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YIN/YANG REVIEWS: Solo: A Star Wars Story / Gringo

Updated: Jul 8, 2019

by Derek May

YIN: Solo: A Star Wars Story

Here’s a movie that started behind the 8-ball. Despite his enduring popularity, fans have been continually divided about whether they even wanted a film exploring the early years of nefarious rogue, Han Solo. Yet, it’s because of his popularity that Disney figured it was a slam dunk to include the film in their nascent spin-off franchise. And really I, for one, can’t fault them for that.

To ensure the best result, they brought in acclaimed screenwriter and Star Wars veteran Larry Kasden, along with his son, to pen the screenplay. A fine idea. They then hired hot, young directing duo Phil Lord and Chris Miller, both fresh off commercial and critical success with their Lego Movie. Not bad, right? They even got Donald Glover as Lando, I mean, how much more perfect can you get?

Despite proper preparation and the best intentions, the wheels started coming off the bus fairly quickly. Rumors that Miller and Lord were improvising too much and injecting too much comedy into the film, got execs all in a tizzy. Seriously though, how did they not see THAT coming from these guys? Then more rumors about already-divisive leading man Alden Ehrenreich began to swirl, claiming his acting was not only missing the Harrison mark, but quite simply performing below basic expectations. The film that fans were already unsure about looked to be in BIG trouble.

In a surprising move, with more than half the film already shot, Disney fired Lord and Miller and replaced them with stalwart Ron Howard, saddling him with the near-impossible task of getting up to speed, reshooting a massive portion of the film, and still making the announced release date. Oh, and when you have the time, take to social media to try and allay everyone’s fears and doubts. Thanks, Ron!

By all rights then, Solo should have ended up an incoherent, unwatchable mess.

It is not.

For all my love of the Star Wars franchise, I’m also realistic enough to admit it has a far larger miss than hit ratio. And within that spectrum, Solo really fits comfortably just above average. It’s a fun, enjoyable little space adventure that sits quite comfortably within the established universe. The characters are likable, and well-developed. New characters fit well and bring a fresh perspective, while familiar names veer steadily toward where we need them to end up, and are given plenty of opportunity to deliver throwback winks at the audience.

What the film really doesn’t do is add anything truly significant to the established universe or the characters. And this is the fault that most people seem to be laying at the movie’s feet: it’s fine, but just a pedestrian sidebar that wouldn’t be missed if it had never been made. And it’s a fair assessment.

For me, the high bar of Star Wars films was set with Rogue One. I’m not sure what happened between its release, where the world seemed to agree, to now, where there seems to be a negative backlash, but I would vehemently argue that that movie worked on every level. The characters were perfectly developed, the adventure story worked seamlessly into the universe narrative, and the construction of that film allowed for emotion, depth, drama, excitement, and real stakes. All of this while also having its initial director replaced and the film redone and recut.

The difference with Solo is that the stakes work within its own story, but not within the existing universe. But is that really a problem? Isn’t that what we ask of just about any movie? With that take, I stand by statement that Solo succeeds, not in spite of, but because of its simplicity. The story is pretty straightforward and in keeping with the characters. Han is a criminal, a thief, a smuggler. Why wouldn’t you make a movie with him involved in a couple of heists? The jobs themselves, while not terribly elaborate, make for good set pieces, and allow Han to work his way closer into the fraternity of ne’er-do-wells. And again, as we’ve seen before with a certain princess, he’s completely caught up with a young woman, Q’ira (Emilia Clarke), which provides his motivation throughout the film. It’s nothing we haven’t seen a million times, but as with most movies, it’s more about the how than the what, and in this case, the journey is believable, enjoyable, and satisfactory.

Sure, that’s not a glowing review. 'Competent' is hardly the stuff of legends. But I’ve watched a lot of movies that were fun, but completely incompetent. I’ll take a story that makes sense within its own internal logic, and provides some thrills and excitement along the way, over mere spectacle - any day.

Contributing to this are some endearing performances from our troupe. Whatever acting concerns were levied at Ehrenreich, in the end, he does a perfectly serviceable job. He’s got the look (if not the height—it bothers me to no end that he’s several inches shy of Ford), and there are moments where you really see the Han we know. As it goes with origin stories, the hero must fundamentally change over the course of the film. I’m not sure that’s the case here though. Han begins a low-level ruffian who embarks on a new life. He ends the film as a mid-level ruffian with some connections and resources who embarks on a new life. Sure he’s a bit older, a slight bit wiser, and has some experience now along with a new best-bud and a new ship. But, he’s essentially the Han he started as. Is that a fault of the script, Alden’s performance, or both? I’m not sure exactly. But in the end, Ehrenreich does have just enough charm to carry the character, and the film - even with being arguably the weakest actor of the bunch.

Emilia Clarke tends to carry Alden in their scenes, which only elevates them both. She imbues Qi’ra with a beautiful tragedy, having to walk the line between what her heart wants and what she must do to survive in this unforgiving universe.

She may actually have the biggest arc in the film, moving from street rat to major player in the underworld by making a life-altering choice at the end. Woody Harrelson shines as the infamous mentor Beckett, who shepherds young Solo through the underworld, teaching him the good, the bad, and the ugly side of this way of life by example. Thandie Newton and Paul Bettany pop in to make the most of their screentime, injecting much-needed gravitas into the film.

And of course, we can’t ignore Lando. Glover is without doubt the shining example for every other legacy actor in the film. There are moments where he completely embodies Billy Dee Williams in charm, voice, look, and attitude, yet without ever straying away into parody or mimicry. This Lando is very much still Glover’s, with his unique take. But it just goes to show how a skillful enough actor can blend the two. It’s so good that it inadvertently shines a spotlight on just how lacking Ehrenreich’s performance really is, likely through little fault of Alden himself.

Between heists, we do get to peek into several unexplored corners of that galaxy far, far away. Han and Qi’ra’s home planet of Corellia is seen in all its grimy degradation. We learn a little about the origins of the Millennium Falcon, and why that origin might mean something to Han. And in an unexpected turn, we explore the idea of droid rights, bringing to light a question that many fans have had over the years—if droids are so seemingly sentient, then is it right that we effectively enslave them? That’s about as deep as the film goes, but still nice to see it given a proper platform.

So what do we end up with? The story works within itself, offering excitement, thrills, and little adventures where the characters can showcase either their development or their innate qualities. We do get to see a little more of the universe, explore some of the hidden corners, and get answers to questions that at least existed if were not in desperate need of answering.

Something to keep in mind here is that the movie has two titles: “Solo” and “A Star Wars Story.” The latter should not be forgotten or dismissed. This isn’t the main Skywalker family drama or Jedi/Sith battle we go in circles within the trilogy of trilogy films. This is just a story. Within Star Wars. And taken in that light, it’s hard to really fault it too much. Sure, Solo has its problems, but the venom seemingly spewed in its direction may be more about the drama behind the scenes, carryover ill-will from the divisive Last Jedi, or simply franchise fatigue at this point. Or it could just be sour grapes over never having wanted to see the magic behind Ford’s iconic character. But whatever the case, Solo at the very least deserves to be judged on its own merits, and as such I say give it a chance. It won’t change your life, it probably won’t stick with you much after viewing, but I’m willing to bet that somewhere along the way, it will put a smile on your face. And that’s never a bad thing.


YANG: Gringo

Gotta say, Gringo certainly went for it. Despite the backing of Amazon Studios, I suspect a lot of friendships and favors were called in to assemble what is really one hell of an impressive cast - an Oscar winner, several Golden Globe nominees, and plenty of recognizable faces. But while the movie isn’t as bad as it’s made out to be, it’s also fairly underwhelming.

Up-and-coming acting powerhouse David Oyelowo of Selma fame does his usual suburb performance as Harold, a middle-management good guy getting shit on with ever-increasing regularity.

Pushed to the breaking point while on a business trip to Mexico, he decides to take some measure of control in his life by faking his own kidnapping in order to ransom $5 million from his backstabbing boss. The plan, naturally, goes horribly awry, trapping Harold between a real Mexican cartel out for him, a mercenary trying to save him, and the DEA trying to round up the lot. It’s really not a bad little setup, and makes for a decent-if-wavering mix of dark comedy, suspense, and violence.

But really, it’s not a whole lot more than a pleasant, low-budget little B-movie that somehow wrangled A-list talent. And not really to its benefit. It’s funny, but this seems to be a case where most of the actors are really TOO good in it. It’s obvious they are performing OVER the material. Oyelowo is really too talented to be playing goofball haplessness. This is a role for a younger Martin Lawrence more than a seasoned dramatist like Oyelowo.

Journeyman character actor Joel Edgerton plays the perfect smarmy, duplicitous CEO, but even his presence didn’t make a lot of sense until I realized his brother Nash was the director.

How they got Charlize Theron, who chews up her scenes with ferocious, nearly distressing sexuality, I really can’t fathom (though I suspect maybe this was part of a multi-picture deal). Likewise, why Thandie Newton and Amanda Seyfried were willing to take bit parts here just blows my mind.

In fairness, their performances are all undeniably impressive, as should come as no shock. But their mere presence elevates expectations which the film isn’t designed to live up to. That’s really not its fault. You wouldn’t expect a Honda Civic to win Daytona just because you have an expert driving. And so the little film which chronicles a series of downward-spiral misfortunes and characters all jockeying to position themselves at the top of the heap does work on a certain level. Most of the characters tend to behave logically and somewhat predictably based on their established natures. While consistent, it doesn’t leave much room for surprise, and the movie ends up showing you a journey rather than taking you on one. Which is what you might expect from this grade of film.

Nash Edgerton, known mostly for short films, does a perfectly steady job directing the story. He seems to have the touch for balancing the various genres swimming throughout the tale. Whether he directs the super-talent or merely gets out of their way, he still manages to pull together what he needs from his players in a remarkable way.

As is, the film works overall, but I suspect it’s more hampered than helped by its top-notch cast. While on the plus side, it certainly intrigued me enough to watch, it also brings with it a baggage that cannot be overlooked. The awful trailer depicting Oyelowo as a perpetually screaming idiot certainly didn’t do the film any favors, and may turn off far more than it entices. But ultimately, with the right understanding, it’s a film worth giving a look. I truly believe that this may be a case study in too much of a good thing. Reimagined with a cast of hungry and talented up-and-comers, this might have been a darling of independent, low-budget filmmaking rather than the odd, red-headed step-child.

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