Solo: A Star Wars Story (Full Review)

Han Solo is one of the most popular characters from the original 1970’s Star Wars trilogy. The slick talking, charmer and his furry, temperamental partner Chewbacca, are two of cinema’s greatest outlaws. So, there is perhaps no characters worthier of a spin-off movie. With Harrison Ford far too old to reprise the role that launched his career, Aldin Ehrenreich has the lofty task of portraying the character in this prequel adventure.

Solo_A_Star_Wars_Story_posterSolo: A Star Wars Story introduces Han as a young, wannabe pilot, looking to free himself and an old flame (Emilia Clarke) from a life of servitude. Han’s mission to procure a ship and escape life working for the Empire, leads him to his future partner Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), and a crew of thieves (Woody Harrelson, Thandie Newton, Jon Favreau). Eventually, Han finds himself working for a vicious gangster (Paul Bettany) who needs him to pull off a virtually impossible heist. To accomplish the job, Han will need the help of famed hustler Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover), his droid L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), and their impressive ship… the Millennium Falcon.

Ron Howard stepped in to take over directing duties for Phil Lord and Christopher Miller after most of the film was already shot. The changes in direction are a bit noticeable in the film’s overstuffed plot. It takes a while to get going, and newcomers will likely find themselves scratching their heads at the many unexplained plot elements that Star Wars purists will fully understand. But when Solo manages to find its footing, it is actually one of the most fun, visually appealing, and exciting Star Wars films.

The set pieces and action sequences make the film feel like a cross between a gritty western and a space age, heist caper. As for Ehrenreich, he holds his own in a role that is essentially impossible for anyone to truly embody better than Ford. He brings enough charm, and the script gives him enough moments, to make the entire journey feel like an organic Han Solo story, even if the absence of Harrison Ford makes things feel a tad off.

The new characters in Solo don’t quite do enough to become memorable. L3-37, a witty droid hell bent on freeing her fellow robotic brothers and sisters from servitude, is easily the most enjoyable. But she doesn’t get the screen time to quite steal the show. The rest of the faces all feel like stock counterparts only there to further the plot, with the exception of Glover’s fantastic embodiment of a young Billy Dee Williams. The movie also succumbs to the popular prequel problem of trying too hard to weave in threads from other movies in the series.

With plenty of charm and some exhilarating action to counterbalance some obvious flaws, Solo is a movie that will entertain most casual fans of the genre, even if we all wish Harrison Ford was a few decades younger to breathe more life into it. Solo won’t be considered a top shelf sci-fi entry, or even an upper echelon Star Wars film. But for a film that isn’t holistically necessary, it deserves credit for having some incredible moments.

FINAL GRADE: C, Not bad, but highly flawed.

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A Quiet Place (Full Review)

Silence is pretty terrifying when you think about it. Who hasn’t been alone in an empty home at night and been freaked out by a noise coming from an unknown place? Director John Krasinksi (The Office) takes that concept and adds elements of horror and science fiction to create a simplistic, but eerie thriller.

A_Quiet_Place_film_posterA Quiet Place is set in a world where most of humanity has been killed off by blind alien creatures that are attracted to any sound above a whisper.  Living on a farm with his pregnant wife (Emily Blunt), deaf daughter (Millicent Simmonds), and young son (Noah Jupe), Lee Abbott (Krazinksi) must find a way to protect his family from the deadly creatures while also carrying on day to day life in virtual silence.

As you might expect, the premise of the film can make for a slow burn at times. With limited dialogue and only a hand full of characters to focus on, things can feel a bit dull between the more suspenseful moments. But when those suspenseful sequences do come, they are ‘edge of your seat’ captivating like the raptor scene from Jurassic Park on steroids. And even through the film’s more sluggish moments, Krasinksi, who also wrote the film, does a wonderful job revealing important details and building character depth without the use of heavy dialogue or flashbacks.

The runtime isn’t dragged out and dedicates itself solely to its self contained story for better and worse. You may find yourself leaving the movie with questions about the film’s universe and character pasts. But such specifics aren’t the point of Krasinksi’s story. A Quiet Place is, above all, about family, sacrifice, and survival and with some classic monster movie elements, it carves out enough of a framework to make it both entertaining and memorable.

FINAL GRADE: B

Blockers (Full Review)

Every parent wants their child to obey, but also feel comfortable enough to confide and be truthful once they’re older. Every high school kid wants nurturing parents who will still give them the freedom to venture out and learn their own lessons. This universal dichotomy is the framework for Blockers, a movie that manages to blend just enough family endearment with its raunchy blend of comedy.

Blockers_(film)Kay Cannon, writer of the Pitch Perfect movies, makes her directorial debut in this story about a trio of parents hell bent on keeping their daughters from losing their virginities after they learn of a Prom night sex pact. Lisa (Leslie Mann) is a single mother whose afraid that her daughter (Kathryn Newton) will go far away for college and make the same mistakes she did. Mitchell (John Cena) is happily married with a newborn child but is afraid his oldest daughter (Geraldine Viswanathan) is going to sleep with a student known for cooking up drugs. Then there’s Hunter (Ike Barinholtz), a down on his luck divorcee who just wants back into his daughter’s (Gideon Adlon) life.

There is a moment where multiple characters projectile vomit, a scene where John Cena’s Mitchell has beer poured down his rectum, and gratuitous sex jokes a plenty. But Blockers actually works best when it isn’t being raunchy and just feeds off of the surprisingly fluid chemistry of its lead actors. John Cena is hilarious every time he speaks, owning the role like he’s back in Wrestlemania. And while Leslie Mann has portrayed manic mother’s seemingly a million times, here her knack for playing vulnerable OCD characters brings the film’s overarching theme home better than anyone else.

The surprising standout in Blockers, however, goes to MADtv alum Ike Barinholtz. He delivers funny, yet timely dialogue and physical humor while also managing to give a heavy dose of heart whenever the story focuses his way. Along with Cena, Mann, and a cast of youngsters whose characters all hold relevant narratives, this film manages to make its many outrageous scenarios believable simply because we care about the folks involved. So even though there aren’t a ton of truly side splitting moments, the hearty chuckles will come often enough to keep you entertained while the endearing tone does the rest to make Blockers memorable.

FINAL GRADE: B

Ready Player One (Full Review)

Steven Spielberg knows how to make an adventure film. For decades he has created and adapted unique worlds for the big screen that have become iconic in pop culture. So there is perhaps no one more equipped to tackle Ready Player One, a 2011 novel written by Ernest Cline that is bursting at the seams with 80’s nostalgia and nerd culture.

Ready_Player_One_(film)Ready Player One takes place in the 2040’s where most of humanity spends there time engulfed in a virtual world known as the OASIS where they can be whoever they want and gamble away their money playing games. After the creator of the OASIS (Mark Rylance) dies, he hides an Easter Egg within the game that will make the finder the wealthy sole owner of the OASIS. Living in poverty with his aunt, Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) joins forces with a group of other gamers (Olivia Cooke, Lena Waithe, Philip Zhao, Win Morisaki) to find the egg before the greedy head of a rival company (Ben Mendelsohn) can.

This film celebrates nerd culture like nothing else, at times for better and worse. The character arcs get a bit cheesy at times and if you’re not into gaming, the whole experience might be overwhelming.  This movie is Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory for MMO players and the people who understand most of the references in Family Guy, but what makes it work well is the story it tells. Sure, the effects are breathtaking and the pop culture references are fun, but without an intriguing narrative, the film would be a bore.

Ready Player One manages to weave a likable tale with surprisingly heartfelt themes thanks in large part to Mark Rylance’s James Halliday. The brilliant, but socially awkward character uses the game as a means to teach an endearing lesson about connection and taking chances. Rylance’s quirky, loveable performance makes the overall journey one worth taking even if you aren’t a fan of video games or can name all of the characters that pop up in the background. Combined with thrilling visuals and some well timed humor, Spielberg’s latest film ends up being an absolutely blast for anyone who just enjoys a good treasure hunt.

FINAL GRADE: B

Red Sparrow (Full Review)

A Russian girl is sent to an underground military program that trains her to be a sexy, seductive spy. No, this isn’t an ‘R’ rated version of the Black Widow movie Marvel should’ve made a long time ago. It is an adaptation of a novel written by Jason Matthews with director Francis Lawrence (Hunger Games: Catching Fire) at the helm.

Red_SparrowJennifer Lawrence plays Dominika, a star ballerina who is forced to give up her life of dancing when she suffers a gruesome injury. In danger of losing health coverage for her ill mother (Joely Richardson), Dominika is coxed by her government head uncle (Matthias Schoenaerts) to enter the aforementioned spy program. As a sparrow, she is tasked with seducing an American CIA agent (Joel Edgerton) who is protecting the identity of a mole within the Russian government.

If you can get past her boorish Russian accent, Lawrence does a fair job. She holds her own in all of the brutal action sequences and certainly doesn’t skimp on the sexiness of the role. But Red Sparrow falls into some of the same listless doldrums that plagued 2016’s Atomic Blonde. The film, which carries on about a half hour too long, seems to take the scenic route in getting to its focal point and as such, it can easily make you lose interest.

The chemistry between Lawrence and Edgerton’s Nate Nash never feels genuine, which at times makes it hard to understand either character’s motivations in certain scenes. Throw in a needless subplot about extracting information from a U.S. chief of staff (Mary Louise-Parker), and the movie never quite satisfies as a spy thriller. It is certainly worth a watch if you’re into the genre, but years from now there won’t be much to remember this story by.

FINAL GRADE: C

The 15:17 to Paris (Full Review)

A true story. The real heroes. You certainly can’t fault director Clint Eastwood for his fervor on this one. But there’s a reason actors are in movies. Actors are professionals at conveying emotion and creating an atmosphere that doesn’t make it obvious you’re not watching something that is staged. Despite a worthy subject matter, The 15:17 to Paris isn’t as compelling as it wants to be.

The_15.17_to_ParisIn 2015, two American soldiers and their civilian best friend stop a terrorist attack aboard a train while vacationing in Europe. The film delves into the back story of Spencer Stone, Alex Skarlatos, and Anthony Sadler, exploring how they became friends and their struggles to go from juvenile delinquents to brave heroes. Rather than use actors in the main roles, the three men play themselves.

Knowing what they did to gain notoriety, it’s certainly easier to forgive the three leads for their terrible acting. But virtually every performance in this film feels wooden and cheesy. The dialogue doesn’t feel genuine and it constantly feels like everyone involved is struggling not to look at the camera. Poor writing is accompanied by a dull overall story. Instead of focusing on things that matter, the movie features scenes that are meaningless to the overall story which makes the movie ultimately boring with the lack of engaged performances.

It takes literally an hour and a half for 15:17 to Paris to actually become interesting when the heroic event is finally reenacted. But unless you feel like watching botched military try outs and empty banter between guys watching sports or at a bar, you’ll have to fight to stay awake long enough to reach the climax. Maybe real actors might’ve helped, but a script with better focus on pertinent details and character development is likely the only thing that could’ve saved this dull retelling of actual heroism.

FINAL GRADE: D

Winchester (Full Review)

There’s a reason I hardly ever review ghost stories. Hollywood seems to be obsessed with jump scares and operates under the assumption that using true events for inspiration is the best way to enthrall moviegoers. Not me. Winchester is basically everything I loathe about the genre rolled up into an hour and a half mess.

Winchester_(film)The Winchester estate is a real mansion located in San Jose, California. The story goes that Sarah Winchester (portrayed by Helen Mirren), a widow and heir to a gun manufacturing company in 1906, believed she was being haunted by the ghosts of the people killed by the company’s weapons. To keep the unruly spirits at bay, she keeps the mansion under endless construction with halls, doors, and stair cases that lead nowhere. In this film, the company’s board of directors enlists drug addicted psychiatrist Eric Price (Jason Clarke) to give Sarah Winchester a psychiatric evaluation in hopes that they can strip her of ownership. Once invited into the mansion, he begins to experience the haunting for himself.

Let’s start with the scares, or lack thereof, in Winchester. Every single moment meant to frighten the audience is telegraphed beforehand thanks to the usual juvenile tactics of silence and unsubtle camera placement. And, like most films in the genre, these moments are few and far between. When they aren’t lazily yelling ‘Boo!’ at the screen, the movie sluggishly moves along with Jason Clarke’s dull, unlikable lead taking up screen time with a backstory you won’t care to remember.

The supporting cast is useless and forgettable and when the movie turns into a dark and lackluster version of Ghostbusters, it quickly nosedives into unwatchable territory. Despite such impressive talent in the lead roles and a somewhat eerie subject matter it feels like a squandered opportunity. But make no mistake, there is nothing entertaining or suspenseful about this story. You’d be better off just taking a trip to San Jose and walking through the real house at night.

FINAL GRADE: F

The Shape of Water (Full Review)

You can always recognize a Guillermo Del Toro film. The acclaimed director of HellBoy and Pan’s Labyrinth always carries a special aesthetic that usually involves unique creatures and gothic cinematography. His latest film, The Shape of Water, is a pleasant reminder of the charm he is also capable of bringing to his iconic brand of filmmaking.

The_Shape_of_Water_(film)The Shape of Water tells the story of Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a mute woman in the 1960’s who lives above a movie theater and works janitorial night shifts at a secret government facility. When a South American humanoid is brought to the facility by a malevolent government agent (Michael Shannon), Elisa befriends and eventually falls in love with the amphibian-like creature (Doug Jones). With the help of her neighbor (Richard Jenkins), her coworker (Octavia Spencer) and an undercover Russian scientist (Michael Stuhlbarg), she embarks on a plan to help the creature, known as ‘The Asset”, escape.

A movie that teeters on being about bestiality certainly can be categorized as an odd film. But Del Toro’s story never manages to let its bizarre romance subvert its charm. Despite using only sign language, Sally Hawkins delivers a wholesome performance and makes her character’s unusual attraction to The Asset feel holistically human and genuine. Adding to the allure of the story is the supporting cast. Richard Jenkins is wonderful as Elisa’s artist neighbor who struggles with his sexuality while also trying to manage his friend’s dangerous ambition. Octavia Spencer works as the perfect companion and provides wonderful comedic timing as Elisa’s motor mouthed best friend.

Michael Shannon’s performance as the film’s villain is perhaps the greatest triumph of the film. His grotesque personality is accentuated with astute, yet subtle character development that makes him magnetic on screen even if you’re supposed to hate him. With hardly a dull moment, The Shape of Water manages to be a modern fairy tale that coupled with a sound score and gorgeous cinematography is a film easy to enjoy despite its many bizarre moments.

FINAL GRADE: B

Den of Thieves (Full Review)

Den of Thieves is a high stakes thriller with a band of ruthless cops facing off against a team of convicts. It’s Ocean’s 11 meets Training Day. Well… at least that’s what they were probably going for. If you’re going to make a movie like this, you’d better cover all ground, or else you’ll risk being an occasionally fun movie with enough holes to drive an armored truck through.

Den_of_Thieves_posterO’Shea Jackson Jr.  stars as Donnie, an ex-con who is recruited to join a group of former soldiers led by Merrimen (Pablo Schreiber) and Enson (Curtis ‘50 Cent’ Jackson). After a plot to steal an armored truck turns violent, they catch the attention of a team of vicious L.A. officers led by degenerate Nick O’Brien (Gerard Butler). Despite the police being on their tales, the crew of thieves prepares for an intricate plan to steal millions of dollars from the Federal Reserve.

There are moments in Den of Thieves that are truly intense and exciting. The cat and mouse game between Schreiber’s Merrimen and Butler’s ‘Big Nick’ O’Brien is fun to watch. Despite being a police officer, O’Brien is a demon of a character who cheats on his wife and breaks protocol at the drop of a hat with deadly consequences. This creates a film where there are no good or bad guys, but a bunch of characters with their own intriguing motivations.

But for all of the action and cheap thrills, this actually ends up being an egregiously faulty movie. The federal reserve heist, which starts off as an ingenious plan, unravels as it goes. The plan bounces from crafty to outright ridiculous and ends with several instances of poor planning that make you wonder how in the world they ever thought it could work. For instance, the thieves manage to brilliantly distract the entire L.A. police force and sneak into a heavily guarded bank but don’t account for traffic?

As a narrative, things get flimsy too often. There is far too much screen time attributed to O’Brien’s atrocious personal life. It’s necessary for character development to have a moment showing his failing marriage, but do we have to get several scenes reinforcing the fact? O’Shea’s Donnie is also recruited to be a Vin Diesel-esque getaway driver, but the skill is virtually unrelated to the overall plot. Then there’s ’50 Cent’s’ character. Placed in top billing, the character barely speaks and has an utterly irrelevant scene that is ripped straight out of Bad Boys II. A solid ending twist will help you enjoy Den of Thieves if you put forth minimal thought, just don’t expect anything groundbreaking from this one.

FINAL GRADE: C

The Post (Full Review)

Contrary to what some might have you believe these days, the purpose of the news media has always been to serve as a check on those in power. Never was that purpose more evident than in the early 1970’s in the midst of the controversial Vietnam War. Directed by Steven Spielberg, The Post tells the story of the battle to uphold that right during the height of the newspaper industry.

The_Post_(film)Meryl Streep portrays Washington Post owner Katherine Graham who is thrust into the leadership role after her husband’s untimely suicide. Her high class social life of dining with politicians is threatened when a whistleblower reveals years of documents proving that several U.S. Presidents had been lying to the American people about the lack of success during the Vietnam War. After President Richard Nixon leads the charge for a court order forbidding the New York Times from publishing the documents, fiery Washington Post editor and chief Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) decides to challenge the court’s rulings by publishing the documents under the guise of Freedom of the Press. But to do so, he’ll need Graham’s permission.

The movie certainly drags for its first third as it sets up all of the need to know details of the classified documents and attempts to establish many of its dry characters. But once it zeroes in on its main topic, The Post finds its footing and becomes an intensely gripping film. Unsurprisingly, Streep and Hanks are homeruns in their roles. Streep is compelling in the role of Graham, who navigates her difficult position of a woman in power in the 1970’s to become an iconic figure for Women’s rights. Hanks is equally brilliant and manages to brings necessary wit and drive to a film that might be a bit dull without him.

If you can make it through the sluggish beginning, The Post pays off with a smart, passionate rendering of its necessary subject matter. Like many Oscar-bate biographical films, it can feel like a drag to those who want their movies to be more entertaining than informative. But even if it does come off as something that should be shown in high school history classes, anyone watching it should come away with a greater appreciation for the media and its necessary role in our society.

FINAL GRADE: B