A review of “Solo: A Star Wars Story” (2018)

Was “Solo: A Star Wars Story” (2018) really quite as bad as everyone said it was?

Yes, I do understand why it’s so maligned by “Star Wars” purists.  Han Solo has arguably been the entire franchise’s most memorable protagonist since his debut in its very first film in 1977.  (When we were kids and playing “Star Wars” in the street, how many of us wanted to be Luke Skywalker and how many of us wanted to be Han?)

Disney missed an opportunity to serve up what fans undoubtedly wanted — an edgy origin story that took risks to portray this famously wily criminal anti-hero.  What the studio gave us instead is a generally toothless, safe-for-primetime fable that even managed to become saccharine at times.  (You could argue that Luke’s origin story was far darker — he discovered the burned bodies of murdered aunt and uncle.  Then he studied magical martial arts with the mysterious mystic samurai-hermit who once fought wars with his absent father.)  “Solo” feels too much … like a Disney movie.

There are other problems too … its narrative is unfocused, it’s cluttered with too many characters, and, yes, it slavish attention to origin-story details is annoying.  (The how-Han-Solo-got-his-surname bit, for example, is indeed a big misfire.)

But “Solo” felt far more like an average film to me, instead of one that was truly terrible. I’d rate it a 6 out of 10 for being an acceptable, passably entertaining “Star Wars” entry.  It’s got a few things going for it.

It’s well cast, for one.  I was actually very surprised at how well actor Alden Ehrenreich captures the character of a young Han Solo.  They guy has natural charisma, and he seems to absolutely channel the character without once mimicking Harrison Ford.  You could do a lot worse.  Ehrenreich also has great chemistry with Chewbacca (Joonas Duotamo), and with Donald Glover, who equally shines in the role of a young Lando Clarissian.  If you put the three of them in a sequel with a leaner, darker screenplay aimed firmly at adults, it could be a truly great movie.  (Consider how lame the first “Captain America” movie was in 2011, and how its far darker 2014 sequel was so unexpectedly great.)

“Solo” also has great visual effects.  (All the newer “Star Wars” movies have come a long way from the clumsy, heavy handed CGI of the prequels.)  The Kessel Run sequences were especially good, and I’m still enough of a kid at heart to love those kind of dazzling set-pieces, even when they punctuate a lackluster script.

“Solo” was the sixth most expensive film ever made, at $392 million, and it was a complete commercial failure.  So I doubt we’ll ever see these versions of the characters again in theaters.  But what about television?  What about streaming services?  I, for one, would keep an open mind about whether Disney could do better with this film’s ingredients.

 

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Throwback Thursday: “Danny Dunn and the Homework Machine,” by Raymond Abrashkin and Jay Williams

Hot damn, did I love this book when I was in grade school.  I’d be surprised if any of my friends remember it, because it was published in 1958 … I’m not sure how it wound up in my hands in the early 1980’s.  The eponymous “homework machine” depicted in the book was a 50’s-era computer owned by Professor Bullfinch, who was Danny’s mentor or father figure or … something.

This was actually the third in a series of “Danny Dunn” books published between 1956 and 1977.   I read one other — “Danny Dunn and the Fossil Cave,” which I also liked a lot.

The authors were Raymond Abrashkin and Jay Williams, and they were quite good at their craft.  Danny, along with his friends Joe and Irene, were pretty relatable characters to a kid in the second grade.

 

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Throwback Thursday: “The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries” (1977-1979)!

“The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries” (1977-1979) is another show that I remember fondly, if very vaguely, from my very early childhood.  It ran on ABC for a scant three seasons (over a two-year period), and that sounds positively odd to me, because my memory has morphed it into something that seems like a much bigger part of the 1970’s.

I also remember it being two different shows, but that maybe makes sense — the first season of the program had a weird format in that you saw a standalone adventure of the Hardy Boys one week, and then a Nancy Drew outing the following week.  (The characters, of course, were based on the young adult books written respectively by Franklin W. Dixon and Carolyn Keene.)  They eventually went on to have adventures together,  Wikipedia tells me, although Nancy Drew had a reduced role, and was eventually dropped altogether in the third and final season.

Wikipedia also tells me that the show’s third season portrayed the Hardy Boys as … adults?  And that they were agents of the Justice Department?  And that the Season 3 premiere saw the younger brother’s fiancee killed by a hit-and-run driver?  I definitely don’t remember that — and it seems a little darker from what I remember of 1970’s primetime television shows.

I loved the show, even if I was too young to follow its relatively simple stories well.  (I would have been in either kindergarten or the first grade.)  But it was a program intended for “big kids” (my older siblings had the books), and that made it wonderfully cool to me.

I moved onto the books myself, by the early 1980’s.  I loved those too.  The two that I remember are “The Secret of Wildcat Swamp” (with the Hardy Boys) and “The Secret of the Old Clock” (with Nancy Drew).  It was the Wildcat Swamp adventure that inducted me into the club — you see that snarling mountain lion on the cover?  That was utterly enticing to me when I found the book in the bottom of the closet I shared with my brother, when I was … maybe in the third grade, I guess.  (It looked a lot like the “saber tooth tiger” baddie in that Aurora model kit that I loved so much.)  I kept pondering that scene and wondering what the outcome was.  (Did they even have guns?!  Would the dad or whoever that was protect them?!)  One day, I finally accepted the challenge of reading what seemed like a very long book to me at the time, and I wasn’t disappointed.  That’s the power of a good book cover, I guess.

 

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Throwback Thursday: “The Gong Show” (1976-1980)!

Chuck Barris’ “The Gong Show” (1976-1980) was another show I remember vaguely (but quite fondly) from when I was in kindergarten or the first grade.  (It aired its original run between 1976 and 1978, and then was syndicated the latter two years.)  I still remember laughing uproariously at its weird acts, and it might have been one of those shows that ended just before my 8 PM bedtime.

The idea was this — a panel of three celebrity judges would view a handful of amateur talent acts, and would bang the titular gong if an act was so bad that they decided they couldn’t allow it to continue.  (Along with legitimate talent, the program deliberately fielded acts that were weird or just plain bad.)  What’s interesting is that this seems like a very tame precursor of contentious current reality shows like “American Idol” or “Britain’s Got Talent,” which are still going strong since their advent in the early 21st Century.  “The Gong Show” was a lot more laid back.

 

 

Throwback Thursday: “Laverne and Shirley” (1976-1983)

Rest in Peace, Penny Marshall.

This is one of only a handful of TV shows that I can remember watching as a tot in the late 1970’s.  “Laverne and Shirley” (1976-1983) was the kind of of thing I’d see in my older sisters’ room.  My Dad and older brother watched war movies, westerns and monster movies, but my two sisters preferred considerably lighter fare.  Two that they watched a lot at the time, if I recall, were this show and “Donnie & Marie” (1976-1979) — about the scariest thing you could find playing on their black-and-white TV was “The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries” (1977-1979). (One of my sisters had a crush on actor Shaun Cassidy; I think there was a poster of him in their room.)

I loved “Laverne and Shirley” when I was that young.  Lenny and Squiggy were my favorite highlight of any episode, even if I was sometimes confused about whether they were meant to be “good guys” or “bad guys.”  I was in kindergarten, and not altogether bright, and I thought that men who wore black leather jackets (Fonzie notwithstanding) were usually “bad guys.”  I also remember thinking that hippies and motorcyclists were the same group of “bad guys” because they disobeyed God or something … my confusion at the time resulted from some vaguely moraled born-again Christian comic books I’d happened across somewhere.

I also remember recognizing “Laverne and Shirley” as being related to another show that a lot of kids back then loved — “Happy Days” (1974-1984), of which it was a spin-off.  This might have been the first time in my life that I was aware of two live-action television properties occupying the same fictional universe; I’d already seen it happen in the movies with the various incarnations of “King Kong” and “Godzilla.”

Here’s what makes me feel old — for both “Laverne and Shirley” and “Happy Days,” I probably watched a lot of the episodes when they were first broadcast, and not just in re-runs (although “Happy Days” was also played in syndication endlessly throughout the 1980’s — it remained a fixture of daytime television).

And I only just realized writing this that Lenny was played by the priceless Michael McKean.  As an adult, I know him primarily from his brilliant turns in “This Is Spinal Tap” (1984) and “The X-Files” (1998-2018).  He’s 71 now.  Wow.

 

 

Throwback Thursday: WOR-TV Channel 9’s “Million Dollar Movie” intro!

This will probably be a pretty obscure Throwback Thursday post, but the segment below should be recognized by people who grew up in the New York metropolitan area in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s.  It’s none other than the intro for WOR-TV Channel 9’s “Million Dollar Movie.”  (That music you hear is a particularly brassy rendition of Max Steiner’s “Tara’s Theme” from 1939’s “Gone With the Wind.”)

If you were in the New York area at that time, it ought to bring back memories of the old days of broadcast television.  (It’s actually surprising how much nostalgia people online report at seeing this 44-second clip.  And it’s amazing what you can find on the Internet.)  A few commenters note sardonically that the clip makes Manhattan look like a nighttime paradise — while The Big Apple in the 1970’s was not always an easy place to be.  (The city if far cleaner and safer today.)

Some of the comments I read were befuddling.  There is one blogger who wrote that he remembers this intro from as far back as the 1950’s.  (Had they really used it for more than two decades?)  And a populous minority of commenters remember being unsettled by the clip.  (They describe it as ominous, and the music as creepy, which mystifies the rest of us who remember “Million Dollar Movie.”)

This intro had an indelible effect on me.  While it recalls monster movies like “King Kong” (1939) and “Godzilla” (1954) for a lot of others, it will always remind me of my father watching war films and cowboy movies on his days off — along with the occasional Charles Bronson flick.   “The Great Escape” (1963), “A Bridge Too Far” (1977) and “Shane” (1953) all spring to mind.

When I was in the first or second grade, I habitually enhanced my Dad’s enjoyment of the “Million Dollar Movie” by peppering him endlessly with questions about whatever was playing — even if I had only wandered into the room for a few minutes.  “Why did they call it ‘a bridge too far?'” “Why did they fight World War II?” “The British and French were good guys in the war, right?” “Why did the cowboy drop his gun on purpose?”  “Why did the guy fake his death?”  (Bear in mind, folks, this was broadcast television — long before the days of Netflix and DVD’s.)

If any kid did that to me when I was watching my favorite movies, I’d go nuts — even if I had a pause button.  My father was a saint.

 

Throwback Thursday: Levi’s science fiction advertising posters

This ought to be an obscure Throwback Thursday — although I’d be thrilled if somebody else remembered these.  For a brief period in the early 1980’s, Levi’s produced some wicked cool in-store posters with science fiction themes.  I had several of them hanging in my room; the one below dates from 1981, and was advertised on eBay for a while for the modest sum of $20.

For decades, Levi’s had relied on endless cowboy imagery to sell its brand.  And that makes sense, given the rugged individualism they wished to associate with their product.  Portraying people wearing their jeans alongside strange aliens on fantastic worlds seems like an odd marketing choice.  (I don’t think it lasted very long.)  I can only guess that the success of “Star Wars” (1977) and “The Empire Strikes Back” (1980) had something to do with the marketing strategy.  (You can also sometimes find Levi’s posters from the 1970’s featuring psychedelic imagery.)

The poster appears to feature the name “McClure” as the artist.  If any of you guys know the artist’s full name (or can point me in the direction of other posters like this), I’d be grateful.

 

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