A “B,” You See

Up until the 1950s, the Hollywood studios had a regular pipeline of “B” pictures they produced to show as the lead-in for an “A” picture on a double-feature. Along with a cartoon and a short, it gave audiences a full evening of entertainment for their 46 cents, the average cost of a ticket in the ‘50s. “B” features were straightforward entertainment packages told in a standard running time (60 to 87 minutes, depending on the production company) that let you eat your popcorn before the main film started. Most were genre pictures: mystery, western, horror, and later science fiction. Through the years they allowed movie makers like Anthony Mann and Jonathan Demme to learn their craft, and let actors from John Wayne to Jack Nicholson get their start. The demise of the old studio system meant the end of the classic “B” film, giving way to exploitation films from Roger Corman that eventually made way for the rise of Independent films. But every once in a while a film still capture the milieu of the “B.” The latest to do that is Dwayne Johnson’s Skyscraper.

The story is formulaic in the Die Hard mold. That film became a trope for pitching stories – “Die Hard on a bus” (Speed) or “Die Hard on a plane” (Passenger 57) or “Die Hard on a boat” (Under Siege), among many, many other examples. It makes sense that we circle back to “Die Hard in a building – again.” In this case it’s a 200-plus story megabuilding in Hong Kong. It’s called the Pearl because it features a globe at its top that gives you a vertigo-inducing view of the city, and it can also morph into a funhouse mirror maze.

Johnson plays former FBI Hostage Rescue team leader Will Sawyer, who lost part of his leg and almost his life in an incident that went very wrong. Ten years later, he’s married the doctor (Neve Campbell) who saved his life, has two extremely photogenic children (McKenna Roberts and Noah Cottrell), and works as an independent security consultant. A former member of his team calls him in to do an evaluation of the Pearl, which of course has the absolute best security set-up possible. Still that doesn’t stop a group of criminals from taking over the building. They’re led by a Hans-Gruber-lite (Roland Moller) and assisted by a henchwoman (Hannah Quinlivan) doing an impression of Maggie Q in Live Free or Die Hard. The gang starts a fire midway up the building, trapping the building’s owner in the penthouse, and Sawyer’s family in the apartment they’re using while he does the assessment. Sawyer’s outside the building when the takeover happens, leading to the centerpiece stunt of the film: a jump from a crane into a broken-out window of the Pearl. (It’s hard watching it to not flashback to Johnson and Samuel L. Jackson in The Other Guys, when their tough-as-nails cops pursue bad guys by jumping off a building – though not with the usual movie results.)

Writer/Director Rawson Marshall Thurber is known mostly for comedies like Dodgeball: A True Underdog’s Story and We’re the Millers, and he’d worked with Johnson before on Central Intelligence. Here he plays it straight, but he also knows to keep the action coming fast and hard so the audience doesn’t have time to reflect on the utter ridiculousness of it all – at least until the completely over-the-top resolution at the end.

Still, with all that said, the film does work pretty well in the spirit of the old “B” movies. It gives you two diverting hours when you can ignore the outside world and chow down on some greasy theater popcorn. And the movie avoids some of the most egregious plot points of the genre. It makes Campbell a bit of a badass herself rather than just a wife who needs saving, and the kids aren’t saccharin sweet. The police on the ground aren’t idiots, much different from the cops in Die Hard (other than Reginald VelJohnson). Thurber stirs the mix enough that there are only a few lumps left.

If you like deep character development and a plot that challenges you to think about the gray areas between good and evil, then don’t see Skyscraper. If you’re looking for simple entertainment for a couple of hours, then Skyscraper fits the bill. A “B” is still a high-enough grade to pass.

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Good Things In Small Packages

When Ant-Man came out in 2015, it was a wonderful surprise. The character had had a small role (you could say) in the comics during the Silver Age of Marvel. Some wondered how it could stand up against Ironman, Thor, and the other iconic characters of the Marvel Movie Universe. And then there was the firing of writer/director Edgar Wright over “creative disagreements” when the movie was in production. But when the finished product hit the theaters, it was well-received with its perfectly balanced mixture of comedy and action. Paul Rudd’s turn in Captain America: Civil War was short but sweet – and very, very tall for a while. All worked out well for Edgar Wright, too, since he instead made Baby Driver, a hit with both audiences and critics.

The sequel for Ant-Man was already teased at the end of the first film. Fans have waited anxiously to see Evangeline Lilly put on the Wasp suit and become the first female character in the title of a Marvel film. Then Avengers: Infinity War came out in April and completely upset the Marvel Universe. Both Hawkeye and Ant-Man were no-shows in that film, having taken deals with the government following their arrests after the events in Civil War. The question was, what affect would Infinity War have on Ant-Man and the Wasp?

The answer is almost none, since the plot of Ant-Man/Wasp takes place before Thanos’s minions show up in New York City. Scott Lang (Rudd) is within days of finishing his home confinement sentence, wearing an ankle bracelet to keep him inside. He’s consulting with his three compadres from the first film – Michael Pena, T.I. Harris, and David Dastmalchian – for the private security firm they’ve set up, but his focus is to complete his time so he can be more involved with his daughter, Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson).

Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and his daughter, Hope Van Dyne (Lilly), have been on the run since they refused to abide by the Sokovia Accord, meant to control superheroes. Their focus has turned to the Quantum Realm in the hope of freeing Janet Van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer), Hank’s wife and Hope’s mom – if she’s still alive. Their experiments bring them in contact with tech black-marketer Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins) to get equipment needed for their experiments. When Hope meets with Sonny, he reveals he knows both her and Hank’s identities and wants to exploit their knowledge. However, a third party interrupts their meeting and steals the tech Hank needs. The white-clad, masked thief can phase in and out of the world, allowing her to walk through walls and giving her the name Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen). In need of help, Hank and Hope reach out to Scott.

Between Ghost, Sonny, and the Feds, Ant-Man/Wasp is much more action-driven than the first movie, with twists and turns throughout. Also playing a part is Lawrence Fishburne as Bill Foster, a former partner and friend of Hank Pym’s. The film also has more fun with shrinking objects, including cars and even buildings (that have a handy luggage trolley build in).

The screenplay credits feature five people broken up into two teams: Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers, who did the screenplay for Spider-Man: Homecoming as well as Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, matched with Paul Rudd and his two collaborators, Andrew Barrer and Gabriel Ferrari. There’s still plenty of comedy and comedic action, though they’ve increase the adrenalin factor so it runs closer to a regular Marvel movie. Peyton Reed is back as the director, and he maintains the fun factor of the film.

Evangeline Lilly does get to kick some major butt in the film, which pays off her potential from the first film. Also, as I mentioned in my review for Incredibles 2, the recent Marvel movies (along with DC’s Wonder Woman) have leveled the playing field between men and women in the movie genre. Lilly’s Wasp is, if anything, more powerful than Rudd’s Ant-Man. The filmmakers also switched genders for Ghost, who has always been a male character in the comics. Hannah John-Kamen has been on SyFy channel’s series “Killjoys” since 2015, and has appeared in “Game of Thrones.” This year has been good for her as she played the security agent for the bad guys in Spielberg’s Ready Player One as well as this role. While it’s a villainous role, John-Kamen also makes you feel pathos for the character.

We do know that Rudd, Lilly, and others show up in next year’s Avengers movie. (Marvel did a 10th Anniversary “class photo” last October where they got together everyone in the Marvel Universe. Click here to see a short behind-the-scenes piece on the event.) The first of two credit tags – the one after the main credits – sets up that moment.  Next May can’t come soon enough.

Incredible, Too

When The Incredibles premiered in 2004, it was a major departure for Pixar. The movie featured nary a talking car or an anthropomorphic child’s toy. For the first time, a Pixar movie had an all-human cast. But not just any humans – Super-humans! Five years earlier, writer/director Brad Bird had made the classic The Iron Giant (which recently featured prominently in Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One), but this was his first foray into computer animation. This was also before superhero films became ubiquitous. DC had had their first series of Superman and Batman years earlier – Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins wouldn’t come along for another year – and there were only two each of the Spider-man and X-Men series, made by Sony and Fox respectively since Marvel wasn’t yet producing its own films. The Incredibles was a major hit, taking 5th place in the domestic box office that year.

Over the past 14 years, superhero films have dominated the box office, with several crossing into the billion-dollar range. The Marvel Universe has a dozen-and-a-half inter-related movies they’ve released, and more in the pipeline. DC is expanding its Justice League characters, though with the exception of Wonder Woman they’ve come up short in comparison to Nolan’s Batman trilogy. That doesn’t even count the many X-Men movies, or that Spider-Man is in his third incarnation (and finally home at Marvel). Yet Pixar didn’t offer a sequel to The Incredibles, despite rolling out three each of the Toy Story and Cars franchises plus other sequels.

Now, finally, we have Incredibles 2, with most of the same main cast and with Brad Bird again writing and directing. Since the first film, Bird made the tasty Pixar film Ratatouille, then went live-action with Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, my personal favorite of the entire series, and the less successful Tomorrowland (though it has become a guilty pleasure for me). With the changes in the world in 14 years, there had to be some trepidation about doing a sequel. However, if anything the audience grew in the intervening years, so much so that Incredibles 2 broke the opening weekend box office record for an animated film both domestically and internationally. It’s already more than doubled the domestic gross of the first film and will likely break the billion-dollar level worldwide before it’s done. But the best news is, Incredibles 2 is, if anything, better than the original.

While fourteen years have passed for us, in the Incredibles’s world, it’s only been a matter of days. The Parr family (voiced by Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Sarah Vowel, and Huck Milner – the one replacement, taking over the voice of Dash from Spencer Fox) is living in a motel since their house was destroyed at the end of the first film. When they try to stop a super-villain from stealing a bank, while also taking care of baby Jack-Jack (Eli Fucile), the incident destroys a large swath of downtown, leading to the family being cut adrift by the government agency that’s helped them. They’re about to be homeless, when salvation arrives in the form of the tech billionaire Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk) and his inventor sister Evelyn (Catherine Keener).

Deavor’s father loved superheroes, and now Winston wants to re-establish their place in society so they’re no longer outlaws, hiding their powers. He plans to mount a campaign to show people once again why they need superheroes, an idea Bob Parr/Mr. Incredible loves – until he learns that Winston wants Helen Parr/Elastigirl as the centerpiece of the campaign. Instead of fighting crime, Bob becomes a stay-at-home dad, doing battle with New Math and Violet’s rage when their secrets cost her a potential boyfriend. It also turns out baby Jack-Jack is a polyglot of superpowers that makes him a human minefield. Meanwhile Helen’s in another town where she must battle the Screenslaver, who can use any TV screen to take over a person’s mind.

Bird establishes the story in the middle of the Silver Age of Comics when Marvel introduced most of its major characters and brought back Captain America from his WWII origins to lead the Avengers. When Bob and Jack-Jack watch TV, they tune into “Jonny Quest,” the first animated adventure, and “The Outer Limits,” which, in light of the Screenslaver villain, is an inspired choice (“For the next hour we control your television set; we control the horizontal, we control the vertical…). The set design has a 1960s Modern feel. The house where Winston installs the family while Helen’s on assignment looks like it could have been built by a James Bond villain of the Sean Connery vintage.

The film’s role reversal plot, though, makes it pertinent to today, both in society at large as well as in the superhero world. While the genre was male-centric for decades, with women in subservient roles – either eye-candy or damsels for saving (or both) – the film adventures have started to catch up with the comics/illustrated novels where women match men in heroism. The mega-success of Wonder Woman was a watershed moment, but you also have Guardian’s Gamora (the most lethal of the five), the female guards around the Black Panther, and Evangeline Lily’s turn in Ant-Man and the Wasp, the first female character featured in the title of a Marvel film. Next year we’ll get Brie Larson’s Captain Marvel, who will play a key role in the 4th Avengers movie.

In the end it takes the entire family, along with Samuel L. Jackson’s Frozone and other heroes, to defeat Screenslaver’s plan to drive a permanent wedge between regular people and supers. In this age of division and partisanship, it’s a message we need to hear.

Keeping the Plates Spinning

I went back and watched the original Jurassic Park this week. I’d first seen it on the big screen with my wife sitting on one side of me and my son on the other. By the end of the movie, my hands were sore from being clutch so hard by my family. The movie holds up as a thriller even after multiple viewings. Part of its strength was how Spielberg held back the raptors until the last quarter of the film, copying his first major hit, Jaws. Beyond a shot of a malevolent eye, all the audience saw early on were the results of the raptor’s attacks, first on the gatekeeper and then on the cow.  With Jurassic Park: The Lost World Spielberg directed the only sequel of his career, and it was a decent follow-up to the original. But then there’s the third film rule – with only a few exceptions, the third film in a series is painfully awful. Jurassic Park III definitely succumbed to that rule.

Then in 2015, the story was resuscitated. Jurassic World postulated John Hammond’s dream becoming a reality – a full-on Disneyland of Dinos. This time the hubris that brings the venture down isn’t simply trying to recreate what was, but engineering what never should have been. In the end it’s the dinosaurs that have to save humans from their stupidity and cupidity – “More teeth.” The film was a mega-hit, grossing 1½ billion dollars worldwide. Now we have the inevitable sequel to the reboot, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. You’d have to be living in a cave not to have seen the teaser ads and tie-in promotions for the movie. They even had an “American Ninja Warriors” Fallen Kingdom tie in with stars Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard, people in raptor masks, and an animatronic dinosaur on the course. But is it worth the hype? Sort of.

The movie has Isla Nublar and its dinosaurs on the verge of a new extinction due to a threatening volcano. Claire Dearing (Howard) is struggling to get government funding to save the dinos, but it’s doubtful the money will come through, especially after Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) testifies before Congress. Then a different savior for the animals appears in the form of Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell). Lockwood, a former partner of Hammond’s, lives on an isolated California estate with his granddaughter Maisie (Isabella Sermon), her governess (Geraldine Chaplin), and the lawyer who runs Lockwood’s businesses and charity, Eli Mills (Rafe Spall).

They’ve already mounted an expedition to the island. (We’ve seen this in a very effective prelude as a small submarine searches the island’s lagoon for the bones of Indominous Rex, the big bad of the first World film.) They need Claire’s help to locate the animals, especially the lone surviving raptor, Blue. But to get Blue, Claire must recruit Owen Grady (Pratt) to return to the island. Though their romance has fizzled, Claire manages to convince Owen to help. They head to the island along with former park technician Franklin Webb (Justice Smith), and paleo-veterinarian Zia Rodriguez (Daniella Pineda), where they meet the head of the operation, Ken Wheatley (Ted Levine). Anyone who knows movies know you shouldn’t trust the person who played serial killer Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs, though Claire and Owen don’t realize what’s happening until it’s almost too late.

Colin Trevorrow, the director and co-writer of the first World, did the script for this film along with his writing partner, Derek Connolly, and he also serves as producer. The director’s chair, though, was given to J.A. Bayona, who did The Impossible and A Monster Calls – both excellent films.

Bayona keeps the action flowing effectively, though at times it feels like the balance trick of keeping five plates spinning on sticks at the same time. It they were to stop the action, the movie would come crashing down. That doesn’t leave much space for character or emotional involvement. In the first World film, you had interesting interplay between Lauren Lapkus and Jake Johnson as park monitors Vivian and Lowery. In Fallen Kingdom, Justice Smith’s character is pretty much defined by squealing in terror, a sound so high-pitched it probably frightens dogs living near the theater. There is one major twist within the plot, but the surprise is it took the filmmakers until the 5th movie to use something that’s been potentially there from the first film. (Bayona does slip in one memorable moment of pathos as the island comes to its end.)

All that said, the film does work as an entertaining thrill ride (likely coming to Universal Florida soon!). We may have seen the balanced plate trick before, but it still captures our attention, and the same could be said for Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. It helps that Pratt and Howard have decent chemistry together, and Isabella Sermon is excellent in her role.

Fallen Kingdom does position the series for a third film, though I fear the rules will apply as they did with Jurassic Park III. Quitting while you’re ahead is a foreign concept to Hollywood.

A Muddled Crime

2015’s Sicario was a thriller that gave you an adrenalin shot throughout the film, from the opening assault on a drug house that holds a diabolical secret to the nightmarish rush through a tunnel beneath the border. Yet it also attained a level of tragedy, with the disillusionment of Emily Blunt’s DEA agent and the collateral damage of the death of a character that we came to know during the length of the movie. It was everything that its sequel, Sicario: Day of the Soldano, isn’t.

After 20 years in front of the camera as an actor, screenwriter Taylor Sheridan had moved behind it. Sicario was his first produced script, followed by the Oscar-nominated screenplay for Hell and High Water and the deeply affecting Wind River. He added director to his résumé with Wind River, and now is writing, directing, and producing the well-received Kevin Costner modern western series, Yellowstone. But with Day of the Soldano, it’s like he cobbled together a mish-mash of tropes, threw in two characters from the original film, and hoped it would work. It doesn’t. The plot careens between action sequences that were much better executed the first time around and talking-head politicians who first act tough and then craven, but they’re unbelievable in either iteration. Sheridan also tries to mimic the original’s secondary story, this time with an American teenager who takes a job as a coyote bringing people across the border, but the character’s opaque. You don’t see why he would take the job; worse, you don’t care.

The excellent Denis Villeneuve was replaced in the director’s chair by Italian television director Stefano Sollima. It’s clear he studied the original and tries hard to recreate its look, but he doesn’t know how to tell a story on the big screen. Where Villeneuve pulled you into what was happening and created moments of almost unbearable tension, Sollima’s style is pedestrian at best.

The movie begins with a scare scenario lifted from Fox News, who in turn had lifted it from Tom Clancy’s 1999 novel “Rainbow Six.” Terrorists who have supposedly snuck across the Mexican border pull off a suicide bombing in Kansas City. (Later we learn that isn’t the case.) The administration wants to get tough without considering what that means, and brings in operative Matt Graver (Josh Brolin, who seems to be in every movie this summer). Graver tells an assemblage of mucky-mucks in Washington, led by Matthew Modine and Catherine Keener, that the Mexican cartels are now making more money transporting people across the border than they are from drugs. Graver’s told to mess things up, so he decides to start a war between the cartels. He focuses on the daughter of a cartel leader as the spark to set off the conflagration. The plan involves a fake kidnapping and rescue, but exactly how it’s supposed to work is anybody’s guess.

Benicio Del Toro returns as the sicario (assassin) Alejandro, and his smoldering rage is the best part of the film. Isabela Moner plays the drug lord’s daughter. She does draw you in so you care about her, but the muddled ending makes it all superfluous.

Soldano means a soldier, and about the only relationship it has to the movie is that the audience has to soldier on through the hard slog of its two-hour run time. This movie is bad enough on its own, but that it comes out during the current humanitarian tragedy on the border makes it doubly horrible. Families are being ripped apart, with their children hidden all over this country, and there seems to be no end to the suffering of human beings that are being used to score political points. Day of the Soldano trivializes the problems while treating the situation with all the depth of a wet washcloth. That’s the real crime in this crime story.

A Lot More -Er

2016’s original Deadpool was a wonderful surprise – an R-rated movie from the Marvel canon that still made almost $800 million worldwide. On top of that, it was a critical hit. The success of Deadpool was sweet revenge for star and producer Ryan Reynolds. He’d always loved the character, but when he got the chance to play him in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, the movie turn the character into a bland, generic bad guy. (Really? The “Merc with a Mouth” with his mouth sealed shut? No one saw a problem with this?) However, there’s nothing that Hollywood likes more than a reboot, and Reynolds, assisted by first-time director Tim Miller, made a film that was faithful to the source material, including Deadpool’s 4th wall shattering dialogue. The film was essentially a Warner Brother’s cartoon with a stratospheric body count, but it also confirmed that an R rating wasn’t the kiss of box office death for a Marvel-sourced film, which was confirmed with last year’s Logan.

For almost a year and a half there have been teasers about the next film, so the anticipation built. What would Deadpool 2 be like? The answer turns out to be a lot more of everything in the first movie: funnier, cruder, wilder. If meta-ier was a word, the dictionary illustration would be a still from this film.

The directing duties for Deadpool 2 were handled by David Leitch, the former stuntman who gave a shot of adrenalin to the revenge flick with John Wick, then did the same for the Cold War spy film with Atomic Blonde. Here the action is just as well choreographed, though skewed to the side of black comedy. The central set piece of the film is in effect the live action version of a Roadrunner cartoon, though with lots of coyotes getting taken out along the way.

Reynolds’ Wade Wilson/Deadpool is not in a good place as the movie begins. An extended flashback shows what brings him to the point of despondency where he tries to blow himself into little pieces. Considering he can’t die, that doesn’t go as planned. Colossus (Stefan Kapicic) brings him to the Xavier School to recover. Once Wade’s somewhat fit again, Colossus and Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand) bring him along on an emergency call. Russell Collins (Julian Dennison), a young mutant at an orphanage that doubles as a mutant reeducation center, has a meltdown and tries to kill the headmaster. Wade’s help turns a bad situation worse, and Collins kills one of the attendants. Both Collins and Wade are taken into custody by the authorities, who fit them with collars that suppress their powers and ship them to a super-max prison for mutants. But as they are settling in, a half-human/half-machine mercenary from the future named Cable (Josh Brolin) appears, looking to kill Collins.

Brolin is having a stupendous summer, with Deadpool 2 on track to beat the first movie at the box office, plus his performance as Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War which is currently in fourth place on the all-time box office list and will likely move up to 3, or possibly 2, before it’s done. His stoic visage is a beautiful counterfoil for Deadpool. While she doesn’t appear until midway through the film, Zazie Beetz, as the super-humanly lucky Domino, comes close to completely stealing the film.

If you enjoyed the original Deadpool, you’ll probably really like this new iteration. If you didn’t, you really won’t like this film’s extra-large helping of everything we got the first time around. I’m of the former category myself. But while the first movie expanded the possibilities for the superhero genre as a whole, Deadpool 2 shows the limitations of this series. This isn’t a character that will grow – his deep thoughts are usually cut off when he shoots someone. While the wider Marvel Universe has grown as its stories have deepened in resonance, Deadpool is a niche within that Universe. Reynolds and his collaborators have polished every surface until it shines, but if another film is made it will be more – probably a lot more – of the same. While it breaks the 4th wall, Deadpool 2 doesn’t break any of its boundaries.

The Universe Expands

Ever since the first (now fourth) episode of Star Wars, the universe from that long time ago and far, far away story has expanded beyond the films. Novels based on it appeared even before The Empire Strikes Back, and they now number easily in the hundreds of volumes. When Disney purchased Lucasfilm, they green-lit the third trilogy originally planned by Lucas, but they also saw the potential to tap into the wider world of the series. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, was the first step in that direction, though it truly qualifies as a prequel to A New Hope rather than a stand-alone film. With Solo: A Star Wars Story, they still stand squarely on the source material, but they reach out further.

The production of Solo didn’t go smoothly, and that handicaps the movie. The original duo of directors got canned by producer Kathleen Kennedy and screenwriter & executive producer Lawrence Kasdan even though they were months into the shoot. Phil Lord and Christopher Miller were successful in both animated films (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, The Lego Movie) as well as live action (both Jump Street movies). Sometimes it works well to pick directors whose previous work is nothing like a major film series. This year Ryan Coogler, who’d done Fruitvale Station and Creed, entered the Billion Dollar Club with Black Panther. Last year Patty Jenkins, known for getting Charlize Theron an Oscar for Monster, shattered the previous box office record for a female director with the success of Wonder Woman. The Russo brothers had directed comedies before they did Captain America: The Winter Soldier. They’re now approaching the Two-Billion Dollar Club with Avengers: Infinity War.

But it didn’t work with Solo. Face with a monumental task to reshape the film so it could be released, Kennedy recruited A-List director Ron Howard. The amount of reshooting Howard did isn’t fully known, but some estimates put it at 80% of the film. Star Thandie Newton (Val) has said most of her work was with Lord and Miller, but for Paul Bettany (Dryden Vos) nearly all of his scenes that made it in the movie were directed by Howard. Howard is a Star Wars fan and was reportedly under consideration to direct The Phantom Menace (though it was probably for the best that he stayed away from that mess). He’d of course worked with Lucas on American Graffiti, and the two visited on the set while Howard was working on Solo, allowing Howard to pick Lucas’s brain. The extensive rework pushed the budget to the $300 Million level, making it  one of the most expensive movie of all time. It neared the level of two Pirates of the Caribbean sequels (At World’s End and Stranger Tides, the most expensive film ever at $375 million) and Cleopatra, when adjusted for inflation.

Was it worth it? I’d say yes, with a caveat. The script by Kasdan (who wrote The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, and The Force Awakens) in collaboration with his son, Jonathan, is the Star Wars equivalent of a superhero origin story, applied to the character of Han Solo. Alden Ehrenreich (Hail Caesar, Rules Don’t Apply) does an excellent job as a younger and less-jaded Han. We first see him as the teenaged indentured servant of a crime lord on a bleek, gray planet. He’s in love with a fellow servant, Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke), and the two try to make a break from their servitude and get away together. Han makes it, but Qi’ra’s caught. Han vows to get his own ship and come back for her.

After a few years that include a stint in the Imperial Fleet, Han hooks up with Becket (Woody Harrelson) and Val (Newton) on a heist of coaxium, the expensive fuel for star ships. The job goes sideways when a group of Cloud Rider ravagers try to take the coaxium for themselves. Becket had been hired for the job by Dryden Vos (Bettany) and he must make good on the crime lord’s investment. He tells Han to walk away since Vos doesn’t know of his involvement, but instead Han comes up with a heist that will both satisfy Vos and make them a handsome profit – but to do it they’ll need help.

The Kasdans have essentially crafted the science fiction equivalent of a heist movie in the Oceans 11 vein that establishes Han Solo’s outlaw character. Along the way he picks up the pieces that come together in the first trilogy: Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover), the Millennium Falcon, and more. Suotamo is a 7-foot Finish basketball player, taking over for the ailing Peter Mayhew. He does the role proud. With a sly smile and the swirl of his capes, Glover captures the essence of Lando. The Kasdans even take a shot at one of the elements of A New Hope that fans have debated for forty years.

Clarke, Harrelson, Newton and Bettany, as new characters, are all first-rate. The stand-out, though, is the droid L3-37, voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge. This is the first specifically female droid to appear, and Waller-Bridge makes her absolutely smashing and memorable.

My caveat with Solo is that the cinematography is often dark and dismal, so much so it interferes with the story. In several scenes you can’t see the faces of the actors clearly because of backlighting that puts them in shadows. Even the Millenium Falcon’s interior feels murky in comparison to its look in the other films. I was surprised by this, since the director of photography was Bradford Young. Young had recently shot A Most Violent Year, Selma, and Arrival, all excellent films I thoroughly enjoyed. It’s like he was going for the feel of natural lighting, but I like a movie where I can see what is happening.

The trilogy films have all be major box office events, and continue to be. There is space for other films, for other stories, in that universe. One hopes that the decent but modest box office of Solo, especially in light of the production costs, will not cause Disney to question their commitment to the Star Wars universe. I will always be ready to travel a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.