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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A review of Season 2 of “The Exorcist” (2017)

A show like “The Exorcist” must be difficult to write.  It stands in the shadow of some of horror’s greatest films (William Friedkin’s 1973 original and the third movie in 1990).  Its plot device is inevitably redundant.  (How many possessed innocents can we see strapped to beds while priests pray at them?)  It seems easy to stray into camp.  And it seems like a story concept that is tough to structure into a serialized format.

But the second season of “The Exorcist” was … fantastic.  It surpassed the first season, and I’d rate it a 9 out of 10.

The ten-episode arc wisely changes things up a bit from Season 1, which was maybe a bit too reminiscent of the films.  Our priestly dynamic duo are on the road in America’s northwest, and on the run from a Vatican that has been infiltrated by followers of the demon Pazuzu.  (As stupid as all of that sounds, the show actually depicts it quite well.)  As the story proceeds, there are a couple of surprise plot developments that will contradict most viewers’ expectations.  (I won’t spoil them here.)

The characters are all likable and all well played.  Ben Daniels remains possibly the show’s strongest asset as the senior priest; he’s just a superb actor.  John Cho also gives a fine performance as the head of a foster home where a demon runs amok.  Alfonso Herrera is quite good as the apprentice priest — his character is better written this time around, and isn’t saccharine to the point of annoyance.  And Herrera himself seems more comfortable in the role.  The kids are damned cool — all of them, and their interaction with their foster father was surprisingly sweet and funny — which raises the stakes emotionally when the entire household is besieged by a sadistic force.

The weaknesses here were minor.  I think the ten episodes could have been shortened to seven or eight, to make them tighter.  (I realize I write that about a lot of shows, and I’m not sure why.)  The first five episodes were tightly plotted, while the second five were a little loose.  I think better editing would have entirely excised the flashback scenes depicting Daniels’ character and this season’s new female exorcist, played by Zuleikha Robinson.  (Yes, that is indeed Yves Adele Harlow from “The Lone Gunmen” and “The X-Files.”)

The flashbacks were cheesy, even if they gave Daniels a chance to show his range.  They depict his tutelage of Robinson’s character decades prior, complete with some cliche pulp novel stuff.  (Ugh.)  We’re shown that the priest is younger because of his blond, surfer-esque haircut.  (Really?)  The flashbacks were out of place, and a little too campy.  They reminded me of the comic book style of the “Highlander” films and TV series — this show could have done without them.

I also found myself slightly annoyed by a dearth of exposition about the process of exorcism itself.  After the films and now two seasons of the show, I wanted to know more about the key actions here that affect the story’s resolution.  Do some prayers or methods work better than others?  Then why not use them all the time?  Why are some interventions more lengthy or difficult?  We are told that the demon attacking this family is different than Pazuzu, who we’ve seen in the past (though Pazuzu still puts in an appearance this season).  Can the demons coordinate their efforts, or at least communicate with each other?  If not, why not?  These seem like logical questions to ask, both for the characters and the viewers.

But there is something more that bothered me.  If a demon is intelligent and wants to harm people, then why make its presence known — and why torment or kill only a few people?  Why not remain undetected until it can commit a mass murder?  Or even perpetrate an act of terrorism, and harm far greater numbers of people by causing riots or wars?  That would suit evil’s purposes far more than the garish individual spectacles we find them performing in horror tales like these.  (Maybe I’m just analyzing too much.)

Anyway, I cheerfully recommend “The Exorcist.”  It might be the most grownup horror show on television.

And one more thing — there’s some fun to be had here recognizing actors from other roles.  Daniels was a member of the Rebel Alliance in “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” (2016).  And there is actually another “The X-Files” alum here — even if it was only a small role.  I thought that Harper’s mother looked familiar — the actress playing her was Rochelle Greenwood.  She’s none other than the teenage waitress who witnessed Walter Skinner getting shot waaaaay back in 1996’s classic episode, “Piper Maru.”  (Can I remember faces or what?)

 

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A short review of “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” (2016)

“Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” is every bit as good as you’ve heard; even this non-“Star Wars” geek had great fun with it.  I’d cheerfully give it a 9 out of 10, and I’d recommend you give it a try even if you don’t typically enjoy the franchise.

Die-hard fans are currently noting all of the things that make this film unique in the series: it’s the first “Star Wars” movie without a Jedi, the first without the trademark opening text-crawl, the first one without a lightsaber duel.

Casual fans might be more impressed with more general differences.  Two stood out for me.

One, this is the first Star Wars film since “The Empire Strikes Back” (1980) that seems aimed mainly at adults.  Yes, the fairy tale elements are still there — we have an underdog orphan searching for her father, the requisite anthropomorphic aliens, and a humorous robot mascot (which surprisingly worked quite well).  But those elements are absolutely upstaged by a bona fide war film, complete with tactics, strategy, panic, collateral damage and casualties.  I remember thinking during a surprisingly gritty urban warfare scene that it was as though some filmmakers had taken a scene from a film like “The Hurt Locker” (2008) and set it within the “Star Wars” universe.

Two, I think that this is the most human Star Wars movie we’ve had since “Empire.”  It wouldn’t be “Star Wars” without the aforementioned aliens and robots, and plenty of references are made to the Force and the Jedi.  But this is a movie about ordinary people.  Yes, there is one larger-than-life character who appears … force-sensitive?  This universe’s equivalent of Marvel’s “Daredevil?”  (This was a confusing story element that didn’t always work for me.)  But we are presented primarily with all-too-human anti-heroes who feel fear, suffer, and die.

Isn’t that more exciting than watching cartoonish aliens fight armies of equally cute battle-droids?  In this film’s better moments, it made me feel like a was watching a “real” war with “real” people, and I was surprised to find myself actually rooting for the good guys in a “Star Wars” film — this has been a series that I’ve long half-dismissed as being essentially children’s stories.

Seriously, this was a good movie.  Check it out.