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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The 10 Best Movie Themes By John Williams – With Biographical Notes

Midway through The Holiday (2006), Jack Black and Kate Winslet are roaming through a video store when Black begins grabbing movies and doing a running commentary on their themes. One DVD case he selects is Jaws. “BA-BAM! Two notes and you’ve got a villain. I don’t know what to say about it. Totally brill.”

John Williams has composed totally brill movie and television themes for 60 years – long enough that his original credits listed him as “Johnny Williams.” He’s done over 150 scores in those years, and it’s not surprising he has the second most Oscar nominations, and the most for anyone alive, with 50 nominations and 5 wins. (The most nominations belong to Walt Disney, with 59.) Along with the Oscars, Williams has collected 7 BAFTAs, 4 Golden Globes, 5 Emmys, 22 Grammys, plus numerous gold and platinum records. Now midway through his 80s, he continues to work with Steven Spielberg, a partnership that has made Williams’s themes the soundtracks of our lives.

As often happens, Williams worked for 20 years to become an overnight success. Born in Flushing, Queens, in 1932, his father was a percussionist for CBS radio who also played with a jazz quartet. Williams was drawn to a different type of percussion instrument – the piano – and by 15 he determined he’d be a concert pianist. In 1948, when Williams was 16, his family relocated to Southern California. Soon he was leading his own jazz band and trying his hand at arranging, in addition to composing original music. He wrote a piano sonata at age 19.

Williams trained at Los Angeles City College and UCLA along with private studies under Robert Van Epps, who’d begun his career in the music department at MGM working on the orchestrations for The Wizard of Oz. He was also tutored by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, an Italian who was the foremost composer of guitar pieces and who scored more than 200 films after coming to Hollywood just before WWII, including Gaslight and And Then There Were None. After a stint in the Air Force, Williams headed east to attend Julliard to study piano. He also worked as a jazz pianist in clubs and for recording sessions. After he completed his studies, Williams returned to California to work in the film and television industry.

In 1956, Williams composed his first theme for “Playhouse 90,” a popular anthology series, though most of his work in the 1950s was playing the piano for the theme music of TV shows. Williams played for “Peter Gunn” and “Mr. Lucky,” both scored by another great, Henry Mancini, and he even appeared as a piano player on the show “Johnny Staccato,’ a series about a jazz pianist/private detective that starred John Cassavetes.

At first his movie work was mostly uncredited, and included playing piano or orchestrating movies like Carousel, South Pacific, and Some Like It Hot. He worked with Mancini again on Charade and The Great Race. At the same time, he compose TV scores for “M Squad,” “Bachelor Father,” “Wagon Train,” “Kraft Theater,” and even “Lost In Space.” (He also did the music for Delbert Mann’s TV adaptation of “Heidi” that notoriously cut into a playoff football game just before Joe Namath staged a stunning comeback.)

By the mid-1960s, he’d worked his way up to scoring major pictures and adapting musicals for the screen, leading to his first Oscar nominations. Today there are only two musical Oscars, Best Original Theme and Best Original Song, but over the course of the Academy’s history there have been different breakdowns. In the 1960s there were two score Oscars, one of Original Theme, the other for Adaptation of the Score.  The long run of Oscar nominations and wins for Williams began in the Adaption category, first for adapting the score for Valley of the Dolls in 1968. His first win for adapting Fiddler on the Roof in 1971. More high-profile productions came his way in the 1970s, when he scored The Poseidon Adventure, Cinderella Liberty, The Paper Chase, The Towering Inferno, and The Eiger Sanction. But mixed in was the score he did for The Sugarland Express, Spielberg’s first feature film. That was the beginning of a partnership that’s lasted for forty years and made cinematic music history.

Following are my choices for the 10 best themes Williams has composed for the movies. Rather than make any quantitative judgment on which is best, they are listed simply in chronological order. Click on “Listen to the theme” to hear the music:

1) Jaws (1975)

It was a production-plagued by problems, most notably with Bruce, the animatronic shark that rarely worked. But you didn’t need to see the shark; all you needed was to hear those two notes…da-dum, da-dum, da-dum-da-dum. While the actual theme contained echoes of Aaron Copeland Americana, the string bass line was like a saw against the base of your skull. After the film’s explosive climax, Williams provides a glistening relief from the tension. You knew it was over, that you were safe – until Jaws 2 came out three years later. “Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water…” (Listen to the Theme)

2) Star Wars (1977)

Can you even imagine Star Wars without the music? Or more to the point, when you hear the music, do you see the film again in your mind? It has provided a point of cohesion even as the story has expanded, with the stirring main theme, the threat inherent in the Imperial march, and the gracefulness of the love theme. A particular favorite piece for me is the score for the lightsaber battle between Luke and Darth Vader in Return of the Jedi. When Luke realized Vader knows about Leia, he attacks with all his power until he beats Vader to the ground and lobs off his hand. For that scene Williams adds a choral element to the music that lifts it to a religious climax of good against evil. (Listen to the Theme)

3) Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

This time it was 5 notes, but they became one of the most identifiable themes ever. Even 32 years later, the Dreamworks feature Monsters vs. Aliens could use the theme for a funny moment when the President (voiced by Stephen Colbert) plays the theme to make contact with an alien robot – and gets the last note wrong, as so many people did when they tried to plunk it out on a piano or keyboard. But it also leads to a thrilling scene at the base of Devil’s Tower as the alien mothership and the humans learn to communicate through a tone poem blitz. (Listen to the Theme)

NOTE: In 1980, Williams became the 19th music director for the Boston Pops Orchestra, succeeding the legendary Arthur Fielder. Williams held the baton for 14 seasons, until his retirement in 1993 when he became Laureate Conductor, a title he still holds.

4) Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

When Spielberg and Lucas worked together, there could be no question who would score their collaboration. With its soaring horns laid over a breathless beat, Williams captured the thrill of a 1930s movie serial updated for the modern viewer. What was most effective, though, was how Williams held the theme back. During the opening sequence in South America, the music is somewhat muted while it conveys foreboding. It’s only when Indiana Jones swings on a vine out to the biplane on the river that you hear the iconic theme for the first time, and then only for a short time. It teases you, promising more to come – and you’re hooked. (Listen to the Theme) and check out a short documentary at the end of this post on Williams scoring Raiders.

5) E.T. The Extraterrestrial (1982)

It’s a theme that makes you feel you can fly, for a very specific reason. You only get to hear the full, joyous theme when E.T. makes Elliot’s bicycle fly in front of the moon (one of the most iconic shots in the history of cinema), and again when the five bikes go airborne at the roadblock. (Listen to the Theme)

6) Jurassic Park (1993)

For this box office record setter, Williams used three main themes. There’s the regal, sublime wonder of the main theme, heard when the visitors see the brontosauruses for the first time. Before that, as the helicopter brings them to the island, you hear the thrilling fanfare with brass. And then there’s the third, a menacing 4-note theme that’s similar to Jaws. It’s used with great effect when Dr. Grant, Ellie, and the two children are menaced by the raptors in the main building. Then the T-Rex arrives to fight the raptors and the music switches to the fanfare. Williams could have won the Oscar for the score – he was nominated – but 1993 was a very good year for him. (Listen to the Theme)

7) Schindler’s List (1993)

Williams won the Oscar instead for Spielberg’s other film that year. It was his last statue, though he’s continued to be nominated, including this year with The Post. The haunting Schindler’s List theme, featuring Itzhak Perlman’s plaintive violin, manages to be a requiem that also holds out hope for life in the midst of the Holocaust. When Spielberg first showed Williams a cut of the movie, Williams had to excuse himself after it finished and go outside for several minutes to compose himself. When he came back in, Williams told Spielberg that he deserved a better composer for the project. Spielberg responded, “I know, but they’re all dead.” (Listen to the Theme)

8) Saving Private Ryan (1998)

The director Sam Fuller, who was at Normandy during the invasion, was asked why he never made a movie about the attack. He response was, who’d want to see a beach covered in guts and blood? But Spielberg didn’t shy away from an accurate depiction of the battle that blew away all the cinema heroism that had enshrouded WWII movies since the actual war. Williams’s score layers a melancholic melody over an underlying martial beat. It underlines the cost of war in sacrificed lives, and drives home Captain Miller’s final line: “Earn this.” (Listen to the Theme)

9) Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001)

While other composers would work on later entries in in the series, Williams set the theme for all the movies with his whimsical, twinkly music box waltz. It put a new generation under Williams’s spell and was featured in one form or another in all eight movies. To this day, you could say “Harry Potter” to someone under 25, and they would likely hear that music. (Listen to the Theme)

10) Catch Me If You Can (2002)

This theme is special to me because it’s a bit of a tribute to Williams’s old mentor, Henry Mancini. It has the quirky jazz feel that Mancini used, with syncopation that holds an echo of “Charade.” Yet it’s fully original and a perfect fit for the film. The theme music plays during the opening title sequence that is in itself a tribute to the iconic work of Saul Bass, who did the titles for movies such as Vertigo, The Man with The Golden Arm, and North by Northwest. (Listen to the Theme – and watch the credit sequence)

These are my choices, but if you have a particular Williams theme that you love that I haven’t mentioned, please feel free to note it in the comments.

It Doesn’t Go The Way You Think – Thank God!

The purpose of the second act in the three-act format is to drive the action to its highest point of conflict and action, leading to the resolution in the third act. The greater the conflict, the greater the potential for resolution. We’ve already seen this in Star Wars, as the second movie in the original trilogy, The Empire Strikes Back, was almost universally viewed as the best film in the series. On the other hand, the second feature in the second trilogy, Attack of the Clones, was better than the first (only one sequence with Jar Jar Binks) but it didn’t reach the highest level of action. That happened in Revenge of the Sith, and it almost made the first two movies superfluous. The Machete version for viewing the first two trilogies has you watch them in the order of 4,5,2,3,and 6, with The Phantom Menace happily forgotten. These days you could do an augmented Machete, putting Rogue One at the beginning.

The Force Awakens was pretty much exactly what Star Wars fans hoped for, and in ways it mirrored the construction of Hope. JJ Abrams knew what he needed to do to restart the triple-trilogy originally imagined by George Lucas.  But to match the greatness of the first trilogy, the second movie had to change the playing field. It couldn’t simply be a retread of Empire.

Thankfully, writer/director Rian Johnson took a lightsaber to all expectations. He’s taken chances with unusual movies before, such as his first feature, Brick, which set a film-noir detective story in a modern high school, and with 2012’s twisted time travel flick Looper, where Joseph Gordon-Levitt must battle a decades-older version of himself (played by Bruce Willis) to save the world. Standard story telling is not what you get with Johnson.

One interesting aspect of Johnson’s script is it puts the main action within a 24 hour cycle, similar to classic tragedies. Of course, when you can jump to light speed, it means the story isn’t bound to one location. The rebels under General Organa (Carrie Fisher) are evacuating their base from The Force Awakens when the First Order Fleet under General Hux (Domhnall Gleason) appears in the sky. The last transport, carrying Lieutenant Connix (Billie Lourd, Fisher’s daughter, who has a larger role this time), manages to escape before the base is destroyed. Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) mounts an attack on a Dreadnaught-class Star Destroyer – basically a smaller version of the Death Star – though it starts with one of the funniest sequences ever in the franchise. The attack succeeds but at a huge cost. The rebel fleet thinks they’ve escaped by jumping to hyperspace, but the First Order follows them.

Separately, the story of Rey picks up exactly where The Force Awakens ends, with her handing the lightsaber to Luke. It does not go as expected, and where she thinks Luke will come and restore hope to the rebellion, he quickly dissuades her. Eventually we learn the source of Luke’s disillusionment, and why he’s decided it’s time for the Order of the Jedi to end.

I won’t go any further into the plot here, except to say it’s inventive and keeps on twisting from what you expect in order to run off in different directions. I plan to do a spoiler-included Part II to this review to discuss elements of the plot, since there is a lot to discuss. The Last Jedi is the most political and the most spiritual entry in the series. Part of the reason the audience score for The Last Jedi on Rotten Tomatoes is 40 points lower than the critic score (51% to 91%) is because of alt-right trolls who object to the messages and have been purposefully flaming the movie.

Several new characters deserve special mention. Of course, the expected one was Andy Serkis in the motion-capture role as Leader Snoke. His appearance sets up one of the best lightsaber fights ever in the series. Laura Dern plays purple-haired Vice-Admiral Holdo of the Rebel forces. She projects an air of possible duplicity that energizes her scenes. There’s also Benicio del Toro as a hacker who may hold the key to the survival of the rebels. But of the new faces, the best is Kelly Marie Tran as Rose Tico, a minor member of the resistance who ends up playing a major role for Finn (John Boyega).

With its inventive plot, fast pace, and powerful ending, The Last Jedi has to be seen at least on a par with The Empire Strikes Back. For me, I put it ahead of Empire. I just hope the 9th entry in the series will live up to the lead-in it’s been given.

Prelude To Hope

In the original Star Wars – now Episode 4: A New Hope – there’s a tossed-off line when the rebels receive the Death Star plans from R2D2 to the effect that several people sacrificed themselves to get the information. Now, nearly 40 years after it was first mentioned, movie audiences get to see what happened in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. It was worth the wait.

The story focuses on Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), the daughter of Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen). Instead of the usual introductory crawl, Rogue One begins with a sequence when Jyn was a child. Galen had left behind his job designing weapon systems for the Empire to hide away on a barren planet with his wife and Jyn. But the Empire isn’t done with Galen. When Imperial Senator Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) arrives to force Galen back into the fold, Jyn manages to escape to a bolt hole where she’s later found by an ally of Galen, Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker).

Years later the now-adult Jyn continues to hide under an assumed name, even as she’s a prisoner of the Imperial Forces for committing petty crimes to survive. While being transferred, rebel fighters break Jyn out. She instead tries to break away from the rebels, only to be stopped by the reprogrammed Imperial droid K-2S0 (motion-capture performed and voiced by Alan Tudyk). The rebels need Jyn to get to Gerrera, who’s broken from the Rebel Alliance to carry out his own battles. Gerrera is in possession of a defecting transport pilot (Riz Ahmed) who’s escaped with a message from Galen. Jyn is dispatched with rebel fighter Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) to get the pilot and the message. Along the way they pick up blind monk Chirrut Imwe (Donny Yen) and his protector Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang). But that mission morphs into a hero’s journey when they encounter the weapon Galen’s designed – the Death Star.

In visual style Rogue One varies from A New Hope, partially because the refinements in special effects have come so far in the past four decades. Director Gareth Edwards uses handheld cameras more than Lucas could, since computerized special effects can blend with the camera’s motion. Edwards began his career in SFX, then moved into directing, first with the low budget Monsters in 2010, then with the big budget remake of Godzilla in 2014. Rogue One’s budget was in the $200 million range, but Edwards puts it all up on the screen. The visuals are some of the best in the entire series.

But more than the images, Rogue One has an effective story that’s well-told by Edwards, and characters that you come to care about almost as deeply as Luke, Leia, and Han. The base story was developed by John Knoll (who has done special effects beginning with A New Hope and who was the visual effects supervisor on this film) along with Gary Whitta (who wrote The Book of Eli). The screenplay was then written by Chris Weitz (About a Boy, 2015’s Cinderella) along with Tony Gilroy (the Bourne series, Michael Clayton). Although the visual style’s different, the story blends seamlessly with A New Hope, so much so that the Machete order for viewing the first two trilogies should be augmented. That order is IV, V, II, III, VI and ignore Jar Jar Binks and Episode I completely, but now it has to start with Rogue One since it increases the impact of A New Hope.

Jones is perfect in the role of Jyn, blending the waif-like child searching for her father with the steel spine and dedication of a fighter. Part of the original Star Wars appeal was Carrie Fisher’s Leia, a princess who wouldn’t wait around for anyone to save her and could shoot a blaster with the best of them. For Leia, the change from princess to general in The Force Awakens was simply an acknowledgement of her power and Fisher’s embodiment of the role. The writing of Padme in Episodes I-III wasn’t as strong as Leia, but with Rey in A New Hope and now Jyn, the series has returned to the glory of fully realized, powerful women. The rest of the cast is pitch perfect as well. Luna gives strong support to Jones, while Yen and Jiang are indelible in their roles. For the movie to work, you also need a villain to match the heroes, and Mendelsohn provides a subtle but strong evil presence. You’ll also recognize several other characters that populate the story.

When Disney bought Lucasfilm, and with it the rights to Star Wars, there was concern about the Mouse-ification of the series. Were the new films going to be the equivalents of the Ewoks Adventures? The Force Awakens put that concern to bed, but Rogue One doused the bed with gas and burned it to a crisp. This is what Episodes I-III should have been.

With Carrie Fisher’s passing two days ago (as I write this), Rogue One has taken on an added poignancy. If you go to see it for the first time, remember to tuck a tissue in your pocket.