Thursday, June 28, 2018
Fun fact - this is the first time I've watched a Doris Day movie. And from watching this one film, "Please Don't Eat the Daisies," I can see why she was such a beloved and charming actress. She is strong-willed, determined and passionate while remaining focused on her goals of raising a family and making a difference in her community. Day's performance is the highlight of the film, as she remains witty and calm throughout the chaos of her busy life, raising four small boys in a tiny New York City apartment while her husband (David Niven) gets roasted as the newest Broadway critic.
To be honest, this wasn't a film I took too seriously with any other characters, aside from Doris Day as she works through all these hardships, including moving into a new home out in the country, with a smile and a witty comment. David Niven is in the middle of all this chaos and loses his mind a couple times, but Day's character is right there to be his moral compass and guide him to be better than he is. As a result, their on-screen relationship is hot-headed and chaotic, but caring and rewarding at the same time.
Day plays the role as the kind of mother you would want to have help you through your most difficult times. She puts her own wants and desires aside to help her family without any resentment or animosity. Yet when she needs to get angry or upset, she'll strike back as hard as she can to stand up for herself. To her, being a mother is the greatest job in the world, but it isn't the only thing she can be.
Overall, I had a lot of fun with "Please Don't Eat the Daisies." It's not an overly complex movie, but it filled with laughs and clever set pieces, especially as Niven's character tries to make everyone happy only to make no one happy. Doris Day excels as the star of the show and leaves a great impression on the audience with little more than her charm and wit. A great little comedy with a stellar cast.
Final Grade: B+
Wednesday, June 27, 2018
Truth be told, the only reason I went to go see "Tag" wasn't because this story of grown men playing tag every year for 30 straight years, but because this true story is based in my hometown of Spokane, Washington. To my recollection, this is the first major picture to be based in Spokane since 1985's "Vision Quest" with Matthew Modine, so I was excited to see how they would portray the town I live in on the big screen and if they would show off it's great beauty and wonderful sights, giving this worldwide audience a glimpse of what makes the Inland Northwest so special.
Unfortunately, the most we get is a title card that says "Spokane, Washington" and a banner that shows off the Spokane Lilac Festival. Other than that, it looks like they filmed this whole thing in California, not Washington. There are plenty of opportunities to reference iconic Spokane landmarks, like a bar they go to that isn't an actual bar in Spokane (could have gone with Jack and Dan's) or a country club in "Deer Creek" (there's a small town outside of Spokane called Deer Park, so I'm not sure why they didn't go with that). There are no landmarks addressed in the downtown, no establishing shots of Spokane, and they don't use the city landscape as their personal playground.
Like most movies that claim they're set in a smaller town, the film crew goes nowhere near the town it is set in and try to pass off northern California as any place they want it to be. Hollywood has always done this, but it just feels like a betrayal when you're on the receiving end.
Beyond this, "Tag" still isn't any good and fails to put its unique premise to any entertaining use. It is an unbelievably mean-spirited movie that never tries to give its characters any sort of redemption or likeable qualities other than being the butt of jokes. "Tag" never seems to be interested in the spirit of why these men go to such lengths to tag their friends, including dressing up as elderly women or hiding in the trunks of their cars. Instead, that's replaced with a competitive sense of victory, in a game that has no winners, only losers and non-losers. In fact, that's what all of these characters are - losers.
In this tale of the same five boys who have been playing tag since 1983, four of them decide to pool their talents and work together to bring down Jerry (Jeremy Renner) who has never been tagged in 35 years. These guys not only show up to Jerry's wedding uninvited, but do everything they can to sabotage it in an attempt to make Jerry "it." You'd think this would endear us to Jerry, since he's done nothing but expertly avoid his friends all this time, but then he does equally despicable things, including threatening to kill a man so he can spend the next month in jail where he cannot be tagged.
I get that these men are supposed to be competitive and quick thinking - you'd have to be after playing the same game for so long. But each of them don't treat it like a fun competition. They act like this is a life-or-death matter, as if something massive depends on the outcome of this game of tag.
Each of these men does terrible things over the course of the film that made me hate each of them, except for Sable (Hannibal Buress) who is there for comedic relief only. Ed Helms plays Hogan, who ditches his family, job and life hundreds of miles away from "Spokane" for several weeks. Jake Johnson plays Chilli, who openly lies about his relationship with his wife (at one point saying she's dead, while another time saying they're divorced when they're not), while also mooching off of everyone else around him. Jon Hamm plays Callahan, who may seem like the stiff business man on the outside, but has been in a love triangle with another woman and Chilli since they were kids. Both him and Chilli continue to act like children around her and never commit to their feelings, especially when this woman is fine with being romantically involved with both men. At one point, all of these men combine their terrible qualities as they nearly torture an innocent man just to find out where Jerry is. It's not just that these men treat life like a game, but that they have no remorse or concern for others while acting like petulant children.
Overall, there is very little funny or entertaining about "Tag." Outside of Hannibal Buress' unique style of comedy and Isla Fisher being her typical over-the-top self we came to love after "Wedding Crashers," it never comes across like anyone is having fun. Each character is so wound up so tight into this children's game, there's no joy in any of it. Even then, they're all so unlikable and mean-spirited that it's hard to root for them in this game. While I went into this movie to see how Spokane would be represented, I was unfortunately disappointed by nearly everything about "Tag."
Final Grade: D+
Tuesday, June 26, 2018
As much as I adore Pixar, I'll be the first to admit that most of their sequels are unnecessary. These films tend to retread the same ground their predecessors did, especially "Monsters University" and "Finding Dory," which makes for a fine repeat experience. However, if there was one Pixar film that I always felt deserved a sequel, it was "The Incredibles." The whole premise of a family of superheroes lends itself to different stories and lessons to be learned, especially from the angle of Dash and Violet as they learn more about the changing world around them. Honestly, it surprises me that it took Disney and Pixar 14 years to make a sequel, especially since superheroes have been a big draw at the box office for the last ten years.
Going into "Incredibles 2," I was curious to see how they would handle this film, seeing how it takes place directly after the events of the first film, which I felt worked best as a mid-life crisis for Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson). I'm of the opinion that a sequel should have been set a decade or so after the first film and show the kids as adults, while their parents grow so old that they can't fight crime anymore. Instead, we get a film that builds off what the previous entry started while also retreading most of the same ground as the first film, except with Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) taking the spotlight.
Because of the events of the last film, the Incredible family is without a home and a sustainable source of income, and due to a recent incident with a super villain, the have to lay low for a while. But when the CEO of a tech company, Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk), meets with Mr. Incredible, Elastigirl and Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson), he offers to help bring up the popular opinion on supers by showing their potential. This leads Deavor to contract Elastigirl to take a job fighting crime in a big city, including a new super villain named the Screenslaver, while Mr. Incredible is forced to stay home and raise the kids, just as their baby Jack-Jack discovers his many super powers.
Basically, this is a retread of the first film, but with the roles of Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl swapped. That's not to say "Incredibles 2" is a bad experience, but that it is more of the same. I am willing to forgive this, since it has been 14 years since we got to see the family dynamic and the kind yet dysfunctional relationship between its super mom and dad. The writing and dialogue stays as fresh and strong as the first film, while the action is as dynamic and inventive as ever.
The best scenes in the movie are with Mr. Incredible at home as he learns to go from a superhero to a father in this modern age of teenage rebellion and common core math. Rather than resenting that he can't be the hero he wants to be, there's a genuine effort to improve the lives of his children despite the struggles he faces. These scenes are simple and understated, but powerful and charming, showing the character progression for Mr. Incredible as he overcomes his mid-life crisis.
However, the film relies a bit too much on smaller moments from the last film that were best left understated. The biggest example of this is Jack-Jack being in too much of the movie. He is given more screen time than any other character outside of Elastigirl, and the gimmick of his unpredictable powers wears thin after the first couple scenes. They devote so much time to this that Dash gets no development outside of having trouble with homework. As a result, it's hard to say if this film is successful at building its own identity when it copies many of the gags from its predecessor.
But the strength of "The Incredibles" was always that it felt so relatable and relevant while embracing the fantastical, and "Incredibles 2" does this wonderfully as well. Quiet moments of Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl talking about who will have to get a job or Mr. Incredible admitting his mistakes to his children are counter balanced with a stunning helicopter chase through a busy metropolis or Elastigirl chasing an out-of-control bullet train. While the wonder of the children discovering the full extent of their powers is gone, this is replaced by them learning to restrain themselves and grow as people rather than heroes. Even if the film relies too much on Jack-Jack, it is still about the family at its core.
Overall, "Incredibles 2" is a fine family picture and another solid outing from Pixar. Most of the wow-factor from the first film isn't here and it does retread most of the same ground, but it is charming and relatable when it needs to be. The animation is improved and the cast is still as strong as it was 14 years ago. And although it has its weaker moments of repetition, it still succeeds at being a larger-than-life family piece that wins audiences over with its characters.
Final Grade: B-
Sunday, June 24, 2018
In the context of 1932, "Island of Lost Souls" is a bold, experimental picture. This was before the time of "King Kong"'s effects and the scope of films like "Gone With the Wind" and "Wizard of Oz," and the most successful horror films were "Dracula" and "Frankenstein." And yet, this film features an elaborate yet modern mad scientist with more ambition than he does servants, hell-bent on seeing how far he can take his experiments on animals. The film does its best to adapt H.G. Wells' novel with the best technology and effects they could produce at the time.
That being said, "Island of Lost Souls" is incredibly dated. The dialogue and audio has that same scratchy, hard-to-understand tone that most films from the early 1930s had, and the makeup and effects on the many creatures Dr. Moreau (Charles Laughton) has experimented on are clearly just big guys with lots of hair glued on. The story has been simplified to focus on its big male lead Edward Parker (Richard Arlen) and we're given no reason to sympathize with the mad scientist that should be the focus of the story rather than being the antagonist that has only a few tricks up his sleeve.
The main reason to watch "Island of Lost Souls" these days is to see Charles Laughton play god in the most sadistic yet quiet way possible. He plays the role as if he were the puppet master, where he feels like he can manipulate everyone around him to his whim, toying with everyone without hardly ever raising his voice above a whisper. It comes across like he has everything calculated and planned, like this is all a game of chess to him and he's already won. His ambition is as big as his ego, and Laughton plays it with as much charm as we've come to expect from him.
Overall, "Island of Lost Souls" is fine if dated picture from the early 1930s that is bolstered by a great performance from Charles Laughton. As far as pre-Hayes Code horror goes, this one is about as grotesque as they could get at the time. At only 71 minutes long, the film flies by at a brisk pace and feels like it tells a two-hour long story in less than half the time. If you're a fan of 1930s horror or are curious how effects-driven films were done at this time, I'd suggest checking this one out.
Final Grade: C+
Friday, June 22, 2018
Coming off of just watcing the original "Ocean's 11" recently, I can honestly say that I'm not much of a fan of the series. The remake is fun and enjoyable, if only because of the cast interactions and the elaborate heist that feels like it could go south at any moment. The problem with the heist formula is that it's rather predictable - once you've seen one heist, you've seen most of them.
The idea of a group of skilled criminals planning the biggest score of their careers has been done so many times that it's now more about how these criminals bounce off each other and how they plan to achieve their goals, which makes heists perfect for summer blockbusters. Enter Gary Ross' "Ocean's 8" and its cast of all female heisters as they attempt to steal the most expensive diamond necklace from fashion's most illustrious event at the Met, which doesn't stray from its predecessors, but rather just leaves an overall underwhelming impression.
Like the films before it, "Ocean's 8" relies heavily on style and the charisma of its main cast of characters, in particular its three leading players, played by Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett and Anne Hathaway. Bullock and Blanchett work well off of each other, like sisters that want to always want to outclass each other in one way or another. Hathaway, on the other hand, plays the dim-witted celebrity that is the target of the heisters to achieve their goals, and she plays the role as wonderfully as you would expect. Every other player has a couple moments to shine, especially Helena Bonham Carter as an aging fashion designer and Rihanna as the tech-savvy hacker, but nothing too outstanding.
The problem with "Ocean's 8" is that it never goes all in on style and overwhelms us with its presence. Everything is played quietly and without any flare or pizzazz, when they could so easily done this with the film being set in the middle of New York City and in the middle of the Met. The cast never really gels together, outside of Bullock and Blanchett, and there aren't any laugh-out-loud moments because everything is played by-the-numbers.
However, the upside to "Ocean's 8" is that the heist is rather unpredictable, especially given its a jewel heist of a different sort. It's not your typical robbery where they have to break into a high-tech vault, but instead it's basically pickpocketing a necklace without drawing any attention. I never knew where the heist was going and there are enough twists and turns to keep everyone guessing how they're going to get away with it.
This strange combination of a unique heist setup and a lack of chemistry amongst its cast makes "Ocean's 8" one that never quite gets its act together to be a truly fun picture. When it focuses on Bullock and Blanchett or when dealing with the inner workings of the heist, the film is at its best. But beyond that, the movie just coasts its way through like everything is on autopilot. While the film is smooth, cool and smart enough at points, the style is severely lacking at other points to make "Ocean's 8" a rather underwhelming experience.
Final Grade: C+
Thursday, June 21, 2018
Sometimes less can be more, but in other cases, especially with depicting a science fiction-influenced world, the more we see and understand that world the more we feel apart of it. Maybe it's because we're spoiled by so many detailed sci-fi worlds, like "Star Wars" and "Blade Runner" that spend as much time developing their technology and culture as they do with the characters, but watching Blumhouse's "Upgrade" only made me want to see more of their world and left me disappointed that we only got to explore a fraction of it.
"Upgrade" is very focused on its story about Grey (Logan Marshall-Green) losing his wife and mobility in a random act of cyber violence and being given a unique piece of tech that allows him to walk again, as well as an artificial intelligence installed in his brain. But the film does give us brief glimpses and ideas about this world, namely that everyone has at least some augmentations or tech upgrades in their bodies, except for Grey who is against all these upgrades. Yet we never learn about what people have installed in their bodies and how most are augmented, outside of some bad guys having their arms made into guns.
We're shown this advanced metropolis with skyscrapers that look like something out of "Blade Runner" in design, but most of the film takes place in an ordinary looking slum. "Upgrade" barely scratches the surface of its potential on how all these advancements in technology affects us as individuals and if we're still human afterwards. Maybe this is because so many others told this tale so well, especially from "Black Mirror" and "Ghost in the Shell" (the anime and manga, not the movie), and "Upgrade" simply wanted to tell a gritty revenge story with loads of action. But if that's the case, then why even have all the technology upgrades in the first place?
If you're going to make that such a big part of your film, then give the audience a chance to see how this world is so vastly different yet oh-so familiar.
As far as a revenge tale, "Upgrade" works fine, especially from Grey's perspective as a man who hates technology being forced to use the most advanced piece of hardware to find his wife's killer. It's like if "Death Wish" decided to be a low budget sci-fi flick. The highlight of this comes from Logan Marshall-Green's acting and how he sells a man reluctant to do this yet despising his life as a paraplegic even more. The scenes after his accident and the life he has to lead now are heart-wrenching and tragic, showcasing the quiet yet powerful performance of Marshall-Green.
Once the titular upgrade, called STEM, is added to the film, there's an air of mystery surrounding this piece of technology and what it's true motives are. It demonstrates right away that it can think and act on its own, whether Grey wants it to or not, but it always has Grey's best interests in mind, like if your smart phone could communicate with you. Yet STEM helps contribute to a bloody massacre as Grey works his way through a bunch of henchmen to find the man he wants, brutalizing each of them in most ruthless ways that you'd expect from a company known for their horror films. If you went into this expecting just a sci-fi action film, you'll be surprised to see just how horrific things get.
Overall, "Upgrade" is fine as an action film focused on revenge, but as a science fiction piece it leaves a lot to be desired. There is little to no exploration of this world and what it's capable of while only teasing at a much larger picture, which is unfortunate considering how technology is so prevalent throughout the movie. The acting brings up the quality, especially from Marshall-Green and the action is stylized enough to differentiate it from others of its kind. For a low-budget picture, this one gets the job done.
Final Grade: C+
Wednesday, June 20, 2018
The concept of a slow build-up in horror films seems like a lost art these days. Or at the very least, an unappreciated art form. Audiences seem to want scares and thrills as fast and consistently as possible - that's what they expect when they see a horror film anyway. But they forget some of the best horror movies come from taking the time to develop our small cast of characters and the dangers they're about to face, racking up the tense and suspense to the point that it's unbearable. Movies like "Rosemary's Baby," "The Exorcist," "Alien" and "The Thing" are key examples of this concept and when the scares do come, they're even more jarring because we've grown to appreciate or even care for these characters.
It goes back to the classic Alfred Hitchcock example of a bomb underneath a crowded table - if you show just the explosion, that's a surprise because we didn't know the bomb was there. But if you show there's a ticking time-bomb, one that could go off any minute and endanger these characters, that's suspense.
"Hereditary" is that ticking time-bomb that refuses to show when it'll explode and unleash chaos upon an unsuspecting family. This has rubbed some people the wrong way, since it does take a while before anything "scary" happens, but to those patient enough to let the creepiness settle in are treated to one of the most unsettling yet relatable horror journey in recent memories.
The film follows the Graham family - wife Annie (Toni Collette), husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne), son Peter (Alex Wolff), and daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) as they mourn the loss of Annie's mother, whom they all hated for being controlling and manipulative, except for Charlie. They each grieve in their own way, as Annie attends a support group, while Charlie takes out her frustrations on her mother. But the more everyone settles into their routines, they all become tense and easily frustrated, while Charlie starts to see images of her grandmother.
The fright in "Hereditary" surprisingly comes from little things mentioned in passing that justify many of the character's behavior. Like when Annie mentions that there's been a history of severe mental illness in the men of her family, which shapes the way we look at Peter for the rest of the movie, or the intricate designs of Annie's miniatures and how they reflect her own personal problems with her family, like she uses her sets to replay her most personal moments and dreams. It sets the unnerving tone for the rest of the picture, like pissing off a killer that's stalking you.
Like I previously mentioned, the pacing is slow and the film doesn't give the audience any straight answers. This is, predictably, left some unimpressed with "Hereditary" as it is sometimes a game of patience and looking for those little details, turning them into big deals. Suffice to say, if you're looking for a movie filled with scares and frights, this isn't the film for you. "Hereditary" is more of a film that'll make you think about its horror, where a lot of it lies in its ambiguity and tension. It is brutal, tragic and will make you writhe in your seat during the more grotesque scenes.
Overall, while the pacing will throw many people off, "Hereditary" is the perfect middle ground between art-house horror and mainstream horror. One that is big on both psychological and physical horror, without favoring one over the other. It's a film about the need to control inside of a family and where to draw that dangerous line between yourself and your family.
Final Grade: B+
Saturday, June 9, 2018
You know, sometimes all you need is one little piece of historical evidence to understand why a film is created. While I watched 1939's "Jezebel," I couldn't understand what this southern belle drama with Bette Davis was trying to achieve until I learned something crucial after watching the movie - "Jezebel" was made entirely from scratch as a way to compensate Bette Davis after she failed to the get the lead role in "Gone with the Wind."
Now everything makes perfect sense. The time period, the racial tension, the elaborate outfits and gowns, the dramatic almost operatic performances from Davis and Henry Fonda. All of it is a way of trying to give Bette Davis the same experience she would have got from "Gone with the Wind."
Full disclosure - I've never seen "Gone with the Wind." I realize this probably takes a few points off of my film buff card, considering it is regarded as one of the greatest films of all time and still holds the record for highest grossing film ever when adjusted for inflation. But I am always hesitant to watch any film over three and a half hours long, and this particular film is closer to four hours. At that point, the film is more of a chore to sit through than anything else. I plan to watch the whole film before the end of the year, but I'm in no particular hurry to do so. But my point is that I don't have a frame of reference to compare "Jezebel" to, other than similar Bette Davis films like "Dark Victory."
At first I was tempted to write this film off as another melodrama for the sake of melodrama, much like "Dark Victory" or to prove Bette Davis' acting ability, but there's a certain sense of charm and class to "Jezebel" that clues you in to why these trivial things were life-or-death matters back in the 1850s. The cold dead stares of everyone at the ball, all of them retreating from the happy couple like they have the plague, casts a bigger cloud over this film than all of the southern accents throughout this film. This really does feel like a world fueled by chivalry and class, and failure to live up to these standards has deadly consequences.
Overall, "Jezebel" is a fine little film that was made as a way to keep Bette Davis happy after not scoring possibly the role of a lifetime. It has that southern charm that only a film set in New Orleans can offer while building a nice world for itself. Davis does a fine job as always, while Fonda seems a bit lost and confused in this performance. Nothing too special about this one, except to see a different type of historical American drama.
Final Grade: C
The charm of "No Time for Sergeants" is that it never takes itself too seriously while always trying to be as fun and endearing as possible in its own simple way. Andy Griffith masterfully pulls off the backwoods rube act of Will Stockdale during the peacetime air force, while always coming across as kind and charming in his own unique way, not unlike Forrest Gump - honest and larger than life, but knows nothing about how the real world works. This combination makes for a stand-out comedy that feels like an air force equivalent of "Mister Roberts."
There isn't too much else to say about "No Time for Sergeants" other than how effective it is through its simplicity of putting a uncultured yet well-meaning baffoon in the care of an orderly sergeant that is prone to emotional outbursts when things don't go his way. The film doesn't have an overly profound statement or message about the air force, nor does it berate the military. Instead, it presents a ridiculous situation and rolls with every ludicrious moment like it was a war using pies. This is just a simple yet fun ride that brought a smile to my film-loving face.
Final Grade: B
Friday, June 8, 2018
Sometimes a genre choice can turn a downtrodden and repetitive story into a memorable and fascinating movie, like 1945's "Mildred Pierce." When I first heard the premise of this movie - the tale of a recently divorced mother (Joan Crawford) working her fingers to the bone so that her ungrateful, spoiled daughter (Ann Blyth) can live a luxurious lifestyle - I was reminded of "Imitation of Life" and the often unrecognized soap-opera-like struggle that Lana Turner's character goes through. But much to my surprise, "Mildred Pierce" turned all of that on its head by presenting its story as a film noir or thriller.
Instead of the mother's fight for her daughter's approval turning into a predictable tragedy, it turns into a mystery fueled by greed, jealousy and a lust for more power and control. Since the film opens up with the murder of man in Mildred's beach house, that sinister feeling is always lurking throughout this movie, even when she has the best intentions.
There's always an air of uncertainty to every action the titular character takes, whether she's really doing all of this for her daughter or if she has other selfish motives, like the sleazy men she keeps around that somehow keep back stabbing her at her most vulnerable moments. Yet, at the same time, there's charm and class throughout this film, as Joan Crawford masterfully plays the role of a hardworking mother who wants to earn the respect of everyone, even those who she has no reason to like.
At the center though, "Mildred Pierce" is about a family love that has been twisted out of shape so much that both mother and daughter have forgotten what love really looks like. Both characters are so caught up in their worlds, one of hard work and another of high class society living, that they can't see beyond that and will do whatever it takes to get the other to see it their way, inadvertently driving both further away from one another. They both feel that love is something that can be found in a store and has a price tag, which makes the tragedy of their honest actions even more heartbreaking.
Overall, "Mildred Pierce" is much better than I expected it to be. I went in thinking it would be similar to "Dark Victory" or "Jezebel" with more emphasis on family, and instead I got a gripping film noir about a hard working woman's life turning into something bitter. There is some stellar acting from Crawford and Ann Blyth, both selling every greedy and selfish turn masterfully. There is never a boring moment in "Mildred Pierce," which is very strange for me to say.
Final Grade: A
Thursday, June 7, 2018
While I may not be the biggest Star Wars fan around, I can honestly say that my favorite character in this universe has always been Han Solo. In a world full of mysticism and larger-than life beliefs about the force and Jedis, Han Solo seems to be the only character grounded in reality. He's not out to save the universe or conquer it, he's just trying to make a living and doing it the only way he knows how. But at the same time, he's not so grounded in his beliefs to the point of being a buffoon, he is willing to change and admit his own faults, making him the most flexible and human character in this series.
So when it was announced that we'd be getting a Han Solo origin story, I was onboard with the idea. While I know that most of the Star Wars audience was thrown off by Harrison Ford not being in the lead role, I knew going in there was no way the grizzled old Ford couldn't play the young buck he's meant to be.
Honestly, I think the production problems "Solo: A Star Wars Story" experienced, especially with director Ron Howard coming into the project late in the game, made me realize early on that this wasn't trying to be anything more than a fun summer blockbuster. And if you go into "Solo" with that mindset, foregoing any Star Wars expectations and experiences, then you'll have a fun time just like I did.
"Solo: A Star Wars Story" feels less like a Star Wars tale and more like a standalone space western, complete with two clever heists and some enjoyable acting from Donald Glover, Woody Harrelson, Joonas Suotamo as Chewbacca, and even Alden Ehrenreich, who takes the character in a more upbeat way than Ford normally would. It doesn't try to be anything more than a fun distraction, unlike "Rogue One," while still giving us some fresh faces in this ever-expanding universe.
On the planet of Corellia, children are forced to steal or work for gangsters to survive on the streets of this scrap planet. Two of these kids are Han (Ehrenreich) and his lover Qi'ra (Emilia Clarke), but after a deal goes just the right way for them, Han manages to leave the planet while Qi'ra gets reluctantly left behind. Han makes a promise that he'll become the greatest pilot in the galaxy, get his own ship and come back for Qi'ra. After a series of rather unfortunate events, Han ends up meeting with a wookie named Chewbacca and a small group of criminals, led by Tobias Beckett (Harrelson), as they attempt to make the biggest score of their lives.
While it is nice to see characters like Han Solo, Lando Calrissian and Chewbacca on the big screen once again, the fun in "Solo' is seeing how these new actors take these classic characters in their own direction, especially Donald Glover as Lando. Glover plays the character as a pompous and smug bastard that isn't afraid to rob you blind, while doing so with as much charisma and wit as possible. He is the definition of egotistical, but he doesn't see it as ego if he can back it up.
Chewie is a bit more snarky and quick to point out when something is a bad idea, but given where he begins this film that's understandable.
But the real crux of the film is Alden Ehrenreich as Han Solo. You'll either love or hate this film depending on how you react to his performance, which is different enough from Ford's take on the cynical smuggler. While Ford played Solo as a man trying to overcome his own cold-heartedness and view on the corrupted universe he lives in, Ehrenreich plays it as if he were a hero in the Marvel Cinematic Universe - quick with the wise-cracks and cool moves, while still having a realistic edge given his backstory. It takes some getting used to, but as a young Han Solo that is still learning how nasty the universe can be, Ehrenreich does a fine job at making you believe this is Han Solo.
The biggest complain with "Solo: A Star Wars Story" is its pacing. While the two Western-style heists are the best scenes in the film, it takes a while before we get to those heists with not much going on in between. Once Han leaves Corellia, nothing interesting happens until the first heist begins, which is unfortunate since the strength of Star Wars has always been its world building.
The planets in this film feel rather generic and forgettable, nor are there any intriguing politics or devices to keep our interest. This is a bit of a disappointment, but once we get to the high octane action sequences and chases through space storms that have never been navigated, the film picks up again.
Overall though, "Solo: A Star Wars Story" is a fine distraction. Nothing too special about this film other than some fun performances from Donald Glover and Ehrenreich. That's not to say this film does a bad job, because it does deliver exactly what I expected - an enjoyable summer blockbuster. I'd say check your expectations at the door, and you'll have a blast with this one.
Final Grade: B-