By Marc S. Sanders

To those who naysayed this standalone installment in the galaxy far, far away, all I say is you are trying too hard to be pleased.  Shut up and have some fun, will ya?

Solo: A Star Wars Story presents a film that stands on its own, relying on mysterious legendary side stories only talked briefly about for the last fortysomething years like the Kessel Run, Sabaac card games, dice and the origin of how Chewbacca met everyone’s favorite space smuggler, Han Solo, plus the Millennium Falcon and the scoundrel Lando Calrissian.  

My brother and even a few friends of mine (Joe Pauly) grew up loving John Wayne’s films. No one else epitomized a Hollywood western better than The Duke.  He was their childhood hero.  For me, it is the generation after that which introduced the space cowboy Han Solo played by Harrison Ford.  He is not anywhere near a multi-dimensional character; pretty one note if you ask me (which ironically is opposite of what I demand in any kind of storytelling these days).  

Captain Solo was the guy who would make it up as he goes; never planning ahead or considering others beyond his trusted furry partner and his beloved spaceship.  He’d poorly talk his way out of trapped situations and when that didn’t work, he was a fast draw with his blaster.  

The screenwriters for Solo, legendary Lawrence Kasdan with his son Jonathan, were all aware of Han’s placement in this space opera, while constructing this film.  Only this time they intended on showing how that devil may care came about. It reminded me of a similar approach writer Paul Haggis took with the reinvention of James Bond in Casino Royale.    A lone hero trusts very little beyond his own arrogance and self-assurance.  The Kasdsans used that technique as the spine for this story and it works.

Director Ron Howard is the right guy to fill in following a notorious director incident beforehand.  Howard keeps the film moving fast with casualties you might not expect to perish, revealing masks (an under looked theme of the original films), traitors, fast ships, fast cars, and their pursuits and chases.  A favorite scene, saluting the Western, is a thrilling train robbery across a snowy mountain that seamlessly changes its angle and vector at times.  It’s as awesome a scene as it promised in the trailers.  

Howard is best at keeping the film grounded in actors rather than tired CGI cartoons.  He definitely makes Han, Lando and the rest look convincing trying to steer a ship or carry a blaster and play cards.

The cast is great.  Alden Ehrenreich is fine in the role; young, cocky, brash, handsome.  I wasn’t looking for him to do a Harrison Ford impersonation.  That would only look like a 12:45 am Saturday Night Live skit. The guy had to do his own thing, not someone else’s much like the Batman and Bond films have done before.  Donald Glover is perfect as Lando, even adopting Billy Dee Williams own way of pronunciation (“Han” vs Ha-an”).  Still, he makes the part his own.  He’s fun to watch.  Beyond some mild makeup scarring, Paul Bettany makes for a really uncomfortable crime lord, like a suave Miami Vice drug kingpin, and Woody Harrelson is just right in the inspirational pirate role; gruff and tough and educating.  Emilia Clarke is finally directed properly in a film.  (I still haven’t forgotten her awful Terminator: Genisys Sarah Conner portrayal.). She is dangerously sexy, but smarmy and cocky like Carrie Fisher was.  She’s a great femme fatale of the 1940s beautifully incorporated into some very thick sci fi.  

This was such a fun time at the movies.  Go ahead.  Accuse me of my bias, but as well shouldn’t I be expected to be a tough demanding critic of all new Star Wars material?  I’d probably be wanting it to match the magic of the original trilogy.  Well no.  I don’t want it that way.  I want new and fresh ideas, while still recognizing George Lucas’ used universe settings.  Disney and Lucasfilm continue to move along, stretching their imagination in monies well spent while also following the rules of smart aleck characters, film western motifs, Eastern cultures and death-defying cliffhangers.  Had the Star Wars franchise remained with Fox, audiences would not be getting the treats we’ve been blessed with for these last 10 years.

Solo really only has two minor misfires.  The droid L3, Lando’s Co-pilot, does not live up to Anthony Daniels nor Alan Tudyk and their high brow robot attitudes.  Why? Because it’s hard to understand what L3 is truly saying.  The lines are garbled at times; drowned out by the robot dialect I guess, and maybe also by a mostly origninal score.

As well, there is one ending moment that’s eye opening, but puzzling with little demand for it.  It was one surprise that did not seem to be well thought out and considering this is a stand alone film, it left me unsure of what Lucasfilm hoped to gain from it.  The moment was too distracting for me.  Yet it’s in there and it’s not the worst offense.  Just very very unnecessary and perplexing.

Solo: A Star Wars Story is none other than great fun with something to think about.   I was laughing out loud.  The audience we were with was clapping and cheering.  That’s why Star Wars films continue to thrive.  Their audiences get caught up in the ride, especially when the films are relatable while not taking themselves too seriously.


By Marc S. Sanders

Mission: Impossible II is undoubtedly the weakest installment of Tom Cruise’s series, adapted from the classic tv show. Action Director John Woo is normally regarded as “ACTION DIRECTOR JOHN WOO” because he can only direct action. He hardly ever directs story. There’s no dimension to his characters and nothing intriguing. It’s all just glitz and neon colors in his cinematography. No weight at stake in Action Director John Woo’s action.

A third act fist fight between Cruise’s Ethan Hunt and a very, very uninteresting villain played by Dougray Scott gets very tiresome, very, very quickly. Punch, kick, tackle, twirl, take off your jacket, get up in very slowwwwww motion, throw off your sunglasses, and do it again and again and one more time.

The MacGuffin of the picture is a virus and the anti-virus. Hunt recruits a sexy thief played by Thandie Newton to infiltrate Dougray Scott, her ex-boyfriend seeking to cash in on the prize at hand. Somewhere, lost in Robert Towne’s script, Scott’s character gets wise to the fact that of all the “M:I” agents out there, Ethan Hunt is the one onto him even though they never come in contact with one another until the middle section of the film is complete. So, the bad guy, at times, disguises himself as Hunt. Screenwriter Robert Towne thought he’d get one over on the audience with the disguise twists that the M:I franchise is known for. Sadly, it’s not subtle enough in this picture. All twists can be foreshadowed as early as the opening credits actually.

Action Director John Woo really fails with this effort. He makes a terrible habit of amping up the gloss of his film with an abundance of slowwwwww motion actions and reactions to accompany a mostly mandolin soundtrack from Hans Zimmer. Beautiful set pieces of music. Though none of it belongs in this film. Zimmer’s work here is better suited for something more genuinely romantic and exotic, without the revving motorcycle rides and bare-knuckle brawls in the final act of the film.

In addition, Action Director John Woo is not given much action to “action direct.” There’s a lot of bland talking in Towne’s script. So much so that we finally arrive at what the film promises, only it’s very late in Act 2, and then drags on very slowwwwwwwly in Act 3.

For a brief stint early on, you get the impression that Cruise is adopting a flirtatious James Bond approach with Newton’s character. They hide away cuddled in an empty bathtub and quickly bed one another, but Towne writes no sexual innuendo to go with Cruise & Newton’s grins, or their shiny, moisturized complexions.

There’s no humor either. There’s really no reason to like Ethan Hunt here. He has nothing to say. All he does is walk in slowwwww motion in response to Action Director John Woo.

Cruise, again as producer, makes the mistake of only allowing his hand in the cookie jar. No one gets to do anything of great importance except him. A team is assembled to just watch Tom Cruise play and walk slowwwwwly. Cruise hired his own fan club for this film, including Anthony Hopkins. Now here’s a charming chap playing Hunt’s supervisor. You see him appear for the first time early on. He returns in the epilogue, and when the film has concluded you realize that Oscar winner Anthony Hopkins next to nothing to do, really. He doesn’t debate or joke with Cruise. He, like most of the cast of the first two M:I films, just tells Hunt who to meet next. What potential for a great character played by a marvelous character actor and it’s regrettably squandered away.

Fortunately, the approach of the subsequent M:I films went in different direction following Action Director John Woo’s contribution. All elements of this short-changed story were abandoned for better material from better directors to later come.

CRASH (2004)

By Marc S. Sanders

Paul Haggis’ vignette themed script for Crash should not have won Best Screenplay. The film he directed should not have won Best Picture. Could it be that because this picture is masked as that special movie with that especially poignant message that it got the recognition I don’t think it ever deserved? I can appreciate the attempt at bringing hot button social issues like racism and injustice to light, but it does not need to be as immaturely contrived as this picture.

Crash occurs over two days within the city of modern day Los Angeles. A select group of characters of different social classes and ethnicities are covered, and the film circumvents back and forth among their perspectives. For the most part, all of these people have major social hang-ups with people outside their race. The first example shows us that if a white woman who is simply cold on a winter night hugs her husband tightly for some warmth, apparently a couple of black men will automatically believe this woman is fearful of their approach.

Especially today, I know that prejudice exists, but to this extreme and this contrived…I’m not sure. I guess I’m not sure because I have not experienced it enough to be convinced yet. When I read a friend’s testimony of falling victim to racial prejudice I lean towards believing everything they tell me. I guess it’s this movie, Crash, that left me feeling dubious and maybe that’s because the circumstances seem way too forced.

A racist cop (Matt Dillon) will pull over a well to do Muslim man (Terrence Howard) driving a high priced SUV and perform a sobriety test for no reason. Then the cop will deliberately frisk the man’s wife (Thandie Newton) with digital penetration. The next day, it’ll just happen to be that this woman will have no choice but to be rescued from a burning car by this same racist cop. Now I’m supposed to believe that the racist cop is not so bad, and the woman learns to become more tolerant. Well gee, thank heavens for coincidences!

The Muslim man (a television show director) gets car jacked the following day, and in a tense pull over moment he’s mistaken as the criminal. Fortunately, the partner of the racist cop (Ryan Phillipe) is there to subdue the situation. I’m sorry, but life doesn’t work out to be this tidy. Call me cynical, but more often than not we are not given a second chance at first impressions.

One of the real car jackers (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges) gets a moment of clarity and suddenly he’s generously giving out his last forty dollars to a group of Asian people being held in a van for human trafficking. Forgive me. If I want to begin respecting this car jacker who has held multiple people at gun point and even runs over a man, only to toss him out on the drive up to the Emergency Room, I’ll be more apt to do so if the criminal turns himself in.

I dunno. Maybe I’ve got a personal issue with Crash. It could not be more apparently preachy in how it patronizes me to simply understand the seething hate and criminal violations of its characters. I’m supposed to empathize with the racist cop because his ill father can’t get the health care he’s entitled to? I’m supposed to understand the prejudicial anger that the WASP wife (Sandra Bullock) of a District Attorney (Brendan Frasier) expresses because she no longer trusts her dedicated Hispanic housekeeper or the locksmith (Michael Pena) changing the locks on their house following a car jacking?

No. Paul Haggis didn’t earn that response from me in almost all of the short story scenarios his film offers. Maybe it’s because I tend to compartmentalize my episodes. I like to think that I don’t allow one experience with one kind of person cloud my judgement on the next person I encounter. A waiter can totally screw up my order and can even mouth off to me in a heated moment. Yet, I’ll return to the restaurant on another occasion because it’s likely I’ll run into a different waiter.

Haggis depicts people who appear to have a blanket opinion of other people with different backgrounds. These are all extremely prejudiced people with next to no understanding of where each of them stem from. An angry Persian man (Shaun Toub) puts blame on the locksmith after his convenience store is ransacked. The locksmith was only trying to explain that the back door needed to be replaced. The Persian refused to listen because his English is limited. So he just gets angry and curses the locksmith out. Haggis opts to insert a language barrier between the two men to serve up an eventual tense and dramatic moment in a neighborhood driveway with a loaded gun and a little girl. A loaded gun and a little girl! Yup, I think they teach these are the true ingredients for effective drama on the first day of screenwriting class. Again, it all comes about a little too forced.

The conveniences and ironies that bubble up at times are surprising. “Oh that guy is that guy’s brother! I see.” Things like that. However, I don’t think that is necessarily the strength of the picture.

In a film like Magnolia, we are treated to the vignettes of a handful of people too. However, not every single one of those people are sketched by means of their prejudiced natures. They are drawn by a variety of different elements whether it be a traumatic past or an inclination to do good. Then it’s kind of fun to uncover how each player is connected to one another.

In Crash, the players are only connected by the hate they carry within themselves, and Paul Haggis forces a redemption upon most of them with small gestures or a line of dialogue or the purity of a welcome snowfall to close out the film. Sorry, life is lot more messy and complicated than that. I guess I’m saying I may have learned a lot more about human nature from a downpour of frogs than a downpour of snow.