(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.
(On Cable TV, March 2017) Much has been said about the rom-com and its demise, but there’s still a vein of opportunity in talking about the 2010–2016 wave of romantic dramas adapted from novels. How they feature damaged protagonists, look like comedies while behaving like dramas, take place over lengthy spans of time, and often kill their love interest. One Day, Love, Rosie, Stuck in Love, Dear John … although if we bring in Nicholas Sparks, we’ll be here all day. Me Before You fits squarely in this sub-genre, as a young free-spirited woman comes to care for a disabled suicidal quasi-aristocrat. Unconventional romance soon blooms, but we know it’s not going to have a conventionally happy ending. No surprises, but what about the execution? Here, unfortunately, Me Before You only manages an average score. While there are a few odd pearls in the result, much of it is played very obviously with few delights along the way. This is probably the best performance I’ve seen from Emilia Clarke, but it’s still not much more than okay—although there is a good rapport between her and male lead Sam Claflin. Pretty much everything else about the film is solid mediocrity, good enough to keep the worst criticism at bay, but nowhere near enough to make this interesting. The finale aims for a big bath of tears and settles for “yeah, we’ve seen this coming for the past hour or so.” There’s been quite a few better movies even in the recent rom-dram subgenre. There’s no need to go out of your way to see Me Before You.