SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY**** Ron Howard in fine form

Solo: A Star Wars Story is Ron Howard’s exhilarating entry into the Star Wars alumni with this swaggering Western (complete with low slung gun holsters, high-tech stage coaches, honkey tonk saloons and high noon shoot-outs)…all set in a galaxy far far away, a long long time ago.

It’s everything Star Wars:The Last Jedi wasn’t: the characters, led by the swaggering Alden Ehrenreich (from “Hail Caesar”) as Han Solo and the rakish Donald Glover as Lando Clarissian are charismatic and engaging, unlike the dour, boorishly angst-riddled Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). The story is straightforward and focused (unlike the multi-tiered confused narratives of …Last Jedi, that wander forever aimlessly like drunks). The yawningly dull aerial battles are kept to a minimum and there are elements of genuine tension and excitement.

In short, compared with the leaden …Jedi, Solo… is fun. It levitates. More than this, it’s visually spectacular. There’s a big-screen, epic feel about director Howard’s stunningly realized wastelands of dingy equipment and ragged cities.

The story hangs around a love affair. Han and his girlfriend Qi’ra (Emilia, mother of dragons, Clarke, who convincingly transforms from the ingenue to the imperious) are young lovers (juvenile delinquents really) who attempt to bribe their way out of the light and freedom deprived city of Corellia. There they’re indentured to a vast aquatic centipede. Han escapes, but not Qi’ra. As is only right, he makes it his mission to return and rescue her. It’s a long return journey that takes him via a stint as a fighter-pilot (thrown out for insubordination), a thrilling heist onboard a high speed, abyss-clinging train, near death from a black hole type vortex and encounters with a wide range of (mainly unsavory and unscrupulous) characters including the 190 year old Chewbacca.

But the Qi’ra he finally reunites with only seems the loving girl he once knew. Much has changed. And not for the better.

Father/son writers Lawrence and Jonathan Kasdan offer enough plot-heavy excitement to keep you gripped while feeding out those many ‘origin’ storylines that perhaps only the die-hards would ever have wondered about, but which are nice the discover…such as how Han met Chewie (He’s thrown down a muddy cave to face Chewie aka ‘the beast’, whose guttural language he understands), the origin of his name (He belongs to no tribe and is thus dubbed “Solo”), and his first encounter with a rag tag group who evolve into the Empire-defying rebel forces.

While these origin myths are being spooled out, we’re introduced to an eclectic group of engaging characters: among whom are Woody Harrelson’s untrustworthy Beckett who becomes a sort of thief mentor to Han; the slick, smooth voiced gambler/hustler, Lando (in the person of the protean Danny Glover) from whom Han wins the famous Millennium Falcon; Beckett’s kick-ass girlfriend Val (a wasted Thandie Newton almost unrecognizable under a large wig) and the most fascinating of them all, a hip-swinging, sassy female droid pilot, LD-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) convinced that Lando has the hots for her.

Thing is, Lando, Han and Beckett are really only expressions of that archetypal lovable rogue, Brett Maverick. His slick, wise-ass, gunslinging spirit hovers like a blessing over this joyful enterprise


SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY. Dir: Ron Howard. With: Alden Ehrenreich, Woody Harrelson, Emilia Clarke, Donald Glover, Thandie Newton, Joonas Suotamo. Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Paul Brettany. Writers: Lawrence Kasdan (Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Raiders of the Lost Arc)), Jonathan Kasdan. Cinematographer: Bradford Young (Arrival), Production Designer: Neil Lamont (Edge of Tomorrow; Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens)



THIS VERY FUNNY, very black comedy has some of the sharpest, smartest writing of the year. Martin McDonagh, who wrote and directs also wrote In Bruges as well the outstanding play, The Pillowman. Writing of this caliber must be a joy for actors to work with: they don’t have to invent characters around the script, they simply have to give it life. And the three key actors giving it life – Frances McDormand as the determined, embittered, devil may care Mildred, Woody Harrelson as Willoughby, the stoic sheriff, resigned to his own insignificance in solving a horrific crime, and Sam Rockwell as Dixon, the racist, momma’s boy deputy, as thick as a brick – are all at the top of their game.

The act that sets off a train of events (not to mention the title of the movie) is Mildred’s rental of (said) three billboards outside Ebbing. The billboards shout her frustration with the sheriff’s incompetent pursuit of the rapist/murderer who killed her daughter. All her sorrow and anger is vented on these billboards. It is this catharsis of blame…this need to point a finger, to assign guilt that clouds the brain and makes the search for truth impossible.

The characters in the story are all casters of the first stone. People who are far from blameless blame everyone else for deeds done or perceived to have been done. Just as Mildred blames the sheriff for the failure to hunt down her daughter’s killer, Dixon blames every black person around for being black as well as the billboard owner for simply renting the billboards. Willoughby’s wife, Anne (Abby Cornish) blames Mildred for unjustifiably hounding her husband and on and on. But, as the movie shows, the blame game has a nasty way of taking on a life of its own. Passions are set loose from their moorings of reason; people are burned, thrown out of buildings, one drops dead. This is an out of control beast, controlled only, perhaps, by the revelations only the truth can offer and by the cleansing of forgiveness and empathy.

What with Get Out, the (overlooked) Death of Stalin and The Party, these last few months have seen the return of great black comedy to the screen. And as with all great black comedy from Joe Orton on, the characters and the twists in the plot are racheted up to the wildest extremes. The genius in McDormand and Rockwell’s indelibly iconic characters is that they remain fully fleshed and convincingly believable. In lesser hands, it would have been so easy to slip into caricature.

And the genius in McDonagh’s writing and directing is that the comedic excesses (told at a breath taking pace) are always in service to his deeply insightful (and so very apposite) idea about the need for the clarity of understanding in the obscuring fog of passions and blame.

After the much ballyhooed and entirely undeserving success of La La Land last year, here, at last is a movie thoroughly deserving of its much-garlanded praise.


THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI. Dir. and written by Martin McDonagh. With: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Caleb Landry Jones, Peter Dinklage. Director of Photography: Ben Davis (Dr. Strange, Guardians of the Galaxy)



AFTER THE DREARY second ‘chapter’ of the (new) Planet of the Apes franchise (“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”), “War for the Planet of the Apes” is a tremendous movie. It’s thoughtful, gripping, brilliantly acted and the quality of the CGI is unsurpassed.

Though it starts in a fairly typical action movie mode – guns a blazing, apes and soldiers dying in abundant heaps etc. – it soon morphs (after the capture by the apes of a few, defeated, soldiers) into a compelling drama.

It’s been fifteen years since the dawn of the Simian flu, which has resulted in a decimation of the human race and the flowering of simian intellect. The ape leader, Caesar (convincingly embodied by Andy Serkis…the genius who gave us Golum) is keen to avoid war and the ongoing skirmishes with humans. His plans are, like Moses, to lead his beleaguered tribe out of this Pharaonic war zone to a promised land, way over yonder, past an impassible (to humans) desert. This is the first of multiple Biblical and Greek mythological references (There’s even a frightening Red Sea moment when, like Ramses’ armies, Caesar’s tormentors are drowned in a deluge of snow and ice).

But his bête noir, The Colonel (Woody Harrelson), the bald, buff, increasingly deranged Kurtz- like leader of a Nazi-esque troop of rogue mercenaries, is intent on enslaving the apes (“They’re almost human” one of his mercenaries says…in an echo of the Christian apologia for slavery) before wiping them out. The Uncle Toms of this brave new world are turncoat apes, called Donkeys. They’ve turned against their own to save their own skins and will perform any task no matter how demeaning.

The story twists and turns (including a thrilling “Great Escape” segment, as the apes tunnel through forgotten caverns in the quiet dark of the night) as it explores themes of slavery and freedom, mercy and vengeance, heroism and sacrifice.

And it all hangs around the grand, epic character of Caesar as he faces a personal challenge deeper than that of the Colonel’s mercenaries: his desire for vengeance. His people need the calm command of his leadership; but his dark, brooding heart drives him away from the leader’s responsibility as the protector of his clan to the hunter’s lonely quest to kill and destroy. His drive to survive long enough to rid the world of the Colonel is fueled by pure unbridled hate. (I am reminded by the exchange between Quintus Arrius – Jack Hawkins – and Judah Ben Hur – Charlton Heston – in “Ben Hur”. “You are full of hate,” Quintus tells Ben Hur. “That is good. Hate can keep a man alive”)

But in the end, it is the touching generosity of a young, mute girl (Amiah Miller), and a Messianic survival of crucifixion, that soothes the savage beast within. Spartacus turns into Henry V. Or maybe Christ. Hate, tenderness, rage, sorrow, joy. The little miracle of director Matt Reeves’ movie (he also co-wrote it) is how clearly these emotions play across Serkis’ ape visage. You feel for him in ways way beyond the faux emotions of the summertime blockbusters. Here on a planet of apes is the crisis of modern humanity writ large.

Reeves’ noble and very iconic vision (Imagine rows of crucified apes dying in their own Appian Way or chained, slave-whipped apes brutalized by their heartless overlords) is well served by the dark, atmospheric cinematography of Michael Seresin (“Dawn of the Planet…”, “Midnight Express”) and James Chinlund’s (“Dawn…, “Avengers Assemble”) convincing post apocalyptic world.

What a surprise to find such a gem among this year’s even more mindless blockbusters: “The Transformers”, “The Mummy”, “Alien: Covenant”, “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “Guardians of the Galaxy. Vol2”.


WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES. Dir: Matt Reeves. Writers: Matt Reeves and Mark Bomback (“Insurgent”, “Wolverine”). With: Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn, Amiah Miller. Cinematpgraphy: Michael Seresin. Production Design: James Chilund. Music: Michael Giacchino (“Star Trek Beyond”)


THE HUNGER GAMES: Catching Fire. Aflame!


“THE HUNGER GAMES: Catching Fire” is a significant improvement on its anemic predecessor. The change from the middle-of-the-road, plain-vanilla Gary Ross (with such heart-warmers to his credit as “Seabiscuit” and “Pleasantville”) to Francis Lawrence (“I am Legend”) was a major upgrade. The tone of “PG/let’s offend-no-one” that neutered any real dense of danger and edge in HG1 has been replaced by a darker, dirtier, bloodier mood. Though we know Katniss Evergreen (Jennifer Lawrence) the badass female protagonist, will of course survive, Lawrence’s direction and Lawrence’s grittiness really do deliver the kind of edge of the seat excitement that the books offered and the first one failed at.

“HG: Catching Fire” has no doubt been helped considerably by the fact that there is no need to tamper down the adrenaline by long, dull back-story explanations (which was one of the factors that bogged down the original). Most of the viewers I imagine come to the movie with some sense of its back-story: The games are the annual live entertainment sport in which a team of (mainly) young persons chosen from their districts, fight for their lives, to the delight and enjoyment of all. It’s the way the government of the Districts of Panem keeps the population compliant and entertained, even as they suffer and starve. Katniss and her partner, Peeta Mellark (a bland Josh Hutcherson who looks like a computer animation that wandered in from “Grand Theft Auto”) are the previous year’s winners. This is an accolade that has lifted them out of the grinding poverty in which almost all of the inhabitants of Panem live, and has permitted them to join its 1%: the indolent, sybaritic rich. Frankly, even if you’ve been unaware of this basic plot, it’s not hard to catch up on, since we all seem to live in Panem these days.

“HG: Catching Fire” focuses on the aftermath of Katniss’ victory; and in particular, the spunk and rebelliousness she displayed in securing this victory – which she did on her’s and not on the Government’s terms. Her rebelliousness has clearly caught a spark and there’s revolution in the air.

These new games are the sinister plan of President Snow (a white maned, silkily malevolent Donald Sutherland) and his games master, Plutarch Heavensbee (a smug, cocky Philip Seymour Hoffman) who intend to show-up Katniss as a typical, callous, take-no-winners survivalist, and thereby end her populism. As they say, little do they know.

It took the Harry Potter franchise several movies before it could swing into the kind of self-assured confidence that this movie exudes. Francis Lawrence focuses on breathlessly driving the plot forward; he doesn’t dwell on the movie’s art direction (the first one spent more time gawking on its set décor than on its characters) and gives us enough of the key characters to generate the hiss and ooh factors. Stanley is back as the unctuous MC Caesar Flickerman, all fake tan, fake smiles, fake whitened teeth and fake bonhomie.


Lennie Kravitz gives us a nice cameo as Katness’ dress and image-maker, Cinna; Woody Harrelson remains her mentor, Haymitch Abernathy, but fortunately there’s less of him hamming it up. And we’re also introduced to the ever mercurial, understated Jeffrey Wright as one of the contenders, Beetee.


But really this is Jennifer Lawrence’s movie. She’s in virtually ever scene. She’s totally convincing (I’d even rate her the winner should there ever be an archery fight off between her and Legolas) and, especially when she’s interacting with Katniss’ male admirers (Hutcherson’s Meelark and Liam Hemsworth’s Gale Hawthorne), she shines as the only pro in the room. She’s also grown up in the last year. Here America’s new sweet-heart (replacing the once talented Jennifer Aniston) is more sophisticated, elegant, mature.


Can’t wait for the two-part finale of the series, “The Hunger Games, Mockingjay”, Parts 1 and 2 in 2014 and 2015.