Solo: A Star Wars Story

[3 stars]

Solo marks the first attempt at a really new direction for Star Wars since the end of the first trilogy. Episodes 1-3 and 7-9 are all echos of of 4-6…a bit by design and a lot by laziness and inability to write good stories. The fact that this story overlaps with the worst of the triple trilogy and dovetails into that morass is a different matter.

There is also a lot of cultural weight pressing down on these characters. Solo and Chewy are two of most recognizable and beloved of the many movies. Alden Ehrenreich (Hail, Caesar!) had huge shoes to fill…and his feet are almost the right size, but not quite. He doesn’t have the same charisma nor the acting ability to help me see Harrison Ford the way that, say, Josh Brolin did for Tommy Lee Jones in MIB III or the entire cast of Star Trek did for that prequel. Donald Glover (Spider-Man: Homecoming) came a bit closer for Lando, but there was more leeway there, even if the script made him a bit more craven than swashbuckling. Also, all that talk of pan-sexuality for Lando in this incarnation is utter bull.

The real standouts in this story are Emilia Clarke (Me Before You, Game of Thrones), Paul Bettany (Avengers: Infinity War, Transcendance), and the very unexpected scene-stealing showing by Phoebe Waller-Bridge (Flea Bag, Goodbye Christopher Robin). The three new characters they brought actually had some depth and interest. OK mostly that was only Clarke. Bettany was interesting, but not very deep…bit more of a cookie-cutter psycho. And Waller-Bridge was quite amusing, but not with a lot of impact, despite the plot attempts to elevate her. Woody Harrelson (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) was not bad, but again, just didn’t really rise above what you’d expect in this adventure. Jon Favreau’s (Spider-Man: Homecoming) and Thandie Newton’s (Westworld) characters also stood out and had promise, but the story never did anything with them.

The real issue with this film is two fold. First, the script by the father/son Kasdan duo is predictable and without any risk whatsoever. Second, Ron Howard’s (Inferno) directing is just empty. That Howard came late to this project and still managed to save its release is impressive, especially having reshot more than 70% of the film after his arrival. But the film is flat. There are no great highs, though there are fun and funny moments. There are no great surprises, though there are one or two surprising moments. Even the music avoids the emotional touchstone of the series until the very end. I actually think that last bit could have been a good thing since it provides some breathing room for what is set to become a new branch of the canon. But no one was clapping or excited at the end in my theater. I’ve never seen that at a Star Wars film. Even Rogue One, the only other standalone to date, had chatter and at least light applause as the credits rolled.

So here’s what you get for your ticket. Huge effects. Beautiful scenery. Some interesting background. A couple of new characters. Some potentially classically comic moments. Some answers to some questions. Two and a half hours of distraction. Worth it on the big screen? Yes. Good as a movie? Eh. I admit I am not a rabid fan any longer (Episodes 1-3 took care of that), but I was willing to be won back. Apparently I left the theater un-wooed, but not entirely un-entertained. I just wasn’t wow’ed the way I wanted to be or certainly expected after the Avengers summer kickoff.

Solo: A Star Wars Story

Nostalgia

[3 stars]

Nostalgia is not a subtle movie, but it is poetic, handing off the narrative from one character to another like Le Ronde. Through a series of deliberately paced vignettes it explores our attachments to the past and the objects that trigger or hold those memories. It even tackles, to an extent, what that means in a highly digital world. In some ways this movie reminded me strongly of Marjorie Prime, though that may have been in part because Jon Hamm (Baby Driver) is also in this film .

Hamm isn’t the only recognizable face. The cast is full of solid performers. John Ortiz (Going in Style), Ellen Burstyn (The Calling), Catherine Keener (We Don’t Belong Here), Patton Oswalt (Freaks of Nature), Bruce Dern (The Hateful Eight), Nick Offerman (A Walk in the Woods), Amber Tamblyn (127 Hours), and Arye Gross, just cover some of it. Each has a moment or two they would be happy to add to their reels, though no one character owns the story.

Director and co-writer Mark Pellington (The Mothman Prophecies) isn’t a likely choice for this project, though perhaps his deep background in documentaries of bands plays into the semi-ethereal structure. To be fair, the movie is probably about 20 minutes too long, but none of it is bad. Even when the script is a bit forced by its lyrical bent, the sentiment remains very real and the questions will resonate for you.

Nostalgia

Saturday Church

[3 stars]

Like many, when I first saw Paris is Burning back in 1990 I was floored by the stories and the window into a world I only knew from the fringes. It is easy to think the world has moved on since then, but Saturday Church makes it clear the progress has been minimal in many ways, even though it is fiction rather than documentary.

In the lead is Luka Kain who, despite being intensely quiet, manages to hold the story and film together. He is surrounded by capable actors and singers, though most are unknown. Of that collective, it is Kate Bornstein who stands out as the matron of the titular refuge. She is understanding but strong, and incredibly charismatic.

This is a positive leaning, if open-eyed, look at the challenges and all-too-common tales of what it is to grow up gay or trans in a repressive household. As a movie it is passable, but its heart is solid and the original music surprisingly good. It is also a good bet for you if you find documentaries like Paris is Burning or Pageant intriguing.

Should the story move you at all, you can learn more about its real life inspiration (St. Luke’s in the Fields) and support it.

Saturday Church

Tragedy Girls

[ 3 stars]

A bit like Heathers gone even a little bit madder, with a touch of Final Girls and any CW show thrown in. Brianna Hildebrand (Deadpool 2) and Alexandra Shipp (Love, Simon) really take the screen and shake it by the neck with confidence in this very dark comedy; this is their film. I can’t say you are cheering them on through their story, but you do watch with a certain amount of dark glee as they exercise and improve their skills.

The duo are helped along by a few familiar faces and many new ones. Chief among the known supporting cast are Kevin Durand (The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones) and Jack Quaid (Rampage). Durand gets to have a bit of fun, though it isn’t much of a stretch for him. And Quaid gives us a perfect boy-next-door against Hildebrand’s brand of psychosis. There are a host of other familiar faces if you’re looking, and they all help the story succeed, but the movie is really focused around them.

Director and co-writer Tyler MacIntyre (Patchwork) slaughters the slasher genre with glee and verve. It isn’t that we haven’t seen similar approaches before, but this one is solid from beginning to end, and probably a bit too raw for a lot of audiences. However, if you like your nearly believable gooey endings with humor, you’ll enjoy the ride of this blood fest. What it has to say about society and current culture, well, that’s a discussion for another day, but certainly one worth having. But for an evening of evil popcorn munching, this is a fun and well-done choice.

Tragedy Girls

Deadpool 2

[4.5 stars]

Despite having one of the best posters and some of the worst cover art (see below) Deadpool 2 is as funny as the first, if not quite as surprising now that we know the shtick. In fact, it might have the highest ratio of referential jokes per minute ever (I’d love to see a counter on the disc when it is released akin to the original Taken’s body count meter).

Ryan Reynolds (The Hitman’s Bodyguard) continues to rip up the screen and unequivocally supply the energy for the film. His returning cast from the original Deadpool have fun as well, though there was far too little of Morena Baccarin  and Leslie Uggams for me. I will say that T.J. Miller lost some of his game this round, though Karan Soni got to up his in some ways. On the other hand, Brianna Hildebrand had a similarly minor role but made more of it this time. And Stefan Kapicic’s Collosus got to have a bit more fun than his last outing.

As much fun as it was to see the old gang strutting their stuff, Zazie Beetz (Geostorm), Shioli Kutsuna (The Outsider), Eddie Marsan (The Limehouse Golem) and a smattering of fun surprise guests provide the real zazz to the remix. And Josh Brolin (Avengers: Infinity War) not only delivers, but gets to be part of another of the biggest films this summer; talk about great career choices. And speaking of great choices, perhaps the most surprising addition was Julian Dennison (Hunt for the Wilderpeople), who is probably very new to most audiences but who proved he could handle a major motion picture leap without blinking.

Reynolds joined Reese and Wernick in writing this sequel, which may explain the extreme density of the jokes, and director David Leitch (Atomic Blonde) took the franchise reigns well in this sequel. The overall effect isn’t quite as polished or paced as the original, but it acquits itself well by the end; it just has a rather long setup. And, it should be noted, in Marvel tradition, it has little gifts up through the end of the final credits. They also are continuing another more recent Marvel tradition of wickedly funny (and at times astute) music queues. If I have any real gripe with the script and character it is that Deadpool is still a bit more homophobic than the pansexual, which has more to do with current society than the original material.

So is it all you hoped for? Yes. Is it a worthy sequel? Yes. Does it set up yet more stories? Of course it does. Should you see it on big screen? You bet your red-clad ass. In fact, you may have to see it more than once to catch all the references. Deadpool is the perfect pallet cleanser for the avalanche of serious super hero stories. It reminds us you can have fun and carnage and even a certain amount of intelligence while it is all going on.

 Deadpool 2

Please Stand By

[3 stars]

For all its effort, cast, and moments, this movie never quite achieves liftoff, though it is sweet and panders wonderfully to Trekkies and sci-fi geeks alike. Dakota Fanning (Now is Good) carries the story well and manages to make her performance empowering and a touchstone for anyone who’s felt challenged by the world around them. Her character is also full of enough Trek knowledge to shame the best of us (or embarrass those of us who actually did know some of it to start with).

Toni Collette (Unlocked) and Alice Eve (Star Trek Into Darkness) work alongside Fanning well. Due to the character’s situation, there is little direct collaboration, but it isn’t unemotional. Two small roles worth noting were given life by Jessica Rothe (Happy Death Day) and  Patton Oswalt (Freaks of Nature). Neither gets a full storyline, but their scenes are very effective, particularly Oswalt’s.

Michael Golamco (Grimm) adapted his own play for this script. The shift in media is smooth and there is no sense of a stage play lingering in the result. However, the story is somewhat…easy, for lack of a better word. And the timeline, particularly around Eve’s house and choices, is less than clean. However, director Ben Lewin (The Sessions) works well with the cast and the script to make it diverting and fun while still also providing some nice emotional punch. I could feel the movie teetering at the edge of something much better than it achieves, but it is still worth seeing and will leave you with a feeling of positive possibility.

Please Stand By

Tom of Finland

[3.5 stars]

Many things can define a culture or a group. It can be music, food, fashion…or in this case: art. You may not know his nome de pencil,  Tom of Finland, but you can’t have escaped the images that Touko Valio Laaksonen produced. He defined a great deal of gay culture starting in the 40s up through the 80s, evolving his art from providing a voice to the fantasies of forbidden desire to, ultimately, celebrations of life in the face of illness. Whether or not you were part of the leather culture, his images captured raw sexuality in a heightened way that was an equal response to, and a statement about, how repressed culture was pretty much everywhere.

Beyond his art, Laaksonen himself, had a fascinating life that we pick up during WWII. Yes, he struggled with a repressive culture and horrifying laws and bias, but he also struggled with simply being a veteran of war. His wish to avoid confrontation, to not have to fight anymore, is something universal to soldiers returned from the front. Seeing that play out in his life was an unexpected aspect of the history.

Director Dome Karukoski also told the story in an interesting way, without explanation flipping around the chronologies at times, but always with a purpose that would pay off. He maintains a respectable distance from his subjects, but allows us to invest in them and hope for them. There is an odd clinical feeling to many of the exchanges that is reflective of Finland and Germany, but it never leaves you feeling closed out. In some ways the lack of warmth heightens the brief moments of connection for Touko and contrasts nicely with his later life.

This movie works equally well as a story and as a documentary/biopic. Primarily in Finnish, it also has plenty of German and English dialogue and nothing is so rapid fire as to cause subtitle strain. In fact, a lot of the film is without dialogue, allowing the story to play out with looks and action alone. It is well done and, ultimately, educating. It will also provide you a new appreciation for Tom of Finland, his work and his purpose, not to mention his place in history.

Tom of Finland

 

Life of the Party

[3 stars]

Some films live on one scene, and this is definitely in that category. Which isn’t to say that it isn’t entertaining nor that there aren’t many entertaining bits. But, there is a single scene worth your price of admission (or rental) in this bit of popcorn silliness that should live in the halls of humor for years to come. It cracked up my audience and had them groaning, shouting, gasping, and laughing out loud. You’ll know it when you see it and I’ll say no more.

This is a female dominated cast and story. Melissa McCarthy (Ghostbusters) and Molly Gordon (Love the Coopers) make an amusing mother/daughter pairing and drive the story in a nice, light way. Gillian Jacobs (Don’t Think Twice) and Heidi Gardner get to tackle and breathe life into a couple unconventional characters that each have contributions to make. Maya Rudolph (We Don’t Belong Here) delivers some great side-kick moments alone and with her screen partner. The rest of the sorority and side-characters deliver as well. And on the male side, Luke Benward provides a surprisingly genuine and grounded love interest who manages to do his part without ever taking over the screen (in a good way).

Generally, this is better than I expected, but still not a great film or classic. Like all of Melissa McCarthy and Ben Falcone (The Boss) movies it takes short-cuts, though it avoids most of the cliche pitfalls, and never quite how far not to take a joke. The result leaves the story fairly predictable and the characters and choices often way too broad for credibility. They do keep trying to come back to center to keep the wheels on the crazy bus…and they succeed enough to make the story enjoyable.

Like I said, this film really survives on one scene, so I can’t deny its success. Absent that moment, it would have been fairly empty and forgettable. But for that moment, which they work for and set up beautifully, make time to catch it eventually. It doesn’t have to be on the big screen, so there’s no rush, but you owe yourself that solid a belly laugh at some point.

Life of the Party

Peter Rabbit (2018)

[1.5 stars]

I consider myself to have a fairly wide range of likes from the cerebral to the purest popcorn. However, I couldn’t even finish watching this movie. By 15 minutes in I had to turn it off. And I did that on an evening I was looking for something silly and escapist.

I will say that the mixed CG/reality was rather well done. And the script was actually willing to hold onto some of the darker aspects of the original tale. But there was something about how director Will Gluck (Easy A) paced and set the tone of the story that just didn’t work for me. Honestly, unless you’re somewhere between the ages of 5 and 8, I’m pretty sure it won’t really work for you either. Even Early Man, for all its faults and lack of an adult hook, was more watchable.

Peter Rabbit

In the Fade (Aus dem Nichts)

[3.5 stars]

In the Fade packs a lot of story into its shy two hours. And while I’m not a Diane Kruger (The Host) fan, often finding her stiff and unemotional, she is powerful and painfully exposed in this film; she carries it utterly. In fact, the only other actor that leaves a real impression is Johannes Krisch, who’s super creepy and foul lawyer will twist your guts as he does his work.

Director/co-writer Fatih Akin tackles what is becoming an all-to-common story in the last ten years. However, he focuses the story very personally and small, expertly guiding Kruger and the cast, keeping it paced and under control. The story, however charged, stays ensconced in the painfully mundane, which is part of how it earned the many awards it was was nominated for and/or won last year.

Admittedly, In the Fade is not a light film for a night of simple distraction, but it is a well-done film that should be seen at some point. Because it focuses on the individual rather than the broader societal threads, it is oddly more palatable. We connect with Kruger and invest in her need for meaning, even when her actions are far from anything we may personally identify with…and even more so when they are.

In the Fade

Art, writing, life explained… or at least commented upon…