Two Stunning Upsets In Otherwise Dull Oscars

The academy must really hate Glenn Close.  What else can explain the continuation of her ongoing slump at the Academy Awards which held its 91st annual ceremony on Sunday.  In a moment that very few, if any, saw coming, it was Olivia Colman who was named Best Actress, not the seven-time nominee for The Wife.  Turns out she wasn’t a long shot at all.

Ever gracious and seemingly shellshocked herself, the charming and funny star of The Favourite tried to make Close feel better by declaring her her idol and wishing she had won this award under different circumstances (yeah, right).  “This is hilarious,” Colman declared at the start, while also noting how “stressful” it was to be on stage.  Humourously scoffing at the “wrap it up” cue on the prompter, Colman appeared to vindicate the academy’s choice with her entertaining speech alone which, upon its conclusion, resulted in a standing ovation.  It was the only award The Favourite managed to snag.

In the other shocker of the night, Green Book, not Roma or my prediction, A Star Is Born, was named Best Picture in spite of so much controversy, not least of which included the public complaints by the surviving family of Don Shirley who claimed the film took excessive liberties with his real-life story.  As expected, Mahershala Ali, who played Shirley the pianist, won his second Best Supporting Actor gong, only two years after his first for Moonlight.  Although I correctly picked him to win, my initial feeling that there would be an upset was clearly wrong.  Turned out I was thinking of the wrong category.  In another bit of a surprise, Green Book also won Best Original Screenplay, giving co-writer/director Peter Farrelly two gongs for the night.

Bohemian Rhapsody was the big winner overall with four Oscars.  It swept the Sound categories and took home Best Film Editing.  Rami Malek, who noted his Egyptian heritage, was named Best Actor for playing Queen frontman Freddie Mercury.  He also acknowledged Mercury’s sexuality and how he lived his life “unapologetically.”

Black Panther snagged three golden gongs but all in technical categories.  It won for its Costumes, its Production Design (in a bit of minor upset over The Favourite) and for its Original Score.  Roma also won three.  Alfonso Cuaron took to the stage every time to accept for Best Director, Best Cinematography and for Best Foreign Language Film.

The elegant Regina King thanked James Baldwin, her mom and God after accepting the award for Best Supporting Actress.  It was the only Oscar for If Beale Street Could Talk which was based on Baldwin’s novel of the same name.

Lady Gaga, whose very name was inspired by Queen, didn’t go home empty-handed.  Along with her three co-writers (which did not include Bradley Cooper as I erroneously noted in my predictions and have now corrected), she took to the stage to be handed the Best Original Song trinket for Shallow, which ended up being the only honour given to A Star Is Born.

The mercurial Spike Lee finally won a competitive Oscar for co-writing BlacKkKlansman.  Having stolen an outfit from Prince’s closet, he was his usual outspoken self.  Like Regina King, he thanked his grandmother but also acknowledged the two biggest historical American injustices:  slavery and First Nations genocide.

Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse was named Best Animated Feature and Free Solo, not RBG, took home Best Documentary Feature.  Even Best Visual Effects was a bit of a surprise.  First Man won over the third Avengers movie.  The complete list of winners is at the bottom of this entry.

Beyond the awards themselves, the overall broadcast was far from thrilling.  Yes, Trevor Noah did a killer Mel Gibson joke, Paul Rudd did a brilliant, self-deprecating zinger during his presentation for Visual Effects and notice how the camera showed that Best Picture envelope being handed to Julia Roberts as she walked on stage?  That was funny.  Suck it, Warren Beatty.

Other than that, the show was lame.  Nothing says contemporary than a failed American Idol contestant butchering two classics from the 1970s featuring half of the original geezers who made them famous back when they could actually play.  Melissa McCarthy’s stuffed animal costume was stupid.  There was nothing funny about those three SNL alums pretending to be the hosts for five minutes.  There’s a reason they weren’t hired for the actual job.  Spike Lee cursed but that goddamned delay silenced it.  And what was with that hideous set?  It looked like a giant fucking ear.

Kevin Hart, you did the right thing backing out.  At least the show was only three hours this year.

The complete list of winners:

BEST PICTURE – GREEN BOOK

BEST DIRECTOR – Alfonso Cuaron (ROMA)

BEST ACTOR – Rami Malek (BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY)

BEST ACTRESS – Olivia Colman (THE FAVOURITE)

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS – Regina King (IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK)

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR – Mahershala Ali (GREEN BOOK)

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY – BLACKKKLANSMAN

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY – GREEN BOOK

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE – SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE

BEST ANIMATED SHORT – BAO

BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE – FREE SOLO

BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT SUBJECT – PERIOD. END OF SENTENCE

BEST LIVE ACTION SHORT – SKIN

BEST COSTUME DESIGN – BLACK PANTHER

BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN – BLACK PANTHER

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE – BLACK PANTHER

BEST ORIGINAL SONG – Shallow (A STAR IS BORN)

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS – FIRST MAN

BEST MAKE-UP AND HAIRSTYLING – VICE

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY – ROMA

BEST SOUND EDITING – BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY

BEST SOUND MIXING – BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY

BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM – ROMA

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Monday, February 25, 2019
12:41 a.m.

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Published in: on February 25, 2019 at 12:41 am  Leave a Comment  

91st Academy Award Predictions

BEST PICTURE – A STAR IS BORN

It’s not often that the race for Best Picture is too close to call, but here we are in that very situation this year.  Because of the expansion of the category a decade ago, eight titles are competing for the top honour.  (Up to ten can be nominated as long as they receive a certain percentage of support.)

Let’s immediately eliminate Bohemian Rhapsody as a possible winner.  Despite being the most commercially successful biopic ever, it deeply divided critics.  Plus, there’s the problem with its troubled director Bryan Singer.  Long under scrutiny for sexual abuse of teenage boys and ultimately fired for disappearing from his set before the film was completed (resulting in another director coming in to replace him at the last minute), even though he isn’t one of the producers, surely all of this will hurt its chances.

Green Book is in the same boat.  Despite very positive reviews, it’s become a cinematic hot potato for its disputed portrayal of the true story between a Black musician and his white limo driver.  The surviving family of pianist Don Shirley publicly criticized the film’s fictionalization of his story.  Viggo Mortensen got in trouble for using an epithet during a press conference promoting the film.  Director/co-writer Peter Farrelly has a dumb habit of whipping his penis out in work situations.  And on top of all this, isn’t this just Driving Miss Daisy in reverse?

The Favourite clearly isn’t the favourite.  Costume period pieces are usually cat nip for the British-loving motion picture academy but not this time.  And forget about Vice.  Since the nominations were announced, it has never been considered a serious threat.

No, the winner will likely be found in the remaining half of the category.  Black Panther is clearly the audience favourite having made more money than some of these films combined.  Critics loved it, too.  But the academy is still predominantly old and white, so it’ll be an uphill climb.  The same goes for BlacKKKlansman, Spike Lee’s biggest film in years.  I’m doubtful either title can pull the upset.

The smart money seems to be on Roma, Alfonso Cuaron’s foreign language epic that was made by Netflix and had the unique distinction of being available in the home and at the theatre in a limited release simultaneously.  Nominated for 10 Oscars altogether, surely it will not go home empty-handed.  But would the academy, ever conscious of declining theatrical attendance and the rise of cable Television, really want to reward a streaming service rather than a major studio?  Wouldn’t this be an admission of defeat?

When he made his annual Oscar predictions for the Chicago Sun-Times, the late, great Roger Ebert offered one guiding principle:  Academy members vote with their hearts when selecting Best Picture.  When you think about it, arguably no film gutted audiences and critics more in 2018 than A Star Is Born.

Yes, this is the fifth version of the story that was first made with Judy Garland in the early 1930s and yes, this is basically a redo of the 1976 remake which featured Kris Kristofferson and Barbra Streisand.  But since its premiere at the Venice Film Festival late last summer, it’s been talked about non-stop as possible Oscar bait.  It’s made a movie star out of Lady Gaga.  Bradley Cooper is now seen as more than just an actor.  And the movie finally gave 74-year-old Sam Elliott his first ever nomination.

A sizeable audience hit (nearly half a billion in ticket sales worldwide) and the possessor of widespread critical acclaim (it has a 90% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes), it also has the advantage of not being potentially tainted by controversy.  Hollywood loves to reward stories about the business and since La La Land lost out to Moonlight, this will be the make-good.

A Star Is Born for Best Picture.

BEST DIRECTOR – Alfonso Cuaron (ROMA)

Once again, I am reminded of another guiding principle by Ebert.  The person who wins the Director’s Guild of America award more often than not goes on to win the Best Director Oscar.  Even though he previously snatched the golden gong five years ago for helming Gravity, Alfonso Cuaron won this year’s DGA for the Netflix feature Roma.  The only possible spoiler here would be Spike Lee who incredibly is competing in this category for the very first time.

But history is tough to overcome.  The last time the DGA winner didn’t win the Best Director Oscar was in 2013.  Ben Affleck won the former for Argo but wasn’t even nominated for the latter which went to Ang Lee for Life Of Pi, his second victory.

All of the other contenders are first-time nominees and don’t have a prayer.  Barring a breakthrough for Lee, it’ll be Alfonso Cuaron for Best Director.

BEST ACTRESS – Glenn Close (THE WIFE)

An aspiring singer, a notorious royal, a literary fraud, a Mexican maid and a pissed off spouse comprise the race for Best Actress.  A Star Is Born’s Lady Gaga will be rewarded for co-writing Shallow in the Best Original Song category so she’ll be passed over here.  Olivia Colman, who plays Mary, Queen of Scots in The Favourite, is a serious long shot.  She’ll have to settle for politely applauding the winner when her name isn’t called.

The well-liked Melissa McCarthy didn’t win seven years ago for her breakout performance in Bridesmaids and she won’t win for Can You Ever Forgive Me? either.  And the debuting Yalitza Aparicio from Roma probably shouldn’t prepare a speech.

That leaves perennial nominee Glenn Close.  According to Wikipedia, “she has more nominations without a win than any other living actor, and holds the record for being the actress with the most nominations without winning.” Even though many will argue she probably should’ve won for Fatal Attraction more than 30 years ago, here’s an opportunity for the academy to finally reward her for having such a long, well-respected career.

Glenn Close for Best Actress.

BEST ACTOR – Rami Malek (BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY)

It’s the veterans vs. the newbie in the race for Best Actor.  It’s also reality vs. fiction as all but one of the nominated characters is based on a real person.  Only Christian Bale is a previous winner, having won Best Supporting Actor for The Fighter eight years ago.

Passed over for Best Director, Bradley Cooper still managed to receive four three nominations for producing, co-writing the screenplay, co-composing Shallow, and starring in A Star Is Born.  He has also been nominated for co-producing American Sniper and for acting in that film as well as appearing in Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle.  For much of this decade, he’s been an Academy favourite.  But it won’t pay off for him, at least not in this category.  He’ll have to settle for sharing the Best Original Song trophy with Lady Gaga.

You can forget about four-time nominee Willem Dafoe who plays Vincent Van Gogh in At Eternity’s Gate and three-time nominee Viggo Mortensen who plays real-life limo driver Frank Vallelonga in the controversial Green Book.  Both of their slumps will continue into the new decade.

That leaves Dick Cheney in Vice and Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody.  Bale, who plays the former, could pull off an upset but he already has a golden trinket and doesn’t need an additional push.  The latter, Rami Malek, on the other hand, who won an Emmy playing a hacker on Mr. Robot, is a new star peaking at just the right time.  Not everyone loves the Queen biopic but I haven’t heard anyone dismiss Malek’s performance of the group’s legendary frontman.  Hollywood is always looking to make new stars to keep the business thriving.  And with so much focus on improving diversity (Malek is Muslim), here’s an opportunity to tick off two key boxes.

Rami Malek for Best Actor.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR – Mahershala Ali (GREEN BOOK)

There is an enormous consensus surrounding Mahershala Ali.  Once again, he finds himself the heavy favourite to take home the Best Supporting Actor dust collector.  I didn’t realize this myself until I looked at the number of awards he’s already taken home for playing pianist Don Shirley.  Go look it up on Wikipedia.  It’s an extensive list.

Let’s be clear here.  We don’t need to talk about Sam Rockwell.  He won this category last year for playing a cop in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.  He’s not gonna pull a Tom Hanks for playing W.  Adam Driver is Kylo Ren.  He doesn’t need a fucking Oscar.

Before I started investigating the conventional wisdom on this particular race, my initial reaction was that this was going to go to a first-time nominee, someone who’s already had a long career but has never been singled out by the academy before.  Mr. Moustache Sam Elliott, the voice of a thousand truck ads, is 74.  Longtime British character actor Richard E. Grant is 61.  If there’s going to be a shocking upset, either of them snatching the golden eunuch would be it.

God knows this has happened before.  Consider Eddie Murphy in 2007.  He had been cleaning up on the awards circuit for his performance in Dreamgirls only to watch in horror as Alan Arkin snapped up the Oscar for Little Miss Sunshine.  Granted, Arkin had a previous nomination in the 60s but still, a stunning upset.  And what about Sylvester Stallone who was expected to win in this category a few years ago for playing Rocky Balboa as an old man in Creed?  He didn’t get called to the stage.  Bridge Of Spies’ Mark Rylance, a first-time nominee, was summoned instead.

Let’s not forget, Mahershala Ali won this award for Moonlight just two years ago.  And controversy has dogged Green Book for months.  But will any of this ultimately hurt him come Oscar night?

In a way, I feel like I’m going against my true instincts here.  There is a big part of me that feels like either Elliott or Grant could swoop in and have their big moment on stage, shocking the entire world.  But, on the other hand, Ali is so highly respected as an actor (he’s currently appearing in the critically lauded third season of True Detective) and his performance in Green Book so universally acclaimed, there’s the other, more sensible part of me that feels he’ll be having another good night.

In the end, I’m relenting and going with the crowd.

Mahershala Ali for Best Supporting Actor.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS – Regina King (IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK)

Two Oscar winners battle it out with two newbies and a frequent nominee in the race for Best Supporting Actress.  The Favourite’s Emma Stone famously won Best Actress for La La Land two years ago.  (Warren Beatty almost read her name a second time during the totally preventable Best Picture fiasco.)  It seems highly unlikely she’ll win again this year.  First-time nominee Marina de Tavira is in the same position as her Best Actress-nominated Roma co-star Yalitza Aparicio, so count her out, as well.

In 2007, Rachel Weisz won this category for her performance in The Constant Gardener.  Also nominated was Amy Adams for Junebug which ended up being her breakout performance.  Five nominations later, here she is again facing The Favourite’s Weisz in this same category for playing Vice’s Lynne Cheney.  Her slump will continue.  Weisz won’t be called to the stage, either.

That leaves Regina King.  34 years after starting her career as a teenager on 227, she’s had her share of cinematic highs (Boyz N The Hood, Higher Learning, Ray) and serious lows (Down To Earth, Daddy Day Care, Legally Blonde 2).  But Sunday night will be the best night of her professional life when she gets called to the stage to accept her first Academy Award.

Regina King for Best Supporting Actress.

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE – SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE

BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE – RBG

BEST MAKE-UP & HAIRSTYLING – VICE

BEST FILM EDITING – BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY

BEST LIVE ACTION SHORT – MARGUERITE

BEST ANIMATED SHORT – ANIMAL BEHAVIOUR

BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT SUBJECT – LIFEBOAT

BEST COSTUME DESIGN – BLACK PANTHER

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE – BLACK PANTHER

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS – AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY – ROMA

BEST ORIGINAL SONG – Shallow (A STAR IS BORN)

BEST SOUND MIXING – BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY

BEST SOUND EDITING – A QUIET PLACE

BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM – ROMA

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY – THE FAVOURITE

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY – BLACKKKLANSMAN

BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN – THE FAVOURITE

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Sunday, February 24, 2019
1:40 a.m.

CORRECTION: Bradley Cooper did not co-write Shallow, the Best Original Song nominee from A Star Is Born. Fuck you, Wikipedia, for making me think he had.  As a result, he was nominated for three, not four, Oscars.  I regret the errors.  I’ve made one correction and have decided to just put lines through the original, erroneous text.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Monday, February 25, 2019
12:09 a.m.

Published in: on February 24, 2019 at 1:40 am  Leave a Comment  

The House On Sorority Row

No genre of entertainment has been more consistent in punishing the guilty than horror.  From Poe’s The Black Cat to the deliberately gruesome morality tales depicted in the notorious Educational Comics of the 40s and 50s to scolding anthology films like the Creepshow series, the fuck-ups almost always get fucked up.

The House On Sorority Row clearly wants to be a part of this longstanding tradition.  But because it’s not particularly well produced and so shamelessly steals from earlier horror films there’s very little originality to shudder at.

Consider the crisis at its heart.  Seven sorority sisters, all college graduates on the verge of starting their independent, adult lives, are at war with their house mother, a strange, crotchety old woman with a sad secret.  They want to enjoy one last blow-out in their dorm.  She wants them out so she can be left alone.

Their continued, unwelcome presence gets her angrier and angrier.  Despite requesting their exit, they have no plans to cancel their big party.

One of the women, future soap star Eileen Davidson, gets it on with her boyfriend one evening in her room.  The house mother hears them from upstairs, walks down to confront them and interrupts their lovemaking.  She takes the bird handle of her cane and proceeds to wreck her waterbed.

It’s the last straw.  Davidson wants revenge.  The girls agree on pulling a prank hoping it will scare her off.  All it does, of course, is make things that much worse.

We know that Davidson is a crack shot.  Her boyfriend allows her the opportunity to target practice with his piece and she has perfect aim.  She hits everything in sight.  So, Davidson will purposefully shoot around the old lady to send a message.  Oh, she gets the message alright, especially when the laughter starts.  After whacking snotty Davidson with her cane, not realizing there’s still a bullet in the chamber, the careless sorority sister accidentally pulls the trigger.  She doesn’t miss this time.

Kate McNeil, the only one with something of a conscience, urges the calling of an ambulance but is talked out of it because of the potential repercussions that would befall the entire group.  So she reluctantly relents.  A cover-up is spontaneously proposed and implemented.  Collective worrying over exposure immediately begins.

If this storyline sounds awfully familiar, it’s probably because you saw the original Prom Night.  In that laughable disaster, a bunch of jerky kids bully a young girl to her death and decide not to tell anybody about it.  But there’s a witness who waits until they’re all ready to graduate from high school to seek homicidal vengeance on her behalf.

The killer in The House On Sorority Row is far less patient.  Having secretly witnessed what happened, they start their murder spree the night of the dorm party.

Because the old lady’s wrapped-up body eventually goes missing, the seven sisters start freaking out, wondering aloud if it’s at all possible she’s still alive having somehow managed to get untied and out of that disgusting pool.  It never occurs to them that someone knows their secret and wants to become Judge Dredd.

This part of the story is clearly inspired by Friday The 13th Part 2.  At the end of the first movie, Mrs. Voorhees gets beheaded by the Final Girl.  In the sequel, we learn that her son Jason, who didn’t drown at summer camp after all, saw the whole thing undetected and in the following scene, tracks down his mother’s killer to begin his own, overlong reign of terror.

The House On Sorority Row starts with a flashback sequence involving the old lady as a younger, pregnant woman.  She goes into painful labour and it’s not clear what happens to her baby.  Eventually, we learn the truth.  There are striking similiarities with the psycho in the hockey mask.  That’s not a good thing.

Near the end of the film, the killer is seen in shadow.  That sure looks like a woman’s wig he’s wearing.  Is he pulling a Norman Bates from Psycho?  The movie never addresses it, but again, not an original concept.

Not content to recycle these plots and gimmicks, The House On Sorority Row also maintains the slasher tradition of having the killer square off with the last survivor, the aforementioned Final Girl.  (It doesn’t take a genius to determine who that will be.)  But it clearly doesn’t want to conclude predictably, judging by that last shot and confirmed by the film’s writer/director in a Blu-ray extra.

In the end, it doesn’t really matter anyway.  This isn’t scary.  The movie takes way too long to establish its generic plotline but even after it gets going, not only are we not shaken, we’re not stirred, either.

That said, the bird-handle cane is cool and certainly a creative lethal weapon.  Too bad it’s not used by a truly terrifying heel.

The House On Sorority Row is by no means awful, although I would’ve hired a better party band than the thankfully shortlived 4 Out Of 5 Doctors.  (Some of their lyrics are really silly, their outdated New Wave grooves hookless.)  It eliminates the sexism that plagued many horror films of its time.  And there’s one very funny quip from a party attendee.  Cheaters never prosper, dude.

Kate MacNeil is sympathetic up to a point and Davidson, who looks like a bad girl, certainly exercises questionable judgment in all kinds of ways, even though I didn’t really hate her as much as I should have.  As for the old lady, she’s not as convincingly nasty as she could’ve been and because her closely guarded secret is a stolen plot device, I didn’t care about her bogus trauma at all.

The most interesting character is the old lady’s longtime physician, a supremely mortified screw-up who sort of explains to the Final Girl what happened in the opening scene.  (Who else went through this unclear experimental procedure?)  Like Davidson and the sorority sisters, his reputation matters above all other considerations and he too will continue to make instantaneous decisions that will bite him in the ass.

Self-preservation is a major Achilles heel in this movie.  Unbeknownst to the clueless cast of characters in The House On Sorority Row, it’s one of the many reasons you can get brutally punished in a horror film.  Making a bad hybrid rip-off should be added to the list.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Wednesday, February 20, 2019
3:44 a.m.

Published in: on February 20, 2019 at 3:44 am  Leave a Comment  

Solo: A Star Wars Story

There are certain characters that can only be played well by one actor.  Solo: A Star Wars Story depressingly proves the point.

For four movies, Harrison Ford owned the role of Han Solo, the wisecracking nerf herder who evolved from the dangerous worlds of intergalactic hustling and smuggling to become one of the Rebel Alliance’s most crucial and unlikely assets.

The charisma deficient Alden Ehrenreich is not Harrison Ford and it shows in every scene of Solo: A Star Wars Story, the first misstep in the recently revived franchise.  From the moment we first see him stealing a landspeeder we instantly realize how wrong he is for this part.

He’s not charming, he’s not funny, he’s not even dashing.  (Is he trying to sound like Jack Nicholson?)  He’s just a forgettable prop for a misguided prequel.  He may have Ford’s ’77 hair and sideburns but he lacks all the other ingredients that made the original Han Solo such a great character.

As a result, Solo: A Star Wars Story is a long slog, a remarkably uninspired space western, an interstellar heist picture without the heat or the suspense.

Young Solo, estranged from his father (no mention of his mom) and stuck working for a criminal syndicate led by a giant water worm (voiced by Linda Hunt), is romantically involved with fellow runaway Qi’ra (the beautiful but stiff Emilia Clarke).  They hatch a plan to escape their dilemma but only Solo is able to make it past the stormtroopers at the airport.  He vows to reconnect with her despite their lack of chemistry.

Solo desperately wants to be a pilot so he signs up for the Empire’s naval academy.  He claims not to have a last name so the recruiter suggests Solo which I have to admit is clever.  Instead of showing him in training, we cut to him three years later serving as a hapless soldier in the Imperial army.  Clearly out of place, he notices others just like him.

There’s Beckett (Woody Harrelson), his partner Val (Thandie Newton) and their multi-armed CGI compadre Rio (voiced by Jon Favreau).  Solo correctly deduces they could care less about serving the Empire.  They’re hustlers like him.  He wants in but Beckett sells him out.  Left to fend for himself for the amusement of a couple of wagering soldiers, it is here that he first meets the lovable Wookie who will prove to be his most loyal ally.

Having convinced Chewbacca not to beat the shit out of him, they manage to escape and hitch a ride with Beckett and company.  Rio convinces them to give the duo a second chance.

Beckett turns out to be in deep shit.  He needs to do a job for a gangster named Dryden Vos (a badly miscast Paul Bettany who was a last-minute replacement because the original actor was unavailable for reshoots).  It has to go well.  Unfortunately, the plan is so ridiculously complicated it’s no wonder it all goes so horribly wrong.

An Imperial train is passing through.  It possesses a lot of coaxium, a very valuable hyperfuel.  The plan is to steal it while it’s in motion without detection and have the boxcar shipment attached to their ship which turns out to be impossible.  A sensor is accidentally triggered and suddenly villainous droids are released.  Plus, a band of marauders appear out of nowhere wanting the very same coaxium.  In the end, no one gets the fuel and a couple of would-be thieves get needlessly killed.  Despite some very good special effects, this sequence isn’t terribly exciting.

Upon hearing the news, Dryden is displeased.  Before taking this meeting, he murders one poor sap who fucked up for reasons we never learn.  Of course, the same fate won’t befall our heroes, especially since Dryden’s girlfriend is Qi’ra much to the surprise of Solo who still foolishly pines for her after so many years of estrangement.  After much pleading and negotiating, another complicated plan is hatched.

The surviving smugglers will deceive their way into a heavily-guarded Imperial mine under significant surveillance on a distant planet, steal some raw coaxium being unearthed by various enslaved aliens (including Wookies) and fly it back to another distant planet where it will get refined before delivering it to Dryden.  Qi’ra will come along since she knows a guy who can get them a ship.

That guy turns out to be a young Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover delivering a smug, charmless, blatantly transparent Billy Dee Williams impression), a smooth-talking gambler who wants his own cut.  He happens to possess The Millennium Falcon, the iconic spacecraft that will eventually be owned by Solo himself.  Accompanied by his activist-minded droid L3-37 (who suggests some sort of weird sexual relationship between them), the gang first have to fly through some kind of cool yet destructive spacestorm before even reaching their first destination.  Many unforeseen calamities threaten to derail yet another foolhardy heist.

Solo: A Star Wars Story is the worst Star Wars movie since The Clone Wars cartoon.  The comedy is weak, the characters weaker, although Woody Harrelson is good as the cynical Beckett.  That said, his final act heel turn doesn’t really make much sense.  Yes, it’s not completely out of character for him to do this but still, he has no real reason to screw his remaining allies.  (What happened to the pact he made with Solo?)

Another character’s heel turn also feels unconvincing but at least it leads to the return of one of the few characters I liked from the prequel trilogy.  Jon Favreau isn’t funny and neither is L3-37, despite her welcome solidarity with enslaved aliens and droids.  Bettany was more effective in the equally disappointing Firewall than he is here.

The movie ends with a tease about Solo’s future fateful interactions with Jabba The Hut, the crime syndicate boss he becomes indebted to in the original trilogy.  Considering how dismal this first spin-off story turned out to be, I’m not clamouring for a follow-up.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Sunday, February 17, 2019
6:58 p.m.

Published in: on February 17, 2019 at 6:58 pm  Leave a Comment  

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

In the final scene of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Rey (Daisy Ridley) finally tracks down the elusive Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill).  No words are exchanged, just intense glances.  We pick up the scene early on in Star Wars: The Last Jedi.  The silence is broken.  The son of Anakin isn’t happy to be found.

Much like Obi-Wan Kenobi in the original trilogy, Luke feels tremendous guilt for unwittingly empowering a future enemy.  As we learn in a series of conversational flashbacks, he trained Ben Solo (the fantastic Adam Driver) only to discover a darkness he could not contain or vanquish.

Because Ben transformed into the heartless Kylo Ren, Skywalker is insistent on letting the ancient Jedi religion and traditions die with him.  No more students, no more training, no more connections with the force.

This alarms the determined Rey who not only wants to become a Jedi master herself but desperately requires Skywalker’s assistance in combating the First Order, the new heel faction founded out of the ashes of the decimated Galactic Empire.  Still led by the overly confident Snoke (a delightfully cold Andy Serkis), occupying all corners of space and conquering all of its resisters remains its top priority.  You could say their ultimate goal is to “clear” the galaxy.

It’s inevitable that Rey’s persistence (with big assists from the always helpful Chewbacca and R2D2) will soften Luke’s resistance.  And it’s also expected that he will play a major role in The Last Jedi’s finale.  But it’s also what we want, one last opportunity to see the now elderly, bearded warrior save the day once more.  The fact that it’s handled so elegantly is both poetic and poignant.

Despite clocking in at two and a half hours, making it the longest Star Wars film to date, The Last Jedi still manages to ably transition from one engaging storyline to the next without losing its focus.  As stubborn Luke slowly relents and teaches Rey the ways of The Force, Kylo Ren communicates with her in what can only be described as Jedi mind Skyping.

Despite being in two different places with a whole lot of distance in between, Ren continually reaches out to the woman he fought against in The Force Awakens.  A defiant Rey refuses to give him what he wants, a powerful partnership.  No longer wearing his mask after being ridiculed by a pissed off Snoke, Ren ultimately ups his Dark Side quotient hoping Rey will eventually see reason.  There’s even a brief moment we think he might turn babyface.  Sneaky bastard.

Meanwhile, the depleting remnants of the Rebel Alliance are being hunted by the First Order’s pale, stoic General Hux (the oily Domhnall Gleeson).  The heroic Poe (Oscar Isaac) succeeds in destroying one of their powerful dreadnoughts only to see a number of fellow fighters vanquished on the same mission.

This aggravates Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher in her last on-screen appearance) who demotes him and admonishes him for disobeying orders.  As the Rebel fleet jumps into hyperspace they soon realize they are not safe anywhere in the vast universe.  The First Order always knows where they’re going.  This leads to a sneak attack that sadly kills off one of my favourite peripheral characters but absurdly not one of the leads.  According to the Wikipedia synopsis, it’s because they used The Force.  Yeah, bullshit.  Anyway, considering what has happened since, it was a mistake.  Now the filmmakers have to make changes for Episode Nine.  They screwed themselves needlessly.

Former Imperial stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) panics after waking up in a weird, water-filled bubble suit and thinks once again of deserting.  But before he’s able to jump into that escape pod he’s caught by the deceptively tough Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) who’s a stickler for preventing such departures.  They ultimately team up to find a hacker who can end the Empire’s secret surveillance of the Rebel Alliance’s slowly shrinking squadron.  The stuttering Benicio Del Toro isn’t the guy they’re looking for but they can’t exactly be choosy.

They also need to haul ass.  Time is running out for the survivors.  All the remaining ships will run out of fuel in a matter of hours.  With the First Order constantly firing at them even though they are safely out of range, Vice Admiral Holdo (a purple-haired and always lovely Laura Dern) believes they can all escape on the sly and find refuge on a former Rebel base on a nearby planet.  Poe’s instincts on this decision turn out to be tragically correct.

The Force Awakens has set a very high standard for this revived franchise.  I loved it almost as much as Return Of The Jedi, the last great film in the series.  The Last Jedi can’t possibly match its near greatness and I don’t believe it even tries.  But the new characters introduced in the earlier picture remain the heart of this third trilogy, as evident in this gripping middle chapter.  That’s important as we continue to lose original cast members from the earlier films.

The dynamic at play between Kylo Ren and Rey provokes curious questions.  Are they related?  Can the heel turn the face?  Can the face turn the heel?  Is Rey the real Last Jedi or is she the start of something new?  Is she or is she not Skywalker’s daughter?

With the Rebel Alliance in full retreat after suffering countless losses in a series of devastating (albeit thoroughly entertaining) battles, some serious regrouping and recalibrating is in order.  But are there enough reinforcements for the inevitable final encounter?

Despite its flaws and historical sense of familiarity, Star Wars: The Last Jedi has still managed to keep me interested in a franchise I once spurned in disgust.  The forthcoming Episode Nine has a lot to live up to.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Sunday, February 17, 2019
6:03 p.m.

Published in: on February 17, 2019 at 6:03 pm  Leave a Comment  

Rogue One

I never thought I needed to know the backstory of how the Rebel Alliance acquired the blueprints to the original Death Star but the thoroughly enthralling Rogue One convinces me it’s one worth telling.  Star Wars doesn’t have the greatest track record with prequels so before I pressed play, I wasn’t expecting much.  But Rogue One is so good, I think it’s superior to The Last Jedi.  I was hooked from the opening scene.

Watching it a few years after its highly successful theatrical run, I’m stunned it didn’t win for its incredible special effects.  This might be the best looking Star Wars film to date.

The movie opens with a crisis.  A family of three scrambles after Director Krannic (the deliciously cruel Ben Mendelsohn) and a band of Imperial goons arrive having discovered their hideout on a distant planet.  The patriarch Galen (Mads Mikkelsen) is a scientist reluctant to keep working on the Empire’s new secret weapon.  Krannic needs him to finish the job he started.

Eager to protect his young daughter Jyn, Galen orders her to flee and find her special hiding place.  Meanwhile, Galen’s wife makes the mistake of confronting Krannic.

Many years later, Jyn (now wonderfully played by a game Felicity Jones) is a prisoner of the Empire.  There’s a brilliant camera shot in her cell.  As we see her awake and alert on the right, and her humourously snoring alien cellmate on the left, right through the cell door in the middle you can see a stormtrooper pass by and if you look even closer you can see another doing patrol on a lower level.  It’s just a quick moment but it’s an astounding level of subtle craftsmanship.  So much detail covered in one stationary angle, emblematic of the entire film.

While being transported, members of the Rebel Alliance attempt to rescue Jyn who proves herself to be a tough motherfucker.  Not only can she kick ass, she can take a choke slam bump.  Not happy to be apprehended by the rebels, they interrogate her about her father wrongly believing him to be sympathetic to Darth Vader and company.  They want him in custody.

Diego Luna delivers his best performance to date as Cassian, a complex Rebel pilot assigned to accompany Jyn on the fateful mission to locate Galen.  (He learns about the Death Star from a source he mercifully exterminates in an early scene.)  One of his superiors pulls him aside to let him know the real assignment:  assassination.  Along for the ride is the very funny K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk), a reprogrammed Imperial droid who proves to be a strangely lovable character with a surprising independent streak and a fierce babyface loyalty.

During the long journey, our heroes acquire two new allies:  a blind samurai Chirrut (the fantastic Donnie Yen) and his gun-totting companion Baze (Jiang Wen in a good performance), both former Guardians of the Whills.  Once they locate Galen, still held captive by the Galactic Empire, Cassian finds his position hoping to make a perfect snipe.  Chirrut correctly senses he’s not up for the assignment.

It’s hard to watch Director Krannic and not think of David Miscavige, the creepy head of Scientology.  Different accents aside, they look and sometimes sound eerily similar.  They’re both arrogant, abusive authoritarians with delusions of permanent occupation.

In Rogue One, the Death Star isn’t quite ready to be a planet destroyer (still a few kinks to work out) but it can wipe out entire cities like a nuclear bomb.  During one such annihilation, Krannic makes an odd comment, perfectly in line with his monstrous character.

After being separated from her family as a child, Jyn was raised by the eccentric Saw Gerrera (a memorable Forest Whitaker), a man so ravaged by war he’s almost completely bionic.  (Surely, the name is a reference to the legendary Che Guevera.)  They reconnect after so many years to look at a hologram message sent by her dad through a whistleblowing defector, a timid Imperial pilot named Bodhi (Riz Ahmed) who Gerrera doesn’t trust.

The bottom line is this.  Galen has planted a secret weakness in the Death Star undetected by the Empire.  This weakness is in the design blueprints.  Unfortunately, they’re located in an archival safe along with all the other well-guarded secrets of the Empire on a planet protected by a huge shield.  I love how they’re all given codenames like the NSA does with its illegal mass surveillance programs.  And yes, one of the Empire’s files has Prism in its name.  Cheeky.

When this information is relayed to the Rebel Council, there is much disagreement about its veracity.  Galen is still viewed with a lot of distrust.  There’s also a lot of hesitation about going to war over it.  But Cassian, Baze, Chirrut and K-2SO are all with Jyn (along with some courageously dissenting Rebel fighters) and a plan is hatched to find the blueprints and somehow send them securely to the Rebel Alliance.

Rogue One was written and directed by Gareth Edwards who made the surprisingly good Godzilla in 2014.  He’s managed to achieve something unique here:  a riveting Star Wars movie not so dependent on past characters.  Yes, Darth Vader returns and leaves yet another indelible impression especially in the final act but we only see him in a couple of scenes altogether.  Ditto the obvious CGI rendering of the late, great Peter Cushing as Tarkin, one of the Empire’s ship commanders.  Yeah, you can tell he’s animated but the character still works and you just go with it because you’re so involved with the story.

Led by the versatile Felicity Jones, this new cast of memorable heroes carry the day with their wit, their fierce determination and their absolute reluctance to back down in the face of such stiff blowback.  The movie wouldn’t work if we didn’t care about them so much.  Krannic is so dastardly, you’re eager to see him face direct accountability.  (If only the same thing could happen to David Miscavige.)  Because none of these characters appear in the original trilogy, Edwards has free rein to do what every creator unabashedly loves:  playing God.

The exhilarating action is typical Star Wars, simultaneously fun and tragic.  From hand-to-hand combat to the laser shootouts and the air & space battles, these sequences always keep your eyes glued to the screen.  You never stop being transfixed.  The final act is particularly satisfying, not least of which because it beautifully leads up to the fateful moment when a certain character acquires certain information that will be passed on to a certain droid and seen by a certain future hero.

A seamless passing of the narrative torch.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Sunday, February 17, 2019
5:04 p.m.

Published in: on February 17, 2019 at 5:04 pm  Leave a Comment  

Daddy’s Home Two

Every performer in show business has an expiration date, that moment when it becomes abundantly clear that their glory days are truly over.  For Mel Gibson, that moment arrives during his first appearance in Daddy’s Home Two.

As he approaches that descending airport escalator, trying to live up to wide-eyed Will Ferrell’s shameless hype and making eyes at cute women as they pass each other in opposite directions, something is very wrong indeed.

It’s Gibson’s harshly weathered face.  He looks demented.  Every time he smiles, he looks even creepier. While meeting the admiring Ferrell and reconnecting with his long disgruntled son, Mark Wahlberg, we wonder what the filmmakers were thinking hiring him for this movie.

Gibson’s character in Daddy’s Home Two, a retired astronaut, is the worst thing about it.  He’s not funny at all.  He’s a despicable womanizer, an unapologetic shit disturber, the essence of unpleasantness especially when he laughs at his own family’s pain which is often.  Shortly after opening his mouth, we immediately hate him.  This may be the closest Gibson’s come to playing himself on screen.

Wahlberg has long despised him for being alternately neglectful and rigid.  As a result, they haven’t made contact in years.  And yet, here he is inviting himself to Wahlberg and Ferrell’s Together Christmas.

In the original Daddy’s Home, Ferrell married lovely Linda Cardellini, Wahlberg’s ex and the mother of his two kids.  Wahlberg was the irresponsible bad boy, Ferrell the squeaky-clean pushover.  After one-upping each other for the affection of their blended family, they eventually reached a truce and became friends.

That truce and friendship carries over into Daddy’s Home Two until Gibson starts openly criticizing their co-parenting arrangement believing it to be unmanly.  Throughout the film, he keeps stirring the pot until the two “co-dads” snap and pull their buried resentments out of their respective “harbours”.

Shortly after meeting Gibson at the airport, Ferrell and Wahlberg also pick up Ferrell’s overly cheerful dad John Lithgow.  Whereas Gibson and Wahlberg express no affection for each other, Ferrell and Lithgow can’t stop kissing each other on the lips.  It’s not funny, it’s weird.  Lithgow takes a liking to the grumpy Gibson but the feeling is not mutual.  It will be by the end of the movie.

The Together Christmas comes about because of Wahlberg’s daughter’s Christmas Pageant speech where she notes the awkwardness of not having a normal holiday with a normal family.  But Ferrell and Wahlberg’s plans are trumped by Gibson who immediately books a cabin for Christmas week on AirBnB.  Joining the dysfunction are Wahlberg’s shoplifting, note-taking writer wife and eventually, her ex, the dad of his own stuck-up, device-addicted stepdaughter, John Cena, whose last-minute, unspoken cameo in Daddy’s Home was the biggest laugh in a film starving for them.  What a mistake to give him lines this time.

Once at the cabin, a jukebox playing Do They Know It’s Christmas? triggers a bad memory for Wahlberg.  He was supposed to sing the Bono part during a school assembly but missed his cue when he spotted Gibson being affectionate with another student’s mom.  The distraction becomes a humiliation.  The Bono mullet, however, is gold.

For some dumb reason, Daddy’s Home Two really wants to be the much worse National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation which explains an obligatory scene where something goes wrong with the Christmas lights (in Lampoon, they wouldn’t turn on; in this movie, they get eaten up by a snowblower) and another where Ferrell is egged on by Gibson to cut down a tree on public land, a felony.

Wahlberg’s bespectacled son who looks a lot like Jacob Tremblay develops a crush but doesn’t know what to do about it.  Ferrell tells him to aim for The Friend Zone.  Gibson encourages him to be a groper.  Guess whose advice he actually takes.

Gibson convinces Wahlberg’s daughter to go on a turkey hunt, much to the horror of Ferrell’s side of the family.  And he insists that the Tremblay clone bowl with unblocked gutters.  I will admit that the kid’s final roll results in a genuinely funny moment.

Near the cabin is a Nativity scene populated with real people in costumed tableaux.  Inevitably, the whole family fills in one night which leads to the expected airing of grievances and a stupidly amusing moment when Ferrell finally loses it on Wahlberg but is too PG with his insult and too cowardly to truly attack him.

For much of its 100-minute running time, Daddy’s Home Two is a dour affair.  Wahlberg’s son gets relentlessly bullied for his crush (which the movie suddenly changes at the end for some reason), Gibson continually criticizes Wahlberg’s own passivity as a parent and step-parent, Lithgow’s secret is exposed in a humiliating fashion thanks to Wahlberg’s improv suggestion and the two young daughters can’t stop being rude snots.

By the time the family goes to the movies (because an avalanche prevents their return trip home), a last-ditch attempt for a happy ending proves very desperate and very convenient.  And yet, at the same time, despite a lack of conviction, it’s also a welcome relief from all the tension and anger. The instant Ferrell starts playing Do They Know It’s Christmas?, I laughed.  I wish I laughed more.

Daddy’s Home Two won’t be remembered with much affection.  It’s too joyless and derivative, too mean and insincere.  Like the original, it’s just not funny enough.  But what it will be remembered for is that hideous Mel Gibson performance, the rightful winner of a Razzie.

Molly Crabapple is right.  Bigotry deteriorates the beautiful.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Saturday, February 16, 2019
7:23 p.m.

Published in: on February 16, 2019 at 7:23 pm  Leave a Comment