Solo: A Star Wars Story

2018, Uncategorized

Dir. Ron Howard

Starring: Alden Ehrenreich, Woody Harrelson, Emilia Clarke, Donald Glover, Joonas Suotamo, Thandie Newton, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Paul Bettany, and Jon Favreau

Solo: A Star Wars Story comes out to muted expectations, which is odd when you consider it’s a Star Wars movie. They’ve been a Christmas event movie since The Force Awakens. I’d drive an hour to see them every year on an IMAX screen, making a day of it with dinner at a restaurant afterwards. For Solo, I went to the local multiplex after work. It may have been rumours of the troubled production, or the fact that it’s not been long since The Last Jedi, but this one just didn’t feel as special going in. Star Wars has lost some of its shine. Which is a shame because Solo is a whole heap of fun.

Solo follows Alden Ehrenreich’s young Han Solo, before we knew him as the smuggling scoundrel in the first Star Wars movie. He starts off as a street rat, doing cons for a small crime ring. He finally finds a way out, but leaves behind the woman he loves. He vows to return to rescue her. That journey takes him from being a troop for the empire to falling into organised crime when he meets Woody Harelson’s Beckett. Along the way we meet familiar faces from the Star Wars universe, such as Chewbacca, and Lando Calrissian.

I probably had the lowest expectations I’ve ever had for a Star Wars movie going into Solo. The rumours of on-set dysfunction, with Directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller being fired, and Ron Howard being bought into replace them near the end of initial production. Howard gets the directing credit here, and whilst it’s rumoured that they re-shot 70% of the movie, it’s almost impossible to tell which bits were directed by Lord and Miller. It’s a film that, against the odds, works. I found it a fun, action packed adventure movie. Removed from everything that surrounds it, it’s just a pure, good time at the movie. Which is what you want from Star Wars, right?

Howard does well at creating a tone that blends different genres. Mixing elements of Westerns, heist movies, and film noir together to create an engaging look at the underbelly of the Star Wars universe. It also gives us our best look, away from the animated shows, of how the Empire operates in the galaxy. The action is all well done, but it’s the smaller moments that Howard excels at. Han’s first meeting with Chewie is tense, funny, and a little scary. It’s incredibly well directed. Howard was seen as a safe pair of hands when he came aboard, but I think that does him a disservice. He’s a director who knows how to make a film, and story work. He knows how to hit all the right beats, at the right time, in the right way. It’s a skill that’s often overlooked, but is essential in creating a satisfying time at the movies.

The other point of conversation going in was the casting. Could anybody replace Harrison Ford as Han Solo. Alden Ehrenreich bares slight resemblance to Ford, and sounds nothing like him. It doesn’t matter. He smashes this performance. In a smart move by him and the writers, this isn’t the Han Solo from Star Wars. This is the story of how he becomes that Han Solo. There are fan service moments like seeing him get his gun, and finding out, maybe a little too on the nose, how he got his name, but these moments are few and far between, they aren’t really the point of the movie. Ehrenreich plays Solo with the same swagger and cockiness as Ford, but undercuts it with an unsureness. He has the charm, but lacks the cynicism of Ford. He’s naive, and enthusiastic. The fun is in finding out what made him the pessimist. The iconic Star Wars line “I have a bad feeling about this” is turned on its head when Han says “I have a good feeling about this” and that is the key to this Han Solo.

The rest of the cast all do fantastic work too. Woody Harrelson is great. Donald Glover is terrific, and Emilia Clarke shines in a role reminiscent of 40s/50s femme fatales. Paul Bettany’s villain was the only role which felt like it was under-written. Bettany does his best to imbue him with a manic menace, but the villain here is the biggest disappointment. It stems from the biggest problem with the film, and that’s the fact that the stakes never feel high enough. We know how it’s going to end. We know what happens next. The momentum of the film carries it swiftly to the finale, but it’s a subdued, anti-climax to what has come before. The film comes to a halt right when it should be going into hyperspace. It does have a last act reveal, but rather than being a shocking revelation, it felt like fan pandering. Similar to Rouge One, it’s as if the studio are too scared to branch out into the unknown, and are keeping their anthology movies as close to the main saga as possible.

Solo is just a great time at the cinema. A refreshing side adventure to the main Star Wars story, which is filled with fun action, iconic characters, and a fantastic cast. It’s a space craft that has been deftly steered away from the asteroid field by Howard, and is thrown into hyper speed by Alden Ehrenreich’s performance. It stumbles at the finish line, but what has come before is more than worth the trip.

7/10

 

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

2017, Uncategorized

Dir. Martin McDonagh

Starring: Francis McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Caleb Landry Jones, Lucas Hedges, Abbie Cornish, John Hawke, and Peter Dinklage

 

Three Billboards is the third feature film from writer and director Martin McDonagh. If you’ve seen his other two films, Seven Psychopaths, and In Bruges, then you might know what to expect. He’s a director known for subtle genre subversion, and darkly black comedy. Three Billboards continues this trend with a great deal of confidence, and you get the feeling that McDonagh has really fine tuned his style. Creating a film that works on many different levels, and doing so much more than its black comedy tag would suggest.

It’s the story of Mildred Hayes, played superbly by Francis McDormand, whose daughter was brutally murdered. When the police fail to catch the killer, she pays to put up three billboards which pointedly ask the police why they haven’t found him yet. This question being directed at Chief Willoughby, here played by Woody Harrelson. This starts a “war” between the police and those in the town who support them, and Mildred and those in the town who are against the police. Willoughby will have to do his best to keep those on his side in check, especially loose canon Dixon, played by Sam Rockwell, whilst Mildred will have to navigate a town in which her actions have enraged a lot of people.

The film succeeds on so many levels. It’s a great subversion of the western revenge genre. Here, there is no one to aim the revenge against, as the police who would usually saddle up and go off to find the killer don’t know who they are after. This creates a perceived lack of agency from Mildred, which turns the police into the villains. It’s shot like a western, and the score brilliantly invokes this as well. It’s also a brilliant, character driven story. There’s not one character that does something that doesn’t make sense. Their actions, and arcs all seem logical. The actors completely sell this with some phenomenal performances. Especially Francis McDormand and Sam Rockwell. McDormand is the emotional anchor. Being both heartbreaking and hilarious in equal measure. She’s doing something which she feels she has to do, but you get the feeling that she’s not sure if it’s the right thing to do. Rockwell gets a character which could have been seen as completely unlikeable or completely goofy, but their is a subtlety to his performance which allows his character to develop, and gives the audience the opportunity to root for his reformation.

This review so far has focused on how much of an emotionally complex movie this is, focusing on some pretty heavy subject matter. This belies how funny the movie is. It’s dark without ever feeling dour, as it’s just so entertaining. McDonagh achieves all this through mastery of tone. The tone of this movie is spot on. The darkest moments being undercut by the funniest moments. An example of this is just after the darkest, saddest, and most tragic scene, which cuts to a completely oblivious Rockwell dancing to Abba. It never feels forced either, all the laughs stemming from the characters and how they deal with the awful situations they find themselves in. This mastery of tone also extends to how well the characters are written. McDormand the exact right mix of tough and vulnerable. Rockwell the exact right mix of psychopathic and stupid. Their respective arcs feeling completely earned.

The film is also extremely timely. McDonagh aims his cutting dialogue at everyone. No one escapes unscathed. Whether it’s the Catholic Church, or Police brutality. At one point Harrelson explains that you can’t get rid of all the racist cops because you’d only be left with three, who would be homophobic. It’s a slice of America under Trump. The way the media can be used to direct peoples anger and hate through mere suggestion. Facts aren’t important. The central message and theme of the film also ties into this. It’s about hate, and how meeting those who hate with hate just creates more hate. It’s a film whose worst character is given the room to change and reform because of a guiding hand. It’s so well written that the audience are allowed to feel for the most unlikeable character. Ultimately, it’s a film about forgiveness.

Three Billboards is such a hugely enjoyable movie. You will cry. You will laugh. You will think, and you will leave the theatre completely satisfied, but with thoughts and themes to ruminate on for days. It’s well written, well directed, and acted fantastically by a great ensemble cast. It’s sure to be a real contender during this awards season. See it now.

9/10