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SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY (2018) – MOVIE REVIEW

SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY (2018) – MOVIE REVIEW

Directed by: Ron Howard

Produced by: Kathleen Kennedy, Allison Shearmur. Simon Emanuel

Written by: Jonathan Kasdan, Lawrence Kasdan

Based on Characters: by George Lucas

Starring: Alden Ehrenreich, Woody Harrelson, Emilia Clarke, Donald Glover, Thandie Newton, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Joonas Suotamo, Paul Bettany

**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**

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Anyone for another round of Star Wars bingo?

In a particularly biting satirical swipe at George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, the South Park episodes Free Hat (Season 6) and the latter episode The China Probrem (Season 12), criticized the filmmakers for digitally altering their beloved Indiana Jones films on re-re-re-re-release. The China Probrem took the barbs even further (too far one could argue) by showing a lascivious Lucas/Spielberg raping Indiana Jones. I mean, Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skulls (2008) wasn’t great but to suggest its sexual assault on one’s childhood memories and a beloved character did have me spewing out my metaphorical popcorn in shock.

Moreover, South Park further lambasted the avarice of corporate culture, specifically Disney, and their purchase of Lucasfilm in the excellent episode from Season 16 Obama Wins! All this proves is that controversial and offensive satire cannot and will not change the Panzer-like “progress” of the Mickey Mouse machine. They own many of the biggest film franchises and absolutely will not stop until they have our money. What can you do? Do you rebel against the Disney Death Star or do you join the dark side?  After all, it could be fun.

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Indeed, after all the apparent production shenanigans reported on the set of Solo (2018) – notably the “sacking” of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller – I can advise that this latest Star Wars prequel is a lot of fun. That darned elephant in the room still haunts the film though and that is the nature of prequels. Whatever danger you put your protagonists in you know they are going to survive; thus, tension is very often lost within the action and drama. Having said that Star Wars fans will have a lot of joy ticking off HOW Han Solo’s early life began and how he originated into one of the best characters of the whole science-fantasy series.

Characterisation is in fact one of the strengths of the film in my view. Solo comes from sewers of a guttural world and chances and gambles his way through the story but with strong motivation. His devotion to Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) is a powerful spine with which to hang the excellent action set-pieces on. Their romance and the chemistry between Clarke and Ehrenreich is palpable throughout and drives the story into interesting areas. Alden Ehrenreich, I think, is a bona fide movie star. He shone in Hail Caesar (2016) and does so as Han Solo. Whatever the difficulties were on-set I think his likeability and acting style brings handsome energy and humour to the role. I especially loved the gambling-fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants nature of Solo’s character which owes much to Lucas’ original scripts.

Overall, Solo is a very entertaining join-the-dots prequel that ticks off all the by-the-numbers Star Wars scenes, tropes and characters including: the Millennium Falcon, Chewbacca, the Empire, Lando, the Kessel Run, plus many more to keep the fans happy. Lastly, Solo works very well as both an origins story and a fantastic fusion of heist and Western films. The supporting cast all deliver in a positive way, notably the charismatic Donald Glover and always reliable Woody Harrelson. While you can often see an element of chaos in certain scenes I think the steady directing hand of Ron Howard has delivered a franchise film which will safely keep Disney’s gravy train on track. In fact, both prequels have been, in my humble opinion, better than The Force Awakens (2015) and The Last Jedi (2017), because Solo (2018) and Rogue One (2016), actually have narratives which made some emotional sense.

(Mark: 8 out of 11)

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STAR WARS: ROGUE ONE – CINEMA REVIEW by PAUL LAIGHT

STAR WARS: ROGUE ONE – CINEMA REVIEW by PAUL LAIGHT

**THIS CONTAINS SPOILERS**

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After the biggest budgeted fan film of all time was released last year with The Force Awakens (2015), I approached Rogue One (2016) with a sense of scepticism. After all, JJ Abrams directed Star Wars movie was essentially a block-to-block remake of A New Hope (1977) but this time substituting Luke Skywalker for a young woman, Rey, (Daisy Ridley) and Darth Vader for a younger more angst-ridden version in Adam Driver. Abrams spectacular epic delighted fans on emotional and aesthetic levels despite the sandcastle plotting, gaping story holes and illogical incompetence of the First Order. For example, why build a ‘Death Planet’ with the SAME weaknesses as the Empire’s Death Star?  It did not make sense to me.

Nonetheless, JJ Abrams safety guaranteed reboot broke not only the internet but also box office records worldwide. It’s a safe and impressive spectacle with bland leads and a nostalgic mix of familiar and new characters. The action was breathless and pristine but the weaknesses in the story ruined the enjoyment of The Force Awakens for me. While it made sense to focus the narrative on the children of the original trilogy, and it was great to see Harrison Ford reprising Han Solo, I wasn’t as impressed by Abrams blockbuster as many were. Of course, compared to George Lucas’-rise-and-fall-of-Annakin-Skywalker-prequel-trilogy it was pure cinema gold.

Talking of prequels Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is just that – Star Wars: Episode 3.5 as it were.  The action takes place after Revenge of the Sith (2005) but just before A New Hope.  We open with Ben Mendelsohn’s Orson Krennic pursuing Mads Mikkelsen’s ‘farmer’, Galen Erso, on the planet Lah’mu. Krennic is an Imperial executive working on the Death Star and he requires Erso’s expertise to complete the work so kidnaps him, leaving behind his young daughter Jyn Erso, alone and abandoned.

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As per many other stories in the Star Wars galaxy themes relating to war, family, loss, orphans and hope propels the characters in Rogue One. None more so than Felicity Jones’ grown up Jyn Erso, who inhabits her character with a credible depth and pain throughout. She has clearly had to fend for herself and has become world-weary for one so young, yet she is also tough and very handy in a fight. Against her will she is thrust into the rebellion fight and embarks on a last-ditch mission to locate the plans of the Death Star. Here the story harks back marvellously to the derring-do of WW2 movies such as The Guns of Navarone (1961), Where Eagles Dare (1968) and The Dirty Dozen (1967). That was when I knew this was my kind of movie.

Accompanying Jyn are a ragtag bunch of characters who could arguably been given more backstory but are cast very well. My personal favourite was Donny Yen as Chirrut Imwe as the blind, elegant and formidable ‘monk’ and Diego Luna’s battle-drained rebellion officer who refuses to go down without a fight. With the plot thrusting along at some pace we still have time for reflection by the characters, especially from Luna and Jones. Meanwhile, on the dark side, Ben Mendelsohn gives an intriguing performance as a middle manager unable to grasp the power he so craves.  Darth Vader’s scenes too were fantastically handled in my view and while initially jarring the CGI appearance of Grand Moff Tarkin/Peter Cushing was a curious treat.

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Whereas JJ Abrams skilfully emulated the emotions of the original Star Wars films, Gareth Edwards (and apparently re-shoot director Tony Gilroy) really imbue a sense of menace and doom to the Rogue One mission.  The stakes are incredibly high, and while we know the outcome, most of the characters are given enough purpose to make you care for them. From the stark landscape of the opening scenes to the stunningly bleak midpoint set-piece on the base facility of planet Eadu, pathos, shadow and death inhabit the film’s core. Indeed, it reflects the darker side of the franchise like The Empire Strikes Back (1980) so succinctly.

Of course, the story is all building to an incredible final act where Jyn and her crew seek those darned plans which are inconveniently kept in an impossible-to-breach fortress protected by battalions of Imperial Stormtroopers, droids and weaponry. As our heroes battle for their lives and the future of the rebellion, we cut breathlessly between the space dogfights we have come to love and the explosive conflict on the planet surface. Do they complete their mission? Well, you know the end; however, amidst the fast-paced action and special effects there is time for a sense of loss and a series of spectacular and heroic deaths.

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Where, in my opinion, A Force Awakens was Disney playing it safe, this film takes a few more chances within the corporate conservatism of the movie market. While it has a darkness in its’ heart Rogue One still meets the classic Hollywood “standardization and differentiation” model which has served big business since the dawn of time. Overall this isn’t just a great Star Wars film but a brilliant movie too. It’s very much in the vein of Captain America: Winter Soldier (2014), as it transcends the franchise while delivering a pulsating, heroic and emotional experience. While the canonized Skywalker arcs continue to concentrate on expanding the Jedi family tree, the stand-alone anthology series, of which Rogue One is the first, offer an opportunity to perhaps go darker and experiment with form, character and themes.