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Review: Solo, a Star Wars Story

*Spoiler Warning*

Written by Lawrence Kasdan and Jon Kasdan and directed by Ron Howard, “Solo: a Star Wars Story” is the prequel origin story of a young Han Solo that wants you to know everything there is to know about the character, and I do mean ..Everything. I’ve been engaging in an internal debate as to whether or not I should even concern myself with writing this review. I felt as if it were, ironically, as unnecessary as the film in question… but here I am, pondering the film, so I might as well put ink to paper (you know what I mean). So much of “Solo” simply felt “fine“, but nothing about it felt as grand or had events as sweeping as the Star Wars films we’ve come to love (and despise). Granted, I know that wasn’t the intent of this film. It was pitched as a smaller story designed to reveal more of the grimy crime riddled underbelly of the Star Wars universe. However, the true nature of this film could be felt throughout the runtime, and it was to make money. That’s what I felt coming out of the theater more than anything else. This spinoff didn’t feel like I was getting tasty new morsels of story from the wider galaxy as a whole, it just felt like a filler episode, a distraction from the larger events at hand. It wasn’t particularly offensive or incredibly awful by most measures- we just didn’t need it. Sometimes the mystery of imagination is better than explaining the backstory of every item, catch-phrase, offhand comment, or star-ship. For example, when Han mentioned the Kessel run in “Star Wars” and in “The Force Awakens”, the way he talks about the event- it seemed like a race, not a race against time as depicted in Solo (with time-sensitive explosives being the driving factor of tension instead).

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To be fair, all the noise surrounding the dismissal of the original directors of “Solo”, and the horde of production troubles that plagued the film, didn’t result in a disjointed final product. It was a more cohesive film than “Justice League”, the most recent similarly troubled tent-pole studio production. I guess what disappointed me most about this film is the feeling that came after leaving the theater, that “Star Wars” was now a product being spoon-fed to me by teams of writers rooms designed to give me what the masses claimed to have wanted most. Which I have to point out that a couple friends have said as much to me about the previous Star Wars films made by Disney, though the veil hadn’t yet been pierced for me. I still enjoy “The Force Awakens” and “The Last Jedi” to varying degrees, more good than bad I would say. “Rogue One” still feels like the standout of the bunch at this point, the one that most channels the magic of the original trilogy, at least for me.

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I almost feel bad for this movie, it wasn’t outright terrible, as I’ve already mentioned. The Han and Chewie (Joonas Suotamo) interplay was entertaining and actually was the most authentic thing about the film in my mind. So at least that came across well enough- if that didn’t work then the whole thing could have been written off from the beginning. Alden Ehrenreich did a decent enough job translating as a younger and not as grumpy version of Han Solo, but there was admittedly something about the performance that was missing. Maybe that was just something that only Harrison Ford could bring to the portrayal, but I can’t say that the woes of this film lay at Ehrenreich’s feet, he did probably as good a job as was possible without Ford headlining. Donald Glover was the other standout of the film. His version of a younger Lando Calrissian was pitch perfect. Capes, attitude, and swagger- all included and exuded without flaw.

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The major issues I have with the film are A) the overall production of the film as it appears in it’s current final cut, B) how overly produced and manufactured it feels as a whole, and C) how predictable it was with one notable exception. A) Production. The lighting of the film was so dim and murky that even in the theater it felt like you could hardly see what was taking place as most scenes were drenched in earthy browns and blacks or ocean depths’ blue, I wouldn’t point out lighting unless it was noticeably poor or lacking. (Not saying I could do a better job lighting though, that’s a confounding aspect of production for me). None of the locations felt particularly alien either, which maybe that’s just me, or maybe it’s that none of the locations were particularly memorable. Everyone can recall planets or locations from every other Star Wars film to date, but I’d be hard pressed to name any of the planets seen here. The cinematography was also very bland. It felt workman-like and practical in nature only. I can’t pinpoint it exactly, but it felt like it lacked artistry.

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B) References. There are several points of contention here. How Han “got his name”, his blaster, the dice, and the cameo near the end of the film. Han getting his name from an Imperial drone when signing up for the Empire as a pilot was the most hamfisted and unneeded scene in the whole film. Why can’t Han have just had that name? Are we going to learn how the Skywalker name came to be in another spinoff in some other bland and useless way of storytelling too? It was just unneeded and way too obvious, robbing Han of the sprinkling of mystery surrounding him in the original trilogy. When Han was tossed a blaster from Woody Harrelson’s Beckett, the scene in itself wasn’t poorly constructed it just felt like an intentional wink and nod from Disney- stop it please, we don’t need to have an intimate knowledge of every item a classic character was known for using over thirty years ago. Speaking of which, the dice in this new era seem to have taken on far more meaning than they ever had in the original trilogy, at least in “The Last Jedi” it was used as a stand-in for Han’s memory when Luke returned to Leia for the first time in the new era of films. Here it feels like another intentional pulling of emotional strings, but it didn’t land here for me. It felt forced. The most forced scene in the entire film was that of Darth Maul’s cameo though. It’s nice to know that a fun character from the prequels actually isn’t dead, but it was how he was used that felt contrived. He doesn’t do anything in his moment onscreen, he is used for a reveal of “That character you know from the other movies”, and that is it. He even turns on his lightsaber threateningly in a Hologram, for no reason at all.

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C) Predictability. This is the linchpin of the problem of this film. If you’re at all familiar with the first Star Wars movie then you’ll likely be able to predict a lot of the plot points of this film, the rest of the film’s predictability lies in age old movie tropes any well viewed audience member should be able to spot a mile away. Though admittedly reprocessing tropes from classic era Hollywood is an old Star Wars trait at this point. However, when approached with with a paint-by-numbers strategy Star Wars feels overly formulaic to the point of absurdism. Corellia (Han’s homeworld), The Kessel run, Han shooting first, Chewie ripping off an unlucky henchmen’s arms- every possible connective tissue from “A New Hope” is mined here with excruciating familiarity. What I loved about “Rogue One” was that the film very much lived in the world of the original trilogy and while it too had familiar aspects and characters littering it’s pages there was also a new exploratory sensation about it. The film added more mystery than it explained away. What happened to Jedha ages ago? There are only decayed Jedi monoliths carved into massive rock formations to hint at its past. Was Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen) force sensitive? Or just an extremely skilled fighter that believed deeply in the old Jedi religion? What was his connection to Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang) and how did they end up together on Jedha? I’m okay with not knowing the answers to those questions- in fact I’d prefer to not know those answers. The only part of “Solo” that was a legitimate surprise was that the earlier threats of the film, “Enfys nest” the marauders of the train heist from the second act, were actually a band of rebel children. This reveal only served to deliver another cringy wink and nod to the audience as Han decides to help them out in the end. They offer a place among their ranks in thanks but he declines, to which the tiny space pirate suggests “Maybe someday you’ll join a… rebellion” Okay it wasn’t exactly that, but the line was essentially that.

“Solo: a Star Wars Story” is the first major bump in the road of the new Disney era of Star Wars films. It has a few redeemable factors for sure, and the crew involved seems to have given it their all, but this film is more of a product than a story that needed to be told in a galaxy far far away…

Final Score: 2 smugglers, 1 falcon, and dozens of references…

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Review: In The Heart of The Sea, OR “Thor & Spiderman fight a Whale”

*Note- I’ve changed to a five point rating system, it seems more relevant & useful*

Warning- Spoilers

‘In The Heart of The Sea’ is a film, directed by Ron Howard, that follows the real life tragedy of the whaling ship, The Essex out of Nantucket, Massachusetts in the early 1820’s. Named after the nonfiction book upon which the story is based, written by Nathaniel Philbrick, ‘In The Heart of The Sea’ is the story of two men and their distinct differences in leadership while on the vessel; first mate Owen Chase, Chris Hemsworth, & Benjamin Walker as Captain George Pollard. Hemsworth’s Chase is the man’s man of the picture, a seasoned blue collar Whaler that is placed on the Essex at the whim of the bureaucrats as a first mate instead of the role of Captain as he was promised. That position ends up being filled by George Pollard,  a snobbish, well-to-do blue blood with familial connections. And so the stage is set out as the two characters clash for authority and respect while out at voyage.

If the marketing of this film hadn’t informed you heavily enough the framing device utilized in the film will beat you over the head with the information that Herman Melville was obsessed by this story and that it’s details are what inspired the American literary classic ‘Moby Dick‘. We know this because the film opens thirty years after the events of the Essex as we follow a hopeful young author as he tracks down a lead to a story that has consumed him. Young Melville, portrayed here by Ben Whishaw, finds the last surviving member, Tom Nickerson, of the Essex and after much prodding the gentlemen begins to tell us his part in the tale. Young Nickerson, while portrayed adequately by Tom Holland, seemingly only exists to relay the story to our aspiring author years later within the context of the story, even though Owen Chase and Tom Nickerson are based on real life accounts of the first mate and cabin boy that truly survived the event almost two centuries ago. If the film had only used this device, of dialogue between an older Nickerson, portrayed by Brendan Gleeson, and Melville discussing these events only at the opening and close of the film it would have worked better but the film curiously plods back to get reactions of said sequences or actions, from Melville as he hears it. This is all fine and well in some regards but I really felt as though this disrupted the film’s flow.

Where the film shines is in it’s embrace of the themes of man vs man and man vs nature throughout the runtime. These moments capture what I feel the film was attempting to get more of, but failed slightly in that regard. The dialogue and tension between Pollard and Chase make otherwise longfelt sequences feel breezier. Although the film is long, I never truly felt as if the pace were particularly lacking, although admittedly I adore seafaring tales, so this might have been lost on me. Speaking of these two main characters, they represent more of the problems with the film as time goes on though. Weaknesses that lie in the characters as they are written, not necessarily the performances. There  was never enough done to make us feel particularly attached to any of the characters, and Pollard constantly makes poor, bullish, decisions that make his squaring off with the first mate less of an even footed rivalry and more of a one sided mutiny brewing as nobody liked, and isn’t meant to, the captain from the moment he was introduced to us onscreen.

When the whales finally do show up, they are menacing, or at least their actions show us that they are menacing, but we never get anything more compelling out of what they do, or represent onscreen other than the “vengance for my dead brethren” through-line. There are moments when Chase looks out upon the sea with whale blood speckling his face, almost as if he is pondering whether or not killing these animals was the right thing to do, even though his entire way of life depends on this savagery. The CGI whales do look good, but in all fairness they lack any true weight to the times they are onscreen, they are present and the white whale itself does mess their boat up royally, however there could have been other creative choices that either made the vengeful whale more intimidating, or more of a constant threat instead of the essentially one-and-done that we get when the action does go down. However there is a beautiful moment when first mate Chase seemingly realizes that they are no longer the hunters, but the hunted.

The cinematography, in my opinion, is admirably done but is not without its faults. It captures the tactile presence of the world these characters inhabit, as the boat fills with water and several characters are grabbing provisions we’ll get a close up on a wooden shelf with a whale drawing carved into the side. The boat truly feels lived in by this time. There are other moments when Howard makes this creative choice and I personally couldn’t agree more, to me it feels as though you are giving a real sense of implied time in a given place that resonates with those characters, as a closer look upon a worn in groove or another view of ropes sliding through pulleys that haul the fabric sail aloft you might be beckoned to think of the time spent out on that one boat for so long, and what it might do to a man. However, this creates a problem in that now there is almost more emotional investment in the set than the characters that inhabit it! And while I might not be all too bothered by the tight framing and almost claustrophobic camera movements at times, there can be an argument made for Howard missing out on the scope of the sea that surrounds them by doing so. Especially when you compare to the sequences of the whales that zoom way out and above the ship to give an, albeit needed, sense of scale. It simply feels disjointed when juxtaposed as they are.

Overall the film is thrilling at times and introduces us to similar themes that are far more excellently explored within ‘Moby Dick’, but the sea-faring thriller could just never live up to the bar set by the work that it inspired. If you want a movie to watch and kill some time before the new Star Wars comes out, this would be a fine, but certainly not perfect, addition.

Final Score: 3.5/5

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Heroes: Roger Corman

This last summer while attending the Traverse City film festival in northern Michigan I had the opportunity to see famed genre director and producer Roger Corman, twice. The initial event was a showing of two of his films in which he gave an introduction of the films and a bit about them before the screenings that followed. That night we all sat back and enjoyed first Corman’s horror comedy ‘Bucket of Blood’, a fun and suprisingly modern feeling film depicting a waiter at a cafe that the beat poets frequented in the late 1950’s as he rises through fame and attention at the lounge by producing statues of a certain sinister nature. It’s a lovely little film and I highly suggest checking it out if you can find it. The second film shown was Corman’s oft mocked live action adaption of the Marvel Comics property “The Fantastic Four”. Oddly enough, I’m willing to bet that I enjoyed this iteration of Marvel’s first family more than Fox’s recent cox office disaster. At least this movie entertained, albeit because of its laughable performances and opaque cheesiness throughout.

The second encounter was at the end of the festival when friends and I approached our seats at a panel. Michael Moore entered and subsequently sat in an eloquent armchair set upon the stage with an equally eloquent, and empty, chair to the right of him. He then began to tell us about the legacy of the man we were about to meet. He told of Roger Corman’s litany of features under his belt, near 500 as either director or producer on all. Corman made a name for himself by churning out film after film by tapping into films that could entertain first and foremost, and the drive in film circuits continually ate those films up. Then, after a short clip show detailing the blood splattered, scream filled, explosion fraught and bullet ridden genre films of B movie’s past, Corman took the stage and said “As you can see, we specialized in subtlety.” The interview progressed as Moore, clearly a fanboy himself here, peeled back a few layers of the cult director in bringing him back to his beginnings in Detroit, Michigan. Not long after his humble start the Corman family moved to Los Angeles. Originally Corman followed in his father’s footsteps to become an engineer at Standford, but after graduating and spending four days on an engineering job he realized he wanted to be involved in film. From there he got a low level job at 20th century Fox and began to rise through his opportunities there until he was producing and directing hordes of low budget films.

Roger Corman made over 400 films including The Fast and The Furious, Little Shop of Horrors, It Stalked the Ocean Floor, Galaxy of Terror, Rock and Roll Highschool, Death Race 2000,  Wizards of the Lost Kingdom 2, Dinoshark, Sharktopus, and hundreds more. From the mid 1950’s until now Corman has had his finger on the pulse of pop culture. Through his production companies New World PicturesConcorde Pictures, and later New Horizons Corman not only had a part in this monster of motion pictures but he also harbored an eye for spotting new young talent as well. Roger Corman’s reach in Hollywood stretches farther then you might think for a director known for such films. He discovered not only Jack Nicholson and Francis Ford Coppola, but also Martin Scorsese, James Cameron, Ron Howard, Robert De Niro, Peter Bogdanovich, Peter Fonda,  Dennis Hopper, Joe Dante, William Shatner, and Sandra Bullock too! Not only that but he also brought an acclaimed collection of foreign films from the likes of Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa, Federico Fellini, François Truffaut and others to US through his distribution companies too!

Roger Corman’s footprint on cinema is a formidible one. I consider him to be one of the more underappreciated heavies of the low budget world of filmmaking. This type of filmmaking is close to my heart, these films may never have won Oscars, earned moderate profit margins, or even be viewed by large amount of the public, but yet they exist, as if in a bubble. I have a certain adoration for films of this caliber because they fill out the spectrum of the entire filmmaking experience, for every ‘Gone with The Wind’ there are ten ‘Tales of Terror!’. Roger Corman made indie, guerilla, filmmaking cool and credible. He made films that clearly were different from traditional studio fare and anyone wanting something wildly different were sated by the master maker of “Movies your parents don’t want you to see”. These films frequently centered on counterculture ideas and topics, such as the acid influenced ‘The Trip’ or the infamous biker gang flick, ‘Wild Angels’ which was inspired by real life counterpart, The Hell’s Angels. As someone that wants to create typically genre fair pieces I owe a lot to Roger Corman, for he paved the way almost seventy years ago now. Even Steven Spielberg and George Lucas’ ‘Jaws’ and ‘Star Wars’ are clearly influenced by the king of the B movies.

To me, Roger Corman is important because his work is a reminder that film can be this glorious, important medium through which we express ourselves most deeply and intimately, but it can also be an unfiltered, pure, form of entertainment, and there is beauty in that. Any pieces that are unique and different, regardless of quality are welcome in my mind. I may not enjoy a certain film or scene for any number of reasons, but it doesn’t mean that isn’t somebody’s favorite movie or moment. If you haven’t heard of Roger Corman I suggest ‘A Bucket of Blood’ ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ ‘Death Race 2000’ or ‘Galaxy of terror’ be warned though, ‘Galaxy of Terror’ alone is a gore fest and not for the kids, James Cameron did do the set design work for the film though! Have fun, and go watch something new!