTER, and that’s saying a lot), and comes to a horrible head when Michael commits suicide.

A 250th Anniversary celebration is being planned for Toller’s church, but Jeffers and one of Abundant Life’s corporate sponsors, represented by CEO Edward Balq (Michael Gaston) are concerned about the troubled chaplain after has his choir sing Neil Young’s Young’s pro-wildlife/anti-fracking anthem “Who’s Gunna Stand Up?” at Michael’s funeral.

Having found out that Balq is a climate change denier whose oil company is responsible for much of the area’s pollution, Toller plots a deadly end to the Anniversary event involving a suicide vest over his body wrapped in barbed wire.

From this description, I’m sure you can grasp that is a seriously dark and disturbing experience, but it’s a fascinating, immersive one as well that’s as watchable as it is unpleasant to process.

I originally wasn’t a fan of Hawke (his work in such films as DEAD POET’S SOCIETY and REALITY BITES didn’t rub me well), but he’s really grown into one of the most interesting actors of his generation. His work here is intricately stoic, but with instances of emotion (such as when he tells a woman, played by Victoria Hill, that he once had an affair with that he despises her), that can really get you in the gut.

FIRST REFORMED is the first movie in a long while that I want to read the screenplay of as it plays like a piece of literature in its thoughtful depiction of a complete crisis of fate.

The ending may baffle many audiences – it did a number on me – but it’s a profoundly powerful one. Many critics are comparing the film to Martin Scorsese’s 1976 landmark TAXI DRIVER, which Schrader wrote, a valid comparison for sure, as the films’ themes and tones are close in feeling. But Toller is a different kind of creature than Travis Bickle, created to reflect an even more dangerous world.

It’s impossible for Schrader’s incredible work here to make the same mark as that undeniable classic as the cinematic landscape is infinitely more cluttered, but I predict that in time, FIRST REFORMED will be considered as being in the same class.

More later...

Thursday, June 07, 2018

HEREDITARY: The Film Babble Blog Review

Opening tonight at a dark, scary multiplex near us all:

(Dir. Ari Aster, 2018) 

Writer/director Ari Aster’s first feature-length project, HEREDITARY, begins with one of my favorite shots I’ve seen this year at the movies. The camera closes in on a dollhouse in a room full of miniature sets, until one of the house’s rooms seamlessly blends into a shot of the real room it’s modeled after - a teenage boy’s bedroom.

The teenager, Peter (Alex Wolff), is a member of a classic nuclear family made up of his parents Annie and Steve Graham (Toni Collette and Gabriel Byrne), and his sister, Charlie (Milly Shapiro) who live in a nice house somewhere in the woods of Utah (at least that’s where it was shot). We meet the Grahams on the morning of the funeral for Annie’s mother, and the feeling of grief is palpable in the film’s tense tone.

Later, Annie, who’s profession is as a maker of the miniatures used in the opening, sees an apparition of her mother in her workshop, the first such instance of the supernatural which makes her research the subject and suspect that her mother kept some creepy stuff secret from her.

Annie keeps her own secret from her family about going to support group meetings in which we learn of her father’s grim death. Meanwhile, her son, the pot smoking Peter, schemes to go to a party in hopes of scoring a date with a classmate (Mallory Bechtel), 
but is forced to take his 13-year old sister along. 

While Charlie is unattended to, she eats some cake that has nuts in it (we were told earlier about her allergies) and starts to go into anaphylactic shock *. Peter frantically drives to get Charlie to the hospital, but she gets killed in a grisly accident in which she gets decapitated. 

What’s really f-ed up is that Annie makes a miniature diorama of the accident scene, complete with a doll’s bloody head in the road in back of a toy car, and, for obvious reasons, this freaks out her husband Steve played by Byrne, who superbly relays exasperation and concern for his loved ones.

Peter begins seeing apparitions of Charlie, while Annie meets a woman at a meeting (Ann Dowd – Aunt Lydia from The Handmaid’s Tale!) who holds séances to communicate with the dead, and we witness drawings being made by ghosts, the mother and son going into violent trances, and feel the undercurrent of a conspiracy decorated with satanic imagery.

HEREDITARY is top notch horror, but it’s through its strong depiction of strained family drama that makes it the powerful experience it is. Collette, no stranger to creepy kids and ghosts since her breakthrough performance 20 years ago in THE SIXTH SENSE, acts her ass off here. She’s enthrallingly committed to her role in every moment, which made me simultaneously scared for her and scared of her throughout.

Filmmaker Aster has named such vintage horror flicks as THE INNOCENTS, ROSEMARY’S BABY, THE EXORCIST, and THE SHINING as inspirations, but the film feels more in line with such recent psychologically disturbing works as THE WITCH, KILLING OF A SACRED DEER, and IT COMES AT NIGHT (all titles from this film’s studio, A24).

With a debut that’s as dark and twisted as it is brilliantly inspired, Aster’s career as a new master of the macabre is off to an extremely scary start.

* Before the screening I went to at the newly opened Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in Raleigh, a rep did an intro and said that during the movie they will pass out pieces of cake - “if anyone has nut allergies don’t eat it” she warned. How’s that for synergy?

More later...

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:


(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.

But the obvious question is: do fans really need to see how these things happened? Maybe they were best left as asides in movies from 40 years ago?

Anyway, Alden Ehrenreich plays the 28-year old 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 slick 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 Céline 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...