Movie Reviews - 2018 postsMonday June 25, 2018
Movie Review: Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)
Based on the trailer, I assumed we were going to get the story of how an optimistic hot-rodder (“I’ve got a really good feeling about this”) becomes the cynical anti-hero we all loved in “Star Wars” (I’ve got a bad feeling about this”).
Instead, we get the story of how an orphan from the tough streets of Corellia...
- escapes from his home planet even as his girlfriend, Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke, the Mother of Dragons), is captured
- winds up with a rag-tag team of bandits, led by Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson), who keeps betraying him; and,
- is reunited with Qi’ra, who, it’s implied, has been enslaved and fucked over in ways we don’t want to imagine, and who also winds up betraying him
And yet for all that, our hero, Han (Alden Ehrenreich), never loses his general optimism and ebullience. The guy who said “I ain’t in this for your revolution, Princess, and I ain’t in it for you. ... I’m in it for the money”? That guy? We don’t begin to see him here.
Should’ve known. My imagined path implies bad shit happening that we feel. And not feeling, just getting into and out of near-death scrapes, is the whole point of the “Star Wars” saga.
Plus, taking us up to the fateful meeting in the Mos Eisley cantina implies a kind of closure, which means closing off potential revenue streams. And keeping potential revenue streams open and flowing is the whole other point of the “Star Wars” saga.
Ehrenreich was better than I anticipated but I was still bored. “Solo: A Star Wars Story” is a series of perilous entries and last-second extractions from:
- The military
- The botched train robbery deal
- The debt to gangster Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany, overacting)
- The battle with Dryden Vos. Or Tobias Beckett. Or maybe even Qi’ra
Yes, “Star Wars” was also a series of difficult entries and last-second extractions, but it felt different. Maybe because I was 14 when I saw it? Maybe because what was new in ’77 feels done-to-death now? Maybe because the original characters felt fun and engaging and these feel ... not?
The most interesting new character to me is Rio Durant (voice: Jon Favreau), a bemused multi-limbed alien and member of Beckett’s crew, but he dies early. I also liked L3-37 (voice: Phoebe Waller-Bridge of “Fleabag”), a tall, gangly, and vaguely suffragist droid, who foments a revolution on Kessel. She buys it, too. Beckett? Always fun to see Woody. Gone. Han shoots first.
Some of the reveals aren’t that revealing. Early on, Han is thrown into a pit with a “monster.” Chewie, right? Right. Too much is avoided—namely everything Qi’ra went through. Not to mention the insane coincidence of simply running into her at Dryden Vos’ place. You ever run into a friend in the same city? You do a double-take, right? How about running into a friend on the other side of the world? That happened to me once: I saw a Minnesota friend in a nightclub in Taipei in 1987. Now imagine that but with the galaxy. That should’ve been the double-take of all double-takes. Not to mention it was the love of his life to whom he was doing everything to return. But in the movie, it barely registers. There's no human moment. It’s sort of like, “Oh, that problem’s solved, and now we’re onto the next thing.“ Whoosh. The roller coaster keeps rolling.
Maybe the worst reveal involves Enfys Nest (Erin Kellyman), the leader of the fierce Cloud Riders, who kill Rio Durant and Beckett’s love, Val (Thandie Newton, wasted), while attempting to steal the coaxium that Beckett’s crew stole from the train. Guess what? She’s a freckle-faced girl. It’s a bit “Full Metal Jacket,” isn’t it? Also they’re not pirates; they’re the beginning of the rebellion. And Han is all in. He’ll do anything to help. Rio who? Val who? Already forgotten. Already swept under. I”m not in it for the money; I'm in it for your revolution, Princess.
We get greatest hits. There’s Chewbacca grumbling over hologram chess. There’s Beckett wearing that odd helmet with the built-in reverse handlebars that Lando wore in “Return of the Jedi.” There’s young Lando (Donald Glover) cheating at cards. We get to go on the Kessel run in less than 12 parsecs. And is that ... Darth Maul? It is. Apparently they’re delivering nostalgia for fans of the prequels, too.
The one thing that goes unmentioned is the very thing that binds this universe together. There’s no Force here. Both ways.
Goodbye gray skies, hello blue
I keep coming back to the nostalgia. That seems key to the whole thing.
“Star Wars” was borne out of George Lucas’ nostalgia for the Saturday matinee movie serials of his youth, and we’re now nostalgic for the feeling we had when we first entered his universe. We want that feeling back again. The movie tries to help. Too much.
“Solo” had a rough birth. Its original directors, Phil Lord and Chris Miller, were apparently overwhelmed by the project, and were replaced by the old pro, Ron Howard, who has his own connection to both Lucas and nostalgic enterprises. When “Star Wars” was released in May 1977, he was the star of the No. 1 TV show in America, “Happy Days,” which was nostalgic for a “simpler time” before the turbulence of the 1960s. And while “Happy Days” was based on a 1972 episode of “Love American Style,” it probably only got greenlit because of the success of Lucas’ previous film, “American Graffiti,” which starred Howard. Also in a key bit role as a hot-rodder? Harrison Ford, Han Solo himself. That’s where he was born.
Have we just gotten tired of it? Them pressing our nostalgia buttons? All of those perilous entries and last-second extractions? Because “Solo” didn’t do well with the critics or at the box office. If you adjust for inflation, every major “Star Wars” release grossed between $476 million and $1.3 billion, domestic, but this one is just struggling over the $200 million mark. Every major “Star Wars” was the No. 1 movie of its year—save “Clones,” which finished third—but I doubt this one makes the top 10. It’s already No. 5 with an anvil.
What happened? I'm sure Disney/Lucas execs are trying to figure that out. Here's a clue. In the documentary “The Making of American Graffiti,” George Lucas talks about the difficult of getting “Graffiti” made. It was just too different. No exec could see what it was. But audiences could. Here’s Lucas:
I think one of the reasons it was as successful as it was is because it was different from the standard fare of the time. ... “Star Wars” suffered from the same fate. People don’t realize with these movies that have become very successful ... it’s because they’re fresh and different and experimental that people like to watch them.
A long time ago. In a galaxy far, far away.
Movie Review: The Guilty (2018)
In “The Guilty,” a woman is kidnapped by her ex, alerts the police by pretending to call her daughter, and the cops spend the rest of the movie frantically searching for her before it’s too late.
And it all takes place in an emergency police dispatch room.
Most of the movie is 112 operator Asger Holm (Jakob Cedergren in a standout performance) working the phones, doing what he can, and often more, to bring her back safely. We see him, but only hear the other end of the line. We have to imagine that part. It’s almost like radio.
And it’s riveting.
The evening for Asger begins in almost comic fashion as he receives 112 (i.e., 911) calls that really aren’t. A man is mugged ... by the hooker he was soliciting. There’s a fight at a bar ... and the drunk caller expects Asger to know where it is and curses him when he doesn’t. A woman phones from a car ... and talks nonsense and calls him “Sweetie.” Asger is about to hang up on her, too, when something she says triggers the cop in him and he realizes she’s being kidnapped. By the time they’re disconnected, he knows she’s in a white van heading north from Copenhagen. He relays this info forward. Normally that would be the end of it for him. Others are now on the case.
Asger, though, stays involved. He’s a cop, doing dispach work temporarily, and his computer lets him know the name and number of who called—Iben (voice of Jessica Dinage)—so he phones Iben’s home phone. Her daughter Mathilde ( Katinka Evers-Jahnsen), 6 years old, answers. She’s alone but for her brother, Oliver, who’s just a baby. After she gives Asger the information he needs—her father is named Michael (Johan Olsen), this is his phone number, he was mad, he had a knife—he can’t get her off the phone. She’s scared and alone and he makes promises he knows he shouldn’t make: mostly that her mother will be alright.
Asger, we soon realize, has issues of his own. He’s a foot patrolman who’s being disciplined and has a hearing the next day. Later we find out he shot and killed a man in self-defense. Except after he convinces his partner, Rashid (Omar Shargawi), to break into Michael’s home for clues, we infer from their conversation that it wasn’t in self-defense. One wonders: Is his desperate attempt to save Iben a way to assuage his guilt? Or is it more of what got him into trouble in the first place? Or both?
The horror intensifies when two patrolman are sent to Iben’s house and find Mathilde with blood on her. Not her blood. Oliver’s. He’s dead in his crib. Cut to pieces.
First-time director Gustav Möller, whose work here won him best director at the Seattle International Film Festival, makes it all come to life within that small, confined space. But here’s the best part: the movie we think we’re watching isn’t the movie we’re watching.
M. Night, eat your heart out
We think we’re watching a movie about a cop who maybe redeems himself by maybe saving a woman from her crazy, murderous ex-husband. Indeed, when Iben calls again, he tells her to put on her seatbelt and then pull up the emergency brake. She does. The phone goes dead. Is she dead? No. When she calls back, she’s been bundled into the back of the van and is hysterical. He calms her down. He gets her to talk about things she likes. She says she takes her kids to The Blue Planet, an aquarium in Copenhagen. Mathilde goes for the turtles. Iben says she likes it all. She likes the calm and the quiet of life underwater. And it’s working. She’s calming down. They’re bonding. Now he’s telling her to find a weapon to use against Michael when he opens the van doors. And just before he does, she mentions the snakes. “Snakes?” Asger says. Yes, she says. The snakes in Oliver’s belly. She got them out for him.
It was her. She killed her son. Her ex isn’t kidnapping her, he’s taking her back to a psychiatric facility in Elsinore—home of Hamlet—so she won’t do more harm. But because of Asger’s dogged determination to help, she’s able to escape—for a time. It’s one of the greater plot twists I’ve seen in recent movies. M. Night Shyamalan, eat your heart out. And please don’t try to remake it.
That said, does it hold up when you examine it from all sides? Why, for example, wouldn’t Michael simply have called the cops when he came across the crime scene? Why take his ex to Elsinore himself? And leave his 6-year-old alone with a baby corpse?
I still highly recommend it. As you watch this movie about a hero cop and a damsel in distress, you wonder who “The Guilty” of the title refers to. It winds up referring to the hero cop and the damsel in distress.
Movie Review: Hal (2018)
What did I know about Hal Ashby before I saw this documentary?
That he was an iconoclastic filmmaker whom actors loved working with, and who made his best movies, including “Harold and Maude,” “The Last Detail,” “Bound for Glory” and “Being There,” in the 1970s. He didn’t do much in the 1980s. He might’ve died early in that decade.
And what did I learn about Hal Ashby from this doc by first-time director Amy Scott?
Oh, right, “Shampoo” and “Coming Home.” Can’t believe I forgot those.
And, wow, I guess he did make movies in the ’80s; they were just stinkers. The way that all of his movies in the ’70s were good, all of his movies in the ’80s were not. It’s like a switch had been thrown. “Slugger’s Wife”? That was his? Never even heard of “Second-Hand Hearts” (with Robert Blake) and “Looking to Get Out” (with Jon Voight). The doc implies that “Eight Million Ways to Die” (with Jeff Bridges) was ruined because the studio took it away from him and edited it poorly, but who knows? He’d already directed three stinkers in a row by then. The highest IMDb rating among his ’80s work is “Eight Million,” which garners a 5.7. That’s the highest. His lowest of the ’70s is “Shampoo,” a 6.3—and that underrates it considerably. It’s much better than that.
What was true for Ashby was also true for the movies themselves. The great directors’ decade of the 1970s was over; the era of the blockbuster had begun. But did any great director fall so precipitously?
On the road to find out
Ashby was born and raised in Utah, wasn’t a Mormon, and his father left the family when he was about 6. He worked his way up in Hollywood—although they don’t tell us when he arrived. Like even a decade. I hate that. Give me some chronology, people. Norman Jewison talks up running into him in an editing room where he was helping edit William Wyler’s movies and grabbing him for himself—but not when this was. 1964? 1957?
Ashby wound up editing some of Jewison’s best: “The Cincinnati Kid,” “In the Heat of the Night” and “The Thomas Crown Affair.” Then Ashby began to direct his own. He and Jewison remained tight all of their lives.
(Among respected directors, Jewison is the real oddity, isn’t he? He flourished in the late ’60s, stumbled in the director's decade of the ’70s (“Rollerball,” “F.I.S.T.”) when everyone else was prospering artistically, and righted himself in the ’80s (“A Soldier’s Story,” “Moonstruck”) when everyone else was stumbling artistically. That arc seems worthy of a doc of its own.)
“Hal” barely touches on the work Ashby did with Wyler. According to IMDb, helped edit “Big Country,” “Diary of Anne Frank” and “The Greatest Story Ever Told.” What was that like? Watching the studio system disintegrate? And it doesn’t mention this fact at all: In the midst of that A-level Hollywood work, Ashby was also assistant editor for “Captain Sindbad, a cheapie German film from 1963 that my brother and I saw, dubbed, at the Boulevard Theater in re-release some Saturday matinee in the early 1970s. I mostly remember it because Sindbad (the extra “d” was to avoid copyright infringement) stabs the villain in the chest but the blade comes out clean. The villain has no heart! It’s locked at the top of a tower. Sindbad’s goal thus becomes getting to that tower and throwing the beating heart over the parapet. Which he does.
So how did Ashby wind up working on that? Nothing. Crickets.
Miles from nowhere
What else did I learn? He had a lot of girlfriends/wives and he smoked a lot of dope. The great Cat Stevens’ songs in “Harold and Maude” were demos, but Ashby liked them well enough, or was behind deadline enough, that he stuck them in—much to Stevens’ initial chagrin. He’s cool with it now.
Ashby also set to be the original director for “Tootsie” but had to step out because his post-production work on “Lookin’ to Get Out” wasn’t fulfilled. Too bad. His ’80s oeuvre would’ve looked a little better with that on it. If it came out similarly.
That’s about all I learned.
“Hal” is well-named: It's pleasing; I’d recommend it for film fans. It's about Hal, your pal. I wanted more on Ashby.
Movie Review: Sorry to Bother You (2018)
Boots Riley’s “Sorry to Bother You” is an edgy, topical film that fails miserably. Instead of precision targeting, it throws bombs everywhere. Was that a target? Did he mean to hit it? And did he? The movie becomes anarchic and sloppy. The tone becomes sloppy. Are we supposed to laugh at this scene or be horrified? Maybe more accurate: I’m horrified, but why do I get the feeling it’s being played for laughs?
Certain white critics, I’m sure, will fall all over themselves in praise.
A banana in the tailpipe
Lakeith Stanfield (the “Get out!” guy in “Get Out”) plays Cassius “Cash” Green, a down-on-his-luck black dude living in his uncle’s garage in Oakland in the near future. Well, “down on his luck.” He’s sleeping with Detroit (Tessa Thompson), so it’s not all bad. She’s a performance artist whose day job is twirling a sign on a street corner. She does this at night, too. That confused me. Are there nighttime sign twirlers? She doesn’t seem bugged by her job, either. I guess as long as she’s got her art? But of course we only see 15 seconds of sign twirling. Try that for eight hours and see if you’re as chipper as Tessa Thompson by the end.
There are similar disconnects throughout the film. At one point, Cash is flipping TV channels. He’s got three options:
- An infomercial for WorryFree, a workplace where you work, eat, and sleep. Everything is provided but you have no rights; you’ve signed your life away to survive. Its CEO is Steve Lift (Armie Hammer).
- A game show called “I Got The Shit Kicked Out of Me,” in which contestants get beaten up to win cash and prizes. It’s “Fear Factor” without the wit. It’s for people for whom “Jackass” was too complicated.
- The news.
Three options? To keep the population docile, opiated, don’t you want many, many options? Like the obscene amount we have today? Why down to three? Is it indicative of the limits in this reality or of Riley’s imagination?
Most everything in this reality is limited in scope—particularly available jobs, so Cash goes for one in telemarketing at RegalView. It sucks until an old hand, Langston (Danny Glover), tells him to use his “white voice.” When Cash objects, saying he doesn’t sound particularly “black,“ Langston clarifies: The “white voice” is the one that assumes everything will go your way. And it turns out Cash is a natural! But the effect, dubbed by David Cross, is odd—like dubbing in a Hong Kong kungfu flick. Plus I didn’t buy the concept. That’s the voice of success? Nasal, polite, and enthused in a 1950s prep-school way? It sounds like an Eddie Murphy bit from the ’80s. Chum? Who says chum?
But, using the voice, Cash suddenly cannot not sell. He’s on a roll, and will soon be promoted to “power caller” on the floors above. That’s where the real money is made. At the same time, his colleagues Squeeze and Salvador (Steven Yuen and Jermaine Fowler) begin to unionize, and so he must choose: his friends or the money? OK, it’s actually more complex. If he doesn’t get paid, like a lot, and soon, his uncle (Terry Crews) loses his home. So it’s more like friends + principles vs. family + money. He opts for the latter. His friends condemn him anyway. So does the movie.
It condemns him because he gets lost in the money. He’s got a new place, new furniture, new clothes. He and Detroit fight. She winds up with Squeeze. They become a subplot but every time they were on screen I kept thinking, “Who gives a shit?” Particularly when the real horror goes down.
Going to meet the man
As his success continues, Cash is invited to meet The Man, CEO Steve Lift, at a party at his mansion. In the basement he accidentally stumbles upon Life's scheme: turning his WorryFree workers into half-horse creatures so they can do heavier labor.
It's a horrific reveal, but in the aftermath the movie keeps losing the thread. We get a bit of the Detroit on-again-off-again subplot. Cash then tries to alert the media. Initially I thought the preposterousness of the plot—the world’s richest man is using cocaine to turn his workers into half-horse creatures!—would work against him, but nah. Bigger problem: Nobody cares. Or too few care. They’ve got their three channels, after all. That seems enough in this world.
Moments work. I like how Lift tries to soothe Cash and justify his actions as if they were logical and ethical. That was pitch-perfect. But the movie has huge targets it keeps missing. At one point, now siding with his colleagues, Cash wakes up in a paddy wagon and views the pitched battle through the thin slot in the door. There go the police routing the protestors. Nope, here come the protestors, led by the half-horse creatures. The back-and-forth looks comic but there’s nothing funny about it at all.
Movie Review: 1985 (2018)
In “1985,” a young gay man, Adrian (Cory Michael Smith), returns home to Fort Worth, Texas, in that pivotal, titular year, to come out to his conservative parents (Michael Chiklis, Virginia Madsen). That's the story. But I think writer-director Yen Tan wants to upend our expectations about how all this might play out. The parents, for example, know more than they let on. They’re conservative and everything—Reagan/Bush bumper sticker, nativity scene on the front lawn—but they’re cooler than we expect.
Adrian, meanwhile, is not. He’s duller. He may be dullest gay character I’ve seen on a movie screen. Or anywhere.
Yeah, it kind of ruins the movie.
It might have been ruined anyway. “1985” is another low-budget, black-and-white indie film full of static shots and dull dialogue.
Does the mom say anything of interest? The dad talks up the Vietnam war now and again, but in vague, clichéd ways. He complains that the youngest son, Andrew (Aidan Langford), is pursuing theater rather than sports. He wonders what happened to sports. He defends the way his father beat sense into him. No one talks politics except for the mother at the end, who admits, in secret to her son, that she voted for Mondale. Thanks, mom. He still lost. By a landslide.
As for Adrian, as you watch, you wonder how he’s going to come out; and then you wonder if he’s going to come out; and then you realize, shit, the point is his not coming out. There are a thousand openings and he doesn’t take any of them.
He meets up with an old girlfriend (Jamie Chung), who is trying her hand at stand-up comedy in Dallas, and you think: OK, this will be like his starter kit, the sympathetic girl. Then he can move onto the harder nut to crack—the Reagan-loving dad. Nope. He would rather leave her bitter about being rejected than admit why she was rejected. He only finally fesses up when she returns to make amends—and then he does this off-screen. Later, his father invites him out for a late-night backyard beer, tells him that when he went to Connecticut for his platoon leader’s funeral, he also drove down to New York City to see Adrian. And he saw him. On his stoop. With his arm around another boy.
This should be a good opening, right? To quote Al Pacino in “The Insider,” the cat is now TOTALLY out of the bag. But what does Adrian do? Nothing. If coming out of the closet were a football field, his father had just carried the ball 99 yards, and he’s ready to lateral the ball to his son, Adrian, for the final yard. But Adrian just sits there.
Sympathy for the dullard
I guess this is supposed to make us aware of how difficult it was to come out of the closet back then? And in such a place as Texas?
Unfortunately, it just makes us mad at the main character ... who, by the way, has AIDS. That’s right. He’s been to six funerals that pivotal year, his boyfriend is already dead, and he’s got KS creeping up his chest. It’s December 1985. He’s not long for this world. He knows it. He should be sympathetic. And yet all I had for him was impatience. I was annoyed at him for wasting everyone’s time, and at Yen Tan for wasting ours.