Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)

Written by: Jonathan and Lawrence Kasdan Directed by: Ron Howard

Solo_A_Star_Wars_Story_posterSolo is a film that was released with a lot of weight on its shoulders. For whatever reason, Disney has decided to bombard audiences with new Star Wars films for the past few years, and the last one polarized audiences (yes, reactionary white men in particular but alas their viewpoint is widespread). Solo, like Rogue One before it, is not part of a trilogy: it is a “Star Wars Story” film. Its being “extra” adds another layer of pressure, as viewers will not simply question its quality but whether it deserves to exist.

Rogue One had the advantage of being about heroes whose identity and significance was unknown to most viewers at the time of the film’s release. Solo, by contrast, is about a well established Star Wars hero. As such it risks a mediocrity innate to many prequels: when you know a character’s fate, its hard for a script about them to bear much tension. Early into Solo, I feared the film would fall into this category, especially as I knew A.O. Scott softly-derided the movie as a “filmed Wikipedia article”. As I watched Han fight Chewbacca, for instance, I wanted to be a bit more compelled than I was, but felt the scene’s value was limited by my familiarity with both of these “adversaries.”

Solo, however, manages to work by being the mirror image of Rogue One. While the 2016 film connects unknowns to the main saga, Solo takes a familiar character and tells his story by linking him to figures otherwise independent of the main Star Wars series. Rest assured, however, the necessary links (Chewie, the millennium falcon, Lando, Jabba (sort of) ) to the character of old are there (I’ll throw in that I was disappointed not to see Greedo).

Solo is justified as a piece, not just because of Han’s individual significance to Star Wars, but also because his type of story is one the series has not previously covered. We’ve seen tales of white knights, and white knights-turned-supervillains, but not yet a tale of morally-middle-of-the-road figures. Solo’s story holds onto lots of the aesthetic charm of the Star Wars universe but, for once, it is not a fight between the light-dark binary, and for once, does not rely on the mysterious “force.”

Solo’s unique persona is shaped by the fact that he lives outside of the mythical realms of good and evil. In fact, is is almost as if he lives in a world that anti-heroes have all to themselves. This is a bizarre universe made up of compassionate people who also express quick willingness to kill those who stand in their way. Granted, these threats are not always acted upon, so perhaps are not meant to be taken literally: but they’re certainly not empty. The unpredictably of anti-hero society allows for surprise and confusion. There’s something very touching about seeing two outlaws (not previously revealed to be in a relationship) kiss and there’s something bizarre (an under-explained logic if you will) about a group of armed thieves with a ship refering to another group of thieves as dangerous “pirates.”

Solo, himself, is not an evil character, but he has shades of selfishness and arrogance that can lead him to be problematically self-serving. This too, at times, feels like a problem for the film. Wanting to make their protagonist likeable, the filmmakers imagined Solo not as the outright bad-boy outlaw he was in his first films but as more of a Luke Skywalker with just a pinch more of arrogant flavouring. This makes for an interesting character, but also left me wondering how he could plausibly develop into the Han Solo we know. Luckily, the film ultimately, though not implicitly, answers this question. Han’s story is made up of a series of traumas that could believably come to harden him, even as (and perhaps because), unlike Luke or Anakin he cannot simply break down and cry.

Perhaps one thing for viewers to ponder is whether Solo’s tale resembles Luke’s, or whether it is an entirely different kind of story. Indeed, both Luke in The Last Jedi and Han in Solo have been described as inconsistent with their characters’ original personas. While I disagree with this view (particularly when it comes to Luke), I can’t help but acknowledge that recent developments in the series have indeed shed light on Luke and Han’s similarities. One idea that struck in Solo is that its hero too has paternal issues: less intense and less literal than Luke’s, but they’re there nonetheless.

Action wise, perhaps some of the scenes in Solo are a bit drawn out. Nonetheless, there’s still that Star Wars charm to them. There aren’t lightsabers, but blaster bullets are still infinitely more beautiful to watch than the mundane ammo of other action movies. There’s also a wonderfully shot action scene in which a train snakes around a snowy mountain. One need not like action to appreciate Solo, however, as the film is rich with characters. It introduces, however sparingly, good additions to the Star Wars alien and droid imaginaries (Jon Favreau and Phoebe Waller-Bridge); Woody Harrelson as a thief whose persona I would argue mirrors that of his cop character in Three Billboards Outside Ebbings Missouri; and Donald Glover as Lando, a character who oddly enough seems relatively docile immersed in a world of anti-heroes. The cast is completed by Qu’ira (Emilia Clarke), Solo’s love interest whose exact nature (whatever that means) remains mysterious.

In short, I cannot understand why Solo has flopped at the box office. It tells the tale of an established hero; creatively fills in gaps; balances action and character development and even features a great final cameo. Literally speaking the force is not with this one, but who needs the force when you’ve got the self-proclaimed greatest pilot in the galaxy at your helm.

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Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)

Written and Directed by: Martin McDonagh

CW: This film deals with bluntly with sexual and domestic violence, and also addresses police brutality and racism (a focus of this review).

Three_Billboards_Outside_Ebbing,_Missouri            When you see a title as verbose as that of TBOEM (sorry, that’s what I’m to call it), you know you’re in for an unusual viewing experience. TBOEM is the story of Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), the mother of a rape-and-murder victim enraged at the failure of police to find her daughter’s assailant. She expresses her rage by renting three abandoned billboards on which she denounces the town’s beloved police chief William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson). The billboards are mundane in their color-scheme and brutally graphic in their words. They are significant in that they come to mean something greater to Mildred than the direct political purpose they serve. That said, the quirk of the film lies not so much in the billboards, as in the conflict they stir.

Harrelson is well cast as Willoughby, a character whose personality lies somewhere on the spectrum of Albus Dumbledore (powerful man with a surprisingly gentle soul) to Long John Silver (megalomaniac who manages to have a gentle soul on the side). Whether Harrelson is more Dumbledore or Silver depends of course on what one assumes about the film’s subtext (ie what the Ebbing police were up to when the camera wasn’t running). Political assumptions aside (we’ll get back to that later), Willoughby’s gentleness certainly stands out. While other citizens of Ebbing, which seems be a town where everyone knows everyone, are quick to denounce the billboards, Willoughby humors them and speaks empathetically of Hayes. He is simultaneously affectionate towards his loose cannon colleague, Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell).

Willoughby’s gentleness enables one of the film’s notable characteristics: genre-bending. Willoughby speaks wryly and light-heartedly, despite delivering some quite heavy lines. The result of his characterization is that it frees the audience from having to simply experience TBOEM as a literal, realist story. Instead, audiences can appreciate the film as an exploration of how different kinds of police-in-small-town-storylines (fictional and real) in contemporary American can play out. Hayes’ son (Lucas Hedges) and friendly barfly James (Peter Dinklage) also make important contributions to the film’s wonderfully awkward gesticulations between its sombre and slapstick moods.

TBOEM is reminiscent of Coen brothers and Tarantino films. It features the occasional outburst of violence that is swept under the rug with relative ease. This violence, much like in Tarantino’s political works, Jango Unchained and Unglorious Bastards, can be read as a metaphor for the intensity of its character’s feelings, the violent oppression they face and the urgency and validness of their causes. More so than in Tarantino films, however, the violence in TBOEM boils up at a moment’s notice, giving audiences the particularly uncomfortable experience of not knowing whether to take it literally or even that seriously. Some of TBOEM’s violence fits into the story at such a sharp angle that it comes across as a very dark form of physical comedy.

TBOEM also attempts to factor racism into its storyline. This is where the film gets sloppy. Martin McDonagh made a film in which a police department is criticized for not working hard enough to make an arrest. It seems that he worried his message would be misconstrued as a claim that the problem with America’s police is that they don’t police enough. Therefore, it seems, he threw in a number of references to racist (and homophobic) behaviour from Ebbing police officers, particularly Dixon, so that his film would not be interpreted as oblivious to these ills. McDonagh includes three black characters in his script, all of who appear just enough to be remembered, but not enough to be memorable. For example, one black character, Denise (Amanda Warren), is arrested for marijuana possession, as a way of illustrating police racism. Denise, however, is never shown objecting to or suffering through her incarceration. Rather, her suffering is objectified as a self-righteous talking point for her friend Mildred Hayes.

Others have criticized TBOEM’s approach to race on the grounds that Dixon is ultimately portrayed in a sympathetic light despite passing references in the film to his “torturing black people” (and no suggestion that his racial politics improve). The film’s quirky style leaves it unclear what exactly these accusations mean: are they to be taken literally, or as grain-of-truth-accusations from his critics. On the one hand, the accusations are repeated and never rebutted. On the other hand, they are referenced so casually, that it is hard to fully accept that they are true. I can therefore, on the one hand, understand the criticism the film has garnered. In real life, anti-black violence from police is readily brushed over, so it makes sense that some viewers could interpret the film as a reinforcement of this unjust order. On the other hand, this critique ignores that TBOEM is not exactly a realist film; let alone one with clear messages. Dixon should not be understood as a person, but as a post-modern character who simultaneously inhabits (perhaps exaggerated versions of) different interpretations of white American masculinity. The emergence of Dixon-as-hero (and not exactly an angelic hero) therefore does not erase the problem of Dixon-as-racial-oppressor. I suppose therefore, I would defend McDonagh from some critiques while readily acknowledging that these critiques are a justified consequence for the film’s failure to meaningfully develop its own black characters

TBOEM brings together a great cast of characters into a story with well written dialogue and excellent melange of tones. Whether it will ultimately be remembered as perhaps this year’s best effort in narrative constructions or for its political shortcomings (and, as always, I hope both viewpoints can be understood and held in appropriate balance by as many viewers as possible) is a question that remains to be answered, though I’m sure its one this year’s academy awards will not fail to bring to a boil.