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.

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A Renewed Hope

In 1977 I was in Los Angeles for the 4th of July and I went out with a group of friends to a late-night showing of a new movie – Star Wars. It was just before the movie went into hyper-drive at the box office, so we didn’t have to stand in a long line and the huge theater was about half full. The moment when the Imperial Star Destroyer flew over our heads and kept on going and going and going was when I knew the world of movies had changed forever. After the success of the first movie, Lucas said in an interview that he envisioned three trilogies, with the original as the centerpiece (leading to it being renamed Episode 4: A New Hope). When the second trilogy came along, it was a disappointment until the last movie. Revenge of the Sith was enough to make Attack of the Clones bearable, though it still couldn’t improve The Phantom Menace. The best viewing order for the two trilogies is what’s called the Machete Order: 4,5,2,3,6 (so The Phantom Menace becomes the phantom movie).

Because of this, I was concerned when Disney bought Lucasfilm and announced that the final trilogy would be made. The concern was somewhat alleviated when it was announced that J.J. Abrams would helm and co-write Episode 7. He resuscitated Star Trek when it was pretty much dead, and Super 8 was one of the better straight sci-fi movies to come along recently. Abrams also brought back Lawrence Kasdan, who had penned The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, as well as Raiders of the Lost Ark, to co-write the new movie along with Abrams and Michael Arndt (Toy Story 3, Hunger Games: Catching Fire). There was a chance that they could capture the magic of the first trilogy again.

Happily, that’s what has happened. The Force Awakens gives you the feeling of the original trilogy while twisting the story so it’s fresh. To prevent spoilers, I won’t go into the plot here, but there are several general points about the production that stood out to me.

Casting: It’s hard to remember that before Star Wars Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, and Carrie Fisher were unknowns. Ford had a small role in Lucas’ American Graffiti while Hamill had been cast in a TV series that he got out of after Star Wars took off. Fisher, the daughter of Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher, was as a princess of Hollywood though she’d only had a small role in Shampoo (where she seduced Warren Beatty) before she became Princess Leia. The three main newcomers in The Force Awakens are in a similar position, although the career of Adam Driver (Kylo Ren) had taken off in the last three years with him appearing in a dozen movies, among them Frances Ha, Lincoln, and Inside Llewyn Davis. John Boyega (Finn) was in 2011’s Attack the Block, the story of an alien invasion of the council flats in London. Daisy Ridley (Rey) had only done some TV in England and a couple of short movie roles before The Force Awakens. But just like the original three, Driver, Boyega, and Ridley are perfect for their roles and capture the audience – Ridley in particular. It’s so good to see a competent, smart woman who handles whatever comes up before anyone can “save” her.

Favorites: When it was announced that Hamill, Ford, and Fisher would be back (as well as Peter Mayhew and Anthony Daniels – Chewbacca and C-3PO respectively) the first thought was cameo roles, but that’s not the case. The Force Awakens truly is a continuation of the story years after the original, allowing the actors to play their actual ages now. Ford is a main character here, but Hamill and Fisher have their parts to play that loom large in the next episodes.

Revelations: A New Hope and most of The Empire Strikes Back lead up to the revelation of Luke’s father. In The Force Awakens there are several revelations about the characters that are laid out with a wonderful sense of pace and timing. Withholding them until later would have been detrimental and frustrating to the audience. Yet there are still more revelations to come. When the Force does awaken, it pushes the story to a higher level. Abrams balances the story perfectly so the movie is a satisfying story while at the same time setting up the next two films, rather than trying to cram everything into the one movie or tease the story out. He had to walk a tightrope but he stayed in perfect balance all the way across.

The Force Awakens not only rekindles the feeling of the original movie for old fans, it lets new fans share a wonder similar to Star Wars when it first came out. In a way, it’s like fans have been waiting in line for 32 years for a worthy new movie. Now it’s out and it was well worth the wait. Merry Christmas to movie lovers everywhere.

10 Best Mystery Movies of the 1980s

I’ve been busy after my last post in this series (including writing a novel manuscript) so I’ve just kept up with the movies I’ve seen. I’ll try to finish the final three posts in this series before Christmas. First up, the 1980s. This was not a great decade for mysteries and a couple of the movies listed below wouldn’t have made the cut if they’d been made in a different decade. Each, though, do have their good points and are worth watching.

The Long Good Friday (1980)

For a country that has minimal violence outside of football stadiums, England has produced some great crime movies, and The Long Good Friday is one of the best. In the course of the titular day, London crime boss Harold Shand, who’s about to complete a major deal with an American syndicate, finds his enterprises under attack by an unknown group. The movie made a star out of Bob Hoskins, whose performance as Shand is electric. You can also see a young Pierce Brosnan in a small role.

Witness (1985)

One usually doesn’t think of a mystery as being lyrical and pastoral, but with Peter Weir as the director anything’s possible. John Book (Harrison Ford) must protect a young Amish boy (Lukas Haas) and his widowed mother (Kelly McGillis) from a trio of bad cops. The movie’s portrayal of the Amish is highly stereotypical, but the chemistry between Ford and McGillis is palpable, and Ford’s final stand against the bad cops (including Danny Glover) is thrilling.

A Soldier’s Story (1985)

Two decades before this movie, Norman Jewison filmed In The Heat Of The Night, which blended racial tensions and mystery. In 1985 he filmed A Soldier’s Story which featured the same blend but in a completely different way. A lawyer officer (Howard E. Rollins Jr.) is sent to a Southern military base during WWII to investigate the murder of a black sergeant (Adolph Ceasar). At first local whites are the suspects, but as the lawyer digs deeper he finds the case is much more complex. The cast also included Denzel Washington, David Alan Grier, Robert Townsend and Patti LaBelle.

Blood Simple (1984)

The Coen brothers burst onto the movie scene with this tight and nasty thriller. A club owner (Dan Hedeya) believes his wife (Frances McDormand) is having an affair with one of his employees (John Getz). He hires a disreputable detective (M. Emmet Walsh) to get evidence of the affair, but instead the detective tries a scam to extort money and then covers up that crime with another. It doesn’t turn out well. This movie may be the only one to have a director’s cut run shorter than the original movie. When they got the chance to tweak the film, the Coens made it even tighter

Body Heat (1981)

The movie that defines steamy love affair. This neo noir story of obsession and murder had twists and turns and, most importantly, Kathleen Turner channeling Veronica Lake and Lauren Bacall (without having to worry about the Hays office). Written and directed by Lawrence Kasdan, it kept you guessing about what was actually happening until the very end. Kudos also to Richard Crenna’s portrayal of Turner’s husband, and a pre-Cheers Ted Danson as the dancing D.A.

The Verdict (1982)

This is the movie for which Paul Newman should have won the Oscar. His portrayal of alcoholic, funeral-crashing lawyer Frank Galvin, seeking redemption by taking on the Boston Catholic diocese in a medical malpractice suit, is riveting. It helped having one of the best directors of crime drama, Sidney Lumet, in the director’s seat, and David Mamet adapting the screenplay. All of the supporting actors (Jack Warden, Milo O’Shea, James Mason, Charlotte Rampling, Ed Binns) are at the top of their games, and that strong support helps Paul Newman shine brighter.

To Live and Die in LA (1985)

This film slipped through the theaters without making much of a ripple, which is a shame. Based on a book by former Secret Service agent Gerald Petievich, William Friedkin adapted the screenplay and directed. It stars a young William Petersen as a Secret Service agent who will do anything to catch a counterfeiter (Willem Dafoe) after the man kills the agent’s partner.

Manhunter (1986)

This was another underperforming movie starring William Petersen, though this time it was adapted and directed by Michael Mann. It’s based on the Thomas Harris novel “Red Dragon” and features the first appearance on film by Hannibal Lecter (called Lecktor in this movie). This time, though, it’s Brian Cox in the role. It also has Joan Allen in her first major role. The book was remade under its original title in 2001 with 5 times the budget of Mann’s movie and an all-star cast including Hopkins as Lector, but director Brett Ratner couldn’t match the original’s style.

F/X (1986)

This movie is fun for cinemaphiles since it shows how special effects were done in the 1980s – rather quaint in comparison to today’s computer-generated magic. It also plays off the conflict between real life and the movies. Bryan Brown plays a New York-based special effects man who’s hired by the Feds to fake the assassination of a mobster (Jerry Orbach). But Brown is double-crossed and finds himself on the run from police detective Brian Dennehy. Brown has to use his skill at manipulating reality to expose the corrupt feds. This movie was a financial success and spawned a sequel as well as a television series.

Sea of Love (1989)

Novelist Richard Price (Freedomland, The Wanderers) wrote the original screenplay for this movie, about two cops (Al Pacino and John Goodman) investigating a string of murders of men who answered personal ads in the paper. They go undercover to meet the women who placed the ads, and Pacino finds himself becoming obsessed with one of them (Ellen Barkin) who may be the killer. While it doesn’t match Body Heat’s steaminess, it is a decent mystery.