Solo: A Star Wars Story

Cast: Alden Ehrenreich, Woody Harrelson, Paul Bettany, Emilia Clarke, Donald Glover, Thandie Newton

Director: Ron Howard

Writers: Jonathan Kasdan, Lawrence Kasdan


Another year, another Star Wars movie, and this time it’s all about everybody’s favourite stuck-up, half-witted, scruffy-looking nerf herder. As far as Star Wars prequels go, Solo is probably a movie that didn’t need to be made. Unlike Rogue One, this film does feel like there’s a little more puppeteering going on as it recounts the early years of Han Solo’s (Alden Ehrenreich) life with some of the key moments that we know happened from the original films. We see Han meet Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), we see him win the Millennium Falcon from Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) in a card game, and we see him complete the Kessel Run (a sequence that goes out of its way to fix a screenplay error in the 1977 film where ‘parsec’ was mistakenly used as a unit of time). Fans of the original movies know that these moments have got to happen and it does somewhat steal away from the sense of freedom that Rogue One had with a story and characters that were mostly divorced from the events of the official saga, but I don’t think that’s a fatal flaw. Solo is basically high-budget Star Wars fan-fiction and it’s pretty fun for what it is.

We meet Han as a young street rat living in the slums of an industrial planet with his sweetheart Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) where circumstances beyond their control force them apart. Han, left on his own, adopts the name Solo and enlists in the Imperial Navy where he’s sent to fight in the front lines of battles reminiscent of the trench warfare in such World War One movies as All Quiet on the Western Front and Paths of Glory (a clever way of signifying this movie’s position in the Star Wars timeline as years before that of original trilogy which was itself heavily influenced by Second World War cinema). Han deserts his post and joins a team of smugglers led by Beckett (Woody Harrelson) and Val (Thandie Newton). They are contracted to perform a train heist like something out of a John Ford movie (another key influence for Lucas) which goes south. They are brought before the displeased crime lord who hired them Dryden Voss (Paul Bettany) and his right hand woman, none other than Qi’ra. She persuades Dryden to give Han and his team one last chance and sends them off on a suicidal mission.

When Han Solo embarks on the quest that will one day lead him to the Mos Eisley cantina on Tatooine, you can almost visualise in your mind the checklist that the movie is ticking off with each step. With every story beat you can see the strings being pulled and the gears being turned as they manoeuvre their way towards the numerous scenarios from Han’s past that fans have heard of but never got to see depicted on screen. It’s difficult enough to create scenes that exceed the imaginations of those who have visualised their own versions for years, what’s more difficult is getting us to those scenes in a way that somehow feels organic and surprising, as if we’re really watching a story we haven’t ever seen unfolding before our eyes. Indeed, the moments where the film works best are usually when it’s not constrained by the machinations of what we know has to happen and is able to do its own thing. The new character I remember the most vividly is L3-37, a zealous droid voiced by Fleabag’s Phoebe Waller-Bridges who is defiantly devoted towards the cause of droid emancipation. This is a character who didn’t need to exist in a Han Solo origin story and that is precisely why she stands out so much.

When it comes to playing the past incarnation of iconic Star Wars characters, Alden Ehrenreich is not Ewan McGregor but he’s not Hayden Christensen either. To me, it isn’t nearly as important for the actor playing Han to look or sound like Harrison Ford as it is for him to be able to evoke the character and there were definitely moments in Ehrenreich’s performance when I saw glimpses. He’s got the cockiness, the swagger, and the charmingly roguish grin that Ford originally brought to Solo. What he doesn’t have is that sharp edge to his character, the aura of dishonour and danger that you get from a scoundrel who has had it rough, is only out for himself, and who will do whatever it takes to stay ahead of the curve. Ehrenreich is just not severe enough or brazen enough to feel like he could one day become that antihero who calculatingly shot a bounty hunter point blank when his back was against the wall and who only agreed to rescue a captive princess when he realised there was money to be made. It’s a charming and likeable enough performance and it’s enough to carry you through the film, but Ehrenreich is not the Han Solo of your dreams. (On a side note: One thing that would have made me very happy indeed is if they had somehow worked in the line, “Would that it were so simple”.)

The rest of the characters are a mixed bag. Qi’ra is meant to come across as this perfect foil to Han, a rogue cut from the same cloth who changes allegiances with the wind and who always has something hidden up her sleeve. Clarke however, like Ehrenreich, doesn’t bring enough darkness or boldness to her performance to really sell it (she’s also the third white, British brunette in a row to be cast as the female lead in a Star Wars film, which makes it all the harder for her to distinguish herself). I’m also not a fan of the way that the movie tries to invest us in this doomed romance when I’m already satisfied that Leia is the great love of Han’s life. Harrelson, Newton, and long-time Howard collaborator Bettany are all seasoned pros who couldn’t deliver dull performances if they tried but none of them really bring anything unique or remarkable to their roles to make them stand out. The only on-screen performance to accomplish that is Glover’s as Lando, the coolest, suavest, most debonair man in the galaxy. The casting choice is so perfect here that I think they probably should have given Lando his own movie rather than Solo. I, for one, am much more interested in learning how a space hustler became an entrepreneur with his own mining colony than I am in learning how a kid from the slums became a smuggler. He steals every scene he’s in and is only prevented from running away with the whole movie by limited screen time.

It’s not perfect and, for me, it’s probably the weakest of the ‘good’ Star Wars films but Solo is enjoyable enough and it’s a miracle that it got there at all considering how messy it got behind the scenes. The fan service is more blatant than it was in The Force Awakens and the movie doesn’t even dare to be as irreverent (or sacrilegious if you prefer) or as contemplative as The Last Jedi was, but that’s all fine if you know that’s what you’re signing up for. The film wears its heart on its sleeve and leads you by the hand all the way through, but it does it with enough style and spirit that you’ll enjoy getting there anyway. I’ll have to watch it again before I can appreciate its visual craft because the cinema where I saw it left the 3D filter on during its 2D screening, making everything look unnaturally dark, but it is a film that I will watch again sometime quite happily.

★★★

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Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Cast: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Abbie Cornish, John Hawkes, Peter Dinklage

Director: Martin McDonagh

Writer: Martin McDonagh


With all the acclaim and awards love his film has received so far, Three Billboards seems all but set to triumph at the Academy Awards this year. However some have come down so heavily against this film that it’s potential Oscar victory has drawn comparisons to Crash, a film often cited as the worst Best Picture winner of recent years. In either case Three Billboards is certainly one of those films that was destined to receive awards attention. It features a strong cast delivering explosive and quirky performances, the writer/director McDonagh is well-liked and respected, and its story speaks vividly about the world we live in. When a subject this topical is portrayed with such confidence as this movie displays, I think there often comes with that a certain presumption of truth that leads some viewers to accept what’s presented without scrutiny. Clearly there is something about the film that rings true to many viewers and feels timely but, the more I think about what it depicts, the more off it all feels to me.

The film takes place in the fictional Ebbing, a rural, southern town which some months prior saw the brutal murder of a teenage girl. Her grief-stricken mother Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), angry over the lack of progress in the police investigation, rents three billboards near her home which read, “RAPED WHILE DYING”, “AND STILL NO ARRESTS?”, “HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?” The billboards cause uproar in the town, especially with Sheriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), the well-liked police chief recently diagnosed with cancer, and James Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a drunken, racist officer extremely prone to violence. While Willoughby resents the attack on his character, he nevertheless sympathises with Mildred’s grief and takes the whole thing in stride. Dixon, on the other hand, lashes out against Mildred and those who helped her, leading her to lash back in return. The conflict soon spirals out of control as Mildred and the residents of Ebbing become more and more consumed with anger.

While the film has proven divisive, most people seem to agree its strongest aspect is the portrayal of Mildred as a rage-filled, grief-stricken woman whose anger towards the town for its indifference towards her tragedy is released in a divine fury. In the wake of the ‘Time’s Up’ movement where it looks like the tide is finally turning on the perpetrators of sexual misconduct, there is certainly something glorious in Mildred’s wrath as she instigates an all-out war on the deep-seated misogyny of Ebbing. Although the town understands all too well the loss Mildred has suffered, there still remains an unspoken rule that she must remain silent and not allow her suffering to rock the boat. There is a clear status quo that ‘good men’ such as Willoughby, a mostly respectable man with a beautiful young wife (played by Abbie Cornish) and two cute kids but whose tendency to overlook the wrongdoings of his other officers enables the culture of rampant police brutality, have benefitted from and it is a status quo that the town wants to maintain (even if that means a teenage girl gets raped and murdered every now and then). Enough is enough, says Mildred, who has decided that she will not allow her daughter’s murder to become another sad episode in the town’s history for the residents to forget about; she is going to make sure that the extent of her grief is known whether the townspeople like it or not.

It is a powerful arc and McDormand sells it wonderfully. Her performance is raw and intense as a character who no longer has the patience to contain her pain and anger. Her bitterness has given her a hostile demeanour and a sardonic sense of humour, as we see when she baits the dim-witted Dixon and parries every insult thrown her way with something even more vicious and biting. I don’t think I was as blown away by McDormand as others were, in part because I’ve seen her play a deeper, more fully-realised version of this embittered, wretched, forlorn character in Olive Kitteridge, but it is a great performance none the less. I’m just not sure the story did justice to her character or what she’s supposed to represent. In previous projects like In Bruges McDonagh has had no qualms about writing politically incorrect characters behaving in politically incorrect ways, and in that film at least it works. But with Mildred a lot of these provocations seem like provocations for their own sake. She, just like many of the other characters, drops words like “nigger”, “faggot”, “retard”, and “midget” very matter-of-factly and all it serves to do is get a rise out of the audience. There is no introspection, no attempts to engage with the effect those words have when she uses them.

Things are even more problematic where the Dixon character is concerned. This is someone who we are quite clearly supposed to think of as deplorable; he is a pathetic, idiotic drunkard, an unabashed racist who is known to have tortured a person of colour in police custody, and an impulsively aggressive man whom we see commit acts of brutality. The film makes an attempt to adds layers to this character, establishing that some of his worst qualities come from having grown up with a bigoted and unaffectionate mother and maintaining that Willoughby sees Dixon as a good man deep inside (what leads him to think this, we never find out). The disinterest the film shows in engaging with the prejudices that Mildred may or may not hold extends to Dixon who becomes more central to the story around the half-way point and, even when he experiences a reckoning, it doesn’t happen in a way that challenges his bigotry. While I don’t agree that he is supposed to have redeemed himself by the end, there does seem to be a sense that his past transgressions such as the racially-motivated torture (we never actually meet the victim in question) do not ultimately matter. In fact the few characters we meet who fall victim to these prejudices (Amanda Warren and Darrell Brit-Gibson play the only two black residents of Ebbing we get to meet and Peter Dinklage plays the dwarf who has a soft spot for Mildred) barely amount to characters in their own right. I wouldn’t go so far to say that a hate-filled man like Dixon is incapable of redemption, but he doesn’t get to earn that redemption if the movie cannot muster the same level of empathy for his victims.

I got the sense that McDonagh was ultimately trying to tell a story about justice and retribution in a more spiritual than political sense, but his mistake was picking a setting that was completely alien to what he knows and tackling so many different hot-button issues that he didn’t have enough time to portray any of them adequately. The movie is about sexual violence, then it’s about police brutality, then it’s about miscarriages of justice, domestic abuse, racism, public defamation, and (in one scene) the Catholic Church’s cover-up of the child molestation scandal. I’m willing to believe the McDonagh did not intend to marginalise the suffering of people of colour in order to humanise a white man, but with a plot this overstuffed the unavoidable result is that something is going to be side-lined or trivialised, and in this case it ended up being matters of race. The missteps in this film’s handling of its subject matter can probably be attributed to McDonagh’s Irish origins. It’s quite clear that he chose this setting without fully understanding or appreciating its history of racial tension and it has seriously backfired on him. Maybe if the story had been set elsewhere (Three Billboards Outside of Galway?) it might have worked, but what we got instead was a misguided mess.

★★

War for the Planet of the Apes

Cast: Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Amiah Miller, Steve Zahn

Director: Matt Reeves

Writer: Mark Bomback, Matt Reeves


No movie about sentient apes has any business being this good. Even the original 1968 Charlton Heston movie isn’t so much a serious, profound picture with deep philosophical and sociological themes as it is a campy and often humorous sci-fi adventure-thriller (albeit an intelligent, well-made one). This prequel trilogy took the ideas raised by the original, modernised them, and has gone on to depict them with a greater degree of intimacy and sophistication than I’d ever have thought possible of a story about talking primates. The film’s allegory of racism, politics, and culture is similarly depicted with a reflective sense of irony, but is far less satirical about it. The conflict between the humans and the apes is more complex, more substantial, and more morally ambiguous and War of the Planet of the Apes goes even further than Rise or Dawn ever did, capping off one of the best Hollywood trilogies of the 21st century.

Two years after The Dawn of the Planet of the Apes when the strained tension between the humans and the apes finally erupted into an all-out war, Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his troops are engaged in a conflict with Alpha-Omega, a rogue faction of the U.S. Army led by The Colonel (Woody Harrelson). After releasing some human prisoners and expressing to them his desire for peace, Caesar becomes a subject of personal interest to The Colonel, who subsequently leads an attack on the ape base, killing half of Caesar’s family. From here Caesar sets out on a quest for vengeance, accompanied only by his closest friends and advisors Maurice (Karin Konoval), an orangutan, Rocket (Ty Olsson), a chimp, and Luca (Michael Adamthwaite), a gorilla. Along the way they discover a human girl, rendered mute and simple by some unknown cause, whom Maurice takes into his care and calls Nova (Amiah Miller). They also meet Bad Ape (Steve Zahn), a reclusive chimpanzee who knows the location of the Alpha-Omega base. There Caesar finds The Colonel and faces him in a battle that will ultimately define the fates of both of their species.

The achievement of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes was drawing the humans and the apes into war with each other in such a way that we could understand the views and choices of both sides to the point that we cannot even really say for sure who started it. Now its two years later and there’s no clear victor or even an end in sight. Caesar’s main priority is survival, but even after all that’s happened what he really wants is peace and for the apes to be left alone to live their lives. The humans however will not abide co-existence with another species of equal, if not superior, intelligence. Thus Caesar is forced to continue fighting this war and suffer the tragedies that come with it. As soon as his loved ones die by the hands of The Colonel, so does any chance of peace. From there it becomes all about vengeance. One of this film’s achievements is how strongly it depicts Caesar’s turmoil; the despondent grief he feels upon losing his family, the cold single-mindedness he brings to his hunt for The Colonel, the way he loses his very soul along with everything else that gave his life any kind of meaning. The movie makes the narrative decision to stay with Caesar throughout his quest (rather than cutting away on occasion to show us what Woody Harrelson is up to) and it is by following him at every step and seeing all that occurs through his eyes that we are able to identify so strongly with him.

Another reason of course is Andy Serkis who has, perhaps more than other actor in the past couple of decades, almost single-handedly redefined what acting is and can be. The remarkable thing about the CGI complexion they give him is that you can still see the actor beneath it all. The expressions and gestures are all his and are all so genuine that Caesar feels as real and as human as anything else. That he has portrayed this character across an entire lifetime from infancy to adulthood to old age over the course of three movies is in itself an astonishing feat. Here he deftly conveys the kind of forlorn, world-weary melancholy that you only get from those old veteran characters who have been through hell and have carried it with them ever since, the kind that we saw from Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven and Hugh Jackman in Logan, to name a couple. This is a character who deserves to be memorialised in the hall of fame of sci-fi heroes and, if the Oscars were to finally look past the CGI barrier and recognise the actor behind it all, it would be well-deserved and about time.

It still astonishes me that I can watch a war take place between human beings and talking apes and take it as seriously as I could if I were watching Platoon. Indeed, there are echoes of Vietnam in this movie (which, unlike Kong: Skull Island, does not beat you over the head with it) and it is clear that Matt Reeves was especially inspired by Apocalypse Now (there’s even one point in the film where you can see the term ‘Ape-pocalypse Now’ inscribed in graffiti). This is especially apparent in Woody Harrelson’s Colonel, a bald, philosophical villain cut from the same cloth as Kurtz and holding a similar heart of darkness (although his goal of building a wall does invite comparison to another figure). There is a parallel between him and Caesar as The Colonel seems to be fighting his own war of vengeance, that being for his species. We learn that there is a virus going round infecting the humans and rendering them mute and primitive, an epidemic that The Colonel intends to stop by executing and burning any and all who are affected. What we see here is a man who recognises that the time for human beings is ending and so has done away with his humanity.

One of the signs of great science fiction is that it provides a reflection of the world as we know it and of ourselves. In War of the Planet of the Apes we see people, humans and primates alike, who are affected by tragedy, pain, and loss and who turn to violence and revenge as an answer, one that inevitably begets more tragedy. We see the fear and aggression that comes with being confronted with that which we cannot understand and with losing our power and control. It isn’t all doom and gloom though. There’s also humour to be found in this film, particularly from Bad Ape who doesn’t understand much of what’s going on. There’s also empathy to be found, this time from the silent Nova and the bond she forms with her simian rescuers. Through her we see the bridge that could be built between the two species, one of compassion and understanding, if only things hadn’t turned out the way they had. This is a great film and it is a great end to a great trilogy.

★★★★★

Triple 9

Cast: Casey Affleck, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Anthony Mackie, Aaron Paul, Norman Reedus, Woody Harrelson, Kate Winslet

Director: John Hillcoat

Writer: Matt Cook


Whenever I watch a film, the single most fundamental thing I require before I can regard it as a success is for the film to give me something that I can take away. Personally I don’t buy into the theory that film is a means of escaping reality. Instead I believe that film is a means of understanding reality. Even if the film in question is simply mindless entertainment, the very fact that I’m watching and enjoying it means that I need some mindless entertainment in my life. Therefore I need the film to actually give me something, whether it be entertainment, insight or emotion, that I can take with me into the real world. If I don’t feel like I’m actually getting anything from the film, then what’s the point of watching it? This is where Triple 9 let me down. Because I never felt attached to any of these characters, I found myself wholly indifferent to their fates. When it was all said and done then, I found the entire experience to be ultimately pointless.

After completing a major bank heist, a group of criminals are blackmailed by an incarcerated Russian mobster’s wife, Irina Vlaslov (Kate Winslet), to carry out another job. This crew includes career criminal Michael Atwood (Chiwetel Ejiofor), computer whiz Russell Welch (Norman Reedus) and his brother Gabe (Aaron Paul), and also two corrupt cops called Marcus Belmont (Anthony Mackie) and Franco Rodriguez (Clifton Collins, Jr.). The crew decides to organise a plan that involves a Triple 9, which means sending out a distress call for a downed officer as a means of distracting the major police units. Marcus suggests using his new partner Chris Allen (Casey Affleck) as the victim, a cop who has recently started to notice something off about his partner and has started to ask too many questions. Things get complicated even further when Chris’ uncle Jeffrey (Woody Harrelson), a veteran detective, starts investigating the original heist.

While writing the above summary I was painstakingly reminded of how little I cared about the plot. Had I been unable to consult IMDb for information I would not have remembered half of the film’s plot points or characters. The only part of the story I can even remember with any real clarity was its wildly unsatisfying ending. Most of what came before in the build-up to that climax simply didn’t register with me. The film was so dense and hasty in its storytelling that I never found the time or the space to actually get drawn into what was happening. Characters were never introduced or established, they just appeared and would then disappear just as quickly. Right from the start the film drops us straight into the action without allowing us time to actually get a grip on what’s happening and allowing ourselves to get invested. It was a bit like taking a random book, abridging the first three or four chapters into half a dozen pages and then expecting the reader to make sense of whatever remains.

Keeping up with a haphazard story becomes even more problematic when you’re unable develop an attachment to any of the characters. The film provides little help in this regard by ensuring we learn as little as possible about any of them. Of the characters actually taking part in the heist, the only one who is revealed to have any sort of motivation is Michael, whose son is effectively being held hostage by Irina. Even then the film barely devotes any time towards defining or demonstrating their relationship. In truth the only reason I’m even able to remember any of these characters is by virtue of the actors playing them. I don’t remember the Welch brothers due to their arcs within the story, I remember them because they happen to be played by Darryl Dixon and Jesse Pinkman. Apart from one terrific cameo by Michael Kenneth Williams (seriously, I would much rather watch a movie about his character than any other in this film), I cannot recall a single character that made this film worth watching.

There are some technically good things about this movie. The cast is made up of some very strong actors, the cinematography is fairly decent and there are some well-executed action scenes. Despite all that however, I’m giving this movie a one-star rating because it failed to do the single most important thing that a film needs to do. It failed to leave any sort of an impact on me. As soon as the film was over I felt nothing about what had transpired over the past two hours and had forgotten most of what happened by the time I got home. I don’t even dislike the film; even a negative reaction would still be a reaction. I feel nothing for this film. This film took two hours of my life and left me with nothing to show for it. Triple 9 may not be a terrible movie but, for me at least, it is worthless to the point that the distinction hardly even matters.