Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Fantastic Four (2005)/Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007)

rating (combined): ****

the story: Reed Richards leads a scientific mission that inadvertently gives his team superpowers; the Silver Surfer arrives on Earth as a herald of the apocalypse.

review: In hindsight the Fantastic Four duology featuring Ioan Gruffudd (Mr. Fantastic), Jessica Alba (Invisible Woman), Chris Evans (Human Torch), Michael Chiklis (Thing), and Julian McMahon (Dr. Doom) is one of the most tightly-conceived superhero movie experiences yet filmed.

In the wake of the X-Men (energized comic book fans) and Spider-Man (energized mass audiences), the Fantastic Four always had a tough few acts to follow.  Where the X-Men became known for Hugh Jackman's Wolverine, Sam Raimi only ever had to contend with one hero.  History has shown that if you try to focus on a number of superheroes in one movie, you really need to earn it.  And Fantastic Four (2005) introduced, well, four of them, and they all compete for attention.  You can kind of tell in the sequel, Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007) how there was the perception that Chris Evans' Human Torch dominated the first one too much, or that maybe Michael Chiklis's Thing was too depressing.  One consistent element was the relationship between Mr. Fantastic and Invisible Woman.  They go from catching back up romantically in the first one to spending virtually the entire second one trying to get married.  There's no loss of focus there.  It's the most direct a second superhero movie has ever come to being a true sequel since Superman II played out the threat of General Zod and company introduced in the first one.

I can only guess the number of reasons why these movies have always been perceived as familiars.  Aside from Thing, it's also depressing to think that the nominal lead, Reed Richards (Mr. Fantastic), is basically the Absent-Minded Professor.  The Robin Williams version of that character has virtually the same arc as Reed across his two movies in Flubber (1997).  Unlike Tobey Maguire's Peter Parker (Spider-Man), Ioan Gruffudd never gets to look cool, partly because, again, Evans spends all his time in the first one making Johnny Storm (Human Torch) look as cool as possible.  And Johnny is also just as clearly always a supporting role, made all the more clear in the second one, even though technically he has the most redemptive arc and gets the save the day.

I also get the sense that superhero movies viewers will never be able to admit how uncomfortable they are watching women be superheroes.  Jennifer Garner, by all rights, should have become iconic after Daredevil (2003), but her solo follow-up Elektra (2005) was the flop that doomed both the character and the franchise.  Halle Berry's Catwoman (2004) was a flop, too, and she was consistently deemed a weak link in her role as Storm in the X-Men movies.  And despite there being ten years worth of Avengers movies now, there has still not been a single solo Black Widow movie.  Yet there are plenty of high profile action movies led by women, including the Hunger Games series and Wonder Woman (2017). 

So the fact that Jessica Alba has a prominent role in both movies as Susan Storm (Invisible Woman), to my mind, is no coincidence.  You might try to argue that it's the nature of how she's used in the movies, but I don't buy it.

It might not help that along with Chiklis (The Commish, The Shield) and McMahon (Charmed, Nip/Tuck), Alba was previously best known in a TV show (Dark Angel), so it gives the movies a smaller feel than the superhero movies before and after it, by and large populated by known movie stars.  The only one among them truly hamstrung in performance for this is McMahon, who never really earns the menace needed to sell the Doom the mere human Victor Von Doom becomes.  I don't usually like manipulating voices; giving him an entirely new one might have done the trick.  Laurence Fishburne is fantastic (heh) voicing the Silver Surfer in the second one.

Speaking of Rise, a lot of fan complaints for this one stem from the fact that we never actually get to see Galactus.  For those who don't know, Galactus in the comics is a gigantic humanoid in purple armor.  I don't know how that works in a movie.  Rise instead depicts him as a menacing cloud.  If anything is wrong with the concept it's that the movie dedicates all its foreshadowing of his threat to the random journeys of the Surfer around the globe.  There's very little effort made to sell Armageddon.  You can see, throughout both films, that the budget was mostly reserved for selling how cool the team's superpowers are, and certainly in contrast to later Avengers movies that's going to look disappointing, but the team's powers are cool, especially Human Torch and Invisible Woman's.  Thing stands out so much, it's really a wonder that so little effort has ever been made to give him solo stories, in the comics.  If there were solo movies for these guys, he'd be a natural lead, right along with his frenemy Johnny Storm.

Even if Doom can be disappointing, he makes for an effective, well-explained enemy, which is something a lot of superhero movies struggle to find.  That's another reason these movies look better in retrospect.  They have a lot going on, but they never bog down in following the journeys of each member of this strange family.  They have much better defined arcs than the generalized family shenanigans of the Pixar Four, the Incredibles.  And they're always going to have much more storytelling potential.  There was a reboot in 2015, equally underappreciated.  Tim Story directed both of these, and he's made a career directing duologies.  Just, never again, superhero movies.  That seems a shame.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

American Made (2017)

rating: ****

the story: Based on a true story, an airline pilot finds himself drafted into the Iran-Contra Affair.

review: Tom Cruise was one of the biggest movie stars of the '80s and '90s.  At the turn of the millennium his reputation took a big hit due to his increasingly visible affiliation with the Church of Scientology.  Subsequent film projects had to compete with this reputation, and he's never been as popular since.  All that being said, his career remains fascinating.  He starred in Born on the Fourth of July in 1989, a drama that helped define his career.  Suddenly Cruise wasn't just a hotshot playboy but someone who had something to say about the state of the country, even if he was commenting on the war in Vietnam, already fifteen years in the past by then.  It wasn't until Lions for Lambs in 2007 where he offered a true follow-up.  This was a movie about the increasingly toxic cultural divide that had resulted in part from the Vietnam era. 

And then in 2017, he gave us American Made.  Unlike his earlier efforts, this one doesn't attempt to lecture about what's right or wrong.  The whole point of the movie is that Cruise's character has no idea, and never really cares, about the implications of his actions, which involve the CIA hiring him to take reconnaissance photos in Central America, and then to deliver drugs to revolutionaries in Panama, including future dictator Manuel Noriega, and finally guns to the Contras in Honduras.  Director Doug Liman's whole approach to the movie draws on Cruise's charisma and recent reputation as an action star, and turns all that on its head.  This is a movie to be enjoyed with irony.

Late in the film Cruise has been arrested and charged for his activities, but the sequence feels more like Jack Reacher, in the second movie Never Go Back, explaining to authorities that he's going to walk away from the situation.  For a split second he has to worry about actually facing consequences, going to jail, but then he hears his sentencing as community hours.  But he begins worrying about real ramifications, from something worse than a trial, expecting his car to be laced with explosives, after a car his brother-in-law has just gotten in blows up.  It's really a movie that understands tone, and its message about what these events really signify doesn't need to be hammered as a result, and that's refreshing in an era where everything is delivered with as much bluntness as possible.

Domhnall Gleeson, appearing in just about everything these days and constantly changing up his persona, is Cruise's CIA handler, depicted much as CIA handlers tend to be (similar to how they're depicted in The Hunting Party, for example), but elevated thanks to Gleeson's uncanny ability to be fascinating in the most mundane ways possible (his scene-chewing snarls in Star Wars films notwithstanding).  Jayma Mays plays the prosecutor who thinks she's nailed Cruise; ever since her breakthrough in Red Eye I've been waiting for something worthy to fall in her lap, and this is it.  Caleb Landry Jones picks up another scene-stealing supporting role as the ill-fated brother-in-law.  For me, it was fun seeing Star Trek: Enterprise standout Connor Trinneer in a small role as a young George W. Bush.  His character isn't identified, but Trinneer certainly looks the part, and his scene adds a nice additional irony to the proceedings. 

Given his lowered profile, Cruise can no longer count on his projects landing the way they once did.  More often than not his interesting work is slipping through the cracks.  It'd be a shame if American Made did.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)

rating: ****

the story: Peter Parker becomes Spider-Man.

review: This is the fourth Spider-Man movie, first not directed by Sam Raimi or starring Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst.  In other words, it's the first of two directed by Marc Webb and starring Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone.  I much, much prefer these movies.  I get the goofy appeal of the Raimi films (the first two of which are greatly admired by the public at large, the third not as much).  Ever since Adam West first dressed up as Batman, or even George Reeves as Superman, audiences kind of expect a little smirk in their superhero.  The Avengers movies certainly benefit from that perception.  I don't think it's necessary.  I think you can take superheroes seriously.  And I think along with Christopher Nolan and Zack Snyder, no one's done it better than Marc Webb.

The only thing I don't like about Amazing Spider-Man is the giant mutant lizard Rhys Ifans becomes.  I think giant mutant villains of any kind is exactly what's wrong with a lot of superhero movies.  I like the villains to be identifiable, not cartoons.  The superheroes themselves are enough of a stretch in storytelling logic.  To make any sense they need to inhabit the real world, as close to the real world as possible.  That can't happen with giant mutant villains.

Other than the giant mutant lizard Rhys Ifans becomes, this is as intimate and realistic a superhero movie as you're ever likely to find.  The classic template of the origin story is there, a lot like you saw it in Raimi's first movie, but it feels more authentic in Webb's telling.  Webb's best film is (500) Days of Summer, a heartbreaking romance where the breakup is fore-ordained and never undone, and the whole point is trying to make peace with it, and why it happened in the first place.  So why does Peter Parker become Spider-Man?  Well, in this version it has a lot to do with his parents. 

Yeah!  In most Spider-Man stories, Peter's parents are dead and forgotten, right from the start.  Their absence is taken for granted.  We see him raised by his aunt and uncle, the one who also has to die in order for Spider-Man to be born.  But in this version, even in their absence Peter's parents means a great deal.  We see that they were involved in the science that eventually results in Spider-Man, and the giant mutant lizard played by Rhys Ifans.  And it's Peter chasing after his absent parents that drives the story.  That's full storytelling.  Never let an absence become an absence. 

I'm not faulting Ifans for the failure of the giant mutant lizard.  Ifans is awesome!  He's never gotten enough credit, or enough work, for the level of integrity he brings to the table.  He's a perfect match for Garfield, and for Stone, who are both credible high school students (I can't say the same for the guy who inherited Garfield's mask).  The whole idea of Peter Parker feels real in this incarnation.  Uncle Ben is played by Martin Sheen, who like Ifans has never quite gotten the credit he deserves, despite at least two exceptional spotlights (Apocalypse Now, The West Wing, plus a supporting role in The Departed).  Sheen feels real, too, and his death is a real tragedy.  Field is Aunt May, and once Sheen is out of the picture, she fills in his void.  This is a movie about voids being filled.  That's what Spider-Man is all about, and that's what his movies ought to be about, and what the characters in them ought to represent.  And Denis Leary plays Stone's dad, the police captain who fills the void the absence of J. Jonah Jameson creates, the cynic who rejects the idea of Spider-Man.  Until he has a change of heart, when he no longer has a choice.  At which point he has Peter make an impossible promise.  But the last line of the movie is what ties it all together.  Peter admits that promises you can't keep are the best kind. 

The traditional logic of Spider-Man is that like all superheroes he eventually makes a vow to do what's right ("with great power comes great responsibility"), but Spider-Man is an act of defiance against all logic, not in a destructive way, but a redemptive one.  That's what his origin is meant to convey.  For the first and perhaps only time, a movie reflects that.  It's worth celebrating.

Lions for Lambs (2007)

rating: ****

the story: Two conversations tackle the state of America in 2007.

review: From the vantage point of 2018, the conversation in America sucks.  Lions for Lambs captures perhaps the last real opportunity the nation had to correct this before it became impossible for differences to be set aside and people to be civil about their political differences.  At the time of its original release, it was dismissed as talky, academic.  I always found the results, all the same, to be fascinating.  Today they're downright essential.

A political science professor played by director Robert Redford and a brilliant but disenchanted student played by Andrew Garfield form one of the conversations.  A hotshot Republican played by Tom Cruise and a liberal reporter played by Meryl Streep form the other conversation.  Soldiers played by Michael Pena, Derek Luke, and Peter Berg participate in military maneuvers, illustrating the realities of what their talking about.  I love the idea of Redford, Cruise, and Streep converging on something.  I love Garfield already submerging himself in vital material.  I think few actors today have chosen as interesting material, as consistently, as Andrew Garfield.

Cruise was still working at winning back his credibility after his affiliation with the Church of Scientology had become toxic.  Today he subsists mostly on Mission: Impossible movies.  The opportunity has definitively, it seems, been lost.  Back in 2007, though, Lions for Lambs is a kind of latter-day answer to Born on the Fourth of July, the Oliver Stone movie where Cruise plays a real-life veteran who after having become paralyzed in Vietnam becomes disenchanted and begins protesting the war.  Garfield's role is the complete opposite of that role; he never even signs up.  That's exactly the legacy of the Vietnam era right there.  I saw it myself on campus in the early part of the century.  Garfield doesn't believe he can affect change, despite his passionate, well-considered opinions.  Today we see students protesting...everything.  But we don't see them inserting themselves into the process.  We've collectively decided the process is broken, just as Garfield's character does.  But Redford challenges Garfield to choose a different path.  He admits he was a Vietnam protester, too.  But to motivate Garfield, he tells him about two other students he had, Luke and Pena, who chose very different paths, enlisting in the army.  They give a brilliant presentation in his class explaining exactly why.

It's the juxtaposition of their thought process, Garfield's, and the fact that Redford is willing to support all three of them despite having other ideas.  He sees it as essential that participation, not protest, is chosen as a reaction.  When Obama was first elected, he was called a symbol of hope, that the system could still work.  After the Bush presidency, voters wanted to believe in positive change.  Yet Obama ended up presiding over a further polarized culture, not because he was black but because protest became a permanent way of life, disengagement, cynicism.

And that's what Cruise and Streep's conversation reflects.  Meryl Streep's career fascinates me.  At this point she hadn't yet chosen to represent the protests of Hollywood.  That was still reserved for documentary filmmakers.  She was only a few years removed from portraying a pastiche of Hillary Clinton in The Manchurian Candidate.  Later, she'd rocket to new levels of acclaim playing all sorts of morally superior figures, and be rewarded with a staggering array of Oscar nominations.  She'd become a figure out outrage.  Her character in Lions for Lambs ultimately decides on that path.  She opts to give up the idea of dialogue with the other side, after sitting through the conversation with Cruise.  Her producer begs her to keep trying.  She decides it isn't worth it anymore.

It's the kind of conclusion you can either agree with or find unsettling.  I find it the latter, and I see that as exactly what happened, over the past decade, and I think that was a massive mistake.  This is a movie that reflects what could've been.  And now it stands as a testament to what didn't happen, and why.

Maybe it's a little hard to watch, because it is talky, but sometimes that's exactly what's necessary.  Arguably, more than necessary.  And now it serves as testament to what should have happened, and why.  The sad part is, we know it was rejected at the time, as well as the idea it represented. 

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

2009 Capsule Reviews

Inglourious Basterds
rating: *****
review: To my mind, the point where Tarantino stopped screwing around being cool and instead just plunged into making a great movie, built around Christoph Waltz's startling, breakthrough performance.

(500) Days of Summer
rating: *****
review: Rewrote the rules of movie romance, an updated When Harry Met Sally...staring the unique talents of Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel.  This is what La La Land was chasing almost a decade later.

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus
rating: *****
review: Heath Ledger's last movie, a role he didn't get to complete, but how Terry Gilliam solved that is just one of the ways this became his best and most breathtaking cinematic achievement.

Star Trek
rating: ****
review: The most complete Star Trek movie experience to that point, possibly even since.

Watchmen
rating: ****
review: Zack Snyder gambled that after Dark Knight audiences were ready for a mature superhero movie.  This was his first attempt, and it improves on its famous comic book source material.

The Proposal
rating: ****
review: Sandra Bullock finds her first huge success in years playing totally against type, and letting Ryan Reynolds needle her the entire movie over it.

The Hurt Locker
rating: ****
review: Kathryn Bigelow gambles on Jeremy Renner to sell the first great Iraq War movie, and is hugely rewarded.

Moon
rating: ****
review: Duncan Jones and Sam Rockwell start the ball rolling that would lead to Gravity, Interstellar, The Martian, and Arrival.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
rating: ****
review: The sixth Harry Potter movie bets that you're totally invested.  Most dramatic moments are Dumbledore risking everything for one of the horcruxes, and then his death at the end of the movie.  Really, this is the Dumbledore entry.

The Time Traveler's Wife
rating: ****
review: Funny enough, Rachel McAdams later makes another time travel movie, About Time.  In this one, she romances Eric Bana, who keeps popping up randomly in her life.  The book is truly transcendent.  The movie is close enough to be well worth savoring, too.

Bronson
rating: ****
review: After years of chasing after a defining role, Tom Hardy finds one, and now he's been chasing its legacy ever since.

Red Cliff
rating: ****
review: John Woo's big Chinese epic.

Funny People
rating: ****
review: My favorite Adam Sandler movie, kind of channels Warren Zevon's death beautifully.

Terminator Salvation
rating: ****
review: This is one of those movies that got overshadowed by production matters, that incident where Christian Bale loses his kit.  The movie itself is a totally fresh look at the franchise, with Sam Worthington turning in his first notable performance as a kind of prototype Terminator.  The result is the Blade Runner of Terminator movies.

G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra
rating: ****
review: Surprisingly entertaining thanks to Channing Tatum and Sienna Miller anchoring the more cartoonish elements around them.  Joseph Gordon-Levitt whiffs as Cobra Commander.

Crazy Heart
rating: ****
review: Jeff Bridges settles into the grizzled version of his social deviant archetype.

State of Play
rating: ****
review: Russell Crowe and Ben Affleck in a rousing political thriller.

The Pink Panther 2
rating: ****
review: Not as surprising as its predecessor, but as a fan of the series I still wildly appreciate Steve Martin's contributions.

The Hangover
rating: ****
review: One of the iconic comedies of the modern era.

X-Men Origins: Wolverine
rating: ****
review: It's been typical to say Hugh Jackman struggled to find a worthy Wolverine solo vehicle, but this first attempt is already up to the task, recruiting the always-charismatic Liev Schreiber to play opposite him.  Really hard to not appreciate that.  Forget about Ryan Reynolds' first Deadpool.  That's just an excuse everyone likes to use. 

Angels & Demons
rating: ****
review: The second Hanks/Howard Robert Langdon movie is not the revelation the first one was, but recruiting Ewan McGregor was smart, and the movie later helped inspire the inspired ending of The Dark Knight Rises.

Killshot
rating: ****
review: Great ensemble, underrated entry in the Mickey Rourke comeback tour.

Two Lovers
rating: ****
review: Devastating romance between Joaquin Phoenix and Gwyneth Paltrow.

A Perfect Getaway
rating: ****
review: Breezy ensemble thriller with a great cast.

Avatar
rating: ****
review: Immersive new vision of a blockbuster epic.

Fast and Furious
rating: ****
review: The unlikely fourth in the series, and the first in a hugely successful revival that eventually weaves the first three into a working tapestry unrivaled in cinematic history.

The Soloist
rating: ****
review: Moving social drama featuring Robert Downey Jr. and Jamie Foxx.

Fantastic Mr. Fox
rating: ****
review: Wes Anderson at his most fun.

Underworld: Rise of the Lycans
rating: ***
review: Serviceable look back at this franchise's origins, a tad overestimating how epic it seemed.

The Slammin' Salmon
rating: ***
review: A scaled back comedy from Broken Lizard.

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans
rating: ***
review: Nicolas Cage in a kind of remake that allows him to do his world-weary version of Nicolas Cage.

Land of the Lost
rating: ***
review: Will Ferrell gets to have a lot of fun in this remake.  Kind of the template for Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, minus the strong supporting cast.

Zombieland
rating: ***
review: Cult style zombie comedy.  Best part is the hilarious Bill Murray cameo.

Up in the Air
rating: ***
review: George Clooney in his groove, waiting for a movie to find itself around him.

Where the Wild Things Are
rating: ***
review: Really, really should've been transcendent.  Instead it's just ambitious.

Taken
rating: ***
review: I don't know if the other two movies in the series have a story that's truly worthy of the instantly iconic Liam Neeson performance.  Maybe someday I'll find out.

Invictus
rating: ***
review: Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela.  I think it's kind of a waste to pin the first big Mandela movie on a rugby story.

Pirate Radio
rating: ***
review: Good screwball material, excellent cast.

Everybody's Fine
rating: ***
review: Robert De Niro as a dad who disappointed his kids, and trying to make right with them.  Worthwhile material.

The Men Who Stare at Goats
rating: ***
review: I'm not sure the movie totally nails that its insane events are based on a true story.  So instead have fun with that great cast!

Race to Witch Mountain
rating: ***
review: Dwayne Johnson beginning to figure out that if he's a tough guy in the movie, the movie around him has to make that idea rewarding.

He's Just Not That Into You
rating: ***
review: Great cast!

District 9
rating: ***
review: Great story.  Nothing in it is as fantastic as Sharlto Copley.

The Princess and the Frog
rating: ***
review: Vaguely racist but classic Disney princess flick.

Surrogates
rating: ***
review: Bruce Willis is ultimately too grim to sell this as a sci-fi adventure.

The Blind Side
rating: ***
review: Nothing in this is as great as Sandra Bullock is in it.

Me and Orson Welles
rating: ***
review: Orson Welles ought to always pop.  Otherwise, what's the point of having Orson Welles?

Carriers
rating: ***
review: Chris Pine in a dramatic version of Zombieland.

Ninja Assassin
rating: ***
review: Fun to watch.

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs
rating: ***
review: Totally zany animated flick.

Paul Blart: Mall Cop
rating: ***
review: The best thing about this is also the most curious thing about it, that it's sold entirely on how pathetic Kevin James is.  Someone assumed his Hitch appearance was his movie template.

The Ugly Truth
rating: ***
review: This is the Gerard Butler movie where he's a male chauvinist.  Basically Gerard Butler is completely responsible for the state of male-female relations.

I Love You, Man
rating: ***
review: Paul Rudd and Jason Segel are best friends.  Kind of!  I wonder if this wouldn't have been better with Will Ferrell in Segel's role.  Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg!

Coraline
rating: ***
review: Creepy Neil Gaiman story.  Probably would've been better live action.

Couples Retreat
rating: ***
review: Seems like this ensemble comedy would've worked better with more focus.

2012
rating: **
review: Pretty standard, generic catastrophe flick.

Sherlock Holmes
rating: **
review: I think it was a huge mistake to cast Robert Downey Jr. as Holmes and Jude Law as Watson.  Should've been flip-flopped.

The Fourth Kind
rating: **
review: Would've been creepier if the suspension of disbelief weren't intrinsic to its appeal.

Duplicity
rating: **
review: Julia Roberts and Clive Owen maybe aren't the right actors for this sort of thing.

Law Abiding Citizen
rating: **
review: Gerard Butler totally overpowers this one.  Hilarious, given he's just gotten himself in a spot where people are noticing him at all.

The Twilight Saga: New Moon
rating: **
review: Huge boost with Jacob, but this is an anemic saga.

Planet 51
rating: **
review: Home nails the alien animated flick six years later.

Push
rating: **
review: Chris Evans still hasn't quite found his big superhero role.  But it's coming!

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Looper (2012)

rating: ****

the story: A mob hitman in the future is involved in a scheme involving time travel.

what it's all about: This is likely the movie that got Rian Johnson the Star Wars gig, and you can see The Last Jedi in that ending...!

Looper was originally known as the movie where Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays the younger Bruce Willis, or Bruce Willis plays the older Joseph Gordon-Levitt.  Either way, they play the same character.  It's a couple decades in the future.  But three decades after that, time travel is now possible.  But the only people who use it, because of all the regulations, are the mob.  And they use it mainly to dispose of bodies.  They have hitmen in the past who kill the victims.  "Looper" is the term given to these hitmen because eventually they "close the loop," kill their own future self, sent to the past with final payment.  So they live the next thirty years and then get sent back to the past, to be killed by themselves. 

Yeah.  But being the mob, it's not a good thing if you don't do it.  We get a dramatic example of this with Paul Dano.  Paul Dano is the kind of actor that if he's going full Paul Dano, it's best in small doses.  Most famously, he was the second lead of There Will Be Blood.  To my mind, this was the cause of the horrible unbalance in that movie, because there could only be so much Paul Dano.  He's got the same kind of part in Cowboys & Aliens, 12 Years a Slave...Really, he can never really do the Paul Dano thing and have a decent-size role.

Anyway, so there's not a lot of Paul Dano in it, and that's just as well.  This was supposed to be one of Gordon-Levitt's leading man mainstream establishing roles, but I think the idea of the movie was too complicated.  Besides the hitman looping thing, there's also a kid who grows up to be the guy who "closes all the loops," and he's got a wicked case of telekinesis.  For some people, more than one gimmick is one gimmick too many.  I'd suggest, in a world where time travel is possible, it's likely that the laws of nature have altered enough so that anything's possible.  Maybe a cleverer movie would've explained that, maybe even tied in the existence of telekinesis with time travel.  Maybe it's not really necessary.  Maybe explaining the concept of looping is enough explanation.  Audiences hate explanations more than they hate more than one gimmick.

But if you don't have a problem with any of that, the story is pretty simple, and it's about the cycle of violence, and how to end it.  That's what Gordon-Levitt's character ultimately has to do.  He and his future self, Bruce Willis, are at odds about how to solve the problem of the guy who "closes all the loops."  Because in Gordon-Levitt's time, the guy is just a kid, and his mom is Emily Blunt, and Gordon-Levitt kind of becomes...involved in this little family unit.  He's lost his objectivity.  He probably lost it the minute Bruce Willis showed up, honestly.  (It's okay that he struggled with it over Paul Dano.) 

Apparently Deadpool 2 has the same sort of dilemma, that paradox of essentially killing Hitler when he was a kid.  When you phrase it like that, the audience is always going to side with killing Hitler.  But they don't make movies about killing Hitler as a kid.  I guess that's why there's stuff like Inglourious Basterds.  Gordon-Levitt's solution is to open the loop.  He realizes Bruce Willis trying to kill the kid is what created the guy who "closes all the loops."  So he shoots himself and Bruce Willis no longer exists, and the kid doesn't become the guy who "closes all the loops."  History goes in another direction.

The Last Jedi is all about opting for different results.  This angered a lot of Star Wars fans, as they were pretty committed to the idea of Star Wars being recognizable (even while, paradoxically, complaining that these new movies keep revisiting old territory).  Saying that there is a different way to solve the galaxy's problems...Well, anyway, that's what Last Jedi is about, and that's the philosophy of Looper.  That's Rian Johnson.  He also gave us Brick, a different kind of noir mystery, set in high school.  Dude loves the unexpected.

Ah, also showing up in the movie are Piper Perabo (small role, mostly nude), Garrett Dillahunt (perennially underappreciated, likely because of his name), and Jeff Daniels, who gets to play the mob boss.  He doesn't need to do much mob business, onscreen, to be taken seriously.  That dude is seriously underappreciated.

Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)

rating: ****

the story: Han Solo emerges from the ship-building grind of life on Corellia to become an intergalactic outlaw.

what it's all about: Incredibly, there seems to be a lot of discontent among Star Wars fans for a Han Solo origin movie.  It's franchise fatigue.  It happens to every franchise.  If this is how you feel about Solo, move along.  Move along.

In the new era of Star Wars movies, where George Lucas is no longer the guiding hand of the saga and there are movies that don't directly continue the saga...this might just be the first one capable of establishing it own legacy.  Maybe not right away.  Let pesky fans attempt to spoil it.  Give it time.  Pesky fans can't spoil the fun forever.  This is the second "anthology" movie of the franchise.  The first one, Rogue One, I thought was a horrible disaster.  Fans didn't.  They loved it.  I thought it came to all the wrong conclusions about what Star Wars is all about, and was lazy about...everything.  If that was what Star Wars was going to be for a new generation, I shuddered for the future.  But Solo makes things right.

There's a lot to unpack here.

One of the things Solo does is nudge what's at the heart of Star Wars, whether or not George Lucas envisioned it as a response to Vietnam.  That's one of the things Rogue One most misunderstood.  It mistakenly correlated opposition to Vietnam with...tacit approval of terrorism in the Middle East.  It really did.  Solo handles it very differently.  At one point Han has actually become a recruit of the Empire, and he finds himself in the latest in a series of campaigns he can't begin to comprehend, and he asks aloud what their objective is.  In the post-Vietnam era, that's warfare.  After WWII settled the last of the major international conflicts, the Cold War made it impossible for countries of comparable development to even consider engaging in open combat.  The threat of nuclear assault made it unthinkable.  Europe found itself depleted of real influence, and that left the US, the Soviets/Russia, and whoever wanted to be considered emerging powers, and this was usually determined with the achievement of nuclear weapons or the ambition to attain them.  If a country didn't have them?  So that's what Vietnam was, what Afghanistan was, what Iraq was.  It was different warfare.  Incomprehensible, to most perspectives.  Han doesn't really say it's unjustifiable.  Actually, he ends up with a group of thieves who are doing pretty much the same sort of thing as the Empire, just on a much smaller scale.  The Rebellion isn't depicted as terrorists, but as intermediaries interested in stopping the random exploitation of others.  I personally interpret that to take at least some of the edge off comparisons between the US and the Empire, whether or not you ever realized they were there.  And I see it as a direct response to Rogue One

Anyway, to return back to purely movie matters, Solo also is heavily engaged in reclaiming, well, Han Solo.  Everyone's Han Solo these days.  Tony Stark is Han Solo.  Peter Quill is Han Solo.  James T. Kirk is Han Solo.  Even Jack Sparrow is Han Solo.  So it only seems fitting that Han Solo gets to be Han Solo again.  We last saw him in The Force Awakens, the first of the new sequels, getting killed by his own son.  After the events of Return of the Jedi, Han seems to have backslid into the kind of life he had before A New Hope.  That, and the whole being-killed-by-his-own-son thing, kind of put a damper on him, and Star Wars in general.  Solo kind of explains what happened, how that could've happened, and it once and for explains what makes Han Solo, well, Han Solo, and what separates him from everyone else who wants to be Han Solo.

Han had a girl back home.  Han had to leave the girl behind.  Han eventually reunites with the girl.  Happy ending?  The girl doesn't die!  But no, that's not how the movie ends.  The movie ends with them deciding to go separate ways.  Along with everything else that happens to him during the course of Solo, Han seems to decide forming long-term attachments is probably always going to be difficult.  Chewie is different.  Chewie sticks around, it seems, because they both know if Chewie ever wanted to leave, he can.  At one point Han does say goodbye to Chewie in what he seems to think of as a permanent kind of way, but in pretty short order Chewie's back at his side.  The movie is really about Han's relationship with a mentor figure who does everything he can to give Han a cynical outlook.  By the time we catch up with Han again in A New Hope, that cynical outlook has taken a firm hold of his thought process, but by the end of Solo he doesn't have it yet.  Despite everything he experiences he's much closer to being the good guy he ultimately proves to be. 

But we're given every indication that refusing to be called a good guy, at the end of Solo, is what leads to that cynical outlook, refusing to accept that he can depend on others.  Losing the girl is that first chink.  Forget being betrayed by the mentor.  That's nothing! 

The movie otherwise presents itself as the modern era version of Han Solo.  Everyone who's attempted to be Han Solo, that's what this movie consciously evokes.  He gets a Guardians of the Galaxy crew around him, including a mouthy CGI guy (voiced by Jon Favreau).  Alden Ehrenreich gets to give his own performance.  Unlike Rogue One's horribly botched Tarkin, he isn't asked to imitate someone else.  Harrison Ford is Harrison Ford.  Instead, Ehrenreich feels a lot more like Chris Pine.  True, he's not much like Tony Stark or Jack Sparrow, but that's a good thing.  Those were much bigger departures from the archetype, took it places Han Solo ultimately never went.  They permanently rogues.  Han ultimately isn't. 

Emilia Clarke gets another shot at striking big in another franchise (she's the face of Game of Thrones; she didn't really replace anyone's idea of Sarah Connor in Terminator Genisys) as Han's girl.  Paul Bettany is her boss, Woody Harrelson is Han's mentor.  Thandie Newton shows up, but it's hard to recognize her.  Donald Glover plays Lando Calrissian.  I love Glover, but he seems to have chosen to underplay the part.  Lando's droid plays up that unspoken aspect of Star Wars lore, the subservient nature of droids.  Ironically or not it gets plugged into the Millennium Falcon and pretty much forgotten.  Lando and Han's scenes seem inspired by Maverick.

I'll always be a Star Wars fan.  I love the original trilogy.  I love the prequels.  I love what the sequels have done so far.  I hated Rogue One.  I think Solo sums up, with one movie, what Star Wars is all about (minus the Force).  I love how it explains the famous Kessel Run.  Genius.  That alone makes the whole experience worth it.