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FIRST MAN is scary, exciting and terrific by Ryan Hill

 
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Everybody knows who Neil Armstrong is. He’s the first man to walk on the moon. An American hero. All that jazz. But there was more to Armstrong than that. He was a stoic man who lost a daughter to a brain tumor when she was only two-years-old. Damien Chazelle’s First Man fleshes out the iconic Armstrong, stripping away everything romantic about the man and his mission: to walk on the moon.

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Ryan Gosling, re-teaming with La La Land director Chazelle, takes on the difficult task of capturing Armstrong, a stoic, quiet man who kept his feelings buried deep inside him. Sometimes Gosling pulls it off, sometimes he doesn’t. First Man frames Armstrong’s drive having to do with his daughter’s death, and it may have. It’s a great motivational device with a wonderful payoff, though it’s unclear if that truly drove the man. The Crown’s Claire Foy co-stars as Neil’s wife, Janet. Foy does everything she can with the role, which is basically another iteration of the “suffering astronaut’s wife.” Janet keeps the peace around the house, but sadly she doesn’t have much else to do besides be a mom, worry about her husband and occasionally get angry.

First Man is the perfect middle chapter in an unofficial trilogy of space films. It covers the two-man Gemini missions up through the three-man Apollo missions, ending at the moon landing with Apollo 11. Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff depicts the one-man Mercury missions that kicked off things for NASA, then Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 is the book-end. The three films make for a nice, long afternoon of movies covering the space race.

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First Man is clearly influenced by The Right Stuff, Apollo 13 and 2001: A Space Odyssey, but it eschews the patriotism of the first two (which is almost suffocating in Stuff) in favor of the harsh, dangerous reality of being an astronaut. Chazelle’s framing is tight and claustrophobic, shooting the missions in a you-are-there style, rarely venturing away from what the actual astronauts saw. It isn’t until Apollo 11 that Chazelle opens things up, enjoying the history of the moment while also acknowledging the inherent danger in space flight, and boy is there danger. Every cockpit sounds rickety and unstable, as if they’ll break apart and kill the astronauts at any moment. First Man doesn’t depict Armstrong and his fellow astronauts as great patriots, but more what they really were: men with steel guts willing to strap themselves on top of a giant rocket full of gasoline that could explode at a moment’s notice, incinerating their bodies, all for the chance to go to space, and eventually the moon.

First Man is fantastic, but it isn’t perfect. There are hints of the space race against Russia early on, then that subplot disappears. Public outcry over the number of astronauts who’ve died pops up, only to go away when it isn’t necessary. Both complaints are nitpicky. First Man is a fantastic achievement and one of 2018’s best films.

Han Solo's Star Wars movie is entertaining but unremarkable by Ryan Hill

 
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After The Force Awakens, Rogue One and the upcoming Episode IX, it’s almost expected a new Star Wars film is going to have production issues. Expectations are always through the roof for a Star Wars film, and there’s simply too much money – via box office, merchandising, life – riding on each new entry to not get it right. Solo is no exception and may have been the most difficult of all, firing the directors in the middle of production.

First thing’s first. Most films that fire their director (or directors, in Solo’s case) during production don’t turn out well. Solo turned out just fine.

Solo finds the title character (played by Alden Ehrenreich) starting out on his journey toward full scoundrel, even introducing a younger Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) and the famed Kessel Run that’s been mentioned throughout the series. This Solo isn’t on the run from Jabba the Hut; no, he’s lovelorn over being separated from his love Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) and wants nothing more than to reunite with her. That and be a pilot.

After directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller (the two Jump Street movies, The LEGO Movie) were let go, Ron Howard was brought in to right the ship. The Oscar-winning director shot around 70 percent of the finished product, but it’s unclear what shape Lord and Miller’s footage was in – at least the footage that wasn’t used. What’s there, like Howard’s is fine but unremarkable.

The combined work seen in Solo is fun, but it’s clear some scenes were rushed as Howard & Co. had less than a year to make that May 25, 2018 release date. Cinematography in some scenes, especially early in the film, are too smoky (hopefully watching Solo on Blu-ray or in 4K definition will clear that up), there’s very little in the way of insert shots or anything that resembles nuance. The filmmakers simply had no time. The most compelling character is Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s equal-rights-for-all android, L3-37, probably due to the special effects crew being hard at work well before Howard took over.

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Ehrenreich (Hail Caesar!), given the awesome opportunity to play Han Solo but also the unenviable task of replacing Harrison Ford, is perfectly fine in the role. He doesn’t have Ford’s charisma, but it’s important to note that this iteration of Solo isn’t that Solo. The seeds are there, but he’s young, optimistic and a bit naïve. The main standout besides Waller-Bridge is, of course, Glover as Lando. Glover’s always had that “it” factor, but channeling Billy Dee Williams sends his charisma into the cosmos.

Get it? Cosmos? Because this is a review for a Star Wars movie?

If the powers-that-be had pushed Solo’s release back to, say, Christmas 2018, following in the pattern of every Star Wars film since The Force Awakens, Ron Howard maybe could’ve crafted something special. It’s amazing he pulled off what he did and yes, Solo is worth seeing. It’s broad, easily digestible and is better than Rogue One, which really lags in the middle. But this is Han freakin’ Solo. A movie bearing his name should be more than just worth seeing.

Maybe if there’s a sequel, they’ll hit it out of the park. But what would it be called? Solo 2: Flyin’ Solo? Solo 2 Solo? Solo 2: 2 Solo’s Make A Couple? Solo 2: The Chewie Connection? Solo 2: Time to Lando? Book of Shadows: Solo 2?

 

 

Truth: Blumhouse’s Truth or Dare is Weak Sauce by Ryan Hill

 
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Going on a trip over Spring Break – be it to Mexico, Florida or anywhere else – is guaranteed to end poorly. At least in movies. People are murdered to appease ancient gods (Cabin in the Woods), killer plants attack (The Ruins), and sometimes a corn-rowed James Franco shows up, saying, “Spring Break” over and over (Spring Breakers).

Basically, it’s best to stay home over Spring Break if you’re in a movie. If only the characters in Truth or Dare did the same. Or went on a Habitat for Humanity mission, which Olivia (Pretty Little Liars’ Lucy Hale) was planning on doing before her best friend Markie (Violett Beane) convinced her to go to Mexico instead for Spring Break. There, the meek Olivia meets a cute guy at the bar who convinces everyone to leave the bar in favor of making the long trek to an abandoned church to play… wait for it… Truth or Dare. And in Truth or Dare, once someone plays, they have to follow through with the truth or dare. Otherwise, they die in a some PG-13 way that’s not nearly as graphic as it should be.

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The idea of making Truth or Dare a horror film is genius. It opens the door for all sorts of ingenious death scenes, the kind that would make the Final Destination series jealous. Instead, Truth or Dare is saddled with a PG-13 rating, so there goes any hope for wild, gory death scenes. Throw in some silly plot involving a demon and Truth or Dare becomes another low-level horror that’s more cash grab than inspired terror.

Truth or Dare is one of those horrors where the characters get picked off one at a time by some supernatural, all-powerful being. Those don’t work unless the characters are awful people, making the audience root for their demise. It’s one of the biggest lessons Cabin in the Woods taught us. Even Blumhouse’s Happy Death Day was smart enough to have its main character start out as a horrible human being.

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It’s hard not to draw comparisons between Truth or Dare and Happy Death Day, since both are PG-13 horror flicks from Blumhouse. Death Day wrung every ounce of PG-13 fun from its Groundhog Day premise. Truth or Dare, on the other hand, does very little with its premise, even forcing the characters to pick dare after a while.

Written and directed by Jeff Wadlow, who made the bad Kick-Ass movie, Truth or Dare is lazy from the start. Before leaving for the Spring Break trip, Olivia and Markie talk about having fun “before life tears them apart,” which isn’t ominous. At all. The rest of the dialogue is so on-the-nose, that every dare (and truth) is visible from a mile away. And what fun is a game of Truth or Dare with predictable dares? My guess is probably as much fun as watching Truth or Dare, i.e. not much.

 

Black Panther's Wait was Worth It by Ryan Hill

 
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It’s taken entirely too long for something like Black Panther, a superhero movie starring an African American, to see the light of day. In the period leading to that film’s release, Marvel has given us movies about a guy who communicates with ants (Ant-Man), two movies featuring a talking raccoon (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 1 and 2), Doctor Strange and three Thor films. Granted, those are all enjoyable – save Thor: The Dark World – but it shouldn’t have taken so long for Black Panther to become a reality.

The saving grace for the delay is that Marvel, and especially writer/director Ryan Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole, did Black Panther right. It wasn’t rushed, like, oh, Justice League. The property was handled with care and precision, resulting in a film steeped in African culture, with fantastic, three-dimensional characters, gorgeous costumes and a wonderful theme. Even the villain, typically Marvel’s weak spot, has layers. It’s a film everyone should get behind.

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Taking place soon after the events in Captain America: Civil War (probably on the same point on the Marvel timeline with Spider-Man: Homecoming), Black Panther finds the newly crowned King of Wakanda, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), mourning the death of his father and the responsibility of becoming a new king in a changing world. Wakanda, home to the metal that created Captain America’s shield, is technologically far ahead of the rest of the world, but they’ve remained largely hidden, afraid of influence and corruption from outsiders. That fear leads one outsider, the twisted Erik Killmonger (Coogler mainstay Michael B. Jordan), to try and use Wakanda’s technology to make it a superpower.

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In a short period, Ryan Coogler has become one of the best directors out there. At 31, he’s already directed the devastating Fruitvale Station, his Rocky update Creed was a crowd-pleaser, even netting Sylvester Stallone an Oscar nomination, and with Black Panther he’s proven adept at handling blockbuster entertainment without letting special effects swallow up the important things, like character and story. Arguably the film’s only real weak spot, the plot hews a little too close to the average Marvel fare, but the focus on the characters more makes up for it. Black Panther is more than a big budget action spectacle. It’s a personal film that deals with real emotions and themes, which makes Black Panther resonate more than any other Marvel entry.

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Marvel’s Phase Three of its cinematic universe was always going to be interesting. Having already made three Iron Man movies, three Captain Americas and three Thors, the studio has not only exhausted some of their biggest properties, but their level of quality is established such that movies like Black Panther can be made. If Panther is any indication, the Marvel films may be moving in a direction more exciting and diverse than ever before.

Stephen King's It Gets a Scary, Funny Adaptation by Ryan Hill

 
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Does anybody really like clowns? There’s something not right with them. The white faces? The wigs? The silly behavior? All of the above? Hard to say. But pretty much everyone under the age of, say, 45 is terrified of one clown in particular.

Pennywise, the evil clown from Stephen King’s novel It.

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Famously played by Tim Curry in the 1990 miniseries, Pennywise comes to Derry, Maine every 27 years to feast on scared children. In the hands of Curry, the clown was as evil as he was fun. An all-time villain that to this day still holds up. Now, 27 YEARS AFTER THE MINISERIES, Pennywise has returned on the big screen.

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It’s the summer of 1989, and a group of kids dubbed the Losers want nothing more than to have a fun summer with no worries and no run-ins with the local bullies. That doesn’t really go according to plan, thanks to Pennywise, who terrorizes the kids one by one, feeding on their biggest fears. Bill, the Losers’ leader, is haunted by the death of his little brother Georgie, whom Pennywise killed the year before. Another is terrified of a strange painting. In true Stephen King fashion – and an obvious nod to his novel Carrie – the lone girl in the group is most afraid of her period. As the summer goes on, the Losers realize they’re all being hunted by Pennywise, and since the adults won’t do anything, take matters into their own hands.

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The 1990 miniseries version of It introduced a generation to the work of King with a bang. The author was HUGE in 1990, and King’s novels, with their supernatural elements, piqued the interest of eager young readers like myself. The catch? Most of us weren’t allowed to read his books, because they were “too scary.” The It miniseries was a chance for my generation to finally get a taste of King, and it did not fail to deliver. I was 10, and even though the miniseries aired on network TV, prompting a lack of gore, Pennywise scared the dickens out of everyone.

This new version of It is the first of two films based on the novel, with this one focusing on the Losers as children. Cutting King’s 1,100-page novel into two is no easy feat, and the first half of It can basically be described as evil clown messes with kids. There’s a struggle to reconcile the connection between the Losers and Pennywise, but once those two threads come together, It becomes almost non-stop horror.

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The film is vintage King. Children coming of age, over-the-top adults, sadistic baddies, shocking terror … It, more than maybe all the other King adaptations, feels like one of his novels come to life.

It’s also maybe the funniest King movie.

Yes, It is full of solid scares. Where the 1990 version of Pennywise was scary and fun, this version, played by Bill Skarsgard, is just plain menacing. With the freedom to work within an R-rating, director Andy Muschietti doesn’t skimp on the gore, fully realizing the horror within It. But none of it would work without the Losers. They trade rapid fire quips, and drop F-bombs just like regular kids. The best of the bunch is Richie (Finn Wolfhard of Stranger Things), who regards his mouth as a gift. The Losers are so funny and authentic, they’d fit in with any of the John Hughes films around at the film’s 1989 setting.

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It’s hard to look at this new adaptation of It without acknowledging the miniseries’ huge influence, but the film really does stand on its own two feet. Alternately hilarious and scary (and not without a couple of shortcomings), It is, to coin a generic critic phrase, a roller-coaster ride.

Spider-Man’s “Homecoming” is Pretty Amazing by Ryan Hill

 

There was a minute there when nobody cared about a Spider-Man movie anymore. After the disappointment of “Spider-Man 3” in 2007, the series was rebooted in 2012 to mixed results, and that reboot was scuttled after only two films. It seemed Spider-Man could no longer do whatever a spider could. The character was so downtrodden, Spidey’s parent studio worked out a deal with Marvel to use the character in their cinematic universe.

Now, after all these years, Spider-Man is finally home with “Spider-Man: Homecoming.”

But does the world need a second reboot of Spider-Man, the sixth film featuring the web-slinger since 2001? In the hands of Marvel, the answer is hell yes.

“Captain America: Civil War” gave the world a glimpse at what Marvel could do with their most popular character. In short, they nailed Spider-Man. In the web-slinger’s limited screen time, Tom Holland portrayed the character with a perfect mix of wonder, amazement and snark. The Tobey Maguire trilogy was good but mopey, the Andrew Garfield films were, eh, whatever, but “Homecoming” is everything that makes Spider-Man so great.

“Homecoming” ignores Spider-Man’s origin story, but still focuses on Peter Parker/Spider-Man’s life in high school. He’s tormented by the bully Flash, crushing hard on his debate team colleague Liz, and wishing more than anything Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) would make him a full-time Avenger.

But the fifteen-year-old Parker has bigger fish to fry outside of the classroom, like stopping Vulture (Michael Keaton) from stealing weaponry left behind in the wake of battles fought by the Avengers.

Director Jon Watts, who made the Kevin Bacon indie “Cop Car,” also knows just how New York-centric Spider-Man is. Without the skyscrapers of that metropolis to swing from, Spidey is left to hitch rides on trains or run around, resulting in a great “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” homage. It’s one of many nods to the great John Hughes, which “Homecoming” takes most of its cues from. The film is very much in the vein of a Hughes film, just with … you know … a guy running around in red tights shooting webs from his wrists.

“Homecoming” is one of the most fun blockbusters – comic book or otherwise – out there. It rivals “Guardians of the Galaxy” for sheer joy and is as good as, if not better than, “Spider-Man 2,” which is considered one of the best superhero films ever made. It even has a solid villain in Vulture, something the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been missing outside of Loki, who even then hasn’t been fully utilized.

The key word for “Homecoming” is fun. By keeping the stakes lower – Spider-Man doesn’t have to save the world – the film avoids the underlying sadness of Ben Parker’s death, which anchored the original trilogy, and veer away from pretty much everything in the “Amazing Spider-Man” films. Marvel is free to embrace the Spider-Man character, relishing in Peter’s high school years, but without that pesky origin story.

It’s also one of the best Marvel films, and arguably the best Spider-Man film ever.