Solo: A Star Wars Story


“Chewie, I’ve got a bad feeling about this..”

(2018) Science Fiction (Disney/Lucasfilm) Alden Ehrenreich, Joonas Suotamo, Woody Harrelson, Emilia Clarke, Donald Glover, Thandie Newton, Paul Bettany, Jon Favreau (voice), Phoebe Waller-Bridge (voice), Erin Kellyman, Linda Hunt (voice), Ian Kenny, John Tui, Anna Francolini, Andrew Woodall, Warwick Davis, Clint Howard, Anthony Daniels, Charlotte Louise. Directed by Ron Howard

 

Prequels can serve one of two purposes; to give insight to an established character or franchise, or to forever tarnish them. The much-anticipated Solo: A Star Wars Story could go either way…or both.

Han Solo (Ehrenreich) is an orphan committing crimes for a kind of reptilian Fagin named lady Proxima (Hunt). He and his best girl Qi’ra (Clarke) plan to get out of the life and find a life of their own but their plans go awry and the two are separated. Indy..I mean Han…resolves to come back for her and joins the Imperial Stormtroopers as a pilot. Eventually, he meets scoundrel Tobias Beckett (Harrelson) who along with his squeeze Val (Newton) are planning a big heist, one which may finally get him the opportunity to finally rescue his girl. First he will have to avoid the wrath of the crime boss Dryden Vos (Bettany) and meet up with future allies Chewbacca (Suotamo) and Lando Calrissian (Glover).

This is a movie in which the sum of its parts exceeds the whole. An underrated cast, writer Lawrence Kasdan who wrote arguably the best installment in the series (Return of the Jedi) and one of Hollywood’s most respected directors (Oscar winner Ron Howard). Still, despite exceptional turns by Harrelson and particularly Glover (who at one time was rumored to be toplining a Lando Calrissian movie of his own) the movie feels curiously flat. Perhaps it was because Howard was brought in late after much footage had already been shot by departing directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller, who were (depending on who you ask) shown the door or found it on their own after artistic differences with Disney brass. More likely, it’s because Ehrenreich who is a very talented actor, was given a no-win situation in which he was given. Harrison Ford as Han Solo is one of the most iconic roles of the last 50 years and most people can’t see anyone playing Solo except Ford. I will say that Ehrenreich does his level best but for whatever reason his performance didn’t resonate with me. Great effects, great pacing and great cinematography can take a movie so far but it also has to connect, to inspire and amaze. Solo does none of those things.

REASONS TO GO: Glover and Harrelson do bang-up jobs.
REASONS TO STAY: The film left me feeling flat and was overall a disappointment.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some science fiction-type violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The fertility idol from the opening scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark can be seen on a table in the meeting room of Dryden Vos, the villain.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Movies Anywhere, Netflix, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/30/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 70% positive reviews: Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Then Came You

The Age of Blood (Yeokmo – Banranui Sidae)


Don’t cross swords with this guy if you can avoid it!

(2017) Martial Arts (Storm) Hae-In Jung, Won-jong Lee, Cheoi-min Park, Seung-jin Hong, Ji-hoon Kim, Hae-Sung Kwon, Tae-Joon Ryu, Sua-a Hong, Lee-won Jong, Jo-jae Yoon. Directed by Hong-sun Kim

I had always thought that the Chinese and Japanese were the masters of the martial arts period movies but of late the Koreans have won a seat at that particular table and this film does nothing to diminish their newly found status.

Kim-Ho (Jung) is a master swordsman for the army of King Yeongjo (Ryu) who has returned home in shame after losing a battle to the rebel armies of In-jwa Lee (Kim) who was captured during the fight. To his  mortification, Kim-Ho is demoted to a prison guard at the equivalent of a federal penitentiary. To make matters worse, he becomes subordinate to his Uncle who has become very disappointed in his nephew, as has Kim-Ho’s daughter who inexplicably winds up going to work with him his first night.

And that first night turns out to be a really bad night for “take your daughter to work” night. In-Jwa Lee’s right hand man and master swordsman in his own right Min-chul Do (Yoon) is dead set on breaking out his boss from jail. The plan is to then take him to the Imperial Palace where he’ll have the opportunity to take out the King and, to his mind, restore the kingdom to righteousness. Did we mention that Yeongjo ascended the throne by poisoning his brother, the rightful heir?

But neither In-jwa nor Min-chul reckoned on the presence of Kim-Ho who is armed only with what is essentially a nightstick, his own sword being taken away by his Uncle who disdainfully explains that he won’t need it. Kim-Ho will have to take on an army nearly by himself, one that is set on killing every living thing in the prison, guards and prisoners alike. Heads will roll (literally) and blood will spill before the night is out.

This is a more than satisfying action film with some spectacular sequences and some nifty swordplay. Jung has become a star in Korea although he is not quite as well-known here in the States; he is better known for his boyish good looks and tends to play more romantic roles. In this film, he starts off with almost a comedic role but as the film wears on becomes a deadly warrior. This is, so far as I know, his first foray into martial arts action star territory and he shows he can handle it ably.

The movie also benefits from a very well-done animated opening that sets the scene, and terrific cinematography throughout, although some of the night scenes are too dimly lit. There’s also a strange penchant to go from color to black and white and back again without any rhyme or reason.

Although some of the characters in the film are historical (and a few based on historical figures) this is largely fiction. While you get a glimpse of Korea’s Joseon era – in many ways their golden age – this isn’t a history lesson per se. However it is massively entertaining and is everything you want from a martial arts historical piece. This doesn’t have American distribution yet and sadly their last screening at the New York Asian Film Festival is this afternoon but keep your eyes peeled for it at your local Asian film festival. Hopefully a savvy distributor specializing in Asian films will pick this one up.

REASONS TO GO: The cinematography is beautiful and the action sequences outstanding.  The movie changes drastically in tone from beginning to end which actually works really well. The animated opening sequence is outstanding.
REASONS TO STAY: There are strange switches from color to black and white without explanation or seeming reason. Some of the sequences are poorly lit.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of violence and some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: King Yeongjo was an actual monarch during Korea’s Joseon era who ascended to the throne pretty much the way it was described here in the movie.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/4/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Curse of the Golden Flower
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Scythian Lamb

No Escape


Owen Wilson and Lake Bell carry the movie.

Owen Wilson and Lake Bell carry the movie.

(2015) Action (Weinstein) Owen Wilson, Lake Bell, Pierce Brosnan, Sahajak Boonthanakit, Claire Geare, Sterling Jenns, Stacy Chbosky, Tanapol Chuksrida, Jon Goldney, Nophand Boonyai, Thanawut Kasro, Kanaprat Phintiang, Bonnie Jo Hutchison, Danai Tung Thiengtham, Vuthichard Photphurin, Manfred Iig, Bonnie Zellerbach, Karen Gemma Dodgson. Directed by John Erick Dowdle

It is one thing to be in a situation in which you are in mortal danger. It is quite another when your entire family is in that same situation with you. The entire dynamic is changed; you may fight for your own life but when it comes to your family…

Jack Dwyer (Wilson) is an engineer whose business has gone belly up. Forced to take a job to take care of his family, he goes to work for the multinational Cardiff Corporation, going to a Southeastern Asia country to work on cleaning up their water supply. He is going to be there for some time, so he brings his family – wife Annie (Bell), daughters Lucy (Jenns) and Beeze (Geare). The girls are a bit on the spoiled side – Lucy, a pre-teen, acts out constantly while the younger Beeze has a maniacal attachment to a stuffed teddy bear named Bob.

The family befriends scruffy Hammond (Brosnan), a British ex-pat, on the flight over and when the car that Cardiff was supposed to send around to fetch them doesn’t arrive, Hammond and his local buddy Kenny Rogers (Boonthanakit), who runs a taxi service and is freakishly devoted to the singer in question that everyone knows him by that name, offers to give the exhausted family a lift to the hotel. Once there, the phones, television and internet aren’t working. Jack heads down to the concierge (Boonyai) to complain about the situation and ends up spending some time with the womanizing drunken Hammond at the bar.

What Jack doesn’t know is that the country’s prime minister (Photphurin) has been assassinated and a rebel coup has begun. The rebels, easily identified by their red bandannas, are virulently anti-foreigner and what Jack also doesn’t know is that they’re particularly pissed off at his company who have taken over their country’s water supply.

While out to fetch a newspaper the next morning, Jack runs smack into a confrontation between rebels and riot police and is caught in the middle. As he runs back to the hotel, he soon finds to his dismay that the rebels not only have numerical superiority but the upper hand; they are well-armed and are completely overrunning government forces. They are also executing foreigners on sight. Jack, realizing the situation is out of hand, goes to collect his family including the willful Lucy who has gone AWOL to the hotel swimming pool. Once he collects his family, he takes them on the advice of Hammond to the hotel roof, which turns out to be not as safe as he would have thought when a rescue helicopter turns out to be anything but. In order to escape he is forced to throw his screaming reluctant children to the roof of an adjacent office building and hide them there after the inhabitants are butchered by the rebels. They try to head for the American embassy, but even though it is only a few blocks away it might as well be on the moon, considering how dangerous the streets are.

Dowdle, who co-wrote the movie with his brother Drew, has done some fairly high-profile genre work in the past, including Devil, Quarantine and As Above, So Below. This is less a genre film and more of an action thriller, broken down to almost a primal level – a man trying to protect his family, doesn’t get any more primal than that.

Wilson and Bell aren’t the first choices I’d make to cast an action movie, but they do credible jobs here, even if Bell is given little to do but be menaced by rebels and to try and calm down her hysterical children. What I like about the roles is that neither Wilson or Bell are ex-Navy SEALs or kickboxing champions. They are ordinary people thrust into an extraordinary situation and from time to time they freak out, understandably.

The kids though are another matter. They are whiny, bratty and basically are there to put the entire family in jeopardy at every inopportune moment. I don’t mind that happening from time to time in the movie but it seemed like every ten or fifteen minutes in a kid would cry, disobey their parents or snivel to the point where they got noticed by angry rebels. I know the kids are part of the motivation for Jack but they needed to be less involved in the action.

Some have criticized the film for making the rebels faceless, but that’s an invalid criticism. Of course the rebels are going to be mostly faceless; this is an action movie. At one point, Hammond comments that the rebels are trying to protect his family just as Jack is. The real villain here is the faceless corporation; nobody complained that the executives of Cardiff were faceless. Political correctness, once again taken to ridiculous lengths.

The action sequences are the film’s highlights; Dowdle directs these deftly, making sure the tension is extremely high throughout. Those action fans who love that kind of thing should flock to this movie; Die Hard it isn’t but it does action right, and that’s not nearly as easy as it sounds., The cinematography isn’t bad, although the urban scenes, mostly filmed in Thailand, are a little bit scruffy. It’s the night filming which is when most of the movie takes place that looks more thrilling.

This is nice entertainment, transitioning from the late summer doldrums into the early fall doldrums and let’s face it, is about as good a movie as we’re going to get until November for the most part. There are a few plot points here that are a bit dicey but if you are willing to overlook them, this is a fairly fun action thriller that does exactly what an action thriller is supposed to do.

REASONS TO GO: Pretty harrowing in places. Wilson, Bell and Brosnan are always worth seeing.
REASONS TO STAY: The kids are far too annoying. Here’s to almost.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence (some of it graphic) and foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Michelle Monahan was originally cast as Annie Dwyer but when production was delayed, she got pregnant and was forced to drop out of the role. Lake Bell took over the role.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/7/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 42% positive reviews. Metacritic: 38/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Southern Comfort
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Can’t Stand Losing You: Surviving The Police

The Legend of Hercules


If only Kellan Lutz was this electric onscreen...

If only Kellan Lutz was this electric onscreen…

(2014) Swords and Sandals (Summit) Kellan Lutz, Gaia Weiss, Scott Adkins, Roxanne McKee, Liam Garrigan, Liam McIntyre, Rade Serbedzija, Jonathan Schaech, Luke Newberry, Kenneth Cranham, Mariah Gale, Sarai Givaty, Dimiter Dochinov, Nikolai Sotirov, Radoslav Parvanov, Spencer Wilding, Bashar Rahal, Vladimir Mihailov. Directed by Renny Harlin

I don’t know what it is about movies about the Greek demigod Hercules that they are almost uniformly awful, going back to the Steve Reeves epics of the 60s (which were actually the best of them and could only be classified as mediocre) to the godawful Schwarzenegger version Hercules in New York to even the Disney animated feature which remains one of their weakest ever. However, just when you thought they couldn’t get any lower…

When Queen Alcimene (McKee) of Greece realizes her tyrant of a husband, King Amphitryon (Adkins) wages war not for gain but out of sheer bloodlust, she knows he must be stopped. She prays to the goddess Hera for deliverance and the goddess appears, promising a son who would be the downfall of the father. She allows her husband, the God Zeus to lie with her and father her bouncing new baby boy whom will be named Heracles…er, Hercules which translates to Gift of Hera although the boy will be called Alcides as her hubby ain’t too keen on being reminded of the boy’s divine parentage. Instead, he showers favors on his mean-spirited elder son Iphicles (Garrigan).

Hercules (Lutz) grows to manhood and falls for the Cretan princess Hebe (Weiss) whose last name I’m certain is Jebe. She’s a comely girl but she is promised to Iphicles who is heir to the throne. She of course would rather have the buff Hercules and conspires to run off with him. Unfortunately they are caught and Hercules is banished to Egypt to take on a rebellious city-state on an expedition led by Sotiris (McIntyre) who knows they are in for a rough ride when the number of soldiers assigned to him is cut in half. The whole thing is a set-up of course and Sotiris and Hercules are the sole survivors and are sold into slavery to be gladiators in a mud pit – think of it as a combination of MMA and female mud wrestling. Can Hercules win his freedom and get back home in time to prevent his true love’s marriage to his brother?

There are just so many problems with this movie I don’t know where to begin. The script might be a good spot – the dialogue is so cringeworthy that you spend the entire 99 minutes (which seemed like 199) in a permanent twitch rendering the audience in a kind of perpetual seizure throughout the film.

I haven’t seen so many slo-mo action shots in which regular speed stunt sequences are slowed down and then returned to normal speed. It happens so often that it becomes tedious and actually caused me to twitch further. In fact something tells me that it may well have been more entertaining to watch surveillance camera footage of the audience than to watch the actual film. Where is Mystery Science Theater 3000 when you need them?

Kellan Lutz. Ah, Kellan Lutz. He is a good looking lad with an easy-going demeanor and an engaging grin but at least at this point he doesn’t have the charisma needed to carry a movie like this. In fact, the best performances here were Adkins as the frothing-at-the-mouth King and distinguished character actor Serbedzija as Herc’s tutor. The rest of the cast…aieee!

Even the CGI isn’t up-to-snuff – an early sequence in which Hercules battles the Nemean Lion is so bad that the audience is yanked right out of the movie, which might not be a bad thing. This isn’t a movie you should get lost in.

It gives me no joy to write a review like this. Director Renny Harlin has some pretty good flicks to his credit although admittedly it’s been awhile since I can remember one of his movies fondly. Lutz seems to be a nice enough guy but this is a really, really bad film and I’d be doing my readers a disservice by sugarcoating it. There are really very few redeeming factors other than the very buff Lutz is shirtless for virtually the entire movie which may be appealing to those who find that sort of thing appealing. Otherwise, just keep in mind that this may well be the leading contender for worst movie of the year.

REASONS TO GO: Bored out of your skull.

REASONS TO STAY: Self-respect.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a great deal of combat action and violence and a couple of scenes of sensuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: To maintain his physique, Lutz did more than a thousand push-ups and abdominal crunches every day on set.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/25/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 3% positive reviews. Metacritic: 22/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters

FINAL RATING: 2/10

NEXT: August: Osage County

White Material


White Material

Isabelle Huppert realizes she isn’t in Provence anymore.

(2009) Drama (IFC) Isabelle Huppert, Christopher Lambert, Nicolas Duvauchelle, Isaach de Bankole, William Nadylam, Adele Ado, Ali Barkai, Daniel Tchangang, Michel Subor, Jean-Marie Ahanda, Martin Poulibe, Patrice Eya, Serge Mong. Directed by Claire Denis

 

Have you ever been in love with someone that didn’t love you back nearly as much? Maybe even disliked you or hated you? I think we’ve all been in situations like that, but then again what happens when that love is for a place?

Maria Vial (Huppert) runs a coffee plantation in an unnamed African country (although it was filmed in Cameroon). She doesn’t actually own it – her ex-father-in-law Henri (Subor) actually does, but he is infirm and although she is divorced from his son Andre (Lambert), Maria actually runs the place with Henri’s blessing. Maria and Andre are on pretty good terms, although their teenage son Manuel (Duvauchelle) drives them both a little crazy as teenagers will. He seems content to do nothing but sit in his room; Maria wants him to participate more in the running of the plantation while Andre just hopes he find some sort of direction in life.

Their idyllic lifestyle however is coming to an end. The country is being torn apart by civil war and rebels roam the countryside, many of them children, wishing to wipe every vestige of colonialism from their land. Maria’s workers are getting out while the getting is good and they urge her to do the same. So does Andre. So do French soldiers who approach via helicopter to tell her that they can’t protect her if she stays.

Maria, however, isn’t about to leave. She feels the same love for the land as any African, she reasons, and that makes this just as much her land as theirs. Determined to bring in the harvest that will save her struggling plantation, she goes into town to hire new workers, which she is partially successful in doing. However, she can’t help but notice the suspicion with which she is regarded.

Her son, in the meantime, has an experience that changes him forever and not for the better. Maria also discovers the Boxer (de Bankole), the leader of the rebellion, seriously wounded and puts him up on her land in an outbuilding so he can recover. This might end up protecting her – or getting her caught in the crossfire.

Denis has a history living in French Colonial Africa and obviously her experiences have resonated with her. She has a real feeling for the country and its people, but she sees them without rose-colored glasses. Both the colonials and the Africans in most of her films (several of which have to do with colonialism and its effects) are flawed both philosophically and as people, but she clearly has affection for all of them.

I love San Francisco Chronicle reviewer Mick LaSalle’s assessment about Huppert – “anyone who has seen Huppert in other films may well expect her to be able to beat down the revolution by glaring at it.” Huppert is one of the most intense actresses living on the planet and manages to channel that intensity without being overt or over-the-top about it, a mistake young actresses often make. She is like a coiled spring who communicates her intensity with a glance, or a gesture.

Here she’s slightly more vulnerable than her screen personal usually is, although that fierceness is still there in her stubborn refusal to acknowledge the growing storm that approaches. However, there are several shots that Denis frames Ms. Huppert in that show her almost as schoolgirl-small, alone in a beautiful but hostile environment. In one scene, she needs to get on a bus but the bus is full. Undeterred, she hangs onto the ladder outside the bus; her muscles ripple with effort as she hangs on, much as she does with her plantation. It’s an extraordinary scene that will remain in your memory.

Lambert, best known for his appearances in the Highlander films (as well as occasional cameos in the TV series), displays some hitherto unsuspected tenderness as Andre. He’s not nearly the primal force that his wife is, but Andre is a good man nevertheless and at last when things hit the fan, he has to do the sensible thing. It’s not the wrenching moment it could have been but then, this isn’t Andre’s story either.

The cinematography here is brilliant. Yves Cape, the cinematographer, knows how to frame a shot properly but this isn’t just rote point the camera and take pretty pictures. Each shot is a story and embellishes the story, often giving hints as to what the story is about such as the shot of Maria hanging on the bus we discussed earlier. There are also a lot of interesting faces in the film. While Cape is good at what he does, one has to give at least partial credit to Denis, who has a very specific vision. The things I’ve just referred to are standard in her films.

The film bounces around in various time frames, from the denouement which is teased in the opening scene and to better times and to the beginning of the troubles and back again. This kind of storytelling requires a lot of discipline to keep from confusing the audience, but it didn’t quite work for me.

I’ll admit that I’m pretty impressed with the movie overall, although I downgraded it several points for the flashbacks/flash forwards. Huppert is one of the most brilliant actresses there is who hasn’t gotten sufficient due here in the States. I don’t think Americans are comfortable with a woman who displays this kind of intensity, if you ask me. White Material may not resonate with Americans quite so much as we don’t wrestle with the same colonial issues that Europeans do, at least not to the same extent (we have our own demons that are often on display in our movies). Still, this is one of those hidden gems that any serious film lover should go out of their way to seek out.

WHY RENT THIS: Huppert gives a riveting performance. Beautiful cinematography. Some very symbolic shots will have you working this one over in your head for weeks.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The flashback storytelling method left me cold.

FAMILY VALUES: The themes are pretty adult. There is also some violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the second movie that Denis filmed in Cameroon, the first being Chocolat.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: Released on DVD as a Criterion Edition, there is an illustrated booklet, There is also a featurette on Denis’ return to Cameroon at the local film festival to screen the move for locals but also for those who worked on the film, many of whom who had never seen it which proved to be a daunting task as Cameroon has nary a single movie theater.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $304, 020 in the U.S. on an unreported production budget; the movie in all likelihood was profitable.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Nowhere in Africa

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Prometheus