Movie review: “Solo: A Star Wars Story”

OK so “Solo”.

 

S
P
O
I
L
E
R

S

P
A
C
E

 

So I went and spent real American dollars to see “Solo: A Star Wars Story”, which, if you know how to read between the lines of movie marketing campaigns, is a bit like sticking to the order of lamb cutlet after the waiter has very carefully and deliberately raised their eyebrow at you. I knew what I was asking for, and I got it: an overcooked and uninspiring meal, “Solo” boasts only a few flashes of genuine flavor. And no wonder, with all the cooks racing through the kitchen: directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller were fired and replaced by Ron Howard after 75% of principal photography was completed, accepting producers’ credits as payout. Whatever their contributions amounted to versus Howard’s, and how much was cobbled together in editing, is impossible to determine, but what has arrived in theaters is a dull-to-passable heist movie punctuated by a checklist of references:

 

Kessel Run, check.

 

A bad feeling about this, check.

 

Wookies ripping arms, check.

 

Spice mines, check; card game, check; Han shot first, check. One can only wonder how freely and joyfully the story might have flowed, had it not been obliged to hit all these artificial marks.

That better story would almost certainly have featured a larger role for Donald Glover, whose Lando Calrissian is note-perfect: charismatic and mysterious and projecting a riveting blend of charm and weltschmerz, and wrapped in a dazzling variety of stylish capes. He’s accompanied the new droid L3 (spectacularly voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge), who brings a level of exasperating humanity to her character that will either entertain, or annoy, the hell out of you. Like any well-founded character, you’ll be able to predict what L3 would do within about twenty minutes of having met her—in another good sign, you’ll have strong feelings about it. Every time this pair was on the screen, I felt the movie achieve liftoff; sadly, every time it was brought crashing back down by another obligatory hit of nostalgia. Want the origin for Chewie’s bandolier? No? Here it is! And why do we need a scene establishing where Han got his name, anyway? “Han Solo” is one of the all-time great fictional names; in three syllables, it imparts a wallop of information, wreathed in a whiff of romance. It needs no introduction; it is an introduction. In carefully cataloging the origins of nearly every iconic moment, phrase, and prop from the original trilogy, “Solo” feels like a movie not for the people who grew up playing with Star Wars toys, but for rather for the grown-ass people who collect them—only those with a hefty investment in humidity-controlled display cases could possibly have been waiting for the origin story of Han’s blaster. Hence the widespread response to this movie: “Who asked for this?” I saw variations of this cry everywhere, from friends and acquaintances and in the first sentences of reviews. Even a cursory advance focus group should have cued Disney to re-evaluate the need for a painstakingly explanatory origin story for one of the most indelible characters of all time. The filmmakers—all of them—should have trusted the essential sturdiness of Han Solo; the willingness of their audience to follow him on a truly new adventure; our ability to enjoy a character who simply is. Their lack of faith disturbs me.

 

Advertisements

Movie review: “Deadpool 2”

So Deadpool is back. How you react to him will probably be determined by your age and gender: as in the first installment, any twelve-year-old boys who manage to convince their parents to disregard the R rating will find their efforts rewarded with decapitations and dick jokes galore. The rest of us will probably feel a bit deflated to note that “Deadpool 2” follows that tired old formula: kill off the girl “won” at the end of the first installment to provide crude motivation for the hero in the sequel. Fridging has always been gross, but in the last ten years, it’s gotten both gross and boring. What’s odd is that I think the filmmakers know it—a series of gags in the opening credits and a plot wrinkle later in the movie both undercut the move. Which begs the question: if you know you’re employing a hack tactic, and you know it enough to apologize and sorta-kinda take it back in the mid-credits, why use it in the first place?

The answer may lie in the directorial swap that’s taken place between “Deadpool” and “Deadpool 2”; Tim Miller (for whom “Deadpool” was a directorial debut) has been replaced with David Leitch, who started out his career as a stuntman and then gained a significant amount of experience working on high-grossing and competent films like “Jurassic World”, “John Wick” and “Captain America: Civil War”, but also, alarmingly, “Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters”, “Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues”, “Atomic Blonde” and “The Wolverine”. Leitch has made such a habit of working on massive projects with multiple (credited and uncredited) directors that it’s hard to derive any sense of him as a director, which makes me chary to lay the bad decision-making at his door. I’m slightlymore inclined to blame the screenwriting team of Rhett Reese and Paul Warnick, carryovers from the first film (the sequel also credits lead actor Ryan Reynolds as a writer), but again: how do you reallyknow who decided to write a straightforward fridging-followed-by-rampage instead of taking a risk and writing something fresh and interesting? You can’t, on any corporate project of this size, so instead I will invite you to simply absorb the names above. Notice anything? Say it with me: when women aren’t in the room, female characters die. In shitty ways, and for really shitty reasons.

The imbalance in the executive room comes through in other ways. In place of the sparky Vanessa (Morena Baccarin), Deadpool (Reynolds) decides to protect and defend a lonely kid, Russell (Julian Dennison), who is being abused at a “re-education” school/orphanage for mutants. Fair enough, except that a large portion of the plot centers on stopping Russell from killing before he ‘develops a taste for it’ and murders everyone in the school, students included. “He’s just a kid!” Deadpool bellows multiple times to stop various other characters, including the time-traveling Cable (Josh Brolin), from killing Russell. “He’s a good kid!” Can you think of any reason why the characterization of a boy planning the murder of all his classmates as “just a good kid” might not go down as easily as it once did? I can think of a lot of reasons.

Signs abound that the movie’s creators have lost the pop culture pulse: a recurring joke about dubstep, which died as a trend six years ago. The total waste, in a microscopic cameo, of Terry Crews, who has been ripe for a serious comeback for the last year. A “Fargo” reference.

All this is not to say that the movie is hopeless, or un-fun: it’s not, at all. The introduction of the delightful Zazie Beetz as hyper-lucky Domino is a blast of fresh air, and Brolin slots his time-traveling mercenary into Deadpool’s team so effortlessly he feels as though he has always been there. I’ll watch this movie again, and be equally entertained and frustrated by it, and probably write some corrective fan fiction for it that gives Negasonic Teenage Warhead (reprised by Brianna Hildebrand) more than five lines, and I’ll dream of a “Deadpool 3” helmed by a team that can imagine more for women to do than die.

“Avengers: Infinity War I”

I review most movies after one viewing. I took two before reviewing “Avengers: Infinity War I”, because this is a movie that wants to be seen twice. An overstuffed, sprawling adventure ten years in the making, starring characters introduced at separate points through nineteen different movies, A:IWI seems like it was made without reference to a clock; it is two and a half hours long, and needs to be. Despite that, I’m ashamed to note that it took me those full two and a half hours to rumble what was up. The Russo brothers have accomplished the most difficult trick in the directorial book—to deliver exactly what is promised, and yet still surprise. I stumbled out of the theater feeling stunned and more than a little stupid: I had, after all, walked into the film knowing I was watching the first of a two-parter, and moreover a movie firmly in the “Empire Strikes Back” position of a larger three-part cycle, and yet I was still caught off-guard by the ending. This is a remarkable trick for a movie to pull off, and it’s worth exploring how it was done, at length, over beers with your friends afterwards.

The final thirty seconds are the film’s greatest triumph, but there are other, smaller wins along the way; every second spent with Tom Holland as Spiderman, for example. The wise choice to include the entire supporting cast of “Black Panther”, rather than just the star, and to ground the majority of the action in Wakanda, rather than the done-to-death battleground of New York City. And the movie makes tremendous use of small breakout characters with limited ranges of action: Mantis (Pom Klementieff), Groot (CGI/Vin Diesel), and the CGI cloak that acts as Dr. Strange’s protector and pet.

When it comes to larger characters, though, the movie has some stumbles: Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Pepper Potts (Gwenyth Paltrow) have now broken up and gotten back together so many times that their once-buoyant romance now feels like a deathless slog; Vision (Paul Bettany) and Wanda Maximoff’s (Elizabeth Olsen) mopey relationship never got off the ground in the first place, but is now accorded central positioning and a baffling amount of screentime. (Other characters who fall into the Still Inexplicably Here category include the dessicated corpse of Don Cheadle as Rhodey and walking yawn Sebastian Stan as Bucky.)  Speaking of wasted time, delightful “Games of Thrones” star Peter Dinklage is buried in a MacGuffin-hunting sequence which goes on about ten minutes too long, and we spend a truly unforgivable amount of time dicking around in an empty train station in Scotland with Vision and Wanda (here, my companion reminds me that the sequence established some important power dynamics and allowed one character a memorable entrance, but I’m so bitter about potential Wakanda time going to these two mopes that I’m still calling the sequence useless).

None of these flaws end up mattering, though—the movie powers through on the strength of Josh Brolin’s incredible performance as Thanos, a villain now gearing up to star in “Avengers: Infinity War II” and an entire generation’s nightmares. Thirty years ago, Darth Vader’s horse-chuff breath and sparkling black mask traumatized everyone in grade school; now, a new crop of eight-year olds may learn to associate mortal terror not with a costume and a Death Star, but with a calm, reasonable tone and an earnestly presented plan that almost doesn’t sound like genocide. If Thanos were human, he’d have a large YouTube subscriber base and a rabid following on the lecture circuit. It’s only because he’s purple that we can’t see him when he’s right in front of our face, telling us exactly what he plans to do and how he plans to do it. It’s up to us to believe him.

“Pacific Rim: Uprising”

“Pacific Rim: Uprising” opens on a group of four men ransacking the abandoned corpse of a Jaeger for spare parts. There is a metaphor here, for those who care to look for it.

Assembled by four screenwriters and directed by Whedon acolyte Stephen S. DeKnight, the second installment in the burgeoning franchise reiterates the stakes of the first, to lesser impact: Jaegers (skyscraper-sized robots) are once again called into service, this time to fight other Jaegers imbued with the muscle tissue, and antisocial tendencies, of the Kaiju (heavily reinforced sea monsters) they apparently only kinda triumphed over at the end of the last movie. In lieu of Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba’s character, killed at the end of the first installment), we now have his son, Jake Pentecost (John Boyega, being worn by a skimpy mustache), who has been drafted, against his will, into service against the new-ish Kaiju. “I’m not my father,” Jake mentions a time or six. Unfortunately, the screenwriters don’t seem to know how to show that, so they have him mention it another few times. Maybe that will make for a compelling journey!

Jake is joined by Amara Namani (Cailee Spaeny), a short and scrappy scavenger who is haunted, conveniently, by flashbacks of her own family’s deaths-by-Kaiju. Both Jake and Amara are bullied, then befriended, then bullied a bit again, then sort of befriended, then flirted with, then ejected, then welcomed back by the other Jaeger pilots, who include a tall one, a short one, multiple interchangeably athletic-looking ones, a kinda scrawny nerdy-looking one, a Russian one, and one who is Clint Eastwood’s kid (you’ll know him because he looks exactly like Clint Eastwood). No further characterization is forthcoming, because personality simply doesn’t matter in “Pacific Rim: Uprising”—the movie has effectively abandoned the concept of “drift compatibility”, which forced the first movie’s Jaeger pilots to get to know each other on an uncomfortably therapeutic level before they could move the big robots in balletic unison. Now, the “neural handshake” which links Jaeger pilots together reads as nothing more than a formality—Jake is called away to discuss something more important during his and Amara’s first drift, and the idea is never referred to again. Jaeger teams are assigned at random, and clunky exhortations like “Let’s move some ass!” and “Now let’s save the world!” stand in for any sense of personal motivation or stakes. In a new low of laziness, the screenwriters recycle the climactic speech from “Pacific Rim” for the final battle: Jake once again reminds us that he is not his father, but that we “probably remember his big speech about canceling the apocalypse”. Who knew screenwriting was so easy? One shudders to think of the cinematic possibilities: perhaps in the next installment of “Star Wars”, the Force-Ghost of Darth Vader can ask if we remember how awesome it was when he told Luke he was his father.

Movie review: “A Wrinkle In Time”

“A Wrinkle In Time” is the kind of movie that drives people to fan fiction. Full of half-finished ideas, gestures at worlds, and characters missing the “why”, it nevertheless offers enough glimmers of brilliance to make the omissions really frustrating. Watching it feels like being hurried through the Louvre, at high speed, by an impatient tour guide. “Wait!” I wanted to cry. “I want to stare at Oprah’s magnificent dress! Can I get a closer look at what Mindy Kaling is sewing? What’s the deal with this eerily perfect kaleidoscope world, anyway?” The movie, however, had other plans: it wanted me to spend a long scene in a sterile white room, and multiple scenes watching CGI tendrils of black, rootlike “evil” multiplying across the universe, and even more scenes of Chris Pine, face obscured by floppy wings of hair, pretending to be an astrophysicist. I think I might prefer to explore this museum without a tour guide.

 

Unfortunately, the movie has other ideas. Jennifer Lee and Jeff Stockwell have performed only a light update of the book’s plot, but seeing “A Wrinkle In Time” brought to life in dazzling high-definition CGI only hangs a lantern on everything that is cheesy and shallow about L’Engle, concealing all that is subtler, truer. I don’t remember much about reading “A Wrinkle In Time” as a child—“An Acceptable Time” was my personal L’Engle preference—but I remember being challenged by adult discussions that felt genuinely academic, by vocabulary that didn’t explain itself. Contrast that to the movie’s scientific breakthrough, in which Chris Pine sighs “The frequency is love! No wonder the United States ranks 35th in math.

 

The goofiness extends to the beloved character Meg (Storm Reid), as she is encouraged to become a “warrior” of light and love by the three Mrs Ws (Oprah Winfrey, Mindy Kaling, and Reese Witherspoon, in order of gravitas). As it turns out, the first step in becoming a warrior is loving and accepting your flaws, then learning to find balance in the “happy medium”. This bumper-sticker fare is fine if you need to be a warrior in your local hot yoga class, or in the parking lot at Whole Foods, but not so useful if you need to feed your family in the ninth month of post-hurricane blackout, or fight an insurance company for your survival, or shepherd your wife through Alzheimer’s. Real evil certainly exists, but comparing Meg to Ghandi, Mandela, and Marie Curie for having accepted her own impatience is not a convincing retort to it. It may resonate with the self-styled “prayer warriors” who convince themselves weekly that positivity and karma are substitutes for concrete action, but I’m pretty sure even Madeline L’Engle, in all her New Agey-ness, would have taken stock of the world in 2018—and grabbed a fucking shovel.

Movie review: “Black Panther”

When was the last time you got dressed up to see a movie? If you are one of those rarities who teases their hair into tufts for Wolverine movies and paints their face blue to visit the planet Pandora, note that I don’t mean costumed. I mean dressed up: ready for a wedding, or a funeral, or some other occasion of spiritual import. And if you are one of those even rarer birds who still irons their Sunday best to sit in the popcorn-scented darkness: when was the last time you weren’t the only one?

 

This Sunday, in a sleepy suburban theater at a not-so-popular time for movies, I sat surrounded by people who were dressed the fuck up to see “Black Panther”, a superhero movie set in Wakanda, a fantasy African nation not eaten out of its substance by a rapacious West. Its newly minted king, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), doubles as its spiritual defender, the Black Panther. Counselled by a coterie of female advisers, including his mother (Angela Bassett), ex-girlfriend (Lupita Nyong’o), mischievous younger sister (Leticia Wright), and trusted bodyguard (Danai Gurira), T’Challa is faced with a splintered tribal base and a timely conundrum: continue his late father’s defensive policy of strict isolationism, or risk exploitation by opening Wakanda and its high-tech riches to the world? It’s a good question that deserves plenty of chin-stroking thought; unfortunately for T’Challa, a brash challenger (Michael B. Jordan) is prepared to take the throne, and he would like Wakanda to come to the rescue of the less fortunate sons and daughters of Africa right now, please. If the measure of a villain is how close they get to becoming the hero of the story, then Jordan’s Erik Killmonger (sorry, but that is the character’s name) belongs in the pantheon of all-time great antagonists. Squint even a little, and you will find yourself seeing his point.

 

Surrounded by these high-powered actors, Chadwick Boseman underplays his hand, melting into the background of scenes he’s capable of dominating and creating a wide-open space in the movie for other characters to flourish. The result is an abundance of delights: Winston Duke, as mountain tribe leader M’Baku, whose impassive mask melts into sly humor. Letitia Wright as Shuri, crowing over her older brother’s unfashionable sandals. Daniel Kaluuya, fresh off the triumph of “Get Out” and scoring another direct hit to the heart as conflicted warrior W’Kabi.  American treasure Forest Whitaker as wise elder Zuri. You want to get to know these characters better; to spend hours admiring the brilliant details of their world; in Shuri’s case, to buy her a drink and spill all your secrets. Knowing that they are fictional smarts; but the movie’s point is not to lament what Africa could have been. It is to celebrate, in dazzling saturation, the joy and complexity of what is. Wakanda walks among us daily. Put on something nice before you see it.

Movie review: “Darkest Hour”

OK so “Darkest Hour”.

 

How cooked would you like your history? Depending upon your answer, there is a wide range of WWII movies to suit: on one end lies the rawest documentary, such as “Shoah”. In the middle, movies like “Dunkirk”, “Paradise Road”, and “Saving Private Ryan” advertise bloody centers of realistic and harrowing violence, but deliver palatable crusts of hope. On the well-done end of the spectrum lies an increasingly crowded cottage industry of inspiration. “Darkest Hour” belongs here, along with “The King’s Speech”. Oddly, the two movies mirror each other; “Darkest Hour” focuses on Winston Churchill’s struggle to overcome the doubters among his war cabinet and his own private fears, both of which he vanquishes with a rousing speech. “The King’s Speech”, for those of you who missed it, centers on King George VI’s struggle to overcome the doubters of his competency and his own private stammer, both of which he vanquishes with a rousing speech. When, in “Darkest Hour”, the two men come face to face at last, you wonder if they realize they’re in the same movie.

 

None of this is to take away from Gary Oldman’s remarkable performance as Winston Churchill—it is every bit the chameleonic transformation you’ve heard. I found myself staring at the fleshy wattles around his neck, wondering how on earth they’d managed to make prostheses appear to quiver and flush with every breath. Only the eyes retain the feral glint of Oldman, peering out at us from behind a blue wreath of smoke. An extraordinary amount of “Darkest Hour” takes place right up against Winston Churchill; we gaze through his spectacles and at his moistened lips and once, thrillingly, straight up his bathrobe. Perhaps director Joe Wright aspired to be Boswell to Churchill’s Johnson; fair enough, except that the endless close-ups don’t shed much light on why Churchill was the way he was. They only assert, at great length, that he was, which is not a fact much in question.

 

When it comes to whys and wherefores, I regret to say that “Darkest Hour” hasn’t got a clue. The movie takes place during the treacherous period directly after Neville Chamberlain’s ouster, when Churchill (a relatively unknown and untrusted quantity) decided that he alone would steer a panicked Britain on an apparently suicidal course of action: away from peace treaties and negotiations, and straight towards the Third Reich at the height of its military domination of Europe. It happened to be the correct course of action, but no one at the time thought so—except, of course, for Winston Churchill. What did he perceive? Why was he able to grasp Hitler’s threat when so many others were not? What formative experiences guided him to stick to his guns so religiously? What made Churchill, in short, Churchill? The movie leaves these stones unturned, and is the poorer for it. Instead, director Joe Wright invents a tipping point out of whole cloth—the patrician Winston leaves his car in traffic and descends into the London Underground, where he polls a subway car of ordinary Londoners about the “national mood”. When all express a hearty desire to sock Hitler in the jaw, he returns, full of renewed vigor, to Parliament, where he delivers a barn-burning, off-the-cuff address, employing as an aid a matchbook on which he has carefully inscribed the names of the helpful civilians. This is groan-worthy theater, as loathsome as the moment (now cliché) when the President looks up into the balcony at the State of the Union, furrows his brow, and gestures to his ordinary guest, inevitably an electrician from Iowa with three kids who’s fallen on some hard times recently. I might have forgiven the scene if it really happened—after all, every cliché starts somewhere. But it didn’t, and served only to make Churchill look like the one thing he wasn’t: a weathervane.