On the Run Pt 2 (The Scorch Trials, 2015)

Maze_Runner_Scorch_PosterAfter escaping the Maze, Thomas and his group of Gladers find themselves trying to escape the clutches of WCKD. They rush headlong into the Scorch…the world outside burned by the sun and filled with disease.

They come into contact with a group of freedom fighters who want to help get the uninfected kids to a safe zone and far away from WCKD. But they find that not all the Gladers can be trusted.

The Scorch Trials changes up their monsters.  The Infection (called the Flare) turns people into zombie like creatures that mindlessly attack and destroy anyone in their path.  The film builds a dramatic chase in which Thomas and freedom fighter Brenda try and escape these monsters. There is a great reveal in sewers and an exciting chase through a broken down skyscraper.

I really liked the new characters.  Brenda and Jorge seem sketchy at first, seemingly just out for themselves, but prove themselves trustworthy. Alan Tudyk has a brief but memorable role as a rather scummy informant Jorge deals with.

The film ends on a bit of a cliffhanger, but also a note of hope.  The Scorch Trials is a good second act for the Maze Runner series.  It is exciting and has interesting characters.

Nothing But Star Wars Episode Three and a Quarter (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, 2016)

Rogue_One_IMAX_PosterThe Force Awakens, in spite of conflicting reviews had made Disney enough money to feel confident in going forward with their game plan.  Disney had set a goal of a Star Wars movie every Christmas.

Since films of the blockbuster nature often can take at least two years of time to assemble, the answer Disney had was to alternate our visits.  Star Wars Episodes Seven, Eight and Nine would continue the adventures of the rebels.  In the alternating years would be a stand alone story within the Star Wars Universe.

Many ideas were bandied about, from Han Solo to Ben Kenobi to Boba Fett.  I suspect that, in part, this is one of the reasons the Extended Universe was declared not canon. They wanted that freedom to play around without any of the constraints of the extended universe material.

The first film announced was Rogue One, the story of how the rebels got the plans for the Death Star that allowed them to destroy it in A New Hope.  And so let us take a look…a spoiler filled look…like, do not go any farther if you have not seen the movie and don’t want to have it spoiled.

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The film opens on a remote planet as a farmer watches the arrival of Empire ships.  He hurries his family away, wanting his wife and daughter to flee.  We soon find that the farmer is Galen Erso, an ex-imperial  architect to left their employ when he realized what he was building.  But he is needed to finish the work, and his former boss is insistent that he and his family return with them. Young Jade Erso witnesses her mother being killed from a distance, She runs to a hidden safe zone. Hours later, left all alone, Jade is found by Saw Gerrera, a friend of her father’s and a well known leader in the growing rebellion.

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The film then jumps ahead to a now grown Jade who appears to a regular trouble maker, currently in the custody of the Empire. She is being transported when the transport vehicle is attacked.  She is grabbed by a large robot called K 2SO. A droll reprogrammed droid, he is working with Cassian Andor.  They are on a covert mission, trying to reach a an imperial pilot named Bodhi who  is in the hands of Gerrera.  Believing Jade is their ticket to getting Bodhi, they have broken her out.

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Rogue One: A Star Wars Story L to R: Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) and K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) Ph: Jonathan Olley © 2016 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

They arrive on the planet where Gerrera is holed up.  Cassian and Jade find themselves in a fire fight between dissidents and Storm Troopers.  They are joined by a blind monk Chirrut Îmwe and his protector/companion Baze Malbus.  The monk is not a Jedi, but enters fights chanting “The Force is with me and I am with the Force”. Baze on the other hand puts more trust in guns. They are taken to Gerrera by the dissidents.

Gerrera provides information to Jade and allows everyone to leave.  They rush from the planet s the Death Star fires on the planet.  They have learned where to find Galen, but unbeknownst to Jade, the plan is simply to kill him. Jade learns the truth and unsuccessfully tries to save her father, though he does at the hands of the Empire, rather than Cassian.

Things are looking bleak, but Erso is determined to see that her father’s death is not in vein.  While the leadership of the rebellion refuses to back an attack on the planet with the Death Star, Jade convinces Cassian, Chirrut, Baze, Bodhi and several pilots it is a needed mission.

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While fighters take to the air, Cassian and Jade lead a team with the goal of stealing the Death Star plans that reveal the flaw her father built directly into the Death Star.  We know, of course, that they succeed, because A New Hope already told us that they did.

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The first thing one notices in the film is that, unlike previous Star Wars entries, there is no opening scrawl. And the film is simply titled Rogue One on screen, no “A Star Wars Story”.  This seems to be an intentional signal regarding a way for the non-episodic stories to be set further apart.

Of course, they do not take a real risk of going to far afield, afterall, Rogue One takes place literally moments right before A New Hope.  And truth be told? This was the part that kind of annoyed me.  I did not need the film to end at that spot.  It was purely the silliest of fan services.

The biggest controversy I heard on this one was how much of a problem people had with the digital Tarkin.  I mean, it is an actor playing the role, but like Gollum, there is a digital actor laid over that actor. And, there is a certain…hard to pin unnaturalness to how he looks.

Rogue_One_Tarkin Yet, for my money, the one that just creeped me out was only on screen for a few seconds.  Far more awkward to my eyes was the wax museum look of…

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I do not get how people were excited by this sequence rather than unnerved by it. There are other little annoying bits of fan service, for instance, Jade and Cassian bump into the aliens that threatened in Luke Episode four in Mos Eisley.  It just feels kind of silly, especially when you consider the planet is about to be blasted by the Death Star.

Speaking of which, I notice they do pay a close enough attention to detail to have both times the Death Star is used in the film in a fashion where the planets are devastated, but not obliterated.  I note this because Alderaan certainly seems to be implied as the first full on destruction from the Death Star.  Though I could be wrong.

For the most part, though, I really do enjoy the film. I mean, they basically decided to make a heist sci-fi film, and it is a pretty tight one.  The cast of characters are pretty interesting, though admittedly the standouts are Donnie Yen and Chirrut and Wen Jiang as Baze, along with Alan Tudyk’s K-2SO. Chirrut and Baze have one of those solid movie friendships where they seem somewhat adversarial, but you know there is something stronger and deeper below the surface.

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Baze blow’s off Chirrut’s mysticism, crediting himself as the true protector of Chirrut, not the Force (the film features no Jedi or hardcore Force Users).  Chirrut is also quite funny in his own right.  As the group is captured by Gerrera’s people, bags are being put over their heads and Chirrut incredulously states “Really? I’m BLIND.”

And then there is the droid.  K-2SO is kind of an anti- C-3PO.  Sarcastic and cynical he lacks 3PO’s refinement, but shares his tendency to appealing to the negative odds.  When Cassian gives Jade a gun, he starts to ask if Cassian knows the odds she will not use the gun against the,.  “Not very good” he says dryly.

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Yet, just as pretty much everyone in Rogue Squadron, K2 gets his moment of glory.  But I definitely felt a twinge of disappointment that some of these characters would never make a return. I could totally sit through, say, a TV series about Chirrut and Baze on adventures.

If Rogue One is a sing of things to come for the Star Wars stories, I remain hopeful for that Young Han Solo film.

Mythical Voyagers (Moana, 2016)

moana_posterDisney’s Moana is the second time they have visited Polynesian.  The first was the fun Lilo and Stitch. This time around, Moana goes for mythical adventure.

Moana is a young woman, destined to be chief of her island, like her father before her.  But part of her longs to go beyond the reef at the entrance to the island’s cove.  She tries to fulfill her duties, and is doing well, until she suggests going beyond the reef, as the fishermen are catching no fish.  The coconuts are spoiling.

The reason is, because long ago, the Demi-God Maui stole the heart of Te Fiti…and this resulted in a malevolent force spreading across the sea.  Moana’s people have not left the island for fears of what lies beyond the reef, but Moana finds no choice when the sea gives her the Heart of Te Fiti.  She seeks out Maui to make him right his wrong.  The two are forced to endure each other on the mission.

Mismatched heroes is nothing new, and yet, the personalities of Moana and Maui are quite charming.  This is in spite of the fact that Maui is a tremendously egotistical guy who sees everything he has done as heroic.  Moana is both responsible and adventurous, which is a bit more unique.  Often, it seems brash and impulsive heroes have to learn the lesson of responsibility.  Not Moana.

The fact is, rather than take the easy route of making impediments for Moana some brand of villain?  They opted for making them likeable and relatable.  The one time we see Moana’s father express anger, it is not cruel or abusive.  It is out of personal fear that Moana may be to much like him.  Her parents are loving.  Her grandmother is gentle, wise and goofy.

The writers and Dwayne Johnson are able to imbue Maui with charm even when he is being stubborn and selfish.  You want to see him turn it around.

The animation in Moana is vibrant and beautiful.  It is fluid, like the ocean it crosses.  The concept of Maui’s tattoos being a living part of him that act as a conscience is a terrific idea.  It is also worth noting that the tattoos are hand drawn and animated.  They are seamless with the digital animation.

The songs, by Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda, Opetaia Foa’i and Mark Mancina are both powerful and engaging fun.  The more Polynesian influenced songs play, they swell and explode with a certain power.  The more pop songs (there is one Bowie-esque songs that is truly enjoyable) make you want to move.

The story is inspiring, built on thoughtful dialog, along with a whole lot of humor.  I have tried to find something not to like.  But you know what?  I cannot.  Moana was pure joy to watch.

Force Adjacent (Rogue One, 2016)

rogue_one_posterTaking it’s plot from about two sentences of Star Wars: A New Hopes Opening Scrawl, this Star Wars Story focuses on the Rebels who got the Death Star plans carried by R2-D2.  Focusing on Jyn Erso, daughter of a brilliant engineer, Rogue One follows her forced recruitment by the Rebel Alliance in an attempt to get the information.  Along with her father, Erso has another connection the Alliance wants to take advantage of.  After escaping the clutches of the Empire, Jyn was raised for a time  by Saw Gerrera.  The Alliance parted ways with him over his extremism, but feel they now need his help.

What follows is an exciting espionage and war film, different from what we have seen in the past…and yet familiar.  While there are brief glimpses of some recognizable faces, our central cast is pretty much new.  The film is a bit darker than other entries, showing a side of the Rebel Alliance not often addressed.  Some have expressed problems with this.  While I had not given much thought to some of the darker implications of the alliance, I cannot say this take is unreasonable.  The idea that people are sometimes doing things they struggle to justify as being in the greater good makes absolute sense.  Certainly, it may seem out of place if you are used to thinking of the Alliance as morally pure.

Jyn is an interesting character who despises the Empire for a pretty simple and personal reason.  They took her dad and killed her mom.  She seems to have soured on the rebellion though (feeling betrayed by Saw) and given way to cynicism.  Meanwhile, Cassian Andor is a dedicated Rebel spy who plays out his role without question.  At least until he is given a side mission that makes him question his moral compass.

A real standout character is the reprogrammed Imperial Droid K2-S0.  He is mouthy, sarcastic and also the brawn.  Whereas C-3PO up-tightly delivers in depth information about the odds, K2 casually tosses out comments along the lines of “The odds are bad” and just leaving it at that.  Then there is the blind monk Chirrut Îmwe.  He fights like a Jedi Master, but is not a Jedi.  He also fights with a staff, rather than a lightsaber.  His sighted companion Baze prefers blaster rifles and does not buy into the Force at all.

The film does suffer a bit from the problem of many prequels.  The obsessive desire with filling in every blank results in a way that it can start to interfere the film it is “setting up”.  This leads to the film dying to pull right up to the beginning of a New Hope.

Admittedly, it feels a little odd having no potential Jedi (Chirrut does not use force moves beyond a certain Daredevil styled super hearing) or lightsaber duels.  The Force is spoken of, but not really seen in action beyond Darth Vader.

In the end, however, the film more than overcomes these things.  It is exciting and fun, while having an edge more in the vein of Empire.  I found Rogue One immensely satisfying.

Moonshine (Transformers: Dark of the Moon,2011)

Transformers-Dark-Of-The-Moon-PosterSo the Autobots came to earth in an attempt to escape with a weapon the Decepticons wanted.  It was lost when it bumped into our moon.  On board is Sentinal Prime.  Turns out when they established Optimus was the Last Prime in the previous film…it was incorrect.

Sam is no longer with Mikaela, instead he lives with his new hot girlfriend who is introduced to the audience with a five minute tracking shot focused solely on her ass.  Because what better way to introduce you cast member.  It is not presented with any eye of satire or self criticism.  The Autobot’s relationship with the Government is a bit stressed, and when there is a betrayal, the Decepticons make a threat to the world to get rid of the Autobots.  Chicago is totaled as they take over.

Again, the effects look great and the cast is absurdly good.  Frances McDormand, Alan Tudyk, Leonard Nimoy and John Malkovich join the mostly returning cast.  But the frustrating thing here is that some of the characterization feels off.  The fact that Sam is still lacking any confidence is tremendously nervous is tiring.  He is a goof, yet (among other things) gets stunning girlfriends and has directly saved the world twice before this film.  There is no evidence that people think he is a joke, so the idea he cannot get a higher level job than a mail-room clerk is hard to believe.  The character has not grown at all since his introduction in 2007.

In the beginning, Optimus Prime is pretty in character as a noble leader and warrior.  But towards the end of the film he lets thousands die to teach Earth a lesson about how needed the Autobots are.  He coldly kills characters who are surrendering and begging for mercy.

I noted in the Revenge of the Fallen review that Fox was gone after that.  According to production interviews with Bay the reason Fox was gone?  She looked different when she came in for the third film.  He heavily implies that she had enough surgery that she looked nothing like her character anymore.  Bay laments that “for some reason” women in the entertainment industry feel a need to “change their looks”.  Has Michael Bay actually seen one of his movies?  Because if he has, he might get a clue as to why actresses “change their appearance”.  And to replace Fox?  He hired a model (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley) who had never acted before.  Because being an actress is unnecessary for a Michael Bay film.

The story is another revision to the series…every film to this point revises why the Autobots and Decepticons are here.  The effects and stunts are the high point.  And that is about it.  Maybe these are the best they can do with a toy robot collection.  But that should not be the case.  Creativity should be possible, even with a toy based franchise.

Hillbilly Mountain Madness (Tucker And Dale Vs. Evil, 2012)

tucker_and_dale_vs_evil_verYou know when the opening moments of a film pay homage to Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Wrong Turn, it will either be good fun or go terribly awry.  As we are introduced to the college kids driving into the Appalachian hills for a weekend of debauchery, it is a little uncertain.  These are very cartoonish and seemingly vapid characters.

As they are driving, they almost collide with a beat up old pickup truck.  As the truck passes them, the occupants stare at the college kids ominously.  foreshadowing of the cruel plans they have for these kids?  It turns out… not really.  Tucker (played by Alan Tudyk) and Dale (Tyler Labine) are on their way to Tucker’s newly purchased vacation home for some relaxing and fishing.  The kids run into the duo at a gas station, where we discover that Dale is painfully shy.  Tucker tries to give him a pep talk (“You are a good looking man, in a way”) to go over and talk to the pretty college girl Ali (30 Rock’s Katrina Bowden).  Unfortunately, in his attempts to appear confident (including walking over with a scythe) he comes off scary.

At the vacation home, Tucker and Dale discover all sorts of signs of an ominous past-but look right past them.  Tucker assumes the bones dangling from the ceiling show the previous owner to have been an archeologist.  Newpaper clippings on the wall about a massacre of college students is met with the assumption that the previous occupant was a news buff.

But it is when Tucker and Dale decide to go doing some night fishing it all goes wrong.  When they save Ali from drowning, her friends assume they attacked her and flee.  Tucker and Dale decide the best thing to do is tend her wounds and return her to her friends the next morning.

But one of the college kids, Chad, becomes obsessed with the idea that they must fight the evil hillbillies and rescue Ali.  While the other kids suggest getting the cops, he is certain that is a terrible idea.  Chad sees himself as special and unique-better than everyone else.  This mentality has him certain that he and the attractive Ali should be hooking up (in spite of her resistance).  He also has a history with Hillbillies that drives his relentless desire to destroy Tucker and Dale.

This all leads to a series of events where the kids attack the two-and die in the process.  This leads them to conclude the kids are part of a suicide cult.  And from the there the misunderstandings continue.  Ali attempts to resolve the conflict, but through a comedy of errors, the now formed trio cannot convince her friends that Tucker and Dale are quite kind guys.

The film sends up the idea of the final dual with a solid twist.  The film has a lot of fun with it’s reversal of the Mutant Cannibal Hillbilly premise.  There are plenty of clever jokes and visual references to other films (Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Fargo, Deliverance, etc).  As the leads, Tudyk and Labine are well cast, and tremendously likable characters.   Bowden does a nice job as the only sympathetic member of the college entourage.  Director Eli Craig shows promise, as this is a pretty strong debut (so far, Craig has directed a short and an episode of the TV show Brothers & Sisters).

I found the film to be enjoyable, with many laughs.  It understands the weaknesses and absurdities of  the genre and has fun with them.  And again, there is no understating how important the casting of Tudyk and Labine were to the film, as they are the ones who bring the heart of the film.  In a world with films like Epic Movie and Vampires Suck, it is nice to discover a film that understands the need for characters-even in parody.

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