Solo: A Star Wars Story

Posted on May 22, 2018 at 2:32 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action/violence
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Some alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Extended sci-fi style peril, action, and violence, chases, shootouts, explosions, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: May 24, 2018
Copyright 2018 Disney

The moment I became a “Star Wars” fan forever was in the cantina scene in what I will always refer to as the first “Star Wars” movie, now of course known as Episode IV, “A New Hope.” It was when Ben Kenobi tells Han (Harrison Ford, of course) he hopes to avoid any Imperial entanglements, and Han leans back and says, “Well, that’s the real trick, isn’t it?” with so much rakish charm that we have to instantly forgive him for bragging about making the Kessel run in under 12 parsecs. (We will always be too polite to mention that parsecs measure distance not time. Who knows, maybe a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, they told time in parsecs.)

So, would I like to see that Kessel run? And how Han met Chewy the wookiee? And how me met the dashing buccaneer, Lando Calrissian, played by Billy Dee Williams in Episodes V and VI and here by master-of-all-arts Donald Glover? And the bet that won Han the brand-spanking-new Millennium Falcon? Written by “Empire Strikes Back” and “Force Awakens” screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan, with his son Jonathan (“Dawson’s Creek”)? With the divine Phoebe Waller-Bridge (“Fleabag”) voicing a slightly loopy and more than slightly lippy droid? You bet I do!

Does it deliver? You bet your Han Solo hanging dice it does! Does Han shoot first? This time he does!

This prequel has the wonderfully charismatic Alden Ehrenreich (the “Would that t’were so simple” guy from “Hail, Ceasar!”) as Han, who lives with other orphans in a work camp led by Lady Proxima (voiced by Linda Hunt). Think Fagin, without the warmth. He has a plan to escape with the girl he loves, Qi’ra (“Game of Thrones” dragon-rider Emilia Clarke). Han is a bit of a rascal, but also an optimist back in these teenage years. “Wherever we go it can’t be worse than where we’ve been,” he says. But we know it can.

And as we know from films like “Casablanca” and “The Fifth Element,” whether it’s the letters of transit or the multipass, you have to have the right paperwork to get away. Han escapes (and in the film’s cheesiest moment, is assigned a last name based on his solitary status) but Qi’ra is captured. Han decided to enlist with the Imperial forces to get trained as a pilot so he can return to save her.

Three years later, Han has been thrown out of the academy and is now a grunt in the Imperial military. He meets a bandit named Beckett (Woody Harrelson), and his ragtag crew (is there any other kind?) of daredevils, and agrees to join forces with them on a heist so he can get a ship go back and rescue Qi’ra. This leads to a marvelously staged sci-fi version of a western train robbery.

It turns out that Beckett is not stealing on his own behalf, but working for someone else, someone who is not forgiving when things do not go well, harking back to the original cantina scene again, where we learn that Han had to jettison the cargo he was delivering to Jabba the Hutt. The big crime boss is Dryden Vos, played by Paul Bettany, with scars across his face as though a space tiger clawed his cheeks, scars that redden when he gets angry. Beckett and Han have to try again.

Along the way Han meets Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) and Lando. I am not going to spoil how; I’ll just say that both encounters are fitting and highly entertaining. Han does meet up with Qi’ra again, but is not ready to see how she has been affected by what she has had to do to survive. She joins the team and they take on another big heist. There’s a high-stakes card game, a trial by combat, and good advice that gets ignored. And the better you know the series, the more references and callbacks you will be delighted to discover. There are new insights about well-known characters and intriguing new ones, especially Waller-Bridge as a droid with a few crossed wires. In addition to the touches that center this in the “Star Wars” universe, there are references to classic movie genres, heist films and westerns and maybe “The Wages of Fear.” It may not be necessary, but it is most welcome, a thrilling and warm-hearted adventure in its own right that fits as satisfyingly into the “Star Wars” universe as that last piece in a jigsaw puzzle.

Parents should know that like all “Star Wars” movies, this one has non-stop peril and action with some disturbing images and many characters injured and killed. There is some mild language and some alcohol.

Family discussion: What do you think happened when Han was at the Academy? What is Han’s greatest skill?

If you like this, try: the other “Star Wars” films

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Avengers: Infinity War

Posted on April 25, 2018 at 1:10 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action throughout, language and some crude references
Profanity: About a dozen bad words
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended and intense action-style peril and violence, chases, explosions, supervillains, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: April 27, 2018
Copyright Marvel 2018

A two hour and forty minute movie can still feel too short when there are so many of our favorite characters, and that is the good news and the bad news about the much-anticipated “Avengers: Infinity War.”

The good news is that we get the ultimate mash-up of the Avengers and the Guardians of the Galaxy. That means a whole lot of quippy action scenes. My greatest fear was that with so many characters most of them would not have enough time to do much on screen either by way of action or by way of drama, and the pretty good news is that screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely and directors Joe and Anthony Russo do a good job of giving everyone his or her own space — literally, by sending them off in different directions to keep the interactions manageable, and figuratively, by giving most of them individual character arcs, or, perhaps we should say arc-lettes as they are sketched in just enough to add a little substance sauce to the main course of the action.

The less great news is that the storyline is something of a let-down following the exceptional depth and complexity of “The Black Panther.” As I have said many, many times before, superhero movies depend entirely on the quality of the supervillain, and Erik Killmonger was the top of the line as bad guys go, nuanced, sympathetic, human, and utterly magnetic. Any movie, but especially a fantasy movie, has to be completely clear about the stakes, meaning that in a superhero movie we have to know exactly what the relative strengths and weaknesses of the opposing forces are and what they are fighting over. We don’t need a lot of detail; there’s a reason Alfred Hitchcock used to speak so dismissively about the “McGuffin,” whatever it was everyone in the story wants so badly. All we need to know is why it matters, how to get it, and how keep it from the wrong person.

The bad guy here is Thanos (Josh Brolin) a CGI-d Titan of enormous power who is seeing the ultimate power, which he can achieve via the six Infinity Stones. He has a handy glove with spaces for each stone, and once he has them all he can achieve his goal of wiping out half of the life forms in the universe with the snap of his gigantic fingers. Much of the movie consists of him beating up all of the superheroes, a couple of whom are quickly dispatched in the first scene. We hear a lot about how important it is that he be stopped but we do not get many specifics about how his powers work or what, if any, vulnerabilities can be used against him. And that makes the battles more set-pieces, exceptionally well-staged set-pieces than drama. And then, in the middle, almost quiet next to the supernova intensity of the star power, the dazzle to the saturation point of the action scenes, and the Hulk-level heavy lifting of the realignment of the movie MCU to accommodate some thoughtful and even subtle variations on whether it is right to sacrifice one life to save many others.

But mostly, there’s a lot of action. Remember that refugee spaceship at the end of “Thor: Ragnarok?” And the feud between Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) and Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans, no longer the clean-cut WWII poster boy)? We pick up both as Thanos, the most powerful creature on the planet and the adoptive father of Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula (Karen Gillan) arrives in search of the five remaining Infinity Stones he needs to complete the set and wipe out half the universe. It’s time to get the band back together, with some of the team who have been missing in action, like Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), having a bit of trouble getting his Hulk on. And the team now includes a high school intern, Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tom Holland), who is so new and so in awe that he still calls Iron Man “Mr. Stark.”

Thanos has some nasty henchmen and henchwomen and hench-creatures who show up to help him find the stones. And the Guardians of the Galaxy, including Gamora, join on, with a sulky, now-adolescent Groot who can’t be pried away from his hand-held game device.

There are some very funny moments as the group gets to know each other, a few cheeky pop culture references, and an extended section in Wakanda gives us a chance to spend some more time with some characters who are already fan favorites (How about giving Shuri her own movie, Kevin Feige? And the Dora Milaje?) A few non-Avengers make a strong impression in their brief screen time, especially Peter Dinklage as a giant weapons-maker. But after nearly three hours (and only one after-credits scene?), with some savagely painful losses, it is unsatisfying to leave on the biggest cliffhanger since they freeze-dried Han Solo. There’s a point past which you stop topping yourself and just run out of breath — and that point is when you inform us several times that Thanos has ultimate power and then take us to a planet where there is a weapon that can stop him. There’s an infinite regression/irresistible force-immovable object paradox issue.

This movie is so big it has three superheroes played by superstars named Chris, and I haven’t even gotten to Benedict Cumberbatch as Dr. Strange, Winston Duke as M’Baku, Paul Bettany as Vision, Don Cheadle as War Machine, Sebastian Stan as Bucky, and Anthony Mackie as Falcon, all of whom get a chance to make an impression that leaves us wanting more. At times it feels like the Fellowship of the Infinity Stones, even approaching the grandeur of the Tolkien trilogy in its scope and the depth of its world-building. Or, I should say, worlds-building. There’s even time for some very sweet romance, and we see how those romantic complications present complicated challenges in the midst of battle. Also, dog monsters.

I trust the Russos to bring it all together with the next chapter. I hope it’s soon.

Parents should know that this film features extended comic-book action-style violence with many characters injured and killed, brief crude humor, and about a dozen strong words.

Family discussion: How many times did someone in the film have to decide whether it was worth sacrificing one life to save many others? Which superheroes were better at cooperating and why? Why does Thanos think he is right?

If you like this, try: the other Marvel movies, especially “Iron Man,” “The Avengers,” “Thor: Ragnarok,” and “The Black Panther”

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Pacific Rim Uprising

Posted on March 22, 2018 at 5:06 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and some language
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended peril and violence with disturbing images, giant robots, alien monsters, explosions, mass destruction, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: March 23, 2018

Copyright Universal 2018
I know you’re all eager to hear whether you will understand this movie if you haven’t seen (or, more likely, saw and forgot) the first one. Here is my answer: you won’t understand this film even if you did see and remember the first one and it just doesn’t matter. The first one was about giant robots fighting alien monsters and it ended with Idris Elba giving a great pep talk to the troops and then sacrificing himself to save the world.

Second verse, same as the first. Even bigger robots.  Even meaner monster aliens.  Even dumber dialogue.  Buildings knocked down and shattered as though they were made of eggshells.  A volcano. Plus mutant robot monster aliens.  A near-feral girl with a gift for creating robots.  A pilot with daddy issues.

And, I can’t help it, since it takes two pilots who mind-meld in a process called “drift” to operate the giant robots called Jaegers in perfect synchronization, every time they do it I keep thinking they’re playing Dance Dance Revolution.

That would be only slightly more silly than the actual storyline (hmm, a “Step Up”/”Pacific Rim” crossover — I offer this idea freely, noting that there is a promise of a third chapter at the end of the film).

“Star Wars'” John Boyega (who also co-produced) plays Jake, the son of the Idris Elba character. As he explains in a striking opening scene, the world has in some ways returned to normal after the defeat of the Kaiju monsters, though their enormous skeletons are still a reminder of the fight, one right next to the pool where Jake is enjoying a life of girls and parties. He has no interest in following in his father’s footsteps as a pilot or a hero. Like his “Star Wars” pal Rey, he is a scavenger, looking Jaeger robot junkyards. But things go wrong when a helmeted motorcycle rider steals the special part he promised to some very unforgiving guys. I note here the famous Roger Ebert rule that a mysterious helmeted figure will always turn out to be female. Yes, Amara (Cailee Spaeny) is not only female but young, and a Shuri-like tech whiz who is building her own Jaeger. The two of them end up in jail, and then, of course, sent to pilot training. “Ender’s Game”-style, younger recruits are taken because they are better at drifting.

When they arrive, Amara excitedly recognizes all the various Jaegers as a way of reintroducing us to them, and, discovering who Jake is, reminds us again that his father was a hero and he is not too happy about that. The tough, this-is-serious-business commanding officer is Nate (Scott Eastwood, channeling his dad), who says things like, “You and I both know you could have been great.”

There’s also a lot of “We need it now.” “It can’t be done.” “Do it anyway” “I need more time!” “We don’t have any!” “You got this!” “Let’s do this!” “Will it work?” “One way to find out!” talk and a lot of “20 kilometers to impact” military/tech language. And Jake says he can’t give a pep talk like his dad but he does. Does it include “This is OUR time!” Yes, it does.

The good thing is that the movie does not just know how silly it is — it embraces the silliness. The better thing is that it has EVEN BIGGER ROBOTS fighting EVEN BIGGER MUTANT ROBOT ALIENS! No matter how dumb it gets, no matter that the robots and monsters have more personality than the humans, no matter how much it seems like a mash-up of “Transformers,” “Ender’s Game,” “Starship Troopers,” and anime, it is undeniably fun to see robots bashing monsters, and thankfully there isn’t much in between the battles to slow things down.

Parents should know that this film includes extended and sometimes graphic peril and violence, many characters injured and killed, chases, explosions, scary monsters, some disturbing images, sad death of parents, issues of sacrifice, brief strong language, brief crude humor

Family discussion: Why did Jake insist that he was not like his father? How do you think the drift works? How do you prevent being defined by other people?

If you like this, try: The first “Pacific Rim,” “Ender’s Game,” and “Starship Troopers”

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