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.

Modern Culture Clash (Clash of the Titans, 2010)

Clash_of_the_Titans_2010_PosterThe new millennium brought a renewed interest in Greek mythology based films.  This, of course, meant that a remake of Clash of the Titans was probably inevitable.

The modern take is…well, different.  Here, Zeus is angered by King Acrisius and to punish him, he seduces and impregnates the king’s wife Danae.  Angry, he seals her in a box with infant Perseus.  The box is found by fisherman Spyros, who raises Perseus with his wife (Unlike the original film, Danae dies).  Zeus is, of course, angered by this move and turns Acrisius into a monster.

Years later, Perseus is out fishing with his adoptive family.  They witness soldiers tearing down a statue of Zeus.  The soldiers are attacked by demons who also destroy Spyros’ fishing boat, resulting in the death of all but Perseus.  He is found by soldiers who bring him to Argos.  There he witnesses King Kephesus and Queen Cassiopeia.  Cassiopeia mocks the gods and declares her daughter Andromeda more beautiful than any of the goddesses. Zeus and the other gods are watching and angered, but Zeus’ hand is staid by his love for man and the need for their prayers.  But Hades demands that they must make men fear the gods again.  He convinces Zeus to allow him to interfere.

Hades greets the King and Queen and demands Andromeda be sacrificed or Argos be destroyed.  Perseus is convinced to go on a mission to find a way to defeat the titan called the Kraken.  Along with several soldiers, Perseus begins his quest.

You may have noticed there are a lot of changes here.  The film is less a remake and more a re-imagining.  There is no love story between Perseus and Andromeda.  His goal is to make a stand against the gods.  Perseus is in denial of his demi-god status, constantly rejecting any help from Zeus in favor of doing everything “as a man”.

The gods themselves are worried about man’s rebellion against the gods and their power is waning as fewer people are praying to them.  The only real example of the pettiness and competition between the gods is how Hades was betrayed by Zeus and Poseidon, which drives Hades’ desire to destroy his fellow gods.  Noticeably missing?

The female gods.  I mean, they are in the background.  You see them, but they are pretty inconsequential.  Unlike the original, Calibos is no longer the son of Thetis, and he is merely a pawn of  Hades.  It is disappointing that they push all other gods to the side beyond Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades.  Making it about sibling rivalry is ignoring the rich history of the Greek gods. I suspect the fact that the original film was written by Beverly Cross, a woman, influenced the 1981 films inclusion of women in more equal standing.

In addition, the original cast women over forty in almost all the major goddess roles.  In this update, most of the female roles prize youth and beauty above all.

Worthington is not nearly as engaging as some of his co-stars, which is a problem.

On the upside, the relationship of Spyro and Perseus is brief but nice.  When his wife is pregnant, young Perseus is worried he will be loved less.  Spyro offers comforting words noting Perseus is no less his son than if they were flesh and blood.

And while Judy Bowker’s Andromeda was a luminous beauty, she was not given a lot of time (though we see her decrying the rules of her curse which resulted in countless deaths).  Here Andromeda is seen as a greatly compassionate woman.  We see her going about the city in disguise to help the poor.  She also refuses to accept the notion that others should die so that she might live.

The creature design is largely quite good (though the demons move so fast so as not to allow much detail to be seen).  But even there, you have flawed concepts at work.  Medusa should not be alluring, and yet, there she is in this film looking beautiful until the moment she turns you to stone.

The re-imagining ends up like a hodgepodge of mythical concepts that are thrown together, almost unrecognizable to their inspiration. In place of a romance with Andromeda, Perseus instead falls for the beautiful immortal Io.  And at times, I found myself getting bored.  This is in spite of the fact that everything tries to be much bigger than the original film.  The scorpions are bigger, the Medusa fight is in a bigger temple, the Kraken is larger.

While Clash of the Titans is louder and slicker, it just feels like a pale imitation of its inspiration.

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.

Something Strange Going On That Wasn’t Here Before (Doctor Strange, 2016)

doctor_strange_posterEvery now and then, Marvel Studios opts for a riskier venture for their tent-pole pictures.  In some cases, such as Thor, the risk is levied by the Avenger’s Connection.  But sometimes, that connection is much thinner.  Guardians of the Galaxy and now Doctor Strange.

And what we have here is another Guardians of the Galaxy result.  Doctor Strange is an exciting, emotional, funny trip of a film.  Benedict Cumberbatch carries an arrogance early on in the film.  Stephen Strange is a truly prideful man, but he has very carefully crafted an image.  When that is all taken away, at the end of his rope, he finds a man that had, similarly faced bodily destruction and appeared to have fully recovered.  He is pointed towards Katmandu and a place called Kamar-Taj.  There he encounters the Ancient One who, with her followers Mordo and Wong, begin to train Strange.

Meanwhile, the rebel Kaecilius and his disciples are trying to for ever alter reality.  Doctor Strange finds himself in the “New York Branch” which leads to battles with Kaecilius and his minions.  With Strange Mordo and Wong coming to a final fight with Kaecilius.

The movie manages to skirt the line of seriousness, but an undercurrent of humor.  The humor is dryer than other Marvel films, but it works, as often Strange finds his attempts at humor falling flat with Wong.  There is a fun payoff with that one.

It is hard to ignore the impressive visuals.  Early trailers made things look like it was ripping off Inception.  But Derrickson and his team actually gave us much more.  The film brings to life those trippy multidimensional visuals that Steve Ditko drew in the 60’s with a beautiful and lush feel.

There has been a lot of controversy over the issue of Tilda Swinton playing the Asian One.  In the comics the character was Asian.  And yeah, it was a pretty blatant “Mystical Asian” stereotype.  Which is what resulted in the choice to cast Swinton.  The film does overcome this.  But as written?  They easily could have cast and Asian actor in the role.  There are not a ton of major roles for Asian actors.  Avoiding stereotypes is done in the script and performance.  And I believe this film would have successfully avoided the stereotype, without making one less role for Asian actors.  I do not believe racism was at Derrickson and his casting teams heart.  I suspect it was an attempt to avoid the very issue of racism.  I think they made a choice I would not.  But Swinton is entertaining in the film.

Doctor Strange is one of Marvel’s strongest entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  It is certainly yet another origin story, but it is handled so very well.  It also has no requirement that you be familiar with the character.  You can enter the film with zero knowledge of the character and fully enjoy this film.

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