Category Archives: science fiction movie

Rogue One– A review

Let’s get this out of the way first–

***SPOILERS***SPOILERS***SPOILERS***SPOILERS***

So, I held off seeing Rogue One for two whole weeks for several reasons– I hate opening night crowds, I’ve spent the last two weeks helping support a family member who’s been in the hospital, and because, being the spoiler-whore I am, I knew it ended on what might possibly be a real downer, and I knew that I didn’t need any extra downers in my life at the moment.

At least regarding the last item I needn’t have worried.  Rogue One does end with all the good guys, including leads Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) and Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), dying in a terminal shootout/holocaust with the Empire on the planet Scarif, but it’s the sort of massacre that appeals to me, where the heroes have won although they give their lives in the attempt.  In this instance, they have secured the plans to the Death Star of Episode IV- A New Hope and transmitted them to the rebels, which means that the end of Rogue One is meant to segue directly into the opening of Episode IV, with perhaps the lapse of only a few minutes story time.

The film, in my quite biased opinion, does most everything pretty well.  It has a darker, grittier tone than most of the other Star Wars films; the Empire has the galaxy by the throat and is about to permanently tighten its grip.  The rebel Alliance is on the run, fractured and riven by divisions and conflicting counsels.  You’re not entirely sure who the good guys are; Forest Whitaker’s Saw Gerrera is the paranoid leader of a splinter group too radical for the other rebels, and some Alliance members are willing do things in the name of the Rebellion that are morally dodgy, at best; Cassian, for example, summarily kills an informant in the first moments of the film to keep him out of Imperial hands.

The story bounces from world to world, shifting between Rebel and Imperial viewpoints, as the rebels get wind of the Death Star and desperately try to find clues as to its weaknesses.  Rook, defecting, delivers a message from Jyn’s father, Galen Erso, an engineer the Empire has forced to work on the Death Star, who has built a vulnerability into its structure.  In the end, Jyn and Cassian lead a desperate group of volunteers to the planet Scarif, where the plans for the Death Star are kept.  There ensues one hellacious ground and space battle, as the Rebel fleet joins in and Jyn, Cassian and the droid K2SO try to get the plans.  In the end, the plans are secured and transmitted to the rebels just before the Death Star nukes the Empire’s own base in a vain attempt to keep the information safe.

All the flim’s performances are good, but it’s some of the supporting characters who are the best.  Jyn and Cassian are not quite as engaging or sympathetic as we might want; on the other hand, you find yourself rooting pretty hard for the blind Force monk Chirrut Îmwe (Donny Yen) and his buddy Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang); the defecting Imperial pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) is someone we watch become a hero in his own right as he overcomes his fear.  The reprogrammed Imperial droid K-2SO, voiced by Alan Tudyk, is fun, light-years away from the obsequious C3PO, and has his own hero moment toward the end of the film.

All-in-all, the film captures the desperate struggle of the rebels against the overwhelming power of the Empire.  ‘Rag-tag’ is pretty apt for these guys, who only agree on a united course of action when it is forced on them.  The battles are solid action pieces, and the power of the Death Star, even when only employed on low power against individual targets on planet surfaces, is jaw-dropping.

There are problems.  The connection the end of the film makes with the beginning of A New Hope is less than perfect in terms of continuity.  In Episode IV  when Leia confronts Vader for the first time she pretends that her ship is on a diplomatic mission; Rogue One’s ending makes that pretense unsustainable (or even nonsensical), as her ship is shown detaching from the crippled rebel flagship and fleeing, as Vader watches.  Episode IV’s screen-crawl states the rebels have won their first victory against the Empire; if the battle over Scarif is a rebel victory it sure looks Pyrrhic;  all of the ground forces were lost, and what looked to be a good portion of the space fleet– not a good way to start a civil war.

And then there are the CGI images for the Grand Moff Tarkin and Princess Leia.  Personally I think I was able to suspend my disbelief enough that they didn’t throw me, but they were odd, particularly Leia’s; for the brief moment we see her face, she kinda looks like an anime Kewpie Doll.  It’s strange how the images turned out, especially as a lot of effort was expended to get them right, particularly Tarkin’s (Peter Cushing).

On the whole, though, the film works, and works well.  This may be the best Star Wars film since The Empire Strikes Back.  Certainly it leaves the prequels and The Force Awakens in the dust.  This is the first of a projected set of “anthology” films about different characters and situations in the extended cinematic Star Wars universe that are not part of the main trilogies.  As this expansion proceeds, we are liable to get both good and bad films .  Rogue One, thankfully, starts the anthology off right.

 

 

Advertisements

Carrie Fisher, 1956 – 2016

leia-armed
© Lucasfilm Ltd.

This just sucks.

I’m with Anna….

John Scalzi said it best.

She and I were not far apart in age, and I am feeling my mortality now.  The great thing about Carrie, though, was how much she accomplished while she was here.  We should all do half as much.

RIP, Carrie.

Two films looming huge on my horizon, I mean, HUGE!….

Oh, boy, oh, boy, oh, boy—

I mean, holy frack, just this little peek left me alternately giggling and gibbering with delight.  If all else fails, I have at least one reason to live until May next year.

On a completely different note–

This movie wasn’t even on my radar until I spotted its trailer on IMDB.  Oh, my God, what a grim looking tale, perhaps worse, on a personal scale,than the imagined alternate future in Days of Future Past.  Here’s the premise from Wikipedia

Set in 2024, Logan and Professor Charles Xavier must cope with the loss of the X-Men at the hands of a corporation led by Nathaniel Essex. With Logan’s healing abilities slowly fading and Xavier’s Alzheimer’s hampering his memory, Logan must defeat Essex with the help of a young girl named Laura Kinney, a female clone of Wolverine.

There could be some weeping involved here.  Just saying.  Oh, and whoever put this trailer to Johnny Cash’s Hurt— genius.

According to the Wikipedia article this should be Hugh Jackman’s last outing as Wolverine, not surprising as he’s been playing the character for about fifteen years.  Not sure anybody can take over after Jackman, but then I said the same thing about the Joker after Heath Ledger, and then Jared Leto came along.

All the same, it looks as if Marvel/Disney is ringing down the curtain on this incarnation of the X-Men, and Wolverine.  An era is passing.  I have no idea what comes after this, particularly as there are so many different alternate versions of the team in the comics, and, of course, Disney has shown it is not bound by previously established canon with the new Star Wars movies.  However, at the very least, they have my attention.

 

Five awesome movie scenes

My personal taste in film runs largely, although not exclusively, to the epic and the heroic, with largely dollops of the tragic and the sort of romance in which true loves die happy because they’re together. After I see films like Les Miserables they generally have to carry me out on a stretcher (it’s not just the film, of course– the stage production does the same thing to me, and I’ve seen it live three times. My daughter finds it soo embarrassing that her father has to bring a full box of kleenex with him to the theater).

Individual movie scenes that kill me with epicness have certain common attributes– a desperate struggle against long odds, someone you want to see succeed (or at least survive) and the ticking clock of looming disaster. Usually for maximum effect you need some really effective music. For extra points, throw in children in jeopardy.

Here’s five scenes from five very different films I find really riveting. NOTE: inevitably each of these scenes involve spoilers. Be warned.

1. From the 2009 J.J. Abrams reboot of Star Trek, the opening scene in which James Kirk’s father sacrifices himself to save his wife and soon-to-be-born son–

This is a wonderfully effective scene, scoring high because it’s basically a father defending his family and sacrificing himself to save them.  Does me in every time.

2. From Captain America: The First Avenger, here is the climactic scene where Cap (Chris Evans) has to intentionally crash the Hydra flying wing into the Arctic ice-cap to save New York City, while talking on the radio with his true love, Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell).

Cap must not only sacrifice his own life in this scene, but also his chance for happiness with Peggy, which brings a poignancy to the interchange between them, and which has continued to resonant through the subsequent Captain America and Avenger films.

3. From the 1993 film Gettysburg, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain’s downhill bayonet charge at Little Round Top, which by itself just might have saved the Union–

Whether Chamberlain actually saved the Union is a matter of debate, but he knew his position was vital (the utter left flank of the Union Army), and he and his men held the position with incredible courage and endurance.

4. From the 1964 film Zulu, the famous ‘Men of Harlech’ scene–

Unfortunately, unlike Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain’s charge at Little Round Top, this scene never happened, at least as far the singing is concerned.  But the film captures the spirit of the true story of a tiny force who held off an overwhelming enemy through grit and good tactics.

5. From Return of the Jedi— a fan edit/compilation of the climactic confrontation between Luke and Darth Vader, with the Emperor egging them on. Most particularly, watch the section from 3:17 to 3:53 and listen to the soundtrack .  Those thirty-six seconds have more tragic drama in them than many movies have in their entire running time.

The interesting aspect of this scene is that Luke is trying to save not only Anakin Skywalker from the dark side, but also his sister, and, ultimately, himself– and, in the end, he does it by not fighting.  A nice twist on the classic climactic confrontation between the hero and the villain.

Each of these scenes contain attributes I hope my own writing at least occasionally captures.  I like stories and films in which something genuine is at stake, and the protagonists have to give of themselves to protect or rescue it.  In one way or another, I’m not sure why you would make a movie that did not have this sort of tension at its core, but they get made (e.g., in my biased opinion, American Hustle).  But I try not to dwell on such creations– there are plenty of films out there that spark my imagination and touch my heart.  I focus on them.

Later.

 

Three upcoming movies that have my attention

Now that we’re past the hysteria and hoopla around Star Wars: The Force Awakens, I thought I would share some thoughts on three upcoming movies that have grabbed my attention.  In no particular order–

Suicide Squad

Okay, I am at least interested–

Harley Quinn and Deadshot and the Joker (in what may be an even more freakish interpretation, by Jared Leto, than Heath Ledger’s) all in one film– and with Batman (Ben Affleck), too.  It looks like a full house of crazies.

Of course, it is entirely possible that for me Bohemian Rhapsody and Freddie Mercury are affecting my emotional reaction to this trailer.  You could put Bohemian Rhapsody on a video of a dripping faucet and I’d watch it.

Interestingly, the Comic-con trailer for this same movie has a completely different feel, taking a much more serious and dramatic– maybe even tragic– tone.  The producers might want to figure out their marketing approach to this product.  Remember what happened to John Carter.  Just saying.

Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice

If this film maintains the serious tone of Man of Steel, it will hit the ground– or the screen– with an excellent head-start, as far as I’m concerned.  That approach was one of the best things about Man of Steel, lifting me up and over some irritating flaws in the story logic.  I’ve never been a big fan of the Justice League, but the trio of Wonder Woman, Batman and Superman is intrinsically interesting.  I will be interested in seeing how the film handles the initial conflict between Superman and Batman (rather a traditional element in their respective origin stories) and how their friendship then grows to form the League’s foundation.  And, I have to admit, Wonder Woman’s reveal in this trailer is pretty fun.

Captain America: Civil War

Of these three movies, this is the one I am the most jazzed about.  I have become a serious fan of Captain America as portrayed by Chris Evans in Marvel’s Captain America and Avengers movies.  The whole series of interconnected films that comprise the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been a creative stroke of genius, in my biased opinion, the brainchild of fans in positions of power, such as Kevin Feige (and now DC is playing serious catch-up with Batman v. Superman and Suicide Squad).  It is a great storytelling gimmick and should pay dividends for Marvel and Disney for years to come, even if the quality of the individual films varies (Age of Ultron, for example).

I was never a great fan of Captain America in the comics (for years I was obsessed with the X-Men), but Chris Evans’ portrayal of Cap as a decent regular guy who acquires extraordinary powers and then must cope with being displaced in time is one of the best and most consistent character arcs in the whole MCU.  As long as Evans plays the role I will be watching with interest.

On the flip-side, there are upcoming movies that are not particularly on my must-see list–

X-Men: Apocalypse– Despite my deep and long-lasting affection for the X-Men, I’ve found the last several movies disappointing, despite the presence of great actors like Jennifer Lawrence.  After Days of Future Past apparently rebooted the series I have some hope, but I’m going to approach Apocalypse with caution.

Deadpool– hmm…no.  Not a fan, despite the presence of certain X-Men.  Sorry. (Oh, and the trailer’s kinda gory, fyi).

Warcraft– really uncertain about this one, and rather severely disappointed by the look of the trailer.  The live action and the CGI characters do not look as if they were matched up very well. I’ve been waiting for a World of Warcraft movie, and now that it’s here it looks…kinda lame, actually.  Dang.

Gods of Egypt– please.  Overwrought CGI and some sort of battle of the gods that looks like a cheap video-game. No, thank you.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows– oh, hell no.

 

 

 

 

A review of ” The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2″

Just yesterday I reviewed Star Wars: The Force Awakens, so I thought it appropriate to review the other movie I saw last week, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2. Seeing these two very different movies within days of each other was an interesting experience, to say the least.

SPOILERS***SPOILERS***SPOILERS***SPOILERS***SPOILERS***

Unless you’ve been on a long interstellar journey, you have probably heard of The Hunger Games books and the movies based on them, starring Jennifer Lawrence. It is the story of Katniss Everdeen, forced to fight in the gladiatorial Hunger Games in a far-future, post-apocalyptic tyranny that encompasses what is now North America (‘Panem’). In the course of the four movies (based on three books) Katniss inadvertently becomes first a symbol, and then a leader, in a rebellion against the despotic Capitol.

The first movie, The Hunger Games, was excellent; the second movie, Catching Fire, was even better. The third movie, Mockingjay Part One, was good but something of a prologue, with the final payoff coming with Mockingjay Part Two. Essentially the two Mockingjay movies are the story of the rebellion against the Capitol and Katniss’ not-always-happy role in it. The rebels manage to overthrow the Capitol, but at great cost and suffering, and the end of the fighting is realistically ambiguous.

The movie resonated strongly with me, and frankly, I liked it a good deal more than I liked The Force Awakens. Partly this is because Mockingjay 2 seems especially pertinent to the real world we live in today– despite the futuristic setting, there are scenes that could have been pulled from Syria or Iraq or Libya today. Right now millions of people around the world are engaged in actual struggles, either non-violent or armed, against actual tyrannies. And, to be blunt, it resonates even more with what could be our own future in this country, if certain hateful and megalomaniacal individuals and groups gain actual political power. We live in scary times, and a movie that warns us against tyranny is particularly timely.

Another part of why this movie worked for me is Jennifer Lawrence. This young woman is interesting even when she’s in a film that I don’t particular enjoy (e.g. American Hustle), and I don’t think I’ve seen her turn in a bad performance yet. She brings some serious vulnerability and conviction to the role of Katniss, and if the previous three movies had not already welded us to her emotionally, Mockingjay Part Two would do it. Her pain at her losses in the war, including her sister Prim (you saw the spoiler warning, right?) is raw and brings home the cost of war, even war in a good cause. Someone has called Lawrence the next Meryl Streep, and I find it hard to dispute the suggestion.

The core of the movie’s action is Katniss’ attempt, against orders, to penetrate the Capitol in order to assassinate President Snow, the head of the despotism. This is part revenge and part an effort to kill the snake (and end the fighting) by cutting off its head. The fight to break through the traps the tyrant has put in her path is horrible, and the cost is high. Katniss finally tries to infiltrate Snow’s palace even as the Capitol’s resistance begins to crumble, which means that she sees up close the suffering of the Capitol’s residents at the hands of the rebels. It’s a powerful moment, as the Capitol’s children get caught in the cross-fire. Mockingjay Part Two is essentially an anti-war film, and the climactic scene of the fighting drives its point home hard.

The ending is not then presented to us with a neat and tidy bow– instead, the film touches on a question that plagues all revolutions– how do you ensure that you do not merely replace one tyranny with another? Katniss, given the task of executing President Snow, instead assassinates District 13’s President Coin (Julianne Moore), who, as it turns out, committed a gratuitous act of murder in the last battle in the Capitol and in the aftermath is positioning herself as the new Snow. In the book Katniss is put on trial for this– in the movie she is exiled back to the ruined District 12, her home. This is one of only one or two places where the movie left me with questions, but they are pretty minor and don’t affect my appreciation of the movie as a whole.

The very end of the movie, an epilogue years later, is bittersweet, hopeful and powerful. Its power is enhanced by the soundtrack by James Newton Howard, to which I will doubtless be listening for many years to come. It is just about the perfect conclusion to a movie about a struggle for freedom, love, and healing.

Highly recommended.

A review of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”– a taste of crow

Okay, so…crow.

Not a full meal. More like a side of crow, with crow sprinkles on my salad. Because, while Star Wars: The Force Awakens is good, it is not great. Put down the pitchforks and torches and I will try to explain.

I saw the movie on Christmas Day in a packed theater here in Seattle. We arrived at the theater an hour early and there were still two hundred or so people ahead of us in line. It was a good thing that there was about thirty minutes of coming attractions in front of the film, since we needed that extra time to get everyone sorted out and settled.

I previously, and at length, ranted about my suspicions of Episode VII, chiefly around my dislike of J J Abrams as a director. But with each successive new trailer my resistance steadily crumbled. I still promised myself I would wait for a review– and then the reviews came in and were mostly positive. We bought tickets for last Friday and I tried to go in with an open mind.

First, however–

SPOILERS******SPOILERS******SPOILERS******SPOILERS

On the whole, I enjoyed the movie. It was great to revisit the Star Wars universe, this time via a movie that did not make me want to rip my own eyes out. The Force Awakens is energetic and fast-paced, not overrun with gratuitous CGI that is mere eye-candy, and obviously made with a profound love of the mythos. I do not regret the ten bucks I spent for the matinee ticket.

The performances, particularly Daisy Ridley as Rey and Adam Driver as Kylo Ren, are a major factor in making the film work. There aren’t very many false notes with the characters, with one possible exception (discussed below). Everyone was earning their pay on this picture, and the acting is one of the things that helps lift the film over the hump. Ridley’s Rey is a tough but hurt young woman who you have to root for. Driver’s Kylo Ren is a conflicted bad guy who is trying to deal with personal issues even as he threatens worlds. Harrison Ford’s aged Han Solo is a logical development of the character in the original three films, and is at different times funny and heart-breaking– you believe Ford is an old space-bum who has seen it all. Han’s attempt to reach out to his son Ben/Kylo is full of pathos. The acting is light-years– nay, parsecs– ahead of that in the prequels.

The action is fast-paced and keeps you interested. There aren’t many places in the film that go on too long or seriously threaten your suspension of disbelief. You’re dropped straight into the action at the very beginning and generally kept engaged through the whole movie.

As I said, there’s a good deal of love of the mythos in this picture, and it sets up a good deal of mystery that begs to be solved in subsequent movies. Chief among these, just who the hell are Rey’s parents? Why did they leave her on Jakku? Rey displays incredible abilities with the Force, even though she has had no training, which has led to online speculation that she is Luke’s daughter or Obi-Wan’s granddaughter or the descendant some powerful Jedi or another. For Pete’s sake, this woman actually shoves Kylo right out of her head when he tries to mind-probe her. She handles a light-saber as if born to it, which means she probably was. The mystery is deepened by her visions and her apparent affinity with Luke’s original light-saber. Clearly, the ‘awakening’ in the Force is related to her, and I want to see more. This is all excellent grist for the movies to follow, and I am actually looking forward to seeing the mystery resolved. Yes, I just wrote that– because of this film I am re-engaged with Star Wars and I am looking forward to the next movie. That’s pretty monumental in and of itself.

At the same time, it doesn’t hurt that I’m seriously crushing on Daisy Ridley. Nothing skeevy, just saying….

So with all this going for the film, why do I call it good, and not great? Why would I give it an 8 rather a 9-plus?

Well, at the risk of sounding like a stubborn old curmudgeon– J J Abrams.

Just because the film basically works doesn’t mean that you can’t see Abrams’ fingerprints all over it. As good as it is, there are systemic weaknesses in the movie that keep me from rating it higher. And those weaknesses seem typical of Abrams as a filmmaker.

To put it bluntly, Abrams has always impressed me as a director who is far more interested in the flow of the action and the scale of the spectacle than logical consistency in the plot and characters. This is perhaps not surprising in a director who started his screenwriting career assisting Michael Bay in the commission of the crime known as Armageddon (1998). Alias, which captivated me initially, went through three reboots during its run and still ended in a welter of confusion. Star Trek seemed to be riddled with logical inconsistencies (Kirk gets command of the Enterprise when he wouldn’t come within a light-year of it in a real military organization, and just what the hell is ‘red matter’, anyway?). And Lost— let’s just leave that one alone…. To sum up, in my opinion, Abrams is a sloppy story-teller.

The same is true for The Force Awakens. The difference is that TFA moves along at a brisk enough pace, and is buoyed by such great performances, that you hardly have time to notice the problems until you’ve had a chance to think about it later. Nevertheless, they are there.

Characters appear, disappear, and reappear without explanation. Poe Dameron, in particular, who appears to be an important character at the beginning of the movie, vanishes for the middle third. The Millennium Falcon just happens to lie within convenient reach of Rey and Finn just when they need it, and within minutes of their escape from Jakku in it Han Solo appears to reclaim it. There is a wholly unneeded sequence involving rival space gangs and toothy monsters whose sole purpose to get Han, Chewie, Rey, Finn and BB-8 all back on the Falcon and on the road back to the Resistance. And why is there a ‘Resistance’ when there is a new Republic (which is only seen long enough for us to witness its destruction by the First Order)? Wouldn’t it have just been simpler to say the First Order was at war with the New Republic? It’s like Abrams slapped labels on components of the story without thinking out– or particularly caring– how they made sense in that story.

One problem stood out to me even as I watched the movie– Finn’s motivation. Supposedly storm troopers are conditioned from an early age to fight loyally without question– but from the first moment Finn (‘FN-2187’) appears conflicted and unable to carry out his orders to kill. According to the premises of the story, doubtless something powerful broke his conditioning before the first firefight at the village on Jakku. However, we are never shown what that trauma might have been, nor, as best I can recall, is it alluded to in the rest of the movie. I understand the need to not bog down the narrative with exposition, but Finn drops down on us without any antecedents at all. I kept expecting at least a flashback to explain why he behaves in a manner that is, at least for a storm trooper, wholly aberrant. But it never came. And it bothered me.

There is, however, a more fundamental problem with the film, which goes beyond mere sloppy story-telling. TFA, to put it simply, recycles much of the basic plot outline of the original Star Wars— a sinister Empire/First Order is building a Death Star/Starkiller and a small band of misfits and space riff-raff must get vital information to the Rebellion/Resistance. The one variation is that the vital information is a map to the location of Luke Skywalker, which is of great interest to the First Order and provokes much the same chasing about as R2D2’s plans for the Death Star in A New Hope. As enjoyable as TFA is, it is disappointing that Abrams could not come up with a more original, or at least different, basic plot with which to restart the franchise. I was left with a sense that, to some degree or another, I had seen this movie already.

In short, this is why I can’t rate TFA as highly as most other reviewers, and why I’m only going in for a taste of crow. The film is good, I am now eager to see the next movies (under a different director, Rian Johnson, who did Looper), but I cannot call it great. With a firmer hand on the director’s bullhorn, it could have been a good deal more awesome. In the end, that’s very disappointing.

Okay, I admit it– I’ve got the shivers….

I’m going to wait for a review…really, I mean it…I’m not going to join the horde of people lining up to see this without advance warning…I just wish my fingernails weren’t shredding so badly hanging on to my resolution….

On the other hand, my daughter says, “Forget it, I’m going.” She points out she has never seen a Star Wars movie premiere in a theater– she was a one-year-old when The Phantom Menace came out, so she’s never had that experience. I can totally understand that. I just hope this film doesn’t disappoint her.

Whoever is putting these trailers together should get a medal. They are highly effective at highlighting images and themes from the movie designed to push buttons and excite interest. At least, they’re working for me. They remind me of the original movies, despite the new faces, and that’s what’s breaking down my resistance.

I just don’t want to be disappointed again. On the other hand, I can’t imagine anything better than watching my daughter watching a new Star Wars movie for the first time. That just might sweep away the last of my reluctance. We shall see.

My resistance is crumbling….

I have to admit– the ad campaign is working. Damn, this looks good.

My previous reservations about the new Star Wars movie still hold, but just barely at this point. The trailer, like the teasers before it, hits all the right notes. More than that, I’m now curious about the characters and story-lines. And I really want to see Gwendoline Christie in something other than Game of Thrones. She’s just so good.

I still want to see a review, but resistance may be futile….