Category Archives: 2018

Solo (2018, Ron Howard)

Solo: A Star Wars Story is juvenile, which might be what manages to save it. It’s got nothing but problems—a troubled production (director Howard took over from fired “executive producers” Christopher Miller and Phil Lord and shot seventy-percent of what’s in the film), an uninspired screenplay (by Empire and Jedi screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan and his son), the worst Star Wars music since A Day to Celebrate (“courtesy” John Powell), and a hilarious miscast “lead,” Alden Ehrenreich.

Ehrenreich is playing young Han Solo, almost forty years after Harrison Ford originated the part and became a megastar. Howard never directed Ford in anything—they did fight over Shirley Feeney in 1962 Modesto—and maybe it would’ve helped if Howard had any experience with him. But the script is so talky—the Kasdans write Ehrenreich is a cocky jabberer (and I’m not sure they realize with juxtaposing him with whiny Mark Hamill from the original Star Wars is a bad idea)—and Ehrenreich so bland he can’t even figure out how to get his hair to do the acting for him, which means he couldn’t have worked in the seventies, it was never going to work. Solo tries to ignore itself instead of embrace itself and ends up rotting on the vine.

The only performance the film needs to have right and has right is, arguably, Donald Glover, who’s playing Billy Dee Williams playing Lando Calrissian. Glover doesn’t mimic Williams’s mannerisms, but the voice inflections are spot on. And Glover manages to have a sincere subplot. Not in the script, but in his performance.

Miscast or not, Ehrenreich shouldn’t be getting shown up as far as sincerity goes. Especially not after now bad girl ex-girlfriend Emilia Clarke tells Ehrenreich he’s secretly the good guy. If we’re finding out Solo is going to come back and save them at the Death Star, we need to see it. We don’t see it anywhere.

Though Solo’s particularly bad at showing things. Cinematographer Bradford Young is anti-contrast; everything looks a little muddy, a little muted. Whatever Young and Howard thought they were doing with the colored lighting doesn’t work either. Especially not when the movie starts pretending it’s Empire Strikes Back, which leads to some okay spaceship flying shots and some really bad attempts from composer Powell to integrate John Williams music for nostalgia’s sake.

But at least they’re trying something.

And the trying is what “saves” Solo; albeit conditionally.

The movie opens with thirty year-old teenagers Ehrenreich and Clarke growing up in a Star Wars version of Oliver Twist. When they finally get to escape, only Ehrenreich can make it. He’s going to come back for her, he promises.

Fast forward three years and Ehrenreich hooks up with Woody Harrelson’s intergalactic thief crew. It’s Harrelson, Thandie Newton, and Jon Favreau voicing the CGI action figure. Harrelson initially seems like he’s having fun and it’s not translating to a good performance. Then it seems like he’s not having fun and it’s still not translating to a good performance. Newton’s okay but she’s got the nagging girlfriend part–Solo goes out of its way to fail Bechdel and its “equality for droids” subplot is problematic and the slavery stuff is icky too. It’s not malicious, just exceptionally thoughtless.

Though, obviously, the whole thing is exceptionally thoughtless. It’s not like there’s some gem of a chase sequence or the big redeeming action set piece.

In not trying, however, Solo manages not to fail. Occasionally. There’s the broad fail of the concept, the broad fail of Ehrenreich, but Glover’s… captivating in his impression or performance or whatever. Clarke’s got a thin part written a piece of fortune cookie paper but she’s sympathetic.

Even if she apparently said no to Star Wars costumes and just wears a dress.

Paul Bettany’s villain isn’t… good but Bettany’s not sleeping through the performance. He’s not Harrelsoning it. And Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s droid activist really does seem to be there for a bunch of White men to laugh at civil rights, but Waller-Bridge’s great. And her comedy timing is better than anyone’s, though she presumably recorded the droid’s voice in post-production and didn’t have to suffer the set.

Solo is bland, long, boring—the first act is particularly dreadful, mostly because Ehrenreich’s so prominent and so disappointing—but it’s also not… predictable. The Kasdans’ script does make a lot of bad narrative decisions but they are decisions. And there are a lot of them. Event-based plotting might be the way I’d have described it as a teenager in an effort to justify liking it.

Plus there’s an Elder God.

Also… and I didn’t manage to work this anecdote in anywhere because I didn’t trend mean enough… Ron Howard? Bringing in the guy who infamously failed with Willow is a choice. Bringing in the guy who caped for Jake Lloyd’s performance in Phantom Menace is a choice.

And none of it even matters: Solo never had a chance. You might be able to recast Harrison Ford, but you can’t recreate Harrison Ford as Han Solo.

Though maybe they should’ve let Donald Glover try.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Ron Howard; screenplay by Jonathan Kasdan and Lawrence Kasdan, based on characters created by George Lucas; director of photography, Bradford Young; edited by Pietro Scalia; music by John Powell; production designer, Neil Lamont; costume designers, David Crossman and Glyn Dillon; produced by Simon Emanuel, Kathleen Kennedy, and Allison Shearmur; released by Walt Disney Pictures.

Starring Alden Ehrenreich (Han Solo), Emilia Clarke (Qi’ra), Woody Harrelson (Beckett), Donald Glover (Lando Calrissian), Joonas Suotamo (Chewbacca), Thandie Newton (Val), Phoebe Waller-Bridge (L3-37), Jon Favreau (Rio Durant), Linda Hunt (Lady Proxima), and Paul Bettany (Dryden Vos).


Annihilation (2018, Alex Garland)

The two most bewildering things about Annihilation are director Garland’s inability to frame for Panavision aspect ratio—did cinematographer Rob Hardy just not want to tell him he was reusing the same three close-up shots, with his subject on one side of the frame, looking off, the other three-quarters empty, or did Hardy not see a problem with it (given the amount of post-production filtering and CG enhancing, it’s hard to guess what they actually shot)—and Jennifer Jason Leigh being a supporting player and not the lead.

Natalie Portman is the lead of Annihilation. She’s a Johns Hopkins professor, married to a special forces guy (Oscar Isaac), who has been dead for a year. We know he’s been dead for a year because Garland (as screenwriter, adapting a novel) has a whole bunch of exposition dumps in the film. We’ve already seen a meteor (or something) crash into the planet Earth, targeting a lighthouse because… V’Ger had a series of romance novel covers on it too and then Portman in an isolation room, with a fantastic Benedict Wong interrogating her, then we flashback to before the isolation room, after the meteor. Isaac’s been dead a year, Portman’s friend at work, David Gyasi, invites her to a barbecue but she can’t because it’s finally time to paint she and Isaac’s bedroom.

Cue flashbacks of Portman and Isaac’s idyllic, playful sex life.

We’ll soon find out—because Isaac interrupts her painting the bedroom—he hasn’t been dead, he’s just been missing. In fact, the Army hasn’t even officially classified him M.I.A.—though Annihilation plays real loose with what one might consider military protocol, there are Chuck Norris movies with a heck of a lot more reasonable verisimilitude as far as military operations go. But something’s obviously wrong with Isaac, even before he starts bleeding uncontrollably. When Portman tries to take him to the hospital, a bunch of stormtroopers intercept the ambulance and kidnap them.

She wakes up in what seems like a hospital room, talking to a psychiatrist (Leigh), and quickly learns Isaac had been missing because he went inside the strange, growing zone of something or other around the lighthouse where the meteor (or whatever) hit in the opening. It’s been three years, this zone, called the Shimmer, has increased exponentially in size and overtaken the towns, military bases, shacks, and who knows what else. No one has ever come back from the Shimmer, except Isaac (and Portman, as the frequent flash forwards to the interrogation remind—it’s not a bookend device, but a narration one)—and, well, Leigh’s putting the next team together.

Leigh, secretly dying of cancer, is sick of sending men to their apparent deaths and is going to go in now. It’s going to be an all-female team; her, paramedic Gina Rodriguez, scientist Tuva Novotny, other scientist Tessa Thompson. And wouldn’t Portman make a great fifth, being a not just a Johns Hopkins biologist, but also a former soldier. There’s a (bewildering) scene where Novotny asks Portman about her CV and Portman says she was in the military so Novotny can ask which branch so Garland can kill another fifteen or thirty seconds of the runtime, which is supposedly okay because the mise en scène of life in the Shimmer—a Florida swamp with lots of colorful plant mutations–not to mention Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury’s emotive score, is so compelling.

Is the Shimmer visually compelling? Sure? Garland’s not great at establishing shots. Annihilation feels very much like someone aping Terrence Malick aping 2001 but without the commitment to either. Mark Digby’s production design is good enough it’s too bad Garland’s not patient enough to explore it. Whether Digby is a Vertigo Swamp Thing fan or it just happens to always looks like panels (or covers) from that series aside… it’s a great proof of concept for an adaptation of the comic because a bunch of it is straight from those comics. But Garland avoids visualizing too much, instead sticking close to Portman’s perception of things unless he’s got to manipulate the audience to make the next narrative twist work.

At a certain point, Annihilation peaks and then plateaus. The thirty minutes (it runs just under two hours) before they get into the Shimmer isn’t great, especially since Portman’s protagonist is flat. We keep learning more and more about her and Isaac throughout and all of it’s boring. Same goes for the rest of the team (save Leigh, who gets so little onscreen character development it does gin up curiosity). But Novotny, Rodriguez, and Thompson? They’re shadows of caricatures, Rodriguez and Thompson the most. Maybe Garland couldn’t figure out how to write them in a reality where no one in the world noticed a whole section of Florida disappear, which would be visible from space. Maybe he really thought Portman was somehow the most compelling.

Doesn’t matter. Like his framing, like his downgrading of Leigh’s character, like his choice of composers… he was just wrong and it doesn’t work.

Kind of like Oscar Issac doing a Southern accent. No matter how much CGI you throw at it, no matter how much scary gross you make it, somethings just aren’t going to work.

Annihilation desperately wants to be heady, lush, hard sci-fi and is willing to sacrifice everything else to get there.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Alex Garland; screenplay by Alex Garland, based on the novel by Jeff VanderMeer; director of photography, Rob Hardy; edited by Barney Pilling; music by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury; production designer, Mark Digby; costume designer, Sammy Sheldon; produced by Eli Bush, Andrew Macdonald, Allon Reich, and Scott Rudin; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Natalie Portman (Lena), Oscar Isaac (Kane), Jennifer Jason Leigh (Dr. Ventress), Gina Rodriguez (Anya Thorensen), Tuva Novotny (Cass Sheppard), Tessa Thompson (Josie Radek), David Gyasi (Daniel), and Benedict Wong (Lomax).


Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018, J.A. Bayona)

After a strong dinosaur suspense opening, with some futuristic submersible entering the closed Jurassic World bay to get something off the seafloor, Fallen Kingdom shockingly quickly becomes a remake of the first Jurassic Park sequel, Lost World. Like, so much you wish there were more in it so David Koepp got a credit through forced arbitration or whatever.

This time, there’s a calamity on the island—a volcano—and Bryce Dallas Howard, now a dinosaur rights activist, wants to get them off the island somehow. Snap of the fingers and in comes Rafe Spall (in for Arliss Howard) who works for rich guy and ret-conned in co-father of dinosaur cloning, James Cromwell. As a British guy. Fallen Kingdom will have some amazing casting finds and choices, but obviously American James Cromwell as a British guy. I wonder if they tried for Sean Connery. Fallen Kingdom is a big Spielberg homage, fifteen or so minutes in to finish. Like, a perfect one; Bayona gets how to do the scenes, gets how to direct the action. And Fallen Kingdom has—unbelievably—a great score from Michael Giacchino. Never thought I’d type those words in that order.

It’s a total rip of John Williams, but a brilliant one. Giacchino doesn’t just lift from Jurassic Park, he lifts from everywhere in Williams’s career, which is very good for Chris Pratt, who’s definitely doing an Indiana Jones audition. The first act reuniting with Howard and Pratt is unsteady; they really needed to have the “relationships based on tense experiences never work” conversation onscreen but don’t. Instead they just turn it all into a joke, which ends up working. Most of the jokes don’t land, but the actors seem a lot more comfortable pretending to be ex-dinosaur amusement park employees than current dinosaur amusement park employees. Fallen Kingdom’s light on establishing the ground situation. It doesn’t ask a lot of questions, it doesn’t encourage many, but it keeps a good pace. The film’s lean and nimble when it needs to be—not easy considering editor Bernat Vilaplana has a concerning lack of timing—which helps it get through the major story shift.

See, Fallen Kingdom’s not a remake of Lost World, it’s not a volcano disaster movie with dinosaurs (though it seems like one for about twelve minutes; may haps a nod to Son of Kong or, dare I say it, People That Time Forgot), it’s actually a haunted mansion movie. The thing haunting the mansion just happens to be a genetically modified raptor. Because the real lead of Fallen Kingdom, at least as far as narrative arcs go (or the implication of them), is Isabella Sermon. She’s Cromwell’s treasured granddaughter and she’s suspicious of Spall because Spall’s a creep caricature. He’s occasionally effective, but not after the first half for sure. Once he teams up with an ill-advised Toby Jones, he just gets more obnoxious. Great comeuppance though, with Bayona digging deep into franchise favorites.

But, yeah, it’s all about Sermon solving the mystery of the basement or whatever. Only the film never does any work to establish it; there’s nothing about Sermon being scared of raptors for some reason or being scared of the gargoyles on the giant scary mad scientist mansion where she lives; there’s not even a sequence establishing she scales the exterior walls of the mansion because she’s a badass kid. She’s in the first scene at the mansion–Kingdom doesn’t bring back the kids from the previous movie, like the original Park did because clearly the filmmakers realized no one liked those kids and instead made a great kid character with Sermon.

Bayona directs that section of the film beautifully. It’s terrifying. Excellent photography from Oscar Faura. And all the rest of it, with the dinosaurs getting to civilization finally–seventeen years after III didn’t deliver it—works out. Bayona and Giacchino make you think you’re watching Spielberg figure out how to do a B-movie dinosaur movie for pure fun.

Acting-wise, Pratt and Howard average out to be fine. He’s usually a little better, she’s usually a little worse—once Sermon teams up with Pratt and Howard, Howard takes a back burner to Pratt being the lovable alpha protector of Sermon, so it’s probably not all Howard’s fault. Spall’s low eh. Justice Smith and Daniella Pineda are both fun as the science nerd sidekicks. Ted Levine’s cruel great white hunter guy is a disappointment; he’s not just no Pete Postlethwaite, he’s not even Peter Stormare.

Good small turn from Geraldine Chaplin, good cameo (though nonsensical) from Jeff Goldblum; pretty much no one else makes an impression. The script’s mercilessly efficient and actually rather impressive in how much it gets done in two hours. And Bayona’s good, Giacchino’s good, the photography’s good, the editing’s not. It’s a surprise once Fallen Kingdom starts getting good, but then it’s not a surprise when it stays good. The film inspires confidence in itself and, potentially, the franchise.

It’s a series of Spielberg action homages strung together with some effective screaming dinosaur mauling victims, with a great John Williams score. What could be better.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by J.A. Bayona; written by Derek Connolly and Colin Trevorrow, based on characters created by Michael Crichton; director of photography, Oscar Faura; edited by Bernat Vilaplana; music by Michael Giacchino; production designer, Andy Nicholson; costume designer, Sammy Sheldon; produced by Frank Marshall, Patrick Crowley, and Belén Atienza; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Bryce Dallas Howard (Claire Dearing), Chris Pratt (Owen Grady), Isabella Sermon (Maisie Lockwood), Rafe Spall (Eli Mills), Justice Smith (Franklin Webb), Daniella Pineda (Zia Rodriguez), Ted Levine (Ken Wheatley), Toby Jones (Mr. Eversoll), Geraldine Chaplin (Iris), James Cromwell (Benjamin Lockwood), and Jeff Goldblum (Ian Malcolm).


The Witch: Subversion (2018, Park Hoon-jung)

About halfway through The Witch: Subversion, I wondered why they’d opened with a flashback showing presumably chid witch Kim Ha-na escaping from her government “doctors.” The prologue introduces evil scientist lady Jo Min-soo and her chief fixer Park Hee-soon, it introduces the secret castle-like laboratory fortress, it has a lot of blood. The opening titles are a series of photographs hinting at the ground situation with the lab. Medieval witches bred in captivity, some Nazis, twentieth century science, little kids. Then the lab covered in blood and Jo berating her staff for failing their mission. Director Park, both in his direction and his script, doesn’t provide a lot of details but does provide a lot of information the audience isn’t going to misinterpret.

Even if it doesn’t end up being directly related to the photographs in the opening titles… it’s clear Kim is a dangerous, dangerous, dangerous individual.

So then when the movie jumps ahead ten years and Kim Ha-na has grown into Kim Da-mi, who seems to have no memory of her time as a child science experiment, but then finds herself propelled into the spotlight after going a Korean variation of “American Idol,” it seems like Witch might have gotten more mileage out of the audience being just as unsure of Kim’s potential as Kim. Park takes his time introducing some aspects of the character too, spending the first act playing with the audience’s expectations. It works out—exceedingly well thanks to the third act—but it’s a twisty road with some sharp curves.

Because Kim is in a Clark Kent situation. Kindly farmer Choi Jung-woo and wife Oh Mi-hee have taken her in after finding her unconscious and bloody in the yard. The worst behavior Kim ever exhibits is taking Choi’s truck into town to get cattle feed so he doesn’t have to worry about it and can take care of Oh, who’s sick. Kim’s best friend is Go Min-si, daughter of the police chief; Go’s the typical (somewhat) rebellious cop’s daughter while Kim’s the good girl. It’s a great situation for surprises, only there can’t exactly be surprises since the audience is primed for them (thanks to the prologue). So after Kim wins the regions on national television–getting there because she’s able to do an amazing magic trick, which freaks out Choi and Oh—and creepy hot boy Choi Woo-sik starts stalking her, then fixer Park shows back up… it’s clear the situation’s volatility is leading to an inevitable explosion.

Only director Park drags it out. So long. Park drags it through most of the second act, willingly losing all the energy and drama he got out of introducing Choi (not to mention Kim winning “Idol” with an absurdly successful pop rendition of “Danny Boy”), and sort of battering the supporting cast of good guys with some malice… but then he brings it all together for the finale. The third act of Witch pays off in ways you didn’t even think the movie would ever need to pay off in. The film’s a smorgasbord thrown into a kitchen sink, mixing horror, teen drama, sci-fi, action, superhero—but then what Park brings out of all those mixed ingredients in the third act is something else entirely. It’s awesome plotting, awesome execution. When Park finally does get around to the action sequences, he spices them with so much horror gore….

It’s simultaneously gruesome and spellbinding. All of a sudden Kim Chang-ju’s perfectly solid editing becomes breathtaking cutting.

So good.

Great lead performance from Kim. It’s all on her. She can’t miss a beat as she’s under everyone’s close observation—the secret government telekinetic assassin child who escaped too well and is going to get her family and friends kill for the trouble without ever knowing why exactly. Park directs Kim’s scenes like a character study, one with tragically too much action.

Choi’s an awesome villain, sufficiently wise and cruel beyond his teenage years, though not entirely unsympathetic because he’s Jo’s science project and it’s clear his keepers tormented him. Fixer Park was version 1.0 and never lets the newer generation forget he’s got the Power even if they have more power.

There’s an unnecessarily tacked-on epilogue to set up a sequel, which makes some intriguing promises, but it’s not like the movie hasn’t already got the audience juiced for the idea of the next chapter.

Park does a fantastic job with The Witch, which hinges entirely upon Kim and she makes the impossible pedestrian. It’s a really couple hours.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Park Hoon-jung; directors of photography, Young-ho Kim and Teo Lee; edited by Kim Chang-ju; music by Mowg; produced by Park and Yeon Young-sik; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Kim Da-mi (Ja-yoon), Choi Woo-shik (male witch), Go Min-si (Myung-hee) Choi Jung-woo (Ja-yoon’s father), Oh Mi-hee (Ja-yoon’s mother), Jo Min-soo (Dr. Baek), Park Hee-soon (Mr. Choi), Da-eun (female witch), and Kim Ha-na (Young Ja-yoon).