This Is a Movie Review: ‘Solo: A Star Wars Story’ Succeeds When it Commits to Its Icons Fully or Creates Something Wholly New

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(c) Lucasfilm Ltd. and TM. All Rights Reserved.

This review was originally published on News Cult in May 2018.

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

Director: Ron Howard

Running Time: 135 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Lasers and Space Derring-Do

Release Date: May 25, 2018

Nobody can play Han Solo as iconically as Harrison Ford, or so the conventional wisdom goes. Now that we actually have Alden Ehrenreich’s version to dissect, we can render a more practical verdict about just how successful he is or isn’t. And while indeed young Solo has nothing on classic Solo, the task is not necessarily as impossible as originally advertised, which we know because we do not have to look far to find someone else pulling off that goal, as Donald Glover’s take on Lando Calrissian manages to be just as iconic as, if not more so (time will tell, ultimately), Billy Dee Williams’ version.

To be fair, Glover probably has the easier task, insofar as it is the less restricted one. While Ford is one of the major players in four Star Wars films, Williams only has about 15 minutes of screen time across two episodes. Ergo, Glover has plenty more freedom to fill in the blanks and create new blanks never hinted at previously, while Ehrenreich is locked into coloring necessary backstory, like earning the life debt that Chewie owes him and making the Kessel Run in under 12 parsecs. But the biggest difference is in the quality of preparation. Glover feels like someone who has been auditioning to play Lando his whole life, while Ehrenreich feels like someone who has been training to be an actor, and maybe more specifically a movie star, but not so specifically Han Solo in particular. That specificity and passion is almost certainly necessary to pull off the job of simultaneously paying homage to a famous character and making it one’s own. Maybe there are some folks out there who have been playing Han Solo in front of the mirror their whole lives, but Ehrenreich is probably not one of them. He gets the job done, but he does not take it to the next level.

Solo does not rely entirely on checking off a bunch of backstory checkpoints. Like any well-bred Star Wars movie, it is populated with a menagerie of diverse characters. As far as the new faces go, most prominent are Emilia Clarke as Qi’ra, Han’s childhood friend and partner-in-crime, and Woody Harrelson as Tobias Beckett, Han’s smuggling mentor. They are appropriately cast, but they feel like could be any Emilia Clarke or Woody Harrelson character, as opposed to the roles of a lifetime that add new definition to what a Star War can be. Same goes for crime lord Dryden Vos, who can be easily and unfussily added to Paul Bettany’s murderers’ row of villain roles.

But not-so-quietly revolutionary is Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s motion-capture performance as L3-37, Lando’s feisty, herky-jerky droid companion. Waller-Bridge’s success comes from a starting point totally opposite of Glover’s, as she had never seen a Star Wars film before auditioning. Consequently, her performance is not beholden to any droids that have preceded her. She takes full advantage of the individuality inherent to a set of beings that seem to have plenty of free will despite also being conditioned by their programming. Her relationship with Lando suggests an open-minded (pansexual even) imagination that might as well be explored in a cinematic universe as vast as this one. And therein lies a template for keeping fresh the perhaps infinite number of future Star Wars: anchor them in a deepened spin on the familiar while introducing a high-risk, wholly fresh concoction.

Solo: A Star Wars Story is Recommended If You Like: Community’s Star Wars homages, Watching poker when you have no idea what the rules are, Human-cyborg relations

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Parsecs

 

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Gringo’ Finds Humor and Redemption in a World Gone Mad

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CREDIT: Amazon Studios

This review was originally posted on News Cult in March 2018.

Starring: David Oyelowo, Charlize Theron, Joel Edgerton, Amanda Seyfried, Thandie Newton, Sharlto Copley, Yul Vazquez, Harry Treadaway, Alan Ruck

Director: Nash Edgerton

Running Time: 110 Minutes

Rating: R for Corporate Profanity, Office Sex and Euphemistic Propositioning, and a Few Gunshots and Amputations

Release Date: March 9, 2018

Gringo exists mainly to stoke the ire of anyone who believes that the insurance industry is the greatest scam in the history of humanity. I am sure that there are some agents putting in decent work, and there certainly have been times when a smart policy have bailed folks out of emergencies. But why do have to put money aside (or pay folks off, in cynical parlance) to ensure all that? Why can’t we as a species just agree to have each other’s backs as part of the human contract? I suppose that the insurance industry is meant to be that agreement, but as Gringo proves, there are plenty of opportunities for abuse in its current form.

A less humanistic film than Gringo would have Harold Soyinka (David Oyelowo) seeking his revenge on the world for being constantly taken advantage of or falling into a pit of despair over how nice guys finish last. But instead, it is about how he realizes how he is rich in what truly counts in life through a chaotically dangerous, screwball journey. He is a mid-level businessman at the drug company Cannabix who is just a little too trusting of everyone around him. He catches wind that a lot of jobs are going to get cut very soon in unscrupulous fashion, and he is shocked that his boss Richard (Joel Edgerton) would ever do such a thing. But that bit of news should not be surprising to anyone who has spent more than a few minutes with this most weaselly of alpha males. Furthermore, Harold and his wife Bonnie (Thandie Newton) are tens of thousands of dollars in debt, mostly due to her highly irresponsible financial habits. Plus, she’s cheating on him (take a wild guess with who), and she’s kind of taking pity on how much he’s been letting this all happen right under his nose.

As Harold begins to learn the truth, Richard and his other boss, the more openly terrible Elaine (the scary when she’s funny Charlize Theron), bring him down to Mexico for a little business trip, making it the perfect time for Harold to win back a little of his dignity. So he fakes his own kidnapping in a scheme to make off with a ransom of $5 million. Such a kidnapping is believable, as the company has recently developed a very valuable product (medical marijuana in pill form), and they do business with a cartel. At first Richard and Elaine are willing to play ball (sort of) to get Harold home safe. But when it turns out that Cannabix’s insurance policies make it more valuable when an employee dies, things really go topsy-turvy.

Not that they ever weren’t pear-shaped in the first place. Harold may be faking his kidnapping, but he actually has been targeted for capture by the cartel, who mistake him for the boss. Adding to the fun are his run-ins with Sunny (Amanda Seyfried), a sweet and naive guitar shop employee who does not realize the extent of her boyfriend’s (Harry Treadaway) drug dealings, as well as Richard’s brother Mitch (Sharlto Copley), a sort of private special ops extractor who weirdly but effectively has some of the most integrity of any of the characters.

There is a lot of explosive coincidence in Gringo, but it is justified in that it is what ensures the hilarity. The humor is morally satisfying, as the worst actors are forced to reckon with what they deserve, while the lessons imparted are not overly didactic. Kindness is rewarded, as epiphanies emerge to show that life’s cruelty can be laughed upon. This is quite the loony bin of a cast, but ultimately this is The Manic High-Wire David Oyelowo Show, and he sells it with a supremely cool final shot.

Gringo is Recommended If You Like: Coen Brothers Crime Comedies, The Kind of Movie Wherein Gunfire Leads to Hilarious Screaming, Satisfying Morality

Grade: 3 out of 5 Gorilla