“SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY” (2018) Review

“SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY” (2018) Review

Following the release of Lucasfilm’s ninth film, “STAR WARS: EPISODE VIII – THE LAST JEDI”, the STAR WARS fandom seemed to be in a flux. Although the film received a positive reaction from film critics and was a box office hit, for many reasons it created a division within the franchise’s fandom. And many believe that this division, along with a few other aspects, may have produced a strong, negative impact upon the next film released by Lucasfilm, “SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY”

Why did I bring up this topic? Easy. “SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY” proved to be Lucasfilm’s first box office flop. Certain film critics and defenders of “THE LAST JEDI” had claimed that the negative reaction to the latter film had an impact on the box office performance of “SOLO”. In fact, many of “THE LAST JEDI” detractors claimed the same. Perhaps. Then again, I disliked “THE LAST JEDI”. But that did not stop me from seeing “SOLO” at the theaters. Personally, I suspect other factors played a role in the box office failure of “SOLO” – media coverage of the film’s chaotic production (that included the firing of its first directors, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller) and the fact that Lucasfilm/Disney had released it five months after “THE LAST JEDI”.

But many would point out that the true reason behind the film’s box office failure was its quality. That it was simply not a good movie. Did I agree with this assessment? I will answer this later. But first, I might as well recap the movie’s plot. Written by Hollywood legend Lawrence Kasdan and his son, Jonathan Kasdan; “SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY” is basically an origins tale about one of the franchise’s most popular and legendary characters, Han Solo. The movie began some thirteen years before the events of “ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY” and “STAR WARS: EPISODE IV – A NEW HOPE”, when a young Han and Qi’ra, his childhood friend and first love, attempt to escape the clutches of a Corellian gangster named Lady Proxima and her White Worm gang. They fail in their first attempt, but manage to make it to Corellia’s space port with a stash of stolen coaxium, a powerful hyperspace fuel. The pair manages to bribe an Imperial officer with the coaxium in exchange for passage off the planet. Unfortunately, only Han manages to make it past the gate, due to Qi’ra being snatched by the pursuing White Worm gang. Before he can be detected, Han signs up with the Imperial Navy as a flight cadet.

Three years later, Han is serving as an infantryman on Mimban, due to being expelled from the Imperial Flight Academy for insubordination. He spots a criminal gang posing as Imperial soldiers and tries to blackmail the leader, Tobias Beckett, into taking him with them. Instead, Beckett exposes him as a deserter and Han is tossed into a pit to be fed by an enslaved Wookie named Chewbacca. Since he is able to understand the latter’s language, Han is able to plot an escape with the Wookie. Both make their way to Beckett’s newly stolen starship and convinces the criminal to allow them to join his gang. The group plots to steal a shipment of coaxium on Vandor-1. The plan goes awry, thanks to a group called the Cloud Riders led by Enfys Nest. Both Beckett’s wife Val and their pilot Rio Durant are killed and the coaxium destroyed. A grieving and desperate Beckett is forced to face his employer Dryden Vos, a ruthless and high-ranking crime boss in the Crimson Dawn syndicate. Aboard Vos’ yacht, Han has a reunion with Qi’ra, also working for Vos. He also comes up with a plan to steal another shipment of coaxium to help Beckett repay the debt to Vos.

So . . . did I enjoy “SOLO”? Or did I dislike it? There were certain aspects about the film that left me scratching my head. And these aspects had a lot to do with Lucasfilm and Disney Studios’ decision to declare the Extended Universe (EU) novels as no longer part of the franchise’s canon. The Kasdans the screenwriters of “SOLO” had decided to make changes to Han’s backstory. Instead of being the abandoned scion of a well-to-do Corellian family, Han was literally re-written as an orphan with no surname. An Imperial Navy recruiter ended up providing his surname. The Kasdans made Han three years older. I found these changes unnecessary, especially the age change. Perhaps the Kasdans had felt that a nineteen year-old Han would not work in the movie’s narrative. If that was the case, all they had to do was set the movie seven years before “A NEW HOPE” and not ten years. Also, characters like Han’s old crime boss, the pirate Garris Shrike, and the female Wookie who served as the latter’s cook, Dewlanna. Shrike was not missed. But without Dewlanna as part of the franchise’s canon, how did Lucasfilm and the Kasdans planned to explain Han’s knowledge of Shyriiwook, the Wookies’ language? He not only understood it, but also knew how to speak Shyriiwook . . . somewhat.

But despite my quibbles regarding “SOLO”, I enjoyed it. Who am I kidding? I loved it. For me, “SOLO” was a breath of fresh air after the disappointing “THE LAST JEDI”. What I found ironic about the movie is that many claimed that a backstory about Han Solo was unnecessary for the franchise and not particularly original. First of all, none of the nine movies that followed “A NEW HOPE” were necessary. Neither was the 1977 movie, for that matter. As for originality . . . despite the movie being about Han Solo’s youth, I thought “SOLO” proved to be a surprisingly original entry for the franchise. Although the galaxy’s criminal element has been featured in past STAR WARS films, “SOLO” marked the first time that the franchise delved deep into the galaxy’s criminal organizations. And this is because “SOLO” is basically a heist film. Well . . . “ROGUE ONE” was also a heist story . . . at least in the last third of the film. But that was a tale of politics and espionage. And although politics made a few appearances in this film, “SOLO” was basically a story about criminals – including one Han Solo.

And because this film is basically a story about criminals, one would expect to encounter a good deal of back stabbing and double crossing. To be honest, one could find plenty of such action in political films. It certainly happened in “STAR WARS: EPISODE III – REVENGE OF THE SITH”. The ironic thing is that aside from Beckett exposing Han as a deserter to the Imperial Army, no such betrayals or back stabbing occurred until the film’s last act on the planet Savareen. And when the betrayals and back stabbings finally unfolded . . . God, it was a beautiful thing to behold! And the whole sequence was capped by a familiar figure from the past.

The production values for “SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY” seemed top-notched. Well, most of it. I must admit to feeling somewhat disappointed by the visuals for Corellia. From the drawings I have seen of the planet online, I had imagined that Han’s home world to be a little more colorful than what was seen onscreen:

But I certainly had no problems with the visuals for other planets like Vandor-1, the Fort Ypso village on said planet, the Kessel Run’s maelstrom and Savareen. But I really have to give kudos to production designer Neil Lamont and the film’s art direction team for their creation of the interior sets that served as Dryden Vos’s yacht. Need I say more?

When the media first announced that Alden Ehrenreich had been cast as the young Han Solo, many STAR WARS fans had denounced the casting and insisted that actor/impressionist Anthony Ingruber, who had portrayed the younger version of a character portrayed by Harrison Ford in a movie called “THE AGE OF ADALINE”, should have won the role. I have seen Ingruber do an impressionist of Ford in a You Tube video clip. But I thought that the movie required more than an impressionist and I had seen Ehrenreich in three previous movies. I believed he would do a great job as a young Han Solo. As it turned out, Ehrenreich was more than great. He gave a SUPERB performance than ended up knocking my socks off. Oh my God, he was just brilliant. Ehrenreich captured all of the essence of Han’s personality and traits with very little effort. All I can say is that I am very happy that he had more than lived up to my expectations.

But Ehrenreich was not the only one who knocked it out of the ballpark. The movie also featured a first-rate and enigmatic performance from Emilia Clarke, who portrayed Han’s first love Qi’ra. The character is one of the few instances in which I am glad that Lucasfilm did not use any characters from the Expanded Universe. In the EU, Han’s first love was Rebel Alliance officer Bria Tharen. I am certain that Bria was an interesting character, but she reminded me too much of Leia. Qi’ra, on the other, struck me as a more interesting and complex personality and romantic interest for Han. And Clarke did a marvelous job with the role. Another great performance came from Woody Harrelson, who portrayed Han’s reluctant mentor, a professional thief known as Tobias Beckett. Like Clarke, Harrelson did an excellent job in portraying a morally complex thief who seemed to be a combination of an easy-going personality who was also avaricious and ruthless. No one seemed to mind Donald Glover’s casting as Han’s future friend, Lando Calrissian. Glover gave a very entertaining and first-rate performance as the witty and smooth-talking smuggler, who seemed to harbor a low opinion of Han and a high opinion of himself, the Millennium Falcon, and his droid companion L3-37.

“SOLO” also featured excellent performances from other supporting cast members. Paul Bettany was both entertaining and dangerous as Crimson Dawn’s criminal leader Dryden Vos. Joonas Suotamo’s first-rate portrayal of Han’s life long friend, Chewbacca, struck me both poignant and emotional. More importantly, his character was fully fleshed out and not treated as some glorified Thandie Newton gave a sharp and witty performance as Beckett’s wife Val. Erin Kellyman was surprisingly commanding as Enfys Nest, the young leader of a gang of pirates called Cloud Riders. Ray Park surprised the hell out of me when he briefly repeated his role as former Sith apprentice, Darth Maul. The movie also featured some very entertaining voice performances from Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who was hilarious as Lando’s emotional and sharp-tongued droid L3-37; Jon Favreau, who gave a charming and funny performance as a member of Beckett’s crew, Rio Durant; and Linda Hunt, who was sinister as the criminal leader of the White Worms gang on Corellia. The movie also featured cameos – live and voice – from STAR WARSveterans like Anthony Daniels and Warwick Davis.

What else is there to say about “SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY”? It is a pity that it did not perform well at the box office. Then again, I saw it twice in the theaters and felt more than satisfied. It is not the best STAR WARS movie I have ever seen. But I do believe that it was one of the better ones, thanks to Jonathan and Lawrence Kasdan’s screenplay, a superb cast led by the talented Alden Ehrenreich and director Ron Howard, who I believe may have saved this film, following the firing of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller as the film’s directors. For me, “SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY” is another prime example that Disney Studios and Lucasfilm seemed to be better at stand alone films, instead of serial ones.

 

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“HAIL, CAESAR!” (2016) Review

“HAIL, CAESAR!” (2016) Review

When I first that Joel and Ethan Coen was about to release a new film, I rejoiced. When I learned that this new movie – called “HAIL, CAESAR!” – would be set in old Hollywood, my joy increased. Then I discovered that this new film would be released in February of this year. And . . . my anticipation decreased. Somewhat.

Now, why would my anticipation for “HAIL, CAESAR!” dampened after learning about its release date? Simple. February is one of those months that is considered by the movie industry as the graveyard for second-rate films. A Coen Brothers film set in February. This did not sit well with me. But my enthusiasm had not dampened enough for me to forgo “HAIL, CAESAR!”. I simply had to see it.

“HAIL, CAESAR!” is the fictional story about one day in the life of Eddie Mannix, the head of “physical productions” at Capitol Pictures and a “fixer” who keeps the scandalous behavior of its stars out of the press. The Lockheed Corporation has been courting him with an offer of a high-level executive position, but he is unsure about taking it. While Mannix contemplates a career change, he has to deal with the following problems for his studio:

*Unmarried synchronized swimming actress DeeAnna Moran becomes pregnant and Mannix has to make arrangements for her to put the baby in foster care and then adopt it without revealing herself as the mother.

*Mannix is ordered by the studio’s honchos to change the image of cowboy singing star Hobie Doyle, by casting him in a sophisticated drama directed by Laurence Laurentz. Unfortunately, Hobie seems uncomfortable in starring in a movie that is not a Western and gives an inept performance.

*While fending off the inquiries of twin sisters and rival gossip columnists, Thora and Thessaly Thacker, the former threatens to release an article about a past scandal involving Capitol Pictures veteran star Baird Whitlock and Laurentz, when they made a movie together some twenty years earlier.

*Mannix’s biggest problem revolve around Whitlock being kidnapped, while filming one of Capitol Pictures’ “A” productions, an Imperial Roman drama called “Hail, Caesar!”. A ransom note soon arrives, written by a group calling itself “The Future”, who are a group of Communist screenwriters, demanding $100,000 for their cause.

There were a good deal about “HAIL, CAESAR!” that I enjoyed. Primarily, I enjoyed the fact that the movie was set during the Golden Age of Hollywood and that it was about the Hollywood industry during that period. I enjoyed the fact that this was one Old Hollywood movie that was not a murder mystery, a biopic about the rise and downfall of some actor, actress or director. And I was especially relieved that it was no borderline nihilist portrayal of Hollywood like 1975’s “THE DAY OF THE LOCUST”. I had no desire to walk out of theater, harboring a desire to blow out my brains. Instead, the Coens’ film gave audiences a peek into a Hollywood studio circa 1951 with a good deal of irony and humor.

Out of the five story arcs presented in the film, I really enjoyed three of them – namely those story lines that focused on Hobie Doyle, DeeAnna Moran and Mannix’s new job offer. Although I suspect that the DeeAnna Moran character was at best, a superficial take onEsther Williams, I believe the storyline regarding the character’s pregnancy was based upon what happened to Loretta Young in the mid-1930s. I found this story arc mildly enjoyable, thanks to Scarlett Johansson’s funny performance as the blunt-speaking DeeAnna. But I would not regard it as the movie’s highlight. I also found the story arc about Mannix’s new job offer from Lockheed mildly interesting. There almost seemed to be a “would he or wouldn’t he” aura about this story arc. As any film historian knows, the real Eddie Mannix never received a job offer from Lockheed. Then again, he worked at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), not the fictional Capitol Pictures. And he was married twice with no kids, not married once with kids. So, at one point, I did find myself wondering if the events of the day would drive this Mannix into accepting Lockheed’s offer.

However, I felt that one of the movie’s real highlight centered around the Hobie Doyle and Capitol Pictures’ efforts to turn the singing cowboy into a dramatic actor. Why? It was funny. Hilarious. Not only did Alden Ehrenreich give a rather enduring performance as the charming Hobie Doyle, he was funny . . . very funny in one particular sequence. In fact, I could say the same about Ralph Fiennes, who portrayed the elegant director Laurence Laurentz tasked into transforming Hobie into a dramatic actor. I did not find this scene mildly amusing, as I did many of the film’s other scenes. Instead, watching Laurentz trying to direct the limited and very awkward Hobie in a sophisticated drama nearly had laughing in the aisle. Both Ehrenreich and Fiennes were incredibly funny and talented. The other highlight proved to be Josh Brolin’s performance as the much put upon Eddie Mannix. Brolin did an excellent job of carrying the film on his shoulders. More importantly, he gave a tight and subtle performance that allowed his character to serve as the backbone to all of the surrounding chaos.

“HAIL, CAESAR!” was set in 1951, a time when the Hollywood studio system was going through a traumatic shake-up. And this period was definitely reflected in two story arcs – Mannix’s job offer and the kidnapping of Baird Whitlock. However, a part of me wishes that the movie had been set in the 1930s – especially the early 1930s, when Hollywood was battling the censors and the Great Depression. Oh well, we cannot have everything. But I was not that particularly impressed regarding the story line involving Mannix’s concerns over Thora Thacker’s knowledge about some past scandal regarding Baird Whitlock. Why? The movie’s screenplay barely focused upon it. The entire story arc was wasted. And so was Tilda Swinton. I find this doubly sad, considering that Swinton gave a sharp and funny performance as the Thacker twins. Instead, the Coens used the Baird Whitlock character for another story arc – the one centered around his kidnapping at the hands of a group of Communist writers and a Communist contract player named Burt Gurney.

I might as well put my cards on the table. This story line featuring Baird Whitlock’s kidnapping did not strike me as well written. In fact, I did not like it at all. Neither George Clooney’s funny performance or Channing Tatum’s dancing skills could save it. The main problem with this story is that Whitlock was basically kidnapped to provide funds for Gurney, a song-and-dance performer who was a thinly disguised take on actor/dancer Gene Kelly, who was known to be a hardcore liberal. The end of the movie revealed that Gurney took with him, the ransom from Whitlock’s kidnapping, when he defected to the Soviet Union via a Russian submarine. The entire story arc struck me as simply a waste of time. And I found myself wishing that Whitlock had been used for the scandal story line, featuring Thora Thacker.

I certainly had no problems with the movie’s production values. Jess Gonchor did a fairly decent job in re-creating Los Angeles in the early 1950s. His work was ably assisted by the film’s visual and special effects teams, Nancy Haigh’s set decorations and Roger Deakins’ cinematography. However, in the case of the latter, I could have done without the occasional use of sepia tones. I also enjoyed Mary Zophres’s costume designs. But they did not exactly knock my socks off. One aspect of the film that I truly enjoyed were the different “film productions” featured in the movie – especially the ones for DeeAnna Moran and the Hobie Doyle/Laurence Laurentz debacle. I know what you are thinking . . . what about the dance sequence featuring Burt Gurney and dancing extras portraying sailors? Well, I found it well executed. But the whole number, including Tatum’s performance, seemed to be more about skill, but with little style.

In the end, I rather enjoyed “HAIL, CAESAR!”. I believe the Coen Brothers did a fairly successful job in creating an entertaining movie about Hollywood’s Golden Age. The movie also featured excellent performances from a talented cast – especially Josh Brolin, Alden Ehrenreich and Ralph Fiennes. However, I think I would have enjoyed this movie a lot more if it had ditched the kidnapping story arc in favor of the one featuring the potential Baird Whitlock scandal. Oh well, we cannot have everything we want.