Solo (2018)

solo1While watching Solo, I was reminded of something I read a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away- in 1978, infact, and inside the pages of the Star Wars official collectors magazine that Marvel published back then. At least I think it was in that mag, it was a long time ago after all, but anyway, it was some comment referring to a review that cited Star Wars as being the first Western filmed in outer space. Solo is just that- a space western.

So in the spirit of laboring the space western allegory, lets look at the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of this Star Wars movie titled Solo.

First, the good. Well, its okay. If that’s damning it with faint praise, then so be it: its no disaster (In the words of fellow blogger Gregory Moss, it could have been worse) and certainly nowhere near as divisive as The Last Jedi proved to be. Solo doesn’t usurp franchise tropes or chronology as TLJ did-  Lucasfilm has (eventually, considering this films troubled production) crafted a stable, steady adventure with typically workmanlike direction from Ron Howard’s exceedingly safe directorial hands.

While some of the action stuff such as the opening speeder chase was fairly mediocre at best, I thought the train heist in particular was great -the strangely reduced colour-palette of the film actually helps the CGI enhancements look all the more real. Some of the imagery of the windswept characters on the roof of the train reminded me of the Frazetta covers for the Battlestar Galactica paperback novelizations of the late ‘seventies. I’m also glad that the finale was rather low-key, it was a refreshing thing for a Star Wars movie, I thought, especially as the CGI-fest Kessel Run was so boring.  If we’d cared more for the characters it might have been all the better, but that post-Kessel Run stuff was fine and suggested a second movie (which we’ll now never see) might have been worthwhile. Maybe Solo should always have been a mini-series rather than a movie?

Alden Ehrenreich is okay as a young Han, albeit never really convinces. I would have preferred to have seen Anthony Ingruber (already cast as young Harrison Ford in The Age of Adaline) or Ansel Elgort, who looked like a young Solo in much of Baby Driver, at least they might have physically matched Ford better. Although he performs well considering all the pressures and baggage placed upon him (its pretty thankless signing on for a role like this), Ehrenreich is clearly no Harrison Ford- if anything, he’s more a young Dennis Quaid, particularly whenever he smiles or turns on the charm (which reminded me, ironically, of watching Inner Space back in the cinema and thinking how Quaid could have played Han Solo back then). Although he never really convinces as Han Solo, thankfully this young Solo is not an obnoxious and irritating infant re: Jake Lloyd’s Anakin of The Phantom Menace. The art direction is okay (I always get a kick out of seeing original Star Wars-era Storm Troopers), the music feels like that of a Star Wars movie (indeed even is Star Wars movie music as it re-uses themes from the original scores).

solo2Now, the bad. Its all a bit ‘meh’ if I’m honest. Not once does it genuinely shock or surprise or shake expectations of what a Han Solo movie could be. Indeed, it largely spends its time ticking boxes: Han meets Chewie, Han wins the Millennium Falcon from Lando, we get a game of Holo-Chess in the Falcon lounge, we get to witness the Kessel Run. Han is a scoundrel yes but at heart he’s a good guy and does the ‘Right Thing’. Nothing new that happens in Solo can really be important as it cannot retro-actively effect the cannon- nothing new in Solo can ever be referenced or name-checked in The Empire Strikes Back or The Force Awakens. Han doesn’t make some mysterious comment about someone named Beckett in The Force Awakens, for example (and if these new films were being masterminded properly, maybe he would/should). So we never really get any dramatic suspense. Which leads us to-

The ugly? Misguided. Cynical. A production nightmare that was always doomed to fail, whatever its success at the box-office (is it really fair to saddle this finished film with the purported $300 million cost of combining its production with the abandoned original shooting of the previously fired directors?). A salient lesson to Lucasfilm of how to make/not make a Star Wars movie.

Well, that is the whole thing with prequels, isn’t it? Dramatically they are always flawed because we go in with knowing how things end up. Han can’t die, Chewie can’t die, the Falcon may get some dents but it can’t be destroyed, etc . Prequels inherently are hamstrung by the Magic Reset button- whatever happens during them they have to leave the status quo in place for subsequent editions in order to maintain continuity. And likewise, they are weighed down by unfair expectations, comparisons to better films back when Star Wars was new and fresh and exciting, better directors, better actors, all looked at through rose-tinted lenses of nostalgia.

Disney’s Star Wars films have a problem, and it isn’t competing against fellow franchise juggernaut Marvel- its the ravages of time. Star Wars is now in its fifth decade and the world has moved on. The Matrix films, good or bad, were a Star Wars for a new generation, and maybe the Jurassic Park films were too, and while the jury is out on James Cameron’s Avatar films, I suppose it could well be argued that the Marvel Studios films are indeed a Star Wars for today’s generation of film-goers. Lightsabres and Jedi and droids and everything else wrapped up in Star Wars dates back to the days of Disco and can leave some of us original fans labelled as dinosaurs.

I have no issues with Disney shaking things up with its Star Wars films- its just that The Last Jedi, in my mind, was the wrong place to do it. If you’re going to have Luke Skywalker in a Star Wars movie then he has to act for good or ill as his established character would. For instance, if Han Solo were alive in The Last Jedi, would Rian Johnson have gotten away with making him a craven coward? Whatever Rian Johnson eventually does in his proposed future Star Wars trilogy is fine by me as long as its genuinely new and seperate from the established canon. I do feel that Disney might have been better off leaving the Skywalker saga and the Jedi etc well alone and not making Episodes  7-9 at all.

In anycase, returning to Solo, these standalone prequels of course cannot do that- by their nature they have to play safe with continuity and what constitutes a Star Wars movie. I’m a big fan of Rogue One and think its a neat film from a neat idea. Solo– well, we never really needed a Han Solo movie, did we? Maybe the whole prequel thing lacks sufficient ambition- maybe they should have looked further back to the days of the Old Republic and then been freer to play looser with chronology if only because the distant past is vaguer.

Solo is what it is. I would have preferred a different lead. I would have preferred a different arc- why not have made young Han a genuinely bad guy and used the prequel story to redeem him, perhaps explain why the smuggler in the 1977-1983 trilogy has a decent streak deep down? Otherwise, whats the real point of a prequel, other than showing us what we know and have come to expect?

As it turned out, few people really wanted a Han Solo movie and it largely turned out as mediocre as everyone feared it would- albeit better perhaps than the production woes would have suggested. Its box-office failure means it will likely lead to a rethink at both Lucasfilm and Disney, and that might be a good thing in the long run. That does return me to a question I raised earlier- maybe it should never have been a movie, but rather a mini-series instead? After all, Disney will have its streaming service/channel next year. Maybe that is where the future of these standalone Star Wars movies lies, in mini-series form.

 

 

The Age of Adaline (2015)

ada1Run for the hills, guys, this one isn’t for us. The Age of Adaline is a thoroughly condescending love story, I appreciate that as its deliberately fashioned as an adult fantasy/fairy-tale  I should perhaps cut it some slack, but really, this kind of stuff is just really nauseating. A beautiful young woman, Adaline Bowman (Blake Lively) is involved in a car accident in the mid-1930s which through a miracle of chance leaves her ageless, staying 29 years old for the remaining decades of the century while her family and freinds age around her. In order to hide her immortality, she changes her name, job and home every decade- only her  ageing daughter knows the truth and shares her secret. Adaline’s only other companions in life are her beloved dogs; other than that, she stays distant from the people around her to avoid creating ties of friendship and love which might reveal her ageless condition over time.

The fact that the guy she eventually falls in love with is a handsome hunk and an internet millionaire with a father, WIlliam (Harrison Ford) that himself once loved Adaline back in the 1960s when he was a young man, just raised my blood pressure and indignation. I know, I’m some kind of spoil-sport and should be more of a romantic. But this stuff is as patronizing as Pretty Woman, the epic film that delivered the modern myth that prostitutes are good girls deep-down who will be rescued/marry a millionaire someday.

The Age of Adaline is frustrating, as it could have been something much more- it wastes its central conceit, that it might have had something to say about living a life of eternal youth in a world that has to be distant, of watching freinds and loved ones, human and canine, age and pass away. Of what that might cost an individual emotionally and intellectually. Humans are a social animal, we like to belong, have attachments- what happens when you take that away and are forced to live forever in such a world/life?

ada2Instead it just maximizes the typical feminine wish-fulfillment of Adaline one day finding her True Love and that he turns out to be both wonderful and fabulously rich, and with added benefits (Harrison Ford as a father in law and ex-love, every woman’s dream).

As if living forever wasn’t good enough. Cue the ‘deep and philosophical’ lesson that True Love having been found, she can then become mortal again through another accident of chance and live a normal life like the rest of us (albeit one of beauty and riches). I appreciate its a romantic fantasy, but really, there would be a more important lesson had the True Love been a poor guy with a heart of gold, or a guy overweight and balding (beauty deeper than skin-deep). Instead she ends up with it all, the American Dream writ large.

You may well be wondering what on Earth I was doing watching this. Well, I came upon it on Netflix, noticing that it featured Harrison Ford. Call me a fool, but I come of that generation where Harrison Ford appearing in a movie meant something, or promised the possibility of something decent. Yeah, maybe that old Hollywood ‘Star system’ isn’t wholly dead and buried, and knowing most of Ford’s filmography I should have known better, but anyway, I gave it a shot not knowing what the film was about. As it was, it was mildly enjoyable and the central premise promised much (although, as I’ve said,  it actually turned out to be a different movie to that). I still remember with fondness the David Fincher film The Curious Case of  Benjamin Button and it did, for a while, seem to be going that way… you know, an adult fairy-tale with a moral, life-affirming and poignant and all that.

The film isn’t a total loss. Harrison Ford is actually quite good, and I was impressed by the casting choice for his young-man flashbacks, Anthony Ingruber, who looked like young Ford and coupled with Ford dubbing his voice, actually worked very well and might have suggested an alternate approach to the recent Solo movie. Ingruber’s similarity to a young Ford/Han Solo/Indiana Jones was quite startling. The music score by Rob Simonsen, is as might be expected, rather manipulative but its well-written and emotionally engaging, somewhat akin to early James Horner, certainly elevating the film, with rich strings, piano and chorus. The production design is very good, the period pieces convincing.

So my issues with the film are really its politics/life-lessons about giving up immortality for love and finding a true love that is fabulous and wealthy. Maybe I’m just a grouchy old bugger, clearly this nonsense isn’t intended for me. On the surface this film was well-crafted I guess but thinking back on it, ugh, its just nauseating and condescending. One for its target audience, certainly, but cynics like me should stay well away.

 

Baby Driver

baby.jpgGeorge Lucas is naturally best-renowned for the impact that Star Wars had on the film industry back in 1977, but thats ignoring the pioneering use of source music in his earlier film American Graffiti– the end-to-end parade of rock and roll songs played on the radio formed an evocative and groundbreaking soundtrack/soundscape through the film that revolutionised the subsequent use of source music in film-making.

So I found myself thinking of American Graffiti whilst watching Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver. The use of source music -updated from radio airplay to ipod/smartphone mp3 streaming, naturally- is as integral a part of what Baby Driver ‘is’ as much as the music was in Graffiti. Indeed, what gives Baby Driver its own identity is that its taken it one step further, with the performances and editing timed specifically to the beats of that infectious soundtrack of songs. In some ways it seems almost a much a musical as, say, La La Land.

So whilst it owes so much to a film from decades past it also comes across as being refreshingly original, and excitingly new. Perhaps it’s just a natural progression of how source music has become such an integral part of film over the years since Graffiti, particularly in how some sequences in films often seem to be pop videos in how they are shot , edited and soundtracked with pop songs. The clever conceit of Baby Driver is in how the central character needs the songs in order to function as the titular driver of the film, his skill for driving and spectacular stunts behind the wheel wholly dependant on the flow and beat of whatever he is listening to. Its almost genius in its execution.

baby2The fact that there is actually an involving and thrilling film independent of those frenetic chases is the biggest and most welcome surprise of the film. Indeed, the actual screen time of those car chases is surprisingly small regards the whole.

Alden Ehrenreich must offer something pretty special as Disney’s new Han Solo in his year’s Star Wars anthology movie, because Baby Driver is surely Ansel Elgort’s 2-hour statement for being the best young Solo that we’ll never see. He offers a vulnerability and charm that so often brings to mind a young Harrison Ford/Han Solo that its almost irresistible- intensified perhaps by his costume design in this film, practically wearing Solo’s Star Wars wardrobe like some cosplay nut. No doubt this was a deliberate ploy by Edgar Wright, Baby so obviously evoking the Han Solo look and the sense that Baby and his cars is like Solo and his Millenium Falcon. I recall back in 1977 the sense that the Falcon was like a hotrod in the stars- a novel thing back then so pedantic now. Wright must have been so aware of that when writing/shooting this film.

Isn’t it weird to be referencing old George Lucas films so much when discussing this film? It’s almost as if this film is a love-letter to Lucas, and makes me sadly reflect on how great a film-maker the 1970s George Lucas was (lets not forget the ingenious sound design of THX 1138 or the fact that the 1970s Lucas also cemented the Star Wars saga making The Empire Strikes Back and the creation of the matinee-throwback heroics of Raiders of the Lost Ark).

Is Baby Driver the last hurrah for Kevin Spacey in a mainstream Hollywood movie? I suppose only time will tell but this film is a welcome reminder of how great he is as an onscreen bastard (his offscreen credentials in that regard seems to have nixed his future career somewhat). His charisma and coldness here forms a fulcrum for the film; so much seems to revolve around him and he is so convincing it makes me a little sad that we will lose some great future performances/films re: his probable absence from film-making in future. That’s purely a selfish consideration as a fan of film though rather than any moral judgement on what the actor himself deserves- we’ll just have to see how all that plays out in future.

So soon after enjoying her performance in Cinderella, Lily James appears here as Baby’s love-interest, the charming if rather under-written Deborah. At least the two actors share some convincing screen chemistry,  the lovestruck youngsters evoking a clean cut version of True Romance‘s Clarence and Alabama (Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette). Who would have thought when watching Downtown Abbey that she, in particular, would be the performer whose star would subsequently rise in film?

Anyway, Baby Driver was a surprising blast- great to look at and listen to and a pleasure beyond its car chases and stunts. The clever conceit and importance of its music was exciting and at least felt original and new, which can’t be underestimated in this era of ‘me-too’ cgi blockbusters and superhero flicks.  And while I’d love to see where Wright could take the characters and that conceit with a Baby Driver 2, it’s so nice that the film feels so self-contained and wrapped-up, a new film that feels wholly of its own that doesn’t depend upon or tease a sequel or franchise.

 

Happy New Year & some 2017 Stats

Well, a very happy 2018 to everyone. Before we start 2018’s blogging duties proper, a momentary time-out to review some stats from 2017 now that it has shuffled off into the past, if only to chart some intentions for this coming year.

2017 was my most prolific year yet. Quantity is no indicator of quality, to be sure, though I’ve always done my best to make my posts entertaining and possibly informative. In 2017 I managed to write and publish 190 posts. This compares with 159 posts in 2016 and 68 posts in 2015, so you can see its going in the right direction at least. The hardest part isn’t so much finding something to write, but rather finding the time to write it. I expect this will continue (married life and a job and all that, and oh, finding time to even watch anything, let alone write about it).

In any case, I’m pleased to have managed that many posts. It took some time and effort but clearly it’s my best output yet. I was rewarded with the most views yet, too (and it doesn’t necessarily follow that the more you post, the more views you get). My blog managed 6,103 views in 2017.  In the grand schemes of the internet, such a number is so low it’s pretty much a big fat zero, but its my highest annual figure ever so thanks to all of you who have visited this blog- particularly those of you who took the time to comment, which is where the real reward from blogging comes into it- the social aspect. We may never meet but I consider you all freinds and feel lucky to have met, online, people from all over the world. It’s a crazy and sobering thing to someone like me who remembers the pre-internet world.

So anyway, that was 2017. As far as 2018 goes, I am obviously intending to try pass that 190 posts figure, and to that end, I thought I’d try make this blog more of a journal this year. Whilst I’ll still be writing ‘proper’ reviews etc as usual, I thought I’d also try posting more commentary and reflections/notes about what I’ve been watching/reading. So there will hopefully be more entries, even if they are shorter, but hopefully they may well chart the year as it passes and its twists and turns, and be a fun read for me someday. Well, we’ll see how that goes (you may recall 2017 started with the intent of daily posts and that got beaten out of me by February). But New Year, New Intentions and all that.

In any case, I wonder what lies ahead for 2018? Thinking back to this time last year, I could not have ever imagined BR2049 turning out as well as it did, or me not rushing to the cinema to see the latest Star Wars movie (maybe next week). If nothing else, 2018 has one particular credential- it is going to slowly and inexorably take us to the year 2019, a very special year for a very particular geek such as I. For obvious reasons, I’m sure- and it’s not the final season of GOT either.

What? You’re more excited that 2018 is going to bring us a Han Solo movie?