(Netflix Streaming, January 2019) I watched Solo: A Star Wars Story very reluctantly. The shameless exploitation of the Star Wars universe by Disney has a clear endpoint of diminishing return, and the way the standalone movies have been calculated for mercenary impact is enough to leave a bad taste in everyone’s mouth. To put it bluntly, Solo is a useless, unneeded movie. Nobody was really asking for a young Han Solo film. Nobody needed another attempt to explain the most minute corners of the Star Wars universe in even-duller detail. Frankly, the result does rankle. It’s filled with huge coincidences, an annoying tendency to overexplain, the irritating urge to tie up everything and the introduction of new leitmotifs that smack of modern screenwriter handbooks more than organic storytelling. But of course, organic storytelling is the last thing that Disney wants, and much of the chatter prior to the film’s release had to do with the way the original team of directors—iconoclasts Chris Miller and Phil Lord—was fired and replaced by Ron Howard, who reportedly reshot Solo using a more conventional approach. It would be fascinating to see that first cut of the film (I’m not holding my breath), but the result does work as a straight-up adventure. The plot is serviceable, the actors in the main roles are generally fine (I may even come to like Emilia Clarke at some point in the future) and the secondary characters usually steal the show—with a special mention for gone-too-soon Thandie Newton’s character, Donald Glover as a perfect Lando Carlissian, Phoebe Waller-Bridge as the voice of L3-37 and Erin Kellyman as Enfys Nest. While Solo isn’t devoid of links to the rest of the Star Wars Universe, those are more interesting when they cover smaller touches (such as the embedding of L3-37 within the Falcon, or the dawn of the Rebellion) than providing an entire backstory to Han Solo. The film is far more interesting when it strikes out on its own away from the established Star Wars mythos than when it rehashes the same old thing. Han Solo often ends up being the least interesting thing about the movie dedicated to him, not helped along by Alden Ehrenreich’s bland take on the character. If there’s one good thing to come out of Solo’s relative lack of commercial success (considering expectations and a $275M budget, “merely” grossing $400M is not enough), it’s that The Mouse has finally understood the point of diminishing returns on its Star Wars cash grab and may start being more discriminate about future projects.
(Video on Demand, June 2016) I won’t actually claim to be a mature film critic, but there’s certainly been an evolution in my capacity to appreciate Coen Brothers movies even when they flat-out refuse any conventional appreciation. I didn’t set anything on fire at the end of A Serious Man, and while I think that No Country for Old Men is overrated (oops, there goes my credibility), I don’t deny that it has some fantastic moments. So it is with Hail Caesar!, which I expected to like a lot more based on its premise: After all, doesn’t the idea of a 1950s Hollywood studio fixer running around solving problems sound fantastic? Especially if that gives us the opportunity to re-create the kinds of movies (biblical epics, overwrought dramas, western comedies, musicals of both the sing-and-dance and aquatic variety) of the time? Seems like a target-rich foundation for a comedy, and Hail Caesar! does manage to hit a few targets along the way: Taken in five-minute scenes, there’s more than a few good moments in the film. Channing Tatum has a great dance number, George Clooney effortlessly plays a dim megastar, newcomer Alden Ehrenreich makes a great first impression (especially in doing lasso tricks). Unfortunately, those bits and pieces aren’t necessarily part of something bigger: The plot is haphazardly assembled, listlessly developed and more or less cast aside toward the end. Character moments don’t add up to dramatic arcs, and in-between too-short cameos and sudden/meaningless plot revelations, there’s a feeling that a lot of connective material has been left aside: This may have worked better as a miniseries than a film. In the meantime, we’re left with a few set pieces and a lot of wasted potential. As with most Coen movies, it’s worth looking at critical commentary piecing together the symbolic meaning of the film—there’s certainly a lot of material here revolving around systems of faith, including economic and spiritual ones. But at the most basic level, Hail Caesar! isn’t much of a success as a plot-driven film, and considering the amount of talent assembled for the occasion, we’re not wrong in expecting more.