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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+

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Inferno (2016)

inferno_ver3_xxlgYou know it’s a bad sign when the best part of your movie is the scenery. Inferno is the third in the Robert Langden series where Tom Hanks stars as the world’s foremost symbologist that traverses old European museums and cathedrals to solve mysterious puzzles. The Da Vinci Code was pretty bad, its sequel Angels & Demons was a marked improvement, and now Inferno is a depressing step backwards. Langden has to stop a madman (Ben Foster) from releasing a super virus that will kill half the world’s population. The villain’s plan requires him to wait and he has no reason to do so. Waiting only needlessly delays his goal and makes it more likely for him to get caught or fail. His plan is stupidly convoluted, but I didn’t expect that the good guys’ plan was also stupidly convoluted, relying upon fake blood squibs and disguises and for what? There are three competing, stupidly convoluted storylines that smash together. I simply could not engage with what was happening and felt I had little reason to care. The mystery aspect is pretty tame and the thriller set pieces are unmemorable save for a climax that at least feels like the highpoint. There was one interesting aspect that never fully gets developed and that’s the idea that Langden can’t trust his senses. He’s a man who relies on his arcane intellect and to turn that against him, as well as possibly draw in hallucinatory visions, was a smart move. It’s only more disappointing when they fail to do anything with this possibility. The myriad plot holes were clearer to me than the hackneyed plot itself. Inferno has some very nice footage as Hanks and Felicity Jones scamper from one Florence site to another and that’s the best thing I can offer about this mess.

Nate’s Grade: C-

In the Heart of the Sea (2015)

InTheHeartOfTheSea-1In 1822, the men aboard the Essex, a whaling ship sailing from Nantucket, Massachusetts, encountered a beast unlike any they have ever seen. Captain Pollard (Benjamin Walker) and his first mate, Owen Chase (Chris Hemworth), were at odds throughout the voyage, that is until they encountered a 100-foot long white whale. The creature destroyed the Essex, forcing the crew to drift at sea and hope to find land, but the whale follows them as well. Tom Nickerson (Tom Holland as a young man, Brendan Gleeson as the older version) recounts this traumatic survival tale to author Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw), who is desperate to write this true story.

There’s an old-school throwback vibe to In the Heart of the Sea with its high seas adventure, but there’s just not enough attention to adventure, character, or even plot for this movie to really set sail properly. The first act feels so sluggishly long. It’s trying to set up life on a whaling vessel in the early 19th century but I didn’t feel like we got a coherent sense of life aboard the seas or how the various components worked. I didn’t know that whalers row out from the main ship, so there’s that. The opening act sets up the dull conflict between Chase and Pollard, which can be summarized as blunt upstart vs. unchecked privilege. The conflict doesn’t evolve from this dichotomy. Both men are boring in their unyielding simplicity. Hemsworth (Avengers: Age of Ultron) made a stronger impression in Rush, but a humorless movie role is not in his best interests as an actor. When the action does arrive, it can be genuinely thrilling. Director Ron Howard does a slick job of conveying the danger and destruction of the whale attack. Sadly, it’s over too soon and then the remainder of the movie is 45 minutes of a survival drama adrift in the ocean reminiscent of last year’s Unbroken. This period of isolation forces the characters to make some hard choices, yet we don’t feel the impact of those choices because the narrative, too, feels adrift. Implausibly, the giant whale has followed them for thousands of miles. Are whales really this vindictive? The documentary Blackfish makes me wonder but it still feels unbelievable. What was the whale waiting for? For the men’s spirits to be completely broken before it might attack again? We’re told this whale is a “demon” but who exactly are the bad guys in this story?

HOTS-20131003BO4V0392.dngI believe another stopping point for this story is that the culture has moved beyond the acceptance of whaling as an honorable profession, to the point that I, and I assume others, was on Team Whale after witnessing a bloody hunt. It’s pretty gross, especially when they’re harvesting the whale body for the precious oil. Perhaps modern audiences, so far removed from hunting as an essential component of life have become more squeamish, or perhaps modern audiences just recognize something as barbaric when they see it. As a result, it’s hard to root for these guys. When the giant whale attacked it felt like retribution. My sympathies were more for the large mammal than the bipeds on ship. At the end of the film (some spoilers), the white-haired moneyed men of Big Whale Oil are worried what the truth will do to their industry. They want the surviving crewmen of the Essex to deny the existence of this gargantuan whale. This makes little sense to me other than awkwardly forcing a Big Business cover-up for relevancy. First off, whaling seems like a pretty unsafe working environment to begin with, especially considering voyages could last up to three years. Would the reality of one big bad whale destroy an industry? I doubt it since there is such money to be had. If anything it might rejuvenate the timber industry to reinforce the ships to make them more durable against larger whale attacks.

At first I thought a framing device was entirely superfluous; why do we need to watch Melville elicit this tale rather than simply just watching the tale itself? It seemed like a distraction, but as the movie progressed I understood that this framing device was its own sub-story and had its own complexity, namely the older Tom coming clean to the decisions that still haunt his soul. It’s an unburdening for both gentlemen, as Melville admits his deep fear that he is a mediocre writer (he’s no Nathaniel Hawthorne) and that he will be unable to tell this story as well as it truly deserves.

As these two men are allowing themselves to become more vulnerable and sharing their demons and doubts and worst fears, I started to realize that this framing device was weirdly more compelling than all the whale action. That’s because older Tom and Melville are the best drawn characters in the movie, which seems like a screenwriting mistake of sizable proportions. Obviously the nautical survival stuff should be the most compelling, and yet I as more taken with two men sitting by an oil lamp discussing their lives. Older Tom is infinitely more interesting than younger Tom; part of this is because young Tom hasn’t experienced the full effect of the events that shape older Tom, but most of this is from the very clear fact that young Tom is kind of a mute witness in this movie. He rarely speaks and is just kind of there, taking up space. There’s one personal harrowing moment when he’s thrust inside a hollowed out whale carcass to extract more blubber, but that’s the only personal perspective offered through young Tom. A question concerning the framing device: how is older Tom retelling events he had no participation or witness to? Another issue is that the characters on board the Essex are bereft of anything that would allow us to feel for them beyond simple human survival. Chase and Pollard are given one note to play and their eventual understanding and cooperation is fine but it feels like fleeting details in a story, lost to memory or disinterest.

HEART OF THE SEAFrom a purely technical aspect, this is one of the better Howard films. The cinematography by Anthony Dod Mantle (Slumdog Millionaire) is rich and often breath taking, with plenty of stunning aerial and underwater images. The whale attack sequence is harrowing and thrilling. Howard finds ways to imply the harsher aspects of this life without going overboard, maintaining that PG-13 rating. While the look of the film has an enhanced color palate thanks to the extra boost of CGI filters, I still appreciated the vibrancy of the on screen images. As I said with the similarly boosted Mad Max: Fury Road, I’d rather have vibrant and bright colors than a drab and washed-out color palate. Even as the movie drifts and the characters fail to grab you, at least the visuals are pretty. While sitting through the second half, I started to rethink my own prejudices concerning Howard as a filmmaker, a man who lacks a distinctive style but has a definite feel for how to tell a story. I’m not going to excuse him for The Grinch and other misfires, or his tendency to settle for maudlin in place of subtlety, but the man is a born filmmaker.

In the Heart of the Sea is an old school movie that feels too sluggish, too underdeveloped, and too free of characters for the audience to invest in. When the framing device scores the biggest emotional pull, you better start rethinking your rip-roaring high-seas adventure. Master and Commander this is not. As the inspiration for Moby Dick, I wish I had just watched a remake of Melville’s actual novel (now with extra chapters about rope!). If you ever wanted a movie that ends on a blurb by Nathaniel Hawthorne as a payoff for Melville’s artistic neurosis, then your wait is over. In the Heart of the Sea feels like a whale of a tale that is hard to believe, which ends up inspiring a far greater story, which made me yearn for just watching that superior tale. Sometimes the “truth” behind famous stories is less interesting.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Angels & Demons (2009)

Angels & Demons works better as a movie. It is a better movie than The Da Vinci Code, but since I found that film to be one of the worst of 2006 you should know this is not high praise.

Professor Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks, with a better haircut) is the world?s foremost expert on ancient symbols and texts, which is why the Vatican recruits him for a very important mission. The Pope has recently died and Vatican City is in the middle of the cardinals deliberating who will be the newest leader of the Roman Catholic Church. Four of the cardinals, top candidates for the Pope position, have been kidnapped. The Illuminati, a centuries-old secret society, says that a cardinal will die every hour, from 8 PM to 11 PM, and then at midnight Vatican City will be destroyed. The Illuminati was made up of followers who felt the church was rejecting science, and so we?re told that in the 16th century the Catholic Church responded reasonably by branding the Illuminati followers and executing them. 400 years is a long time to wait for revenge. To make matters worse, antimatter was stolen from the CERN facility in Switzerland and placed somewhere within Vatican City. The battery holding the antimatter is scheduled to die about, conveniently, midnight, and the antimatter will result in a huge explosion (science note: antimatter is real but it is entirely harmless and not combustible). With the help of Carmenlengo Patrick McKenna (Ewan McGreggor), acting church leader until there’s a new Pope, and particle physicist Vittoria Vetra (Ayelet Zurer), Langdon must race against time to save the Catholic Church.

The time element gives the movie a sense of urgency that was missing before, and a kidnapping plot provides a firm structure and supplies more chances for action than unraveling a 2000-year old church conspiracy on the divinity of Jesus. The plot of Angels & Demons works out like a high-stakes scavenger hunt, shuttling Langdon across the many sights of Rome to find the next clue. However, the narrow timeline of killing a cardinal on the hour every hour makes for some tight squeezes, both for Langdon and the cardinal-killing man. I never understand why the villains give themselves such a small window to work with. I know the whole “dead cardinal every hour” thing has a nice ring to it, but is it wholly practical? There’s all that driving around Rome and the Vatican, which has got to be crowded since millions are awaiting news about a new Pope. Beyond this, why must Langdon and crew always show up to a site with like five minutes before the cardinals will be murdered? Are they stopping to get subway sandwiches in between? The timeline and plot setup provide more action sequences that make the movie fleetingly entertaining in spurts.

What doomed the Da Vinci Code movie was not the endless blather, though that certainly bored me to tears, but the fact that the film wanted to have its cake and eat it too — it wants to be a brainy thriller but get away with hokey thriller shortcomings. Angels & Demons suffers more or less the same killing blow. The flick 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. Angels & Demons introduces the idea of a ticking clock so it’s a far better paced affair than the previous film, but the movie still finds ways to get bogged down. Once again, Dan Brown’s novel has been adapted to a series of chases and sit-down chats, although this time Langdon does a lot of speed walking while he dishes out the minute history of church doctrine and architecture. To borrow from my own review of The Da Vinci Code: “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.”

These stories are just meant to work better on the page than on screen. Puzzles and word games work when the audience can take a moment to pause but film is a medium of images and cannot simply go dead waiting for the audience to posit a guess. Movies don’t have time for you to chew things over. So then the puzzles just devolve into waiting for Langdon to explain everything, which he will do at great length. This can get tedious at a rapid rate. Langdon is less a character in this movie and more a walking, talking encyclopedia of exposition. He is robbed of anything that could be charitably described as characterization. Symbol decoding just does not work on the big screen, and Langdon is an expert whose profession is limited in application. I can’t foresee too many instances where a top-notch symbologist will be needed at a moment’s notice. Sure, it’s nice to get a history lesson and see plenty of those swell ancient churches, even if the filmmakers had to recreate them as sets because the Vatican refused them entry to film, but what point do these Dan Brown thrillers serve as movies? There is an intriguing discussion between science and the role of the church somewhere in this movie, but good luck finding much to stir your intellect. I confess never having read one of Brown’s tomes, including the super colossal mega-selling do-it-all Da Vinci Code, but surely the man deserves a better fate than to have his works die on the big screen as lamentably lame thrillers.

There are no characters in Angels & Demons, only stock roles and suspects. Langdon’s female sidekick (Zurer,Vantage Point) serves no other purpose but to translate Latin and Italian. Really, if Langdon is a scholar on the conspiracies revolving around the Catholic Church then perhaps he should put in the time and money to learn the language. The Vatican police are there as escorts and little else. Stellen Skarsgård (Mamma Mia!) serves as the chief of the Swiss Guard, the Pope’s security team, and Armin-Mueller Stahl (Shine, Eastern Promises) is a German cardinal running the ongoing recounts for a new pontiff. Both men are presented as sly, untrustworthy suspects. Stahl’s character routinely dresses down McKenna as well, saying the young pup in the collar is not fit for church hierarchy. It?s not much to go on but the “characters” are just figures that occasionally get in the way of the film’s long-winded art history tour.

I think a lifetime of watching movies has just made my mind too analytical to be surprised by the twists in these kinds of dead weight thrillers. I?m already thinking ahead from the first minute and I don’t think I’m alone. When we are introduced to two characters, one gruff and unhelpful and one kindly and overly helpful, it is rather obvious which character will be revealed as being treacherous to provide the biggest jolt. Does anyone still suspect that Hollywood would produce a pointedly obvious evil suspect and then have it actually be that person? Not in today’s class of Hollywood thriller. You see kids, today’s Hollywood thriller is more concerned with piling on the twists than constructing a story that sticks together upon reflection, which is why many a Hollywood thriller simply falls apart as a jumbled mess by the time the end credits roll. Sometimes the endings sabotage everything logically that happened before. For an example of a textbook modern thriller, go rent the French film Tell No One and marvel at how the movie manages to be mysterious without being ludicrous. Angels & Demons doesn’t quite suffer from this screenwriting malady, but the essential evil plot by the eventually revealed evildoer is the most convoluted, ridiculously complicated scheme I have seen since that terminal 2005 thriller, Flightplan.

Director Ron Howard is able keep the film moving, almost distracting the audience away from the plot holes, but Angels & Demons is an adaptation that was doomed to fail from the start. The film plays like a lecture on tape with the fast forward button stuck. I might find more of the blitzkrieg of acts and anecdotes more intriguing if I could verify that they were all accurate. This is a thriller that wants to be seen as smart, so it empties exposition without haste, but it also wants to get away with narrative cheats common in your direct-to-DVD idiotic thrillers. You cannot simultaneously tell me to engage my brain and then a second later tell me to shut it off, sorry. Angels & Demons would have been better served without the Illuminati conspiracy and just plunged fully into the debate about bringing religion into the modern age, the friction between science and religion. Any substance the movie does present ends up being window dressing to an average potboiler mystery. This isn’t an awful movie but it never rises above “acceptable waste of time.” Hanks and Howard will probably be back in due time with the movie version of Brown’s upcoming new novel, The Lost Symbol, which will be released in September 2009. I just hope the duo, and screenwriter Akiva Goldsmith, have learned enough from their mistakes. I myself have little faith.

Nate’s Grade: C

Frost/Nixon (2008)

The adaptation of the hit stage play, with its original leads, is an intellectually stimulating experience and a fluid adaptation from stage to screen, thanks to director Ron Howard. The acting is top-notch; Frank Langella may not readily resemble President Richard Nixon but he inhabits the man completely. In a surprising twist, Frost/Nixon is not a heavy-handed story that merely beats up on an antagonist that can no longer defend himself. Nixon’s faults are not excused but the man is presented in a deeply humanistic portrayal. This isn’t a mustache-twirling rogue but a man who came from abject poverty, who rose above his critics who dismissed his humble beginnings, and who has regret and shame for what transpired while he was in office. And he’s funny. Nixon is a funny man. Characters are not just political punching bags here. Peter Morgan’s screenplay, based upon his stage play, brings tremendous excitement to the art of debate, framing it like a boxing match. The sparring side notes present some of the more fascinating details between the series of four interviews between Nixon and British personality David Frost (Michael Sheen). But here’s the thing. Frost/Nixon is an entertaining movie but once it’s over it completely vanishes from your brain. It leaves little impact. The movie tries to make Frost’s coup a bigger deal than it was. The film is constantly trying to convince you of its importance. It’s a swell time for two hours but after that, what? Obviously the grilling of the president for getting away with crimes in office is supposed to be a statement on the outgoing President Bush, but what? Should we hope that an unassuming figure much like Frost will be able to get Bush to open up his soul? Get Regis Philbin on the phone.

Nate’s Grade: A-

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