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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: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Written and directed by Martin McDonagh, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” is a black comedy wrapped in a seething drama set against the backdrop of small town Americana. Seven months after the death of her daughter Angela, Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) rents out three billboards on the outskirts of town lambasting the local chief of police Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) for the lack of any real progress in solving the brutal murder. The small town life is portrayed effectively here as its filled with an odd cast of characters that all know each other, which also means that they have to live with each other and that comes with its own set of juggling eccentricities and tolerating ideals. This is a foul mouthed film about grief and sadness, when anger can be useful or harmful, and how assumptions about a person can be misguided, incorrect, or just plain insulting.

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Frances McDormand as Mildred Hayes is a fantastically multifaceted character. She’s justifiably angered by the police station’s failing efforts in solving the case of her daughter’s horrific murder. She’s justice incarnate when she decides to go on the warpath against certain individuals. Though as the film progresses she’s shown to be vulnerable, at times physically, but emotionally as well. In a couple moments when the anger has quelled and her fists uncurled, she’s even portrayed as a quirky but caring mother. Woody Harrelson’s police chief Bill Willoughby may seem like a caricature at the outset of the film, but Harrelson goes a long way to imbue the small town chief as a man of many layers. He may seem brash and eccentric, but once the film digs a little deeper into who chief Willoughby actually is we find a far humbler and complex individual lying underneath those immediate projections. Peter Dinklage’s character also poignantly reflects the idea that assumptions, at face value, can be wildly misinformed and he checks Mildred on her own biases later in the film which only continues her path towards a softening of her reactive and violent grief.

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While reading reviews and articles on the film after viewing it, I came across the supposed controversy surrounding Sam Rockwell’s character Dixon, a neanderthal of a police officer with a penchant for racial biases and poorly thought out reactions. If you watch this film and believe it to be racist in nature because of this character’s arc, then you haven’t been paying attention. Dixon is repeatedly beaten, mocked by his peers and others, and is never given redemption for his generally awful behavior and actions. In the second half of the film this character is given an acknowledgement from Chief Willoughby that sets him on the path towards becoming a better person, but Dixon isn’t forgiven, he’s simply given a chance to do the right thing, this does not mean that he’s the ‘hero‘ of the story though if that’s what you’re thinking.

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I was particularly impressed with how well the film balanced it’s dark material with comedy through the consistently realistic tone and each character’s reaction to tragedy. This wouldn’t have been possible if the humanity of these characters hadn’t been depicted as efficiently as they were. Just as we each harbor the light and darkness within ourselves, these characters are fallible and just, righteous but selfish, reactionary and meditative all the same. This film showcased a genuine humanity that is seldom seen on the silver screen, and its that much better for it.

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The whole point of the story is that while anger has its place, it can only accomplish so much. Mildred’s cathartic anger from the grief she’s still experiencing after her daughter’s death may have launched the story and gotten the police to reopen the case, but it cannot heal you or cure your grief. Chief Willoughby plants the unexpected seeds of love in the characters that need it most and it is through his actions and acknowledgements that they slowly begin to realize that love and empathy might just be a better outcome than directing our anger at the problems in our lives. The film begins by showing Mildred’s righteous anger as completely justified, and even a bit intoxicating, therefore putting us on her side, but later in the film when Dixon lashes out in anger from his own grief we witness the ugly side of that same dichotomy. This is kind of brilliant because it makes us question what we previously rooted for. After Dixon’s outburst the film puts an emphasis on loosening the grip that anger can clasp so firmly in people’s hearts. Chief Willoughby even acknowledges that the most irredeemable characters can be salvaged if given the right motivation and opportunities through love. This is a powerful message to have in a film at this time. The film isn’t arguing that righteous anger cannot be useful or that it isn’t justified, but that progress cannot be made if you never let go of your anger. Understanding and empathy are the ways forward.

Final Score: Three Billboards, Four Molotov Cocktails 

*The independent article on the “controversy” surrounding Sam Rockwell’s character is linked below and I suggest giving it a read if you’re still unsure of the film. However, there are spoilers within, read at your own caution:

http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/three-buildings-outside-ebbing-missouri-racism-row-twitter-martin-mcdonagh-oscars-frances-mcdormand-a8178861.html

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Review: War for the Planet of the Apes or “All you need is one Bad Ape”

Written by Mark Bomback and Matt Reeves, and directed by Reeves “War for the Planet of the Apes” is a spellbinding third chapter in what is now a trilogy that can be held up next to the likes of Indiana Jones, Lord of the Rings, and even Star Wars. This film surprised me by being smarter than your typical blockbuster- and yet holding up the traditional tropes of explosions and clashing forces. What Matt Reeves has done with this property is outstanding and incredibly executed. Everything from the score to the quiet moments, of which there are more than you might expect, tells you more about the state of the world and the layers of the characters than most movies ever communicate to their audiences. I thoroughly enjoyed this film from the bombastic opening scene to the moment the credits started to roll.

What makes this film stand out from the rest of the tentpole summer films is how well the story and plot is structured. They defy expectation from scene to scene and the film keeps the line of tension and dread taught throughout. I won’t get deep into the details, as I believe the experience of going into the theater without a pretext as to how the film will play out only improves the effect of the storytelling at hand, but I have to tell you this much- this is a brutal and unforgiving perspective of war and conflict. Though to keep the most egregious expectations at bay, note that this is not a traditional “war” film. While there is plenty of apes versus human conflict, I would heed any notion of large scale D-day style battles. What you will find in place of that though are some of the very best special effects ever done in science fiction history.

There is not a single scene, or even a moment, when the motion-capture work of these intelligent apes isn’t stunning. These creations are so lifelike you’ll have to remind yourself that you’re watching a film about apes and not inherently human creatures. Andy Serkis deserves a standing ovation for his work as Caesar throughout these films. The character has a clear arc across all three films and he evolves in spectacular fashion in each. While Serkis may never receive Oscar accolades for the character, he has earned so much more. However we cannot overlook the work of the core cast of characters, as we mostly reside with the apes in this film, the story as a whole lives and dies on the shoulders of these performances. Speaking of performances, I’d be remiss to forget Woody Harrelson’s menacing colonel, he’s not always in frame- but his threatening presence is felt throughout. Oh, and Steve Zahn portrays “Bad Ape” a potentially risky comic relief character that pays off well and doesn’t distract from the overall tone of the film.

Honestly, I cannot recommend this film enough. If you haven’t seen the first two, I strongly suggest watching them before going into the final chapter. If you enjoy genre films and science fiction and fantasy films in the slightest, then this film should be on your watch list. “War for the Planet of the Apes” is an intelligent and thoughtful blockbuster that also acts as the spectacular end to a riveting trilogy.

 

Final Score: 1 good ape, 1 bad ape, and 1 ugly war