Friday, May 25, 2018

Movie Review: Solo: A Star Wars Story

I walked into Solo pretty certain I knew what I was going to get and how I was going to feel about it. I'd been following the behind the scenes drama around the directors getting replaced at the last minute ("after the last minute" might be more accurate), I'd seen the trailers, I knew it was trending towards 70% on Rotten Tomatoes, and - let's face it - a prequel movie focused on Han's origin story only has so much breathing room.

With that in mind, let me tell about the movie I expected to see. It was going to be fairly dull, with rather uninspired spins on classic characters, enhanced by delving into corners of the Star Wars Universe we've only caught glimpses of. In other words, I expected to be underwhelmed by the characters but thrilled by the world (which was more or less my takeaway from Rogue One).

Turns out, I had it almost completely backwards. Solo's best asset is its characters. I might not agree with every choice they made for a young Han, but there's no denying he was fun to watch. And even with absurdly high expectations, Donald Glover still manages to over-deliver: he's absolutely fantastic. And those are maybe the third and fourth best characters in the movie. If you thought K-2SO was great, wait until you meet Lando's copilot.

On the other end of the spectrum, I was a little disappointed in the setting. There's definitely some great stuff - including the first portrayal of Imperial officers and soldiers who come off seeming like humans - but overall we got less than I'd hoped from the worlds and spaces. A few of the planets were essentially indistinguishable from each other, which represents a fairly large misstep in this franchise. Likewise, the movie passed up the opportunity to really delve into the seedier underbelly of Star Wars. I think we got a better sense of that from Jabba's palace in Return of the Jedi than we did from this entire film. Still, what we see is fun. Some locations and situations may borrow heavily from Firefly, but Firefly certainly borrowed a lot from Star Wars, and turnabout's fair play.

The movie's tone and style are a bit harder to dissect. You can definitely see the frayed edges left by the change in directors - this is clearly a movie where the vision shifted dramatically halfway through production. What's really astonishing is that this doesn't pose anywhere near as big an issue as you'd expect. In some ways, it may actually have resulted in a net positive.

Objectively, there's something off about the way the writing - often intentionally comical, bordering on farcical - clashes with the dark visuals and serious surroundings. But the end result is so weird, it's engrossing. You end up with a space western that doesn't take itself seriously until it does. I kept thinking what I was watching shouldn't work, but - for me, at least - it just did. I'm honestly not certain if this is a reflection of Ron Howard's skill and dedication, or if he's just the luckiest son of a bitch in the galaxy. But that's also always been the question at the core of Han Solo, so you've got to appreciate the synchronicity.

There's one other expectation I had walking in that the movie managed to subvert, and that's one I'm going to be a little careful about. I'd assumed there was absolutely no way Solo could possibly surprise me. But once again, I was mistaken. Solo delivered a moment I couldn't possibly have predicted, and I was completely surprised and delighted. I expect this moment will be divisive. A lot of people are going to call it stupid, and they won't be wrong. But I just absolutely loved it.

While Solo certainly had its share of flaws, the movie demonstrates Disney's ability to produce worthwhile blockbusters even when things go wrong. I had a lot of fun watching this, and I suspect you will, as well.

Now go see it, so we can talk about the stuff I'm leaving out. Who the hell expected Solo to have anything that could meaningfully be called a spoiler? That alone is impressive.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Movie Review: Deadpool 2

Calling Deadpool 2 a comedy/action/superhero/sci-fi flick is somewhat reductive, in that the description fails to differentiate between the many gradations in each genre. Comedy/dramedy/parody/farce/pulp-action/buddy cop/war/spy/superhero/sci-fi feels closer, though I'm sure I'm forgetting a few sub-genres.

In other words, there's a lot going on in this movie. Whether that's a good or bad thing is going to hinge on your expectations and what you want out of it. The experience offered by Deadpool 2 is something of a Rorschach test, even more so when you try comparing it to part one. It's at once funnier and more serious than its predecessor; it's both better and worse, depending on how you look at it.

As a comedy, I'd say it's better. The jokes hit harder, the concept is less constrained, and the film feels even more eager to take risks. But a lot of the humor stems from an underlying change in premise. The first Deadpool was essentially a humorous story set in a serious world. Wade saw everything in comedic terms, but there wasn't that much inherently funny beyond his perspective. That's not the case with the sequel, which is set in a far more self-aware version of the X-Men Cinematic Universe.

To put it another way, Deadpool no longer feels out of place in his surroundings. If anything, he comes off a little darker than most of the characters around him. Hell, he might be one of the more realistic characters, provided you're flexible with your definition of the term "realistic." After the first movie, I hoped they'd use the setting for other characters and teams, but - honestly - that's hard to imagine here. I'm definitely game if they want to try a Domino or Cable spin-off (Zazie Beetz and Josh Brolin were both fantastic), but it'll be tough extricating them from this setting. The central thesis of Deadpool 2 seemed to be that superhero stories are silly. That's not a particularly strong framework to build a connected universe on, assuming that's still the goal.

But, again, it makes for a hell of a fun comedy. The movie embraces the meta aspects of the character far more wholeheartedly than the last time around, and - assuming you have a high tolerance for that kind of humor - it's nothing short of hilarious. It mocks entire generations of action movie tropes - I caught references to every decade since the 70's, though it seemed especially interested in the 80's and 90's.

In addition, the movie's score raises the bar in the genre. I don't want to give anything away, but it's absolutely inspired. I'll be disappointed if they're not at least nominated for an Oscar for that score.

As a story, Deadpool 2 lacks the cohesion of the first. There's still a through-line, as well as a handful of surprisingly poignant emotional beats, but the movie has almost as many side plots as tones. If you go in expecting a tightly told, elegant story from this, you're going to be disappointed.

You're better off expecting to have a good time watching a superhero parody flick: this more than delivers on that level and even manages to throw in a little extra. Just be aware there were trade-offs made to reach that point.