Movie Review ~ Solo: A Star Wars Story


The Facts
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Synopsis: During an adventure into a dark criminal underworld, Han Solo meets his future copilot Chewbacca and encounters Lando Calrissian years before joining the Rebellion.

Stars: Alden Ehrenreich, Woody Harrelson, Emilia Clarke, Donald Glover, Thandie Newton, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Joonas Suotamo, Michael K. Williams, Ian Kenny, Warwick Davis, Clint Howard, Paul Bettany, Jon Favreau

Director: Ron Howard

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 135 minutes

TMMM Score: (5.5/10)

Review: I was one of the few people that didn’t latch on to 2016’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Most thought it was one of the best (!!) entries in the Star Wars universe but I found it to be a cash-grabbing, gap-filling, problematic undertaking that brought to lax life characters and situations we had heard about in the original trilogy of films. It just didn’t go anywhere for me because it had nowhere to go. We knew what was going to happen so, like Titanic, audiences were waiting around for a couple of hours for the ship to sink.

Like Rogue One, Solo: A Star Wars Story reaches back into galactic history to the origins of Han Solo, the character first portrayed by Harrison Ford. Unfortunately, the same problems of storytelling and purpose existed for me while watching Solo, which, though a marked improvement in pace and plot over Rogue One, still had me struggling with the question of “Why?” Even for a slightly-more-than-casual-fan of the Star Wars series like myself, I kept wondering when the story would take a surprising turn or stake its claim as the original tale it claims to be. Despite some stray sparks of ingenuity, Solo winds up being another strange miss by Lucasfilm that finds itself yet again playing it safe with its cash cow franchise.

Bursting into action before the title is even on the screen, the problems I had with Solo also started pretty early on. For one thing, the cinematography by Bradford Young (A Most Violent Year) is so dark that I half-believed something to be wrong with the projection. Large stretches of the movie are so dim that facial features are fuzzy and action sequences feel like they were filmed inside a dank warehouse that forgot to pay their electric bill. Introduced to wannabe pilot Han (Alden Ehrenreich, Beautiful Creatures) as he wriggles out of a sticky situation with his band of criminals on Corellia, taking his girlfriend Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke, Terminator Genisys) along with him. In the first of several well-staged space chases, Han and Qi’ra attempt to evade capture with Han’s flying skills put to the test. Though Han escapes the planet, Qi’ra isn’t so lucky. Pledging to return to save her, Han joins the Imperial flight academy and gains his last name in the process. Flash forward three years to find Han has been kicked out of the academy and is now a grunt on the ground doing battle.

It’s in the wages of war that the resourceful Han buddies up with a cadre of thieves led by Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson, Now You See Me 2) and Val (Thandie Newton) but not before almost being torn apart by a muddy Wookie named Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo, Star Wars: The Force Awakens). Befriending the hairy beast, Han and Chewie join Tobias and Val on a mission that sets the stage for a whole new world of trouble and adventure. Along the way Han plays cards with the charming Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover, The Martian) in the hopes of winning his prized ship the Millennium Falcon, avoids a band of mysterious space pirates, and runs afoul of Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany, Avengers: Infinity War) who has a familiar face from Han’s past in his employ. Then there’s Han’s first experience with the Kessel Run, a hyperspace route known for its treacherous tendencies that plays a factor in Han’s later years.

It’s well known that Solo had a bumpy go of it during its production. Original directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller were fired when filming was nearly complete and producers brought in Oscar winner Ron Howard (Splash!) to oversee the rest of the process and film additional scenes. There were also rumors certain stars had to work with an acting coach to beef up their likability factor. Strangely, this isn’t unusual for this franchise; in several of the recent Star Wars films (and Rogue One), the director was replaced at some point during filming or just prior to getting underway. Lord/Miller are known for their comedies (21 Jump Street) and Howard couldn’t be any different in style as a director – it’s a credit to the film that you can’t always tell where the Lord/Miller material ended and the Howard contributions began.

Where the film falls flat is in the dull script by Lawrence and Jonathan Kasdan. Lawrence has a long history with this series, dating back to writing The Empire Strikes Back while Jon is the newbie yet neither bring the type of history or fresh voice that feels necessary. It’s the same dusty triple cross heist tale we’ve seen done before and far better. Only Glover’s memorable Lando and especially Phoebe Waller-Bridge (Goodbye Christopher Robin) as Lando’s wry droid L3 create any real excitement. Both Glover and Waller-Bridge are known for their writing so one wonders what this film could have been had producers colored outside the lines a bit more.

As he has shown in previous roles and especially in Hail, Caesar!, Ehrenreich is an easy-going presence and it’s not hard to see why he was sought out for the role. Strangely, it’s Ehrenreich that was supposed to have needed additional help to increase his matinee-idol appeal and I’m also guessing Clarke benefited greatly from Howard’s more nuanced work with actors. Harrelson is doing his usual grizzled shtick while Bettany feels like he’s played this role multiple times before. The less said about Jon Favreau (Iron Man) voicing a CGI member of Beckett’s group, the better. Bonus points if you spot other key figures from the Star Wars universe who aren’t always playing the characters they are most known for.

I’m sure hardcore fans will find a lot to enjoy here as there are many tidbits discussed in later films that are introduced (yes, you’ll find out how Han gets his blaster) and which likely will cause a ripple of knowing laugher in well-versed crowds. There is a strange abundance of annoying periphery players and it says something when the star of the movie isn’t even one of the Top 3 interesting characters of the film. Personally, I wish the film had reached a bit farther back in Han’s tale instead of starting so late in his game but that would likely be a whole movie unto itself. Aside from a scant few twists and one major head-scratching appearance near the end there’s little here in his first real adventure that hasn’t been seen before.

Movie Review ~ Assassin’s Creed

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The Facts
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Synopsis: When Callum Lynch explores the memories of his ancestor Aguilar and gains the skills of a Master Assassin, he discovers he is a descendant of the secret Assassins society.

Stars: Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Irons, Brendan Gleeson, Khalid Abdalla, Michael K. Williams, Charlotte Rampling, Ariane Labed

Director: Justin Kurzel

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 115 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: Let’s get this out of the way at the outset.  I’ve never played Assassin’s Creed nor did I have the faintest clue what the big screen adaptation was about when I cozied myself up in a warm theater for the 10am screening.  Maybe it was the early showtime or maybe not having any pre-conceived notions helped because I quite enjoyed this futuristic historical adventure with a hard edge.

Used to be when an A-List actor took a role in a video game adaptation, it signaled a career that had run its course but Assassin’s Creed proves to be a rare unicorn.  Featuring a host of Oscar winners and nominees, I was worried the film would reek of actors slumming for a paycheck but turns out they all bring a much needed gravitas to the proceedings.  Basically, they classed up the joint.  Re-teaming with his Macbeth stars, director Justin Kurzel makes good use of Michael Fassbender’s (Prometheus) dark side and nicely exploits Marion Cotillard’s (Two Days, One Night) air of mystery to keep you off balance surrounding the motivations of the central characters.

Fassbender is a death-row convict whose execution is faked by Cotillard in order to bring him to her next-generation laboratory in Spain.  There’s some mumbo-jumbo about the Knights Templar and a fabled Apple of Eden that holds the key to the nature of evil but it’s all a way to get Fassbender into Cotillard’s machine that takes his DNA and pulls up the memories of his ancestors and allows him to relive the past.  As part of the memories of his Assassins society days, Fassbender is plunged into a conspiracy where his life hangs in the balance in both the past and the present while mankind’s future is up for grabs if he achieves his goal.

The ideas in Michael Leslie, Bill Cooper, and Adam Cooper’s screenplay are loftier than one might imagine considering the source material.  Jeremy Irons (Beautiful Creatures) and Charlotte Rampling (45 Years) are Templar elders anxiously awaiting Fassbender’s find and both have fun (but not too much) with some nicely droll line readings.  The cast is rounded out by reliable character actors and an international cast of foes and friends working to either help or hinder Fassbender’s efforts.  Aside from the seemingly never-ending supply of bad guys to kill (in appropriately PG-13 non-bloody fashion), this doesn’t have the typical video game look that has weighed down similar movies.  For that, I am most grateful.

Unfortunately bound to get lost in a holiday season with bigger fish to fry (why didn’t this get a late January or February release?), Assassin’s Creed is better than it should be and more entertaining that I felt it would be.  Kurzel has now shown in two movies that he can get real dark real fast and the finale of Assassin’s Creed is a bold stroke of confidence that I hope pays off.

Movie Review ~ Triple 9

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A gang of criminals and corrupt cops plan the murder of a police officer in order to pull off their biggest heist yet across town.

Stars: Casey Affleck, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Anthony Mackie, Aaron Paul, Clifton Collins Jr., Norman Reedus, Teresa Palmer, Michael K. Williams, Gal Gadot, Woody Harrelson, Kate Winslet

Director: John Hillcoat

Rated: R

Running Length: 115 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: Triple 9 kinda snuck up on me.  Admittedly, I’ve been a little distracted with the upcoming Oscars to prep for and an aversion to perusing trailers that give too much of the movie away.  Still, I was surprised that a movie boasting the A-List talents that Triple 9 has didn’t register on my radar until it’s release date was already rapidly approaching.  We’ve emerged out of the murkiness of a dull January and are entering into the warmer waters of February and while Triple 9 isn’t the best work of anyone involved, it’s a solid entry into the crime drama family.

Presented with the right amount of grit, grime, and gore (one bloody scene takes place in a dilapidated housing project infested with vermin both human and animal), the movie takes a solid 45 minutes to get going into any interesting direction.  First it’s a heist film, then a cop drama, then it’s (briefly) a buddy picture before settling into its tale of corruption and double crosses.  All of it seems a bit recycled from better pictures but I kept going back to the fact that it’s quite well made and earnestly performed by its impressive roster of bad guys and gals.

The film opens with a bank robbery executed with tactical precision led by small time criminal Michael Atwood (Chiwitel Ejiofor, Secret in Their Eyes).  On a mission to obtain the contents of a security deposit box that’s set to net him and his crew a tidy sum upon delivery, Atwood has more than money on his mind as his payday is being funded by his son’s mother’s sister (did you follow that?), the acting head of a Russian mafia family.  When the boss lady (a smirking Kate Winslet, Labor Day) demands Atwood and his crew take on one more mission, it comes with hefty consequences for all involved.

Into the mix is thrown Chris Allen (Casey Affleck, The Finest Hours) a cop returning to duty in a new precinct.  The new kid on the block steps on some toes, including that of his grumpy partner (Anthony Mackie, Pain & Gain) and the local gangbangers who are used to cops looking the other way. How Chris becomes linked to Atwood is one of the twists you’ll have to experience for yourself but no double cross comes as a surprise and no one is safe from the chopping block as one major character learns early on.

Look, there’s some good stuff to be found here, such as director John Hillcoat’s (Lawless) staging of several tense chase scenes and shoot-em-ups.  Hillcoat is solid at ratcheting up the stress meter of the actors and the audience as we peer around dark corners not knowing what we’ll find.  We’re all let down by Matt Cook’s script, a mish mash of underdeveloped characters and a final feeling that the whole dirty business was pretty pointless.  As you can see from the poster above and nearly all the marketing materials, red is the color du jour and Hillocat goes a little overboard with the red herrings and red visuals (smoke, clothes, signs, lighting, etc) to the point where you just want to say “OK, we get it…it’s symbolic.” and move on.

Ejiofor seems a little sleepy here, only coming alive in scenes where he’s going toe to toe with Winslet.  Winslet, for her part, is to be commended for trying out another bad girl (after her swing and a miss with Divergent) but it just doesn’t suit her…kinda like her iffy Russian accent.  Winslet’s actually in more of the movie than I thought she’d be, but it’s reduced to a series of scenes where she taunts Atwood that she can whisk his son away at any moment.  Aaron Paul (Need for Speed), Clifton Collins Jr. (Pacific Rim), Teresa Palmer (The Choice), and Gal Gadot (Fast & Furious 6) comprise the rest of the cast and, especially where the women are concerned, fade to the background faster than they should.  Let’s not forget Woody Harrelson’s (Out of the Furnace) half serious/half jokey performance as a veteran detective, the uncle to Affleck’s character.  Seeming to be impersonating his True Detective co-star Matthew McConnaughey’s laid back twang and sporting a confusing set of false teeth, Harrelson adds some spark to the film…but at what some significant cost to his overall effectiveness.

It’s a rather mulligan stew of a picture and it’s too long by a good twenty minutes, but Triple 9 isn’t a totally unwelcome guest.  Might be worth a lazy matinee day but it could easily wait to take up your time at home.

Movie Review ~ The Purge: Anarchy

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The Facts:

Synopsis: The Purge is a night where all crime is legal and all hospitals, fire stations, poison control centers and police stations in the United States are closed down for 12 hours.  A year after the events of the first film, five people meet in the streets and try to survive the night.

Stars: Frank Grillo, Michael K. Williams, Carmen Ejogo, Zoë Soul, Zach Gilford, Kiele Sanchez, Keith Stanfield 

Director: James DeMonaco 

Rated: R

Running Length: 103 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (5.5/10)

Review:  A year ago most pundits would have predicted that The Internship, Owen Wilson and Vince Vaugh’s Google comedy would have easily topped the weekend box office thanks to the reunion of its Wedding Crashers stars and a prime early June opening weekend.  Then people started getting a look at the movie, deemed it middling, and the buzz turned instead to the darker material of the low-budget thriller The Purge.  Made for peanuts ($3 million dollars) and arriving without much fanfare aside from several well timed social media pushes and spooky promotional material, The Purge surged, making $34 million smackeroos…12 times its budget.

Topping out at $64 million in box office receipts, even if the film ultimately wasn’t that great it was inevitable that a sequel was greenlit before the sun set on that first weekend.   So here we are now a year later being treated to what could be the start of a profitable franchise for Universal Pictures…even if the overall quality of the material hasn’t improved much.

There’s something creatively ghoulish about the concept surrounding The Purge; less than a decade from now America will be largely crime free due to 12 hours one night a year when all crime is legal.  That nasty neighbor who lets his dog pee on your hydrangea?  Hit him over the head with a bat.  The barista that keeps screwing up your cappuccino order?  Slit her throat.  All bets are off, and it’s helped to keep the other 364 days safe.

The first film took place at a house in the middle of a posh gated community and focused on a family’s fight to keep ghastly Purge participants out on the curb.  The sequel, as most horror sequels are apt to do, expands its cast, concept, kills, and setting to only mediocre results.  Instead of simply remaking the cat and mouse game of the original, The Purge: Anarchy introduces new targets navigating their way out of the inner city…aka Purge central.

Returning writer/director James DeMonaco again scores points for turning his film ever so slightly into the morality tale it really is deep down but can’t quite seal the deal when it comes to providing dramatic support for his concept.  He’s scripted rather dumb, unlikable characters that speak mostly in questions (“Who are they?” “Don’t you know?” “How am I supposed to know?” “Weren’t you supposed to know?) that are forced to bond together if they are to survive the night.

While DeMonaco had Ethan Hawke to head the original film, the sequel features the equally appealing Frank Grillo (The Grey, Captain America: The Winter Soldier) as a man that sets out into the Purge night for revenge  but winds up saving a mother (Carmen Ejogo, Sparkle) and daughter (Zoë Soul, Prisoners) from an elite squad picking off residents from the lower income part of the city.  Soon they’re joined by milquetoast couple Zach Gilford (The Last Stand) & Kiele Sanchez fending off mask wearing killers scooping up unfortunate souls for a sinister purpose revealed later on.

The fivesome go on a quest straight out of Adventures in Babysitting as they look for a car to get them out of the city.  Working on bland street sets seemingly constructed for multiple uses by numerous films, there’s not a lot of tension to be had…though there is a dandy of a jump scare early on in the film.  Almost thirty minutes longer than the previous film, the extra time isn’t put to good use as we are witness to scene after scene of bickering within the group and the dodging of multiple bullets throughout the night.

Grillo is a valuable character actor that has yet to really capitalize on his break out star potential, even after turning in some great performances over past few years.  He perhaps gives the soggy material more than it deserves in terms of character development but both he (and his hair) are the clear standouts here.  Ejogo and Soul may be the least convincing mother daughter duo in recent memory, not helped by the fact that both actresses mentally check out before the first reel is over.  It’s hard to say what real life couple Gilford and Sanchez are up to here because they’re assigned the worst kind of drivel dialogue: the self-narration.  Speaking everything they’re doing because DeMonaco couldn’t or wouldn’t find a more stylish way to do it, they stumble through the film as the token white people that are clueless and ultimately helpless.

Though the film starts off strong, ironically it’s when The Purge actually begins that the cracks begin to show and grow with each passing second.  While there’s some intriguing material surrounding the government and their ulterior motives surrounding The Purge, it’s quickly relegated to a marginal subplot in favor of awkwardly moving the five hunted souls from point A to point B.

I’m still hoping this franchise finds a way to make the most out of its concept in future installments.  The premise lends itself well to the kind of isolated story telling that could go on forever…but only if the films find the characters and setting to support it.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Purge: Anarchy

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Synopsis: A young couple works to survive on the streets after their car breaks down right as the annual purge commences

Release Date:  June 20, 2014

Thoughts: A sequel to 2013’s The Purge was pretty much guaranteed when that very modestly budgeted film surprised everyone by raking in some serious cash during its opening weekend.  Sure, the film dropped like a stone in the weeks following but success isn’t measured in longevity anymore…it’s all about that critical first few days.  While The Purge was a movie with a diabolical concept, it suffered in an execution that didn’t know how to finish what it started in a satisfying way. I’m not expecting the sequel to be much different and can see future installments being a yearly occurrence ala the Paranormal Activity (Paranormal Activity 4 & Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones) and Saw films.

Movie Review ~ RoboCop (2014)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: In 2028 Detroit, when Alex Murphy – a loving husband, father and good cop – is critically injured in the line of duty, the multinational conglomerate OmniCorp sees their chance for a part-man, part-robot police officer.

Stars: Joel Kinnaman, Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Samuel L. Jackson, Abbie Cornish, Jackie Earle Haley, Michael K. Williams, Jay Baruchel, Jennifer Ehle, Marianne Jean-Baptiste

Director: José Padilha

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 108 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  Even uglier than the recent trend of Hollywood eating its own by remaking many a film barely 30 years old is the nasty critical backlash lobbed at these remakes.  While some of this ire is warranted (I’m looking at you 2012’s Total Recall) there seems to be efforts that become collateral damage,  wrongly tossing commendable efforts like José Padilha’s update to RoboCop into the junkbin.

Listen, Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 RoboCop is a not-minor classic but one that I wasn’t overly attached to, so treating it like a precious property isn’t going to allow anyone to really enjoy the 2014 remake.  The thing that made the ’87 sci-fi action film so razor sharp was its cynicism toward violence and the media, a concept reaching its peak in the final years of the advent of the “me” generation.  The digs taken at the alarming change in what was considered entertainment came at the right time and right place. 

That same approach wouldn’t have worked for this update;  after all we live in a time when stardom can be achieved for doing nothing so Padilha and screenwriter Joshua Zetumer wisely jettison that impossible to match angle for something admittedly less special and memorable…but one that provides the kind of entertainment that is engaging, if altogether fleeting.

The structure of this RoboCop is largely the same: in the not-too-distant future robotic technology has become more advanced and popular opinion is that it’s still too early to embrace the benefits of a robot protected society.  The head of tech giant OmniCorp (Michael Keaton, Gung Ho!, a welcome presence) decides that the public needs to be shown the light and wonders what would happen if there was a beating heart in one of his robot warriors.

That’s where Detroit cop Alex Murphy comes in.  As played by Joel Kinnaman (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), he has that same blandness that worked for previous star Peter Weller…though Kinnaman has significantly more “face” time in this film allowing us to see the man inside the machine.  Injured in the line of duty while investigating an arms dealer and police corruption, he’s saved by OminiCorp technology and becomes their RoboCop.

I’m not sure if adding more heart to the film is what audiences expected or wanted but if the cynicism was lost in the reboot there had to be something to fill the gaps.  This means Murphy’s wife (a non-presence in the first film) has more to do…even if Abbie Cornish winds up delivering most of her lines like she’s shivering in sub zero temperatures.  Where the previous film introduced the refurbished Murphy as an emotionless drone that gradually remembers his humanity, the new Murphy wakes up with the memories of his past, only to see them next to erased by corporate bottom-lining that ordered a machine without scruples.

Rounding out the quite well acted ensemble of performers are a kindly Dr. Frankenstein-like character played with dimension by Gary Oldman (Lawless) and a blowhard political reporter etched out by Samuel L. Jackson (Django Unchained) on a CGI-graphic heavy set that looks remarkably like the one Jackson shoots his credit card commercials on.  Hints at the dark comedy of the original film come through Jackson’s character and he’s given enough free rein to be over the top while eschewing winking knowingness.

Had the film cannibalized the original loyal fans would have gone crazy (and rightly so)…and I find it a bit unfair critics have knocked the film for not going that direction…maybe it was a lose-lose situation for all involved with updating this story.  For me, I was able to keep the tonally different film from ’87 at enough of a distance and take this revamp for ’14 for what it is – handsomely rendered entertainment that’s serviceable at its worst and involving at its best.

The Silver Bullet ~ RoboCop (2014)

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Synopsis: In 2028 Detroit, when Alex Murphy – a loving husband, father and good cop – is critically injured in the line of duty, the multinational conglomerate OmniCorp sees their chance for a part-man, part-robot police officer.

Release Date:  February 7, 2014

Thoughts: I’m not usually one to get behind remakes of films that were just fine to begin with.  My biggest problem is the more often than not these remakes/reboots do very little to make any strong case that the film needed to be revisited in the first place (case in point…2012’s Total Recall).  Still, I must admit that I was intrigued by the prospect of a re-envisioning 1987’s RoboCop.  Though by no means a classic, it’s still a genre favorite of mine thanks to its clever take on the future of law enforcement and its copious amounts of violence (that originally earned it an X rating before director Paul Verhoeven went back and made some trims).  While the just released trailer is interesting enough to not make me roll my eyes totally out of my head, it’s distressing to hear that the filmmakers are aiming for a PG-13 rating…something that just doesn’t work for this character or the series which was all about a next generation weapon being used to combat decaying violence.  Delayed for release several times doesn’t bode well but February is a long way away…I’m open to seeing where this one goes.