Solo: A Star Wars Story (C-). I saw the original Star Wars when I was about 10 years old, so I should be the perfect audience for an origin story about the coolest dude in a galaxy far, far away: the one and only Han Solo. Sadly, I was bored. I think Alden Ehrenreich (Hail, Caesar!) is probably a good actor, but his Han is unfortunately bland. Emilia Clarke (TV’s Game of Thrones) is pretty but otherwise makes no impression as Solo’s love interest. Donald Glover (The Martian) does a little better as a suave Lando Calrissian, but I could never forget I was watching Donald Glover, who was so funny on TV’s Community. Woody Harrelson adds another major franchise to his collection (Hunger Games, Planet of the Apes), but he doesn’t really give the story any juice either. In sum, Solo is a forgettable movie. My favorite pop culture podcast, The Weekly Substandard, has devoted two whole episodes to Solo, and I’m looking forward to hearing what those critics have to say about it.
Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri (B). This is a tense, Coen-esque drama/black comedy from Martin McDonagh, who also wrote and directed Seven Psychopaths and In Bruges. Frances McDormand (Fargo) stars as Mildred Hayes, a small-town divorcee who is consumed with grief over the unsolved rape and murder of her teenaged daughter Angela several months earlier. Frustrated with local law enforcement, she rents three billboards just outside of town and posts an inflammatory message aimed at police chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson, War for the Planet of the Apes). Willoughby is offended but understanding; his violent, racist underling Dixon (Sam Rockwell, Laggies), on the other hand, is infuriated and liable to lash out in any available direction. The ripples spread through the small town of Ebbing as Mildred persists in keeping the billboards up, and secrets are gradually revealed. Great performances from the three main actors, and nice supporting work from some others as well, including Peter Dinklage (The Station Agent), Abbie Cornish (Limitless), and Lucas Hedges (Moonrise Kingdom). But a couple of noticeable flaws (such as Willoughby’s weird use of extreme profanity not just around but at his two adorable little girls) keep this movie out of the top tier, in my opinion. Still, worth checking out. Rated R for violence, language throughout, and some sexual references.
My favorite was the first one, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, in which we see how a medical experiment gone wrong makes apes superintelligent and kills most of humanity. The middle installment, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, was a solid if grim movie in which the apes and the surviving humans try to co-exist, with middling-at-best results.
The finale turns the grimness up to 11 as a human military band led by the Colonel (Woody Harrelson, The Edge of Seventeen) seems to be intent on wiping out the apes. Ape leader Caesar (Andy Serkis, Inkheart) decides to send most of his “people” on a quest for a safe haven while he and few trusted lieutenants set out to find and distract the Colonel. Along the way they pick up a sweet mute human girl, whom they dub Nova (Amiah Miller, Lights Out), and then another talking ape, a not entirely sane chimpanzee who calls himself “Bad Ape” because that’s what his human captors called him before the plague. As voiced by Steve Zahn (Sunshine Cleaning), Bad Ape provides some much-needed comic relief, because this War is dark dark dark. But it’s well-made, on the whole. (I did roll my eyes a little in the middle part when the Colonel momentarily turns into a James Bond villain and gives Caesar a massive lecture/monologue to explain why he’s doing what he’s doing and what’s going to happen for the rest of the movie.)
The Edge of Seventeen (B-). This new tale of teen angst stars Hailee Steinfeld (Begin Again) as Nadine, a miserable and thoroughly unpleasant high-school student whose entire wardrobe seems to consist of barely-there skirts and shorts. Nadine doesn’t get along with either her mom or her older brother. To make matters worse, her only friend in the world (Haley Lu Richardson, Columbus) starts dating said older brother, which only makes Nadine more miserable and, amazingly, even more unpleasant. Really, Nadine is so obnoxious and filled with self-loathing that I found it very hard to empathize with her, She seemed borderline mentally ill. The movie’s bright spot is Nadine’s friendship with her history teacher, Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson, Management). Bruner’s dryly sarcastic responses to Nadine’s various crises had the whole theater laughing out loud. Basically, all the scenes involving Bruner are great, and the rest of the movie is so-so. And please note that the R rating for language and sexual content is well deserved.
Transsiberian (C-). I bought the DVD of this 2008 release from a discount rack a long time ago and finally got around to watching it. Maybe I was influenced by the 3.5 star rating it got from Roger Ebert, but more likely I just got it because I like the star, Emily Mortimer (Match Point). I did not care for it. Mortimer and Woody Harrelson (The Hunger Games: Catching Fire) star as Jessie and Roy, a married couple taking a long train ride–the Transsiberian Express–from Beijing to Moscow after a church trip to China. They fall in with a slightly shifty couple, Carlos (Eduardo Noreiga, Sweetwater) and Abby (Kate Mara, sister of Rooney Mara, Side Effects). Suspense builds for a variety of reasons. Ben Kingsley (Ender’s Game) shows up, suitably reptilian, as a Russian narcotics cop. I thought the set-up was kind of hokey, and the movie just never really recovered for me. But it got a 72 on Metacritic, so maybe I’m being a little hard on it. Note that the film is rated R for “some violence, including torture, and language.”
The Messenger (B-). The Dallas Morning News gave this movie a glowing review, so I hurried on out to see it opening weekend. It was good, but far from great. Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery (Ben Foster, X-Men: The Last Stand) is back in the States after being injured in Iraq, and for the last three months of his enlistment period the Army assigns him to the task of notifying the next of kin of soldiers who have been killed (whether in combat or in accidents). He is paired up with a veteran notifier, Capt. Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson, Zombieland), who is a recovered alcoholic and perhaps a touch crazy. The notification scenes really work–I’ve read that Foster and Harrelson weren’t told what was going to happen in those scenes, so their reactions would be more authentic. But the rest of the movie, such as Montgomery’s tentative relationship with a war widow (Samantha Morton, Code 46), generally didn’t feel all that authentic to me. So it’s kind of a mixed bag of a movie. And is it just me, or does Ben Foster’s voice sound just like Michael Douglas’s (Romancing the Stone)?
Management (B+). I went into this independent flick with low expectations. The Dallas Morning News reviewer gave it only a C, and I saw a trailer that made it look absolutely terrible. But it stars the irrepressible Steve Zahn (That Thing You Do!), not to mention Jennifer Aniston (We’re the Millers), so I resolved to give it a chance (at a matinee). I was pleasantly surprised. Zahn is well-cast as Mike, a man-child who works (and lives) at a motel owned by his parents in a small town in Arizona. Aniston is Sue, an employee of a company back East that deals in corporate art, i.e., paintings you see in hotel rooms. Mike is understandably smitten when Sue checks into the motel, and he sets out to romance Sue in his own inept fashion–he’s rather like an older and much less worldly Lloyd Dobler from Say Anything. His stalkerish behavior would make him totally unsympathetic–except that Sue, who is sad and dissatisfied with her own life, is not totally unreceptive to Mike’s overtures during her brief stay. That’s all the excuse Mike needs to spend his life savings on a one-way ticket to Baltimore, where he shows up at her office unannounced. Things unspool from there. Woody Harrelson (Zombieland), who is not one of my favorite actors, is perfect as Sue’s former boyfriend Jango, a former punk-rocker turned yogurt mogul. Maybe it was just my low expectations, but I really enjoyed this movie.
A Scanner Darkly (B-). First, a word about Philip K. Dick, whose novel is the basis for the movie. Several of his works have inspired movies, most famously Blade Runner, Total Recall, and Minority Report. If you like science-fiction, especially dystopian science fiction, you should give Dick a try. I read a few of his books as a kid, and I generally enjoyed them. Be warned that they are very weird, like Ubik, a story about a gang of psychics whose leader gets killed—and then starts sending them mysterious messages from beyond the grave.
Anyway, Scanner is considered one of Dick’s best books, but I remember trying to read it, getting confused, and eventually giving up. The movie is much more straightforward than I remember the book being. Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves, The Matrix Reloaded) is a dopehead hooked on the horrifically addictive “Substance D,” along with 20% of the population of America. But he is also “Fred,” a narcotics agent assigned to spy on Bob Arctor and his small “family” of fellow dopeheads (Woody Harrelson, Management; Robert Downey, Jr., Iron Man 3; Winona Ryder, Star Trek). When he reports to work, he wears a high-tech, identity-concealing suit so effective that even his bosses don’t know his true identity (although they assume he is either Arctor or one of his cronies). Which is his real identity? Substance D is so powerful and destructive that even he isn’t sure any more. The movie can be taken as a warning against the danger the “war on drugs” poses to our civil liberties, but its unflinching look at the pathetic, brain-damaged drug users seems to justify even harsh measures intended to stem the tide.
A Prairie Home Companion (B). I saw this movie last weekend, but I’m only now getting around to blogging about it. It’s just a comfortable little movie with a few laughs and a lot of nostalgia. I’ve never listened to Garrison Keillor’s long-running radio show of the same name, but the premise of this movie is that his radio station up in Minnesota has been bought out by some soulless Texas corporation, and the action all takes place during his last show from this old-timey theater. It’s a variety show with performers like a past-their-prime sister act (Lily Tomlin, Nashville; Meryl Streep, Hope Springs) and a couple of joke-telling and singing cowboys (Woody Harrelson, Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri; John C. Reilly, Walk Hard). A very skinny Lindsey Lohan (Mean Girls) shows up as Streep’s suicide-obsessed, bad-poetry-writing daughter. Kevin Kline (My Old Lady) is on hand as Guy Noir, the theater’s bumbling but dapper security chief. And Tommy Lee Jones (The Homesman) shows up as the corporate heavy from the Lone Star State. An enjoyable wisp of a movie.