A short review of Season 1 of “Jack Ryan” (2018)

I didn’t quite love the first season of the “Jack Ryan” television series, but I still really, really liked it.  It’s a decent adaptation of Tom Clancy’s source material, albeit a very loose one.  (And that’s just fine — we already have a number of excellent films that closely adapt the events of the books; we don’t need another methodical retread of the author’s novels.)  I’d rate this an 8 out of 10.

There are some narrative weaknesses, particularly in the show’s failure to sustain tension between its episodes.  And there are some surprise plot developments that the show telegraphed a bit obviously.  (I usually don’t pick up on these things, but even I saw the clues.)  There is also a subplot involving a drone operator that is largely unnecessary … some viewers will find it interesting while others will not.

“Jack Ryan” also suffers just a little in comparison with the Audience network’s superior “Condor” (2018).  That excellent show covered much of the same subject matter, with its own ordinary CIA-analyst thrust into deadly game with terrorists.  Season 1 of “Condor” was better written, boasted an amazing cast, and was far more frightening.

John Krasinski does a good job as the title character.  I’ve always thought that this character would be tough for an actor to play, simply because he is so consistently nondescript.  (The whole character concept is that he usually appears to be an especially bright but otherwise ordinary civil servant … his background as a United States Marine and his patriotism and courage aren’t things that he advertises.)  Krasiniski’s Ryan is closer to that of the books than the version we see in the Harrison Ford films.  I love Ford as much as the next person, but his interpretation of the character was too a bit too meek and diffident for me.  That wasn’t quite the Jack Ryan that Clancy created.

What’s strange about the show is that it truly shines when deviates widely from the source materiel — especially in the character of Jim Greer.  He is played to perfection here by Wendell Pierce, and he is no longer the gentle, wizened father figure that we saw in his counterpart from the books and movies.  Nor is he a minor character — Pierce’s Greer is a gruff, pissy operations man fresh off of an ominous and unfair demotion, who shoots and runs right alongside Ryan when the bad guys attack.  It sounds preposterously stupid.  But … it works — largely, I think, because of Pierce’s talent.  He’s a good enough actor to sell the idea and he invests Greer with a kind of perpetually disgruntled, antisocial charm.  I honestly would continue watching this show if it focused on him as the main character.

 

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A review of “Solo: A Star Wars Story” (2018)

Was “Solo: A Star Wars Story” (2018) really quite as bad as everyone said it was?

Yes, I do understand why it’s so maligned by “Star Wars” purists.  Han Solo has arguably been the entire franchise’s most memorable protagonist since his debut in its very first film in 1977.  (When we were kids and playing “Star Wars” in the street, how many of us wanted to be Luke Skywalker and how many of us wanted to be Han?)

Disney missed an opportunity to serve up what fans undoubtedly wanted — an edgy origin story that took risks to portray this famously wily criminal anti-hero.  What the studio gave us instead is a generally toothless, safe-for-primetime fable that even managed to become saccharine at times.  (You could argue that Luke’s origin story was far darker — he discovered the burned bodies of murdered aunt and uncle.  Then he studied magical martial arts with the mysterious mystic samurai-hermit who once fought wars with his absent father.)  “Solo” feels too much … like a Disney movie.

There are other problems too … its narrative is unfocused, it’s cluttered with too many characters, and, yes, it slavish attention to origin-story details is annoying.  (The how-Han-Solo-got-his-surname bit, for example, is indeed a big misfire.)

But “Solo” felt far more like an average film to me, instead of one that was truly terrible. I’d rate it a 6 out of 10 for being an acceptable, passably entertaining “Star Wars” entry.  It’s got a few things going for it.

It’s well cast, for one.  I was actually very surprised at how well actor Alden Ehrenreich captures the character of a young Han Solo.  They guy has natural charisma, and he seems to absolutely channel the character without once mimicking Harrison Ford.  You could do a lot worse.  Ehrenreich also has great chemistry with Chewbacca (Joonas Duotamo), and with Donald Glover, who equally shines in the role of a young Lando Clarissian.  If you put the three of them in a sequel with a leaner, darker screenplay aimed firmly at adults, it could be a truly great movie.  (Consider how lame the first “Captain America” movie was in 2011, and how its far darker 2014 sequel was so unexpectedly great.)

“Solo” also has great visual effects.  (All the newer “Star Wars” movies have come a long way from the clumsy, heavy handed CGI of the prequels.)  The Kessel Run sequences were especially good, and I’m still enough of a kid at heart to love those kind of dazzling set-pieces, even when they punctuate a lackluster script.

“Solo” was the sixth most expensive film ever made, at $392 million, and it was a complete commercial failure.  So I doubt we’ll ever see these versions of the characters again in theaters.  But what about television?  What about streaming services?  I, for one, would keep an open mind about whether Disney could do better with this film’s ingredients.

 

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And here is the latest thing that makes me feel old.

What’s with all the people in music videos looking so damn young these days?  Did they change the child labor laws?

There was a time when I was daily viewer of MTV (the sedate stuff on VH-1 was for old people), and I rocked hard, people.  It seemed to me that whenever I watched a video, I saw people who were my own age.

Now these videos are inhabited only by people who look young enough to be my kids. And that makes sense, because … they kinda are young enough.  (Yes, I realize the video below for The Calling’s “Wherever You Will Go” was made 18 years ago, but that’s beside the point.)  If the performers in a video today were in their very early 20’s, then they’d be about the right age, if I’d fathered kids when I was 26.

Furthermore, some astute commentators pointed out online Monday night that 2019 is the year in which the original “Blade Runner” (1982) was set.  The opening title card names “November, 2019” as the time when all things Fordesque turn angsty and existential and killer-androidy.  Am I … older than Harrison Ford’s character? I am six years older than Ford was when he made the film.

Now I just feel weird.  Why do I write these blog posts, anyway?

[Update: Today I am learning that “Akira” (1988) and “The Running Man” (1987) also set their stories in 2019?! That’s ironic, given that the future we’ve come closest to is that of 2006’s “Idiocracy.”

I wonder how people in our parents’ generation felt when 2001 arrived, if they’d happened to see “2001: A Space Odyssey” in theaters in 1968.]

 

A review of “Blade Runner 2049” (2017)

Denis Villeneuve’s “Blade Runner 2049” (2017) is indeed a worthy sequel, even if it cannot equal Ridley Scott’s seminal 1982 original film.  (And this is absolutely understandable — I opine that Scott’s dour, challenging “Blade Runner” is arguably the greatest movie of all time.)  Some of it worked, and some of it didn’t — but I sufficiently enjoyed this movie to rate it a 9 out of 10.

There is a lot going on here in terms of plot.  I won’t be specific about what I liked and what I didn’t like, because I want to avoid spoilers.  (There are definitely some surprise plot developments, and this is a relatively recent film that fans have waited no fewer than 35 years to see.)  But I’m happy to report that “Blade Runner 2049” satisfies by being a direct and logical follow-up in terms of character, plot and setting.

I do think that this would be a stronger standalone story if it had included the material that was relegated to the online short films that serve as its companions.  (You can find all three of them at Open Culture right here.)  The first one, “Black Out 2022,” is probably necessary to understanding the feature film’s story and ought to be required viewing.

The visuals were vivid and arresting, the action sequences were generally satisfying, and the acting across the board was quite good.  Harrison Ford was predictably perfect.  Jared Leto and Sylvia Hoeks are suitably intense and make terrific bad guys.  (I’ve always loved Leto’s work — even his criminally underappreciated, spot-on interpretation of DC Comics’ “The Joker.”)  And Carla Juri nearly steals the entire movie with her mesmerizing performance in a supporting role.

What I liked best about “Blade Runner 2049” was how surprisingly well it captured the … vibe, I guess, of the first film — its existential angst and the surprising tragic nobility of its characters.  Simply put, this film got the feeling right.  For me, this was best evidenced by a poetic subplot between the characters played by Ryan Gosling and Ana de Armas.  It’s great dystopian science fiction — a fusion of troubling futurism and genuine human emotion.  And the mood was greatly enhanced by an evocative score by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch.

There are were a couple of things that I didn’t like — they were plot points that I won’t detail here.  The pacing also felt too slow, at times.  (This is a long movie, at two hours and 44 minutes.)  And the the climactic fight scene felt just a bit claustrophobic and awkwardly executed.  (It’s a far cry from the epic feel of the original’s rainswept rooftop confrontation.)

I’d still cheerfully recommend “Blade Runner 2049” to fans of Scott’s film.  I’d caution them to sit down with it with as few expectations as possible, though, and to just enjoy this second chapter on its own merits.  It’s mostly great stuff.

 

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A short review of “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” (2017)

I’ll never be able to love “Star Wars” the way its lifelong fans do.  After the unexpected magic of the first three films, the subsequent movies almost always seemed to me to be just space fantasies for kids, formulaically developed to hit all the right notes and sell licensed merchandise.  (The exception would be last year’s generally excellent “Star Wars: Rogue One,” which uniquely felt like a genuine, human story that a creator wanted to tell, rather than something brainstormed until consensus in a corporate writers’ room.)  With that said, I’ll happily report here that “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” was actually very good — as someone with little favorable bias toward the franchise, I’d rate it an 8 out of 10.

The movie simply got more right than it got wrong.  It’s still a marketing-oriented space opera developed for mass appeal, but it managed to rise above that because its many elements included more hits than misses.

If I had to pick one thing that made this movie succeed for me, it’s the balance it struck between its epic war story and its narrower sword-and-sorcery central plot thread.  I like how the film began with an interstellar war — it had ordinary, mortal, relatable human characters fight and make sacrifices.  Anyone can relate to characters like that because they are interchangeable with people fighting a war in our world.  (It was also excellently rendered, in terms of fantastic visuals and some creative ideas.)  Only afterward does the movie layer in the far-out Jedi stuff, which contrasts the war story and adds complexity to it.

The second thing I liked about it was its terrific special effects — I’ve never seen a “Star Wars” movie without them, even if the prequels had a more cartoonish, toylike quality to what they depicted.

The third, I think, was the return of Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker.  Hamill is actually quite a good actor, and his skilled turn here was alternately funny and dramatically convincing.  I found myself more nostalgic after watching Luke’s return to the franchise than after Han Solo’s return in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” (2015).  (And I love Harrison Ford just as much as everyone else in the universe.)

Is there a lot to nitpick?  Sure.  In addition to some plot holes, the character of Rose was rather annoying.  (Spunky young idealists can grate on the nerves if they’re too cutesy and seem to ingratiate themselves to the viewer.)

But a far larger weakness is that “the force” has become more of a deus ex machina than ever before.  I can’t be specific here because I want to avoid spoilers, but both the Jedi and their Sith counterparts employ incredible new powers in the movie that are absolutely unprecedented.  It isn’t explained at all, and it isn’t consistent with any prior “Star Wars” movie.  And it feels like a cheat that is both sweeping and … a little strange.

Still, I’d recommend this movie — even if you didn’t love every “Star Wars” movie you’ve seen in the past.

I’ll end with a quick note about the “porgs” — those little penguinesque aliens that are supposedly dividing longtime fans into opposing war-camps.  I loved the damn things.  It makes perfect sense that Luke’s hideaway planet would have local fauna.  And I read that the filmmakers actually did include them for an understandable reason.  The island shooting location’s landscape was inhabited by puffins.  It made more sense to overwrite them with CGI stand-ins than to digitally remove them altogether.

 

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Ye olde Nolan

I’m becoming concerned …  I keep seeing more troubling signs that I am getting older.

I can’t eat pizza and Ben & Jerry’s ice cream all day without feeling yucky.  And I have gone shopping and DELIBERATELY looked for vegetables.

I bitch inwardly about the quality of America’s public education system all the time.  (Don’t even get me started.)  I actually begin some of my (admittedly peculiar) inner monologues with the words, “There was a time in this country when …”  I have also lamented that “things were different 20 years ago.”

It recently dawned on me that my longstanding idolization of Kevin Smith may be waning …  last year’s “Tusk” just didn’t do it for me, and his recent appearance on “The Talking Dead” just seemed to feature too much childish sex humor.  I cringed.  (Lengthy analogies about oral sex aren’t THAT hilarious, people.  I suggest they have a 10-second half life.)  I still think that Smith is brilliant; I just think maybe his particular style of humor might better appeal to a guy in his 20’s.

In the Marvel movies’ upcoming “Civil War” storyline entries, I’m firmly on the side of Captain America, and not Iron Man.  Yeah, Tony Stark has the wit and the charm and the girls and the cash.  But Cap has character and good American values, with an emphasis on civil liberties.  Cap would never subject black people to an unreasonable search and seizure.  He wouldn’t enter a private home without a warrant.  And he would uphold a legal wall of separation between church and state.  Dunno about Tony.

Tori Amos is still cool, but she sounds NUTS in her interviews.

I played with a friend’s little girl on the swings the other day … and I actually got DIZZY after donning a swing myself, and trying to swing as high as her.  THAT was disconcerting.

My doctor told me to knock off all the sugar, and I am totally taking her seriously.

My buddy shared a picture today of the original Star Wars cast in 1977.  When I was a tot, I looked up to Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and Princess Leia.  When I was in fifth grade, “Return of the Jedi” Leia was my heart’s desire.  (I need not even mention in which outfit.)  Today, 1977 Carrie Fisher looks like a sweet girl who could be my college sophomore daughter.  (Seriously, she looks YOUNG, people.)  Harrison Ford looks like that older kid in our hometown with the camaro, who I need to keep away from her.  Mark Hamill looks like that sweet kid down the block who wants a date with her, but won’t get one.

My friends from Longwood High School are now teachers at Longwood High School.  The cognitive dissonance connected with that is significant.

And tonight it has dawned on me that (I can’t believe I am saying this) Depeche Mode is getting maybe a little played out for me.  Oh God, I can’t believe I just typed that.  I still love MODE, I swear it!  I just think that after “Violator” has been in my playlist for two decades, it’s maybe time to retire the lesser songs like “World In My Eyes” and find some more new music.

But not “Policy of Truth.”  THAT SONG WILL LIVE FOREVER.  (And never again is what you swore the time before.)

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