Simon Morris reviews Solo: A Star Wars Story, The Bookshop and Kodachrome.
Solo: A Star Wars Story
The original 1977 Star Wars was a series of happy accidents, in which creator George Lucas’s nostalgia for old Buck Rogers serials collided with massive advances in special effects.
But the best bit of luck was in the casting of the not-too-bright best friend, Han Solo. As played by Harrison Ford, an illusion was created that the character was rather better than it was.
We meet the young Han (Alden Ehrenreich) rocketing around the space slums with his best girl, Qi’ra (Game of Thrones’ Emilia Clarke) by his side.
But early on the star-crossed couple are parted, and Han finds himself signing on at Star Wars Flight Academy, er, solo.
Years later, Han is sick of fighting for the Empire, and finds a way out when he meets a couple of space-rogues, played by Woody Harrelson and Thandie Newton.
He signs on to a life of space-crime, in a gang with a familiar, furry face.
It’s Chewbacca, the ambulatory hearth-rug from the other films.
While it’s nice to see Han and Chewie bonding in the expected manner, it also underlines the problem facing Solo. However well done it is, there’s an awful lot of box-ticking required.
Unlike the first couple of films in the franchise, where the writers could simply make stuff up as they went along, Solo is weighed down by the expectations of Star Wars’ obsessive fans.
There’s a long list of items that are expected to go into a Star Wars story – even one as tangential as Solo. They have to be done just right, but also not too predictably.
To director Ron Howard’s credit, he does pretty well, considering that he not only has to box-tick – meet Chewbacca, steal the Millenium Falcon from Lando Kalrissian, do the Kessel Run, whatever that is – but also set up Han’s character for the first Star Wars film.
He’s Solo. He’s cynical. He’s bruised. Could there have been a woman? Of course there is, and the obvious woman in the picture is Qi’ra, who turns up where Han is least expecting it – on the arm of a space-gangster played by Paul Bettany, jumping ship from The Avengers.
Qi’ra is a film noir femme fatale. But because most fans know roughly where this story is going – we don’t remember Emilia Clarke appearing in the first Star Wars - the twists and turns of the plot aren’t quite as twisty and turny as they’d be otherwise.
Solo rockets around the galaxy as well as you’d hope – veteran script-writer Lawrence Kasdan certainly avoids the trap of George Lucas’s notorious prequel trilogy by making it fun with a bit of heart, rather than dark with a lot of exposition.
The best thing in the film, surprisingly, isn’t star Ehrenreich or Clarke or even Chewbacca.
It’s Donald Glover as a slightly camp Lando Kalrissian, who steals the show whenever he shares the screen with a feminist robot played by Fleabag’s Phoebe Waller-Bridge.
Despite the predictability built into any film where most of the plot and characters were cast in stone decades ago – Solo does the business well enough.
But we must be coming to the moment where“well enoug” isn’t quite good enough. The reason Star Wars became as big as it did is because nobody saw it coming. But the whole point of a franchise these days is everyone sees it coming
The novel of the same name, by Penelope Fitzgerald, was well-received by the critics in the 1970s.
This belated film version, adapted by Catalan director Isabel Coixet, stars art-house favourite Emily Mortimer.
Mortimer starts off well as young war-widow Florence Greene who opens a bookshop in one of those English villages we associate with cosy TV murder-mysteries.
She falls foul of the local aristocrat, Mrs Gamart (Patricia Clarkson) but the problem is we’re given no convincing reason why Mrs Gamart is so down on the idea of a bookshop.
We’re told she has a hankering for a village art centre, but why – and indeed what a “village art centre” could be in 1958 – remain a mystery.
Nevertheless Florence stands firm and launches her bookshop with some half-hearted assistance from some half-heartedly played villagers.
She gains support from an eccentric chap called Mr Brundish, played by the always welcome Bill Nighy.
Since most of the audience for a film like The Bookshop have been lured in on the promise of Bill Nighy taking a major part in the proceedings, it’s only fair to warn that he’s mostly there as colourful backup.
In fact more is made of Mr Brundish’s interest in sci-fi writer Ray Bradbury than in his anticipated interest in Florence.
Eventually a relationship of sorts develops between them, while the sinister Mrs Gamart continues to plot in the background for reasons of her own.
Not only are Mrs Gamart’s motives unexplained as she sets out to scuttle Florence’s bookshop, so are everyone else’s, even Florence’s.
There may have been more to the story in Penelope Fitzgerald’s original book, but I suspect its appeal was mostly down to how she told it. And good writing is the hardest thing to translate into good film-making.
The stellar three lead actors do their considerable best, with very little support by the script or the director.
You wonder what might have been made of The Bookshop by a better director, but the fact that nobody has attempted it in over 40 years leads you to suspect it was always an entirely literary endeavour.
Kodachrome began life as a non-fiction magazine article about the last shop to develop photographic film stock. So someone thought it might be the basis of a dramatic movie.
Maybe it would. Just not this one.
From the opening scene, when burnt-out music producer Matt Ryder (Jason Sudeikis) gets fired, we have a bad feeling about Kodachrome.
Not only is this, beat for beat, the same beginning as a film I rather enjoyed called Begin Again, it’s soon clear that many scenes are reminiscent of other, better films.
Matt has been long estranged from his crusty old photographer father Ben, played by crusty old Ed Harris. Matt is encouraged to go on a road-trip with Ben by Ben’s pixie dream-girl nurse Zoe (Elizabeth Olsen).
I like Elizabeth Olsen, and Ed Harris, usually, for that matter, and I’m prepared to tolerate Jason Sudeikis for their sake. But Kodachrome makes it hard.
Everything that happens in the film seems preordained. I’m not saying the audience joined in on every single line. We joined in quite a few times, though.
The plot, such as it is, is that Matt and his Ben have been parted by Ben’s terrible selfishness. But, in his last days, Ben is determined to try and make amends.
Can a genius artist also become a decent human being, the film seems to ask? Or at least I think that’s what it’s asking. It’s got to be asking something.
Meanwhile there’s a growing attraction between Matt and Zoe – who saw that coming?
This comes to a head when they all go to Matt’s childhood home, and Zoe takes a look through Matt’s record collection.
Here’s a tip. Don’t ever do this, known in the trade as the ‘Cameron Crowe scene’, unless you’re absolutely certain you and your audience share the same musical taste.
Here the couple bond over their love of a half-forgotten American band called Live, who aren’t as universally loved as director Mark Raso seems to think.
Zoe and Matt swap Live notes, Matt and Ben bicker, and the suspense of the movie – if “suspense” is the word I’m looking for – rests on whether Matt can get his Dad’s old rolls of film to the Kodachrome shop in time, and what these mysterious rolls will show.
I can tell you I knew the answers to both of these questions about half an hour into the movie, and I don’t think I was alone.
Certainly I didn’t hear many people in the audience smiting their foreheads at the end and saying “Goodness me, what a surprise.”
Like any film, big or small, it’s all how it’s told. Director Mark Ruso has a few short films to his credit, but I’ve seen little indication he can sustain interest in longer films yet.
“Father and son take a road-trip” is a very well-worn plot, and it will take more than a few rolls of film to lift it from the rut.
I looked at the poster of Kodachrome when I came out – the three stars sitting on the hood of a car – and wondered why the film wasn’t as good as the one you’d imagine from it. Maybe everyone was too happy when they made it.