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By midlandsmovies, Jun 5 2018 08:30PM



SOLO (2018) Dir. Ron Howard


With a troubled production you have to ask is it all Happy Days at Disney as it releases yet another new Star Wars movie? As Ron Howard stepped on board the galactic train after original directors Lord and Miller were ditched, many wondered if we would be getting a Suicide Squad/Fantastic Four chop job. Well, from first glance Howard has done stellar work in bringing a film back from the brink of collapse where the cohesive whole shows no sign of the multiple hands at work.


Solo is another Star Wars “Story” film – originally called Anthology films, Disney has done a great job in convincing everyone that this is expanded universe territory – but make no mistake that this is pure prequel fare. With huge reservations after the dull and misjudged Rogue One (another SW film with production woes), I had very low expectations for a narrative filling in a back story that I had no interest in.


That said, Howard (with sci-fi and fantasy skills honed with Apollo 13 and Willow) does a pretty solid job at the helm as we are introduced to Han, who is part of a gang of youths under the protection of slimey space worm Lady Proxima. But he soon wants to leave his home planet for a new freedom with his lover Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke). However, whilst Han escapes to join the Empire’s war, Qi’ra is captured and returned home. Moving forward in time we catch up with Han as he tries to escape the violent war by selling his skills as a pilot to Woody Harrelson’s gang of outlaws. They intend to grab some McGuffin power sources to fulfil a contract to Paul Bettany’s facially scarred baddie Dryden Vos.


The film actually keeps things simple in the main and is all the better for it as we follow a likeable and active protagonist (unlike the charisma-free Jyn Erso) who takes his life decisions into his own hands. Alden Ehrenreich is very alluring as a young and cocky Solo – some hints of Harrison Ford’s legendary charisma are present – but mostly avoids a direct impression of the actor as he blags his way through risky plans and double-dealing hunters. If anything, in seedy caverns and bars, he at times will remind audiences of Indiana Jones rather than Han. Which is no bad thing.


The subtler nods to the franchise and the muddy-brown battle scenes feel a far better attempt at a Star Wars “war” film than Rogue One and I thoroughly enjoyed the real location work given my constant struggle with dodgy CGI. The light-hearted banter was fun, the characters were broad but understandable and although not hilarious, the dialogue avoided the under-cutting Marvel quips to make the characters well, actually, likeable.


But it’s not all good right? Well, yes there are some problems. It’s ultimately not needed as an entry into Star Wars lore, that much is true. Also, the Starship Troopers-style Empire recruitment video was a mess alongside (in the same scene no less) a reveal about the origin of Han’s surname so heavy handed it will draw groans.


Emilia Clarke returns later in the film and is passable after some worrisome performances (her stilted Sarah Connor in Terminator Genisys still grates) but Donald Glover certainly delivers as a young Lando. His space gambler is a mixture of sleaze and, strangely, sexuality that has him build more than a just a friendship with sarcastic freedom-fighting robot L3-37. It was also great to see Ron throw some romance back into the galaxy after the amicable friendships of the last 3 movies with a bit of frisson between Han and Qi’ra. And he also gives cameos both to his brother Clint and his Willow (and Star Wars) star Warwick Davis.


On a technical level, a slightly strange vignette-sepia colour palette with backlighting that sometimes drowned out the foreground characters was an enjoyable aesthetic but I predict some may think it doesn’t ‘sit’ well in the SW universe. The small sets were intimate yet underwhelming but they did remind me of the matinee style of the original films and this more compact story was a nice change from planet-destroying space battles.


As Han inevitably meets Chewie in a fun, if again unnecessary, prison break scene, the film ticks off its obligatory story beats whilst some surprises arrive in a lack of a Jabba appearance and a rather shocking Lucas-prequel reference. And after a rollicking rollercoaster heist on snowy mountainside (especially fun in 3-D it has to be said), the film heads towards a more interesting final third act with plenty of double-crossing character beats.


Solo is not perfect and as a prequel (yes, it is!) it just cannot compare to the forward-thinking joys of The Last Jedi but it is far more fun than Rogue One’s deathly hellscape of non-characters and forced fan service. Howard has done more than an admirable job with a production that was deep in trouble and his classic filmmaking style gives Solo some intimacy and old-fashioned movie making gloss. It won’t set the world alight – and I’m dreading the inevitable internet backlash – but ignore the haters as this is a fun, if a little undistinguished, family blockbuster.


7.5/10


Midlands Movies Mike


By midlandsmovies, Jan 12 2018 12:28PM



Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2018) Dir. Martin McDonagh


Is highlighting retribution as important as getting it yourself? Well, deep themes and jet-black comedy abound in this new low-key rural American drama from the British/Irish writer-director of In Bruges Martin McDonagh. Frances McDormand plays Mildred Hayes, a put-upon mother who has lost a daughter in a violent rape and murder and, after the investigation stalls, rents three blood-red billboards on the outskirts of town. Not since Fargo has McDormand commanded a screen so fully but her foul-mouthed and impulsive renegade couldn’t be further from Marge Gunderson – although both have an intensity to see justice served.


With the billboards asking why local Sheriff Chief Willoughby (a fantastic supporting turn from Woody Harrelson) hasn’t made any arrests, not even his terminal illness breaks Mildred’s resolve to move her case forward. In addition, Sam Rockwell as Officer Jason Dixon – an actor that against all popular opinion I’ve never particularly warmed to – gives the performance of a lifetime as a drunk, racist policeman trying to maintain some sort of order. Gaining her plenty of attention in the process, Mildred is a driving force in the narrative as she seeks retribution for the depraved death of her daughter whilst she continues to deal with flashes of extreme violence from her ex-husband (John Hawkes as Charlie Hayes) whose own response to the crisis is to date a 19-year old.


The humour comes from both McDormand’s quick and vulgar responses but also through more subtle and loving comedy in her relationship with her son (Lucas Hedges as Robbie Hayes). Extremely protective of him but also reflecting her own sass, the lighter dramatic moments are relief from the themes of passion and unthinking revenge which permeate the film.


[SPOILERS] When Sheriff Willoughby takes his own life owing to cancer, he communicates from beyond the grave in a very personal suicide letter both to his family and to Mildred about her case. In a film where characters seem stereotypical in their introductions, the nuanced screenplay and interesting threads and dramatic turns see characters developing across arcs that audiences will respond to. Sam Rockwell’s hot-headed and inexperienced police officer – who lives with his mum and was held back a year at police academy – takes his temper out on the locals before finding his own enlightenment through forgiveness and correcting mistakes of the past.


As Mildred goes to war with the whole town, her billboards create chaos but stir up strong emotions about redemption. Can we hold onto revenge or is there an inherent destructive force in our search for what’s right? When she attempts to stop her billboards burning – an arson attack sees Mildred battle huge flames with a tiny extinguisher – her small one-woman passions are at odds with the larger forces at work. Yet in both cases, despite the emotional drain, this does not stop her efforts and if anything stokes her fires further.


And it’s McDormand’s complete commitment to the role in every aspect – the tough-talking, the tear-jerking and the solemn reflecting – that centre the film and gives it a star attraction. Her struggles ensure the plot moves briskly and whilst the film’s conclusion feels like an audience can finally take a breather, the reality is simply a temporary calm rather than a newly established equilibrium.


Showing complex struggles from start to finish (including the police, ex-husband, strangers and even the dentist) “Three Billboards” fans the flames of passions and is a brilliant advertisement for the continued talent of McDonagh’s own dark interests. Delivered impeccably by a fantastic cast, the film provides no clear answers but continues the ideas set down within In Bruges. Like that movie, the idea that carrying the pain of past misdemeanours can not only be a detriment to others but mostly to one’s own soul.


9/10


Midlands Movies Mike


By midlandsmovies, Nov 4 2017 05:25PM



War for the Planet of the Apes (2017) Dir. Matt Reeves


In this electrifying conclusion to Reeves’ ‘Apes’ reboot/prequel trilogy, the sci-fi action focuses even further on the drama between the simians led by Caesar and the remaining humans left on earth. Andy Serkis once again returns to play Caesar in a performance that, if not least equals Serkis’ turn as Gollum, comes pretty darn close and maintains his status as the premier motion capture actor working right now.


We pick up a few years later where a rogue paramilitary group (Alpha-Omega) led by Woody Harrelson’s intense Colonel, fight with the ape clan and after Caesar orders the release of some captured soldiers as a peace-offering, its unsurprising it falls on deaf human ears. Returning at night, the Colonel kills Caesar’s wife and eldest child and thus begins a journey of revenge by the elder chimp which conflicts with his call for pacifism shown in the previous movies.


Service apes called "donkeys", which previously followed Koba, are in the hands of Harrelson’s group – further complicating the dynamic – and it is this depth that sets the film far from many of the 2017 summer blockbusters. As Caesar and his advisor Maurice (an orangutan played brilliantly by Karin Konoval), and friends Luca (Michael Adamthwaite) and Rocket (Terry Notary) head to the military base, they pick up a mute human girl as well as another chimp named “Bad Ape”, rendered beautifully in a nuanced performance of humour and heart by Steve Zahn.


The ape clan are captured and imprisoned into forced labour to build a wall to stop an approaching army who plan to halt the madness of the Kurtz-like Colonel as Harrelson resorts to killing humans as it is revealed the Simian Flu virus has mutated. Reeves’ masterful control of simple camera set-ups allows the drama to be played out and it is this character building that ensures an audience can empathise with the CGI creations. And what CGI! I would go as far to say this film has some of the best, if not the best, animation of animals ever seen and the close-up shots are phenomenal as we capture every breath, curl of the lip and angered brow on the apes’ faces.


Reeves’ handling of the CGI is perfect and his themes of torture, slavery and eventually sympathy and regret, are all fantastically well-delivered. Personally, I thought it better than its predecessor and with an ending that had me wanting to know more of the clan’s journey in this world, the movie wraps up with a sense of sadness yet hope.


From monkey clowning to tearful tragedy, Reeves’ focus on emotion over spectacle ensures that when the action does arrive you care about those involved – even computer-generated ones. Is it time for the Oscars to reconsider that Best Performance Capture category? On the basis of this dazzling display, I surely hope so.


8/10


Midlands Movies Mike



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