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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My Top 10 Movies of 2017

From travels across the stars and home renovations of biblical proportion, to a different kind of hormonal craving for flesh.

Another year, another list that I’ll probably regret immediately, partially because I still haven’t seen so so many of the movies I want to see from last year, and partially because I’m sure that I’ll see some of these a second time and demand a recount. I did manage to catch a fair chunk of my hit list though, and some distinct patterns emerged, with a full five sci-fi movies making the list (including three that could be characterized as space westerns), three horror movies, and two maybe-autobiographical dramas about asshole artists. And while I’m sure there are tens (tens!) of gems I haven’t seen, there was plenty of magic I did manage to catch.

10. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (Rotten Tomatoes 49%, IMDb 6.5)

Apparently I made one very good choice in how I watched Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets: I didn’t bother seeing it in English, instead settling for a German-dubbed showing where I understood maybe 10% of the dialogue. Based on the mainstream reception to the movie, I think the remainder was pretty unnecessary. Valerian‘s visual inventiveness and childlike sense of fantasy joy require no translation, setting its space-agents off from one wacky scenario to another and casting Ethan Hawke as someone named Jolly the Pimp. It was a huge flop, of course, but if someone is still willing to give Luc Besson a hundred million dollars to mess around in space again, I’m there.

Recommended pairing: The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension.

9. Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 (Rotten Tomatoes 93%, IMDb 7.7)

We’ve reached superhero saturation. When 2008 gave us two high-quality comic book movies in Iron Man and The Dark Knight, it felt like lightening striking twice. Now, well, that seems to be the definition of summer movie season. And it’d be so much easier to hate if most of the movies, particularly the Marvel ones, weren’t so damn good. Sure, they’re all products, but Spiderman Homecoming and Wonder Woman were both fantastically polished entertainment, and while they missed the mark a little for me, Logan and Thor Ragnarok managed to play with the formula in some very clever ways. The only one this year to really provide on both fronts was also one of the first. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is no doubt indebted to its predecessor, but if the first was a much-needed change-up to the Marvel formula, the second shows how that same formula can be used to give low-budget charm a big-budget sheen. Director James Gunn relishes in some gross-out tendencies and over-the-top violence that would fit in more at a midnight showing. We’re still a far cry here from Batman Returns-levels of auteurism, but dammit, its a hell of a start.

Recommended pairing: Sure, Batman Returns.

8. Gerald’s Game (Rotten Tomatoes 91%, IMDb 6.7)

Man, do I wish the last five minutes of Gerald’s Game didn’t exist. The epilogue to this tense, single-location Stephen King thriller nearly turned me against the movie. But the ninety minutes beforehand can’t be overlooked, providing the single nastiest scene in any movie I saw this year and delicate moments of quiet, visual terror that stuck with me after I turned out the lights. Netflix has been trying its hand at bringing in big names and big budgets, but the best film it produced by far last year was this well-crafted, small-scale nailbiter.

Recommended pairing: The Ring.

7. Raw (Rotten Tomatoes 90%, IMDb 7.0)

Like Valerian above, I wasn’t able to watch Raw in English, settling for French audio and German subtitles, hence the lack of a writeup. But Raw told its graphic coming of age story with such visual flair that it enraptured me all the same. At its base, Raw is an effectively nervy cannibalism story, but it sells it through specific links to sexual awakening, the college experience, and familial role models. And it uses its colour palette and soundscape wonderfully, the former perhaps no more starkly than a moment where a blue-and-yellow painted face has a sudden vicious splash of red added.

Recommended pairing: It Follows.

6. Blade Runner 2049 (Rotten Tomatoes 87%, IMDb 8.2)

Can I just say “It was really pretty” and be done with it? It’s obvious from the trailer that Blade Runner 2049 is visually stunning, adding to the original’s unmistakable sci-fi noir aesthetic with sweeping vistas and a dusty, forgotten Las Vegas, complete with a half-functioning Elvis hologram. But many mistook the original for a solely technical achievement when it came out, only later (after many edited releases) being recognized as a significant work of storytelling as well. At almost three-hours long, Blade Runner 2049 packs in enough sci-fi gristle to chew on that a second viewing is probably necessary for me to form a solid opinion on whether it reaches the same heights. But damn if I’m not looking forward to sinking myself back into it to find out.

Recommended pairing: Her.

5. The Shape of Water (Rotten Tomatoes 92%, IMDb 7.7)

If Pan’s Labyrinth was Guillermo del Toro’s perfect dark fairy tale, The Shape of Water is his adult fairy tale, fully awake with life’s complications but surprisingly and unabashedly fantastical. It delivers visually from frame one and carries itself with a grace that doesn’t immediately scream “fish-man romance”. It’s pulpier elements are carried out with flair (the fact that its an often-violent cold-war noir half the time is a little underadvertised), but it manages to provide real heart to its silent central duo, giving us the Creature-from-the-Black-Lagoon dance sequence we never knew we needed along the way.

Recommended pairing: A full playthrough of Bioshock.

4. Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi (Rotten Tomatoes 90%, IMDb 7.5)

The Last Jedi is the only movie on this list I had the opportunity to see twice, and it turned out to be a very important second viewing. At first, I took The Last Jedi to be narratively innovative but lacking in big moments or a sense of adventure. But the second time, it struck me that I was looking for big moments in all the wrong places, because we get tons of them, from the way the film uses silence to a beautiful, haunting effect, to the incredibly striking paths of red sand under layer of salt leading to a line of AT-ATs that have never looked more imposing, or the sheer audacity and thoughtfulness of its arc for Luke Skywalker. The chemistry of the leads that carried The Force Awakens is what I expected to keep carrying this trilogy, and The Last Jedi shows that this generation has so much more to offer.

Recommended pairing: The Road Warrior.

3. Phantom Thread (Rotten Tomatoes 91%, IMDb 7.9)

Phantom Thread, being a film about silk and lace, has a quiet and delicate look from the outside. But it quickly proves to be much more, succeeding as a chamber drama about social power struggles but also as damn funny entertainment that you want to crawl into and live inside for a while. Also, its as much about breakfast as it is about fashion, which is a surefire way into my heart.

Recommended pairing: mother!

2. Get Out (Rotten Tomatoes 99%, IMDb 7.7)

Get Out is the perfect horror movie for an alternate-universe 2017 where the new cycle isn’t swamped by barely-disguised white supremacy, where it was pretty easy to live in the suburbs and assume that we were basically in a post-racial society. Get Out‘s commentary is still slick and highly relevant, but perhaps less subversive than it would have been in that other timeline. Regardless, the commentary is what everyone who saw Get Out was well primed for. What I was less prepared for was how masterfully Get Out is crafted, legitimately scary and consistently tense. Jordan Peele got his training in parody, but Get Out is incisive and original.

Recommended pairing: The Invitation.

1. mother! (Rotten Tomatoes 69%, IMDb 6.7)

mother!‘s divisiveness must have been expected in the editing room. If you don’t find its wavelength immediately, it’s either a confused mess or an over-obvious sledgehammer. For whatever reason, mother! grabbed me early and didn’t let go, providing by far the most visceral response I had to a film this year. Part of the fun was teasing out each and every analogy it lays out (very, very bluntly), but this distracted me just enough that when its final act came crashing down, I was unexpectedly carried away by the sheer mayhem of it all. It’s an incredibly forceful tour de force from Aronofsky, and love-it-or-hate-it, its the least compromising wide release in many years.

Recommended pairing: Phantom Thread.

Honourable mentions to the synchronized mayhem of Baby Driver, the slow-motion disaster of The Beguiled, the cocaine-fueled fun of American Made, the sheer oddity of The Killing of a Sacred Deer, the underrated crowd-pleaser Battle of the Sexes, the Southern gothic Mudbound, and whatever was going on in Colossal.

I still really need to catch up on lots, but at the top of my list are Good TimeThe Big SickThe Villainess, Lady Bird, Call Me By Your Name, The Florida Projectand A Ghost Story. If there are any you want to champion, yell at me in the comments!

Oh, and all reviews, 2017 or otherwise, can be found here.

The Last Jedi is a more thoughtful and less captivating middle chapter

Things seem to be following a familiar path, until they’re suddenly not.

Middle chapters are hard. They have to move the story along without closing too many doors while not leaving too many open for the final chapter, appearing consequential but not too consequential. But they’re also hard to judge in a vacuum; The Empire Strikes Back is pretty universally considered the best Star Wars movie, but how much of that relies on knowing that Return of the Jedi, for all its Ewoks, follows through on all of its narrative arcs? If Episode IX builds upon what The Last Jedi lays out in a satisfying way, The Last Jedi may well be thought of the same way twenty years from now. If not, does The Last Jedi hold up on its own merits?

If “its own merits” means “Is The Last Jedi entertaining?”, the answer is a bit mixed. That hyped, pumped-up feeling I got from The Force Awakens was considerably dampened for The Last Jedi, potentially due to Rogue One disappointment, potentially due to simple sequel fatigue. But its also clear that The Last Jedi is just less interested in thrills. Indeed, The Last Jedi is the closest a Star Wars movie has come to art cinema, with no expert action sequences to speak of but a constant barrage of absolutely stunning images. From a particularly blinding light-speed jump to gorgeous speeder tracks on a salt-ridden mining planet, a dolly shot across a futuristic casino that apes a classic, or (most blatantly) an auditory infinity mirror hallucination, director Rian Johnson provides an unexpectedly sumptuous artistic sci-fi vision, all while still feeling very much a part of the Star Wars universe, but the expected thrills (lightsaber battles and aerial dogfights) fall a little short.

But The Last Jedi isn’t principally interested in getting those expected thrills. If The Force Awakens was a celebration of nostalgia, The Last Jedi is a deconstruction of it (its truest kin is, weirdly, maybe Trainspotting 2). The Rebels won at the end of Return of the Jedi, but forty years later, they seem to be back to the start during The Force AwakensThe Force Awakens ignored this sticking point a bit, but The Last Jedi digs into the demoralizing trudging of time, how we (and the world) outlive our glory moments and have to just keep moving past them, slowly. Across numerous characters, illusions of heroism and seemingly predestined paths are shattered. The very definitions of light and dark get reshuffled, but a form of balance finds itself. Things seem to be following a familiar path, until they’re suddenly not.

While it certainly gets more heady in themes than previous entries, The Last Jedi is also more obviously humorous than expected. The antics of BB-8 and the penguin-rat Porg creatures edge right up to the line of too cutesy, but stay *mostly* on the right side of it. While these scenes seem to be taking on a greater proportion of the popcorn-entertainment value of this installment than normal, they also keep the film from verging too far into darker-and-edgier territory. As entertainment, The Last Jedi certainly suffices, but as an entry into the Star Wars canon, it has potential to age into an absolute classic.

B

UPDATE:

OK, I saw it a second time, and loved it so so much more. The headiness of it all maybe distracted me the first time, but upon rewatch, having compartmentalized that the movie was going to be about failure and the deflation of legends, it turns out that it also works really really well as epic entertainment. Even if I still think things like the Throne Room Fight are a bit overrated, and that there’s maybe one too many Porg moments, I’m fully on board with calling The Last Jedi the first capital-g Great Star Wars movie since the originals.

A-

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)
Directed by Rian Johnson
Starring Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, and Mark Hamill
Rotten Tomatoes (92%)

Rogue One, unlike any other Star Wars, is just a movie

Rogue One tries to keep the bones of a normal Saga film by having the main characters move all over the galaxy, but continually loses focus in the process.

The release of a new Star Wars film is never just another movie. Through their relative rarity, a Star Wars movie is a major event, taking over the cultural conversation and, of course, the toys and adverts for the season. It worked last year, when the prospect of a new Star Wars lit the world on fire, aided by the fact that is decidedly didn’t suck. Disney’s decision to slot canon but non-saga films in between Episodes at first seemed promising, a chance to explore the universe in interesting ways. Instead of giving freedom to filmmakers to tell original stories, however, Disney has instead greenlit a young Han Solo movie and Rogue One, the story of the theft of the Death Star plans. While the former really seems like a shameless cash-in with no reason to exist other than an easy couple hundred million, Rogue One had a bit more potential, telling the story of the rebels who didn’t quite have a Chosen One status to protect them. While Rogue One mostly works as entertainment and does keep a lot of the necessary Star Wars feel, its indebtedness to its predecessors and lack of focus keep it from ever really popping. For the first time in the franchise, Rogue One really feels like just another movie, something that passes two hours effectively enough but doesn’t leave you wanting to explore more or spend more time in its world. Instead, it left me wishing for what it could have been.

There are at least three great ideas within Rogue One that could have been expanded to make their own movie, but instead get stuffed into a planet-jumping escapade. There’s a movie about Rebel spies gathering intelligence, and defections from the Empire. There’s a movie about extremist factions in the Rebellion, and how they interact with the more moderate yet still militant Alliance (and what extremism even means in these circumstances). And, most prominently in the last act, there’s a Star Wars version of Saving Private Ryan, of Rebel soldiers on a doomed mission. The hints towards this last idea make up the best act of the movie, and there does seem to be some juice in making more movies about The Star War itself. Instead, Rogue One tries to keep the bones of a normal Saga film by having the main characters move all over the galaxy, but continually loses focus in the process.

Having the main characters mobile works well for the Saga films, but the central crew of Rogue One isn’t developed or interesting enough to pull the same trick. For a movie with such a welcomely diverse cast (although still overwhelmingly male), the actual characters in a Rogue One are pretty bland and inseparable. Most pass without much impact, notably Diego Luna’s Rebel captain, while others try to make up for it with hammy performances, notably Forest Whitaker’s extremist leader Saw Guerrara. While Felicity Jones’ Jyn Erso isn’t quite a Chosen One in the vein of Luke, Anakin, and Rey, her familial tie to the Death Star plans makes her feel more like a plot device than a character. Although he does get some of the best lines of the film, droid K-2SO feels like a factory-approved fan favourite rather than an inspired creation, answering the question of what a more homicidal C-3P0 would look like. Riz Ahmed’s presence makes up for his character’s complete lack of definition, but there’s no comparison of this batch to Rey, Finn, and Poe in Episode VII. Poe similarly had little definition, but the little touches the script and Oscar Isaac’s performance gave him made him feel complete with relatively little screentime. Outside of K-2S0 and Donnie Yen’s force-sensitive preacher, I can’t say that any of the characters in Rogue One are half as memorable with twice the screen time.

The biggest issue I have with Rogue One, though, is how enslaved it is to A New Hope. As the Death Star is an obvious connection, certain characters make sense to bring back, such as Grand Moff Tarkin, Mon Mothma, and even Darth Vader. But Rogue One doesn’t stop there, and bringing back the likes of the two Mos Eisley bar thugs serves only to distract from the story at hand. In order to bring back Tarkin, a CGI Peter Cushing wanders around. This might have been convincing as a hologram but is directly at the nadir of uncanny valley among flesh-and-blood actors, robbing him of his authoritative presence. Rogue One‘s reverence does give it some strength, reinforcing to a more convincing degree than the original saga the connections between the Death Star and the nuclear nightmare. It also nails the run-down aesthetic in the same way that The Force Awakens did (an inner-city ambush is a highlight for this). But its a necessarily lesser picture because of its indebtedness.

The first shot of Rogue One mirrors the first shot of A New Hope almost exactly, but with a fantastic fake-out that announces itself as reverent, but different. Unfortunately, it overloads on the former and underperforms on the latter. Whether the infamous reshoots had anything to do with it or not, Rogue One is more concerned with comforting its audience than being its own thing. That’s not to say its without merit, though. Star Wars is a fantastic universe to be comforted in, and the final forty minutes of the film deliver on the promise of a story of forgotten heroes, of sacrifice and slim hope. The audience’s knowledge that said hope is fulfilled by a farmboy from Tatooine is the only thing that keeps it from being completely depressing, and I could have done without the constant winks toward that. The finale sequence still stands as both exciting entertainment and a promising launchpad for future side stories in this universe.

C+

rogue1jpg

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)
Directed by Gareth Edwards
Starring Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Riz Ahmed, and Ben Mendelsohn
Rotten Tomatoes (85%)

Obligatory Ranking: V>IV>>VI~VII>>RO>>II>III>I