‘Solo: A Star Wars Story’ is Not the Droid You Are Looking For

Solo movie poster

Here we are again in a galaxy far, far away, and it is the third time we have ventured there in three years. We also head back to an even longer time ago when one of our favorite “Star Wars” characters, in this case Han Solo, was young, full of vigor and demographically desirable. But while the “Star Wars” movies have always been filled with tremendous imagination and unforgettable characters, I have to be honest and say that “Solo: A Star Wars Story” proved to be an underwhelming space adventure. While I am as big a Han Solo fan as the next person, seeing his early years portrayed here felt strangely ordinary to where this didn’t feel like a “Star Wars” movie, but instead an average science fiction movie yearning to be.

This movie begins with a routine chase sequence in which Han (Alden Ehrenreich) and his girlfriend Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) attempt to escape a criminal gang, and from there I started to have a bad feeling about this. Usually these movies have me totally hooked in right from the start, but I did not feel the same kind of excitement I usually feel with the average Lucasfilm adventure. When Qi’ra and Han are suddenly separated at a transport station, Han tells her he will come back for her. Will he? Well, she is played by Emilia Clarke. Will Qi’ra and Han live happily ever after? Did Greedo really shoot first?

“Solo” reminded me of the problems I have with most prequels as they seem more concerned with connecting the dots between their story and the ones we have seen a thousand times. Like “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” and “The Thing” prequel, the filmmakers are saddled with a cinematic history they are forced to adhere to, and it results in a lack of surprise and suspense as we know how things will turn out. And, like “Hannibal Rising,” it tells us more than we need to know about an iconic character to where I walked out feeling how certain things are best left to the imagination instead of being made into a movie.

Alden Ehrenreich has been an actor on the rise ever since his scene-stealing role in “Hail, Caesar,” and he certainly has a strong screen presence as Han Solo. At the same time, he ends up giving a one-note performance as the intergalactic smuggler which lacks the charisma Harrison Ford brought to the role. While he tries to play it cool throughout, Ehrenreich never quite comes to life here, and what results is a disappointing case of miscasting.

We do get introduced to some new characters, and among which is Tobias Beckett who is played by Woody Harrelson. As always, I am reminded of how Harrelson can play just about any character he takes on, and he provides us with the mentor Han Solo was always destined to have. Tobias, like Han, is a smuggler, but he also represents the darker road Han could find himself on if he is not careful.

Other actors are not as lucky. Thandie Newton shows up as Val Beckett, Tobias’ wife and partner in crime, but she is gone way too soon. Jon Favreau voices the alien character Rio Durant, but Rio merely functions as an easily disposable member of Tobias’ crew who we know will not last long. Paul Bettany makes Dryden Vos into a wonderfully ruthless crime lord, but his presence in “Solo” feels a bit uneven as if he is there to fill in the missing blanks. It should be noted how Bettany took over this role after the original actor cast, Michael K. Williams, was unable to return for reshoots. Things had to be changed to accommodate Bettany, and it shows.

Production problems kept plaguing “Solo” before its release, the biggest of which was the firing of the original directors, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, both of whom still received an executive producer credit. It was one of several instances which showed how protective Lucasfilm was of this franchise. The word behind the scenes was that Lord and Miller were looking to mix things up and did not want to give audiences the same old thing, but Kathleen Kennedy was not about to let anyone change things up. While I commend Kennedy and Lawrence Kasdan for taking extra special care of this franchise, I came out of “Solo” thinking they should shake things up in the future if they want it to maintain the relevance it still has.

Replacing Lord and Miller is Oscar-winning director Ron Howard, and this had me excited as this is the same man who directed “Apollo 13.” That film was based on a real-life event everyone knew the outcome of, and yet he turned it into a riveting piece of entertainment. I figured he would bring this same energy to “Solo,” but even he is saddled with the characters’ history which he cannot easily maneuver around. Apparently, Howard reshot 70% of this movie, and I came out of it wondering how much of the finished product was his. As a result, the whole movie feels inescapably uneven.

For what it is worth, “Solo” does improve when Donald Glover, a man of many talents, arrives on the scene as Lando Calrissian. Glover brings the kind of charisma to this role I expected Ehrenreich to bring a wealth of to Han, and it makes me want to see Lando get a film of his own. From the first moment he appears onscreen, Glover makes this character the epitome of cool to where he does not need a can of Colt 45 to prove it, and he brings an infectious joy to a movie which needed it sooner.

We also get to meet another unforgettable droid here, L3-37. As voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, she is a sardonic delight as she shows more attitude and resilience than any other droid I have seen in any previous installment. It is also a kick to see L3-37 discuss the possibilities of sexual compatibility between her and Han with Qi’ra. After all these years, the “Star Wars” movies are proving to be more progressive than ever before! As for Lando, I think it is safe to say this is the droid he was looking for.

While certain moments like the first time Han meets Chewbacca (played here by Joonas Suotamo) and the initial appearance of the Millennium Falcon end up feeling uninspired and anticlimactic, the scene where Han makes the infamous Kessel Run in less than twenty parsecs is thrilling to watch, and it reminded of why I love the “Star Wars” movies so much. Yes, we know how things will turn out, but Howard keeps us on the edge of our seats as he subverts our expectations and plays with our emotions with glee.

Sure, “Solo” does have its moments, but they only served to remind of everything about it which does not work. The screenplay by Jonathan Kasdan and Lawrence Kasdan features dialogue which feels lifeless even when spoken by talented actors. Granted, there is none of the god-awful dialogue Hayden Christensen was forced to utter in “Attack of the Clones,” but it still feels derivative of lesser sci-fi movies which cannot even compare to “Star Wars” in general. I was also surprised at how uninspired the film score by “Jason Bourne” composer John Powell ends up sounding, and it only comes to life when he utilizes the immortal themes of John Williams.

“Rogue One” was also a prequel, but it had a cast of characters you really cared about, and its story of sacrifice pushed all the right buttons as we came to deeply admire the heroic actions they took. Even though we know the secret plans of the Death Star would end up in the hands of the Rebels, getting there was more than half the fun. “Solo,” however, is nowhere as effective, and what results is a big disappointment and a missed opportunity. This marks the first time I have ever given a negative review for a “Star Wars” movie, and yes, I have seen “The Phantom Menace.”

Lucasfilm would be better off looking to the future instead of going back to the past. Enough backstory has been established for these iconic characters to where we don’t need any additional information. We will certainly be looking forward when “Episode IX” is released in December of 2019, but it appears other “Star Wars” origin movies are in the works such as one on Obi-Wan Kenobi. Seriously, I am with Ralph Garman when he said, wouldn’t a movie about Obi-Wan watching Luke Skywalker growing up from a distance be a little too creepy?

* * out of * * * *

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‘Iron Man’ Got the Marvel Cinematic Universe Off to a Strong Start

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The 2008 summer movie season started off with a bang with the long-awaited release of “Iron Man” which starred Robert Downey Jr. as the egocentric weapons maker turned world protector, Tony Stark. It also marked the beginning of the Marvel Cinematic Universe which brought its many characters to the silver screen with great success, and this one still remains one of the best to come out of it.

“Iron Man” starts with Tony traveling through the Afghanistan desert with a military convoy that gets attacked by terrorists. Tony flees the hummer transporting him and almost gets killed by one of the missiles he designed. When he comes to, he is being held captive in a cave and kept alive by an electromagnet attached to his torso which keeps the shrapnel inside his body from going to his heart. The terrorists, led by Raza (Faran Tahir), force Tony to build them one of his most destructive missiles on pain of death, but he instead takes the parts they give him and creates a bulletproof suit which allows him to escape in spectacular fashion.

When he gets back to America, he has a press conference where he states he will turn his company from a weapon making factory into one that doesn’t promote endless destruction. Having seen the damage he has done to others, he is now determined to protect those from the weapons he created. As for the iron suit which saved his life, he works at perfecting it into something strong and indestructible. On top of giving him the ability to fly, it also allows him to get back at those who took advantage of his destructive creations.

“Iron Man” is a tricky movie to make because it is the type meant to set up this particular superhero and then move on to the inevitable sequels which never come out soon enough. It is a credit to director Jon Favreau that the characters are as interesting as the action is exciting. Unlike other comic book adaptations, this story feels much more grounded in reality and doesn’t have characters that don’t seem real. Unlike Peter Parker in “Spider-Man 3,” here we have a superhero who doesn’t waste his time feeling sorry for himself on a regular basis.

But the real masterstroke of “Iron Man” is the casting of Downey Jr. as Tony Stark. He is without a doubt one of the best actors working in movies today, and it is impossible to picture anyone else in this role. When he first appears, he clearly acts like the man Weird Al Yankovic sang about in “I’m Such a Groovy Guy.” Both brilliant and sexy, it’s tempting to believe Downey Jr. is playing himself, but that assumption would be unfair. He makes Tony’s transition from selfish egomaniac to world protector almost seamless and never less than believable. Inside that cool and ever so confident exterior, there lies a man who is taking his life and company in a direction which may completely kill it.

Seriously, Tony is one of coolest comic book heroes to appear in movies for the longest time. Most of the comic book heroes we have grown up with are emotional wrecks and understandably so. Batman saw his parents murdered in front of him, Superman only got to see his parents at that Crystal Palace as he lost his human father earlier than he should have, and Spider-Man lost his uncle when he was murdered. But Tony isn’t necessarily waylaid by emotional disasters the way those characters were. While many of us want to spit on those who look like they had everything handed to them on a silver platter, Tony more than earns his place in society and you never doubt his abilities to create extraordinary things.

Also, Tony has quite the lifestyle most guys envy. He has one hell of a mansion up in the hills of Malibu that has the most incredible view, and his personal jet is equipped with a pole that comes out of the floor for his very lovely stewardesses to take advantage of. I saw this movie in a theater with some friends of mine, and one of them leaned over to me and said, “This is the only way to live!”

In retrospect, this character is a relief after watching those other male superheroes who turn into whiny crybabies that remind me too much of myself. Female superheroes don’t fall into this category much, so that should make you wonder which gender is truly the stronger one.

The rest of the “Iron Man” cast is perfectly chosen. When the movie came out, Jeff Bridges was one of the most underappreciated actors working in movies (this has since changed). His character of Obadiah Stane, one of the main heads of Stark Industries, is a slimy corporate executive whose outer exterior projects a man of kindness and trust Tony relies on. That trust is utterly betrayed when Obadiah files an injunction against Stark to gain control of his company and put it back in the direction it was going before Stark started changing his ways.

Unlike Tony, Obadiah has no creativity or brilliance to rely on. All he has are selfish desires and a misplaced loyalty to Stark’s father who helped build the world’s first atomic bomb. Although he has the makings of another villain whose sole interest is world domination, Obadiah represents those who are too easily threatened by the winds of change. Bridges, like Downey Jr., gives Obadiah dimensions you wouldn’t necessarily expect a character like this to have. This is not just some one-dimensional bad guy like others, and it is a credit to Bridges’ brilliance that he makes this very clear.

Also, on board is Gwyneth Paltrow who is a wonderful presence as Tony’s longtime assistant, Virginia “Pepper” Potts. While it might seem weird for her to play someone’s assistant, she imbues Pepper with beauty, smarts, intelligence and heart which Tony more than depends on his life for. She also shares great chemistry with Downey Jr., and their relationship is key as those inevitable sequels would prove. Paltrow also has one of the movie’s best lines as she meets up with a Vanity Fair writer Tony made out with the night before:

“So, you just spend your time taking care of everything Tony asks you to do?

“I take care of all duties that Tony asks of me to do. That includes taking out the garbage.”

We also have Terence Howard as Tony’s military consultant and close friend, Jim Rhodes. Jim is the one who tries to keep Tony grounded in reality, but he never quite succeeds. Howard is great here if he a bit underused here, and this is the second movie I have seen where he plays a character constantly giving press conferences (“The Brave One” was the other one).

The movie has many great action scenes which you come out of feeling justified in saying, “that’s cool man!” When Iron Man fights off terrorists in a war-torn country, he finds very creative ways to dispatch his enemies that are too good to reveal here. Also, there are scenes where Tony is testing out different parts of the suit. This can usually be seen as the boring set up part for the superhero, but these moments make you jump out of your seat because you find yourself laughing harder than you usually do.

With “Iron Man,” Downey Jr. who gives us something more than the average super hero. He gives us one with brains, smarts and, most importantly, a soul. It doesn’t matter if you have great special effects if you don’t have the story or the characters to match up with it. “Iron Man” has that, and it set the bar high for the comic book movies which followed in its wake.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Spider-Man: Homecoming’ Gives the Web-Slinger a New Lease on Life

Spiderman Homecoming poster

The thought of another “Spider-Man” reboot had me rolling my eyes as this comic book character has already gotten through one too many versions already. But after watching Tom Holland portray him in “Captain America: Civil War,” I found myself getting excited about where the character could go from there. So, it’s my relief and delight to tell you all that “Spider-Man: Homecoming” proved to be a really good movie which successfully breathes new life into a franchise suffering from misdirection and too many chefs in the kitchen. With Holland, we also get the best incarnation of Spider-Man/Peter Parker yet as he gives the role a spirited turn full of youthful energy and boundless enthusiasm.

Director Jon Watts and the screenwriters, too many to name here, wisely avoid regurgitating Peter Parker’s origin story the way “The Amazing Spider-Man” did, and they instead hit the ground running. Peter has received a new Spidey suit courtesy of Tony Stark (the always welcome Robert Downey Jr.), but he is not quick to welcome Peter into the Avengers fold. Instead, Peter has to spend his days at high school like any other teenager and with his equally intelligent best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon). But when a new villain who even the Avengers don’t see coming called the Vulture starts wreaking havoc in Queens, New York, Peter finds himself too impatient to just sit on the sidelines and let him get away with his felonious deeds.

Holland really hits it out of the park here, and his boundless enthusiasm is set up perfectly through a home movie Peter Parker makes which encapsulates his time with the Avengers and battling Captain America. While the character remains the conflicted superhero who has trouble balancing out his school life with his crime stopping job, Holland makes the role his own and brings such an infectious spirit which makes the proceedings endlessly entertaining. Whereas Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield made Spider-Man too emo for his own good, Holland doesn’t go the same route, and his interpretation is much closer to the character we grew up reading in the comic books. I was frightened he might become too enthusiastic for Spider-Man’s own good, but his performance never becomes ingratiating and he also shows us a vulnerability which feels genuine and not easily achieved.

Of course, comic book movies need a good villain, and “Spider-Man: Homecoming” has one and, thank goodness, only one. The Vulture is an interesting choice as the person who inhabits him, Adrian Toomes, is as regular a guy as Peter Parker is a regular kid. Adrian is not so much a bad guy as he is a man who feels betrayed and left behind by those who have it all. His belief is that those in power couldn’t care less about the little man or anything he could possibly contribute to society, so he does many villainous things for his own benefit. But unlike many James Bond villains, he is not out for world domination. He just wants to provide for his family like any parent does.

It is a great pleasure to see Michael Keaton return to the world of comic book movies, and he arrives here just as “Batman Returns” celebrates its 25th anniversary. As Adrian Toomes/The Vulture, Keaton renders him into someone all too human even as he lays waste to Queens, New York and anyone foolish enough to get in his way. Even as the character sinks deeper and deeper into the criminal life, Keaton gives Vulture a humanity, albeit a corrupted one, which makes him seem more threatening and morally complex.

The rest of the cast is excellent, and it’s great to see Jon Favreau here as Happy Hogan gets more screen time here than he has in previous Marvel movies. One of the last scenes he shares with Holland is especially good as Hogan comes to see just how much attention he really should have paid to Peter. Downey Jr. continues to bring a sharp attitude to Tony Stark/Iron Man, but he also allows the character to evolve as Tony finds himself becoming a father figure to Peter, albeit a reluctant one. Even Chris Evans shows up in a cameo as Steve Rogers/Captain America, and he steals every scene he is in.

There has been a lot of talk of how Marisa Tomei was too young to play May Parker in “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” but that’s ridiculous. If May Parker is the sister to Peter’s mother, she wouldn’t be as old as Rosemary Harris now, would she? Either way, she brings a wonderful sass to this role, and she remains an enormously gifted actress after all these years. All the same, I wished we got to see more of her here as she has a wonderful chemistry in her scenes with Holland. I kept waiting for Tomei to be the Yoda to Holland just as Harris was to Tobey Maguire, but I guess we will see this come about in the inevitable sequel.

Watts previously directed “Cop Car” which was about two young kids who steal a police car from a corrupt sheriff. Essentially, that movie was about kids getting into the kind of trouble they would be smart to avoid, and “Spider-Man: Homecoming” has the same thing going on. Peter eventually comes to see he is in over his head to where Tony has to take away his Spidey suit. This sets up the third part of the movie where Peter has to see there is more to being a superhero than having a really cool suit. With great power does come great responsibilities, but this Spider-Man comes to see how great power needs to come from within as it cannot simply be co-dependent on nifty gadgets.

Some of the action scenes are a little too frenetic to where it’s hard to tell what is going on, and I was hoping for a little more in the way of emotional gravitas which highlighted Raimi’s first two “Spider-Man” movies. Still, it is a surprise to see how wonderfully inventive “Spider-Man: Homecoming” is as it gives us what appears to be a formulaic story, and yet it keeps giving us one surprise after another, all of which are too clever to spoil here. Just when you think you know how things will play out, the script veers in another direction you don’t see coming, and it makes the movie more interesting as the conflicts become increasingly intense.

I came into “Spider-Man: Homecoming” believing it could never top “Spider-Man 2” which has earned its place among the best comic book/superhero movies of all time. This one doesn’t, but it lands at number two among the “Spider-Man” movies as it is endlessly entertaining and wonderfully cast. My hat is off to the filmmakers for breathing new life into this franchise during a summer where so many others are suffering from fatigue, and I am infinitely eager to see where Spider-Man will go from here. For now, Columbia Pictures appears to have learned from the mistakes made with “Spider-Man 3” and “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” as this iteration is neither an overstuffed bird or a 2-hour long trailer for movies which never materialized. Here’s hoping the filmmakers keep from making those same mistakes in future installments.

And yes, there are two post-credit sequences, and both are worth sitting through the end credits to get to. The second one is priceless and brilliant. Trust me, you’ll see.

* * * ½ out of * * * *