Friday, May 25, 2018

‘Solo’ unites/reunites Han, Chewbacca in action-packed ‘Star Wars’ backstory

By Steve Crum
After 41 years (Can you believe it?!), Star Wars movie #10 warps into our space with Solo: A Star Wars Story. And it is a fun and exciting, though imperfect, addition to the Star Wars array. Solo is well worth seeing, particularly for fans. That is because only fans will pick up on all the references from the former nine flicks. Such is the built-in downside of any sequel, prequel or referential motion picture like those in the Star Wars franchise.
Solo: A Star Wars Story, directed by Ron Howard and written by established Star Wars scribes Jonathan and Lawrence Kasdan, tells a portion of the backstory of Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich). It is set not long before Star Wars Episode IV—A New Hope. The film is not considered a prequel to mainstream Star Wars episodes, but is a called a “stand-alone installment.” However, there are allusions to future events covered by Harrison Ford’s portrayal of Han. 
Incidentally, Ehrenreich is a very credible Han Solo without resorting to a plastic Harrison Ford impression. But like Ford’s version, the familiar Han Solo brash bravado and smart ass demeanor are clearly there. 
Nearly as anticipated as seeing a young Han is seeing a younger (not young, by any means) Chewbacca, the Wookie (Joonas Suotamo). We get the scoop on how the two met and became fast compatriots. Without divulging too much, let us say that they first cross paths in a sequence hearkening to the Luke Skywalker battle versus the underground cave creature in Return of the Jedi. By this point in the 135 minute film, we have also learned of the origin of Han’s last name. (Silly me, all the time I thought Solo was his family name.) 
Sandwiched between the action set pieces (a frantic land speeder chase; outmaneuvering a giant worm monster; and a dizzying monorail train battle among them), we witness Han Solo in love and lust with the stunning Qi’ra, well played by Emilia Clarke. Of course, this was pre-Princess Leia. 
Major screen time is given to Woody Harrelson’s Tobias Beckett, who is not only Han’s mentor but a criminal with multiple allegiances. Also dubious is Donald Glover’s Lando Calrissian, the smuggler and con man originally played by Billy Dee Williams. 
Solo is filled with a roster of characters, some newly introduced (Dryden Vos, Val Beckett, Lady Proxima) as well as some surprising oldies. (One of the latter drew shrieks of awe at the screening.) 
The primary plot point centers of Han and his compatriots aboard the Millennium Falcon as they execute the Kessel Run, a smuggling route in the Galactic Empire. This is Han’s bragging right he speaks of in A New Hope: “I made the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs.” 
Solo’s drawback centers on dimly lit, talky sequences that slow the pace down to a near stop. Then again, the many action portions are spectacular and nail gnawing. On balance, however, Solo: A Star Wars Story is pretty grand sci-fi adventure. 
The studio labels it a “space Western film,” which makes more than horse sense. 
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GRADE on an A-F Scale: B

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Theron’s Oscar-worthy performance in ‘Tully’ is profound character study

By Steve Crum
Tully, not to be confused with 2016’s Sully, is not about a near air disaster. But the dramedy IS about a youngish married woman whose personal life flaunts disaster. Charlize Theron’s portrayal of the troubled spirit is nothing short of brilliant, and certainly Oscar worthy.  Adding Diablo Cody’s screenplay (she also wrote 2007’s Juno) and Jason Reitman’s direction equals a trifecta supreme. 
This is not discounting the impressive work of Mackenzie Davis in the title role, and the credible acting of everyone else in the small cast. That includes some fine turns by the main two child actors, Asher Miles Fallica and Lia Frankland.
Do you get the idea Tully bowled me over, critic-wise? Definitely. I even loved Rob Simonsen’s score, punctuated by covers of pop hits over the last 40+ years. “You Only Live Twice,” the James Bond/Nancy Sinatra hit, is not only well performed (by an unknown singer), but has a purposeful meaning for its inclusion. (You will figure it out when the movie ends.) 
Before that occurs, there is an unfolding domestic story that begins with wife and mother Marlo (Charlize Theron) on the verge of having her third child. (The dedicated Theron gained nearly 50 pounds for the role!) We witness her daily struggle familiar to anyone who has simultaneously dealt with late stage pregnancy, getting two youngsters off to school, trying to be a good wife, and being the proverbial chief cook and bottle washer. Factor in a mostly distant, non-helpful, arrested development husband, Drew (Ron Livingston). Then there is her kindergartener son, Jonah (Fallica), who is being expelled from school due to his behavior disorders. It is overwhelming for Marlo, and uncomfortable to witness. 
The first half of the movie has a documentary look, with dominant use of the hand-held camera. But the technique segues into more traditional visuals as the story takes on a mysterious, somewhat disjointed aura. But, as we learn, there is reason for this shift.
Realize that there are many laughs throughout Tully, due to Marlo’s blatantly honest and often crude remarks. This is testament to the wit of screenwriter Cody. It reflects Marlo’s way of coping. 
Things change for the better when Marlo’s wealthy brother (Mark Duplass) hires a night nanny, Tully, to help relieve the overnight stress of getting up to feed the baby. Tully even neatens up the house and makes treats for the kids. When the baby needs feeding in the middle of the night, Tully brings the child to Marlo at bedside, happily observing the breast feeding. If this seems uncomfortably odd, it is. Yet Marlo and Tully’s bond grows increasingly close. I have to interject that Tully is not a horror movie, even though that admission might be construed as a spoiler. 
“The 30’s come around the corner like a garbage truck,” laments Marlo during the third act. That telling quotation epitomizes the core spirit of Tully. During the finale, when Marlo and Tully literally race (by car and bicycle) toward the past, we realize a dangerously brittle state of depression. 
The plot has a huge twist to it, a profoundly huge twist. Consider this 96 minute gem as viewing well spent. 
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GRADE on an A-F Scale: A