Movie reviews: 'Solo: A Star Wars Story' an old fashioned mix of action and romance
Published Friday, May 25, 2018 6:00AM EDT
SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY: 3 STARS
Did you ever wonder what Rick Blaine was up to before he opened a fancy nightclub and gambling den in Casablanca? What Katniss Everdeen was like as a child? How Tyler Durden came to make the rules for his fight club?
Some classic movie characters come with backstories, others simply exist for the moments in time we spend staring at the screen. Others earn origin stories while others are best left as one offs.
Still others, like Han Solo, also exist in our imaginations and are the subject of much speculation. For forty years fans have wondered how Solo zipped through through hyperspace to do the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs, how he got his last name and why the Space Cowboy and Chewbacca are as tight as two Porgs in a space pod.
The “Star Wars” smuggler ranks up there with the most popular characters of all time and a new film, “Solo: A Star Wars Story,” fills in the blanks on the legends never before detailed on film.
The story begins with Han’s (Alden Ehrenreich) daring escape attempt from his hellish life on Corellia and the Imperial Guards who reign over him. With dreams of becoming a pilot dancing in his head the street urchin makes it out, vowing to return to rescue his girlfriend Qi'ra (Emilia Clarke). In quick order he enlists in the Imperial Army, gets kicked out and falls in with a gang of thieves led by the charismatic Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson). “Let me give you some advice,” Beckett says, “assume everyone will betray you and you will never be disappointed.”
Later, betrayed and thrown into a squalid death pit, he meets Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), the 190-year-old Wookie who will soon become the Sundance Kid to his Butch Cassidy. A heist gone wrong brings the newly minted band of misfits into the orbit of intergalactic boogeyman Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany). He offers them a chance to settle their score with them but to do so they’ll need a new ship. Enter space scoundrel Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) and his magnificent flying machine, the Millennium Falcon.
“Solo: A Star Wars Story” is an old fashioned mix of action, adventure and romance with loads of “Star Wars” mythology woven into the story. There’s no force, no Jedi just a straightforward story populated with likeable (and purposefully not so likeable) characters.
Director Ron Howard, who took over after Phil Lord and Chris Miller were let go, keeps the action fluid, injects plenty of humour—“You will never have a deeper sleep than curled up in a Wookie lap,” says four-armed pilot Rio (Jon Favreau) wistfully.—shaping the story, after a slow start, into a bit of a romp. He’s hampered by a story with very low stakes. We know (THIS IS NOT A SPOILER UNLESS YOU HAVE NEVER SEEN OR EVEN HEARD OF THE STAR WARS MOVIES) that Han, Chewie and Lando go on to greater adventures so there doesn’t seem to be much at risk. It’s fun to get a glimpse of the young versions of characters we all know but “Solo: A Star Wars Story” feels slight, less consequential than the other films in the series.
Ehrenreich tackles the impossible job of filling in the gaps left by Harrison Ford. He’s all swagger. A fearless, fast-on-his-feet, walking-talking attitude, he’s solid but doesn’t bring the charisma that so effortlessly flowed from Ford.
The supporting cast, however, delivers in spades. Glover oozes charm, playing Calrissian as a swaggering pirate with a fashion sense and a “what’s in it for me” bearing that makes him eminently watchable.
Chewie is given a backstory and more to do than simply act as a sidekick. Given the chance to help his family, who have been torn apart by the empire, the 7' 6'' fuzzball goes his own way, disobeying Solo. He has his own mind and asserts himself in a way he hasn’t before. Suotamo, with his deft physical work, also provides some of the film’s biggest laughs.
“Solo: A Star Wars Story” has some nice moments but relies on adrenaline when it should trust its characters.
ON CHESIL BEACH: 3 ½ STARS
Adapted by Ian McEwan from his novel of the same name, “On Chesil Beach,” spends some up-close-and-personal time with an awkward young couple on their wedding night.
It’s the summer of 1962 and Saoirse Ronan is Florence Ponting, a straight-laced, upper class musician with dreams of playing with an orchestra. University College of London history student Edward Mayhew (Billy Howle) is working class, but despite their different stations in life, woos her and soon the pair is married.
We meet them on their honeymoon in a hotel on Chesil Beach, Dorset. Their obvious affection for one another aside, they are inexperienced and anxious. Edward is eager but Florence is torn between her distaste of personal intimacy and her fear of disappointing her new husband. “You’re always advancing and I am always backing away,” she says, “and we can never talk about it.”
Through flashbacks from their lives, both separately and together, we learn of Edward’s difficult home life with a mentally ill mother (Anne-Marie Duff) and what makes them both tick.
“On Chesil Beach” is essentially a chamber piece, built around the two lead performances. Director Dominic Cooke takes full advantage of them, luxuriating over their faces, letting their eyes, rather than the dialogue tell the story. Once again, Ronan is remarkable, authentic in every way. Howle contrasts Florence’s calm presence with a more volatile presence. From flashbacks to happier times and their their eventful honeymoon to a flashforward, we see a couple slowly crushed by the emotional weight of their circumstances.
Despite the emotional heaviness the film is light on its feet, only becoming bogged down in an overly sentimental—and tacked on feeling—coda.
BIRTHMARKED: 1 STAR
A science experiment with real world repercussions is at the heart of “Birthmarked,” a new comedy starring Toni Collette and Matthew Goode.
The action in the film begins with a simple, timeless question, “Could we have been anyone other than who we are?” Married scientists Ben (Goode) and Catherine (Collette) attempt to answer the question by staging a social experiment that they hope will once and for all determine what is more important in shaping young lives, nature or nurture.
In a remote cabin under very controlled circumstances Ben and Catherine, with the help of sex-starved Russian assistant Samsonov (Andreas Apergis), condition their kids to defy expectations.
Their son Luke (Jordan Poole), their biological child is be raised as an artist. Two adopted children, daughter Maya (Megan O’Kelly), from a “long line of dimwitted people,” is trained as an intellectual while son Maurice (Anton Gillis-Adelman), adopted from a family with angry, aggressive ancestors, is taught the ways of peace and love. The artist. The brain. The pacifist. “No one is a prisoner of their genetic heritage,” says Ben, who “teaches” his kids unorthodox classes like Stimulated Self Expression.
Their carefully documented experiment takes a turn when their patron (Michael Smiley) demands results. “Remember our deal,” he says. “If this fails you owe me every cent I put into this.”
“Birthmarked” has the kind of low-key quirk that Wes Anderson has mastered. Unfortunately it eludes Emanuel Hoss-Desmarais. Example: “The use of a narrator is weak dramaturgy,” Ben says by way of criticism of his son’s play, in a movie with loads of narration.
You can imagine “Birthmarked” being given a freshening up by someone who looks past the character’s idiosyncrasies instead of embracing them. A little less cleverness might have left room for whatever humanity these characters possess. As it is the film never lifts off because Ben, Catherine and Company don’t feel like real people. They feel like characters thrown into an odd situation and not like people living in, and dealing with, a strange state of affairs.
THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO ANDRE: 4 STARS
He’s one of the most famous names in fashion and yet he’s not a designer or couturier. He’s André Leon Talley, former “Vogue” editor and contributor and fixture in the front row of every important fashion show worldwide.
The intellectually and physically imposing Talley—he’s an endlessly quotable six-and-a-half-foot man—is the subject of “The Gospel According To Andre,” a new documentary from Kate Novack that goes beneath the trademarked capes and bling to reveal the man, not the public figure.
Born and raised in the segregated Jim Crow South Talley grew up far from the runways of Paris. His introduction to fashion came in the form of the elaborate hats his grandmother’s friends wore to church. As a young, self-conscious man he spent hours at the library reading “Vogue” before attending Brown University and ultimately moving to New York City to chase his dream of working in the fashion industry.
Jobs working for style maven Diana Vreeland and at Andy Warhol’s “Interview” magazine placed him at the centre of hip NYC Studio 54 culture. By 1983 he was working at “Vogue,” the job that cemented his legacy as a fashion icon. Helping to tell the tale are Anna Wintour, Marc Jacobs, Tom Ford, Bethann Hardison, Valentino, and Manolo Blahnik.
Although “Gospel” veers into hagiography—will.i.am. even goes so far as to call Talley “the Nelson Mandela of couture."—it also provides an intimate look at the painful racism and body shaming the heavy set gay man was subjected to. In one tearful moment he describes being called “Queen Kong” by colleagues. It is in these moments the film is elevated from a timeline of an interesting man’s life to a portrait of a pioneer who blazed a trail for him and those who followed. Talley’s influence on fashion culture as an editor and commentator is inestimable and “Gospel,” while not terribly stylishly made, is a fitting tribute to a man who says, “I don't live for fashion, I live for beauty and style.”
NOBODY FAMOUS: 3 STARS
In actor’s circles it’s not uncommon to hear, “I will kill for that role,” but would they really? That’s the fertile ground explored in “Nobody Famous,” a new dark comedy from director Sarah Rotella.
Set at a Northern Ontario cottage, the film sees aspiring actors, opportunist Dani (Justine Nelson), overeager Valerie (Gráinne O'Flynn), dim bulb Ricky R. (Evan Giovanni), closeted macho man Stefano (Justin Gerhard) and over-preparer Grace (Winny Clarke) get away for a weekend. All up-and-comers, they bring scripts, work on audition pieces, compare twitter followers and constantly check their phones for messages from their agents.
When Dani receives the call they’ve all been waiting for, the offer of a lead role in a science fiction film, the mood of the weekend changes. Petty disputes take over as jealousy becomes the word of the day.
Their respective acting talents will be put to the ultimate audition when one of them winds up dead, the victim of bruised egos and indifference. Can they convince everyone of their innocence when most of them can’t even land an acting gig?
“Nobody Famous” finds humour in the self-obsessed world of superficial, thin-skinned people. These characters claim to be friends and yet they trade veiled (and not so veiled) insults aimed at undermining confidence, take delight in their pal’s failures and sleep around.
Director Rotella and screenwriter Adrianna DiLonardo have fun with the stereotypes of these people, so desperate for attention, but take pains to show us the flip side. Inserts of audition tapes give a glimpse of the cutting remarks that erode away the self-confidence of all of the actors. Each have their cross to bear and each shroud that cross in bravado. It’s an interesting way to get under the skin of these people but “Nobody Famous” is ultimately more concerned with having fun with them, not understanding them. To that end it succeeds.
It takes a bit too long to get to the juicy stuff—the death and the aftermath—but provides many laughs before diving into the sinister side of ambition.