Thursday, June 21, 2018

Jurassic Park: The Story So Far

Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the next installment of an ongoing series here on Rhode Island Movie Corner, ‘The Story So Far’. This is where I recap the past installments of a franchise in time for its latest release. In doing so, it allows you, the readers, an opportunity to catch up on a franchise if you find that you don’t have enough time to watch its previous installments and just want to know about its most important details before seeing the new film. And for today’s segment of ‘The Story So Far’, we’re looking at one of the most famous franchises in recent film history, Jurassic Park. Ever since director Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of author Michael Crichton’s best-selling novel of the same name hit theaters in 1993, it has gone on to become of the most beloved blockbusters of all-time, heralded for its groundbreaking visual effects. It then proceeded to get two follow-ups, 1997’s The Lost World: Jurassic Park, which Spielberg directed as well, and 2001’s Jurassic Park III, directed by Joe Johnston. Both films did well at the box-office though they weren’t as well-received by critics and audiences when compared to the first film. After that, a planned fourth film spent several years languishing in development hell until director Colin Trevorrow returned audiences to the island of Isla Nublar in 2015 with Jurassic World. Upon its release, the film set numerous box-office records amidst a critical reception that admittedly made it just as polarizing as the previous two films. But, of course, we’re back again with this cautionary tale of ‘man vs. nature’ with this year’s Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, directed by J.A. Bayona. But until then, let’s return to the early days of this crazy, little dinosaur experiment and embark on an adventure ’65 million years in the making’ as we recap the events of the Jurassic Park series.

Jurassic Park (RELEASED: 1993)

Jurassic Park (1993)

On the island of Isla Nublar, located off the coast of Costa Rica, industrialist John Hammond (Sir Richard Attenborough) and his company InGen have developed a way of cloning dinosaurs utilizing dinosaur DNA that has been extracted from fossilized mosquitoes. Hammond plans on showcasing his new discovery to the world via an immersive theme park called ‘Jurassic Park’. However, while transporting a Velociraptor to a new enclosure one night, one of the company’s dinosaur handlers is killed when the raptor tries to break free, resulting in a lawsuit from the employee’s family. Because of this, Hammond’s investors demand that he hires a team of experts to visit the park to ensure that it’s maintaining good safety standards. Thus, Hammond invites paleontologist Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill), paleobotanist Dr. Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern), and mathematician/chaos theorist Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) to the island. Along the way, they’re joined by lawyer Donald Gennaro (Martin Ferraro), who represents Hammond’s investors, and once they arrive on the island, they meet Hammond’s grandchildren, tech-savvy Lex Murphy (Ariana Richards) and her younger brother, dinosaur enthusiast Tim (Joseph Mazzello). This proves to be a bit of an issue for Grant who, as evident from an earlier scene where he discusses raptors with a kid at a dig site, isn’t that big a fan of children. But the tour goes on as planned, with the group being told that the dinosaurs on the island are unable to breed because they are all female, something that Malcolm questions as he claims that this attempt of theirs to control nature is doomed to fail. As for the tour itself, it ultimately ends up being incredibly underwhelming as most of the dinosaurs that the group is meant to come across don’t show up. The only dinosaur that they do come across is a sick Triceratops that they find once they temporarily leave their tour vehicles. Ellie decides to stay and study the Triceratops while Grant, Malcolm, Tim, Lex, and Gennaro return to the tour vehicles right as a tropical storm begins to make landfall on the island, which forces the tour to be put on hold.  

Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park (1993)

Meanwhile, Jurassic Park’s disgruntled main computer programmer, Dennis Nedry (Wayne Knight), initiates a plan to steal some of InGen’s fertilized embryos for a rival company. To do so, Nedry temporarily shuts down the park’s security system, which also ends up shutting off all the power in the park. To make matters worse for Grant and company, this ends up occurring right when they’re stationed near the Tyrannosaurus Rex paddock. Sure enough, the T-Rex breaks loose, eating Gennaro (while he’s hiding on the toilet in a nearby restroom) and injuring Malcolm while Grant and the kids barely manage to escape. Nedry’s own efforts to leave the island with the embryos in tow ends up being disastrous as well when he gets lost on the way to the docks and is killed by a venom-spitting Dilophosaurus (disclaimer: Dilophosaurus did not spit venom in real-life; this was something that Michael Crichton invented for the novel). When Ellie and the park’s warden, Robert Muldoon (Bob Peck), head out to try and find Grant and the kids, they rescue Malcolm and barely manage to escape from the T-Rex when it chases after them. Once back at the park’s visitor center, Hammond and his chief engineer, Ray Arnold (Samuel L. Jackson), decide to reboot the park’s entire system when they find that they’re unable to figure out a way around Nedry’s hacks. When Arnold fails to return from turning the power back on, Ellie and Muldoon head out to investigate. Muldoon ends up getting killed by a pair of Velociraptors while Ellie manages to reach the primary maintenance shed and gets the power back up and running again, coming across Arnold’s severed arm in the process.

Sam Neill, Ariana Richards, and Joseph Mazzello in Jurassic Park (1993)

As Grant and the kids begin their journey back to the visitor center, they come across a bunch of broken egg shells, with Grant realizing that Malcolm was right and that the dinosaurs can breed after all due to the parts of their DNA that were taken from frogs who can change their sex in a single-sex environment. After enduring everything from a Gallimimus stampede (and subsequent T-Rex attack) to Tim nearly dying when they try to climb over an electric fence right when the power is turned back on, the trio manages to return to the visitor center and reunite with Ellie. Unfortunately, they are then pursued by the raptors, who first chase Tim and Lex through the kitchen before cornering the lot of them in the control room. The group manages to temporarily keep them at bay when Lex manages to use the park’s UNIX computer system to restore power to the entire park, fixing both the phones and the electric door locks. As Hammond calls for a helicopter to evacuate, the group are forced to flee once again when the raptors break through the windows of the control room. They eventually end up in the visitor center’s foyer, where they get cornered by the raptors. Luckily for them, the T-Rex pops up by surprise and kills the raptors, giving them ample time to escape. After reuniting with Hammond and Malcolm, the group finally escapes the island via helicopter, with Grant having gained a newfound appreciation for children thanks to the time that he has spent with Tim and Lex.

The Lost World: Jurassic Park (RELEASED: 1997)

The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997)

After the success of the film adaptation of Jurassic Park, Crichton published a sequel, The Lost World, in 1995, which was subsequently adapted to the big-screen by Spielberg two years later. Set four years after the events of the original film, it opens with InGen once again finding itself in hot water when a young girl named Cathy Bowman (Camilla Belle) is attacked by a swarm of Compsognathus while on vacation with her family. As it turns out, the family had landed on another Costa Rican island, Isla Sorna, which is revealed to be the site where the company had created the dinosaurs before they were moved over to Isla Nublar. The site was ultimately abandoned when a hurricane ravaged the area, leaving the dinosaurs on their own without any sort of measures in place to restrain them. InGen, now headed by John Hammond’s nephew Peter Ludlow (Arliss Howard), plans on using the island to fix their financial troubles caused by the incident on Isla Nublar. While this is going on, John Hammond approaches Ian Malcolm and asks for his help in ensuring the dinosaurs’ survival by having him travel to Isla Sorna with a team to document them to prove that they’re perfectly fine in their natural habitat. While Malcolm is hesitant to return to the area, he is ultimately convinced to go when he learns that one of the members of Hammond’s team is his girlfriend, paleontologist Sarah Harding (Julianne Moore), who’s already on the island. Now intent on getting her out before something happens to her, Malcolm meets up with the other two members of their team, engineer/field equipment expert Eddie Carr (Richard Schiff) and video documentarian Nick Van Owen (Vince Vaughn). Before they head off, Malcolm is also forced to deal with the increasingly strained relationship that he has with his daughter Kelly (Vanessa Lee Chester).

Jeff Goldblum, Vince Vaughn, and Richard Schiff in The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997)

Once the group lands on Isla Sorna, they reunite with Sarah while also discovering that Kelly had stowed away with them in their mobile base. Soon after, a team of mercenaries and hunters led by Ludlow and big-game hunter Roland Tembo (Pete Postlethwaite) arrive on the island to enact InGen’s plans by capturing multiple dinosaurs and having them sent to a theme park that’s planned to be built in San Diego. They also capture an infant T-Rex that Tembo plans on using as bait to lure its parent, which he’s primarily looking to capture. Clearly aware of why this is, as Malcolm later puts it, ‘the worst idea in the history of bad ideas’, Nick and Sarah break the dinosaurs out of their cages, allowing them to wreak havoc upon the InGen team’s camp. They also take the infant T-Rex back to the mobile base to fix its broken leg. This, of course, causes its parents to arrive on the scene, knocking the base off a cliff while Malcolm, Sarah, and Nick are still inside and eating Eddie when he tries to pull it back up. The trio ultimately gets rescued by the InGen team and, because of the loss of both teams’ communications equipment, are forced to form an uneasy ‘alliance’ with them to reach the island’s abandoned radio station and call for rescue. The group ends up getting chased by the adult T-Rexes and a bunch of velociraptors, with numerous casualties along the way. Malcolm’s group manages to reach the radio station, fend off the raptors, and call for a helicopter while the InGen team successfully manages to capture the male T-Rex, who’s then transported to the site of the new theme park in San Diego.

The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997)

Back on the mainland, the ship transporting the T-Rex ends up crashing into InGen’s docks when it arrives earlier than expected without responding to any calls from the harbormaster. After it’s discovered that the ship’s crew has been killed, the T-Rex is accidentally released from the cargo hold, allowing it to rampage through the city where it menaces suburbia, eats ‘unlucky bastards’ who happen to be played by the film’s screenwriters (no joke, that’s what the character played via cameo by screenwriter David Koepp is listed as), etc. To get it back on the ship, Malcolm and Sarah collect the infant T-Rex from the new park’s facilities and transport it back by car, luring the adult T-Rex back with them just like when they first took the infant back to their mobile base on the island. When Ludlow tries to intervene, he gets trapped in the cargo hold by the adult T-Rex and is devoured by the infant while Malcolm and Sarah manage to tranquilize the former and trap them both in there so that they can be sent back to Isla Sorna. The next day, Malcolm, Sarah, and Kelly watch a news report on the infant and adult T-Rexes being transported back. An interview with John Hammond reveals that plans have been made with the Costa Rican Department of Biological Preserves to turn Isla Sorna into a nature preserve, allowing the dinosaurs to live in peace without any sort of interference from humans. Thus, as the film ends with a shot of the family of T-Rexes reunited on the island, Hammond quotes the line that Malcolm famously stated in the previous film, affirming that ‘life will find a way’.

Jurassic Park III (RELEASED: 2001)

Jurassic Park III (2001)

Four years after the events of the previous film, Jurassic Park III opens with 12-year-old Eric Kirby (Trevor Morgan) parasailing near the island of Isla Sorna with family friend Ben Hildebrand (Mark Harelik). To their horror, the other passengers on their boat are killed by something that is unseen due to fog and the two end up having to detach themselves from the boat before it crashes into a bunch of rocks, resulting in them being directed right towards Isla Sorna. Meanwhile, back on the mainland, Dr. Alan Grant finds himself struggling to find funding for his team’s research while Ellie Sattler has since gotten married to U.S. State Department worker Mark (Taylor Nichols), whom she has had two kids with. One day, Grant is approached by Paul (William H. Macy) and Amanda (Tea Leoni) Kirby, who offer him funding for his research in exchange for an aerial tour of Isla Sorna. Despite his initial dismissal about returning to the area (to the point where he responds to a question about it at a university lecture by stating that ‘no force on earth or heaven will get him on that island’), Grant agrees to their offer. He is joined by his assistant, Billy Brennan (Alessandro Nivola), on the trip along with a bunch of mercenaries who are ‘financed’ by the Kirbys, Udesky (Michael Jeter), Cooper (John Diehl), and Nash (Bruce A. Young). Once they arrive at Isla Sorna, however, Grant discovers that the group plans on landing there. Despite his objections, they do land and, soon enough, they end up stranded when they crash into a Spinosaurus that had been chasing Cooper, who is subsequently eaten by it along with Nash. After escaping both the Spinosaurus and a T-Rex, who gets killed by the former, Grant learns that the Kirbys had lied to him. Instead of being a rich couple, they are recently-divorced parents who own a hardware store and have come to Isla Sorna in search of their son Eric and Amanda’s boyfriend Ben, who have been missing for the past eight weeks.

Sam Neill in Jurassic Park III (2001)

The group finds Ben and Eric’s parasail, with Ben’s skeletal remains still attached to it and no sign of Eric, meaning that he’s potentially still alive. After being chased by a group of Velociraptors, who kill Udesky, Grant is separated from the group and is rescued from the raptors by Eric, who’s managed to survive on his own for the past eight weeks. When the duo manages to reunite with the others, Grant learns that the reason why the raptors have been chasing them is because Billy had taken a pair of raptor eggs to provide their dig site the funding that they obviously won’t be getting from the Kirbys. Grant, furious at this decision, takes the eggs to ensure that the group will survive, remarking that Billy ‘is no better than the people who built this place’. When the group enters an aviary full of Pteranodons, Billy saves Eric from being taken by them but is seemingly killed in the process. Eventually, the group begins to make their way downriver by boat, barely managing to ward off the Spinosaurus with fire while Grant phones Ellie for help. When the group gets cornered by the Velociraptors once again, Grant manages to ward them off by surrendering the stolen eggs to them and using Billy’s 3-D printed replica of a Velociraptor larynx to confuse them. Once they reach the coast, they end up getting rescued by the U.S. Marine Corps and the U.S. Navy, who were called there by Ellie. Billy is revealed to be alive and the group leaves the island while noticing a bunch of Pteranodons departing as well. As Grant remarks, they’re ‘looking for new nesting grounds’.

Jurassic World (RELEASED: 2015)

Chris Pratt in Jurassic World (2015)

Generally ignoring the events of the previous two films (which still recognizing them as canon), Jurassic World takes place 22 years after the events of the original film. In the years since, John Hammond’s idea of a dinosaur theme park has been revitalized by the Masrani Corporation, with ‘Jurassic World’ operating on the exact same site on Isla Nublar. Bickering brothers Zach (Nick Robinson) and Gray (Ty Simpkins) Mitchell travel to the park to visit their aunt Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard), who serves as the park’s operations manager. As soon as they arrive, though, she immediately brushes them off to deal with the pressure coming from her boss, ‘pilot’ Simon Masrani (Irrfan Khan), to develop a new attraction that would help boost their attendance numbers. Under the direction of Hammond’s former lead scientist Dr. Henry Wu (B.D. Wong), a new dinosaur known as the Indominus Rex is created from the combined DNA samples of various dinosaurs, including the T-Rex, and other creatures. Claire is then forced to ask for the assistance of the park’s velociraptor trainer Owen Grady (Chris Pratt), whom she had one ‘bad’ date with, to ensure that the Indominus’ enclosure is properly secured. Once there, however, they find that the Indominus has seemingly managed to escape. As it turns out, the Indominus managed to fool them with its camouflaging ability (taken from cuttlefish DNA) and escapes for real once Owen and a few other workers go in to inspect the site. Masrani attempts to subdue it by sending in the park’s Asset Containment Unit, but most of the team ends up getting killed by it, resulting in Claire ordering a complete evacuation of the northern half of the island.

Jurassic World (2015)

Unfortunately for Claire, a new problem emerges when Zach and Gray end up wandering into a restricted area via the park’s gryosphere attraction. The two brothers end up getting attacked by the Indominus and barely manage to escape from it by jumping off a waterfall. While Claire and Owen head out to try and rescue them, they end up coming across the old Jurassic Park Visitor Center and begin heading back to the resort in one of the old park’s jeeps, which they manage to repair. Meanwhile, Masrani pilots an attack helicopter to hunt the Indominus. This ends up being a complete disaster, however, as the helicopter crashes into the resort’s aviary, resulting in a swarm of Pterosaurs attacking the resort’s guests. Owen and Claire manage to find Zach and Gray while park security manages to subdue the attacking Pterosaurs. Soon after, Vic Hoskins (Vincent D’Onofrio), head of InGen’s security team, assumes command of the situation. Hoskins and Owen had come into conflict earlier over the former’s suggestion of using the latter’s quartet of trained raptors (Charlie, Echo, Delta, and Blue) for military use. Despite Owen’s objections, he agrees to partake in Hoskins’ plan to use the raptors to hunt down the Indominus. Unfortunately, once Owen and the raptors come across the Indominus, Owen realizes one of the biggest secrets surrounding the creature’s creation… it’s part raptor. This allows the Indominus to become the Raptors’ new ‘alpha’, resulting in the pack beginning to hunt InGen’s troops.

Chris Pratt in Jurassic World (2015)

Owen, Claire, Zach, and Gray barely manage to escape and return to the Jurassic World Visitor Center. Once there, they discover that Hoskins has been working in conjunction with Dr. Wu on new hybrid dinosaurs to further his plan of having them be used for military purposes. While Hoskins ends up getting killed by Delta, Owen manages to regain the trust of his raptor pack right as the Indominus returns. After Echo and Delta are killed by it (Charlie was killed earlier during the Indominus hunt by a missile), Gray remarks that they need something with ‘more teeth’ to stop it. Thus, Claire orders one of the park’s control room operators, Lowery Cruthers (Jake Johnson), to open the gates to the T-Rex paddock as she manages to lure the T-Rex into a fight with the Indominus… and yes, she does all of this while wearing heels. With assistance from Blue, the last surviving member of Owen’s raptor pack, the T-Rex manages to corner the Indominus at the edge of the resort’s lagoon. Before the Indominus can attack again, it is swiftly grabbed by a Mosasaurus and dragged underwater. Blue and the T-Rex depart, though the former shares one last moment with Owen beforehand. As Isla Nublar ends up being abandoned once more, Zach and Gray reunite with their parents, Karen (Judy Greer) and Scott (Andy Buckley), at an off-site shelter in Costa Rica while Owen and Claire prepare for whatever comes next by deciding to stick together ‘for survival’. The film ends with the T-Rex perched above the abandoned Jurassic World site, once again in control of its home environment. But as it’s established in the trailers for the upcoming Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, the future of said home is put into jeopardy by way of the island’s previously dormant volcano.

And that is the ‘Story So Far’ when it comes to the Jurassic Park series. Thanks for following along and you can expect a review of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom sometime in the next few days. While I am aware that the overall reception towards this franchise’s sequels tend to vary amongst critics and audiences, I’ve personally enjoyed all the films in this franchise (yes, even Jurassic Park III despite the 2.5/5 rating that I gave it a few years back in the retrospective that I did on the original trilogy prior to the release of Jurassic World). Thus, I am eagerly looking forward to this new film, which I hear will provide an interesting set-up for the new trilogy’s finale that’s set to come out in 2021 and will see Colin Trevorrow return as director.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Incredibles 2 (2018) review

Samuel L. Jackson, Holly Hunter, Craig T. Nelson, Brad Bird, and Huck Milner in Incredibles 2 (2018)

In 2004, Pixar released what many consider to be one of their greatest films to date, The Incredibles. The film notably served as the first Pixar film that wasn’t directed by one of the studio’s primary group of filmmakers. However, director Brad Bird isn’t that far off from being a member of Pixar’s core creative team, as he was one of the many iconic animators who attended the California Institute of the Arts in the 1970’s alongside the likes of Pixar mainstays like Pete Docter and Andrew Stanton. With The Incredibles, Bird gave audiences a delightfully entertaining homage to the Silver Age of comics that starred a family of superheroes whose powers were tied directly to classic familial archetypes, like the father who’s expected to be strong for his family or the mother who gets pulled in all directions. Upon its release, the film grossed over $633 million worldwide and won two Oscars for Best Sound Editing and Best Animated Feature. Critics and audiences lauded it for its animation (which was touted as having broken new grounds for creating human characters), thrilling action sequences, and a layered plot that delved into subjects that one wouldn’t normally expect to see in a film geared towards younger audiences (e.g. going through a mid-life crisis, potential inter-martial affairs, etc.). And it ended on a big cliffhanger that effectively made it one of the few Pixar films (arguably the only one, even…) where a sequel was almost universally demanded by fans. Well, it may have taken 14 years, but Brad Bird is back once again with the continuing adventures of everyone’s favorite superhero family in Incredibles 2. And fear not, folks, as that long gap in time between the releases of these two films does not prevent this sequel from being one of the most satisfying follow-ups in recent memory, sure to delight both those who grew up with the original and those who didn’t grow up with it but now get to experience its majesty for the first time.

Incredibles 2 opens right where the first film left off, with retired crime-fighters Bob Parr AKA Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) and his wife Helen AKA Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) having returned to their old lives of being superheroes. Not only that, but they’re now joined by their two oldest kids as well; Violet (Sarah Vowell), who can turn invisible and project force fields, and Dash (Huck Milner, replacing Spencer Fox from the first film), a speedster. However, due to the government laws that had forced Bob, Helen, and their fellow superheroes to go into retirement 15 years ago still being in effect, the family is forced to once again return to their normal lives. To make matters worse, Bob and Helen learn from their government ally Rick Dicker (Jonathan Banks, replacing Bud Luckey from the first film) that the ‘Superhero Relocation Program’ that has been keeping their secret identities secure is set to be discontinued, putting the family’s entire future in jeopardy. That is, until Bob, Helen, and family friend Lucius Best AKA Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) are approached with an offer by Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk), the owner of one of the top telecommunication companies in the world, DEVTECH. Having been a fan of superheroes ever since he was a kid, Winston and his sister Evelyn (Catherine Keener) propose a plan to use their influences in the media to help revitalize the public’s perception of superheroes. The Deavors end up selecting Helen to lead their operation as they consider her to be the ‘least-destructive’ of the three. Despite this, Bob offers to watch the kids so that Helen can do her thing and hopefully allow them all to return to doing what they do best. Thus, Mr. Incredible finds himself facing his most difficult challenge yet… being a stay-at-home dad who must deal with everything from Violet’s dating struggles to figuring out the powers of the family’s infant son, Jack-Jack. Meanwhile, Helen finds herself dealing with a new tech-savvy villain known as the Screenslaver who threatens to undermine the whole operation with his ability to brainwash people using hypnotic imagery.

The superhero genre has obviously evolved quite a bit since the release of the first Incredibles, primarily thanks to the global powerhouse that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Thus, Brad Bird has noted that this was one of the biggest challenges in developing the sequel because he didn’t want to follow a lot of the genre’s common narrative tropes. Thus, he instead focused on the key aspect that made the first film the classic that it is, the family dynamic. Oh sure, like its predecessor, there’s plenty of fun action sequences in this film and it isn’t afraid to explore some of the various facets of its world of superheroes. But at its core, this is still a film about a family who struggles to deal with the consequences of having superpowers in a world that isn’t that accepting of those who have them. Some may argue that the plot is mostly just a role reversal of the first film, this time having Elastigirl being the one who goes out to fight crime instead of Mr. Incredible, but it’s a lot more than that. The first film was about Mr. Incredible overcoming the mid-life crisis that he found himself in as a former superhero who’s forced to go into hiding and become an average citizen in a frustrating dead-end job. As for the sequel, it’s about how Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl are both forced to make sacrifices to ensure their family’s future. Elastigirl’s crime-fighting requires her to leave her family for an extended amount of time while Mr. Incredible is forced to stand back and let his wife go out and revel in all the superhero glory when it’s clear that she’s quite arguably better at it than him. Because of this, the film ends up boasting a strong amount of emotional depth that is on par with what we got out of the original.

All of this is paired nicely with the film’s excellent animation, which truly does showcase how far computer animation has evolved since 2004. Like the first film, the animation in this film does an excellent job in capturing that vibrant comic-book style, with some scenes even managing to give off a nice 2-D vibe. As for the characters, the majority of the first film’s cast return to reprise their roles in this film, save for Jonathan Banks taking over for the late Bud Luckey as Rick Dicker and Huck Milner taking over for Spencer Fox in the role of Dash a la Hayden Rolence taking over for Alexander Gould as Nemo in Finding Dory. These two do a nice job in taking over their respective roles and all the returning players slip back into their parts with ease. As noted earlier, the film does a fantastic job of balancing out Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl’s roles in the story while still making the latter the central character this time around, something that Holly Hunter very much revels in. But Craig T. Nelson also gets a lot of great material to work with as well, with Mr. Incredible getting a lot of the film’s best humorous moments due to his increasing exasperation over all the crazy shenanigans that he gets into while trying to take care of the family, like struggling to understand the new ways to learn math. And of course, there are all the memorable supporting roles, from the always-reliable Samuel L. Jackson as the suave Frozone to director Brad Bird himself as the Parrs’ legendary costume designer Edna Mode to newcomers like Bob Odenkirk and Catherine Keener as the Deavors. 

The concept of Pixar doing sequels to their various animated classics has been a heavily contentious topic amongst the studio’s fanbase. While sequels in general always tend to get a bad reputation from many film buffs, it seems as if Pixar’s sequels face even more scrutiny from those who feel that the studio is ‘above all that’. Sure, the Toy Story sequels managed to be just as critically-acclaimed as the original 1995 film that started it all for the company, but the same can’t exactly be said for follow-ups to films like Cars and Monsters Inc. Heck, even the upcoming Toy Story 4 has been attracting tons of skepticism from those who felt that the series had reached its proper conclusion with 2010’s Toy Story 3. In short, as I said before, The Incredibles seemed to be the only Pixar film that most fans genuinely wanted a sequel to given how it ended on a major cliffhanger (a cliffhanger that, rest assured, does get a satisfying conclusion in this new film). Thankfully, Incredibles 2 does manage to live up to all the hype surrounding it by being yet another fun animated superhero adventure that never loses sight of the strong family dynamic that defined its predecessor. This, in turn, allows the film to stand out amongst all the superhero films that have come out since the original Incredibles in 2004. It’s clear that Brad Bird took his time to ensure that the sequel would be up to par with its predecessor, and he more than delivers in that regard. I won’t go as far as to compare these two films just yet seeing how I’ve only seen the sequel once compared to the countless times I’ve seen the first film, but I’d say that they’re evenly matched. Either way, for fans of the original film, you’ll be more than satisfied with this long-awaited follow-up while younger audiences get to experience everything that made the first Incredibles a modern masterpiece.

Rating: 5/5!

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Ocean's 8 (2018) review

Sandra Bullock, Helena Bonham Carter, Cate Blanchett, Anne Hathaway, Sarah Paulson, Mindy Kaling, Rihanna, and Awkwafina in Ocean's Eight (2018)

In 1960, Warner Bros. released Ocean’s 11, a heist film set in Las Vegas that was directed by two-time Oscar-winning director Lewis Milestone. The film was notable for featuring a star-studded cast that was headlined by the five men who made up one of the entertainment industry’s most notable ‘groups’, the Rat Pack; Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford, and Joey Bishop. And while the film itself wasn’t exactly a big hit with critics, it did do solidly at the box-office and is still considered as one of the group’s most iconic projects. Four decades later, the film was remade by auteur director Steven Soderbergh; like the original, it also featured a star-studded ensemble cast, including George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, and Julia Roberts, just to name a few. Upon its release in 2001, the film was a massive commercial hit that was followed by two sequels, Ocean’s Twelve in 2004 and Ocean’s Thirteen in 2007. All three films were commercially successful though critical reception towards them was varied (i.e. many consider Ocean’s Twelve to be the worst installment of the trilogy). One thing for certain, though, was that following the passing of Bernie Mac (who played con-man Frank Catton) in 2008, both Soderbergh and Clooney made it clear that there would not be a fourth Ocean’s film with the original cast. So instead, it was decided about a decade later to take the series in a different direction; thus, here we are now with Ocean’s 8, a female-led spin-off that, true to the franchise’s roots, features an all-star cast headlined by the likes of Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, and Anne Hathaway… and again, that’s just to name a few. This time around, veteran writer/director Gary Ross is behind the camera for this spin-off, though Soderbergh is still involved as a producer. And as crazy as it might seem, Ross somehow manages to surpass several of the highs from Soderbergh’s trilogy even though his film does tend to abide by quite a few of the franchise’s usual trappings.

Following in the footsteps of her late brother Danny, professional thief Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock) is released on parole after spending the last five years (and eight months) in prison. As soon as she gets out, she reunites with her best friend and partner-in-crime Lou (Cate Blanchett) with her next planned heist already in the works. Said heist revolves around one of the most famous events in New York, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s annual Met Gala, which several of the most famous people in the world attend. However, instead of just robbing the Gala itself, Debbie plans on stealing a valuable necklace known as the Touissant that is owned by the famous jeweler Cartier and is valued at around $150 million. To accomplish this heist, Debbie and Lou recruit a group of specialists, including down-on-her-luck fashion designer Rose Weil (Helena Bonham Carter), jewelry maker Amita (Mindy Kaling), profiteer Tammy (Sarah Paulson), street hustler Constance (Awkwafina), and tech genius ‘Nine Ball’ (Rihanna). Together, they plan on switching out the necklace for a fake one, with famous actress Daphne Kluger (Anne Hathaway) serving as their unsuspecting mule. However, things get a little more complicated once the group learns that one of the main reasons why Debbie has planned this heist is so that she can get revenge against her ex-boyfriend, art dealer Claude Becker (Richard Armitage), who was the one who sent her to prison in the first place.

Now admittedly, it’s safe to say that the plot of Ocean’s 8 has a lot in common with the Ocean’s 11 remake. Both start out with the main protagonist being released from jail and immediately meeting up with their best friend, both have montages where the two recruit their fellow crew members for the heist, and both heists end up getting complicated when it’s revealed that the main protagonist has quite the personal stake in it. Ultimately, though, if there’s one major advantage that Ocean’s 8 has over its three predecessors, it’s that it arguably carries a greater sense of confidence to it when compared to the original trilogy. Now, for the record, I’m not just saying this because this one is headlined by an all-female cast… though with that said, it does sort of play a factor into this (more on that in a bit…). After all, it’s worth noting that Ocean’s 8 ends up sharing a lot more in common with its predecessors than just similar plot-lines. While the film doesn’t necessarily maintain the same exact tight pacing of Soderbergh’s films, its primary heist is carried out in the same effortless manner that defined the heists of the previous films without any major source of conflict to undermine it, something that Debbie even assures her crewmates of before they do it. In other words, Ocean’s 8 does manage to maintain the same type of glitzy aesthetic that the previous films had even with the change in directors. With that said, though, it could be argued that the film loses just a little bit of the visual panache that Soderbergh brought to the table with his three films. And yet, in a way that I just can’t explain, this film ends up flowing a lot smoother than the previous films, and director Gary Ross does a good job of maintaining that flow throughout in this solidly-shot heist flick.   

One of the most common criticisms directed towards the Ocean’s trilogy is that while they do feature a terrific ensemble cast, some have argued that this gave the films an incredibly smug tone that ended up being a major turn-off for some audiences. Thankfully, that isn’t even remotely an issue here, as the terrific chemistry between its collection of female leads is arguably the best aspect of Ocean’s 8. This isn’t a case where one of the actresses tries to hog the limelight from their co-stars or, as John Mulaney pointed out in one of his stand-up routines, two characters go off on their own to ‘talk s***’ about their partners behind their backs. All these women work extremely well together, and just like the Avengers films, every member of the group gets to have her own standout moment, whether its screen veterans like Sandra Bullock and Cate Blanchett or reliable supporting players like Helena Bonham Carter and Mindy Kaling. Because of this, the successes that their characters have during the heist end up being a lot more satisfying when compared to the previous films, and it also helps that the film allows us to connect more with these characters in general when compared to Danny Ocean’s crew. Now, granted, character development in this film is sort of on par with the previous films, where the heist itself is emphasized over everything else. And yet, this film still manages to outdo its predecessors by having a more generally likable group of protagonists who have sympathetic reasons to partake in the heist, whether it’s Debbie’s goal of getting revenge against her ex for deceiving her or Rose and Amita just looking to get out of their dead-end careers.

As I noted in my retrospective of the original trilogy a few months back, I thoroughly enjoyed Steven Soderbergh’s remake of Ocean’s 11 even if I didn’t necessarily see it as one of the best films of its genre. Overall, it was a decently entertaining ‘popcorn flick’; nothing more, nothing less. Unfortunately, I, like many, found Ocean’s 12 to be a vastly disappointing follow-up. While I do recognize why it’s Soderbergh’s personal favorite due to him being able to experiment as a director, it’s ultimately a prime example of what happens when said directorial experimentation goes a bit too far. Thus, Ocean’s 13 ended up going ‘back to basics’, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was my personal favorite of the trilogy due to it having some of the franchise’s best writing and pacing. But as for Ocean’s 8, it may just be my new favorite installment of the Ocean’s franchise. Oh sure, in a lot of ways, it borrows heavily from Ocean’s 11, like having a similarly structured plot that doesn’t necessarily give the main protagonists a lot of opposition during their heist. However, it just ends up working a lot better than what we saw from the previous Ocean’s films, and while I usually don’t try to get into any sort of politically-based discussions when writing these reviews, it’s hard to deny that the fact that this film stars an all-female cast of leads is ultimately one of the biggest contributors to its overall success. The chemistry that these ladies have is far superior to what we got from the predominantly male cast of the original trilogy, and while the film still doesn’t rely too much on character development, these characters are ultimately a more likable group of protagonists by comparison. Thus, while I wouldn’t necessarily call this the ‘best-directed’ or the most ‘well-made’ installment of the Ocean’s franchise, it is quite easily the series’ most satisfying entry to date.  

Rating: 4.5/5

Friday, June 8, 2018

Directorial Retrospective: Gary Ross

Gary Ross in The Hunger Games (2012)

Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to another installment of Rhode Island Movie Corner’s ‘Directorial Retrospective’ series. In this ongoing series, I look at the complete filmography of any given director in the film industry. Past installments have covered the likes of Michael Bay, Christopher Nolan, David Fincher, Quentin Tarantino, Tim Burton, etc. And while today’s director admittedly doesn’t have an overly extensive directorial filmography, he is a long-time veteran of the film industry who’s had quite a lot of success over the years. Yes, today, we’re looking at the films of director Gary Ross. This week sees the release of his latest film, Ocean’s 8, a female-led continuation of director Steven Soderbergh’s trilogy of films that started with the 2001 remake of Ocean’s Eleven. Like the trilogy of films that came before it (as well as the original 1960 film that the first film was based on), this film features an all-star cast that features the likes of Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Anne Hathaway, and Mindy Kaling just to name a few. It is the fifth directorial effort from Ross, who got his start in the film industry in the late 80’s. Prior to 1998, he was mainly known as a writer, having penned several hit films and even earning a few Oscar nominations for them. He officially transitioned into directing in 1998, and since then, he’s experienced a solid amount of critical success with his films, which include everything from a tribute to nostalgic family sitcoms to the first installment of a major blockbuster franchise. So, without further ado, let’s delve into the films of director Gary Ross.

To start things off, we’re going to do something a little different by featuring a few films that Gary Ross only wrote instead of directed as a pair of ‘Bonus Reviews’. These two films in question are also the ones that earned Ross Oscar nominations for Best Screenplay prior to him fully transitioning into directing in the late 90’s…

BIG (1988)

Tom Hanks in Big (1988)

First, we have director Penny Marshall’s 1988 film Big, which Ross co-wrote and co-produced with Anne Spielberg, sister of the one and only Steven Spielberg. The film centers on a young boy named Josh Baskin who uses an antique fortune-telling machine to wish that he was ‘big’. To his surprise, his wish comes true and he finds himself transformed into an older man (Tom Hanks) who must now navigate the perils of adulthood, including everything from the cut-throat world of business to a blossoming romance. And really, Tom Hanks is what truly sells the film. In what was arguably his official ‘star-making’ role, Hanks perfectly embodies the part of a 12-year old kid in a man’s body, and the film does a nice job of showcasing how Josh continually possesses his childhood innocence even when he finds himself in a serious situation. This, of course, paves the way for some hilarious moments that highlight Josh’s ‘fish out of water’ situation that are nicely balanced with all the film’s charming moments, from the scenes where he romances his co-worker Susan (Elizabeth Perkins) to the iconic sequence where he and his boss Mr. MacMillan (Robert Loggia) play ‘Heart and Soul’ and ‘Chopsticks’ on FAO Schwarz’ big floor piano. And that’s Big in a nutshell; it very much wears its heart on its sleeve and it all works thanks to Tom Hanks’ pitch-perfect performance in the lead role. This is arguably one of those instances where the film may not have worked quite as well as it did if another actor had been in the part. But, of course, that’s not the case here, and it’s easy to see why Big (which notably celebrated its 30th anniversary recently) is still considered a classic of the 80’s, as it’s one of the most unabashedly heartfelt films of all time without ever becoming too saccharine.

Rating: 5/5!

DAVE (1993)

Dave (1993)

Ross’ next Oscar nomination came through his collaboration with Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman on the 1993 film Dave. In this political comedy, Kevin Kline stars as a temp agency worker named Dave who’s brought in by the Secret Service to take the place of the President, Bill Mitchell (also played by Kline), at a public appearance. However, when the President ends up incapacitated by a coma, Dave is forced to truly take over as the leader of the United States of America. Now, obviously, political comedy is a touchy subject nowadays given how the current political climate doesn’t really lend itself that well to humor. But, in the context of being an early 90’s political comedy, this film does succeed at being a light-hearted satire of politics at the time that’s not overly cynical while still having some edge to it. And while this ‘dramedy’ does tend to lean more towards the dramatic elements of its story than its comedic elements, the film does have a good amount of quality humor. Ultimately, though, the main selling point of the film is Kevin Kline in his dual role as Dave and President Mitchell. While the plot doesn’t really allow for any major opportunities for these two characters to interact with each other on-screen save for one moment in the beginning, Kline brings great charisma to the former role. He also has solid chemistry with Sigourney Weaver, who plays the First Lady, Ellen Mitchell. While Weaver technically doesn’t get that much to do in the film, the relationship that gradually forms between her and Dave is genuinely sweet. Plus, she does get to throw in a few great snarky comments here and there, specifically in the early parts of the film where it’s established that she and the real President aren’t necessarily ‘happily married’. In short, while Dave is very much a product of its time, it’s still worth checking out today (yes, even in these crazy political times) primarily thanks to the great lead performances from Kevin Kline and Sigourney Weaver.

Rating: 4/5

And now, onto Ross’ directorial efforts…


Pleasantville (1998)

For his first major foray into directing, Ross gave us a film that served as a tribute to classic 50’s era sitcoms like Leave it to Beaver and I Love Lucy. In Pleasantville, Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon star as siblings David and Jennifer, who end up getting sucked into the world of David’s favorite TV show, the titular Pleasantville, via a special remote that puts them in the shoes of the show’s sibling characters, Bud and Mary Sue. And despite David’s best efforts to ensure that the two of them blend in properly, Jennifer’s devil-may-care personality soon leads to the town undergoing quite the colorful transformation (figuratively and literally). With that in mind, the best thing about Pleasantville is its use of color. As David and Jennifer spend more time in the world of the show, its black-and-white aesthetic is slowly but surely turned colorful, leading to plenty of great shots where black-and-white objects and characters interact seamlessly with those who are colored in. One can only imagine how arduous of a job the visual effects artists had to undertake to make this one of the best-looking films of its time that does a perfect job of representing the, for lack of a better term, overall ‘swellness’ of its old-school locale. At the same time, though, Pleasantville also offers some solid writing that delves into themes such as racism (e.g. whites separated from ‘colored’ folks) and freedom of speech. This is all paired nicely with terrific performances from Maguire, Witherspoon, Joan Allen and William H. Macy as their ‘in-universe’ parents Betty and George, and Jeff Daniels as Bud’s boss Mr. Johnson, owner of the local burger joint. Sure, some are bound to find a few plot holes here and there that put all the show’s changes into question, but all in all, Pleasantville is a charming tribute to a nostalgic past as seen through the eyes of an edgier modern mindset.

Rating: 4.5/5


Seabiscuit (2003)

Half a decade later, Ross tackled his first historical drama with a film about one of the most famous racing horses of all-time, Seabiscuit. Based on the horse’s 2001 biography by author Laura Hillenbrand, the film follows the horse’s rise to fame in the 30’s and how it specifically affects three men; his jockey Red Pollard, his owner Charles S. Howard, and his trainer Tom Smith, all of whom end up overcoming their own personal demons along the way. Now admittedly, this film is a bit of a slow burn; heck, Seabiscuit doesn’t even show up until a little under an hour in as the film instead starts off by introducing and developing its three main leads. Still, for what it’s worth, the film is a generally engaging watch that does its job of conveying the importance of what Seabiscuit accomplished as a major underdog who inspired America whilst the country was forced to deal with the ramifications of the Great Depression. This is then balanced nicely with the storylines of Pollard, Howard, and Smith and their efforts to overcome their own personal struggles, from Pollard having to deal with partial blindness to Howard regaining his sense of optimism after a devastating tragedy to Smith just trying to prove his worth as a horse trainer. Because of this, the film is a prime example of a true ‘actors’ showcase’, benefitting from excellent performances from the lead trio of Tobey Maguire as Pollard, Jeff Bridges as Howard, and Chris Cooper as Smith. And while I’m aware that the film does tone down some of the darker elements of its true story (e.g. glossing over the ways in which jockeys maintain a proper weight), this doesn’t necessarily affect any of the story’s most essential moments. Thus, despite all the instances where it often ends up being a part of the generally predictable ‘sports film’ genre, Seabiscuit is a well-made biopic thanks to the solid direction from Ross and the excellent performances from its ensemble cast. And because of this, the film even managed to land a Best Picture nomination at that year’s Oscar ceremony along with six additional nominations, even though it ultimately didn’t win in any of its categories.

Rating: 4/5


Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games (2012)

Obviously, this is a film that I’ve talked about plenty of times before on this site. I did a review of it back in 2013 in time for the release of its immediate follow-up, Catching Fire, and then proceeded to ‘recap’ it as part of the ‘Story So Far’ post that I did for the franchise prior to the release of its big finale, Mockingjay Part 2. With that in mind, I won’t repeat myself too much here. Simply put, Ross did a solid job of adapting the first installment of author Suzanne Collins’ best-selling book series to the big-screen; with that said, though, this film has since become overshadowed by its three subsequent installments. The main reason why is quite simple, as many felt that director Francis Lawrence improved on the two biggest issues that they had with the first film, shaky-cam and quick cuts to tone down the most violent parts of this story of kids being forced to duel to the death in a nationally-televised event. I’ve personally never had much of an issue with these creative decisions, though it’s completely understandable as to why this was a problem for others. Heck, I’ll even fully admit that Francis Lawrence did fix these two issues once he took over the franchise, hence why I, like many, consider Catching Fire as the best installment of the film series. Still, like I said before, I do think Gary Ross deserves a lot of credit for at least getting the franchise started on a good note. In a time where the genre of films based on ‘young adult novels’ was dominated primarily by the likes of Twilight and several failed attempts at initiating similarly successful franchises, Hunger Games managed to vastly outshine its competition thanks to solid writing and a well-layered bunch of characters. It’s all highlighted by Jennifer Lawrence in her ‘star-making’ role as the series’ main protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, though she’s also backed by the likes of Josh Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Wes Bentley, and Donald Sutherland just to name a few. Because of this, while the first Hunger Games isn’t necessarily the best installment of its film series, it’s still a satisfying start to this global behemoth of a franchise that managed to get better as it went on.

Rating: 4.5/5


Matthew McConaughey in Free State of Jones (2016)

To conclude this retrospective, we have Ross’ most recent directorial effort and his second historical drama, Free State of Jones. The film tells the story of Newton Knight, a member of the Confederate army who ended up deserting them during the Civil War and then proceeded to lead an army of his own made up of fellow runaways and slaves against the Confederacy, which culminated with them forming their own government in Jones County, Mississippi. Like Seabiscuit, the film manages to be a solidly engaging take on this moment in history even if it’s not exactly a 100% accurate retelling of it. However, also like Seabiscuit, this two-and-a-half-hour film is one of those ‘slow burn’ types of films, and unlike Seabiscuit, it does tend to drag at times, specifically during the last third of the film after Knight and co. establish the titular ‘Free State of Jones’. The film also tends to suffer from having a rather disjointed narrative, specifically due to a subplot which delves into a different moment in history in which Knight’s great-grandson Davis is put on trial in 1948 for attempting to marry a white woman while he himself is partially of black descent. These scenes with Davis are intercut with Newton’s story but are hastily edited in to the point where they’re really nothing more than brief cutaways that don’t contribute anything to the main plot. Because of all this, it feels like the film is trying to do a bit too much from a narrative perspective even with its hefty runtime in mind. It’s a shame, really, because the film is a decently entertaining period piece that features a trio of great performances from Matthew McConaughey as Knight, Gugu Mbatha-Raw as a slave named Rachel who he falls in love with, and Mahershala Ali as Knight’s confidant Moses Washington. Ultimately, though, while it’s not necessarily as bad as its 46% rating on Rotten Tomatoes may suggest, Free State of Jones would’ve worked a lot better had some parts of it been trimmed.

Rating: 3/5

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018) review

Woody Harrelson, Thandie Newton, Donald Glover, Alden Ehrenreich, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Emilia Clarke, and Joonas Suotamo in Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)

Well… this film has had quite a history. Practically ever since it was first announced, the second installment of Disney’s line of Star Wars spin-off films separate from the new trilogy of The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi, and next year’s Episode IX has been subjected to some of the worst luck to ever befall a film production in recent years. Right out the gate, several Star Wars fans were hesitant over the idea of there being a dreaded ‘prequel/origin story’ film centered on one of the most beloved characters in the entire saga, Han Solo. It certainly didn’t help matters when it was made clear that, given the context of the story, Han wouldn’t be played by Harrison Ford this time around, effectively putting tons of pressure on whoever ended up taking on the role to live up to what Ford had done with it. Thankfully, some of these fears were alleviated when the duo of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller were brought in to direct. Over the course of the past decade, Lord and Miller have become well-known for helming highly successful projects that, at first glance, seemed like they wouldn’t amount to anything special. They turned a very simple children’s book, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, into one of the most visually vibrant and hilarious animated films in recent memory. They turned the obscure television show 21 Jump Street, known only at the time for being the show that launched Johnny Depp’s career, into one of the funniest comedies of its year. This was then followed by a sequel, 22 Jump Street, which went on to become one of the rare comedy sequels that was not only ‘as good’ as its predecessor, but arguably better. And they turned what could’ve been a massively blatant cash grab, The LEGO Movie, into a charming and fantastically animated adventure that paid loving tribute to the product that it was based on. Thus, with the two of them behind the camera, it seemed as if things would go quite smoothly for this new Star Wars film…

…that is, until June 20th, 2017, when all hell broke loose. In a stunning development, Lord and Miller announced that they were stepping down from the film’s production despite there being a few weeks left of filming due to creative differences with Lucasfilm. Not long afterward, it was then revealed that the two were basically ‘fired’ from the film due to the overtly comedic direction that they were taking with it, with producer Kathleen Kennedy reportedly being at odds with them since the start of filming. And while Lucasfilm quickly rebounded from this dilemma by hiring the legendary Ron Howard to step in and finish the film, the damage was already done at that point. Despite being an industry mainstay, as well as being no stranger to the studio having starred in George Lucas’ 1973 classic American Graffiti, many deemed Howard as being ‘too safe’ of a choice to take over for the likes of Phil Lord and Chris Miller. Simply put, Solo: A Star Wars Story basically became the equivalent of Marvel Studios’ Ant-Man, which also went through an infamous directorial shakeup when Peyton Reed took over for Edgar Wright, who backed out of the project due to, you guessed it, ‘creative conflicts with the studio’. And while the Star Wars franchise’s run under the Disney banner has led to three critical/commercial hits so far, the equally scandalous production of the previous spin-off film, Rogue One, and the borderline hostile polarizing reaction to The Last Jedi did not put the studio in as high of a regard amongst those on the internet compared to Marvel Studios. But let’s just ignore all that noise for now and just look at the film itself now that it’s finally hitting theaters, because despite such a notorious production behind it, Solo is a highly entertaining foray into the Star Wars universe.

Like Rogue One, Solo: A Star Wars Story takes place in-between the events of Episode III: Revenge of the Sith and Episode IV: A New Hope at a time where the Imperial Empire is in complete control of the galaxy. It is in this war-torn world where we meet Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich), a brash, young wannabe pilot who manages to escape his rough living conditions on the planet Corellia. After a brief, disastrous stint in the Imperial Navy, Han crosses paths with a band of criminals led by Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson), who ends up recruiting Han for a heist on a shipment of valuable hyper fuel. During the process, Han also meets and befriends a Wookiee named Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), who ends up tagging along with him on the mission. However, when the heist ends up being a bust, Han, Chewie, and Beckett find themselves in hot water with their ‘superiors’, a criminal syndicate known as Crimson Dawn led by Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany). To appease Vos, Han boldly suggests an alternate plan to acquire the hyper fuel, which involves them acquiring it in an ‘unprocessed’ form from the planet Kessel. Given the seemingly impossible nature of the mission, Vos has his top subordinate Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke), who happens to be Han’s former lover who he was forced to leave behind on Corellia, accompany them on the operation to help ensure that it goes smoothly. As a means of procuring a ship for the mission, the group also recruits the notorious smuggler Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover), owner of the Millennium Falcon, the fastest ship in the galaxy.

Since the whole directorial shakeup, much speculation has been made over how much of the film was reworked under Howard’s direction. By most accounts, it appears as if he re-shot about 70% of the film, meaning that it’s likely that there are still some parts in the final film that were done by Lord and Miller. Thankfully, there’s no real indication of inconsistency between their directorial visions in the final product. For all intents and purposes, it seems as if Howard did his best to match what Lord and Miller were going for in a manner that would make the production run a lot smoother (e.g. not relying heavily on improvisation). And as for the film itself, it’s a fun ride from beginning to end. If there’s one major advantage that it has over Rogue One, it’s better pacing. As I noted a few years back in my review of that film, Rogue One started off on a bit of a slow note but eventually found its groove by the end, highlighted by its big action-packed finale on the planet Scarif. By comparison, Solo gets things rolling right out of the gate and doesn’t relent for the rest of its near two-and-a-half-hour run-time. Sure, it maybe loses just a bit of steam at the end, but that doesn’t prevent this film from having some of the best pacing in the entire franchise. But as for how the film handles the origin story of one of the saga’s most iconic characters, one’s mileage may vary over how effectively it’s handled. As for me, though, I personally enjoyed all the ways in which the film set up Han’s character. The scene where he first meets Lando Calrissian? Awesome. The scene where he first meets Chewbacca? Heartwarming. The scene where him and Chewie co-pilot the Millennium Falcon for the first time and make the Kessel Run in under 12 parsecs? So. Damn. Satisfying! Sure, this is easily one of the simplest plotted outings to come out of the franchise, but what is there is handled nicely.

Alden Ehrenreich obviously went into this film having to deal with some of the most intense pressure that an actor has ever experienced due to him having to take on a role that Harrison Ford had turned into an iconic part of cinema thanks to Episodes IV through VII. Thankfully, Ehrenreich slips into the role with ease, conveying all of Han’s notable quirks, including his tendency to make things up as he goes along, with charisma that almost nearly equals that of Ford’s. At the same time, Ehrenreich also has terrific chemistry/camaraderie with each of his main co-stars. It all begins, of course, with Chewie, as Joonas Suotamo continues to be a worthy successor to Peter Mayhew in the role of Han’s trusted sidekick. Then, there’s Donald Glover as arguably the film’s biggest standout, the younger Lando Calrissian. Granted, Lando surprisingly doesn’t factor into the film as much as one might expect going in (he’s honestly only in about a third of it), but Glover is practically pitch-perfect in terms of replicating the same swagger that Billy Dee Williams brought to the role back in the original trilogy. Ehrenreich also has great chemistry with Emilia Clarke as the film’s main female lead, Qi’ra. Obviously, most Star Wars fans know how this relationship is going to turn out given Han’s relationship with Leia in the other films, but the ways in which they develop Qi’ra for a potential follow-up or two are quite fascinating. Closing out the main core group is Woody Harrelson, perfectly sly as Han’s mentor figure in this film, and Phoebe Waller-Bridge as the franchise’s newest memorable droid character, L3-37, who’s a fun mix of the energy of BB-8 and the sarcastic wit of Alan Tudyk’s K-2SO from Rogue One as Lando’s primary co-pilot on the Millennium Falcon.  

Now with all this said, I know damn well that this film is shaping up to be one of the most polarizing installments of the Star Wars saga. Hell, most people have clearly already made up their minds about this film before they even saw it because they’re still upset about the whole Lord and Miller fiasco. And that’s a damn shame because the film is ultimately not the disaster that a lot of its critics thought it was going to be. Sure, the fact that Phil Lord and Chris Miller were kicked off the production in the middle of filming instead of during pre-production may have seemed problematic, but Ron Howard does a damn fine job of taking over for them and keeping the final product from being a disheveled mess. And as for the film itself, it’s a fun little sci-fi adventure through the Star Wars universe. Is it the franchise’s best outing? No, not at all, but that’s by no means a criticism given the quality of the Star Wars films that have been made since Disney took over. Simply put, Solo: A Star Wars Story succeeds at being a neat little foray into the past exploits of the franchise’s iconic protagonist. Granted, not everyone will like the ways in which it handles Solo’s backstory, but casual Star Wars fans like myself will no doubt get a kick out of seeing how Han met Chewbacca for the first time and the first time that the two stepped foot in the Millennium Falcon, amongst other things. And to his credit, Alden Ehrenreich manages to live up to a lot of the expectations that were thrust upon him by being a wonderful successor to Harrison Ford as everyone’s favorite ‘stuck up, half-witted, scruffy-looking nerf herder’ (“Who’s scruffy-looking?”). Now, would I’ve loved to have seen what Lord and Miller might have done with this story? Yes, but as was also the case with Edgar Wright and Ant-Man, that’s all in the past now. I’m not going to debate about this film being a case of a studio limiting their filmmakers’ creative vision. Instead, I’m just going to sit back and enjoy the ride because, contrary to what some on the internet may claim, the Star Wars franchise is doing totally fine now despite some of its most scandalous behind-the-scenes dilemmas.

Rating: 5/5!