“SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY” (2018) Review

“SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY” (2018) Review

Following the release of Lucasfilm’s ninth film, “STAR WARS: EPISODE VIII – THE LAST JEDI”, the STAR WARS fandom seemed to be in a flux. Although the film received a positive reaction from film critics and was a box office hit, for many reasons it created a division within the franchise’s fandom. And many believe that this division, along with a few other aspects, may have produced a strong, negative impact upon the next film released by Lucasfilm, “SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY”

Why did I bring up this topic? Easy. “SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY” proved to be Lucasfilm’s first box office flop. Certain film critics and defenders of “THE LAST JEDI” had claimed that the negative reaction to the latter film had an impact on the box office performance of “SOLO”. In fact, many of “THE LAST JEDI” detractors claimed the same. Perhaps. Then again, I disliked “THE LAST JEDI”. But that did not stop me from seeing “SOLO” at the theaters. Personally, I suspect other factors played a role in the box office failure of “SOLO” – media coverage of the film’s chaotic production (that included the firing of its first directors, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller) and the fact that Lucasfilm/Disney had released it five months after “THE LAST JEDI”.

But many would point out that the true reason behind the film’s box office failure was its quality. That it was simply not a good movie. Did I agree with this assessment? I will answer this later. But first, I might as well recap the movie’s plot. Written by Hollywood legend Lawrence Kasdan and his son, Jonathan Kasdan; “SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY” is basically an origins tale about one of the franchise’s most popular and legendary characters, Han Solo. The movie began some thirteen years before the events of “ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY” and “STAR WARS: EPISODE IV – A NEW HOPE”, when a young Han and Qi’ra, his childhood friend and first love, attempt to escape the clutches of a Corellian gangster named Lady Proxima and her White Worm gang. They fail in their first attempt, but manage to make it to Corellia’s space port with a stash of stolen coaxium, a powerful hyperspace fuel. The pair manages to bribe an Imperial officer with the coaxium in exchange for passage off the planet. Unfortunately, only Han manages to make it past the gate, due to Qi’ra being snatched by the pursuing White Worm gang. Before he can be detected, Han signs up with the Imperial Navy as a flight cadet.

Three years later, Han is serving as an infantryman on Mimban, due to being expelled from the Imperial Flight Academy for insubordination. He spots a criminal gang posing as Imperial soldiers and tries to blackmail the leader, Tobias Beckett, into taking him with them. Instead, Beckett exposes him as a deserter and Han is tossed into a pit to be fed by an enslaved Wookie named Chewbacca. Since he is able to understand the latter’s language, Han is able to plot an escape with the Wookie. Both make their way to Beckett’s newly stolen starship and convinces the criminal to allow them to join his gang. The group plots to steal a shipment of coaxium on Vandor-1. The plan goes awry, thanks to a group called the Cloud Riders led by Enfys Nest. Both Beckett’s wife Val and their pilot Rio Durant are killed and the coaxium destroyed. A grieving and desperate Beckett is forced to face his employer Dryden Vos, a ruthless and high-ranking crime boss in the Crimson Dawn syndicate. Aboard Vos’ yacht, Han has a reunion with Qi’ra, also working for Vos. He also comes up with a plan to steal another shipment of coaxium to help Beckett repay the debt to Vos.

So . . . did I enjoy “SOLO”? Or did I dislike it? There were certain aspects about the film that left me scratching my head. And these aspects had a lot to do with Lucasfilm and Disney Studios’ decision to declare the Extended Universe (EU) novels as no longer part of the franchise’s canon. The Kasdans the screenwriters of “SOLO” had decided to make changes to Han’s backstory. Instead of being the abandoned scion of a well-to-do Corellian family, Han was literally re-written as an orphan with no surname. An Imperial Navy recruiter ended up providing his surname. The Kasdans made Han three years older. I found these changes unnecessary, especially the age change. Perhaps the Kasdans had felt that a nineteen year-old Han would not work in the movie’s narrative. If that was the case, all they had to do was set the movie seven years before “A NEW HOPE” and not ten years. Also, characters like Han’s old crime boss, the pirate Garris Shrike, and the female Wookie who served as the latter’s cook, Dewlanna. Shrike was not missed. But without Dewlanna as part of the franchise’s canon, how did Lucasfilm and the Kasdans planned to explain Han’s knowledge of Shyriiwook, the Wookies’ language? He not only understood it, but also knew how to speak Shyriiwook . . . somewhat.

But despite my quibbles regarding “SOLO”, I enjoyed it. Who am I kidding? I loved it. For me, “SOLO” was a breath of fresh air after the disappointing “THE LAST JEDI”. What I found ironic about the movie is that many claimed that a backstory about Han Solo was unnecessary for the franchise and not particularly original. First of all, none of the nine movies that followed “A NEW HOPE” were necessary. Neither was the 1977 movie, for that matter. As for originality . . . despite the movie being about Han Solo’s youth, I thought “SOLO” proved to be a surprisingly original entry for the franchise. Although the galaxy’s criminal element has been featured in past STAR WARS films, “SOLO” marked the first time that the franchise delved deep into the galaxy’s criminal organizations. And this is because “SOLO” is basically a heist film. Well . . . “ROGUE ONE” was also a heist story . . . at least in the last third of the film. But that was a tale of politics and espionage. And although politics made a few appearances in this film, “SOLO” was basically a story about criminals – including one Han Solo.

And because this film is basically a story about criminals, one would expect to encounter a good deal of back stabbing and double crossing. To be honest, one could find plenty of such action in political films. It certainly happened in “STAR WARS: EPISODE III – REVENGE OF THE SITH”. The ironic thing is that aside from Beckett exposing Han as a deserter to the Imperial Army, no such betrayals or back stabbing occurred until the film’s last act on the planet Savareen. And when the betrayals and back stabbings finally unfolded . . . God, it was a beautiful thing to behold! And the whole sequence was capped by a familiar figure from the past.

The production values for “SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY” seemed top-notched. Well, most of it. I must admit to feeling somewhat disappointed by the visuals for Corellia. From the drawings I have seen of the planet online, I had imagined that Han’s home world to be a little more colorful than what was seen onscreen:

But I certainly had no problems with the visuals for other planets like Vandor-1, the Fort Ypso village on said planet, the Kessel Run’s maelstrom and Savareen. But I really have to give kudos to production designer Neil Lamont and the film’s art direction team for their creation of the interior sets that served as Dryden Vos’s yacht. Need I say more?

When the media first announced that Alden Ehrenreich had been cast as the young Han Solo, many STAR WARS fans had denounced the casting and insisted that actor/impressionist Anthony Ingruber, who had portrayed the younger version of a character portrayed by Harrison Ford in a movie called “THE AGE OF ADALINE”, should have won the role. I have seen Ingruber do an impressionist of Ford in a You Tube video clip. But I thought that the movie required more than an impressionist and I had seen Ehrenreich in three previous movies. I believed he would do a great job as a young Han Solo. As it turned out, Ehrenreich was more than great. He gave a SUPERB performance than ended up knocking my socks off. Oh my God, he was just brilliant. Ehrenreich captured all of the essence of Han’s personality and traits with very little effort. All I can say is that I am very happy that he had more than lived up to my expectations.

But Ehrenreich was not the only one who knocked it out of the ballpark. The movie also featured a first-rate and enigmatic performance from Emilia Clarke, who portrayed Han’s first love Qi’ra. The character is one of the few instances in which I am glad that Lucasfilm did not use any characters from the Expanded Universe. In the EU, Han’s first love was Rebel Alliance officer Bria Tharen. I am certain that Bria was an interesting character, but she reminded me too much of Leia. Qi’ra, on the other, struck me as a more interesting and complex personality and romantic interest for Han. And Clarke did a marvelous job with the role. Another great performance came from Woody Harrelson, who portrayed Han’s reluctant mentor, a professional thief known as Tobias Beckett. Like Clarke, Harrelson did an excellent job in portraying a morally complex thief who seemed to be a combination of an easy-going personality who was also avaricious and ruthless. No one seemed to mind Donald Glover’s casting as Han’s future friend, Lando Calrissian. Glover gave a very entertaining and first-rate performance as the witty and smooth-talking smuggler, who seemed to harbor a low opinion of Han and a high opinion of himself, the Millennium Falcon, and his droid companion L3-37.

“SOLO” also featured excellent performances from other supporting cast members. Paul Bettany was both entertaining and dangerous as Crimson Dawn’s criminal leader Dryden Vos. Joonas Suotamo’s first-rate portrayal of Han’s life long friend, Chewbacca, struck me both poignant and emotional. More importantly, his character was fully fleshed out and not treated as some glorified Thandie Newton gave a sharp and witty performance as Beckett’s wife Val. Erin Kellyman was surprisingly commanding as Enfys Nest, the young leader of a gang of pirates called Cloud Riders. Ray Park surprised the hell out of me when he briefly repeated his role as former Sith apprentice, Darth Maul. The movie also featured some very entertaining voice performances from Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who was hilarious as Lando’s emotional and sharp-tongued droid L3-37; Jon Favreau, who gave a charming and funny performance as a member of Beckett’s crew, Rio Durant; and Linda Hunt, who was sinister as the criminal leader of the White Worms gang on Corellia. The movie also featured cameos – live and voice – from STAR WARSveterans like Anthony Daniels and Warwick Davis.

What else is there to say about “SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY”? It is a pity that it did not perform well at the box office. Then again, I saw it twice in the theaters and felt more than satisfied. It is not the best STAR WARS movie I have ever seen. But I do believe that it was one of the better ones, thanks to Jonathan and Lawrence Kasdan’s screenplay, a superb cast led by the talented Alden Ehrenreich and director Ron Howard, who I believe may have saved this film, following the firing of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller as the film’s directors. For me, “SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY” is another prime example that Disney Studios and Lucasfilm seemed to be better at stand alone films, instead of serial ones.

 

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Top Ten Favorite Movies Set in the 1910s

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Below is my current list of favorite movies set in the 1910s: 


TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES SET IN THE 1910s

1-Mary Poppins

1. “Mary Poppins” (1964) – Walt Disney personally produced this Oscar winning musical adaptation of P.L. Travers’ book series about a magical nanny who helps change the lives of a Edwardian family. Directed by Robert Stevenson, the movie starred Oscar winner Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke.



2-Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines

2. “Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines” (1965) – Ken Annakin directed this all-star comedy about a 1910 air race from London to Paris, sponsored by a newspaper magnate. Stuart Whitman, Sarah Miles, James Fox and Terry-Thomas starred.



3-Titanic

3. “Titanic” (1953) – Barbara Stanwyck and Clifton Webb starred in this melodrama about an estranged couple and their children sailing on the maiden voyage of the R.M.S. Titanic. Jean Negulesco directed.



4-Eight Men Out

4. “Eight Men Out” (1988) – John Sayles wrote and directed this account of Black Sox scandal, in which eight members of the Chicago White Sox conspired with gamblers to intentionally lose the 1919 World Series. John Cusack, David Strathairn and D.B. Sweeney starred.



5-A Night to Remember 

5. “A Night to Remember” (1958) – Roy Ward Baker directed this adaptation of Walter Lord’s book about the sinking of the R.M.S. Titanic. Kenneth More starred.



6-The Shooting Party

6. “The Shooting Party” (1985) – Alan Bridges directed this adaptation of Isabel Colegate’s 1981 novel about a group of British aristocrats who have gathered for a shooting party on the eve of World War I. James Mason, Edward Fox, Dorothy Tutin and John Gielgud starred.



7-The Music Man 

7. “The Music Man” (1962) – Robert Preston and Shirley Jones starred in this film adaptation of Meredith Wilson’s 1957 Broadway musical about a con man scamming a small Midwestern town into providing money for a marching band. Morton DaCosta directed.



8-My Fair Lady

8. “My Fair Lady” (1964) – Oscar winner George Cukor directed this Best Picture winner and adaptation of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Lowe’s 1956 Broadway musical about an Edwardian phonetics professor who sets out to transform a Cockney flower girl into a respected young lady to win a bet. Audrey Hepburn and Oscar winner Rex Harrison starred.



9-Paths of Glory

9. “Paths of Glory” (1957) – Stanley Kubrick directed this adaptation of Humphrey Cobb’s anti-war novel about a French Army officer who defends three soldiers who refused to participate in a suicidal attack during World War I. Kirk Douglas, Ralph Meeker, Adolphe Menjou and George Macready starred.



10-Somewhere in Time

10. “Somewhere in Time” (1980) – Jeannot Szwarc directed this adaptation of Richard Matheson’s 1975 time travel novel called“Bid Time Return”. Christopher Reeve, Jane Seymour and Christopher Plummer starred.

“RUSH” (2013) Review

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“RUSH” (2013) Review

Before I began this review, it occurred to me that Ron Howard has directed a good number of movie biographies set in the distance past for the last eighteen years, starting with 1995’s “APOLLO 13”. Mind you, the film was not Howard’s first period picture. But in the following years, he has directed four more biopics, including his latest project, “RUSH”

Written by Peter Morgan, who also worked with Howard on 2008’s “FROST/NIXON”“RUSH” told the story about the rivalry between Formula One race drivers James Hunt and Niki Lauda during the 1976 racing season. The two drivers are highly skilled and talented race car drivers who first develop a fierce rivalry in 1970 at a Formula Three race at the Crystal Palace circuit in England. Hunt is a brash young Englishman with a tendency to vomit before every race and the Austrian Lauda is a cool, technical genius who relies on precision. While Lauda buys his way onto the BRM Formula One team, which includes legendary driver Clay Regazzoni, following a falling out with his father. Both Lauda and Regazzoni later join the Scuderia Ferrari team with Regazzoni, and Lauda wins his first championship in 1975. Hunt’s racing team, Hesketh Racing, closes shop after failing to secure a sponsor and the British driver manages to land a driving position in McLaren after Emerson Fittipaldi leaves the team. During this period, Hunt marries supermodel Suzy Miller and Lauda develops a relationship with socialite Marlene Knaus.

Eventually, the movie shifts to the 1976 Fomula One racing season. Lauda dominates the early races, while Hunt and the McLaren team struggle with a series of setbacks that include mechanical failures and a disqualified win at the Spanish Grand Prix. Hunt also suffers a personal setback when his wife leaves him for Richard Burton. All seem to be going well for Lauda, including a private wedding to Marlene Knaus. But all come to a head for him at the German Grand Prix at Nürburgring, when he suffers a major car crash. While Hunt shoots ahead in points during his absence, Lauda struggles to recover the crash and return to finish the racing season.

Aside from the movies in the FAST AND FURIOUS series, the only auto racing movies that ever really caught my attention were two period comedies from the 1960s that featured Tony Curtis, the 2006 Will Ferrell comedy,TALLAGEDA NIGHTS: THE BALLAD OF RICKY BOBBY”, and the 2008 film, “SPEED RACER”. That is it. Since I had never heard of James Hunt or Niki Lauda, I was almost inclined to skip “RUSH”. Thank God I did not. I would have missed out on something special . . . at least for me. I love action films. One of the aspects of action films that I love are the car chases. But the car racing scenes were not the reasons why I finally decided to see “RUSH”. I had three reasons – Ron Howard, Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl. But the cincher for me was the trailer. What can I say? It impressed me.

“RUSH” is not the first time Ron Howard explored the 1970s. He directed two other movies set in the same decade –“APOLLO 13” and “FROST/NIXON”. I am beginning to wonder if this decade means a lot more to Howard than he would care to admit. In “RUSH”, the more glamorous aspect of the 1970s was explored, thanks to the artistry of production designer Mark Digby. His work was aptly supported by the art direction team led by Daniel Chour and Patrick Rolfe, and also the film’s set decorations. But if there is one aspect of “RUSH” that truly captured the 1970s – aside from the soundtrack – was Julian Day’s costumes. I adored them. Below are examples of Day’s work:

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“RUSH” did featured a good number of first-rate auto racing sequences. Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, along with film editors Daniel P. Hanley and Mike Hill did an exceptional job in recapturing the excitement (well . . . from the driver’s point of view) of Formula One racing. This was certainly apparent in two sequences – the Italian Grand Prix, where a barely recovered Niki Lauda managed to finish fourth place; and the Japanese Grand Prix, where the last race of the 1976 season took place. I realize that this might sound gruesome and I certainly do not mean to sound insensitive to what happened to Lauda. But I cannot deny that Howard’s recreation of the German Grand Prix at Nürburgring and Lauda’s car crash was an example of masterful filmmaking, thanks to Howard’s direction, Mantle’s photography and the editing by Hanley and Hill. The movie really captured the spectacle and the horror of the crash.

But “RUSH” is foremost a movie about two racing drivers . . . two men. Mindful of this, Peter Morgan did an outstanding job in recapturing Hunt and Lauda’s personalities, along with the circumstances that fueled their rivalry on the race track. This was not only in scenes that featured their separate private lives, especially their relationships with their wives Suzy Miller and Marlene Knaus, but also the friendly, yet intense rivalry that existed between them. In regard to their personal lives, I was very impressed by the two scenes that featured the breakup of the Hunt-Miller marriage; Lauda’s first meeting with Knaus and one particular scene during their honeymoon in which Lauda expressed concerns about the effects of his marriage on his racing career. However, the confrontation scenes between the two drivers when they were off the race track really rocked, thanks to Hemsworth, Brühl and Morgan’s screenplay. But there are two scenes that I really enjoyed. One of them turned out to be the drivers’ conference before the German Grand Prix, in which Lauda tried to convince the Formula One committee to cancel that particular race, due to heavy rain on the already notoriously dangerous Nürburgring race course; and their last meeting (at least in the movie), not long after the championship Japanese Grand Prix.

What can I say about the movie’s performances? They were outstanding. I was surprised to see Natalie Dormer in such a small role as a hospital nurse that Hunt briefly dated. Considering her growing fame, I had expected to see her in a bigger role. I could say the same about Julian Rhind-Tutt, who had a small role as a member of Hunt’s racing team. Christian McKay gave a vibrant performance as the flamboyant Alexander Fermor-Hesketh, 3rd Baron Hesketh, who financed Hunt’s first racing team. Pierfrancesco Favino portrayed Italian racing legend, Clay Regazzoni, who drove on the Scuderia Ferrari team with Lauda. I am aware that two drivers actually became good friends. Despite this friendship, Favino gave a sly and humorous performance, while recapturing Favino’s occasional frustration with Lauda’s eccentric personality. There were some grumbles on the Internet, when world of Olivia Wilde’s casting as Suzy Miller was first announced. She certainly proved them wrong by giving a first-rate performance, especially in one scene in which Miller’s breakup with Hunt became permanent. I was also impressed by her British accent, until I learned that one of her parents had been born in the U.K. Alexandra Maria Lara also gave a first-rate performance as Lauda’s first wife, Marlene Knaus Lauda. Not only did she project a great deal of warmth in her portrayal of the race driver’s wife, but also a touch of sardonic humor.

The men of the hour, aside from Ron Howard, are Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl, who portrayed the two rivals. They were outstanding. Superficially, Hemsworth seemed to have the less difficult role, portraying the outgoing playboy, Hunt. The Australian not only bore a strong resemblance to the British-born racer, but also seemed to relish in his scenes featuring Hunt’s penchant for partying hard and womanizing. But Hemsworth also excelled in those scenes that explored other aspects of Hunt’s personality – the insecurity that generally plagues every human being in existence, the emotional chaos of the racer’s breakup with Suzy Miller and his awareness of the tough competition he faced against his rival. Howard selected German-Spanish actor Daniel Brühl to portray the Austrian-born Niki Lauda. Like Hemsworth, Brühl had to utilize a different accent. He almost lost the role, when he attempted an obvious fake Austrian accent during his screen test. Thankfully, he prevailed in the end. Some have claimed that Lauda was a difficult personality. If one is honest, most people are individually difficult. However, Brühl was superb in conveying the difficult aspects of Lauda’s blunt personality, while at the same time, making the racer a very likeable character. It takes an actor of great skill to achieve this goal . . . and the latter did a fanstastic job.

Judging from the manner in which I had just raved over “RUSH”, one would start to believe that I could not find any faults with it. First of all, there is an aspect of Mantle’s photography that did not sit well with me. I found it slightly metallic and wish that it could have been more colorful, especially in a film about the heady days of auto racing the 1970s. I missed that sharp color that was apparent in some of Howard’s past films. And I also could have done without the footage of the real James Hunt and Niki Lauda in the movie’s last reels. Such scenes belonged in a featurette about the movie, not in the movie itself. The footage brought back disappointing memories of how Steven Spielberg ended“SCHINDLER’S LIST” and Spike Lee ended “MALCOLM X”.

Aside from my few quibbles, I enjoyed “RUSH” very much. It was a first-class look at two auto racing rivals who not only lit up the racing scene in one memorable season in the mid-1970s with their driving skills, but also their colorful personalities. Thanks to an excellent screenplay written by Peter Morgan, a superb cast led by Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl, and some outstanding direction by Ron Howard; “RUSH” has become one of my favorite movies of 2013. And it has also become one of my favorite sports movies of all time.

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Top Ten Favorite Movies Set in the 1970s

1970-films-initials-and-graphics

Below is my current list of favorite movies set in the 1920s: 

FAVORITE MOVIES SET IN THE 1970s

1 - American Gangster

1. American Gangster (2007) – Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe starred in this biopic about former Harlem drug kingpin, Frank Lucas and Richie Roberts, the Newark police detective who finally caught him. Ridley Scott directed this energetic tale.

2 - Munich

2. Munich (2005) – Steven Spielberg directed this tense drama about Israel’s retaliation against the men who committed the Munich massacre at the 1972 Summer Olympics. Eric Bana, Daniel Craig and Ciarán Hinds starred.

 

3. Rush (2013) – Ron Howard directed this account of the sports rivalry between James Hunt and Niki Lauda during the 1976 Formula One auto racing season. Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl starred.

 

4 - Casino

4. Casino (1995) – Martin Scorsese directed this crime drama about rise and downfall of a gambler and enforcer sent West to run a Mob-owned Las Vegas casino. Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Sharon Stone starred.

5 - Super 8

5. Super 8 (2011) – J.J. Abrams directed this science-fiction thriller about a group of young teens who stumble across a dangerous presence in their town, after witnessing a train accident, while shooting their own 8mm film. Joel Courtney, Elle Fanning and Kyle Chandler starred.

6 - Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

6. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011) – Gary Oldman starred as George Smiley in this recent adaptation of John le Carré’s 1974 novel about the hunt for a Soviet mole in MI-6. Tomas Alfredson directed.

7 - Apollo 13

7. Apollo 13(1995) – Ron Howard directed this dramatic account about the failed Apollo 13 mission in April 1970. Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton and Kevin Bacon starred.

8 - Nixon

8. Nixon (1995) – Oliver Stone directed this biopic about President Richard M. Nixon. The movie starred Anthony Hopkins and Joan Allen.

9 - Starsky and Hutch

9. Starsky and Hutch (2004) – Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson starred in this comedic movie adaptation of the 70s television series about two street cops hunting down a drug kingpin. Directed by Todd Phillips, the movie also starred Vince Vaughn, Jason Bateman and Snoop Dogg.

10 - Frost-Nixon

10. Frost/Nixon (2008) – Ron Howard directed this adaptation of the stage play about David Frost’s interviews with former President Richard Nixon in 1977. Frank Langella and Michael Sheen starred.

“COWBOYS AND ALIENS” (2011) Review

Below is my review of the Science-Fiction/Western movie, “COWBOYS AND ALIENS”

“COWBOYS AND ALIENS” (2011) Review

Ever since its release during the last month of July, many have been contemplating on the box office failure of the highly anticipated movie, “COWBOYS AND ALIENS”. I could go over the many theories spouted about its failure, but I would find that boring. I am simply aware that the movie only earned $34 million dollars short of its budget. And all I can say is that I find this a damn pity.

“COWBOYS AND ALIENS” had some big names participating in its production. Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford were the movie’s stars. The cast also included well known names such as Sam Rockwell, Adam Beach, Keith Carradine, Paul Dano and Clancy Brown. Jon Farveau, the director of the two successful “IRON MAN” movies, helmed the director’s chair. At least five of the screenwriters – Damon Lindelof, Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, Mark Fergus, and Hawk Ostby – have been associated with projects like “LOST” and the “STAR TREK”. And big names in the film industry such as Ron Howard, Brian Grazer and Steven Spielberg acted as some of the producers. But despite all of this “COWBOYS AND ALIENS” remained one of the flops of this summer. Again, pity. I realize that I keep using the word “pity” as a response to the movie’s failure. But I cannot help it. I really enjoyed“COWBOYS AND ALIENS”. In fact, I enjoyed it so much that it has become one of my favorite movies from the summer of 2011.

The movie was based upon the 2006 graphic novel by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg. It told the story of an alien invasion that occurred in the New Mexico Territory in 1873. The story focused upon a mysterious loner that awakens in the desert, injured and wearing a strange bracelet shackled to his wrist. He wanders into the town of Absolution, where the local preacher, Meacham treats his wound. After the stranger subdues Percy Dolarhyde, who has been terrorizing the populace, Sheriff Taggart recognizes the loner as Jake Lonergan, a wanted outlaw, and tries to arrest him. Jake nearly escapes, but a mysterious woman named Ella Swenson knocks him out. Percy’s father, Colonel Woodrow Dolarhyde, a rich and influential cattleman, arrives with his men and demands that Percy be released to him. He also wants Jake, who had stolen Dolarhyde’s gold. During the standoff, alien spaceships begin attacking the town. Percy, Sheriff Taggart and many townsfolk are abducted. Jake shoots down one ship with a device concealed in his wrist band, ending the attack. Realizing that the bracelet that Jake wears stands between them and the aliens, Colonel Dolarhyde, Meacham and Ella convinces Jake to help them find the aliens and the kidnapped townspeople, despite the fact that he has no memory of his own identity, let alone of any previous encounters with the aliens. Their expedition leads them Jake’s former gang and a band of Chiricahua Apaches, who have also been victims of the aliens.

“COWBOYS AND ALIENS” is not perfect. It has its flaws. To be honest, I can think of one or two flaws. Perhaps one. Although I understood that the aliens were taking the gold found near Absolution to power their starship, the script never made it clear on why they were taking the populace, as well. The only thing that the script made clear was that the kidnapped populace were being experimented upon. When it comes to human experimentation of reasons behind an invasions, many plots for alien invasion movies and television series tend to be rather weak in this area, including some of the best in this genre. And my other problem was that the script failed to reveal how Ella, who turned out to be another alien whose people had been destroyed by the invaders, ended up on Earth.

But despite these flaws, “COWBOYS AND ALIENS” really impressed me. I thought that Jon Favreau did an excellent job in combining action with the film’s dramatic moments. And his eye for location, greatly assisted by Matthew Libatique’s photography of the New Mexican countryside, gave the movie’s visuals a natural grandeur. In my review of “SUPER 8”, I had commented that it reminded me of an old “STAR TREK VOYAGER” episode. I cannot say the same for “COWBOYS AND ALIENS”. But it did remind me of a “STAR TREK VOYAGER” fanfiction story called “Ashes to Ashes”. At least Jake’s experiences with the aliens occurred before the movie began. And“COWBOYS AND ALIENS” must be the only alien invasion movie I can think of that was set before the 20th century. It occurred to me that if the two most famous adaptations of H.G. Wells’ novel, “War of the Worlds” had been given its original setting, this would not have been the case. Unless someone knows of another alien invasion movie with a pre-20th century setting. Ever since I first saw the trailers for “COWBOYS AND ALIENS”, I wondered how the screenwriters would combine the two genres of Science-Fiction and Westerns. Hell, I wondered if they could. Mixing Jake’s history as an outlaw with his experiences with the aliens did the trick. At least I believe so. More importantly, “COWBOYS AND ALIENS” provided plenty of opportunities for character development – and that includes the supporting cast.

The cast certainly proved to be first-rate. There have been British actors who have appeared in Westerns before. Come to think of it, Daniel Craig is not even the first James Bond actor who has appeared in a Western. But he is the only one I can recall who appeared in a Western as an American-born character. And if I must be blunt, the man takes to Westerns like a duck to water. More importantly, both Craig’s super performance and the screenwriters made certain that his Jake Lonergran did not come off as some cliché of the “Man With No Name” character from Sergio Leone’s DOLLAR TRILOGY”. Craig made him a man determined to learn of his past, while dealing with the sketchy memories of a past love and his attraction toward Ella.

The character of Colonel Woodrow Dolarhyde seems like a far cry from Harrison Ford’s usual roles. His Colonel Dolarhyde was not the solid Jack Ryan type or the rough, yet dashing Indiana Jones persona. In one of his rare, offbeat roles, Ford’s Colonel Dolarhyde was a ruthless, no-nonsense man who ruled his ranch and the town of Absolution with an iron fist. And Ford did a first-rate job of diluting Dolarhyde’s distasteful ruthlessness into something more . . . human and warm. I wondered how I would take Olivia Wilde’s performance as the mysterious Ella Swenson, who seemed determined to get Jake to help the rest of Absolution’s citizens find the aliens. After seeing the movie, I enjoyed her performance very much. She had a strong chemistry with Craig. More importantly, she gave a solid performance and possessed a strong screen presence. But I really enjoyed about Wilde’s performance was that she conveyed an other world quality about Ella that strongly hinted her role as an alien who landed on Earth to find the invaders who had destroyed most of her race.

The supporting cast was led by the likes of Sam Rockwell, who competently portrayed Absolution’s insecure saloon keeper, Doc; and Adam Beach, who gave a deliciously complex performance as Dolarhyde’s right-hand man, Nat Colorado. And actors such as Paul Dano as Dolarhyde’s s raucous son, a serene Clancy Brown, Noah Ringer (from “THE LAST AIRBENDER”), who portrayed the sheriff’s grandson, and a solid Keith Carradine gave firm support.

I do not know what else I could say about “COWBOYS AND ALIENS”. I find it a pity that it failed to become a box office hit. Because I really enjoyed it. The screenwriters, along with cinematographer Matthew Libatique, a first-rate cast led by Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford and fine direction by Jon Favreau made it one of my favorite films of the summer of 2011.

“CINDERELLA MAN” (2005) Review

 

“CINDERELLA MAN” (2005) Review

When I had first learned about Ron Howard’s biopic about boxing champion James J. Braddock, I was very reluctant to see the film. In fact, I did not even bother to go see it. Instead, I merely dismissed “CINDERELLA MAN” as a ‘“SEABISCUIT” in the boxing ring’. After I finally saw the movie, I must admit that my original assessment stood. 

“CINDERELLA MAN” and the 2003 Oscar nominated film, “SEABISCUIT” seemed to have a lot in common. Both were released by Universal Pictures. Both films possessed a running time that lasted over two hours, both were sentimental stories that centered around a famous sports figure and both were set during the Great Depression. Unlike “SEABISCUIT”“CINDERELLA MAN” told the story about a man – namely one James J. Braddock, an Irish-American boxer from New York and Bergen, New Jersey. The movie started out with Braddock (portrayed by Russell Crowe) as a boxing heavyweight contender in 1928, who had just won an important bout against another boxer named Tuffy Griffiths. But within five years, Braddock found himself as a has-been struggling to keep his family alive during the depths of the Depression, while working as longshoreman. Thanks to a last minute cancellation by another boxer, Braddock gets a second chance to fight but is put up against the number two contender in the world, Corn Griffin, by the promoters who see Braddock as nothing more than a punching bag. Braddock stuns the boxing experts and fans with a third round knockout of the formidable Griffin. After winning a few more bouts, Braddock ends facing boxing champ, Max Baer (Craig Bierko), for the heavyweight title in 1935.

Despite the similarities between “CINDERELLA MAN” and “SEABISCUIT”, I must admit that I regret not seeing this film in the theaters. It turned out to be a lot better than I had expected. Director Ron Howard, along with screenwriters Cliff Hollingsworth and Akiva Goldsman, did an excellent job of chronicling Braddock’s boxing career at a time when he had been labeled a has-been by the sports media. The movie also featured some excellent fight sequences that came alive due to Howard’s direction, Crowe, Bierko, and the other actors who portrayed Braddock’s opponents. Although the movie’s main event was the championship fight between Braddock and Baer during the last thirty minutes, I was especially impressed by the sequence that featured Braddock’s fight against Art Lansky (Mark Simmons). In my opinion, most of the praise for these fight sequences belonged to cinematographer Salvatore Totino, and editors Daniel P. Hanley and Mike Hill (who both received Academy Award nominations for their work) for injecting the boxing sequences with rich atmosphere and effective editing.

Ironically, the movie’s centerpiece – at least in my opinion – was its deception of the Depression. I understand that Howard had used the city of Toronto to serve as 1930s Manhattan and New Jersey. And judging from the results on the screen, he did an excellent job of utilizing not only the cast led by Crowe, but also the talents of production designer Wynn Thomas, Gordon Sim’s set decorations, Peter Grundy and Dan Yarhi’s art direction and Totino’s photography to send moviegoers back in time. There are certain scenes that really seemed to recapture the desperation and poverty of the Depression’s early years:

*Braddock begs for money from the sports promoters and boxing managers at Madison Square Garden
*Mae Braddock’s discovery of the gas man turning off the family’s heat
*The Braddocks witness the desertion of a man from his wife and family
*Braddock’s search for his friend, Mike Wilson (Paddy Considine), at a Hooverville in Central Park

Howard and casting agents, Janet Hirshenson and Jane Jenkins, managed to gather an impressive group of cast members for the movie. The ironic thing is that despite the impressive display of talent on screen, hardly anyone gave what I would consider to be a memorable performance – save for one actor. Russell Crowe naturally gave an impressive, yet surprisingly likeable performance as James Braddock. Although I found his performance more than competent, I must say that I would not consider it to be one of his best roles. There was nothing really fascinating or complex about his Braddock. I suspect that screenwriters Hollingsworth and Goldsman could have made Braddock a more interesting character . . . and simply failed to rise to the occasion. I have to say the same about their portrayal of the boxer’s wife, Mae Braddock. Portrayed by Renee Zellweger, her Mae was a loving and supporting spouse, whose only kink in her personality revolved around her dislike of Braddock’s boxing. In fact, Zellweger’s Mae threatened to become a cliché of the countless number of women who end up as wives of men in dangerous professions. Thankfully, Zellweger managed to give an excellent performance and with Crowe, create a strong screen chemistry.

Paul Giamatti received an Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of Braddock’s manager, Joe Gould. Many had assumed that Giamatti had received his nomination as a consolation prize for being passed over for his superb performance in “SIDEWAYS”. After seeing his performance as Gould, I suspect they might be right. I am not saying that Giamatti gave a bad performance. He was excellent as Braddock’s enthusiastic and supportive manager. But there was nothing remarkable about it . . . or worthy of an Oscar nomination. If there is one performance that I found impressive, it was Paddy Considine’s portrayal of Mike Wilson, Braddock’s friend and co-worker at the New York docks. Considine’s Wilson was a former stockbroker ruined by the 1929 Crash, who was forced to become a menial laborer in order to survive. Although his plight seemed bad enough to generate sympathy, Considine did an excellent job of portraying the character’s bitterness and cynicism toward his situation, President Roosevelt’s ability to lead the country out of the Depression and the world itself. I hate to say this, but I feel that the wrong actor had received the Oscar nomination. God knows I am a big fan of Giamatti. But if it had been left up to me, Considine would have received that nomination.

We finally come to Craig Bierko’s performance as Max Baer, champion boxer and Braddock’s final opponent in the movie. Baer’s character first makes his appearance in a championship fight against Primo Carnera, following Braddock’s surprising upset over Corn Griffin. From the start, he is portrayed as a brash and aggressive fighter who does not know when to quit. And it gets worse. Before I continue, I want to say that I have nothing against the actor who portrayed Baer. Like Crowe, Zellweger and Giamatti, Bierko had to do the best he could with the material given to him. And he did the best he could. Bierko, being an above-average actor, infused a great deal of energy and charisma into his portrayal of Baer. It seemed a shame that Howard’s direction, along with Hollingsworth and Goldman’s script forced Bierko to portray Baer as some kind of callous thug who felt no remorse for killing two other fighters in the ring and was not above needling Braddock at a Manhattan nightclub by making suggestive remarks about Mae.

Baer’s son, Max Baer Jr. (“THE BEVERLY HILLIBILLIES”) had been naturally outraged by what he deemed was the movie’s false portrayal of the boxer. What the movie failed to convey was that Baer had only killed one man in the ring – Frankie Campbell – and had been so shaken up by the other man’s death that it affected his boxing career for several years. Nor did Baer ever make any suggestive remarks toward Mae Braddock. He also hugged and congratulated Braddock following the latter’s June 1935 victory. I really do not know why Howard thought it was necessary to turn Baer into a one-note villain. Someone claimed that the movie needed a nemesis for Braddock that seemed more solid than the vague notion of the Depression. If that is true, I believe that Howard and the movie’s screenwriters turned Baer into a villain for nothing. As far as I am concerned, the Great Depression made an effective and frightening nemesis for Braddock. This was brilliantly conveyed in Braddock’s bout with Art Lasky. At one point in this sequence, the New Jersey boxer seemed to be on the verge of defeat . . . until his memories of his family and how the Depression had affected them . . . urged him to a hard-won victory. Sequences like the Braddock-Lasky fight and Braddock’s search for Mike Wilson in the Central Park Hooverville made the Great Depression a more effective nemesis than the one-dimensionally crude behavior of falsely portrayed Max Baer ever could.

Despite the movie’s badly written portrayal of Baer, and slightly uninteresting major characters like James and Mae Braddock, and Joe Gould; “CINDERELLA MAN” is still an excellent biopic that featured exciting boxing sequences. More importantly, it is one of the few Hollywood films that revealed an in-depth look into one of the country’s most traumatic periods – namely the Great Depression. Flawed or not, I believe that it is still worth watching.

“FROST/NIXON” (2008) Review

 

“FROST/NIXON” (2008) Review

Beginning on March 23, 1977, British journalist David Frost conducted a series of twelve (12) interviews with former U.S. President Richard M. Nixon, in which the former commander-in-chief gave his only public apology for the scandals of his administration. Some 29 years later, Peter Morgan’s play – based upon the interviews – reached the London stage and later, Broadway, with rave reviews. Recently, Ron Howard directed the film adaptation of the play, starring Frank Langella as Nixon and Michael Sheen as Frost. 

I first became interested in Nixon and the Watergate scandals in my mid-teens, when I came across a series of books that featured columnist Art Buchwald’s humorous articles on the famous political scandal. As I grew older, I became acquainted with other scandals that had plagued the American scandal. But it was Watergate that managed to maintain my interest for so long. Ironically, I have never seen the famous Frost/Nixon interviews that aired in August 1977 – not even on video or DVD. But when I saw the trailer for ”FROST/NIXON”, I knew I had to see this movie. There was one aspect of the trailer that put me off – namely the sight of Frank Langella as Richard Nixon. For some reason, the performance – of which I only saw a minor example – seemed rather off to me. However, my family went ahead and saw the film. And I must admit that I am glad that we did. Not only did”FROST/NIXON” seemed only better than I had expected. I ended up being very impressed by Langella’s performance. And Michael Sheen’s portrayal of Frost merely increased my positive view of the film.

Speaking of the cast, ”FROST/NIXON” had the good luck to be blessed with a cast that featured first rate actors. Matthew MacFadyen gave solid support as John Birt, David Frost’s friend and producer for the London Weekend Television. I felt the same about Oliver Platt’s slightly humorous portrayal of one of Frost’s researchers, Bob Zelnick. Rebecca Hall gave a charming, yet not exactly an exciting performance as Frost’s girlfriend, Caroline Cushing. One of the two supporting performances that really impressed me was Kevin Bacon, who portrayed former Marine officer-turned Nixon aide, Jack Brennan. Bacon managed to convey Brennan’s conservatism and intense loyalty toward the former president without going over-the-top. Another intense performance came from Sam Rockwell, who portrayed another of Frost’s researcher, author James Reston Jr. Rockwell’s performance came as a surprise to me, considering I am more used to seeing him in comedic roles. And I must say that I was very impressed.

But the two characters that drove the movie were Richard M. Nixon and David Frost. Both Frank Langella and Michael Sheen first portrayed these roles in the Broadway version of Peter Morgan’s play. If their stage performances were anything like their work on the silver screen, the theatergoers who had first-hand experience of their stage performances must have enjoyed quite a treat. As I had earlier stated, I originally harbored qualms about Frank Langella portraying Richard Nixon. What I did not know was that the man had already won a Tony award for his stage performance of the role. After watching ”FROST/NIXON”, I could see why. Richard Nixon had possessed a personality and set of mannerisms that were easily caricatured. I have never come across an actor who has captured Nixon’s true self with any real accuracy. But I can think of at least three actors who have left their own memorable stamps in their interpretations of the former president – the late Lane Smith, Sir Anthony Hopkins and now, Frank Langella. One of Langella’s most memorable moments featured a telephone call from Nixon to Frost, in which the former attempts to further psyche the journalist and ends up delivering an angry tirade against the wealthy establishment that he had resented, yet kowtowed toward most of his political career. Michael Sheen had the difficult task of portraying a more complicated character in David Frost and delivered in spades. Sheen’s Frost is an ambitious television personality who wants to be known for more than just frothy talk show host. This reputation makes it impossible for Frost to be taken seriously by Nixon, Zelnick and especially the judgmental Reston.

I also have to compliment Peter Morgan for what struck me as a first-rate adaptation of his stage play. Morgan managed to expand or open up a story that depended heavily upon dialogue. The movie could have easily turned into a filmed play. Thankfully, Morgan’s script managed to avoid this pitfall. And so did Ron Howard’s direction. I must admit that Howard did a great job in ensuring that what could have simply been a well-acted, would turn out to be a tightly paced psychological drama. Hell, the interactions between Frost and Nixon seemed more like a game of psychological warfare between two antagonists, instead of a series of interviews of historical value.

I am trying to think of what I did not like about ”FROST/NIXON”. So far, I am hard pressed to think of a flaw. Actually, I have thought of a flaw – namely the usually competent Toby Jones. Considering how impressed I had been of his performances in”INFAMOUS” and ”THE PAINTED VEIL”, it seemed a shame that his Swifty Lazar seemed more like a caricature than a flesh-and-blood individual. Perhaps it was a good thing that his appearance in the film had been short. Also, knowing that Frost had questioned Nixon in a series of twelve interviews, it seemed a shame that the movie only focused upon three of those interviews. Naturally, Howard and Morgan could not have included all twelve interviews for fear of dragging the movie’s running time. However, I still could not help but feel that three interviews were not enough and that the film could have benefited from at least one more interview – one that could have effectively bridged the gap between Frost’s second disastrous interview, until the third that led to his own triumph and Nixon’s rare admission.

”FROST/NIXON” could have easily become dialogue-laden film with no action and a slow pace. But thanks to Ron Howard’s direction, Peter Morgan’s adaptation of his play and the superb performances of the two leads – Frank Langella and Michael Sheen, the movie struck me as a fascinating character piece about two very different men who had met during the spring of 1977 for a historical series of interviews that seemed to resemble more of a game of psychological warfare.