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GOING ‘SOLO’ AND STRIKING GOLD

If you’re going to introduce a prequel to the Star Wars saga in a different way than anyone has tried before you’d better deliver the goods. Despite its well-documented production problems, Solo: A Star Wars Story does exactly that. I think the magic key can be summed up in one word: casting. Series veteran Lawrence Kasdan and his son Jonathan are credited with the final script, which Ron Howard directed in a last-minute change of personnel (following the public firing of Phil Lord and Chris Miller). But without Alden Ehrenreich as a young Han Solo and a talented lineup of actors the movie wouldn’t work at all. Ehrenreich has proved himself many times over, but I doubt that most Star Wars fans have seen him…

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THE ‘CASABLANCA’ WE MAY NEVER GET TO SEE

Unlike some lesser-known movies from Hollywood’s golden age, Casablanca enjoys enduring appeal and continues to produce substantial revenue for the studio that made it, Warner Bros. As a result, it will likely be available in every home-viewing medium yet to be invented. Radio and TV spinoffs are also available, including two audio adaptations: on Lux Radio Theatre in 1944 (with Alan Ladd and Hedy Lamarr) and on the Screen Guild Players in 1944 (with original stars Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman and Paul Henreid); their fees were donated to the Motion Picture Relief Fund. A short-lived 1955 hour-long series starring Charles McGraw (part of a rotating cycle with Kings Row and Cheyenne on Warner Bros. Presents)  turns up in bootleg copies. The first segment of its debut episode appears on the deluxe Blu-ray edition of Casablanca from…

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DEADPOOL 2: NOT MY IDEA OF FUN

Nearly everything about the original Deadpool was fresh and funny, from the opening credits to the parody of Marvel movie finales. I’m not a fan of self-referential films but this one had so much energy and sheer bravado that it won me over, on the whole. Deadpool 2 suffers the fate of so many sequels: we’ve seen its best ideas before. Ryan Reynolds shares screenplay credit this time around, but apparently no ideas were discarded on the path from script to screen. The film is so cluttered with smartass jokes that it never stops to take a breath—a problem imparted to us in the audience. My least favorite line: “Big CGI fight coming up.” Even the star cameos don’t come across as effectively as they…

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YOUNG CLARK GABLE, “FATTY” ARBUCKLE, W.C. FIELDS, LOUISE BROOKS, AND MORE

Specialty distributors haven’t given up on DVDs and Blu-rays. In fact, they seem to be busier than ever releasing rare films and archival oddities, faster than I can possibly review them. Here is a sampling of some goodies I’ve enjoyed recently. As you probably know, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle’s career ground to a halt once he became the center of a headline-making scandal in 1921. This left half-a-dozen feature films on the shelf, most of which are considered lost. Fortunately, his first feature, The Round Up (1920) exists in a stunning 35mm print at the Library of Congress. Cinemuseum has just released a beautiful dual-disc set on DVD and Blu-ray with a first-rate piano score by Donald Sosin. The irony is that The Round Up was not only Arbuckle’s first…

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LOVE & BANANAS: FOOD FOR THE SOUL

Love & Bananas is a modest but captivating documentary about the sorry fate of elephants in Southeast Asia. It dodges the hazard that plagues many cinematic labors of love. Too often the director’s enthusiasm and good intentions don’t translate to us in the audience. Not this time! Actress and filmmaker Ashley Bell is our avatar onscreen, and (with producer-writer-editor-cinematographer John Michael McCarthy III and director of photography-executive producer Roddy Tabatabai) she manages to make us feel as if we’re experiencing a great adventure alongside her in real time. The immediacy of her two-week trip to Southeast Asia is palpable and unpredictable. The real star of the film—a heroine by any standards—is naturalist Lek Chailert, a wise, charismatic woman who has made it her mission to save…

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FROM ‘SAMSON’ TO ‘SHANE’: THE UNSUNG VICTOR YOUNG

It’s a matter of record that Jonny Greenwood earned an Oscar nomination for scoring Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread…but a significant piece of music that sets the tone for this moody character portrait is Victor Young’s “My Foolish Heart,” played by pianist Oscar Peterson. It’s a perfect choice, just as it was when it debuted as the title song for a 1949 movie with Susan Hayward and Dana Andrews. Yet Victor Young’s name is too often neglected when people cite the top composers of Hollywood’s golden age. Admittedly, he didn’t break new ground like Max Steiner or innovate as Bernard Herrmann did. All he did was write beautiful, melodic scores, yielding a vast number of songs that became hits and enduring standards. “Love Letters,” “Golden Earrings,”…

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‘AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR’ OFFERS ONE SURPRISE AFTER ANOTHER

Watching the latest, most ambitious entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is an overpowering experience….especially if you have a deep emotional connection to any of the characters. I enjoy most of these films but wouldn’t call myself a fanboy; I didn’t get that kick-in-the-gut feeling until the very end of the picture (of which I cannot speak). The finale of Infinity War is truly mind-blowing. Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, whose Marvel credits include all three Captain America movies and Thor: The Dark World, took on a superhuman challenge this time around. How do you craft a script that involves almost all the major characters who have made their mark onscreen over the past decade? How does teenage Spider-man fit in with snarky Tony Stark and the wizardry of…

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I FEEL PRETTY: GOOD INTENTIONS DON’T PAY OFF

Amy Schumer is so likable in the early stages of this fable that I found myself actively rooting for the movie. I wanted it to be good, as poignant and believable as its leading character. Alas, I Feel Pretty runs aground and never regains its equilibrium. Schumer plays an underpaid, overworked, overweight New Yorker who carries bad luck like an albatross around her neck. Then, after throwing a coin into a fountain one night and blacking out at her gym the next day, she undergoes a magical transformation. She finally has everything she’s dreamed of–but it’s all in her head. She hasn’t changed a bit, but the belief that she is beautiful and stylish makes her a new, super-confident woman. This leaves her two frowsy best friends…

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HOORAY FOR B MOVIES

I’ve always found a certain charm in vintage Hollywood B movies, and apparently I’m not alone. The Museum of Modern Art recently screened a selection of Republic Pictures titles endorsed by Martin Scorsese. Warner Archive has just released three 1940s titles on DVD I’d never seen before: Murder in the Big House (1942), Danger Signal (1945), and Hotel Berlin (1945). The term “B movie” in the 1930s and 40s referred to a film with an abbreviated running time, intended to fill the lower-half of a double feature. The major studios also used these “programmers” as a proving ground for up-and-coming talent on both sides of the camera. Murder in the Big House is a prototypical Warners B, directed by B. Reeves “Breezy” Eason, who specialized…

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THE RIDER: A SLEEPER YOU SHOULDN’T MISS

Simplicity is not in vogue among today’s filmmakers, but The Rider is so consistently good that it has wowed critics and audiences on the film festival circuit. It has also accumulated an impressive number of awards. Now that it’s in theaters I urge you to join its many champions; just don’t approach it with outsized expectations. The protagonist is a young man who has been working the rodeo circuit for most of his life. An accident has left him with staples in his skull and the inability to ride, let alone engage in competition. A taciturn Westerner, he internalizes his problems, especially as this deals with male pride and an understandable fear of what the future may hold. He lives a hardscrabble existence with his macho father…

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