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Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)

The notorious back-story behind Solo: A Star Wars Story has more than eclipsed whatever else this “young Han Solo” prequel appeared to offer. Directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller were responsible for a string of fast-paced, silly hits like The Lego Movie and the 21 Jump Street films, and when producer Kathleen Kennedy hired them, it felt like an inspired infusion of new blood to make a Star Wars movie different in tone and approach. Five months into shooting and mere weeks away from completing photography, Miller and Lord were fired. The on-set rumors and sources have relayed a badly conceived marriage between the directors, given to improv and irreverence, and Kennedy’s sense of what a Star Wars movie should include. Enter Ron Howard, no stranger to the world of George Lucas, and an extensive battalion of reshoots, and you’re left with Solo, which only lists Howard as director. With that as its genesis, it feels like this movie should be a train wreck. It’s not that. Instead, Solo is fitfully entertaining but underwhelming diversion weighed down by its untapped potential.

Years before that noisy Mos Eisley cantina, Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich) is a low-level criminal trying to find a better life. He loses his girl, Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke), joins the Imperial Army, and defects, finding a partner in a big hairy wookie named Chewbacca (Joonas Suatamo). The two of them join a crew of thieves run by Beckett (Woody Harrelson), and after a job gone wrong, everyone is in grave danger and deep debt to the crime lord Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany). The crew must even the score and make things right, and they must navigate unreliable allies like Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover), his trusted robotic assistant L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), and, most surprisingly, Qui’ra herself, working as one of Vos’ top criminal consultants.

Solo is hard to justify except as an increasingly tedious appeasement to the greater altar of fan service. The movie reminded me of those young author biopics like Finding Neverland where everything is given the unspoken-though-heavily implied significance of dramatic irony, where the audience knows, “Oh, this will be where that comes from, or that’s the first time that happened, etc.” Solo provides further light on the Star Wars minutia that only a scant few will work up real excitement over. For every interesting revelation, like Han and Chewbacca first meeting and bonding, there are numerous others that could best be characterized as cataloging the story of Who Gives a Crap?: The Movie. Who cares how Han got his dice? On that note, did I just not remember this trinket being as heavily showcased in the original trilogy as these new films emphasize? Also, who cares about how Han gets the Millennium Falcon? Who cares how Han got into the smuggling business? Who cares why Han was on Tatooine to begin with? The film expects audiences to supply the significance for scenes that lack that on their own. Too much of the script by Lawerence and Jonathan Kasdan (In the Land of Women) coasts along on audience good will carried over from the original trilogy.

As far as being a heist movie, Solo doesn’t put much concentrated thought with its heist set pieces. Much of the plot hinges on a “job” to recover a large amount of fuel owed to the scary crime boss, so the job itself should be treated as important. Once topside, the characters stick to their ruse for about five minutes and things immediately go bad and then it’s just one messy, ongoing action sequence. I could understand carefully planning a scheme only for it to unexpectedly go wrong, but the appeal of heists are their intricacy, development, and complications, and Solo sadly snuffs this appeal out. The high-point of the film is an early Act Two heist that’s the sci-fi equivalent of a train robbery. Things start off promising with the space craft being able to rotate around its rail, which tickles the imagination for plenty of dire hangings on. We even get a few preparatory words for the plan, though even those are fairly general. And then things start and they immediately go bad and stay that way without satisfying complication. Part of the appeal of heists is seeing the curve balls, the unexpected complications, and how our team reacts and recovers. It’s a fun sequence with some thrilling visuals but it never rises beyond the sum of its action particulars, and so an important set piece is held back from going for greatness. The action throughout Solo is serviceable but rarely does it feel like what’s onscreen is the best version of what it could have been. Serviceable, sure.

Which brings about the inevitable analysis over what can be gleaned from the final product that traces back to its original team of directors. There are a handful of comic asides that feel like the lasting touch of Miller and Lord. Beyond that, Solo feels very much like Howard’s movie, though much like Rogue One, the mind conjures the possibilities of the original version. One of the biggest changes is that Howard added Bettany’s gangster character. He’s on screen for really two sequences though his importance stretches over the entire film. Solo feels cohesively like one movie to the degree that if you had never heard about the headline-grabbing production tumult, you wouldn’t suspect anything had happened behind-the-scenes. However, the lasting impact seems deeper, namely that many of these sequences feel, to some degree, interchangeable by design. The execution and development feel lacking. It’s a lingering feeling that what you’ve been watching isn’t fully coming together. It’s not fully engaging the attention and making the most of its beloved characters. It feels less like a seminal moment in the story of Han, Chewie, and Lando and more like an extended episode of a television series. I was too detached and grew restless too often. I started waiting for it to be over rather than waiting to see what happened next.

Ehrenreich showed enormous promise with 2016’s Hail, Caesar! both with comedy chops and leading man appeal, so he seemed like a capable choice for a young Han Solo. After rumors of having to hire an emergency acting coach on set, I was expecting a poor performance. He’s decent, grinning through the indignities, stumbling along with a sardonic sensibility that still plays into a confident sense of optimism against the odds. Ehrenreich, much like most of the movie, is perfectly fine, entertaining at times, but far too often a passing blip. The real star of the movie is Glover (TV’s Atlanta) who is brimming with charisma. Plus Lando’s suave, pansexual nature and tendency toward shady scheming lends itself to a more fascinating glimpse at a character we know decidedly less about.

Clarke (HBO’s Game of Thrones) is saddled with a non-starter of a storyline as the old girlfriend who got away. Harrelson (Three Billboards) plays another cranky father figure role. Bettany (Avengers: Infinity War) is generally wasted as a villain lacking a stronger sense of identity or menace. His weapons of choice, two laser-edged knives, seem like where the depth of character creation ended with him. Oh, he also has scars over his face, so that’s about the same as a personality. The lone supporting player that leaves an impression is Waller-Bridge (Fleabag) as the android, L3-37. I could have used an entire movie with her and Lando. She becomes a political revolutionary by accident over the mistreatment of droids, and L3-37 does what the other supporting characters, and even what Ehrenreich to some extent, do not — leave you wanting more.

After its problematic history, it would be easy to look for ways to carve up Solo as a Hodge-podge creation of studio interference but that’s too tidy an explanation. I’m not against the idea of a “young Han Solo” film franchise, though it needs to find the right stories to shed new and meaningful light on this classic rogue. Han Solo was, like, mid thirties at the oldest in 1977’s Star Wars and Ehrenreich’s early-to-mid 20s version doesn’t afford a great many differences (he was already a “young” character to start with). If you’ve bought into the Star Wars universe, there should be enough to at least be entertained by, and if you’re a nascent fan, then Solo might be an easily digestible fun adventure. The mitigated or underdeveloped potential nagged at me as I was watching. It’s got aliens and space heists and most of the time I was approaching boredom. I’ll label the movie with its own Scarlet F: it’s… “fine.” It’s the kind of movie you shrug your shoulders at afterwards, not necessarily regretting the experience but moving along. Perhaps we’re just at a natural point in the post-Disney-purchase of Star Wars, and now we’re facing less-than-ideal time-discharged product. I was hoping for more, either good or bad, but had to settle for a relatively lackluster prequel. I don’t know if there will be further escapades with the “young” Han Solo but I wish they choose them more wisely. Even the title feels bland.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

It’s hard to draw comparisons to the major commitment to long-form storytelling that the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has dabbled with over the course of ten record-shattering years of success. I can think of movie franchises that have been popular over long periods of time, like James Bond, but rarely do they keep to continuity. It’s been 18 movies and ten years since the caddish Robert Downey Jr. first stole our hearts in the original Iron Man, and its stable of heroes and villains has grown exponentially. Looking at the poster for Avengers: Infinity War, it’s hard to believe there’s even enough space just for all of the actors’ names. Infinity War feels like a massive, culminating years-in-the-making film event and it reminded me most of Peter Jackson’s concluding Lord of the Rings chapter, Return of the King. After so long, we’re privy to several separate story threads finally being braided as one and several dispirit characters finally coming together. This is a blockbuster a full decade in the making and it tends to feel overloaded and burdened with the responsibility of being everything to everyone. It’s an epic, entertaining, and enjoyable movie, but Infinity War can also leave you hanging.

Thanos (Josh Brolin) has finally come to collect the six infinity stones stashed around the universe. With their power, he will be able to achieve his ultimate goal of wiping out half of all life in the universe. Standing in his murderous way is a divided Avengers squad, with Tony Stark (Downey Jr.) still on the outs with a wanted-at-large Captain America (Chris Evans) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). One of the in-demand infinity stones resides in the head of the Vision (Paul Bettany), who is in hiding with his romantic partner, Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen). They know Thanos will be coming for Vision eventually. On the other side are the Guardians of the Galaxy who have a few personal scores to settle with Thanos, the adopted father of Gomora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula (Karen Gillan). Elsewhere, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) strikes out looking for the key to defeating the big purple menace. Thanos’ loyal lieutenants attack Earth to gather the remaining infinity stones, drawing the attention and push-back of Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Peter Parker (Tom Holland). The various heroes of Earth and space unite to eliminate the greatest threat the universe has ever known.

Avengers: Infinity War serves not as much a series of payoffs as it is climaxes, with climactic event right after another, and this time it’s for keeps (more on that below). There are moments that feel like major payoffs and moments that feel like shrug-worthy Last Jedi-style payoffs. Infinity War is the longest MCU movie yet at 149 minutes but it has no downtime. That’s because it has to find room for dozens of heroes across the cosmos. With the exception of three super heroes, everyone is in this movie, and I mean everyone. This is an overstuffed buffet of comic book spectacle, and whether it feels like overindulgence will be determined by the viewer’s prior investment with this cinematic universe. If this is your first trip to the MCU, I’d advise holding off until later. Any newcomer will be very lost. I’ve deduced the seven MCU movies that are the most essential to see to successfully comprehend the totality of the Infinity War dramatics, and they are Iron Man, The Avengers, Captain America: Winter Soldier, Guardians of the Galaxy, Captain America: Civil War, Doctor Strange, and Thor: Ragnarok. Naturally, being intimately familiar with the previous 18 movies will be best, but if you don’t have thirty hours to spare then please follow my seven-film lineup and you’ll be solid.

As far as the stakes, the MCU has been notoriously reluctant about killing off its characters, but Infinity War is completely different. I won’t spoil circumstances or names, of course, but the march of death happens shockingly early and carries on throughout. There are significant losses that will make fans equally gasp and cry. This is a summer blockbuster that leaves behind an impressive body count across the known universe and ends in a downbeat manner that will naturally trigger reflexive Empire Strikes Back comparisons. It’s hard to feel the full impact of the drastic decisions, and the grief over their losses because I know there is a Part Two coming summer 2019, and with that comes the almost certainty that several important events will be diminished or straight-out reversed. After all, in comics, nobody is ever really dead, though with movies the heroes have the nagging habit of aging. With that said, you better believe I was holding my breath during some standoffs, tearing up at some sudden goodbyes, and reflecting upon journeys shared.

This is very much Thanos’ movie, which was one of the bigger surprises for me. Beforehand, our exposure to the big purple guy has been relatively minor, a brief moment here or a cameo there during a post-credit scene. Considering Thanos is supposed to be the universe’s biggest bad, it makes sense to finally give him his due, and that is what Infinity War does. Thanos gets the most screen time of any character and is given an honest-to-God character arc. He’s a villain who goes on an actual emotional journey as he follows a path that he feels compelled to even as it tests him personally. He finally opens up as a character rather than some malevolent force that is oft referred to in apocalyptic terms. We get his back-story and motivation, which is less a romantic appeal to Death like in the comics and more a prevention of the apocalypse reminiscent of the Reapers in the Mass Effect series. Thanos sees himself as a necessary corrective force and not as a villain. He’s never portrayed in a maniacal, gleeful sense of wickedness. Instead he seems to carry the heaviness of his mission and looks at the Avengers and other heroes sympathetically. He understands their struggle and defiance. Having an actor the caliber of Brolin (Deadpool 2) is a necessity to make this character work and effectively sell the emotions. Thanos is the most significant addition to the MCU appearing the latest, so there’s a lot of heavy lifting to do, and Infinity War fleshes him out as a worthy foe.

As an action spectacle, however, Infinity War is good but not great. The action sequences are interesting enough but there’s nothing special and little development. There’s nothing that rivals the delirious nerdgasm of the airport battle in Civil War pitting hero-against-hero to dizzying degree. The characters are separated into units with their own goals leading to a final confrontation that feels more climactic conceptually than in execution. That’s because this is an Avengers film that falls into some of the trappings of the glut of super hero cinema, namely the army of faceless foot soldiers for easy slaughtering, the over exaggerated sense of scale of battle, the apocalyptic stakes that can feel a bit like a bell rung too many times, and even minor things like the lackluster supporting villains. Thanos’ team of lieutenants are all the same kind of sneering heavy with the exception of one, a sort of alien cleric heralding the honor of death from Thanos. Carrie Coon (HBO’s The Leftovers) is generally wasted providing the mo-cap for the Lady Lieutenant That Sounds Like a Band Fronted by Jared Leto, a.k.a. Proxima Midnight. There are far too many scenes where characters reluctantly strike a deal to give up an infinity stone if Thanos will spare the life of a beloved comrade. The film’s greatest point of entertainment isn’t with its action but the character dynamics. The fun is watching years-in-the-making character interactions and seeing the sparks fly. There’s more joy in watching Downey Jr. and Cumberbatch try and out smarm one another than with any CGI collision of a faceless army of monsters. There are so many characters that few are given fully defined arcs. Most are given beginnings and stopping places. Though the eventual sequel will have fewer characters needing to share precious screen time.

The standouts on screen are Hemsworth (12 Strong) carrying a large portion of the movie and not missing a beat of his well-honed comic rhythms from Ragnarok, Bettany (Solo) brings a sad soulfulness to Vision as a man who knows fate is likely unavoidable, and Dave Bautista (Blade Runner 2049) is perfectly deadpan as Drax and has the funniest lines in the movie followed closely by the exuberant Holland (Lost City of Z). To even say which characters deal with more complex emotions might be a spoiler in itself but there are several actors showing an emotive level unseen so far in the bustling MCU.

Avengers: Infinity War marks a significant concluding chapter for one of cinema’s most popular series, until at least the next movie possibly makes it feel less conclusive. I pity Marvel because expectations are going to be astronomical for this climactic showdown. There are so many characters, so many crossovers, and so much to still establish, like Thanos as a character more than a spooky force of annihilation, that it feels rather breathless even at nearly two-and-a-half hours. You may be feeling a rush of exhilaration on your way out or an equally compelling sense of exhaustion. Infinity War doesn’t have the imaginative highs of a Dcotor Strange, the funky personality and style of a Guardians of the Galaxy, the wonderfully thought-out structure of a Spider-Man: Homecoming, the adroit weirdness of a Thor: Ragnarok, or even the hero-against-hero catharsis of a Civil War (still my favorite). What it does have is a sense of long-gestating finality, of real stakes and dire consequences. It’s not all pervading doom and gloom; this is still a fun movie, buoyed by crackling character team-ups and interactions. While, Infinity War won’t be all things to all people, myself included, it will please many fans, casual and diehard alike.

Nate’s Grade: B

Captain America: Civil War (2016)

captain-america-civil-war-15Think you were disappointed by last summer’s Avengers: Age of Ultron? The pressure-packed experience broke writer/director Joss Whedon who swore off being the creative shepherd of the Marvel cinematic Universe (MCU). Enter the Russo brothers, a pair who were widely known for their work in eclectic TV comedies like Community and Arrested Development before blowing away all modest expectations with 2014’s Captain America: Winter Soldier. I can say that the Russos are more than capable for the challenge. My simplistic blurb for Captain America: Civil War is thus: everything Batman vs. Superman did wrong this movie does right.

After the cataclysmic events of multiple movie climaxes, the world governments are wary of the power wielded by the Avengers. Secretary Ross (William Hurt, the lone returning element from 2008’s Incredible Hulk) is pushing the superheroes to sign the Sokovia Accords, which would put them under the control of a U.N. joint panel. This panel would decide when and where to deploy the Avengers. Captain America, a.k.a. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), is worried about a group of people taking away their choice. Iron Man, a.k.a. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), believes that they need to accept limitations and that agreeing to these terms staves off something worse later. This division becomes even more pronounced when Rogers’ old friend the Winter Soldier, a.k.a. Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), reappears as the chief suspect in a U.N. bombing. Black Panther, a.k.a. T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), swears vengeance against Barnes for the bombing. As the assembly of heroes squares off over the fate of the Winter Soldier, Baron Zemo (Daniel Bruhl) is tracking down classified Hydra documents to uncover pertinent information that will topple an empire.

Captain-America-Civil-War-Team-Cap-attackingWhile I don’t want to turn every new film review as an opportunity to beat a dead horse, I cannot help but draw immediate and stark comparisons between Civil War and the earlier titanic superhero slugfest, Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice. Let’s take this case point by point so there is no reasonable doubt left for the jury of ticket-buyers.

Batman vs. Superman doesn’t set up its conflicts with enough time to develop them and it lacks real emotional stakes.”

With BvS (I’m saving my fingertips some drudgery), we hadn’t known these characters for more than one movie at best, and in the case of Bruce Wayne less than one. When they fought there wasn’t any real stakes despite the apoplectic marketing because we hadn’t built relationships with these characters. In the case of Henry Cavill’s Superman, many were turned off entirely by the guy (not necessarily by Cavill’s physique, though). Did anyone really care who won? The filmmakers relied on the audience to supply their pop-culture good will for the characters instead of proper characterization and development. In the case of Civil War, we’re dealing with the cumulative effect of having twelve movies to build up storylines and character relationships. We’re invested in these characters and their friendships, so when they fight it actually does matter. You feel for both sides and multiple characters and the movie does a good job of providing each side a credible motivation. It’s a political thorny issue but it’s kept very streamlined, focusing more on the characters. If the MCU has had one nagging problem throughout its history it has been a dearth of good villains. There’s Loki and… Loki. One solution is to just pit the heroes against each other and this produces as many fist-bumps as winces. My audience was gasping at reveals and twists and turns. They weren’t doing that with BvS. And wouldn’t you know Civil War actually has a climax that’s more than just an increasing series of punches and kicks (though plenty of those are featured); the climax is an emotionally grounded confrontation that cuts to the core of the group. The events of this movie matter and while obviously it can’t follow its divisions to an irrevocable end, I appreciated that not everything is resolved. These storylines and the conflicts between characters will carry onward when we pick up the pieces in 2018.

Batman vs. Superman is too burdened with setting up an array of other film franchises that it loses badly needed focus and momentum.”

Captain-America-Civil-War-images-previewTo be fair, this charge can also be laid at the feet of Age of Ultron, which buckled under the heavy weight of setting up multiple other future movies rather than telling a completely satisfying movie in its own right. Once the franchises gave birth to mega-franchises, the wheels-within-wheels of moneymaking, now the studios require a lot of heavy lifting from our entertainment. They’re investments in futures and if done improperly can easily crumble under the failed execution like the Amazing Spider-Man series (R.I.P. 2012-2014). Miraculously, Civil War finds ways to involve every member of a large ensemble cast into the story in ways that matter. The movie finds small character moments that make them feel better rounded, like Vision (Paul Bettany) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), and it introduces featured supporting players with great care. Black Panther is a terrific addition and brings a quieter intensity that contrasts nicely with the more colorful characters. Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) introduces himself and Black Panther curtly says, “I don’t care” and goes back to fighting. Boseman (ageless I tell you!) is smooth and magnetic. Then there’s everyone’s favorite neighborhood Spider-Man (Tom Holland), or whom I’m already referring to my pals as “best Spider-Man.” It’s another incarnation of Peter Parker but the first that feels like an actual teenager, a bundle of adolescent energy and excitement. He’s the voice of the fans and during the big battle he can’t help but gush that he gets to be involved alongside the big names. Spidey’s a fanboy too. He also has a few choice meta one-liners that had me cackling. Holland (The Impossible) makes an immediate impact and, unlike BvS, finds new ways to make us care. I’m genuinely excited for solo Black Panther and Spider-Man adventures with these characters. Even the more traditional villain of Civil War, Baron Zemo, is handled in a way that provides an emotional motivation for his character that is sincere rather than mustache-twirling villainy. In a lot of ways this feels like a third Avengers film just with the size and scope alone. The dozen characters are juggled skillfully but the emphasis is always on Rogers and Stark and their significant personal conflicts.

Batman vs. Superman’s action sequences are repetitive, joyless, and dank.”

I challenge some enterprising soul to even try and decipher what is happening during the climactic three-on-one monster battle in BvS. I was sitting in the theater and just gave up. I wasn’t having any fun and I couldn’t even literally tell what was happening onscreen with all the confusing CGI obfuscation. The action droned on and on with little variation and was at pains to include certain members and storylines (Lois, maybe don’t get so hasty with that kryptonite spear). It was all just one big overwrought mess that made you question whether anybody on that film production actually liked these superheroes. With Civil War, the action sequences are smartly conceived and choreographed, making excellent use of geography and adding organic complications. The standout is the 20-minute superhero-on-superhero brawl at the Leipzig airport. It is nothing short of nerd nirvana. The characters use their powers together in exciting ways and it further helps them feel like an actual team taking proper advantage of their resources. It’s the culmination of a child’s imagination at play, the living embodiment of smashing action figures against one another and flying around the room. I was thrilled that the Russo brothers found ways to incorporate all the heroes into the action. The specific powers are taken advantage of in fun and surprising ways. The action changes as the stakes keep getting more complicated as more heroes enter the fray. It’s a set piece that will become legendary within film geek circles and it provides payoff after glorious payoff.

Batman vs. Superman is devoid of all fun and takes itself far too seriously. You feel beaten down, exhausted, and punished by film’s end.”

captain-america-civil-war-spider-manThe Marvel movies have earned a reputation for their brisk and breezy nature, which has unfairly been labeled as “weightless” and “silly.” I challenge someone to watch Civil War and tell me just how weightless and silly it is. The Russo brothers and the screenwriters take these characters seriously and their care shows. While there can be plenty of rapid-fire quips and one-liners, the movie’s sense of humor does not detract from the emotional weight of its dramatic shifts. There are political and thematic overtones, mostly the costs of vengeance and culpability, that provide extra depth to the onscreen derring-do. However, Civil War understands that an audience wants to be entertained as well with their heavy-handed messianic imagery. There are payoffs galore in this movie. Some are several movies deep from set up. It all comes together to make a thrilling and highly enjoyable movie experience that plays to its audience in the best way possible. It’s an expert summer blockbuster that packs its own punch. There’s a reason I have already seen Civil War three times already. There is so much to enjoy and it’s so tightly packed and structured that you can jump right in and go for the ride. This is the movie fans were hoping for. This is the movie that washes out the bad taste of the dreadful BvS. If one of my lasting disappointments with BvS was how it made me lose hope for future DC movies, Civil War has cemented my anticipation. The future creative direction of the MCU is in good hands with the Russo brothers. This is the movie that reminds you just how damn good superhero movies can be when they’re at the top of their game. I’d place Civil War right up there at the top of the MCU, though at this time I’m still holding Guardians of the Galaxy as the apex. They’re still achieving this high level of quality after a dozen movies, people. I would not have thought that Captain America would become the gold standard of the MCU but there it is. I felt beaten down by the merciless end of BvS. I felt the elation of an adrenaline-rush from Civil War.

I’ll conclude this unorthodox film review with my in-summary blurb: everything Batman vs. Superman did wrong Captain America: Civil War does right. Do yourself a favor and start the healing process from BvS and enjoy Marvel’s latest cinematic gift to its fans.

Nate’s Grade: A

Mortdecai (2015)

mortdecai_character_poster_1It’s not going to be called conventionally appealing, or successfully funny, but Mortdecai is not exactly the colossal unwatchable bomb that critics brought out their knives for in the first month of 2015. It’s a curiosity that has some merit in its failure but it’s hard to lambaste this lark too much because it never takes itself too seriously. Johnny Depp plays Mortdecai, a roguish art dealer who also traffics in stolen paintings. Gwyneth Paltrow is his co-conspirator and wife. Paul Bettany is Mortdecai’s long-suffering manservant always getting into dust-ups or occasionally shot by his master. The weird left turns the comedy keeps taking don’t exactly make the movie better but they save it from being completely unmemorable. Your enjoyment factor will weigh heavily upon your tolerance for Depp in full foppish mode, an effete dandy who struggles with his conflating love of his mustache and his wife’s distaste for it. The entire story is a shaggy dog caper about stolen art that involves the Russian mafia, MI 5, and Nazi gold, and nothing matters. The actors look to be having a good deal of fun, playing dress up and trying on silly accents. I can’t say I laughed out loud but I did occasionally smile at the absurd commitment. I mostly sat wondering how something like this gets made, and then I saw that Depp was one of the producers and that answered that question. Mortdecai may not be worth the invective but that doesn’t mean it’s good.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Margin Call (2011)

Set during the first twenty-four hours of the 2008 economic meltdown, Margin Call feels like David Mamet’s classic play Glengarry Glen Ross just set fifty floors higher. It’s a tense stew of ego and hubris and cunning and manipulation and self-preservation, peppered with some salty language. The corporate bigwigs of a fictional financial firm scramble to get out the door first before everyone else catches on to the looming market crash. “There are three ways to make a living in this business: be first, be smarter, or cheat,” says the CEO (Jeremy Irons). Debut writer/director J.C. Chandor brilliantly captures the rationalization of sociopathic greed; the CEO waxes about the historical inevitability of our own self-destructive influences, glibly recounting other market crashes and saying he will survive because the nation’s class systems are fixed. The behind-the-scenes scheming has a sick appeal, witnessing how Wall Street wriggled free of responsibility. This isn’t a far-reaching look into the financial meltdown; it’s more of an insular, thoughtful, occasionally meditative play about the moral questions at play. The prosaic pacing caused quite a slew of yawns in my audience. There does seem to be a never-ending cascade of scenes where two characters will just sit and talk. However, when the writing is this sharp and the actors are all at the top of their game (Kevin Spacey is emotionally spent in a test of loyalties; Irons is charmingly sleazy), then you can forgive some stagnate pacing. Margin Call has a few heavy-handed metaphors (Spacey putting his dog down = the economy!), but overall it’s astute, insightful, sophisticated, and compelling enough to forgive its overreaches.

Nate’s Grade: B+

The Tourist (2010)

It seems to have all the right elements aligned: two mega-watt stars, a gorgeous location, and an Oscar-winning director whose last film, 2006’s The Lives of Others, was a tense, meaty, humane drama. Add a mistaken identity plot and The Tourist should feel like a light-hearted romp. The truth is that the final product is resoundingly dim and dull is deeply disappointing. All that Hollywood glamour and this is the best they could come up with? The movie is too mechanical, joyless, without much in the way of pacing or a pulse, and the direction feels like a languid tourist trip itself, placidly soaking up the scenery and waiting for a plot to shamble into frame. The action sequences are bereft of tension. Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp have too few scenes together, too mild a sexual tension, and sleepwalk through their performances. Depp could easily have been replaced by any actor. You’ll see the twists telegraphed a mile away, but by that time your eyes will have already glazed over thanks to the dead weight of a script credited to THREE Oscar-winning screenwriters. With this much talent behind and in front of the camera, I expected a lot more than a sluggish, bland, hermetic thriller that would more like to get lost in scenery than quicken a pulse. The Tourist feels like it needs a map just to know what it’s doing, and the finished product deserves a one-way ticket to the bargain bin.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Legion (2010)

Just to be upfront, I am a big fan of action movies making use of Christian mythology (sorry if the use of the word “mythology” offends some). You tell me a tale about angels, demons, in a contemporary setting no less, and I’m hooked. You give those two sides weapons and have them fight over the fate of mankind, and I’m already revving my engines. So please know that no matter what the artistic achievements of Legion may be, I was predisposed to enjoying a movie that features the angel Michael (Paul Bettany) on the poster with a sword in one hand and an automatic weapon in the other. The premise of Legion is that God has finally had it with mankind and is making good on his threat to “turn this thing around right now.” He’s sending a host of heavenly angels to … eliminate humanity. Michael rebelled, believing man was still capable of making good on its promise. So he fights alongside a handful of characters shacked up in Dennis Quaid’s greasy spoon diner in the middle of nowhere. The action isn’t really involving but the movies does have some cool moments, like when Michael goes mano-a-seraphim with Gabriel (a marble-mouthed Kevin Durand). Legion deals with an antagonist (God) that is so powerful that there have got to be arbitrary limits placed on that power. So the attacking angels don’t overwhelm the tiny diner with their superior numbers, nor does the Almighty just blink the troublemakers out of existence. The end doesn’t really give much in the way of clarity but I got what I wanted from a movie like Legion. Though, in retrospect, I really didn’t want sizzling acid popping from boils.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Iron Man (2008)

Robert Downey Jr. and Jon Favreau seem like decidedly odd choices for a studio to hand over a multi-million dollar potential comic franchise. Iron Man certainly isn’t one of the better-known super hero properties but Marvel Studios felt confident that having Favreau behind the lens and Downey Jr. in a heavy suit of armor was the right direction. They couldn’t have been more right. Iron Man is a rock solid action vehicle that flies by in a blast. My biggest complaint: the film never utilizes the ready-made theme song by Black Sabbath.

Tony Stark (Downey Jr.) is the billionaire CEO of Stark Industries, a high-grade weapons manufacturer creating bigger and better ways for people to kill each other. His life is a never-ending party, going from gambling to girls to gizmos. His assistant, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), keeps Stark as grounded as he can be. Stark is traveling to Afghanistan to demonstrate the awesome might of some of his new missiles when his convoy is ambushed. One of Stark’s own weapons sends shrapnel into his chest. He is kidnapped by terrorists (read: Arabs with guns) and held captive inside a cave. Stark is kept alive by a glowing electromagnet do-dad in his chest that manages to keep the shrapnel from entering his heart. Raza (Faran Tahir) orders Stark to build him a missile or else. So Stark does what any mechanical boy genius would do: he builds a giant suit of armor and busts his way out.

Stark’s friend Jim Rhodes (Terrence Howard), an Air Force officer, rescues him in the desert. Once back at home in his Malibu mansion, Stark has a personal epiphany. After seeing the human damage his weapons cause he no longer wants to manufacture weapons. His business partner Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges) and the board of directors are not interested in Stark’s revision. They want to keep doing what they do, making weapons for the highest bidder. Stark begins building a more advanced mechanical suit based upon the prototype from Afghanistan. He will use his technical expertise and great fortune to destroy his own weapons, even if he has to become an ironclad superhero to do so.

Downey Jr. is Iron Man, yes, but he IS Iron Man. He makes this character, this movie, and serves as the film’s ambassador to an audience that has grown tired of mopey teenagers imbued with super powers. His character is a man going through a mid-life crisis of sorts, reevaluating his life and trying to find meaning in his work. There’s something satisfying about watching an older adult wreck of a man taking on a genre that feels like it’ stuck in a high school atmosphere. Downey Jr. is a fantastically engaging, talented actor and when he turns on his narcissistic quick-witted charm it is impossible not to be won over. He provides the film with a tremendous spark and manages to make a womanizing, alcohol-swilling, super wealthy arms peddler/playboy into a figure of sympathy and a hero for the masses. Downey Jr. has expert comic timing and makes Tony Stark a cool swinging superhero. Just listen to his line deliveries and the energy and pacing he puts into the dialogue; it’s terrific. He also gives Stark the necessary drama to pull off the weight of guilt.

Iron Man is also a victory for Favreau as a director. The Swingers star has become a stealthily competent director. He helmed 2003’s Elf and 2005’s underappreciated Zathura and I suppose Marvel Studios saw what I saw in those films. The direction is focused and he makes smart decisions, never overwhelming an audience and always centered closely to the story. Favreau is more concerned with storytelling than noisy, empty special effects. Hell, Iron Man doesn’t even enter the film until an hour into it. There is a confidence and patience to his direction; it manages to convince an audience that they will be rewarded for their time.

Favreau doesn’t pander and knows well enough that practical special effects will inspire the greatest sense of awe in a summer flick. Iron Man‘s special effects are almost seamless from the practical to CGI. I enjoy popcorn action movies so much more when I’m not nit-picking the special effects. This isn’t a slam on CGI itself, but computer effects have the tendency to declare their fakeness. Sure the special effects were amazing in last summer’s Transformers (how it lost the visual effects Oscar to the subpar Golden Compass I’ll never know), but the CGI-ness of it could be overpowering. When I cannot decipher a special effect automatically, then I know I have been fully immersed in the action. Favreau smartly lays out a bevy of nifty practical effects for the first half. By the time he transitions to broader CGI then he’s already laid the foundation for realism.

Favreau isn’t the best action director but this only presents an issue in the film’s last act. The action sequences in Iron Man take a back seat to watching Tony Stark piece together his new life. I was more interested in seeing Stark test and reconfigure his designs. The construction of Iron Man, to me, is more intriguing than seeing a man in an iron suit battle some guy in a bigger iron suit. The fun is watching him become Iron Man. The action sequences are serviceably kick-ass but too short. I loved watching Iron Man punch people and seeing their bodies fly backwards. Even at over two hours there just isn’t a whole lot of traditional action to Iron Man but this suited my tastes. I’d rather watch an actor with Downey’s talent interact with an A-list cast than watch robots fight and smash personal property.

Iron Man is aided by a strong script credited to two of the writers of Children of Men. It’s structured as an origin tale but it takes its time to set up events and characters that will have lasting meaning. Stark confronts being a weapons manufacturer in a post-9/11 world. He finally stops and asks, “What is the cost?” His own company is double dipping, selling weapons to both sides in a conflict, weapons that will kill U.S. men and women pledged to protect America. Stark has a true change of heart, both figuratively and, later, literally with the assistance of Pepper. There’s a political undercurrent to the film’s drama that manages to be timely and provide at least some thought to go along with the popcorn thrills. Iron Man finds a way to force its characters to combat real moral questions that result from their actions.

The supporting cast has a combined seven Oscar nominations for acting, so this is a step above the acting level of a Fantastic Four. Howard is mostly underwritten but he provides a nice sense of camaraderie with his friendship with Stark. Bridges is an obvious villain just from the first sight of his bald dome and big, bushy beard. He’s got a mean scowl but Bridges provides a warm and fatherly guide for Stark. But man, when he gets menacing he is rather scary. But my highest praise in the supporting work goes to Paltrow, who coolly delivers arch snappy one-liners in a retro do-everything secretary role. And yet the role also offers some reflection, like after dancing in public with her boss she worries over gossip and what perception will construe the moment into. She, his employee, wearing a plunging backline dress that looks gorgeous on the actress, dances with her boss, an infamous womanizer. And then in this moment of doubt there’s a nice, unexpected moment for both a comic book movie and a would-be romance, and the “would-be” is the correct term. She has great chemistry with Downey Jr. and watching the two of them playfully bicker is another reason Iron Man soars above the confines of genre and formula. Plus she looks great with red hair.

Iron Man is a great start to the summer movie season and will be hard to beat. It doesn’t have the psychological depth of Batman Begins or the high-flying fun of Spider-Man 2, but this film certainly deserves to be mentioned in that same group. Favreau has crafted a respectful comic book movie that manages to place special effects in service of an interesting story played by extremely engaging actors. Downey Jr. is the movie’s secret weapon and he delivers a smart, witty, charming, sardonic and enormously entertaining performance that anchors a fine example of what big budget popcorn filmmaking done right looks like. Batman and Spider-Man might want to be on the look out because the new kid on the block is generating some serious heat.

Nate’s Grade: A-

The Da Vinci Code (2006)

Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code has been a best selling novel for three years running. Continents of trees have been felled to produce the 50 million published copies worldwide. Brown’s novel details a centuries long cover-up of some crucial background on Jesus Christ, as well as certain omissions about the role of women in Jesus’ discipleship. The book has been condemned by Christian watchdog groups as heresy, never mind that it is clearly labeled “Fiction.” Debunking fiction is simply redundant. Now Hollywood has adapted The Da Vinci Code into a massive movie, directed by Ron Howard. I must be one of eight who have not read the book, so I entered the theater with little expectation and no idea where the story would take me. Is this a great threat to the Christian church, as some argue, or is it just another dime-store thriller that lucked into becoming a national phenomenon?

Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) is a Harvard professor of symbolism lecturing in Paris. He’s called in by a police captain (Jean Reno) about a local murder. The curator for the famous Louvre museum has been killed and his death leads to a series of coded clues about a deeper conspiracy involving Leonardo Da Vinci. Sophie (Audrey Tautou) is an investigator, and the granddaughter of the museum curator. She helps Robert escape and the two of them set off on an adventure through France and England, finding clues that lead them closer to the location of the Holy Grail. They get help from Leigh Teabing (Ian McKellen), an old friend of Roberts that has his own theories about what the Catholic Church may be so desperate to keep hush-hush. All the while Silas (Paul Bettany), an albino monk, is on the warpath to dispatch all who know too much, including Robert and Sophie.

There are just so many harebrained, hokey moments in The Da Vinci Code that can rip you right from the movie. Why does Sophie have to pay someone to leave a park bench when she and Robert can just walk out of earshot? Why does a bank teller, with his own devious intentions, drive Sophie and Robert to safety and then threaten them at gunpoint? Surely letting them be captured by the police would have served his needs better. Oh, the bank also has a payable escape clause, like it was a Scooby-Doo mansion. But the hokiest moment comes in the opening minutes. The museum curator, an old man who couldn’t hobble away from his attacker, gets shot in the gut, a quite painful place for a bullet to lodge itself. So he’s fatally shot in the stomach, but the man still has time to scribble coded messages on three separate paintings at different points in the museum, strip down, pose, write a message on the floor and a symbol on his chest. And remember, he’s an old man on top of all this. It’s like he had a checklist he pulled out in case he was ever mortally wounded at the Louvre.

The characters aren’t any better. There’s little to any depth to these people and most of them are irrational stock roles. The Jean Reno cop character is laughable in how doggedly he’s convinced Robert is his man. Apparently, a priest told the cop Robert confessed. Case closed? Perhaps the cop, in his furtive rush to judgment, should do some outside research. The museum curator?s time of death, something any crime scene tech could denote, would prove that Robert would be ruled out, given that the man was giving a lecture in front of hundreds of alibis. That’s verifiable science, but no matter. Would not a place as heavily trafficked as the Louvre, with so many priceless pieces of art, have security cameras? I think that alone would tell you who murdered the museum curator. These details make the Reno character stupid and unbelievable. The police work hasn’t been this sloppy since the Police Academy saga.

There’s a late scene where a character addresses another and more or less says, “No one will suspect us, my partner. Let us split our winnings together. I will take your identity to my grave. What? Yes I will take a drink from your flask you’re offering me but not drinking from yourself.” The film could not hit you over the head harder with what is to come. I’d expect these kinds of half-hearted character turns from a rote made-for-TV thriller, but The Da Vinci Code has too much intended intellectual prestige to wallow in this manner.

This is not a good film adaptation. This isn’t structured like a thriller, let alone a movie. There?s no sense of momentum and the story is really an ongoing series of mini-climaxes, sputtering out to no payoff. Puzzle-solving and word games can work on the page, with the reader feeling like they’re right along, but onscreen it cannot work in a story of images. Howard highlights certain letters a la A Beautiful Mind, but then it simply becomes less a puzzle and more just witnessing how a character’s mind breaks down the code, nothing more. As a thriller, Brown seems to do just enough to push his narrative further, but he frequently writes himself into a corner and relies on plot contrivances to save his ass. There’s a scene at Leigh Teabing’s mansion involving a gun standoff, and how does Brown get his characters out of it? By conveniently having a bird fly and distract the evil gun-bearing monk. Talk about a cheat. The Da Vinci Code‘s lame behavioral explanations and short cuts are expected in a rote thriller, but Da Vinci doesn’t want to be seen as one.

But that’s the fundamental error of The Da Vinci Code: it wants to have it both ways. The film, and I’d judge that the novel as well, wants you to shut your brain off and swallow these trite lapses in judgment and reality, forgiving the movie for zero character development and polluting the narrative with stupid genre stock roles, but then it also wants you to pay close attention and activate your brain to untangle the origins of symbols, conspiracies, and church doctrine. This flick was destined to fail at birth. You can’t be a brainy thriller and fill the story with hokey moments and lapses in thought, and likewise you can’t be an enjoyably straight forward thriller if you bookend all your action sequences with talky sit-downs to explain the minutia of your story. The Da Vinci Code is thusly pulled in two directions and grinds its gears to the very end.

This is not a very entertaining flick, in fact is nearly put me to sleep a half dozen times. The Da Vinci Code has tiny bursts of action, and most are easily swept away before the viewer can get a grip. These moments are then succeeded by lengthy, ponderous sessions of heavy exposition. It’s like characters will breathe a sigh of relief at another ludicrous escape and then say, “Well, now let’s discuss in detail some more convoluted theories.” The dialogue reeks, and characters spout plot points whenever they’re needed. The conspiracy doesn’t even make sense. Why would the Church protect a secret that could supposedly destroy its hierarchy? If Jesus was not divine then what difference does it make to go after relatives 2000 years removed? And if Jesus did have heirs would there not be thousands in 2000 years time, not one convenient individual? Even The Da Vinci Code‘s ending seems to soft peddle its “dangerous” message, where Robert, after learning all he has, says it’s all about what you believe.

If it wasn’t for Bettany and McKellen I really would have nodded off. Silas is by far the most interesting character in the whole film, and the only one with a penetrable personality. A deeply religious albino killer monk is a great character, and Bettany makes him scary but also frightfully sympathetic. I was rooting for Silas to knock off the film’s heroes and go on a better adventure of his own. McKellen is handed most of the monologues and he gives his character all the gravitas needed. Thank God for these two actors, because Hanks is miscast and Tautou isn’t nearly as endearing as her work with Jean-Pierre Jeunet. There’s a really good international cast assembled for The Da Vinci Code and the movie manages to mishandle most of them.

The Da Vinci Code played out on the big screen is ponderous, talky, boring, poorly adapted and poorly written. Some things work better on a page than onscreen, and I guess if this is the final product than the whole damn things works better on the page. The story is brimming with lame, hokey moments you’d see in a lazy TV thriller, but then the story also wants to talk you to death with its convoluted storyline. The action sequences are brief, the dialogue is smothered by lengthy exposition, and the plot just isn’t that entertaining. The cast is mostly wasted in thankless stock roles. So let me get this straight. After seeing The Da Vinci Code, the biggest threat the Christian church is facing is … bad movies? I think they’ll be alright.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Firewall (2006)

I’ve seen commercials for Firewall, a new techno-thriller, attached to various TV programs. What’s peculiar is that the commercials are all centered on what Harrison Ford’s character drives in the film. The announcer even says, “See the new Chrysler in … Firewall.” The weird part is that I’ve seen more commercials pimping the movie’s car than the movie itself, like the film is an afterthought to the product placement. With such an inconsistent, stupid, cookie-cutter Hollywood thriller that Firewall is, I’d expect nothing less.

Jack Stanfield (Ford) is a bank security expert living in Seattle. He’s got a loving wife Beth (Virginia Madsen), a teenage daughter and young son, and his bank is about to merge with a larger conglomerate. Before it does, though, Jack takes a meeting with Bill Cox (Paul Bettany) who has a very important business proposition. Jack will waltz into the bank he’s been working at for 20 years and wire $100 million dollars to Cox’s offshore bank account. If Jack fails, the men currently holding his family hostage in Jack’s home will kill them. To secure their safety, Jack must work different sides, infiltrating his own bank and breaking his own system, all the while trying not to get caught and trying to save his family.

The film is so cookie-cutter and filled with obvious and/or useless plot details. In the opening minutes we’re introduced to a remote controlled car that disrupts video frequencies. Of course we know this will come into play later. The opening minutes of Firewall set up all the film’s subplots that will be tidily tied up but only after being ignored. So little of this film feels fleshed out. Firewall seems to think that just having its villain be British is enough. Beth is an architect and designed the family home they’re now held hostage in. Surely this plot point will have greater significance than a toy car. Nope, nothing ever happens as a result of this extraneous detail.

Ford looks so bored and he does little to hide it. Once again he’s that reticent hero called into action in the name of his family. He really isn’t given much to do and his action sequences are short bursts that involve a lot of him falling down, even when he’s besting a bad guy. A perfect example of how bad the writing is, and how lame they’ve made Ford’s character, is an exchange between Jack and Henry (Robert Patrick) shortly after Ford has liquidated his company of millions. Henry confronts him and says, “You’re not going anywhere. You’re staying here!” And Jack says, like a whiny kid told to eat his vegetables, “No I’mmmm NOT!” Firewall, this is your hero.

The antagonists are another example of how poorly written Firewall is. The villains are incredibly inept on all levels. Their entire plan is kaput from minute one because they didn’t bother to check that the bank was merging and changing its security access panels. Bill basically points to Jack and says, “You come up with a plan now.” The villains need the hero to come up with their scheme, how rich. The bad guys come across like they just took night classes in How to Take Hostages and Extort Money 101. Somewhere Bill must have skipped a few classes because he makes some boneheaded decisions. He kills one of his own men for getting tricked by Jack during surveillance. I suppose he?s trying to make an example but why, if you’re holding people hostage, would you decrease your numbers from five to four? Now you have one less person to get things in line. Bill also must have missed a psychological review to screen out that old Hollywood favorite, the one reluctant kidnapper who’s nice. Did Bill put this thing together through an ad in a newspaper?

Then there’s the dog. Why on earth did the bad guys take the dog with them when they moved the family? It just so happens that the dog has a GPS tracking device on its collar. It’s a plot contrivance so Jack can find his family, but it makes no sense. These big bad men will kill one of their own but take the dog along too? Bill and the gang didn’t have to kill the dog but taking him doesn’t add up. It’s like a serial killer alphabetizing your CD collection.

The whole hostage situation is laughable. Bill’s thugs turn a hostage situation into a bed and breakfast, implausibly letting the family roam around the house, watch TV, do whatever really. Bill even makes pancakes for Jack’s kids, that bastard. The most threatening Bill ever gets is when he offers a peanut butter cookie to Jack’s peanut-allergy kid. Dastardly and, oh yeah, the kid didn’t have to choose to eat what the bad guy gave him! This is the worst hostage siege ever. It is insultingly ridiculous. Madsen is annoying as she tries shaming her captors, proclaiming motherly advice. Firewall‘s chances of thrills are spoiled by inept bad guys and the family being in laughably staged peril.

The heist itself is given such lip-service that it almost becomes incidental. It plays for a total of maybe five minutes onscreen and lacks any thrills. Why should there be thrills if Jack came up with it? There no reversals, no setbacks, no complications, no nothing. Firewall needed to be run through a typewriter a few more times, work out a punchier screenplay that actually turns the heist into something tense.

Firewall should have played more like a cat and mouse game, with Jack and Bill battling for supremacy. Instead, Firewall feels emblematic of every other stupidly plotted thriller Hollywood feels it can feed to a mass audience because it slaps a star in it. This is shamefully mediocre, stupid, and, above all else, rather boring. Firewall is your typical disposable Hollywood thriller-of-the-week, just with more tech jargon that Ford looks pained to even speak. If you replaced Ford and Bettany with, say Mark-Paul Gosselaar and Corbin Bernsen, you’d have a movie fit to air late night on TV when the only people awake would be insomniacs. Finally, then, Firewall would have found its rightful audience.

Nate’s Grade: C-

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