Green Book

Green Book is the kind of moving holiday crowd-pleaser endowed with so much charm it’s sure to be an Oscar contender with equally memorable performances. In the current racially charged times, it might also just be for African Americans what PRIDE (2014) was for the LGBTQ, it could melt even the most prejudiced heart.

Directed by Peter Farrelly - Dumb and Dumber (1994), Green Book is a racial justice road movie with lots of humor that hits all the right notes. But don’t think wacky Dumb and Dumber type of buddy comedy. The laughs in this film come straight out of a genuine respect for its characters.

Based on true events set in 1962 America, Viggo Mortensen plays Tony (Lip) Vallelonga, a working-class Italian-American bouncer and con artist at a New York night club with a talent for “persuading people to do what they don’t want to do” and a lot of street smarts.

When the night club he works for closes down for repairs, he applies for a job as a driver for a gifted classical pianist and composer Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) who was a virtuoso performer and traveled all over the US with his trio playing for the country’s wealthiest establishments.

When the record company sends Don Shirley and his trio on a three-month concert tour through the deep South, which was highly segregated in the 60s, Don who happens to be a black musician in America at a time when African Americans were still looked down upon as inferior and dangerous, decides he will need the services of someone who can protect him while also getting him to all his engagements on time.

This unlikely pair and their awkward relationship play like a kind of Oscar and Felix odd couple, but as opposite as they are in every way possible, they also depend on each other for their survival and eventually gain a stronger bond and greater respect for each other.

Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali are perfectly cast and hold the audience completely enthralled. What we learn about these two people while spending time together on the road is often hilarious and heartwarming.

The Green Book of the title is a segregation era motorist travel guide for Black Americans faced with pervasive discrimination while traveling in America. Being refused accommodation and food by white owned businesses was a common dilemma for Blacks in the southern states, the Green Book helped them to find hotels and restaurants friendly to non-whites.

Being a colored person, Don Shirley was often refused entry to whites-only Hotels and restaurants, even at places where he was actually performing, so while Tony could stay and eat wherever he wanted, Don would often have to find other accommodations during their road tour.

The power of Green Book lies in its emotionally uplifting story, its inspirational message of love and friendship, and the way its flawed human characters are treated with humor and dignity without judgement. The closest film I would compare it to is the French hit The Intouchables (2011) in its portrayal of an improbable comradeship and triumph of the human spirit.

Winner of the People’s Choice Award at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival where it had its World Premiere, this is one of funniest and moving films of the year.

JP

First Man

First Man is not your typical astronauts in jeopardy film. Its closest relative is Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 (1997), which set the standard for the NASA space film. Set during the same time period, it’s the true story of Apollo 11 and contains many of the same astronauts that were involved in the Apollo program and eventually went on to fly on Apollo 13 and other missions.

But where Apollo 13 glorified the accomplishments and sacrifices of NASA’s space missions and the astronauts who flew them, First Man is decidedly more cerebral showing us a more personal portrait of the psychological impact the astronauts and their families suffered during the space program, particularly Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) and his wife Janet (Claire Foy).

The moon mission is actually more of a secondary story in the background here, focusing mainly on the intense psychological drama playing out through the mind of Neil Armstrong who is shown here as being a deeply focused, highly concentrated and a dedicated pilot, the embodiment of calm under pressure.

Neil is the kind of soft-spoken super human whose quick thinking and determination gets him out of the most difficult hair-raising situations. He was in many ways the perfect person to pull off such a dangerous undertaking.

But his stoicism did not always sit well with his family, particularly his wife who sometimes needed him to be more nurturing, especially during a family tragedy that occurred just before Neil was selected to be a part of the Gemini program, which is the precursor to the Apollo program.

Where Apollo 13 was sometimes criticized for not showing the social political atmosphere of the country in which these missions took place, First Man makes more of an attempt at showing some brief scenes of news footage covering Vietnam war protests and general public attitudes towards NASA’s moon missions.

Visually, First Man is more intimately concentrated on Armstrong the man, as opposed to the heroic pubic figure of our imagination, and his experiences dealing with the uncertainty and magnitude of the tasks he and the other astronauts faced while dealing with overwhelming pressure to succeed.

Based on his essential biography First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong by James R. Hansen, Damien Chazelle decided to make very few cuts between the Houston crew on the ground and the astronauts in space, opting to keep our attention focused on Neil Armstrong’s first-hand experience.

The flag controversy surrounding the film is really a non-event as it’s clear that the film takes the perspective of Neil’s personal and private journey connected more to his suffering after a family loss than to the monumental task he has been given.

When asked by reporters if he will be taking any personal items up to the moon with him, Neil characteristically responds with a deadpan serious expression showing again his pragmatic dedicated focus that he wished he could take more fuel with him.

So, it was deeply satisfying when First Man ultimately culminated with a powerful emotional climax after arriving on the moon that is completely unrelated to being on the moon. While surveying the barren lifeless cratered surface, Armstrong flashes back to memories of his life back on earth and the moment becomes not about the moon or even the human achievement, but a personal object that Neil brought with him, which has haunted him since his journey began.

JP

Shoplifters

Shoplifters is a sensitively portrayed look at a charming surrogate family living on the fringe of society, making a compelling case for the way families we create or fall in with can sometimes be more meaningful and satisfying than the families we are born into.

The cinema of Japan’s Hirokazu Kore-eda from Nobody Knows (2004), Like Father, Like Son (2013), Our Little Sister (2015), and After the Storm (2016), have all had a similar thread underlying these stories of unconventional families created out of genuine kindness under crisis situations who share a special bond that goes deeper than blood relations.

Cannes Palme d’Or winner, Shoplifters, focuses Kore-eda’s themes of what it means to be a family more powerfully than any of his previous films, while also commenting on Japan’s social class system. Along with Our Little Sister, it’s one of his best films.

Where Our Little Sister was a gentle upbeat feel-good story of sisters living in their mother’s ancestral home who take in a young girl after the death of their father; their half-sister, Shoplifters is decidedly less optimistic showing a bleaker more tragic heartrending side of humanity.

What at first appears to be a poor family of part-time vagrants living together in a packed shared accommodation among urban dwellings in a Japanese neighborhood, is slowly revealed to be a loving group of outcasts who have come together to help each other for mutual benefit. They share everything and despite the extremely difficult living arrangement, the group seems to thrive and enjoy each other’s company, engaging in family outings and activities.

A kind-hearted and generous low-income couple in their 30s and 40s, Osamu (Lily Franky) and Nobuyo (Sakura Ando), living with an elderly lady, Hatsue (Kirin Kiki), left to fend for herself by her own family, have adopted a young boy, Shota (Jyo Kairi) who was abandoned, and a teen girl who works at a strip theatre. Osamu the father figure teaches the boy the art of shoplifting to supplement their meager earnings.

When they come across a 5-year-old girl, Yuri (Miyu Sasaki) who is neglected by her mother and left out in the cold without food, Osamu decides to help her and takes her into his care. Yuri quickly thrives on the love and affection she receives from her new makeshift family. But when a news story appears on TV that a small girl has gone missing that fits Yuri’s description, the couple tries to return her to the parents. However, whether out of compassion for the girl or maybe for selfish reasons, doing the right thing becomes morally complicated.

The group of outcasts (shoplifters) forge a real bond and sense of belonging that’s stronger than any family they ever had. But when the police discover them, the consequences for everyone as the state returns the children to their real families are devastating. What Shoplifters does so well is show us how people from all ages and walks of life are being marginalized by a society that values individual gain and material wealth over human kindness and genuine affection.

Hirokazu Kore-eda uses his abundance of reality shooting style and dense interior locations that instantly puts you in the tight living spaces of typical Japanese homes. Visually, the film is dedicated to its characters and a high level of detail in their crammed surroundings.

Shoplifters is thought provoking and revealing of Japan’s growing threat to families for whom an addiction to social media and online living is causing them to neglect their everyday real-life existence instead of enhancing it.

JP

El Angel

Argentine filmmaker Luis Ortega’s stylish crime thriller El Angel set in Buenos Aires during the early 70s is based on the true story of a notorious 17-year-old baby-faced thief and killer with a fondness for burglarizing luxury suburban homes of the wealthy.

Eventually joining a crime gang, Carlos Robledo Puch aka El Angel was known as the Angel of Death for his innocent looking childlike demeanor and blond curly hair with a tendency to be quick on the trigger, casually robbing and killing innocent people while capturing the fascination of the Argentine media.

An all-star cast of well-known Latin American actors give solid performances and an especially riveting standout performance from newcomer Lorenzo Ferro in the title role of sexy serial killer Carlitos Robledo Puch.

Like El Clan (2015) from Argentine director Pablo Trapero three years earlier, this period in Argentina’s history is fertile ground for stories of intrigue, intimidation and crime, foreshadowing the country’s right-wing nationalist mentality and government corruption during the dictatorship era.

Carlitos comes from a middle-class family; his father, a vacuum cleaner salesman and his mother a home maker from German descent, try to raise him with good working-class values. But Carlitos has other ideas. He doesn’t believe in ownership like everyone else. He says in the film “I don’t believe in this is mine, and this is yours.” And he has a knack for breaking into places. At first he steals whatever takes his fancy and either keeps or gives them away as gifts to gain friends.

When he meets a schoolmate who he finds attractive, Ramón (Chino Darin), who comes from a crime family, he gains his friendship, quickly becoming partners, and proves himself to be a daring fearless thief but, to the alarm of Ramón’s family, also a loose cannon. He and his new crime family are soon pulling bigger and bigger jobs which invariably lead, almost casually at first, to deaths and murders that draw the attention of the authorities.

The 60s and 70s set design, consistent pacing, and vintage music give the movie an appealing authentic feel. Like the enigmatic character of pretty boy Carlos who loves to savor the time he spends while robbing magnificent posh estates, the movie presents us with the opulence and lavish lifestyle of the rich, then slowly as Carlos’ covetous greed grows and he becomes increasingly psychotic, his surroundings become decayed and empty reflecting his state of mind.

El Angel rocks with 70s fashion style and a stunning sensual performance by Lorenzo Ferro as Carlos who carries the film convincingly, showing us an intense portrait of a young merciless teen killer intoxicated with the power of his outrageous criminal acts. There is a palpable erotic tension between the two young thieves Carlos and Ramón that eventually turns deadly.

Ferro looks strikingly similar to the real Carlos as seen in pictures from that time period. The real Carlos Puch is still alive and is now famous for being the longest serving prisoner in Argentina’s history.

Produced by K&S Films and Pedro Almodovar’s company El Deseo who also gave us Wild Tales (2014) and The Clan (2015), Luis Ortega’s El Angel succeeds in giving us an aesthetic experience that’s daring, disturbing and highly entertaining.

JP

Blindspotting

Based on the actual experiences of co-writers and co-actors Rafael Casal and Daveed Diggs while growing up together in West Oakland and the Bay area, the film follows Collin (Diggs) and Miles (Casal) as childhood buddies who are struggling with the loss of their beloved neighborhood as new affluent hipsters are rapidly infiltrating and changing the dynamics of the city and ultimately throwing their relationship into turmoil.

Blindspotting starts out as a buddy comedy but eventually becomes a serious social commentary on race relations, police brutality and the effects of gentrification by throwing together a mix of people with very different values and experiences that see the locals changing their perspective on their old community.

The independent gritty drama opens with a split screen montage of West Oakland, California and the Bay area ghetto street life set to Verdi’s opera "Libiamo Ne' Lieti Calici Brindisi", starting the film off with a fun celebratory vibe juxtaposing old and new images of a city in flux between what it used to be and what it’s becoming.

This low budget buddy drama about the friendship between Collin, a soft spoken quiet young black man, and Miles, his hotheaded fast-talking white friend who grew up having to adapt to the predominantly black cultural hub of West Oakland, takes place during the last three days of Collin’s probation period, but Miles’ volatile temper keeps threatening to violate Collin’s strict parole terms.

When Collin witnesses a police shooting of a black man one night while driving home, it affects him more than he realizes and we quickly suspect that his last few days serving his probation as a convicted felon could easily end with him back in jail and losing his freedom.

Meanwhile the strange transition and metamorphoses of his community into unrecognizable people and places, and the innate police prejudices toward young black men are making his plans to leave a life of incarceration behind more difficult than he imagined.

Blindspotting refers to a psychology term called Rubin’s Vase where two images exist simultaneously but depending on one’s background and experiences, we only see one image while missing the other until it’s pointed out to us. The film thus shows how we are unconsciously biased toward one perception of certain people until we are shown another.

Using unique Bay area vernacular and slang that was prominent in West Oakland, Collin and Miles who are longtime Oakland locals and real-life rappers often communicate in rap verse and poetry slams throughout the film. The performances are superb all around including the two main leads who have a genuine chemistry and comradery as they are childhood friends in real life.

A passion project that was ten years in the making, Blindspotting is the culmination of years of planning and went through many iterations over the years, but despite its long incubation period the film feels remarkably current, dealing truthfully with today’s extremely topical issues.

Blindspotting is a tough hard-hitting reflection of urban inner-city life that has a good heart and no small amount of humor mixed with tense drama. It’s an amazing tribute to the affection and determination of the filmmakers that this fun visual record of a period in transition from old school boom box to new digital cell phone apps nostalgia has been brought to the screen with such honesty and flare.

JP

Rashomon

Before he became world renowned as the leading figure in Japanese art cinema and stunned audiences with such influential cinematic masterpieces as Ikiru (1952), Seven Samurai (1954), The Throne of Blood (1957), The Hidden Fortress (1958), Yojimbo (1961), Sanjuro (1962), Kagemusha: The Shadow Warrior (1980), and Ran (1985), Akira Kurosawa first burst to international attention with the highly unique and unconventional art film Rashomon (1950).

The film is based on a short story by Ryunosuke Akutagawa which is set in 11th century Kyoto, the ancient capital of Japan, at a time marked by devastating earthquakes, fires, famine and plagues. During a pelting downpour, three figures shelter under the ruined remains of the largest entrance gate to the city.

While huddled together under the protection of the crumbling two-story Rashomon gate, a priest and a woodcutter describe the disturbing details of a recent crime to a concerned commoner. An aristocratic woman and her samurai husband traveling by horse had been attacked by a thief/bandit (Toshiro Mifune). The woman was raped in the forest and her husband murdered. While recalling the testimony of the people involved in the crime at the local tribunal courthouse, the film shows the events in flashback from the perspective of the three participants; the bandit, the woman, and the murdered husband (through a medium), and one witness, the woodcutter.

But in each retelling of the same events, the story changes significantly according to the person telling it. Eventually we realize that the truth is unknowable because people are self-serving and motivated by fear, greed and vanity. They all have reason to tell their own version of the events so everyone’s story is suspect.

It was important for Kurosawa to give audiences a moral perspective on life in Japan after the horrors of the second world war choosing stories like Rashomon and Stray Dog (1949). Japan at this time was lawless, undergoing extremely difficult times. The country was devastated by the war and in a state of complete destruction. People had no food or means of survival and returning soldiers were looked down upon by the starving civilians. Stealing and crime rates were extremely high and Kurosawa wanted to remind people that to rebuild society for our children Japan must hold itself to a new moral standard that would not be easy in these dark times but would eventually improve life for everyone.

When Kurosawa’s regular film studio Toho was reluctant to produce his new project, he turned to another film studio Daiei Tokyo Studios, where he was able to work with renowned cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa for the first time on Rashomon. His use of lighting and sophisticated visual style was so hypnotic and powerful that it captivated audiences with its sense of stunning realism reminiscent of the silent cinema aesthetic mixed with mythic storytelling.

Kurosawa loved instilling his films with a palpable sense of the atmosphere and the environment in which his scenes took place, and you can see how he uses powerful images of weather, wind and heat to get across the feeling of being in those places. The collaboration of Kurosawa and Miyagawa on Rashomon produced a beautiful artful aesthetic that gave the film a whole new magical quality not seen in Kurosawa’s previous films and audiences in Japan and abroad were enthralled by it.

This was only the fourth time that Kurosawa choose to work with a young talented actor who he loved for the energy he brought to a scene. The amazingly versatile and riveting Toshiro Mifune as the bandit would go on to star in many of Akira Kurosawa’s greatest films eventually becoming one of the all-time most prolific and successful director/actor partnerships in cinema history.

Rashomon went on to be a commercial hit for the studio in Japan and overseas winning many international awards including the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and the Academy Award for Best Foreign film. The success of Rashomon redefined Japanese film for western audiences and opened up opportunities for other Japanese directors of the time like Yasujiro Ozu, Kenji Mizoguchi and Hiroshi Teshigahara.

JP

Hearts Beat Loud

This Sundance Film Festival favorite will melt the hearts of all but the most jaded of viewers. It’s a profoundly touching crowd-pleaser if ever there was one that wears its heart on its sleeve using a combination of original songs and lyrics performed by a father and daughter musician duo jamming together to creatively express their inner torment.

A hipster widower Frank Fisher (Nick Offerman) who runs a vinyl record store in the Brooklyn NY neighborhood of Red Hook, and his singer songwriter daughter Sam (Kiersey Clemons) who wants to go to medical school, are struggling with the loss of his wife and mother to Sam.

It’s the end of an era for single father Frank as he deals with issues of his aging mother, the regrets of his youth, losing his record store, and now his daughter who is about to go off to UCLA to attend medical school to become a doctor.

When Frank submits one of their jam session songs onto the free online music streaming service Spotify, the song becomes a hit on a popular indie mix, and Frank suddenly gets visions of touring with his daughter across the country and becoming famous as a live band act. But his dream of rekindling his former life as a successful pop rock musician is fading fast as he tries to convince his talented daughter to put aside her “childish dream” of becoming a doctor for a life as a musician.

Hearts Beat Loud starts out as a low key comedy focusing on the daily drama of its charming characters and gradually, like the music in the film, crescendos into a devastatingly heartfelt emotional explosion on multiple levels.

The film is a sad commentary on coming to terms with today’s new social and economic realities, the disparity between art and commerce, and nostalgia and regrets of past glories. But the film also emphasizes the power of the creative process to renew our hopes for the future.

This musical drama follows in the tradition of such recent let’s-start-a-band indie films as Once (2007), Begin Again (2014), Sing Street (2016) and Band Aid (2017). I also loved how we were exposed to some high-tech gadgets that help musicians create music in this new age of social media and computer-generated synthesizers that have changed the music industry.

Not only do we get the outstanding musical talents of the main characters, Kiersey Clemons is a real-life classical jazz singer, and Nick Offerman from Parks and Recreation (2009) is hilarious as a man-child dealing with adult responsibilities with his deadpan humor while trying to elicit reactions from his daughter, we also get an excellent supporting cast of characters; Ted Danson, Sasha Lane from American Honey (2016), Toni Collette, and Blyth Danner.

Director Bret Haley shows a sensitive touch with the realistically awkward and complicated relationship between a vulnerable father and daughter who start a band to deal with their real-life issues.

Hearts Beat Loud is a wonderful if sometimes sappy sentimental feel-good film we could all use in these harsh divisive times of intolerance.

JP

Solo: A Star Wars Story

Solo, the second stand-alone Star Wars anthology film from Disney/Lucasfilm since Rogue One (2016) features a young Han Solo that’s set exactly ten years before the events of A New Hope (1977) and his famous encounter in the Mos Eisley alien cantina with Luke and Ben Kenobi who hire him to pilot them to Alderaan to meet their destiny.

It’s also ten years after the end of the Clone Wars when all the Jedi have been killed or exiled by the Sith Lord Darth Sidious and his fallen Jedi apprentice Darth Vader. It’s a lawless time when powerful crime syndicates like Crimson Dawn are competing for resources and a few pockets of resistance are starting to rise up against the Empire’s authoritarian rule.

Solo is a solid coming of age adventure ride that harkens back to the Old West/cowboys-in-space vibe of the original films, taking us on a hyperspace journey through the darker underbelly of the Star Wars universe; from the industrial shipyards on Han’s home world of Corellia, to a war zone on the mud planet Mimban, to the dingy gambling hide-out of Fort Ypso on the snowy mountain planet Vandor,  to the oppressive spice mines of Kessel, and ultimately a stand-off at a deserted oceanside refinery on a sand dune wasteland called Savareen.

Much has been made in the media about Solo’s production problems and questions of the need for a film about Han Solo’s backstory, but in the end none of that matters because the movie, like Solo himself, beat all the odds and works amazingly well showing no evidence of the behind-the-scenes turmoil. The story is exciting and emotionally engaging, giving us new insights into the Star Wars universe with many fun nods to the classic films and the expanded universe books.

Chewbacca and the Millennium Falcon are of course major characters in the Star Wars saga, and we get to see how these two iconic characters bonded and became synonymous with the Han Solo legend. For Chewbacca fans, we haven’t seen the Wookie fuzz ball get this much action since The Empire Strikes Back (1980).

Solo, which I suspect will be the first in a series of Han Solo adventures, stays generally, if loosely, faithful to some of the Han Solo lore that was established in the various expanded universe novels while also exploring new directions. It’s encouraging that Solo is proving new filmmakers are still able to find inspiration from the Expanded Universe stories and are not completely ignoring the non-canon books.

I’m happy to say that Alden Ehrenreich’s interpretation of Han Solo is in perfect keeping with the tone and spirit of the character created by Harrison Ford. He embodies the younger space pirate wonderfully giving a solid fun performance as the charming ambitious idealist smuggler who wants to make his mark in the universe with plenty of swagger. 

Another standout performance comes from Donald Glover as the suave gambler and entrepreneur Lando Calrissian. Glover was able to channel Billy Dee Williams smooth attitude with uncanny resemblance. In fact, the duo of Ehrenreich and Glover have great on-screen chemistry.

One of the coolest side-splitting sequences in Solo was the filmmakers’ attempt to explore droids’ rights issues, given that androids are generally treated as slave labor in the Star Wars galaxy. One droid in particular plays a fantastic role in Lando’s navigational co-pilot L3-37 played by Phoebe Waller-Bridge who has more personality than we’ve ever seen from other Star Wars droids.

The music score by John Powell ties Solo most closely with A New Hope (1977) and The Empire Strikes Back (1980) with John Williams’ familiar themes being re-used here and there to instantly recall situations from the earlier films.

For fans, Solo has a revelatory ah-ha moment with the re-appearance of a popular villain long thought to be dead and who was resurrected in the CG Animated tv series The Clone Wars (2008 – 2014) that will be discussed for years to come and promises more intriguing stories in future episodes. 

Solo can also be enjoyed immensely by the casual viewer as a retro/futuristic adventure heist film set in a galaxy far, far away that feels like a Western in space with memorable characters who seem strangely familiar. So, bring your best Wookie roar, your quickdraw blaster and enjoy the ride.

JP

Han Solo gets his own trilogy

Han, Chewie, Lando and the Millennium Falcon are some of the most iconic characters from the Original Star Wars trilogy. Longtime fans of the Star Wars saga will remember reading about the adventures of the galaxy’s most notorious space pirate before he met up with Luke, Leia and Ben Kenobi through the character bios and many Expanded Universe books that have been written about them, including A. C. Crispin’s Han Solo trilogy, and Brian Daley’s Han Solo Adventures

Well, now we finally get to see for ourselves these mythic events and characters brought to life on the big screen for the first time when Solo: A Star Wars Story opens in cinemas worldwide on May 25th.

Fans will finally get to witness the legend of Solo’s humble beginnings and shady past as an orphan growing up on his home world of Corellia. How he and his Wookiee co-pilot Chewbacca first met, how he joined a gang of thieves running scams under the mentorship of their leader, and how he eventually won the famous Millennium Falcon, the fastest hunk of junk in the galaxy, from his sometime friend Lando Calrissian in a card game.  

Most of us have heard how Han escaped his life of crime on Corellia to joined the Empire as a TIE pilot only to be disillusioned and discharged from the Imperial navy when he refused to participate in the enslavement of Wookiees and saved the life of one such Wookiee named Chewbacca, whose custom was to swear a life debt to Han. Together they became one of the most notorious partners running spice for the Hutt clans, one of whose members was Jabba the Hutt.

It will be interesting to see just how much of this original backstory of Han Solo is kept in the film as much of the Expanded Universe books are no longer considered canon by Disney when they bought Lucasfilm and the Star Wars franchise. But from the evidence seen in the new trailers for the film online it would seem that much of Han Solo’s legendary life remains intact although we will see how much of it was altered and where new directions are explored.

As we have seen in Rogue One (2016) and The Last Jedi (2017), some of the vast non-canon material produced for the Expanded Star Wars Universe could eventually end up being used in a Star Wars film somewhere in the future, thus returning it to canon status.

Solo:  A Star Wars Story reportedly features a mud planet called Mimban, which was first introduced by Alan Dean Foster, the ghostwriter of the first Star Wars novelization, in the very first expanded Star Wars novel Splinter of the Mind’s Eye back in 1978, which is a non-canon novel continuing the adventures of Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia Organa shortly after the events of A New Hope. Mimban will now make it’s feature film debut in Solo.

First reports of the Premiere showing of Solo in Hollywood and at Cannes last week are very encouraging with many people proclaiming it a fun fast ride with plenty of surprises that will satisfy the hard core faithful followers of the saga. 

By all accounts the decision to bring in longtime friend of George Lucas and veteran Oscar winning director Ron Howard half way through production to finish the project on time has paid off and saved the film from potential disaster. (or at least from a delayed release) The important thing now for fans to remember is not to dwell on the production woes but to judge the finished product on the screen. 

I’m looking forward to seeing a different kind of Star Wars movie we haven’t seen before from the point of view of beloved characters not associated with the Force or the Jedi Knights. Han Solo has no special powers, he’s the quintessential cynic loner with a conscience who stumbles through one pitfall after another while selfishly pursuing riches. He never imagined he would one day meet a princess who would convince him to join a rebellion to defeat the tyrannical Empire he was once a part of.

JP

Padmaavat

Reportedly the most expensive Indian film ever made, Padmaavat lives up to expectations of a visually spectacular mega mythological/historical epic of feudal India. Drawing on its rich history of legendary figures that have invaded and influenced Indian culture over thousands of years, Padmaavat is the Bollywood equivalent of Kingdom of Heaven (2005) and Troy (2004). If you’ve never experienced a Bollywood blockbuster this would be a great place to start.

Padmaavat depicts the staggering opulence of 13th century medieval India where good versus evil, heroes and villains are shown as larger than life. In typical Bollywood fashion there are grand palaces, vast armies clashing in full armor, over-the-top drama, a massive city siege, dazzling luxuriant costumes, and grandiose musical dance sequences that puts Hollywood’s golden age to shame. 

Loosely based on the Hindustani epic poem by Sufi poet Malik Muhammad Jayasi, Padmaavat is the story of Padmini (Deepika Padukone), a princess from the Kingdom of Singhal in Sri Lanka whose reputation as the most beautiful woman in the world eventually reached Ratan Singh (Shahid Kapoor), the ruler of a Rajput warrior clan in Rajastan occupying the largest and strongest fortified city in India called Chittor, built on top of a high cliff hill. 

Ratan Singh, known for his proud ancestry, honour and strong warrior ethic, travels a long way to meet Padmini who he soon learns is not only beautiful but also strong and intelligent. While hunting one day in a dark dense forest filled with wild animals, Padmini accidentally shoots the King Ratan with an arrow while he is admiring her from the bushes wounding him in the shoulder. While recovering from his injury at her father’s palace they fall in love and marry, eventually returning to live together as the new King and Queen of Chittor. 

Purdah, or the seclusion of women to protect them from the eyes and harassment of other men, was a custom of the Rajput nobility, so when a court musician is caught spying on the couple during an intimate moment, Ratan banishes him from his kingdom. The musician travels to Delhi where a ruthless Muslim invader Alauddin Khilji (Ranveer Singh) has just conquered the Delhi Sultanate.

He tells Alauddin of the extraordinary beauty of the new Mewar Queen of Chittor, Padmini, knowing he will do anything to conquer her and thereby gain his revenge on the Rajput King for banishing him. Alauddin who is known for his brutal reign of terror from 1296 – 1316 collecting precious birds and women, now decides he must possess Padmini and immediately gathers his army and lays siege on the impregnable fortress of Chittor.

The movie has become highly controversial in India among Hindu nationalists who have made attempts to sabotage the film because of its depiction of the disturbing Rajput practice of Jauhar; the Hindu custom of mass self-sacrificing of royal women who set themselves on fire to avoid capture and enslavement by foreign invaders.
 
Written, produced and directed by one of the most widely acclaimed directors working in India today, Sanjay Leela Bhansali is no stranger to controversy. His films have won critical praise and garnered many awards both at home and internationally. He is known for his large scale mega musical dramas like Devdas (2002), Black (2005), Ram-leela (2013), and Bajirao Mastani (2015) all of which have achieved mega box-office success despite the controversies surrounding them.

Padmaavat is both historical and entertaining, filmed on real locations with stunning cinematography and strong characters with a heightened flare for the dramatic. Throw in a few wild mind-blowing musical numbers and you will gain a new appreciation for Indian history that’s as epic as any Homeric poem.

JP

Loveless

A middle aged Russian couple Zhenya (Maryana Spivak), and Boris (Aleksey Rozin) in the midst of an ugly divorce is completely oblivious to the effect their cruel toxic fights are having on their 12-year-old son Alyosha (Matvey Novikov). They both work and each have moved on to other more blissful relationships as they can’t stand to be around each other. But as we later learn, they have chosen more strategically beneficial relationships with people that will in some way increase or maintain their class status in society.

The performances are as surgically precise as the subject is devastating and we get no redeeming characters. The husband Boris has chosen a much younger fiancé with whom he had an affair and who is now pregnant with his child. He is worried that the company he works for will find out that he is divorcing as they only hire married men. The wife Zhenya, looking out for her future comfort is now with an older and much wealthier man than her husband.

Unknown to them while neglecting their own son’s needs, Alyosha has decided to run away and his absence goes unnoticed for days. The rest of the film focuses on the two parents as they reluctantly come together to enlist the services of state departments in search for their missing boy.
Loveless turns into a kind of procedural as we are introduces to various government agencies and search parties are deployed in a number of desolate wintery landscapes and abandoned buildings. The parents become increasingly distraught and we discover more details about their past relationship as the search drags on with no results.

This evocative tragic drama by acclaimed Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev – Leviathan (2014) is like looking through a dark icy crystal. The people in it are as bleak and dour as the silent barren landscape that the camera lingers over. Visually stunning, Loveless has a distinct austere beauty reflective of the soulless, morally corrupt characters in it. 

The connection between the harsh humanist subject matter and the grim landscape is tangible. Taking place in a suburb of Moscow, it seems class divisions have created a population motivated only by achieving quick and easy self-satisfaction while ignoring more compassionate parental responsibilities.

The visual design is stunningly arresting and darkly desolate as we progress from modern antiseptic interiors to frozen lifeless exteriors, and increasingly more hostile environments leaving us emotionally cold to the stern reality of the film. It’s a somber and brutally honest drama that focuses its shocking story on the darker part of human nature and parental relationships with a visual bravura and stark beauty that will leave you with a cold admiration.

Andrey Zvyagintsev is an important new voice in Russian cinema and a gifted auteur who has been revealing contemporary problems of modern middle and lower class Russians since his first acclaimed film The Return (2003). 

Loveless is Russia’s Oscar entry and now with its Best Foreign film nomination is a strong contender at the 2018 Academy Awards airing on March 4, 2018.

JP

Blade Runner 2049

When we left Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), the futuristic cop who hunts down bio-engineered humans called Replicants at the end of the original Blade Runner (1982) some 30 years before the events of this first sequel, he had eluded the authorities and escaped with a female Replicant named Rachael who he had fallen in love with. Racheal we learned was a special experimental model made by Tyrell Corporation without an expiry date, whereas all previous Replicants had a fail-safe four year life span. Now retired, Deckard intended to live the remainder of his life in hiding with her. 

Hampton Fancher, writer of the original screenplay was passionate about the Philip Dick novel on which the movie was based. He felt strongly about the characters and his screenplay, but when Ridley Scott officially signed onto the project as director back in 1980, his script would go through many changes as Ridley visualized the world of Blade Runner. It was a nightmare for Fancher as tensions between him and the director increased, but Ridley had his own ideas and needed to find a visual esthetic based on the leading edge futurist visions of sci-fi artists at the time.

Naturally when it finally came time to write the long awaited sequel to what has become the seminal dystopian future noir thriller, Hampton Fancher, just as passionate about the story he helped bring to life 35 years earlier, was once again consulted about how the story should progress into uncharted territory now that the look of the world had been established and engrained in the culture.

The story has been smartly and logically projected into the future in an exciting way that leaves the possibility for more chapters in this fascinatingly bleak future world of a discarded earth. Visually stunning and still as relevant as ever, the central themes of what it means to be human in the original film are still very much in the forefront of the modernized sequel Blade Runner 2049, directed by acclaimed French Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve - Arrival (2016), Sicario (2015), Prisoners (2013), Incendies (2010).

Earth is now a vast wasteland of garbage, a giant landfill of sorts for the waste from off-world colonies as a backdrop for a potential revolutionary tinderbox when we learn that in the intervening years between 2019 and 2049, the bio-engineered slave class of humans have been secretly working to gain their freedom and right to live among humans and possibly replace them. 

The Replicant Freedom movement was formed by a new class of advanced robots who eventually learn something no one thought was possible and which has the potential to eventually free them from human oppression. The Tyrell Corporation who had produced the synthetic humans in the original film is now bankrupt and replaced by a more menacing company Wallace Corp. that builds new advanced and more obedient versions of the Replicants. 

The young agent in the Blade Runner unit of this film, Agent K, (Ryan Gosling) is now actually a Replicant himself working for the LAPD to find and ruthlessly retire rogue Replicants. He’s regarded with contempt by the rest of the department. Using Replicants to find Replicants is risky but makes sense since Replicants are faster and stronger than humans.

In the first film Replicants were portrayed as evil but we eventually gained a kind of reluctant sympathy for the Nexus 6 Replicant Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) after we saw him redeemed while his life expired and he decides not to kill Deckard in his final poetic moments. In Blade Runner 2049 there is an effort to make us feel much more empathy for the discriminated Replicants who want nothing more than to live with dignity and in peaceful coexistence with humans.

The neon noir-ish melancholic mood of the original film has been preserved for this follow-up with expressive synthwave retro-electronic music by Oscar winning composer Hans Zimmer, darkly resonating with the original Vangelis soundtrack. 

Likewise, as you would expect, the ground breaking visual style of the original has been enhanced successfully, adding many modern touches by cinematographer extraordinaire Roger Deakins, in what could be some of his finest work. The dreamlike color saturated environments will linger in the mind long afterward; a testament to his staggering talent. 

Roger Deakins is best known for his work on the films of the Coen Brothers before he worked on films like Sicario (2015), and Prisoners (2013) for Denis Villeneuve, as well as a visual consultant on many computer animated films including Rango (2011) and Wall-E (2008). He is expected to win a long overdue Oscar for his extraordinary body of work.

Music and images blend so well together in Blade Runner 2049 to create a total immersive otherworldly experience, it’s a good bet to pick up some hardware for technical achievement at the Oscars this year and will not disappoint the many fans of the original cult classic.

JP