Monthly Archives: May 2018

Going Solo

Give him a mo’: Young Han will grow on you in new Star Wars saga


Solo: A Star Wars Story
Starring Alden Ehrenreich, Emilia Clarke, Donald Glover & Woody Harrelson
Directed by Ron Howard

Meet the man who’d grow up to be the most famous space cowboy of all time.

In Solo: A Star Wars Story, Alden Ehrenreich stars as the younger version of the iconic character Han Solo, who—as we know!—will eventually evolve into Harrison Ford and align with Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia in a cosmic crusade for the fate of the universe.

But that’s not this flick.

Solo introduces us to Han and shows us how he got his smirk, his strut and his swagger, from his inauspicious beginnings as a “scrumrat” on a dismal, dingy mining planet where he and his rebel girlfriend Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke from HBO’s Game of Thrones) plot their getaway.


Emilia Clarke

But Imperial goons, mutant dogs and fate intervene, and only Han is able to escape. He vows to return for his lady love, no matter what, and that sets the course of a wild, wide-ranging adventure that explains how young Solo meets the Wookie Chewbacca (Finnish actor Joonas Suotamo, back inside the costume again after Star Wars: The Last Jedi), and the suave intergalactic gambler Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover, star of TV’s Atlanta). And we learn how he comes into possession of his prized starship, the Millennium Falcon.

One of the best parts of the movie is learning more about Chewie, from his age (he’s old!) to his strength (yikes!) and his backstory—and watching the bond form between the shaggy, towering Wookie and the cocky wannabe pilot.


Donald Glover

Maybe you already knew that veteran director Ron Howard was brought in by Disney at the eleventh hour to take over the reins from the original team of Christopher Miller and Phil Lord—who piloted The Lego Movie and 22 Jump Street to riotously comedic heights—after they were dismissed for “creative differences.” The movie reportedly underwent weeks of rushed reshoots and loads of retweaks, and it’s tempting to wonder about what was so off-course, so creatively different, about the version that didn’t get made.


Woody Harrelson

But the one that hits the screen is solid, sound and sure to please Star Wars fans—Howard finds both freshness and familiarity in this exhilarating, rip-roaring yarn that zooms into hyperspace, stomps across muddy battlefields, flits around snowy mountaintops and introduces a palette of colorful new characters.

Woody Harrelson is pitch-perfect as Tobias Beckett, the scoundrel who gives Han his start in the smuggling business. Westworld’s Thandie Newton plays Beckett’s loyal partner, Val. Phoebe Waller-Bridge provides the voice of L3-37, Lando Calrissian’s droid navigator. Jon Favreau is the voice of Rio Durant, the four-armed, simian-like Ardennian pilot of Beckett’s crew. Paul Bettany (Vision in The Avengers) plays the ruthless, scar-faced cosmic crime lord Dryden Voss.

Ehrenreich, who had critically acclaimed appearances in Blue Jasmine and the Coen Brothers’ Hail, Caesar!, doesn’t really resemble Harrison Ford, the actor who branded the classic character of Han Solo in the original Star Wars (1977) and then three later movie appearances. Those are some big space shoes to fill. But hey, give the new Han some room to grow—to become Solo—and he grows on you. You see the character begin to take shape in the quips, the mannerisms and the awareness—if not the full embrace, not just yet—of a cause much bigger than himself.

Solo has a lot going on—rollicking, sprawling adventure; sock-o surprises; sweeping romance; double crosses and dastardly twists. Even though it’s meant to be a “standalone” movie (like Rogue One), without needing other films before or after it to continue the story, it’s got plenty of connectivity to the bigger Star Wars canon. (And you can easily see how it could stretch to another movie, if anyone wanted to take it there.)

nullHoward, the Oscar-winning Hollywood insider whose resume includes Splash, Apollo 13, the Da Vinci Code franchise and Frost/Nixon, certainly knows how build a blockbuster, and the movie is often a feast for the eyes. Film buffs will love its references to other movies and themes, particularly Westerns, World War I films like Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, and samurai flicks.

And when the movie opens with Han revving up his getaway “hot rod” on the mean, junky streets of the grimy, dead-end planet Coreillia, it’s cool to remember how the director appeared—before his directing career—as an actor in American Graffiti, a movie about kids in cars peeling out and dreaming of getting out. Maybe that’s why the scenes that really seem strongest in Solo are the ones that are “close to the ground”—not epic space battles, but times when characters talk, interact and feel the true “gravity” of their situation.

At one critical moment, Beckett and Solo find themselves a bit short of manpower. “C’mon, Chewie,” says Tobias. “Gonna need a little bit of that Wookie oomph.”

With excitement, tension, drama, style, emotion and a sure sense of its footing in one of the most fruitful franchises in pop culture history, Solo will delight Star Wars fans with plenty of that good ol’ Wookie oomph.

In theaters May 25, 2018

Over-50 Shades

Female Friends Rediscover Romance in Sweet, Saucy, Grown-Up Comedy

Book Club poster (72)

Book Club
Starring Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen, Diane Keaton & Mary Steenburgen
Directed by Bill Holderman

In a fight between a motor-mouthed superhero and four female friends “of a certain age,” who do think will win?

That’s not really hypothetical, as this past weekend, Marvel’s highly anticipated Deadpool 2 hit screens at the same time as this chick flick, about a group of women whose lives are comedically disrupted when their book club decides to read E.L. James’ steamy Fifty Shades of Grey. The novel, about a spicy, S&M-flavored relationship, puts them all in the mood to rediscover romance anew, reignite old flames or strike out on bold new sexual adventures.

Of course, the intended audiences for the two movies are quite different. The box-office battle is real, but the other issue is whether moviegoers will flock to this star-packed, character-rich comedy that’s clearly being served up as a customized, over-50, and fem-centric multi-plex counteroffer to Hollywood’s typical fare, usually aimed at male targets and much younger.


Diane Keaton

Vivian (Jane Fonda), Sharon (Candice Bergen), Diane (Diane Keaton) and Carol (Mary Steenburgen) play bestie girlfriends in Los Angeles who’ve been meeting monthly for 40 years to discuss books, sip wine and catch up with each other.


Mary Steenburgen

Vivian, never married, is a successful hotel magnate. Sharon’s a federal judge whose ex-husband (Ed Begley Jr.) has just hooked up with a much younger woman. Recent widower Diane is being pestered by her two adult children (Katie Aselton, from TV’s Legion, and Alicia Silverstone), who want to relocate her to live with them in Arizona. The passion has gone from the longtime marriage of Carol and her husband, Bruce (Craig T. Nelson).

When Vivian plops down Fifty Shades of Grey as her monthly selection at the book club, it’s a game changer. At first, her three friends are surprised, even a bit shocked.


Candice Bergen

“To even be holding this book is embarrassing,” says Bergen’s buttoned-up magistrate.

But soon enough, the women are shopping for sexy evening wear, looking for love online and finding their own shades of excitement with partners old and new.

The four lead actresses make for an iconic lineup; between them, they’ve got a stack of five Emmys and four Oscars, and a line of classic movies that includes Barberella, Klute, Coming Home, Carnal Knowledge, The Godfather, Anne Hall, Manhattan and Melvin and Howard.

Here, all that star power folds into an easygoing groove and a casual comedic chemistry; you feel like these four golden gals really are the old friends they’re pretending to be, and you laugh along with them as they gleefully discover things about themselves, reawaken old passions and forge ahead into new chapters of their love lives.

The movie is rated PG-13, but there’s plenty of tee-hee, sitcom-level humor as the women make cracks about the book, sex and their life situations. Sharon refers the long-neglected nether region of her body as “the cave of forgotten dreams.” Carol, totally engrossed in Fifty Shades, overwaters a houseplant; we watch the monitoring gauge in the soil move from “Moist” to “Wet.” Bruce has an unexpected encounter with Viagra—and a policewoman.

Sometimes the movie plies the sex jokes, puns and metaphors on a little too thick; it’s like writer/director Bill Holderman wanted to squeeze in every possible idea, somewhere, somehow. Yes, we get it: Bruce’s prized motorcycle is meant to represent his misplaced affections for his wife. We don’t need a stream of “lube,” “grease” and “crankshaft” jokes, spread over four different scenes.


Don Johnson & Jane Fonda

But the real tale of Book Club, however, is the multi-tiered love story that it unfolds as all the characters explore and expand their romantic vistas. Don Johnson will be an audience favorite as Arthur, Vivian’s dashing beau from the past. But it’s Andy Garcia who practically steals the show, as the smooth-talking airplane seatmate who takes wing with Diane’s heart.

Richard Dreyfuss has a laugh-out-loud scene as a Bumble blind date, and Wallace Shawn gets several chuckles out of his quick moment as a surgeon suitor.

Sweet, funny, feisty, romantic and aglow with the playful, sentimental warmth of friendships nurtured over time, Book Club is a charming, grown-up feel-good movie, with just the right amount of saucy seasoning, for mature audiences—especially if they’re not in the mood for a sassy superhero.

In theaters May 18, 2018















Down to Clown

Melissa McCarthy Goes Back to School


Life of the Party
Starring Melissa McCarthy, Molly Gordon, Maya Rudolph & Luke Benward
Directed by Ben Falcone

Ah, college.

Even if you don’t remember it fondly, Hollywood does—which is why movies keep returning to it.


Molly Gordon

Melissa McCarthy goes back to school in Life of the Party as Deanna Miles, a newly divorced mom who’s sorry she never completed her university education. Facing an uncertain future, she enrolls at the same college as her daughter, Maddie (Molly Gordon, who appeared on TV’s Animal Kingdom and provides the voice of Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Showtime’s Our Cartoon President).

Deanna’s enthusiastic plunge anew into college life lights the movie’s comedic fuse as the “fresh-mom” charms Maddie’s sorority sisters, meets her new Goth dorm mate (Saturday Night Live’s Heidi Gardner), clashes with mean girls (including former Disney star Debby Ryan) and discovers the limited beverage selection (no woodsy wines!) of noisy frat-house parties.


Matt Walsh & Julie Bowen

After the bitter sting of divorce from her cad of a husband (Matt Walsh from TV’s Veep)—who left Deanna for a “wife upgrade” to the local realtor (Julie Bowen, the Emmy-winning star of Modern Family)—university life is a fresh start for Deanna in more ways than one. She hooks up with a hot college hunk (Luke Benward, who appeared as Lloy Danderson on the CMT series Still the King), begins “chipping away” at the archeology degree she never finished the first time, and becomes even closer to her daughter and her friends.

As the once buttoned-up Deanna learns to cut loose, she tells Maddie, “I’m down to clown!”


Luke Benward & Jimmy O. Yang

There’s nothing really groundbreaking in Life of the Party. It’s a fairly conventional comedy, and it draws on themes that will feel a bit familiar to other movies, especially ones that have gone back to college for laughs. Imagine Rodney Dangerfield’s Back to School (1986) with a gender twist and boob and vagina jokes. Will Ferrell couldn’t forget his college fraternity days in Old School (2003), and neither can we. There’s also a sly, wink-wink nod to a John Belushi scene from Animal House.

But McCarthy: She’s a force of nature, a humor hurricane. She’s got impeccable comic timing, gonzo enthusiasm and a sense of empathy to balance the hilarity of her characters. Viewers will relate to Deanna on several levels—as a wronged, wounded ex-wife, as a mom, as a woman basking in her second chance at life—and McCarthy finds the right emotional buttons, at just the right moments, to push for them all.

At her best, she creates a core of honesty that digs deeper than the laughter; we chuckle, because she makes us understand. One scene, in particular, when Deanna struggles to overcome her fear of public speaking to give a class presentation, is like watching a mini-disaster unfold; it made me think of the physical gifts of the great Carol Burnett or Lucille Ball.

McCarthy wrote the script with her husband, Ben Falcone, and Life of the Party marks the third McCarthy movie Falcone has directed. (Watch for him in a cameo, early in the film, driving Deana to her mother’s home.) They obviously click.


Maya Rudolph plays Deanna’s best friend, Christine.

And in this case, they rounded up a great cast of other funny people to round things out. Stephen Root and Jacki Weaver are hoots as Deanna’s parents. There’s Jimmy O. Yang (from TV’s Silicon Valley) as Maddie’s boyfriend. Maya Rudolph is hilarious as Deanna’s best friend, Christine. Maddie’s sorority sisters include Gillian Jacobs (from TV’s Community) as Helen, whose former oddball fame as a the “coma girl” comes in handy; Adria Arjona (she played Dorothy Gale on Emerald City); and Jessie Ennis (from TV’s Better Call Saul). SNL alum Chris Parnell (he plays Dean Parker on TV’s Grown-ish) gets in some pun-ny lines as Deanna’s professor.

And I won’t spoil it, but there’s a big superstar cameo at the end to bring it all home, wrap it up and put a tassel on its message of positive female bonding and empowerment.

This feel-good, back-to-school comedy won’t get many extra credits, but it shows just how dependably, reliably funny Melissa McCarthy continues to be when she’s “down to clown.”

In theaters May 11, 2018


Marvel all-stars scramble in sprawling superhero smorgasbord 


Avengers: Infinity War
Starring Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Josh Brolin, Benedict Cumberbatch, Chris Pratt, Mark Ruffalo & Zoe Saldana

Directed by Anthony Russo & Joe Russo

The superhero smorgasbord Avengers: Infinity War brings together pretty much every character, narrative thread and place from most every Marvel movie of the past 10 years.

It’s like a $300 million mega-version of one of those ratings-grabbing TV episodes, when characters from Family Guy showed up on The Simpsons, or Alf washed ashore on Gilligan’s Island, or The Six Million Dollar Man collaborated with The Bionic Woman.

This ambitious all-star game of Marvel movies revolves around the A-team coming together to fight the cosmic baddie Thanos (Josh Brolin), a super-sized, lavender-hued Titan with a plan to re-make the universe—by destroying half of it.

Thanos seeks all six Infinity Stones, magical, immensely powerful objects that, when combined, will give him the ultimate keys to the kingdom. If you’ve been watching Marvel movies over the years, you’ve probably seen an Infinity Stone or two. These far-flung hot rocks have cropped up in other flicks, and now you’ll know why: Whoever gathers all of them has the building blocks to break down creation itself, and put it back together again, any way they choose.

The superheroes know a gravely serious situation when they see it. And though they’ve had their quarrels before (see Captain America: Civil War, also directed by brothers Anthony and Joe Russo), they set those squabbles aside to scramble for a common cause: Keep those stones out of the hands of the warmongering Thanos.


Benedict Cumberbatch, Robert Downey Jr., Mark Ruffalo and Benedict Wong

The gang’s all here: Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) teams with Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch); high schooler Peter Parker (Tom Holland) busts free of his classmates to swing into action as Spider-Man; scientist Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) worries about Hulk-tile dysfunction when he has some trouble summoning his raging green-guy alter ego.

Captain America (Chris Evans) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) reunite with Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), Falcon (Anthony Mackie) and War Machine (Don Cheadle) to join the Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) in battle on the plains of Wakanda.


Tom Holland, Downey Jr., Dave Bautista, Chris Pratt and Pom Klementieff

Thor (Chris Hemsworth) ends up in a rocketship with the Guardians of the Galaxy. The presence of the hunky God of Thunder brings out a jealous bone in “Star Lord” Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) when some of his crew—Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Rocket the raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper), the now-teenaged tree creature Groot, Drax (Dave Bautista) and Mantis (Pom Klementieff)—seems to fall under the sway of handsome Asgardian.

Gwyneth Paltrow makes a brief appearance as Pepper Potts, the CEO of Stark Industries and now fiancé of Tony Stark. Peter Dinklage from Game of Thrones has a cameo as a giant dwarf. And there’s Loki (Tom Hiddleston), Thor’s trickster brother, and Nebula, Gamora’s cyborg sister (Karen Gillan). Elizabeth Olson is the telekinetic Scarlet Witch, who’s in love with Vision (Paul Bettany), the android Avenger.

There wasn’t enough room, however, to squeeze in Ant-Man (Paul Rudd). But he did get a shout-out (and he’ll get his own sequel in July of next year).


Josh Brolin provides the voice and motion-capture animation for Thanos.

Even though his performance is CGI and motion-capture, Brolin brings an amazing combination of pathos, terror and gravity to Thanos, a madman with the power to destroy anything—and a willingness to lose everything. He’s a towering purple people crusher that practically steals the whole show.

It’s crowded, busy and noisy—and if you’re a Marvel fan, pretty close to heaven. If you haven’t been following the franchise storylines, at least casually, you might feel a bit lost in its speed, shuffle, smashing action scenes and the star-hopping, two and a half-hour race for the Infinity Stones, which are scattered from Earth to the far reaches of the cosmos. But the Marvel faithful will love the rush, sweep, scope, spectacle and almost operatic scale.

Although there are moments of levity and humor, there’s a lot heaviness, darkness and even heartbreak that finally crescendos in a spectacular, breathtaking finale orchestrated to leave fans gasping for more. It’s a closer that ranks among Marvel’s most enigmatic wrap-ups—and set-ups.

The film keeps returning to the notion of mortality, and it’s not a spoiler to report the widespread rumors that not all the beloved characters make it all the way through. I won’t give anything away, but Thanos does ominously intone early on that there’ll be “no resurrection this time.”

But he’s in a franchise, remember, that always seems to keep a few surprises up its comic-book sleeve—especially when you have characters with time warps, inter-dimensionality and certain other things to put into play.

And after all, the word infinity means unlimited, boundless, continuing without end. Spider-Man is set to return next summer, and if you stay through the credits, you’ll see the plug for the next new character in the Marvel line, and the movie coming March 2019. And the next Avengers movie, the fourth, is scheduled to release a little over a year from now.

So, to infinity… and beyond!

In theaters April 27, 2018