Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

December 20, 2016 by  
Filed under Movies

“Rebellions are built on hope”. That’s what “Rogue One”, or Episode 3.5, of the “Star Wars” film franchise, bases its story on. The rebellion, the Rebel Alliance, what we come to root for in the most recognizable of the films, “A New Hope”–or as it was originally called, “Star Wars”. But the Alliance isn’t as positively reinforced as it was in “A New Hope”. Here, the rebellion can get ugly, and lines can be crossed. This is a gritty depiction of the rebellion, but to me it makes it all the more interesting.

The writing of the film could have made that a strength, that you didn’t know who were the good guys and who were the bad guys within the Alliance; instead, it’s more of a backdrop. We’re introduced to a small family at first, Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelson) and his wife, and their little daughter Jyn (Felicity Jones). Erso looks to be a farmer on a desolate planet, but the Galactic Empire comes calling, led by snooty looking Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), whose name could not have served any other office. He certainly wouldn’t have made a good Galactic jester.

Erso had been developing something for the Empire which he no longer wished to be a part of, but Krennic won’t leave without him, and Erso has no choice but to go. His wife is killed and his daughter is left behind in safe keeping by a rebel leader named Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker). Jyn grows up to be a laborer, her identity presumably hidden from Galactic forces for unknown reasons. Her anonymity brings her a life of concentration camps and lodging with a slimy alien roommate. But it doesn’t take long for her to be thrust into the Rebel Alliance.

She is told by the Alliance that they need to see Gerrera, who seems to have defected from the main Alliance himself. But it appears that they have deadlier plans for him, and for Galen Erso, who is still a reluctant scientist aiding the Empire with finishing the weapon. Oh, want to take a guess at what that weapon is? It’s nothing big. Not like it’s referenced anywhere else in the series or anything.

Well, Jyn feels doublecrossed when she learns the plan of the Rebellion–but she knows something about the weapon that could spare her father’s life. He built a designed weakness, and left a holographic message that details said weakness. They come to find out that there are plans that can be retrieved–that should sound familiar–and that becomes the mission of the Alliance.

If you couldn’t tell, the plot is a bit thick for an action picture. But in the “Star Wars” universe, I think we’ve come to expect a lot of intersecting storylines and characters. And believe me, you’ll need a pad and pen to be able to keep up with them all. This film has so much going on, it’s easy to get lost in all of it. But while you’re trying to figure out which planet they’re on and what the significance of that is, you’ll be immersed in a lot of battle scenes.

So much so, that this becomes more of a war film than a fun little “Star Wars” lark, such as “The Force Awakens”. This was directed by Gareth Edwards, who also made the 2014 “Godzilla” reboot. Much like that, there is a dour, brooding tone and look to the film that brings the mood down a bit. Its dreary cinematography can sometimes weigh down the film–but for some reason I liked that it wasn’t just your average plucky “Star Wars” film. There is a “gang” assorted, my favorite characters being Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen), a literally blind Force believer and his sidekick and caretaker Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen), and of course there’s a droid. This time, it’s K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk), and it has to be the snarkiest droid in the series. I actually found it to be a little jarring, as if the cynical humor was a little out of touch and out of tone for the film. Some of his lines are good–too good. As if they should be coming from someone watching the film, not someone who’s in it. It’s too self-aware. But, the droid does turn out to be useful at least.

The film does have some amazing action sequences, and the space war and planetary war scenes are all exhilarating. You may feel yourself bogged down because of how much is going on, and how grim a lot of the film is; but overall, I found it to be a worthy entry into the series. In fact, I think the film served as a better primer for the rest of the series than all the prequels combined. We see exactly how much we need to in order to bring us into “A New Hope”, and we see enough of Darth Vader to know what kind of enemy to be prepared for.

We also see another familiar face–Grand Moff Tarkin (CGI Peter Cushing). It is amazing how they pulled this off, and sometimes it can be a little distracting because of how seamless they’re trying to make it, but I commend them on the effort. Most of the performances by living actors are good–Diego Luna as Cassian Andor, part of the Alliance, is probably the biggest throwaway. I know how good of an actor he is, but he seems a little stiff in this role because Cassian wasn’t written as thoroughly as he could have been. It’s a shame, because the climax of this film could have been more emotional had we known some of these characters more. They don’t carry the same weight as the characters do in the Episodic films, even the latest one.

But for all of its flaws and shortcomings, I still think this is a good film on its own. I like that it gives more breadth to the Force, since it is bereft of light sabres (except for Vader’s of course), and Jedi (who have all been slain or exiled at this point). Denying those things gives IV, V and VI more meaning when you revisit them after this film. It makes Luke all the more special of a character. And speaking of special, obviously almost none of these characters are referenced in the following episodes. It’s almost just as well. But I do think Jyn was a strong lead, and her band of rebels should be given a bit of credit. So for what it’s worth, that makes the film unique in its own way. It’s not exactly what you’re looking for in “Star Wars”, but it should suffice as a good enough film experience to be satisfying.

My rating: :-)

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens

December 23, 2015 by  
Filed under Movies

“Star Wars” has become less a film franchise and more a cultural phenomenon in the past decade, and a new film–the first not to be helmed by George Lucas–seems almost moot when it comes to critiquing its merits as a film. We know what to expect at this point. Episodes IV, V, and VI all told the story of the Rebellion versus the Galactic Empire. Small fry versus big guy. David vs. Goliath. It was a story we all could relate to; we all wanted to be like Han Solo, but were probably more like Luke. The Force, the Jedi, the Dark Side, were all defining storytelling elements that made that trilogy a classic. Next, Lucas wanted to go back and tell the story of Luke’s father Anakin with episodes I, II, and III. He attempted to tell a backstory that really fell flat, and didn’t create very engaging characters. He certainly managed to create some really annoying ones, though. Through the years, the vitriol for the prequels has abated, and now–for better or worse–they are a part of the “Star Wars” film canon. There’s even a DVD release that puts them in order so you can watch I-VI, as George Lucas, er, intended (if you really want to believe that).

Episode VII resembles the first trilogy (that is, the middle episodes). It begins with action and ends with action, and in between we have a very predictable story arc that is plucked right out of “A New Hope”. We are introduced to a few new characters: a disgruntled Stormtrooper (cloning went out of style) named FN-2187 (well played by John Boyega) opts out of the program and joins a new rebellion called the Resistance to overcome the First Order, which are the remnants of the old Galactic Empire. FN is paired with Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac, in an appealing role) who nicknames him “Finn”. The big driving story is that Luke, the last of the Jedi, has gone missing and both the Resistance and the First Order are trying to find him. The Resistance obviously wants him to help their cause; the First Order wants to vanquish him. The map to Luke’s whereabouts is given to a cute little droid named BB-8, and that map becomes an obvious MacGuffin very quickly. Meanwhile, a girl, Rey (Daisy Ridley), comes into contact with the droid, and also Finn after his ship crashes on the planet she’s on, presumably killing Poe. Finn, Rey, and BB-8 stumble upon the Millennium Falcon, and we are soon reacquainted with two familiar and very welcomed faces: Han Solo (Harrison Ford, always a pleasure), and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew). Solo is back to being a smuggler, but he has left a little legacy behind: Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) who just happens to be a part of this First Order, taking orders from a mysterious leader, Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) that looks a little bit like a middle earth reject from “Lord of the Rings”. It’s fitting Serkis would play him. Ren has the Force, because his mother happens to be Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), a General with the new Resistance. Ren obviously is torn by two worlds, in a way that Darth Vader was. Ren also wears a mask and has his voice modulated–but here it’s by choice, rather than because of being disfigured and dismembered. Ren is younger, and more unsure of who he really wants to be. It’s a good choice for a character arc, as we know Ren will most likely be the focal villain who we want to like a whole lot more than we wanted to like Darth Vader. But Kylo Ren is capable of some pretty horrible things as well, including dispatching a very well liked character. I still think it was a mistake to be rid of this particular character. But J.J. Abrams, the director, must have wanted to shake things up early.

He does a very good job of balancing the action with the character narrative, and the film’s pace is snappy. Like the original trilogy, the film never feels as long as it actually is. There’s even some good humor peppered in, something that was severely lacking in the prequels, and something that really added to the entertainment value of the film.

And as a film, it does work quite well. As a sci-fi yarn you do have to suspend disbelief at times. But there’s never a point where I felt “out” of this movie. I was sold, from the first moments of the opening crawl, and the film never let me go as an invested viewer. Of course, it ends on a cliffhanger, and so it’s hard to judge how this will all work out in the end.

But it certainly is a very strong start to hopefully a redeeming trilogy, one that can stand the test of time that the original has. It has a lot of pressure riding on it, but I think Abrams & Co. are up to the task.

My rating::-)

Argo

October 14, 2012 by  
Filed under Movies

This really happened. Keep that in mind when you watch some of the things this film depicts. A trashy sci-fi film, fake at that, saved the lives of 6 people. Now, some of the facts are a bit worked (the script and source material picked wasn’t originally called “Argo”), and I’m sure some of the climactic scenes are dramatized for effect–but director Ben Affleck does a masterful job of putting it all together in a very fun, very engaging, and very absorbing drama.


The story revolves around what is known as the “Canadian Caper”–after the Ayatollah takes power in Iran during the Iran Revolution, the US embassy is stormed and is taken hostage. Six of the members of the US embassy, however, escaped, and took refuge at the house of an ambassador from Canada. The six that have left aren’t accounted for at first; but the Iranians soon notice that there is a discrepancy in numbers. So they will hunt down the six missing and kill them if found. These are the stakes for the US government, and the CIA is brought in. Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck, in possibly his most low key role) is the one who comes up with the idea of faking a movie production and claiming the 6 are actually Canadian, on location in Iran scouting for filming a science fiction lark that’s basically a rip off of “Star Wars”. He gets this idea one night while talking to his son watching “Battle for the Planet of the Apes”.


The CIA is hesitant, to say the least, at first. They want to make up a story that the missing six are Canadian, but they are teachers or agricultural industrialists. Mendez points out it’s in the dead of winter in Iran (snow is on the ground), and the only North American school that was in Iran had been closed for almost a year already. Mendez’ plan is “the best bad idea” they have, and so they reluctantly approve it. Fortunately for the CIA, they have a guy in Hollywood that they’ve used before in the past, a make-up artist named John Chambers (gleefully played by the always reliable John Goodman) who happily agrees to help but isn’t quite sure at first how to put it in motion. He enlists the help of a film guru, Lester Siegel (brilliantly played with gusto by Alan Arkin), to bring the project together. They need to make it as “real” as a fake movie as they can–photo ops, a poster, storyboards, a script, and media hype. Somehow they manage to do it (albeit a little too easily as far as the portrayal in the film) and Mendez is assigned to go to Iran, disguised as an associate producer, to meet with the six that are now “part of the film crew”, and get them safely on a plane back to America.


When Mendez gets there, the six escapees are less than impressed with the idea and their covers, and don’t initially trust Mendez (who goes by a cover name). Mendez promises them he’s gotten people home before but admits never in this way. He gives them their cover identities, one being the director, another being a screenwriter, another being a cameraman, etc. They have a day to memorize their covers and know all there is to know about their identities as Canadians, and then they have to go into Tehran to “scout” the location.


It’s a bit less than successful on the scouting, as they’re attacked by some local Iranians who don’t like the look of them; and the housekeeper where they are staying starts to suspect who these six people really are. Tensions begin to mount as the Iranian hostage crisis continues into 1980, and the militants know that six people are missing, and are finding ways to locate their identities.


Meanwhile, Mendez is told by his friend Jack O’Donnell (an Oscar caliber performance by Bryan Cranston), that the CIA has pulled the plug on the “Argo” cover. They’re going to send military to the airport and get them home that way. Mendez doesn’t go for that, and against orders, continues with his plan.


The sequence of getting these six to the airport and the attempt at getting them safely on the plane is exciting, nailbiting, and dripping with suspense. Even though you’re pretty sure you know how this all is going to work out, there are so many close calls (again, most likely dramatized for effect), that you’ll be gripping your seat white knuckled the entire time. This is where Affleck really shows off his chops as a competent and even great film director.


For the most part, Affleck takes a back seat, not a big shot, not overdoing anything, but letting the characters breathe. These six people are the most important in the film, and he lets them be that. His character is the protagonist, but he doesn’t have any big melodramatic uproars or “speeches” that make everyone know that Affleck is at the helm of this whole project. He lets the film speak for itself, and that’s the mark of a true filmmaker.


There are a few little scenes of social commentary about the situation in Iran as well. For a brief moment the camera captures a few Iranians eating at a Kentucky Fried Chicken in downtown Tehran. The camera doesn’t linger, no character makes a mention of it, but Affleck seems to be clearly saying this: they eat our franchised fast food, they entertain the idea of filmmaking in their country, and yet they hate us and want us all dead. Hypocrisy maybe?


Again, he doesn’t push this on us. Only brief glimpses into Iranian lifestyles, and some of the Middle Eastern customs and cultures, and coverage of the demands of the Iranians during the hostage crisis are given. This isn’t a preachy film by any means. But I certainly think there is a message that says “not much has changed” since the crisis ended in 1980. You look at some of the footage, and it is exactly what we still see on the nightly news that goes on over there, especially concerning us, and especially with the recent embassy attack we had only a month ago.


But it’s not all serious, either. The script provides a lot of laugh out loud moments, well delivered by this excellent cast. There are great moments of comic relief just before the suspense can be overbearing.


This is a special film–it gives a deserved nod to the Canadians, to the determination of Mendez, and even the pat on the back from former President Carter who gave the go ahead to keep the mission alive and possible for the six escapees to return safely. This is a quiet film about heroism, but its heroes aren’t big and bulky with witty one-liners and bombastic hi-jinx. Unlike its fake movie counterpart, “Argo” is simply a classy story that says heroes can be soft spoken, but they never give up. And because of that, there’s always hope for a happy ending.


My rating: :D