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Friday, May 25, 2018

Solo: A Star Wars Story

SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY

** SPOILERS **

Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich) gets his famous surname in Solo: A Star Wars Story. It's given to him by a disinterested recruitment officer for the Empire because Han says he's all alone. The three years Solo serves in the Empire, first as a washout pilot in the Imperial Navy and later as a boots-on-the-ground grunt (the Empire has normal soldiers and doesn't rely exclusively upon Stormtroopers?), are the only time Han is ever really solo. Otherwise, Solo is surrounded by friends, most importantly, Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), the heart and soul of the whole movie. Where would Han be without his best Wookiee friend (who owes him a life debt for busting him out of Imperial prison, though the film never mentions the life debt part)? Nowhere, that's where.

Ron Howard's Solo: A Star Wars Story is the story of Solo, formerly known as just "Han", a twentysomething who grew up a thief in the grimy, ship-building world of Corellia. (If there's a bright center to the universe, Corellia would be the planet it's farthest from, to paraphrase some kid on Tatooine.) Han wanted to run away and see the galaxy with his best girl Qi'ra (Emilia Clarke), but the gangsters who raised them had other ideas. Qi'ra began Han's canonical attraction to petite brunettes with pretty faces and British accents. It turns out a British accent is Han's biggest lure: on an Imperial battlefield, he meets his mentor Beckett (Woody Harrelson), a smuggler working with Val (Thandie Newton), who has, you guessed it, a pretty face and a British accent. Han and Chewie end up as part of their crew, pulling a bungled train heist for crime lord Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany), the leader of the Crimson Dawn syndicate. Vos also has a British accent, and Bettany has a pretty face, so he counts. Luckily for Han, Qi'ra, the girl he's trying to get back to save, now works for Vos as his trusted lieutenant. She's "done a lot of things" to get to where she's at, warnings to Solo she ominously and routinely drops and Han is happy to ignore. Solo is the only one shocked when she turns on him.

Since this is a Star Wars story of a beloved canonical character, Solo has to check the many boxes of Fan Service. We learn how Han meets his frenemy Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover), the smooth, impeccably-caped card sharp who just happens to own the Millennium Falcon, the ship destined to belong to Solo. The fastest hunk of junk in the galaxy is brand-spanking new - at least until Solo gets his hands on it. Lando's co-pilot is a social justice-seeking droid named L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), who has a British accent if not the requisite pretty face, but that's good enough for Han as well. Together, this motley crew pulls off the infamous Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs as they steal and smuggle unstable hyperfuel called Coaxium to pay off a debt to Vos. Hunting them down are space pirates led by the masked Enfys Nest (Erin Kellyman). When Nest removes her helm and reveals herself to be a girl with a pretty face and a British accent, there's instantly no doubt Solo will turn on Vos and side with this babe and her burgeoning 'Rebellion' against the evil Empire. (Qi'ra even says it outright: "He's going to help her.") And there are, or course, callbacks to the Original Trilogy (thermal detonator, a kiss on the cheek "for luck", the Falcon runs afoul of a giant monster in outer space, Han shoots first) that are fun to spot.

Solo's climax is impressive (most impressive) by featuring no less than five double crosses: 1. Lando double crosses Han and leaves with the Falcon. 2. Han, Qi'ra and Chewie double cross Vos with fake Coaxium. 3. Beckett double crosses Han by revealing he sold them out to Vos. 4. Qi'ra double crosses Vos and kills him to take command of the Crimson Dawn (for those of us who don't read or care about the Star Wars Extended Universe, the sudden appearance of a long-dead Phantom Menace villain makes no sense and reeks of Fan Service), and 5. Q'ira double crosses Han and leaves him with his Wookiee as she becomes the new crime lord of the galaxy. As Homer Simpson would say, Solo learns a valuable lesson: "Never trust anyone." Except for your Wookiee. Always stand by your Wookiee and he'll look after you.

Volumes have been written - and will continue to be - about the behind the scenes chaos that birthed Solo, ultimately resulting in Ron Howard directing the picture and bringing it to the finish line. Solo shows the mark of an efficient, experienced hired hand brought in to make the shoot days and execute this by-the-numbers origin story written by Lawrence and Jonathan Kasdan. Howard rarely generates his own material, preferring to adapt existing works or the stories of others to mixed results (Apollo 13, The Da Vinci Code, Rush, In The Heart of the Sea), but his surehanded guidance keeps this project from the disastrous, Millennium Falcon-crushing gravity well it was turning into. One also gets the sense that if Howard was in charge from the start, he wouldn't have cast Ehrenreich, whose constant mugging masks a genuine sincerity, yet never jives with the beloved 'real' Han Solo originated by Harrison Ford. This would be fine if Ehrenreich were playing an alternate universe Han like Chris Pine did Kirk in J.J. Abrams' Star Trek films, but this is supposed to be the same guy Ford played, so. Although Solo never makes the jump to a magical hyperspace of imagination like the best Star Wars films (could it ever have?), overall, it's a solid, enjoyable romp through the seedier worlds of the galaxy far, far away. Considering the Han Solo solo film should have detonated like so much unstable Coaxium, the fact that the Han Solo solo film is fine (it's fine) is a win.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Women of Avengers: Infinity War at Screen Rant

WOMEN OF AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR AT SCREEN RANT

One of the best parts of writing feature articles for Screen Rant is getting to deep dive into the biggest films, like Marvel's Avengers: Infinity War. I've written over a dozen Features about the film - such as Infinity War Was Worth The Ten Year Wait, which I totally recommend checking out - and among them were a series of mini features on the spectaular female superheroes of Infinity War.



Friday, April 27, 2018

Avengers: Infinity War

AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR

** SPOILERS **

I Hope They Remember You

"I'm with you til the end of the line," is the famous promise Captain America (Chris Evans) and Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) made to each other for a century. Avengers: Infinity War is that end, the 19th film and the culmination of the last decade of the unprecedented success called the Marvel Cinematic Universe. A grand and shattering treatise on death, loss, sacrifice, and heroism on a truly universal scale never before witnessed in superhero movies, Infinity War brings the epic feeling of event comic book crossovers to movies. It's not for the newbie; it's for the True Believer. Infinity War demands a working foreknowledge of the characters, relationships, and plot points that have been woven through most of the prior films. It trades on the affection audiences have for these heroes (and villains). And in the end, it shockingly wipes the slate clean with a snap of Thanos' fingers.

A loose adaptation of arguably the greatest Marvel epic, The Infinity Gauntlet, Thanos (Josh Brolin) finally attempts to assemble the six Infinity Stones which represent the fundamental aspects of the universe: Power, Space, Reality, the Soul, Time, and the Mind. He's driven by his lifelong quest to balance the universe by eradicating half of it. In the comics, Thanos is a vainglorious lunatic in love with the personification of Death who is nonetheless charming and fascinating. Brolin's Thanos is a different, but satisfying take on the Mad Titan; driven, intelligent, mournful, but savage. Thanos has a heart, which is reserved for children he adopts and raises to be his lieutenants for his twisted cause. His favorite remains one of the Guardians of the Galaxy, Gamora (Zoe Saldana), to the chagrin of her long-suffering "sister" Nebula (Karen Gillan). Thanos and Gamora's relationship takes center stage, the latest and most tragic of Marvel's exploration of the harm fathers can cause their children.

Wholesale slaughter is Thanos' stock and trade, and absolutely everyone feels his wrath. The Avengers, broken apart and scattered in Earth and in space since their own Civil War, assemble in smaller groups to try to protect the two Infinity Stones still on Earth: the Time Stone is in the possession of Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), who, along with Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), Spider-Man (Tom Holland), and the remaining Guardians of the Galaxy, try to take the fight to Thanos on his homeworld of Titan. Meanwhile, the Mind Stone ensconced in the forehead of Vision (Paul Bettany) is defended in Wakanda by Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), Steve Rogers, Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Bucky, War Machine (Don Cheadle), Vision's lover Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo). In one of the film's many interesting inversions of expectations, Banner can no longer Hulk out after his gamma-powered alter ego is humiliated by Thanos in battle when the evil aliens slaughter the people of Asgard, including poor Loki (Tom Hiddleston). 

Not every character meets each other, and some long-simmering issues remain unresolved (the biggest being Steve Rogers and Tony Stark falling out), but the meet-cutes between the Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy that occur are beyond satisfying. No surprise, Marvel's two biggest egotists, the technological Tony Stark and the mystical Doctor Strange can't stand each other. Peter Parker is finally christened as an Avenger and fights alongside his mentor Tony, who watches out for him with a care and affection we've never quite seen Iron Man display before. The Guardians meet Thor (Chris Hemsworth), whose handsomeness impresses Drax (Dave Bautista) and irritates Star-Lord (Chris Pratt). Meanwhile, Thor takes a shine to Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and Groot (Vin Diesel). The God of Thunder has by far suffered the most loss and tragedy in his two most recent appearances, but Infinity War restores him to his maximum godhood, complete with a new weapon, the Stormbreaker ax. 

The Avengers rise to the occasion in Infinity War. Despite their differences and the apocalyptic odds against them in the form of Thanos' powerful servants and their army of CGI monsters who invade New York City and Wakanda, we see the heroes at their very best (except Peter Quill). At a muscular, relentless, and overwhelming two-and-a-half hours, Infinity War is still unable, by design, to deliver everyone and every type of interaction one would hope to see. No one in the film gets the full picture of everything going on. Steve Rogers and his team's actions speak louder than words in defense of Wakanda, while Stark and his warriors are cut off from their fellow Avengers in space. Some of Thanos' minions have sufficient personality for the Avengers to banter with as they lay the smack down on each other, while Tony Stark's fame is revealed to be universal. Rather than kill the man at the center of the Marvel movie universe, Infinity War reaffirms Tony Stark as the center of that universe. It also, shockingly, does the same for the original core group of Avengers who started it all (well, almost all of them). 

The final act goes for the gusto and cements Infinity War as Marvel's version of Lord of the Rings. The universe is changed, and the body count is "Holy shit!" staggering and truly shocking. The boldest choice by directors Joe and Anthony Russo is how the main character of the story succeeds in his ultimate goal, with no obvious path to how the surviving heroes can come back and save the universe. It's a true, genuinely unsettling cliffhanger. Everyone, in the film, and in the audience, loses someone they love in Infinity War, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe loses its innocence at last. There's no telling what exactly happens next or how. Just a slight tinge of hope at the very end that the universe can indeed be saved, by a woman who bears Marvel's namesake.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Chappaquiddick

CHAPPAQUIDDICK

** SPOILERS **

Chappaquiddick is a sturdy lesson in crisis management, Kennedy-style. On July 18, 1969 - a couple of days before Neil Armstrong walked on the moon - the DUI Senator Edward M. "Ted" Kennedy (Jason Clarke) drove his car off the Dike Bridge into the water below. Kennedy somehow escaped but his passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara) wasn't as lucky. As Kennedy emerged safely, Mary Jo drowned in his vehicle. Fearing public disgrace, the end of his prospective Presidential run and the ruination of his political career, Kennedy waited 9 hours to report the incident. Instead, he recruited Joe Gargan (Ed Helms), his cousin, attorney, and family fixer, and Paul F. Markham (Jim Gaffigan), the U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts, to help him explain away the crime. And he would have gotten away with it too if it weren't for the meddling press, investigators, and everyone else peering into this careless and sloppy attempt at a cover-up. 

As Kennedy wrestles with his conscience, his poor character, and the expectations of his disappointed, ailing father Joseph P. Kennedy (Bruce Dern) - whose strategies for a cover-up Kennedy ignores - Chappaquiddick doesn't really build up steam until the lawyers come into the picture. Led by Robert McNamara (Clancy Brown), essentially Mr. Burns' ten high-priced lawyers all take turns yelling at Kennedy for his hare-brained ideas to keep his name clean. Kennedy's dumbest, by far, was feigning a concussion the night of the accident and wearing a neckbrace to Mary Jo's funeral. Like the swarthy guy who wore a neckbrace to the trail and Mike Brady subsequently exposed in a Brady Bunch episode, Kennedy forgot a guy in a neckbrace shouldn't be able to crane his neck around. In the end, Kennedy never did become President, but his public statement and apology to the voters of Massachusetts ended up saving his political career.

Clarke is terrific as Ted Kennedy, and Chappaquiddick does a fine job evoking the Kennedy mythology, asking the audience to weigh whatever positive mystique the family retains to this day against the ugly reality of the deeply flawed, entitled men who carry that surname. The Kennedy magic largely died with Jack and Bobby, but Chappaquiddick showed enough of the mystique remained that the local law enforcement and even the voters still bent over backward to explain away the grave mistakes of the surviving Kennedy brother.

Friday, April 13, 2018

DC's Legends of Tomorrow at Screen Rant

DC'S LEGENDS OF TOMORROW AT SCREEN RANT 

Midway in season 2 of DC's Legends of Tomorrow, during the Legion of Doom story arc, the needle began to move. Legends was always considered the fourth and least of the Arrowverse shows behind Supergirl, The Flash, and Arrow, but a shift had begun. Now that Legends' fabulous, raucous, and utterly bizarre season 3 is over, it has surpassed its sister series and has taken the top slot as the most entertaining - and dare I say best - Arrowverse series on The CW.

I've gotten to write some fun features in recognition of Legends season 3 for Screen Rant. Check them out collected below:




Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Tomb Raider

TOMB RAIDER

** SPOILERS **

Tomb Raider could be more accurately titled "Lara Croft's Adventures With The 2nd Unit." The reboot of the 2001 and 2004 films that starred Angelina Jolie as the world's most famous British video game heroine (which itself is based on the video game reboot of the 1990s games) is the origin story of the titular Tomb Raider. Here, Lara is a 21 year old launched on her first adventure to find her father Dominic West, missing for 7 years and presumed dead on a mysterious Japanese island. Essentially "Lara Croft Begins", the young Tomb Raider-in-training must travel to that same island to find answers and her destiny. Unfortunately, somewhere along the way to that island, the film lost its director Roar Uthaug and its two credited screenwriters. They must have died en route. With no director and no story to speak of, this left the 2nd unit to stage elaborate stunt shows for Lara to survive to pad out the film's running time.

"I'm not that kind of Croft," Lara says wink-wink in the beginning. Indeed, Alicia Vikander is the best and only thing to watch in Tomb Raider, but she decidedly isn't her predecessor. The commonalities Vikander shares with Jolie are that they are both Academy Award-winners and neither of them are British, which seem to be the two requirements to portray Lara Croft. Lean, chiseled, and constantly injured, Vikander's Lara is neither as fully-formed in bountiful proportions nor in Tomb Raiding skills and gadgetry as Jolie, but she makes up for it in pluck and likeability. Jolie was a perfect video game avatar given flesh and form. In contrast, Vikander's Lara is not the best at everything; she gets her ass kicked a lot and barely scrapes through by the seat of her pants (she also wears pants in the jungle, unlike her predecessor). By the end though, Vikander takes on the more familiar iconography, weaponry, and confidence of Lara Croft, but she's more interesting as a reckless youth in over her head.

The first act of Tomb Raider is its best: unwilling to inherit the vast fortune left behind by her missing father, Lara spends her wayward youth getting pummeled in an MMA gym and eking out a living as an East London bike courier. This section of Tomb Raider surprisingly plays as a welcome (if unintended) homage to Jessica Alba in Dark Angel, wherein Alba's genetically-engineered super soldier also made two-wheeled deliveries while hanging with the eclectic layabouts of Jam Pony Express. Soon, Lara discovers her dad is a big weirdo: the kind who uses his own family crypt (on the grounds of Croft Manor!) as a secret headquarters full of Tomb Raiding paraphenelia. Lord Richard Croft left behind puzzles for his clever daughter to solve, as well as video instructions to destroy all evidence of his quarry: the tomb of an ancient Japanese Empress of Death. Lara decides to use the research to find her father. She jets off to Hong Kong and hires drunk sailor Daniel Wu to charter her a course to the mystery island in the Devil's Triangle. Sure, enough the seas start getting rough and their tiny ship is tossed. The movie's ability to tell a coherent story also goes down with the boat. 

Essentially, Lara washes ashore on Lian Yu, the island Oliver Queen was trapped on in Arrow. On the island, instead of Deathstroke, Lara meets the lone American in the film played by Walter Goggins, a dead-eyed villain who has been on the island for 7 years looking for the Japanese Empress' tomb. Why? He doesn't say. He works for a shadowy evil global network called Trinity. Why? He doesn't say. Why does Trinity want what's in the tomb? He doesn't say. To proclaim that every other character in Tomb Raider besides Lara is "underwritten" seems insufficient; it's more like they are "unwritten." Once the 2nd unit takes over the movie, Lara is kidnapped, beaten, chased, shot at, strangled, and survives harrowing cliffhangers that should have killed her. Yet, for everything else not involving frenetic action that Vikander is gamely up for, the island is Tomb Raider's dead zone.

Meanwhile, after 7 years of Goggins and his armed mercenaries leading an Asian death camp, they somehow were unable to find The World's Most Obvious Tomb On A Mountain Which Has Puzzles Set In The Gate until Lara showed up. 7 years?! The island isn't even that big: Lara ran across it in like a minute. Oh, Lara's father is alive, no surprise, and he's a huge disappointment. Lord Croft is no Henry Jones Sr.; he's as boring and empty as the blank pages in Henry's diary. The raiding of the Japanese Empress' tomb is Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade-lite, with Lara solving easy color puzzles while the bad guys are picked apart by the tomb's many death traps. Adding to the sum total of Things That Don't Make Sense, the island is dangerous to get to by boat because storms sink anything that sails towards it, but Trinity can send a helicopter to the island any time it wants and they're greeted by clear, sunny, blue skies.  

Tomb Raider utterly fails its star and the audience. The film collapses like the floor of the Japanese Empress' tomb under Lara's dainty weight. Through it all, though, Vikander is imminently watchable and gung ho, even if the stunt team are the only ones in the production offering her any support. If Tomb Raider ignites the desire in any girls or boys in the audience to enter the Tomb Raiding profession, Tomb Raider teaches that the most important skill a Tomb Raider can have is the ability to do one-armed pullups. This will literally save your life every ten minutes despite whatever the 2nd unit can throw at you.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Red Sparrow

RED SPARROW
** SPOILERS **

"Your superiors are getting impatient," Dominika Egorova's handler says to her more than once in Red Sparrow. Personally, I wouldn't consider the audience Jennifer Lawrence's "superior", but it does accurately describe sitting through the bulk of Red Sparrow. Lawrence plays Dominika, a prima ballerina who suffers a terrible accident on stage that ends her lauded career. Her value to the state depended entirely on being a beautiful dancer, but now that she can no longer dance, what is to become of Dominika and her sick mother Joely Richardson? The solution comes in the form of her uncle Matthias Schoenaert, a high-ranking official in Russian Intelligence who's a bit of a perv. Schoenaert has always fancied his fetching niece and sends her to serve the state in a brand new way: to be a Sparrow. "You sent me to Whore School," Dominika later accuses him. Well, yes. Funny, that.

To be a Sparrow, Dominika learns all of the important arts, namely how to seduce a man or woman and get all of their secrets, which also sets them up for disappearance or assassination. After learning her injury was no accident, Dominika gained her admission into Sparrow School by attacking the two ballerinas who ruined her career, in the first of two naked and bloody mid-sex bathroom beatdowns that brings to mind the banya scene from Eastern Promises. Dominika is then raped as she sets up a powerful Russian magnate for assassination, and thus her Sparrow School tuition is paid. Sparrow School is the best part of the movie; it's like Hogwarts for sexy Russian adults where the magic is all about what goes on underneath their robes. Dominika is a reluctant but quick study at disrobing, and soon, she graduates with honors and is ready to be a real-life Sparrow. 

Dominika's mission is to get close to the goofy-named CIA agent Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) and learn all of his secrets. As soon as this crazy hot Russian no one had ever heard of before gets close to Nash, everyone in the CIA knows she's a Sparrow, but they all play along anyway. (It's obvious why Nash lets Dominika get close to him.) As the story lurches forward for a glacially-paced 2 1/2 hour runtime, Dominika gets drawn into a labyrinthine web involving a drunken US Senator's assistant played by Mary-Louise Parker (the only comic relief in this grimly serious film) selling secrets in exchange for six figures in booze money. There's also a mole in the Russian government Dominika must uncover. Mostly, Dominika wants to get revenge on her uncle for sending her to Sparrow School in the first place, and for all of the torture and beatings she endures for Mother Russia.

Red Sparrow took a lot of shots on the Internet for basically being a Black Widow movie, but to finally see Red Sparrow is to realize this isn't a Marvel film at all. Though there's plenty of graphic and bloody violence, Dominika is no action heroine. Sparrow School teaches Dominika plenty about sex and seduction but no kung-fu superhero skills. Still, Sparrow School was more engaging than the 2/3rds of the movie with Dominika out in the wild, as we try to sort out what she's doing and why. Is Dominika a good Sparrow or a bad Sparrow, and who is she ultimately working for? For her part, Lawrence goes for broke playing Dominika, especially in the sex and nudity department. Probably the biggest victim of Internet leaks of her private photos a few years ago, Lawrence decides that it's high time she gets paid for your Fappening, and more power to her. Red Sparrow is also a reunion between Jennifer and her Hunger Games director Francis Lawrence (no relation), and naturally, it contains the staple of Jennifer Lawrence waking up in a hospital. That Katniss Everdeen classic bit is evergreen, even if she's called Dominika now.

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