Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Could 'Solo: A Star Wars Story' have been saved? Maybe not, but let's try anyway.

Alden Ehrenreich looks typically blank as Han Solo because he has no character to play.

A typical screening of Solo: A Star Wars Story.
Maybe Solo: A Star Wars Story never had a shot at being good, let alone necessary or impactful, it being yet another unsolicited prequel in a franchise already lousy with exposition. But I don't think it needed to be the pointless, empty, dispiriting slog that it turned out to be. Was I a fool for thinking this thing would actually be fun?

In the wake of the film's underwhelming debut—it "only" earned $84 million at the domestic box office over the Memorial Day weekend—plenty of theories are circulating as to why Solo failed to click with audiences. Franchise fatigue? Backlash from disgruntled fanboys (many of whom are weirdly fixated on their hatred of supporting character Rose Tico, who is not in Solo)? An overcrowded marketplace? All of the above?

I can't tell you with any certainty why certain viewers stayed away from Solo. That's for the industry analysts to decide. What I can tell you is that, for me, watching Solo was almost no fun at all and that I can't imagine this thing being anyone's favorite movie unless they'd only seen three movies and the other two were snuff films. And even then it would be close.

As it happened, I was in Indiana over the Memorial Day holiday, visiting my sister and her family. We all went to see the movie at the local multiplex, and I'll testify from first-hand experience that it played to soporific silence from the entire audience. I even had to fight the urge to nod off during the film's leaden middle passages and found myself wishing I'd brought a caffeinated beverage with me into the theater. The film's timid attempts at humor fell particularly flat. I think the socially-conscious droid L3-37 was supposed to be the film's designated comic relief character, the Jar Jar of Solo: A Star Wars Story. After one of her several failed wisecracks, I exhaled loudly enough with disappointment to make my niece giggle a little. That accounted for the one (1) audible laugh during the entire screening.

Curiously, speaking of Jar Jar, Solo: A Star Wars Story made me pine for the days of George Lucas' much-mocked prequel trilogy of the late '90s and early 2000s. As gratingly stupid as it is, The Phantom Menace at least provides some eye candy: cool-looking cities, cool-looking planets, cool-looking costumes, etc. Solo, on the other hand, is almost perversely drab, underlit, and murky. The title character spends the whole film bouncing from one inhospitable world to another, and we never get a good sense of the terrain in any of these places. It's like: mud world, another mud world, rock world, desert world. Gee, thanks a bunch, movie. A Star Wars movie should seem open and airy, bursting with possibilities. Solo, in sharp contrast, feels cramped and restrictive. There's not even a hint of adventure here.

Our antagonist: a petulant twerp.
I can't comment on the characters, since Solo didn't really have any. Instead, it had placeholders where interesting, well-developed characters would otherwise be. Wide-eyed, baby-faced Alden Ehrenreich bears little resemblance to Harrison Ford, other than being a bipedal mammal. I guess he says his lines all right—it helps that the script doesn't have him say, "Would that it were so simple."—but he's the least dynamic, compelling character in the movie, and that's a problem when the movie is named after him.

Does this movie even have an antagonist? I've heard Paul Bettany's character, stripey-faced gangster Dryden Vos, described as the film's main villain. But he's such a petulant little twerp it was difficult to take him seriously. In a real Star Wars movie, he'd be the lieutenant to the actual antagonist. I'm not sure how he got those scars on his face. I think he might just be a cat owner.

Everyone else? Eh, they're fine, I suppose. It's difficult to judge them properly because the script is so clunky. So many awful lines here. "She's part of the ship now." "You're the good guy." And that idiotic scene in which Han gets his last name. It's a complete ripoff of the scene from Mike Judge's Idiocracy (2006) in which Joe Bauers (Luke Wilson) finds himself being renamed "Not Sure."

While we're talking about that part of the movie, let's discuss the Empire for just a moment. I've written before about how the Empire never makes the least attempt to win over the public's affections. Well, in this movie, there's actually an Empire recruiting film, and I'll be good and goddamned if it isn't seemingly inspired by a Family Guy parody. That's right: Lucasfilm is now taking cues from Fuzzy Door Productions.

A better template for this movie.
Solo even gets the little details wrong. It's a longstanding Star Wars tradition, for instance, to have weird looking bands and singers providing background music. In this movie, I think we get one lame lounge act consisting of a woman with a radio dial over her mouth (?) and a guy who's just a head in a jar. And they're off-key the whole time. Give me the Max Rebo Band or the Modal Nodes over these bozos any day!

Admittedly, I have never given a great deal of thought to what Han and Chewie were like before joining up with Luke and the Rebellion. But, if I'd had to guess, I probably would've said their lives were something like The Dukes of Hazzard.  You know, "making their way the only way they know how. That's just a little bit more than the law will allow." Han and Chewie would be like Bo and Luke. The Millennium Falcon is their General Lee. And Jabba the Hutt (absent from Solo) is their Boss Hogg. I guess that makes Lando their version of, uh, Cooter or something. Look, it's not a one-to-one comparison.

But the way I see it, young Han Solo is a hotshot smuggler and pilot. He digs himself. He thinks he's too much. He has a badass ship. He has a badass sidekick. He has a badass blaster. And he's a handsome, athletic, quick-witted dude who is constantly outsmarting both the gangsters and the Empire. To him, every Stormtrooper might as well be Sheriff Rosco P. Coltrane, i.e. a dope who couldn't hit the broadside of a barn. Han's life is a series of daring escapades and narrow escapes, and that's the way he likes it. In other words, it's a goddamned adventure. The movie starts out with this narration: "It is a lawless time." To which I would have added: "And Han wouldn't have it any other way."

Above all, I thought sure young Han would be a womanizer, a galactic Don Juan constantly seducing ladies (plus occasional aliens and droids) wherever he goes. But no. Solo: A Star Wars Movie gives him a steady girlfriend, Qi'ra (Emilia Clarke), at the beginning of the movie, and Han remains stupidly loyal to her throughout the film. He's so earnest and wholesome, he might as well be a Boy Scout. I was certain there would be at least one scene in which Han is chased by a jealous husband, but Solo definitely isn't that kind of movie.

Instead, Solo wants to be basically a filmed FAQ about its title character. How did Han get his last name? How did he meet Chewbacca? How did he get his famous blaster? I would have structured it around a different question entirely: How did Han get his cynical attitude?

Another good role model for this film.
Let me elaborate. By the time we meet him in A New Hope, Han Solo is a selfish, sarcastic guy who keeps the world at arm's length. I think he does this as a defense mechanism. If he walls himself off emotionally, he can't truly get hurt. My version of his origin story would have explained how exactly he got that way.

Like I said before, my version of young Han Solo is a cocky, arrogant hotshot. But he's still a boy at heart. My script for Solo: A Star Wars Story, then, would be about Han's journey from boyhood into manhood. I would have kept the character of Qi'ra, as well as that of Han's quasi-mentor Beckett (Woody Harrelson), but their roles would have been different. Or, rather, their functions would have been different.

The first part of my Solo movie is about Han being a smuggler and having a grand old time at doing it. But then, he runs afoul of Beckett's gang somehow. Even this, though, seems like yet another lucky break for Han. Beckett has actually heard of Han, he says, and thinks that Han and Chewie would be good additions to the squad. Seeing as how the only alternative is having his head blown off, Han says yes.

Beckett's plan is to rip off some big time warlord, someone like Dryden Vos but not such a prep school punk. (And ixnay on those Garfield stripes on his face.) They have an operative on the inside: the warlord's beautiful mistress Qi'ra. Immediately, Han has the hots for Qi'ra, and soon she and Han are sneaking kisses whenever possible. It's possible that this is the first time Han Solo has ever actually been in love. Normally, he's the "find 'em, fuck 'em, forget 'em" type, but Qi'ra is different.

Beckett tells Han he has potential but that he has only been a small time operator up to now. And so, Han serves an apprenticeship under the more experienced crook, learning the ropes. In the end, the heist goes off successfully, and the warlord is killed, but it turns out Beckett has really only been using Han the whole time and plans to kill him and take his share of the money. Beckett tells Han, "It's a shame, too, kid. Because I was really beginning to like you. In fact..." Han shoots him at this point and casually kicks Beckett's body into a ravine, where it's eaten by animals. This is a key moment when Han starts to become more callous.

But the real moment of change for Han comes when he realizes that Qi'ra, too, was only in this for herself. She needed money to buy her way out of being a kept woman. Now she has it, and she doesn't need Han anymore. This has not been foreshadowed in any way throughout the movie, so the moment should feel like a real gut punch to the audience. We've come to know and like Qi'ra, and it's devastating to watch her dump Han. But she's not been a goody-goody either. She's more like a character out of film noir. I see Han as being analogous to the private eyes from those movies, e.g. Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe. The film, then, would be about how Han lets some dame play him for a chump and how he learns a tough life lesson along the way. That's classic Raymond Chandler/Dashiell Hammett-type stuff.

My movie ends with Han and Chewie in some shithole cantina halfway across the galaxy. Based on the way he's talking, we can see he's already started to develop the cynical persona of the Han we knew from the older movies. Suddenly, a strange emissary (Greedo?) walks up to Han and offers him a business card. It's from Jabba the Hutt. Han looks intrigued. Smash cut to end credits.

So, yeah, that's my take on Solo: A Star Wars Story. The TLDR version is this: Solo should have been Dukes of Hazzard in Outer Space. Just imagine this but with spaceships.

Ed Wood Wednesdays: The Wood Collaborator Odyssey, Part 11 by Greg Dziawer

By 1955, Bela Lugosi was getting by with a little help from his friends.
his week,
I've decided to keep the Ed-itorializing largely to myself.  Instead, through an assortment of vintage news clippings, I'd like to offer a snapshot of a pivotal month in the saga of Ed Wood and Bela Lugosi. These events unfolded in the spring of 1955. In April of that year, the 72-year-old Lugosi was famously hospitalized for drug addiction not long after shooting the silent test footage that Ed would later insert into Plan 9 from Outer Space.

Meanwhile, the release of Ed and Bela's previous film—then still called Bride of the Atom—was mere weeks away. Following Bela's hospitalization, the May '55 premiere of Atom immediately morphed into a benefit for the ailing, debt-plagued Hungarian actor. This upbeat article from the April 27, 1955 edition of The Lubbock Morning Avalanche details both the hospitalization and the "lavish" benefit gala. Note the mention of Bride producer/star Tony McCoy, who is said to have visited Lugosi in the hospital.

"A lavish Hollywood premiere is planned."

This celebrity gossip column from the May 21, 1955 edition of The Oakland Tribune is significantly less positive in its depiction of the Lugosi benefit, characterizing the evening's receipts as "pitifully low."

"Receipts were pitifully low."

This next piece, which mentions Bride's leading lady Loretta King, was penned by Edwin Schallert and appeared in May 30, 1955 edition of The Los Angeles Times. You may remember that Schallert, father of actor William Schallert, had previously written about Glen or Glenda back in 1953. According to Schallert, King was "active on TV" at the time.

"Miss King is active on TV."

Like Edwin Schallert, Aline Mosby had also written about Glen or Glenda back in 1953. In fact, Mosby wrote numerous articles through the years featuring various friends, associates, and collaborators of Edward D. Wood, Jr. Her syndicated article here, clipped from the April 25, 1955 edition of The El Paso Herald Post, is especially sad and poignant in its depiction of Bela Lugosi in his twilight years. The article paints the actor as a pathetic figure, dependent upon the charity of friends. The "cruel satire" Mosby mentions was The Bela Lugosi Revue at The Silver Slipper in Las Vegas the previous spring.

"A quiet, gentle man who got into horror movies by mistake."

One last clipping to share with you, this one from the May 11, 1955 edition of The Los Angeles Times. It, too, describes the Bride of the Atom premiere and the subsequent Bela Lugosi benefit. The article name checks both Ed Wood and Tony McCoy, as well as Paul Marco and Dolores Fuller.  It's also interesting to note Vampira's presence at the benefit showing, making this yet another entry on the timeline of Ed's association with the horror hostess.

"Vampira, escorted by Paul Marco."

EPILOGUE: Bela Lugosi died on August 16, 1956, not even a year and a half after this benefit in his honor. He was 73. The former site of the Gardens restaurant at 4311 Magnolia Ave. in Burbank is currently occupied by an establishment called Joe's Great American Bar & Grill. The Paramount Theatre, originally constructed in 1923, was closed in 1960 and demolished in 1961. At its former location at the intersection of 6th St. and Hill in Los Angeles, you'll now find a wholesale jewelry building constructed in the late 1970s.

The site of the Bela Lugosi benefit is now Joe's Great American Bar & Grill in Burbank, CA.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Ed Wood Wednesdays: The Wood Collaborator Odyssey, Part Ten by Greg Dziawer

Lyle Talbot as captured by the legendary Drew Friedman.

Lyle Talbot in Plan 9.
One of the most persistent myths surrounding Edward D. Wood, Jr. concerns his untimely death on December 10, 1978. The standard story goes that Eddie passed away while watching a football game on TV, despite the oft-repeated fact that he had no interest in the sport whatsoever.

Well, I recently learned a little more about that fateful game while researching one of Wood's most frequent collaborators: Lyle Talbot (1902-1996), the sturdy, incredibly prolific character actor who appeared in Crossroad Avenger, Glen or Glenda, Jail Bait, and Plan 9 from Outer Space, amid dozens of other assignments in a film and TV career spanning six decades. In interviews, Talbot staunchly avoided mention of working with Ed Wood. But that changed with Tim Burton's 1994 biopic elevating popular interest in Eddie to its then-and-still pinnacle. 

With Glenda and Plan 9 back in the spotlight, Lyle Talbot ultimately acquiesced and started talking to the press about his days working with Ed Wood in the 1950s. Take, for instance, an article I found in the October 2, 1994 edition of the San Francisco Chronicle. Here, although Talbot's work with Wood is described as being from a "fallow" period in his career, the actor is finally empathetic toward his former boss. And that's despite the fact that he reveals his possible—and very personal—reason for his decades-long separation from the world of Wood.

Here is the article in its entirety:

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Ed Wood Wednesdays: RIP Jacques Descent (1937-2018) by Greg Dziawer

Jacques Descent surrounded by some of the films he worked on over the years.

Jack in 2009.
I have some sad news to report to you this week. The dwindling number of associates and friends who knew and worked closely with Edward D. Wood, Jr. has decreased by one. Film producer Jacques "Jack" Descent—a man who had become my very best friend these last few years—passed away in the early afternoon of Tuesday, June 5, 2018.
Apart from his connection to Ed Wood, Jack lived an extraordinary life of his own, his career and accomplishments remaining largely unknown to this day. He reinvented himself again and again as a filmmaker and an inventor and a painter, among many other things, always a fearless pioneer. It was all about the deal, he frequently told me, self-identifying as more artisan than artist.  
In the last year, owing to some near-impossible circumstances, I found myself working with Jack on the post-production of a movie he'd shot and co-produced in 1974. The interiors had been filmed at the Cinema 35 Center, Jack's full-stack studio/lab at Hollywood Blvd. and Western Ave. in Los Angeles. Together, we sifted through more than five hours of raw 16mm superneg footage and an equal measure of quarter-inch Nagra sound reels, bringing this material back from the dead.  
Day in and day out, I saw how Jack had retained his hands-on managerial artistry, even a quarter century after retiring from the film business. I only regret that Jack never saw the finished film, which is now mere weeks away from completion. Beautifully shot, it reveals artistry of another sort. It was gratifying to see Jack gradually but ultimately accept that.  
OJ in his Bruno Magli shoes
Just two weeks ago, I had the privilege of spending the better part of five days with Jack as he lived out his last days. Despite the circumstances, Jack's mind was sharp and his outlook positive, still looking for the deal. The steady stream of stories and anecdotes became even more incredible. Paid out of his half of a film with Jayne Mansfield's last Cadillac. Meeting Jobs and Wozniak in 1974 and selling their first "product" before there even was an Apple. Buying a pair of Bruno Magli's in the same store on the same day as OJ Simpson bought the pair he allegedly wore. 
Jack was living in Beverly Hills at the time, he told me, and he wandered into the shoe store one afternoon. He knew OJ from around town, not a friend, just to say hello at restaurants. Jack spotted OJ, who was with a couple of other ex-NFL players.
"Hello, OJ. How are you?" 
As they conversed, OJ mentioned that he was buying a pair of Bruno Magli's. Although Jack had never heard of the brand, he figured why not? Different than OJ's lace-ups, Jack purchased a pair of leather slip-ons that day, more than a quarter of a century ago. They are now, surreally, in my closet. 
Decades prior, Jack shot Ed Wood in a fabled, gone-missing film called Operation Redlight, which Ed also scripted. The angora sweater Ed wore in that film hung in the front office of the Cinema 35 Center through the mid-'70s.

Jack's story has only begun to be told, a life well and fully lived. Endings are beginnings.

Relive Jacques Descent's life and career with these links: