Solo is Star Wars fanfic done right

Early in Solo: A Star Wars Story, our intrepid scoundrel finds himself signing up with the Imperial Forces. Asked for his name, he responds “Han,” but when asked for his second name, he responds that he has none. He has no people. The recruiter looks back at him and says, “No people, eh!?! Guess we’ll just call you Han SOLO then!” (paraphrased), and in one short moment, every fear I had about a Han Solo prequel movie came true. This point is by far the nadir, but basically every important detail of the Han we know, from his last name to meeting Chewie and Lando to getting his conspicuous blaster, is implied to occur within the span of a single adventure. It’s completely unnecessary detail, and its really easy to dismiss Solo as completely unnecessary. But even if its a trifle, damned if it isn’t a good time, effectively using the Star Wars universe as a grimy toybox to make what amounts a fleet piece of fanfic.

Did we need a dramatic fight situation for Han and Chewie to meet? No, and it really just raises questions about why Han spoke Wookie before meeting Chewie, but Chewie quickly becomes the MVP of Solo, so I’ll accept it. Did we need to see the Kessel run in all its glory? No, but it sure is a lot of fun, especially when it ropes in a droid labour revolt. Did we need Han to run into an early form of the Rebel Alliance? No, but its done with the straightest take on the concept of “space western” that Star Wars has ever indulged, and it is marvellous (there’s also a solid train heist, just to really sell it). Did we need to go deeper into the crime syndicates of the outer rim? Actually, yeah, this part of Solo is genuinely interesting and I hope to see it followed up on in the also-probably-unnecessary Fett (in which I seriously hope Han and a certain late-movie character have small-but-significant supporting roles).

Like Rogue One and unlike The Force Awakens and The Last JediSolo does not feel like an event of any sort. It doesn’t evoke a sense of wonder, or have particular artistic merit. But unlike Rogue OneSolo feels coherent, maybe lacking in theme but not lacking in sense. It’s an umambitious popcorn movie, but also not a dumb or condescending one (outside of that one goddamned “Han SOLO, right?!?” moment). It cools down on the fanservice, sticking to references that make sense in Han’s orbit (Jabba gets alluded to, but R2 is nowhere to be found). It’s a minor pleasure, but its pretty damn pleasing.

B

Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)
Directed by Ron Howard
Starring Alden Ehrenreich, Emilia Clarke, Donald Glover, and Woody Harrelson
Rotten Tomatoes (71%)

Obligatory updated ranking:

  1. Empire
  2. Star Wars
  3. Jedi, The Last
  4. Jedi, The Return of the
  5. Force Awakens
  6. Solo
  7. Rogue One
  8. Attack of the Clones
  9. Revenge of the Sith
  10. Phantom Menace
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More like Infinity Snore, right folks?

Infinity War is a protracted third act which quickly and cheaply cashes in the often excellent groundwork of the previous installments. 

(SPOILERS)

Avengers: Infinity War lives and dies by its ending. Talking about Infinity War without discussing details about how it all shakes out is tantamount to just spouting niceties about the very nice beards everyone in the movie has, and not just because the ending is legitimately worth talking about (take that as a big giant SPOILER WARNING). Infinity War is constructed in such a way that the ending is the ONLY thing worth talking about, with the previous two hours simply barreling towards the end without really doing anything in themselves. Sure, you can say that about any story to an extent, but Infinity War is a protracted third act which quickly and cheaply cashes in the often excellent groundwork of the previous installments.

Take the trials of Thor in Ragnarok, which I didn’t love but did have an honest-to-goodness arc with meaningful consequences. Infinity War undoes all of it within the first ten minutes. Thor goes on to be one of the better-served characters in Infinity War, thanks to an inspired pairing with Rocket Raccoon, at least before being shipped off to hang out with a kinda-terrible Peter Dinklage in search of a tertiary MacGuffin.

Perhaps most infuriatingly, take the conclusion of Gamora’s storyline. Infinity War is decentralized enough that the character who can best claim to be the “main” character is probably Thanos. To the credit of the movie, Thanos is actually a really good villain (creeping at the edges of the Top Five for the MCU), with clear motivations and a bit of humanity to him. Sure, he’s an abusive genocidal maniac, but he’s coming at it from a place of concern and pain, without quite as much ego as might be expected from his giant gold armor, and with an endearing affinity for bubbles. But when Gamora’s big moments in Infinity War happen with her as a supporting character in Thanos’ story rather than the other way around, it cheapens her development in her own films. Not to mention that the deadly rules for obtaining the Soul Gem transparently play out as if they were originally labelled “INSERT DRAMA HERE” on the script outline.

But for all these faults, Infinity War often succeeds at spectacle. Aside from the mentioned Thor/Rocket dynamic, Doctor Strange is an infinitely more interesting character bounced against Tony Stark than he was in his own movie. Thanos’ henchmen are a memorable crew, particularly the slinky Ebony Maw. After wearing a bit thin in Guardians 2, Drax once again runs away with the whole damn movie every time he shows up here. And, for a brief fleeting moment, I was overjoyed at the thought of never seeing Bucky ever again.

So here’s where we get to the ending. It’s an incredibly bold move on paper, immensely changing the status quo, but immediately cheapens itself by going too far. The Avengers are in need of thinning, as Thanos and much of the audience would agree on, but trying to convince an audience that you’ll completely kill at least three highly profitable franchises is a stretch. It’s an ending that exists only to be undone, and while a final moment between Parker and Stark is touching in the moment, its emotional enormity is overshadowed by the logistical probability of it actually sticking. Infinity War and next year’s Avengers 4 were originally billed as Part 1 and Part 2, and the ending here makes it clear that Infinity War never had a single intention on standing alone. While, as a crossover spectacle, that’s fine, it also leaves Infinity War without anything to be about itself. It’s a 150-minute third act that’s missing any semblance of a conclusion.

C

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo
Starring Robert Downey Jr, Chris Hemsworth, Zoe Saldana, and Josh Brolin
Rotten Tomatoes (84%)

Infinity War MVP Rankings

  1. Thor
  2. Drax
  3. Ebony Maw
  4. Thanos
  5. Gamora
  6. Spiderman
  7. Rocket
  8. Hulk
  9. Scarlet Witch
  10. Proxima Midnight

Tower, The Florida Project, Good Time, and Annihilation are all must-sees

Also, quick thoughts on Gringo and I Tonya, which aren’t

Time to play catch up with some movies I didn’t have a chance to write in full about, thanks to, you know, life and stuff. But there were a few VERY good ones that I’d be remiss about not discussing at least a little bit

Annihilation (2018) / A-

Available only on Netflix is Europe, yet I wish I had a chance to see it again in cinemas, because Annihilation is an audio-visual wonder that my setup didn’t do justice to. It has one of the scariest original setpieces in recent memory and builds to an abstract marvel whose comparisons to 2001 are far from unearned. I kinda wish we got to spend more time with the supporting cast, who never get their full due, but I appreciate the fleetness of it; its contemplative, but rarely languid.

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Tower (2016) / A

“We just fell in love and decided to take anthropology together.” Tower takes a big risk, veering dangerously close to exploitative in animating over real news footage to create a dramatic recreation of the 1966 University of Texas shooting, with talking head interviews with animated subjects whose survival of the events is unknown. But Tower walks that line with such grace, keeping its focus on those affected by the tragedy and refusing to even show the face of the shooter. It’s a deeply affecting, strikingly beautiful, and haunting piece of docu-art. [Available on Netflix and you should watch it.]

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I, Tonya (2017) / C+

I, Tonya has two main desires: redeem Tonya Harding as a person worthy of sympathy and to whom the world gave an unfair shake, and to make an entertaining idiot-criminal movie in the vein of Elmore Leonard. It mostly succeeds at the first, but its failure at the second brings the whole thing down a bit. It may be a case of truth being stranger than fiction, but Harding’s operative-wannabe bodyguard was just too much to take a certain point. While Harding’s voiceover narration is welcome, the multiple talking-heads perspective is a bit pat, particularly in giving anything regarding a sympathetic voice to Harding’s abusive ex-husband. But its portrait of Harding and Margot Robbie’s performance really are quite good, and the first half focusing on Harding and her mother is really engaging.

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Good Time (2017) / A-

Robert Pattinson will win an Oscar one day, and his performance as bleach-blonde slimeball Connie Nikas in Good Time will be at the top of the list of “Reasons Why This Shouldn’t Be a Surprise”. The plot is essentially a string of half-brained schemes whose sole goal is correct the failure of the previous one, but the way Connie obscenely and plainly abuses his charm to keep his head above water is both stomach-churning and fascinating. A scathing and uncomfortable critique of capitalism and white privilege is just under the surface of it, but even as a pure surface experience, Good Time is full of striking imagery, piano-string tension, and a fantastic Oneohtrix Point Never score. If there’s a criticism, its that it knows how clever it is and doesn’t hide it, but when the experience is this visceral, who cares.

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Gringo (2018) / C-

There’s a really fun crime romp for a Saturday afternoon hidden somewhere in Gringo, but damn could it use some editing to get there. It feels like the ever-growing ensemble chaos is building to a huge climax, but instead, the energy fizzles and half the characters just kinda wander off to do their own unrelated thing, like Charlize Theron’s alpha boss getting tanked with Alan Ruck. The odd monologues about The Beatles or the monkey business illusion feel like a ripoff of 1990s Tarantino ripoffs. But its concept is pretty fun when it commits to it, and the cast is game. It really leaves a bad taste with a fat-shaming gag at the end though.

The Florida Project (2017) / A

If I had made my list for 2017 a bit later, The Florida Project would maybe have taken the top spot. Incredibly warm, incredibly funny, just incredible. It’s not not a message movie, but in viewing everything through the eyes of children, it finds a sincere, honest, and pure sense of joy anchored in inevitable pain. Moonee and Jancey forever.

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Ready Player One offers references, not fun

I wouldn’t expect to dislike a big summer movie for its failure to properly consider the democratization of shared online spaces, but welcome to 2018.

I wouldn’t expect to dislike a big summer movie for its failure to properly consider the democratization of shared online spaces, but welcome to 2018.

When Ready Player One, based on an Ernest Cline novel which apparently everyone but me heard of back in 2011, was announced, the conversation surrounding it seemed to revolve in how it would deal with the toxic culture surrounding gamer fandom after GamerGate. On the surface, Ready Player One has painted an inclusive picture of the community, with enough rah-rah community spirit to feel less like a celebration of geeky lonerism. But its a bit of a smoke screen, as it still relies on its audience getting the references with exactly as much subtlety as an episode of Family Guy. Yes, I get the reference of the Holy Hand Grenade, but its not used in any inventive fashion, and its weirdly distancing for those who, understandably, don’t get the often forty-year old references.*

If the Holy Hand Grenade seems like an easy one, how about a piece of tech which is a complete deus ex machina unless you know the name of the director of Back to the Future? For the most part, Ready Player One doesn’t do anything artful with the references, scattering them as background flavour without really engaging with the material. An extended second-act The Shining riff is the sole exception, which filters the CGI action through a film filter and has actual fun with the setting, as an orc-creature avatar unfamiliar with the source material innocuously calls for the elevator. The ending may give us the Mecha-Godzilla vs. The Iron Giant/Gundam tag-team fight we never asked for, but The Lego Movie and Lego Batman did the whole licensed-materials toybox with a lot more creativity earlier.

But if it barely dodges gatekeeperism on its pop-cultural reverence, it falls face-first into a pile of manure on its reverence for silicon valley tech bros. The movie neatly slots cartoonish corporate green into the villainous role for reasons of ease. Of course no one wants an internet with financial interests at the helm, leaving extra room for ad space and ticking away at your bank account through microtransactions. But the movie posits that the only way to fight bad corporate overlords is to impose benevolent nerdy overlords. Not only is this kinda terrifying, particularly within a month of the Facebook / Cambridge Analytica scandal, but its internally inconsistent. The virtual reality world of The Oasis is portrayed as a wonderful escape, but also one whose penalty for in-world death can be a driver of real-life suicide, and one that has allowed the very corporate baddies that do occupy villainous roles to flourish. Mark Rylance gives a tender performance as the creator of The Oasis, but while his imperfection are admitted, he’s never held to the fire as a responsible party. Society is quickly waking up to the fact that just because you claim to be pro-freedom and pro-democracy doesn’t mean you get a free pass when insidious elements take easy advantage of the structures you provide while you let them line your pockets, and in failing to grapple with this at all, Ready Player One ensures that, in forty years, no one will be making nostalgic references to it.

D+

Ready Player One (2018)
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Starring Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendehlsohn, and Mark Rylance
Rotten Tomatoes (75%)

* That being said, if Ready Player One gets one person to watch The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, it will have been worth it.

I really, REALLY enjoyed Phantom Thread

A beautiful, hilarious movie about egoism, dresses, and breakfast

Hey everybody, just an FYI, Phantom Thread is very very good and if you have a chance you should see it. Oh I know, that trailer makes it look like a pretty dry British drama about dressmaking. If you didn’t catch that the director was Paul Thomas Anderson, of Boogie Nights and There Will Be Blood fame, you’d be forgiven for writing it off as the beautiful, sparse, dull Oscar bait of the year.

But guys, for real, go see Phantom Thread.

First off, there’s a very strong argument to be made that Phantom Thread is the best romcom of the year. It’s mannered enough to be a bit of a surprise, but it’s a viciously funny piece of work. Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance is allowed nowhere near the glorious scenery chewing of There Will Be Blood or Gangs of New York, but rather *just* unhinged enough to give the whole piece some bite. Also, his name is Reynolds Woodcock, and people mention the “House of Woodcock” in haughty huffs often, and its never not funny.

Oh yeah, there’s also the “rom” part. This movie is billed as a chamber-drama battle between Woodcock and his mistress Alma, and it very much is that. But even as their duel of manners escalates from toast-scraping and putting too much butter on the asparagus to, well, more nefarious means, there is an undercurrent of care beneath it. This is a twisted love story as far as love stories go, but it is very much a romance. In a strong way, it’s a mirror of this year’s mother!, which explored living with a man who holds their work to a higher importance than their home life, but instead of making the woman in the relationship a reactionary character (necessary for mother!‘s wackadoo metaphor), Phantom Thread is just as interested in Alma’s agency, and even more interested in what each character gains from the other rather than them individually. Throw in Cyril, Woodcock’s sister and partner/fixer, for Alma to jockey for power against and casually utter lines like “I’ll go right through you and it’ll be you who ends up on the floor, understood?“. Cyril is the best.

Oh, and speaking of toast scraping, as much as this is a movie about dresses and romance, it’s also a movie about breakfast. It’s a love story that starts with an order at a countryside diner. It’s a movie that taught me what Welsh rarebit was. It’s a movie where the sound design poured into a spoon hitting a saucer should’ve been nominated for a goddamn Oscar (the wondrous score by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood thankfully was). The dresses are very good, don’t get me wrong, but the catering is excellent.

A

Phantom Thread (2017)
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps, and Lesley Manville
Rotten Tomatoes (91%)

Here’s hoping Father Figures had a nice on-set sandwich table

Ugh, what a piece of utter shit this movie is.

Who exactly was Father Figures made for? It has a number of over-edited road-trip montages despite the fact that the characters go nowhere interesting. Its soundtrack feels like someone walked drunkenly into a studio, shouted “indie”, and took whatever came out. It clearly wants to have deep emotional resonance, but also has no less than three “we’re inside each other” jokes in the first ten minutes. It feels like the kind of inoffensive fluff you can just turn on when you need some background noise while visiting your parents, but it also has a gag about a cat’s giant testicles that seems to exist because, fuck it, they had the animatronic testicles handy.

Ugh, what a piece of utter shit this movie is. In case the obviously photoshopped in-post poster doesn’t make it clear, here is a movie that a bunch of big names showed up to for a half-day to collect a paycheck. Christopher Walken, king of showing up for the paycheck, utters something about “the kitties” in a transparent attempt to pull a Joe Dirt and get something memorable out of the whole thing. In Ving Rhames’ case, he showed up because he was already in Miami I guess? Katt Williams turns up as a hitchhiker, and he’s maybe the only person in the whole thing not phoning it in, and christ I wish he had. He at least sets up an almost-clever riff on a certain pervasive trope that the movie goes absolutely nowhere with. There’s precisely one good gag in the whole thing, involving June Squibb’s delightfully manic reaction to a gun. The rest of the attempted humour just kind wilts into thin air or, like a recurring gag about how loose the central twins’ mom was in the 70s, keeps reaching for the same ineffective tricks over and over.

But then, just when it seems like it’s all ended in an out-of-left-field reveal that, hell, probably sounded poignant when the writer put it on a post-it note, it even goes ahead and has the gall to tack on an epilogue whose sole purpose seems to be undoing every lesson the characters were supposed to learn. Owen Wilson’s Donald (er, Kyle) was supposed to learn to be a bit more responsible? Nah, he manages to convince millions of people to buy a useless app. Ed Helms’ Pete was supposed to open himself up to new experiences? Nah, he’ll stick with the girl who pays him any attention, and convince his son to love him through unclear methods (I’m assuming beating the devil at a fiddling contest). Ugh. Hopefully Ving Rhames had a nice time in Miami.

F

Father Figures (2017)
Directed by Laurence Sher
Starring Ed Helms, Owen Wilson, J.K. Simmons, and Glenn Close
Rotten Tomatoes (25%)

 

Twisted justice, texting spirits, and a dive back into The World of Tomorrow

Quick thoughts on The Lost City of Z, Downsizing, Personal Shopper, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, and The World of Tomorrow 2

The Killing of a Sacred Deer – B

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In his English-language debut, The Lobster, Yorgos Lanthimos had his actors speak in a stilted, direct manner to both immediately make its otherworldliness clear and for pitch-black comedy. In his follow-up, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, the same technique is used, once again to increase our willingness to suspend disbelief, but this time in the service of psychological horror. Sure, the movie earns some laughs (“I’m not letting you leave until you’ve tasted my tart”), but the buildup is a bit off-putting, paid off when the central conceit of the latter half of the film is explained succinctly and directly. From there, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is entrancing, a nightmare crash in slow motion and a rumination on culpability and the arbitrary nature of justice. It’s lack of a strong emotional throughline or a singular visual style keep it from reaching the heights of its predecessor, as does its ultimately unsuccessful attempts to have one “The Scene”, but its strong command of tone and deliberate drip of tension still work wonders.

Downsizing – C-

downsizing

Downsizing is a complete a total mess, but it takes its dear sweet time making that clear. In Alexander Payne’s first attempt at tying his humanistic comedy to a sci-fi concept, his reach exceeds his grasp, with a half-dozen good-to-great ideas that he tries to pursue simultaneously by the films end, only leading to general annoyance and confusion. If it wants to be a movie about running from problems, the material is there, but it also wants to be a movie about the inescapability of inequality, even in utopia, and the incredible sacrifices that life demands in order to achieve some semblance of prosperity. But the themes dogpile on top of each other into an aimless mash after a fitfully funny opening act, which concludes with the single greatest use of a spatula in film history. If the second half were funnier, a lot would be forgiven, but it leans away from its fantastical elements surprisingly often, with certain shots and elements re-emphasizing the tininess of its characters but for the most part seeming to forget about it (there’s a party/rave scene that screams for little details, but never feels like it takes place in a doll’s house). The concept and first half are solid enough to make Downsizing an interesting curiousity, but it should have thought considerably smaller.

The Lost City of Z – B-

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There’s certainly a classic beauty to The Lost City of Z, an expedition film hewing closer to Master & Commander without sails than Raiders of the Lost Ark without whips. While itself a period piece, the film feels like it comes from another time, with nary a hint of modern humour or camera-winking. It only betrays itself with shoehorned-in attempts at wokeness, having its main characters act as occasional unsubtle mouthpieces for more modern takes on feminism and white superiority. The classic feel comes with all the drawbacks, and the film often feels cold and distant, interesting but unengaging. But when its in the Amazonian jungle, The Lost City of Z is plenty absorbing, with lush frames and stirring suspense. Main character Percy Fawcett spends the film itching to get back to the adventure, and that feeling is certainly contagious.

Personal Shopper – B-

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Personal Shopper is a simultaneously infuriating and fascinating film, but certainly not one that thinks of its audience as dumb. In many ways, its refreshingly direct. Very soon after we find out our main character Maureen is looking to communicate with her brother’s ghost, we see a ghost pretty clearly, removing unnecessary ambiguity. In one very important way, the ending is left confusing deliberate, resulting in an absolutely beautiful sequence of shots through a hotel but leaving the conclusion of one of its story threads unnecessarily open, distracting heavily from the remainder. Personal Shopper does pull off a neat feat throughout, acting as an effective supernatural thriller, technological suspense, and big-city millenial malaise film all at once, anchored by Kristen Stewart’s embodiment of twenty-something stressed and tired, and the film has a lot to say about how we process grief. But it’s late choices keep it from coming together in a satisfying way.

World of Tomorrow Episode 2: The Burden of Other People’s Thoughts – B+

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Don Hertzfeld’s World of Tomorrow is one of my favourite fifteen minutes ever created, an beautiful and idiosyncratic sci-fi dive into life, love, and doom. The second installment, The Burden of Other People’s Thoughts, is longer but seems to contain less. It still features the voices of Julia Pott and Winona Mae, the latter Hertzfeld’s five-year-old niece whose ramblings are edited into the character of Emily, and the former her clone from hundreds of years into the future. With Winona Mae a full year older, her musings are considerably more coherent, moving from single-word exclamations to the point where her voice is used to play multiple characters conversing with each other. Segments such as these and the appearance of “memory tourists” more than justify the existence of the sequel, which is hilarious and often poignant, but it can’t help but feel a little less revelatory than its predecessor. The animation is certainly more ambitious, but in increasing the number of 3D effects, it feels less painterly. Still, by diving deeper into clone dystopia, Hertzfeld has produced a vivid, funny, and original short. It’s just not his masterpiece.