Film Review: Solo: A Star Wars Story (dir. by Ron Howard)


solo-poster-1I feel like the Grinch, standing high on his mountain and looking down at all the Who’s in Whoville. Look at them, enjoying Solo – A Star Wars Story. Look at them, geeking over Chewie, the Millenium Falcon and the Kessel Run. Look at them smile at Lando Calrissian, still cool after these years. From where I stood, I had fun, but not nearly as much as they all did. Did we all watch the same film?

I think I’m a little jealous for not feeling that, and somewhat sad.

Granted, I didn’t outright despise Solo. I adore heist films like Thief and Heat. Perhaps it’s because the cast is fun to watch on-screen. You have the seedy side of the universe, and frankly, I’ve love to see more of it in future installments. This was closer to what I originally hoped to see with the Prequels, or even The Force Awakens. Not every Star Wars tale has to be an Empire vs. Rebellion / Jedi vs. Sith one (though lightsaber battles are always appreciated).

On the other hand, I had the same experience here that I did with Rogue One. The film almost lost me until it started to induce some nostalgia. With the exception of a few key scenes, I had a tough time feeling anything for most of this film. Boredom slapped me in the face for a little while here. Maybe I’ve just reached the age where I can put Star Wars on the shelf and maybe move on from it altogether. Judging by the number of people who chose to check their cell phones rather than watch the movie, I don’t think I’m alone there.

I initially bought a ticket for the 10:15pm Thursday IMAX showing, and then realized I wanted to come home early. I purchased a 7pm 3D showing, which is where this review is coming from. I didn’t feel the need to stay for the IMAX. Maybe that’s the best way to sum it up.

The movie was originally helmed by The Lego Movie’s Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, but due to creative differences, they were taken off the project and replaced by Ron Howard. Howard’s familar with Lucasfilm, having worked on Willow back in the late 1980’s. The result of this is that you have a very safe film. Howard dots the I’s, crosses the t’s and make the movie everything the writing duo of Jonathan and Lawrence Kasdan need. Since we know where Han & Chewie are going to end up, it’s just a matter of getting from Point A to Point B, without any real worries about the characters. I’m somewhat curious of what we could have had if Lord/Miller stayed on.

2121 Jump Street, perhaps?

Solo-Emilia Clarke

Emilia Clarke’s Qi’Ra, from Solo: A Star Wars Story.

While we’re on the topic of the writing, the Kasdans manage to drop a few bells and whistles that many fans will enjoy. There’s a line that Emilia Clarke’s Qi’Ra utters about her abilities that left me smiling and slowly nodding like a person who just received a toast. Lucasfilm is learning from The Last Jedi’s mistakes, that much is certain. It’s a tight script that rarely goes off tangent.

The movie finds a young Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich, Beautiful Creatures, Hail Casear) looking to acquire some Hyperfuel, a power source that most smugglers pay a handsome price for. He dreams of becoming a pilot, someday having his own ship so that he can be reunited with an old flame/partner. This leads him to eventually join up with a heist crew and a task that needs to be fulfilled. I won’t give away any more, but it’s a great thing to see all of the pieces fall into place.

Solo-Han-Chewie

Han and Chewie, not caring about the odds.

The supporting cast in Solo is wonderful. That was something that felt right. Between Donald Glover’s scene stealing Lando Calrissian (which eerily sounds like Billy Dee Williams sometimes), Paul Bettany’s Dryden Vos, and Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s L3-37 , everyone in Solo gives a good performance. Aldenreich, I’m not sure of. I didn’t expect him to be Harrison Ford, but he seemed a little generic, for want of a better word. You could have plucked him out, dropped in someone else and it might be the same. At least, that’s how I felt. Still, he doesn’t give a bad performance. Han felt like the supporting character in his own film, the cast is that good.

From an effects standpoint, there are a number of creatures and various new ship tech to behold. It all looks and feels great (especially the Millennium Falcon flight sequences), though I should point out that the 3D presentation isn’t really necessarily. In fact, the first 20 minutes of the film are so dimly lit that the sunglass effect of 3D shades feels like you’re just watching silhouettes on-screen. Howard does a good Job of setting up scenes and keeping everything flowing. It’s a pretty tight production, overall and you’ll be suprised at how fast the film seems to move.

John Powell (X-Men: The Last Stand, The Bourne Trilogy, How to Train Your Dragon) takes on the musical responsibilities since Michael Giacchino’s doing everything else for Disney these days. It’s a great score, though if there is a particular theme for Han, I can’t say I caught it. I do plan on picking up the soundtrack when it comes out next week.

Overall, Solo: A Star Wars Story isn’t one you have to run to the theatre for. It’s not a terrible film by any means. It just didn’t hold me the way I wanted it to. I feel that’s more a reflection of myself than of the film overall. Still, if you can wait the three months to catch it digitally, you might be better off doing so.

Of course, as the Dude from the Big Lebowski says “That’s just like, your Opinion, man.” Go out there, see the film and form your own.  Hope you enjoy it.

 

Film Review: Deadpool 2 (dir by David Leitch)


“From the studio that killed Wolverine!” the poster proclaims.

“Directed by the man who killed John Wick’s dog” the opening credits announce.

Deadpool 2 is so meta that it even opens with a close-up of a figurine of Hugh Jackman impaled on a rock or a branch or whatever it was that finally killed him at the end of Logan.  Deadpool, the irrepressible and nearly indestructible mercenary played by Ryan Reynolds, announces that he’s willing to accept the challenge posed by Logan‘s tragic ending.  Deadpool promises us that, in the movie we’re about to watch, he’ll die as well.  Deadpool then proceeds to blow himself up.

Of course, those of us who have seen first Deadpool film know better than to panic when Deadpool’s severed head flies at the camera.  Deadpool heals so quickly that, as long as his powers are working, he can’t be killed.  If he gets shot or stabbed, the wound heals almost immediately.  Broken bones mend themselves in record time.  When Deadpool literally gets ripped in half, he promptly starts to grow new legs.  Without his powers, of course, Deadpool would have died a long time ago.  He has cancer, a fact that the film doesn’t dwell upon but which still adds a bit of unexpected depth to the character and his trademark dark humor.

Of course, Deadpool is not just unique because his near-immortality.  Deadpool is also unique in that he, and he alone, understands that he’s a character in a movie.  Even more importantly, he understands that he’s a character who is being played by an actor named Ryan Reynolds.  (Some of Deadpool 2‘s best jokes — which I won’t spoil here — are at the expense of some of Reynolds’s earlier career choices.)  While everyone else in the film is taking things very seriously, as characters in comic book films tend to do, Deadpool is pointing out all of the clichés and even the occasional plot hole.  When Cable (Josh Brolin), a cyborg warrior from the future, offers up a hasty explanation for why he can’t just use time travel to solve all of his problems, Deadpool dismisses it as “lazy writing.”

With the monster success of Wonder Woman, Infinity War, and Black Panther, Deadpool is the hero that we now need.  I mean, let’s be honest.  Comic books movies can be a lot of fun and, right now, we’re living in the golden age of super hero cinema.  At the same time, these films can occasionally get a little bit pompous.  Think about the unrelenting grimness of the DC films.  Think about all the sturm und drang that made up the undeniably effectively ending of Infinity War.  It in no way detracts from those films to say that Deadpool’s refusal to take either himself or the movie too seriously often feels like a breath of fresh air.  Deadpool is the one hero who is willing to say to the audience, “Yes, it’s all ludicrous and silly and occasionally a little bit lazy.  Isn’t it great?”

And yet, even with all that in mind, Deadpool 2 has a surprisingly big heart.  Even while it encourages us to laugh as its excesses, the sequel makes clear that it has a bit more on its mind than the first film.  Deadpool 2‘s plot deals with the efforts of both Deadpool and Cable to track down an angry mutant who goes by the somewhat regrettable name of Firefist (Julian Dennison).  Cable has come from the future to kill Firefist and prevent him from eventually destroying the world with his anger.  As for Deadpool, he feels that the spirit of someone he loved wants him to save Firefist.  As for Firefist himself, he’s an escapee from the Essex Home For Mutant Rehabilitation, a Hellish orphanage where the hypocritical headmaster and his perverted staff attempt to torture young mutants into being normal human beings.  The parallel to conversion therapy is an obvious one and there’s always just enough outrage underneath the film’s humor.

Deadpool 2 is a fast-moving and quick-witted sequel and Ryan Reynolds is, once again, perfect in the role of the demented lead character.  The jokes are nonstop and fortunately, so is the action.  There’s a lengthy fight between Cable and Deadpool that’s destined to go down as a classic.  Another exciting scene opens with parachutes and ends with … well, I can’t tell you.  I won’t spoil it, beyond to say that sometimes, being a hero is all about good luck.  Deadpool 2 is an ultra-violent, ultra-profane action-comedy with a heart of iron pyrite.  It’s not a film to take the kids too.  Deadpool himself points that out.  (He also points out that the babysitter is probably stoned by now.)  However, Deadpool also says that this sequel is a film about family and, amazingly enough, it turns out that he’s not lying.

So far, 2018 has been the year of the comic book movie and Deadpool 2 is a welcome addition.

Film Review: Killer Island (dir by Alyn Darnay)


Welcome to paradise!

In this case, paradise is North Captiva Island, which is located just offshore in the Gulf of Mexico.  It’s a beautiful location, a great place to both take a vacation and perhaps even solve a murder!

In Killer Island, Mike (Brian Gross) and Ashley (Barbie Castro) have come to Captiva Island for a variety of reason.  They’ve come for a vacation and they’ve come to work on their struggling marriage.  Ashley has memories of growing up on the island and issues from the past that she needs to deal with.  And Mike … well, Mike really wants to go fishing.  Fortunately, their friend Jim Ross (Jordi Vilasuso) has a very nice boat.

Jim also has a nephew.  Johnny (Miguel Fasa) is the handyman at the local resort.  He’s always polite and he’s a good worker.  Still, it shouldn’t take long for most viewers to suspect that Johnny might have some issues.  His constantly blood-shot eyes give hint to the fact that Johnny doesn’t get much sleep.  As he explains it at one point, he has dreams and they’re not good ones.  Johnny has a complicated history and two women have recently vanished on the island…

When Ashley finds a broken anklet on a dock, she takes it back to her room.  The locals tell her that people are losing stuff on the island all the time and that it’s probably no big deal.  “Finders keepers,” they tell her.  Ashley just likes it because the words “Hope” and “Believe” are inscribed on each side.  But when Johnny sees the anklet in Ashley’s bedroom, he freaks out.

Of course, Johnny isn’t the only person on the island with something to hide and nothing, not even murder, is as simple or cut-and-dried as it seems.  How far are people willing to go to protect their secrets?

Now, I have to admit that I do have a bias when it comes to reviewing this film.  See, my dream vacation would involve not only going to a beautiful location but also getting to solve a mystery while I was there.  I’m sure I’m not alone in that.  Who doesn’t love the idea of escaping everyday life and getting to examine clues and speculate on motives while relaxing on the beach or exploring a tropical paradise?  Though the film’s cast does a good job, Captiva Island really is the star of the film.  It’s a visually stunning location and the film takes full advantage of it, with the camera swooping over the beaches and focusing on people discussing murder and mystery while the tide comes in behind them.  Director Alyn Darnay and cinematographer Jon Schellenger do a good job of capturing the sunny beauty of the island.

As for the plot itself, it’s enjoyably melodramatic.  Almost everyone has something that they’re hiding.  Some guilty people are easy to spot while others hide their villainy quite well.  It’s a nicely acted mystery, with Brian Cross and Barbie Castro making a believable and sympathetic married couple.  Miguel Fasa steals the show, turning the unstable Johnny into a character who is both frightening and occasionally even sympathetic.  If you’ve enjoyed Barbie Castro’s previous “killer” films (like Patient Killer, Boyfriend Killer, and Girlfriend Killer), you will definitely enjoy this one as well!

Killer Island will be available on VOD on May 25th..

Cleaning Out The DVR: Boulevard Nights (dir by Michael Pressman)


(I recorded the 1979 film, Boulevard Nights, off of TCM on December 14th, 2017).

Boulevard Nights tells the story of two brothers, living in East Los Angeles.

Raymond Avila (Richard Yniguez) used to be involved with the street gangs but he’s gone straight.  He still likes to cruise the boulevard.  He still likes to make his lowrider hop up and down.  He still knows better than to trust outsiders and he always makes sure that he’s not around whenever the cops show up.  But, unlike many of his old friends, Raymond is now determined to stay out of trouble.  He’s got a job working at a garage and he dreams of the day when he’ll have his own auto shop.  He takes care of his mother.  He keeps an eye on the neighborhood.

Chuco Avila (Danny De La Paz) is Raymond’s younger brother and also his opposite.  Chuco is a high school drop out who doesn’t want to cause trouble but who says that he can’t stop getting angry.  Chuco always carries a switchblade with him, even bringing it to a job interview.  Chuco only feels secure when he’s a member of a gang.  Chuco steals.  Chuco fights.  Chuco huffs paint and gets a snake tattooed on his arm.  Whenever Chuco has to hide out, he goes to a graffiti-covered shack that he shares with a stray cat.

There’s a war coming as random skirmishes between two separate neighborhoods lead to greater and greater violence.  Chuco is looking forward to it.  Raymond just wants to avoid it.  He’s got a good job and he’s planning on marrying Shady Londeros (Marta DuBois).  But, as Raymond explains it to Shady, if a war does break out, he’s going to have his brother’s back.

The plot of Boulevard Nights is a familiar one.  Stories about good and bad brothers have been told since ancient times and anyone who has ever seen a “gang” movie should be able to guess everything that’s going to happen in Boulevard Nights.  It’s not a spoiler to say that the war between the two gangs leads to tragedy.  You can see that tragedy coming from the first five minutes of the film.  It also doesn’t take a psychic to predict that one brother will survive while one brother definitely will not.  The only question is whether the film will end with either Raymond or Chuco wistfully staring out at the Los Angeles skyline.

What does set Boulevard Nights apart from other gang films is that it never glamorizes its violence and it was also shot on location in East Los Angeles.  When Raymond and Chuco drive through their neighborhood, the small and dilapidated houses that they see are the houses that were actually there in 1979 (and which might still be there today).  The use of real locations brought a grittiness to the film that the by-the-numbers script failed to provide.  Boulevard Nights also featured a cast largely made up of amateurs.  Members of the gang were played by actual gang members.  Needless to say, this led to some noticeably uneven performances but it also created an authenticity that would otherwise be lacking.

Boulevard Nights is an uneven film but, because it was shot on location, it functions as a bit of time capsule.  If you want to know what East L.A. looked (and sounded) like in the late 70s, you can either purchase a time machine or you can watch this movie.  For many viewers, watching the movie will be probably be the more practical choice.

Last year, Boulevard Nights was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.

A Quickie with The King: Boris Karloff in DIE, MONSTER, DIE! (AIP 1965)


cracked rear viewer

All you Cracked Rear Viewers know by now my affection for the King of Monsters, Boris Karloff . His Universal classics of the 30’s and RKO chillers of the 40’s hold an esteemed place in my personal Horror Valhalla. Karloff did his share of clunkers, too, especially later in his career. DIE, MONSTER, DIE! is one such film, it’s good intentions sunk by bad execution.

It’s the second screen adaptation of a story from the fertile mind of author  H.P. Lovecraft; the first, 1963’s THE HAUNTED PALACE, was a mash-up of Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe as part of the Roger Corman/Vincent Price series. Corman’s longtime Art Director Daniel Haller made his directorial debut, and the film certainly looks good. Veteran sci-fi writer Jerry Sohl contributed the screenplay, which was then tinkered with by Haller. Therein lies the problem; Haller’s changes drag down what could have been an exciting little…

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Film Review: Fahrenheit 451 (dir by Ramin Bahrani)


(Before reading this review, make sure that you’ve read my review of Ray Bradbury’s novel!)

(And then make you sure that you’ve read my review of the 1966 Truffaut film!)

The latest HBO original film, Fahrenheit 451, is bad.

For all the talent involved, for all the hype, and for all the hope that many of us had for it, it is extremely bad.  It sets up its targets and then fires at them with all the aim and success of a myopic archer.  By almost any standard, it’s a misfire of almost Vinyl proportions.

The film, of course, is based on Ray Bradbury’s novel about a future dystopia where the population is kept in line through pharmaceuticals and mind-numbing television and where firemen burn books.  Michael B. Jordan plays Montag, the fireman who develops doubts.  Michael Shannon plays Beatty, Montag’s boss. Sofia Boutella is Clarisse, who inspires Montag to question why.  And no one plays Montag’s wife because that character was apparently cut from the film.

From the minute this version starts, it’s obvious that this film was inspired less by Bradbury and more by Black Mirror, Blade Runner, and the Purge franchise.  The entire world is defined by neon and dark shadows.  Gone is Bradbury’s suggestion that a world without books would be a bland one.  Instead, a world without books is now one that looks like every single recent sci-fi film.  People may have stopped reading but apparently, they’re still watching old Ridley Scott movies.

Gone too is the idea of Montag as a middle-aged man struggling with an existential crisis.  Now, he’s Michael B. Jordan, who comes across as if he’s never had a moment of doubt in his entire life.  He’s less Montag and more Creed in an authoritarian future.  Also gone is the weary relationship with Captain Beatty.  Now, Beatty is almost a father figure to Montag.  Of course, Montag’s real father died mysteriously years ago.  Nothing indicates a lazy screenwriter quicker than a character with daddy issues.

As I mentioned earlier, in this version, Montag is not married.  Instead, he lives a bachelor lifestyle in a glitzy apartment and he spends most of his time asking questions to the future’s version of Alexa, Yuxie.  (“Yuxie, was Benjamin Franklin the first fireman?”)  Of course, in the novel, Montag’s wife stood in for every citizen who never questioned why books were being burned.  It was Montag’s dissatisfaction with his bland home life that led to him getting to know Clarisse and eventually questioning his job as a fireman.  Now, Montag starts to doubt after a random rebel says that Benjamin Franklin didn’t support burning books.  But why, if Montag has spent a lifetime refusing to question anything, would some rando rebel suddenly make him reconsider?

The Book People are still around but now they’re kind of a pain.  I love books but I wouldn’t want to hang out with any of them.  They’re a humorless group of people who live in a farm and apparently being a book person means you can’t wash your hair or something because seriously, everyone looked a bit grimy.  I mean, it’s important to rebel again authoritarianism but that doesn’t meant you can’t look good while doing it.  Each Book Person has memorized a book and you have to wonder how they decide who gets to memorize which book.  We’re told that one Book Person has memorized Chairman Mao but if you’re battling censorship, would you really want to hang out with a person who has devoted her life to the guy behind the Cultural Revolution?  Another Book Person claims to have memorized all of Proust but I think he’s a damn liar.  I mean, how is anyone going to check that?  I’m guessing he probably only memorized the first 20 pages or so of Swann’s Way.  What I want to know is who got to memorize the Twilight books?

This version of Fahrenheit 451 is a bit of a mess.  I’m not one to demand that literary adaptations stick exactly to their source material.  (For instance, the film version of The Godfather was greatly improved by ignoring 60% of what happened in Mario Puzo’s novel.  For that matter, we can all be thankful that It didn’t end with the Losers Club solidifying their bond by having group sex with Beverly.)  But, in this case, the changes don’t improve on the original.  Instead, they just turn Fahrenheit 451 into yet another shadowy dystopian film.

When it comes to Fahrenheit 451, my advice is just to read the book.

This Is What A Mountain Of Coke And A Deal With HBO Will Get You: Disco Beaver From Outer Space (dir by Joshua White)


So, this happened:

Every Saturday, I get together with my friends in the Late Night Movie Gang and we watch a movie.  I’m usually the one who picks the movie.  I usually try to pick something fun and kinda silly.  For instance, every Christmas, we watch Santa Claus Conquers The Martians.  Last week, we watched Tobor The Great.  And this week, I selected a 51-minute program from 1978.  The name of that program?

Disco Beaver From Outer Space.

Now, I have to admit that this was one of the rare instances where I didn’t actually bother to watch the entire movie before selecting it.  I did watch the first five minutes on YouTube.  It featured someone in a beaver costume walking around New York City and eating stuff while disco music played in the background.  That was all I needed to see.

An alien beaver eating New York!?  I thought, Disco music!?  How could this possibly go wrong!?

Add to that, the movie only had 51 minute run time.  Even if it’s terrible, I thought, at least it won’t be long!

However, once the film started, I discovered that 51 minutes can be a very long time indeed.  Unfortunately, it turned out that the beaver wasn’t actually in much of the film.  He showed up at the start of the movie and then he popped up in the middle and finally, he showed up again at the end.  That the beaver was cute and came with his own disco song made it all the more regretful that he wasn’t in more of the film.

Anyway, it turned out that the film itself was a collection of vaguely connected sketches.  The idea was that a husband and wife were looking for something to watch and , as a result, they kept changing the channel.  One channel featured a country western singer.  Another channel was showing Masterpiece Theater.  And then there was this movie about a vampire called Dragula.

The joke about Dragula was that he was gay and … well, that was pretty much it.  Dragula was gay and everyone he bit turned gay and eventually Lynn Redgrave showed up as Dr. Vanessa Van Helsing and she managed to destroy Dragula.  If you think this sounds homophobic … well, it was.  When the humor wasn’t homophobic, it was misogynistic.  I’ve always been proud of the fact that I’m not easily offended and I’ve never been the type to need a safe space but I have to admit that I spent the majority of Disco Beaver cringing.  Of course, the problem wasn’t that the humor was politically incorrect.  The problem was that the majority of it just wasn’t that funny.

Disco Beaver was produced, for HBO, by National Lampoon.  In fact, HBO was only 6 years old when it broadcast Diso Beaver so I’m going to assume that this may have been one of the first original programs ever specifically made for the network.  Perhaps that explains why the entire production has a sort of “look how naughty we can be on cable!” feel to it.  “We just dropped the F bomb!  Here’s a whole skit about breasts!  And now, here’s a  skit about how to spot a homosexual.  We’re so daring!”

From the minute that Disco Beaver started, I felt as if I could literally hear the coke being cut backstage.  How many lines of cocaine were snorted over the course of the making of Disco Beaver?  Remember that scene at the end of Scarface where Al Pacino had a mountain of white powder on his desk?  I imagine that’s what the Disco Beaver production office looked like.

Anyway, we survived Disco Beaver and, at the end of it, we swore that we would never speak of it again.  And I learned a very valuable lesson!  Always watch the entire movie!