Solo: A Star Wars Story

Solo: A Star Wars Story

By: Kevin Jordan

Sorry, were you hoping to learn something interesting about Han Solo?

Benign.  Rote.  By-the-book.  Fine.  Adequate.  Entertaining enough.  All are applicable adjectives to the latest Star Wars movie, Solo: A Star Wars Story.  Hell, “A Star Wars Story” is probably the perfect way to describe Solo because it is generic and tells us something we already know.  In a nutshell, that is Solo – a movie insisting on answering questions we already know the answer to – or never asked in the first place – while never committing to a story worth going back in Star Wars time for.  Director Ron Howard and screenwriters Jonathan and Lawrence Kasdan play the movie so safe you would be forgiven if you forgot Han was a murderous smuggler (just ask Greedo) when we first met him back in 1977.

(MILD SPOILERS ahead, but there really is not much to spoil anyway.)

The major flaw with the film is that it does nothing to make us care about anything or anyone, save for maybe a sassy droid, and never commits to anything.  Rather than take some time to develop any characters, new or old, it relies heavily on us already knowing Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich), Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), and Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) and treats the rest of the cast as little more than set pieces.  The film begins with an uninspired car chase scene featuring Han fleeing a bunch of gangsters with his girlfriend, Qi’ra (pronounced like Kira and played by Emilia Clarke), in tow.  As they try to escape off the planet Corellia, they are separated and Han screams that he will come back to get her.  This seems like it will be the main plot of the film and is driven home during the first act of the film as Han is telling everyone within earshot that he intends to get back to Corellia to rescue her as soon as he has enough money.  We also quickly meet a trio of generic characters (Woody Harrelson, Thandie Newton, and the voice of Jon Favreau) who get the barest minimum of development because this movie desperately wanted to get to showing us the famous Kessel Run.

The most interesting character in the world.

Those three characters are a crew of thieves and you will probably only remember one of their names – Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson).  They take Han and Chewie on to their crew and attempt a train heist.  Yes, a train heist in a Star Wars movie.  While a much better action sequence than the earlier car chase, it offers little in the way of ingenuity with the exception of the train cars occasionally swiveling around the axis of the rail they are riding.  Because we know next to nothing about the heist crew and know Han and Chewie are in other movies, this scene (as well as the entire movie) has zero tension.  At this point, we are only watching for the visuals and the visuals of this scene were spoiled in the previews.  Once this scene ends, we find Han, Chewie, and Tobias on board crime lord Dryden Vos’ (Paul Bettany) ship where they run into none other than Qi’ra.  The end.

Just kidding.  The movie still has two more acts for us, but now we are left wondering “what now?”  Han’s plan of buying a ship and rescuing Qi’ra just got light-sabered by the screenplay.  Qi’ra also makes it clear that she no longer requires rescuing, so the movie is forced to pivot to another heist as the main plot of the film.  A smarter movie would have used this heist for character development and relationship building, but this is not a smarter movie.  Instead, it is only the catalyst to get us to the main event of this film – Han and Jabba the Hutt meeting for the first time.  Just kidding.

Nothing screams Star Wars like train heist.

I firmly believe that the entire purpose of this movie was fan service in the form of depicting a single line of dialogue from A New Hope – Han bragging to Luke that the Millennium Falcon made the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs.  If you are a space nerd like me, or simply paid attention in astronomy class, a parsec is a unit of distance measurement, not speed, so Han bragging about how fast his ship was by using a unit of distance was nonsense.  Luckily, some other nerds wrote out an explanation involving a short-cut and, thus, Solo had its main attraction.  Like the train heist scene, it is an entertaining scene featuring a space chase and an eerie image of a star destroyer (doing absolutely nothing including not shooting at the Falcon despite half a dozen TIE fighters shooting at the Falcon, like in every other Star Wars movie, dammit-do-those-things-do-anything-ever?!)?  Unfortunately, this scene bears far too much resemblance to the underwater chase scene in The Phantom Menace and nothing good reminds us of The Phantom Menace.

Are you not entertained?

Speaking of fan service, the other major problem with Solo is far too much time is spent answering the questions I alluded to earlier.

Did you ever wonder how the Falcon got that notch at its front (watch the previews again – the bow is a solid triangle rather than forked)?

Of course not.

Did you ever wonder where the name Solo came from?

No, why would I?

Curious about how Han obtained the Falcon?

They already told us in The Empire Strikes Back

Want to see the first meeting between Chewie and Han?

Actually, yes.

Okay, so that last one is actually interesting, but this movie provides a boring explanation that doubles as a borderline meet-cute.  If you want a much better explanation, read The Hutt Gambit by A.C. Crispin, even though Disney proclaimed nearly all of the previous Star Wars canon to be meaningless.  Who has two thumbs and is a nerd?  This guy.

Normally, Easter eggs or quick homages tickle me, but this movie shoves them in your face and they are neither quick or Easter eggy (again, the Kessel Run).  The Solo surname scene was especially awkward because it answered a question literally nobody ever asked and the most unnecessary detail explanation since X-Men: Apocalypse showed us how Xavier went bald.

Just Han? Like, Madonna?

By the end of Solo, we learn nothing new about Han, Chewie, or Lando that we did not already know about them from previous films.  Putting on my movie-fixer hat for a moment, I would have cut Qi’ra from the beginning of the film and made her character much more mysterious and nuanced.  A little more Khaleesi, and a little less cardboard cutout.  Given that we met Han as a selfish smuggler only out for himself in A New Hope, the opening scene in Solo would work far better to develop that trait and the scene would need zero other changes after removing Qi’ra.  This also would have given several potential options with Qi’ra in this film and future films rather than what the Kasdans did with her.  I would also have stuck with the book regarding Han and Chewie’s initial meeting because it provided the one altruistic trait in Han (anti-slavery) that kept him from being the scum he was always accused of being, thus forming the basis of his later redemption as a hero.  Finally, I would spend more time developing Han and Lando’s relationship, which is practically non-existent in Solo.

At least Qi’ra is a beautiful cardboard cutout.

As I have said in past reviews, I love Star Wars, which is what makes Solo kind of disappointing for me.  Despite the tone of this review, I want to stress that Solo is an entertaining movie that is competently done from a popcorn flick point of view.  Perhaps the best thing about Solo is the acting, which is very good.  Ehrenreich and Glover deliver performances that never feel like knockoffs of their predecessors and the rest of the cast all hit their marks.  But the obvious comparison is Rogue One and Solo falls completely flat in that comparison.  At no point was I ever captivated during this movie, not even during the penultimate space chase from Kessel, because, again, we already knew the answer to that question.

Rating: Ask for four dollars back because, if anything, you get your Star Wars fix.

Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri

Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri

By: Kevin Jordan

Whose side are you on?

(It’s award consideration season and I’m playing catch-up.  As I tear through them, I thought I’d try mini-reviews.  Enjoy!)

About seventeen minutes into Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, Sheriff Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) has the following exchange with distraught mother Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) whose daughter was raped and murdered months earlier and who erected three billboards questioning the police’s job performance because she is pissed at the sheriff for not arresting anybody for the crime:

Willoughby: “I’d do anything to catch the guy who did it, Mrs. Hayes.  But when the DNA don’t match no one who’s ever been arrested, and when the DNA don’t match any other crime nationwide, and when there wasn’t a single eyewitness from the time she left your house to the time we found her, well, right now there ain’t too much more that we can do except…”

Mildred: “Could pull blood from every man and boy in this town over the age of eight.”

Willoughby: “There’s civil rights laws prevents that, Mrs. Hayes, and what if he was just passing through town…”

Mildred: “Pull blood from ever’ man in the country, then.”

Willoughby: “And what if he was just passing through the country?”

Mildred: “If it was me, I’d start up a database, every male baby what’s born, stick ‘em on it, cross-reference it, and as soon as they done something wrong, make a hundred-per-cent certain it was a correct match, then kill ’em.”

Willoughby: “Yeah, well, there’s definitely civil rights laws prevents that.”

Prior to that exchange, writer/director Martin McDonagh had us fully on Mildred’s side and thinking the sheriff was a lazy dick.  After that exchange, we’re hooked by this film because we have no idea who we’re supposed to be rooting for.  Of course we want justice for Mildred and her daughter, but the sheriff makes some damned good points and sounds like he really tried to find the killer.  This is the epitome of a movie that is constantly pulling you from one side to the other and not just with the main plot.  Every character in this movie, from Mildred’s son Lucas (Robbie Hayes) to angry and racist officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell) to billboard proprietor Red (Caleb Landry Jones) to others, are multi-faceted, rich characters that will take your initial allegiances and stomp on them.  Then, they’ll stomp on them again just to make sure you weren’t getting comfortable again.  It’s a rare movie that can make you root for everyone and no one at the same time

Rating: Don’t ask for any money back.  Mildred didn’t after Willoughby’s speech so neither should you.

Triple 9

By: Kevin Jordan

Distractions everywhere.

I don’t know that there’s ever a good time to release a movie about corrupt cops, but now seems like an especially bad time.  One day, assholes are killing cops and the next day, cops are killing kids wielding toy guns in a park.  Every one of these events has people on all sides of the issue vehemently arguing about police abuse, the ability of cops to fulfill their duties, targeting of minorities, targeting of cops, and possibly the lowest amount of trust exchanged between the general public and general police force.  With all that dominating the ten percent of news cycles that aren’t devoted to the current election circus, the higher-ups over at Worldview Entertainment said “fuck it; let’s do this.”  Not only did they decide to release a movie about good cops, bad cops, and a whole lot killing, but they decided to name the movie after the code given for an officer down.  Who’s ready for some fun, huh?

TRIPLE 9 Poster Art

Walking out of the theater, the most common reaction I heard was “that movie was really confusing.”  I wouldn’t characterize the movie as confusing, but I would say that the movie leaves a lot of unanswered questions in its wake.  For instance, my biggest question was how bad was Kate Winslet’s Russian accent?  Egads was that thing exaggerated.  Once I stopped thinking about that, my next question was why was Woody Harrelson wearing dentures?  I thought the accent was distracting until the dentures distracted me from the accent.  Then, I wondered what Casey Affleck had to do to hulk out like that.  Welcome to the gun show is right.  Yes, these are the things that I think about during movies that don’t bother to write a compelling plot or give us back stories to its characters.  Now you know why those people were confused.

(Some spoilers coming up, though I won’t tell you which cop needs the 999.)

Based on the trailers, I thought the movie was going to be a heist movie and it definitely starts out that way.  A crew of five guys consisting of two ex-special forces soldiers – Michael (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Russel (Norman Reedus) – Russel’s brother and former cop, Gabe (Aaron Paul), and two active and corrupt cops – Marcus (Anthony Mackie) and Jorge (Clifton Collins, Jr.) – are hired a by a Russian mob wife, Irina (Winslet), to rob a bank.  Their target is a safe deposit box and these guys are really good at robbery.  Upon delivery of the box, Irina shirks on paying them, instead insisting that they perform another theft, this time stealing a box from a secret Department of Homeland Security warehouse.  Sounds pretty straight-forward, right?  Well, hold on to your butts.

Chris Allen (Affleck) is reassigned to Marcus’ precinct as Marcus’ new partner.  Chris is also a former soldier, but he just wants to make a difference.  They make a big deal out of him being transferred from a cushy precinct, but no explanation is given as to why.  But, don’t worry too much about it because they’ll distract you with his wife’s (Teresa Palmer’s) naked ass.  I’m not sure how that helps those who aren’t attracted by such things, but it works for me.

Further muddying the waters is Chris’ uncle, Jeffery (Woody Harrelson), who is a lead detective at another precinct.  He’s leading the bank robbery investigation, but spends his spare time drinking and smoking his ground-up medication.  I’m sure there are metaphors in these character traits, but after a whole lot of time watching these cops bicker with each other and no heists to speak of, I just didn’t care.  All I cared about was answering why Irina would kill Dwight from The Walking Dead (Reedus) as a scare tactic if she was holding Michael’s kid hostage?  Oh wait, there’s Gal Gadot’s (playing Irina’s sister and the mother of Michael’s kid) almost naked ass.  Nevermind.

Eventually, the now short-handed crew decides that the only way to give themselves enough time to pull off the DHS heist is to distract every cop in Atlanta by killing a cop and calling in a code 999.  No, seriously, they explain to us that every cop will definitely drop whatever assignment they have to respond to an officer down code, no matter how far away or pre-occupied they might be.  It’s totally believable, just like it’s totally believable that a secret DHS facility would be guarded by only a handful of incompetent rent-a-cops that were probably kicked out of the TSA for riding through the x-ray machines late at night.

Remember how I said the characters had no back stories?  What I meant was that they had no back stories to explain their motivations.  Why are the cops corrupt to the point of robbing banks?  Why are Michael and Marcus stuck doing jobs for the Russian-Jewish mob?  Are Irina’s hired muscle really wearing yamakas?  What exactly are they stealing and why is it important enough that the Israelis would release Irina’s murdering, mob-boss husband from Israeli prison?  Seriously, they’re wearing yamakas?

If the movie had any kind of redeeming quality (besides some very nice ass cheeks), it was nice watching Mackie, Ejiofor, and Winslet playing against type.  For all the lack of compelling writing, the performances were solid, accents notwithstanding.  But, again, in today’s current climate, I don’t know who this movie is for.  The folks expecting a good heist movie are going to be very disappointing and everybody else is just going to be wondering how they ended up here instead of at Deadpool.

Rating: Ask for all but two dollars back.  Triple 9 is probably worth a Redbox rental, but only if your first three choices are out of stock.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1

By: Kevin Jordan

Stop the madness.

mockingjay1

I realize it’s been two weeks since Mockingjay opened, but the extra time allowed me to read some other reviews because there’s not a lot I enjoy more than picking on main stream movie critics.  This isn’t a case where a shitty movie inexplicable enjoyed glowing reviews (John Wick) or where the hands-down, best movie of the year (Interstellar) inexplicably received worse review than said shitty movie.  This is a case where I was simply curious to read other opinions because Mockingjay the book is a little divisive among readers.  Charlie Jane Anders at Io9 wrote a great piece explaining why Mockingjay is a better book than Catching Fire and while I liked both books equally, she provides a great insight into why people prefer one or the other.  Conversely, many of the movie reviews I read chose not to bother with this type of examination (or any type of examination of anything, for that matter).  Instead, they generally did one of two things – either they heaped praises on the film for its action and acting or they crapped on the film for being Part 1.  Both of those angles are equally funny to me because the former read like a canned response written by the studio (Lionsgate) and the latter read like a bunch of spoiled brats whining just for the sake of whining.

It amuses me (maybe a little too much) that the people who love complaining about Hollywood’s mythical lack of imagination are the same people who think it’s original to tell us many times over how obvious a money grab it is to split the concluding book of a series into two movies.  Wait, you mean it’s surprising that a business is doing whatever it can to make as much money as possible?  Wow – I need to take a knee so that revelation can sink in.  What’s funnier is that they are acting as if their opinion is somehow going to convince these studios to leave hundreds of millions of dollars on the table by not splitting future movies the same way.  I don’t like it either, but it’s really only a bad idea if the movies are executed poorly (Twilight and Harry Potter), not to mention it’s been going on for decades.  You might think the original Star Wars trilogy was three separate movies, but The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi were the same movie split into two parts.  Think about it – Star Wars stands alone and has a very definitive ending, the destruction of the Death Star.  Empire ends in a cliff hanger and big revelation and Jedi ties those things up.  And you can be sure I’m right because had Star Wars not been so popular, 20th Century Fox wouldn’t have greenlit both sequels.  The same thing was repeated with The Matrix and Pirates of the Caribbean (to name just two).

My point is that these angry critics seem to be most upset at the Part 1 in the title rather than the movie itself and they really need to get over it.  Had these movies not been based on three books, Mockingjay would serve as an adequate title.  For next year’s finale, Mockingjay doesn’t fit so cleanly, but calling it anything else would end with a legion of tweens breaking the Internet.  The only reason The Hobbit trilogy isn’t using Part in the title is because Peter Jackson and New Line Cinema are trying to hide the fact that they split a 300-page children’s book into three absurdly long (and not very good) movies.

As I hinted at earlier, Mockingjay Part 1 is easily the best of the unnecessary, part-one-of-final-book movies (though that’s not saying much).  Harry Potter spent the majority of his in a tent and at a wedding and Bella and Edward spend theirs on their honeymoon.  Both of those movies easily could have been whittled down to the first ten minutes of the final film, but again, $$$$$$$$.  I’d be lying if I said Mockingjay couldn’t do the same thing, but the overarching story benefits more from Mockingjay Part 1 than Twilight and Harry Potter do from theirs.

Suzanne Collins (The Hunger Games author) had a much bigger goal with her books than “defeat Voldemort” or whatever the hell was at stake in Twilight.  She wanted to write about class warfare and a totalitarian government and how the United States is slowly going down that path (that these books ended up in the Young Adult category has always fascinated me considering a great deal of time is spent murdering children).  While you can see those ideas in the first two movies (and books), they are relegated to the background as everybody’s attention is on Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and the games themselves.  Part 1 remedies that by focusing all of its attention there.  Yes, Collins easily could have condensed it down since we did get enough in the first two films to understand that the districts would rebel, but she really wanted to make a statement.  One of the criticisms by some critics is that Mockingjay gets away from that formula, but those critics are willfully pretending Part 2 hasn’t already been written and that, as a whole, it follows the formula exactly.  The only difference is that the arena is the Capitol and it’s not just kids playing this time.

On the other side, the critics praising the film are going a little overboard.  There is far less action this time around and the film gets a little redundant.  Part 1 is the calm before the war and is all about rallying the districts together behind Katniss.  Many scenes feature a film crew following Katniss through destroyed districts for propaganda purposes interspliced with political wrangling by the leaders of the rebellion and the chess match between the Capitol and rebellion on the air waves.  In addition, some of the characters are notably flatter, especially in Julianne Moore and Philip Seymour Hoffman.  Hoffman’s Plutarch seemed like a completely different character than the one in Catching Fire and the only time Moore ever showed emotion was through fist pumps (I’m not kidding), which looked as ridiculous as it sounds.  While it might have been the directing, it seemed like the two of them didn’t care that their characters had all the charisma of Eeyore on Prozac.  Luckily, Lawrence, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, and Josh Hutcherson pick up the pace, reminding us who the truly interesting characters still are.  I particularly enjoyed Hutcherson’s Peeta, who is forced to give a series of interviews and statements to the districts and looks worse for wear with every appearance.  If anyone in this film is underappreciated, it’s Hutcherson.

If you’ve made it through all of my rambling, the answer to your questions is yes, I enjoyed the film and no, not as much as the previous two.  Like I said, it’s completely unnecessary to split the book into two movies, but at least they made a decent movie out of it.  Before I go, there’s more thing that some of the media has been harping on and acted surprised by – that Mockingjay has not performed quite as well at the box office as its predecessors, even though it’s still crushing it.  Given that many people will decide to just wait until next year and watch it right before the finale opens, it’s not at all surprising.  One of these days these critics will actually start deconstructing movies instead of rehashing them and complaining about non-issues and this madness will finally end.

Rating: Ask for three dollars back because you know you’ll be seeing Part 2 at least twice.