Rogue One: A Star Wars Story


The empire strikes first.

The empire strikes first.

(2016) Science Fiction (Disney/Lucasfilm) Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Alan Tudyk, Donnie Yen, Wen Jiang, Guy Henry, Forest Whitaker, Riz Ahmed, Mads Mikkelsen, Jimmy Smits, Alistair Petrie, Genevieve O’Reilly, Ben Daniels, Paul Kasey, Stephen Stanton (voice), Ian McElhinney, Fares Fares, James Earl Jones (voice), Warwick Davis, Peter Cushing, Anthony Daniels, Ingvild Della. Directed by Gareth Edwards

 

Most movies, particularly those that build entire worlds and mythologies, leave tantalizing questions. Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope is no different. Some of those questions were answered by the three prequel films. However, one tantalizing bit of information – how did the Rebel Alliance get the plans for the Death Star – remained unknown. Until now.

Jyn Erso (Jones) is the daughter of a brilliant scientist (Mikkelsen) who has been shanghaied by the Empire into building a new super-weapon – a planet killer called the Death Star. The elder Erso convinces a freighter pilot (Ahmed) to defect and carry a message to Saw Gerrera (Whitaker), a former Alliance member who found the Alliance not radical enough for his taste and had holed up on the occupied moon of Jedha. When Alliance intelligence officer Cassian Andor (Luna) discovers this, he helps spring Jyn out of a rebel prison and takes her to the Alliance to propose that she introduce him to Gerrera, who is almost like family to her.

Jyn sees the message sent to Gerrera and realizes that her dad has left a flaw in the system, a flaw that the Rebellion can exploit to destroy the planet killer but in order to do that they’ll either have to retrieve her father from an Imperial work camp or the plans from an archive on a closely guarded tropical planet. Accompanied by the blind monk Chirrut (Yen) who believes in the Force and fights like he’s dialed into it, and his friend the gruff sharp-shooter Baze (Jiang), they go to fetch Jyn’s dad. Unfortunately, hot on their trail is Director Orson Krennic (Mendelsohn) and Governor Moff Tarkin (Henry/Cushing) along with the Emperor’s new Lord of the Sith…one Darth Vader (Jones).

This is the darkest of the Star Wars films and by a lot. In order for the story to work, the odds have to be incredibly long and the Empire has to be justifiably evil. Both of those are true and it feels more realistic; the rebels don’t sail in and save the day at the last minute. It gets messy.

Jones makes for a nifty heroine in the franchise. She’s tough, she’s clever and she has good reason to do what she does. She’s no idealist but when push comes to shove she is in this for all the right reasons. Jones is an Oscar-nominated actress who is becoming one of the most reliable actresses in the business now. She’s the perfect choice to play Jyn.

The rest of the cast boasts some impressive names and more than a few familiar ones from previous episodes, mainly in cameo form (Anthony Daniels shows up for just a few lovely moments as C3PO. Tudyk provides most of the comic relief as a re-programmed imperial war droid K-2SO and Whitaker is impressive as the fanatical Gerrera who is almost all prosthetics now.

The special effects are just what you’d expect them to be; the best in the business. The climactic fight has as many moving parts to them as you’ve ever seen in a Hollywood movie and the environments created are realistic and yet alien all at once. You are immersed in the environments, be they an Imperial garrison, a desolate asteroid, or the re-constructed Death Star itself.

Perhaps the most impressive special effect is bringing back the late Peter Cushing, who’s been dead for 24 years, as the odious Tarkin whose foul stench Princess Leia recognized in the very first Star Wars movie. Using a motion actor (Henry) to approximate the late actor’s build, the face of Cushing is digitally projected on Henry’s body and his voice synthesized. It is actually pretty unsettling in many ways. It doesn’t exactly bring Cushing back to life but it comes closer than anything I’ve ever seen. I wouldn’t be surprised if the movie won a special effects Oscar just for that.

This is a marvelous film that hits every right note. If you’re a fan of the franchise, you’re likely to be quite satisfied with what you get here (and if you’re a fan of the franchise, you’ve likely seen it more than once already as I have). If you’re not a fan of the franchise, chances are this won’t make you one – while it does make a fine stand-alone movie, knowledge of what happened in the first Star Wars film is extremely helpful in understanding what is going on here. The only drawback is that some fans of the series might find the tone too dark – it certainly isn’t your father’s Star Wars. Nor should it be.

REASONS TO GO: This is a real change in tone from the other Star Wars films. The special effects are absolutely amazing.
REASONS TO STAY: It might be a little bit too dark for the hardcore fans.
FAMILY VALUES:  A fair amount of action, some of it strongly violent and of a sci-fi nature.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  This is the first Star Wars movie not to feature the iconic scrolling text at the beginning of the film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/3/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Bridge on the River Kwai
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Underfire: The Untold Story of PFC Tony Vaccaro

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Much Ado About Nothing (2013)


There's nothing quite like a civilized after-dinner cocktail.

There’s nothing quite like a civilized after-dinner cocktail.

(2013) Comedy (Roadside Attractions) Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Nathan Fillion, Clark Gregg, Reed Diamond, Fran Kranz, Jillian Morgese, Sean Maher, Spencer Treat Clark, Riki Lindhome, Ashley Johnson, Emma Bates, Tom Lenk, Nick Kocher, Brian McElhaney, Joshua Zar, Paul Meston, Romy Rosemont, Elsa Guillet-Chapuis, Sara Blindauer. Directed by Joss Whedon  

When William Shakespeare wrote “the play’s the thing,” movies hadn’t been invented yet. I wonder if he had been born in modern times if he’d have written something different. Certainly the way that comedies and dramas are written have changed in the intervening years, not to mention how they’re performed – and received.

But some things haven’t changed – human nature, for one. We are as prone to meddling in each other’s lives as we always have been. We can still laugh at buffoonery. And love can still be found in the unlikeliest of places – and the unlikeliest of couples.

The Southern California home of Don Leonato (Gregg) is all abuzz. Don Pedro (Diamond) is coming to visit for a few weeks, his retinue including the young Claudio (Kranz), the somewhat malevolent Don John (Maher) and the soldier Benedick (Denisof). Leonato’s daughter Hero (Morgese) has goo-goo eyes for Claudio but her cousin Beatrice (Acker) has nothing nice to say about men in general but Benedick in particular. Beatrice and Benedick have a past but there is nothing but constant sniping at one another between them now.

Pedro, seeing the state of things, vows to help create a match between Claudio and Hero, who stands to inherit Leonato’s substantial fortune. On a lark, Claudio, Pedro and Hero decide to get Benedick and Beatrice together just because they think they can – only Don John has plans to sabotage everything.

Much Ado About Nothing has been described as Shakespeare’s love letter to love and it does seem to indicate that much of what is wrong with the world can be cured through the love of a good woman (or a good man). I can’t say I disagree; love is what makes this world bearable, with all the pettiness and dishonesty we all deal with on a daily basis. As human beings we are all flawed but it is in love that we find our noblest aspirations and features.

Whedon filmed this during a break in his Avengers duties and it seems to have re-energized him. He’s also been a long-time admirer of Shakespeare and conducts regular readings of his plays at his home, so the thought of a director as connected to sci-fi and comic book movies as Whedon is isn’t as radical an idea as it might seem.

Loving Shakespeare and capturing his essence are two entirely different things however. I’m definitely down with changing the setting from 16th century Messina to modern Santa Monica, and I’m even more down with filming the proceedings in glorious noir-ish black and white. I’m also for keeping the Bard’s original dialogue because you simply aren’t going to improve on that.

However, Shakespeare’s language has a certain rhythm that is very different than our own, and while I don’t think one has to be a stentorian Englishman in order to deliver it properly, you certainly have to be able to make it sound organic and authentic. Sadly, not all the actors were successful in that regard.

Fillion, as Constable Dogberry, is perhaps the most successful. Dogberry is comic relief through and through and Fillion gets the nature of the character as a bit pompous and a bit foolish but also a bit thin-skinned. He gets the subtlety of the character and so makes him the fool without making him a caricature. Acker, as Beatrice, also gets the nature of her character as well as the rhythms of the speech; while when certain actors say “How now?” with a bit of a smirk, she instead treats it as language she uses every day and that really is the secret – every word sounds natural coming out of her mouth.

 

I like the atmosphere of upscale SoCal hipster that Whedon creates here. It serves the play well, and while nearly all the action takes place in a single location, it never feels stage-y at all.  Whedon adds a lot of physical business that enhances the comedy nicely (as when Claudio intones “I would marry her were she an Ethiope” in front of an African-American woman whose expression is just priceless). Although Da Queen would have preferred a color presentation rather than black and white, I liked how it gave the movie a kind of timeless look.

Friends of mine who had trouble following some of the dialogue because it is in Elizabethan English still managed to love the movie in spite of it. Don’t let that keep you away though – I think you should be able to follow the movie just fine even if a few phrases and words might throw you every now and again – you’ll figure it out.

For those who aren’t into Shakespeare and wonder what all the fuss is about, this is a nice starting point. For those who love Shakespeare and wonder what sort of liberties have been taken, fear not – this is still the Bard, despite the modern setting which simply reminds us how timeless his wisdom and prose are. Any movie that can do both of those things for two different kinds of audiences is a winner in my book.

REASONS TO GO: Very funny in places. Some very good performances.

REASONS TO STAY: Some of the actors really didn’t get the nuances or the rhythm of the language of Shakespeare.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some brief drug use as well as a bit of sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was mostly filmed at Wheden’s own home over a 12 day period.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/25/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: 78/100; the critics liked this one.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Taming of the Shrew

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: The Family Tree

Thor


Thor

Thor is a bit perplexed as Odin extolls the joys of fava beans and a nice Chianti.

(2011) Superhero (Paramount) Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins, Stellan Skarsgard, Rene Russo, Idris Elba, Kat Dennings, Ray Stevenson, Clark Gregg, Colm Feore, Josh Dallas, Jaimie Alexander, Tadanobu Asano. Directed by Kenneth Branagh

Part of the maturing process is realizing that, in fact, you don’t know everything. Most parents will tell you that this is a condition that afflicts most teenagers, some worse than others. Of course, if your teenager happens to be a God, that can be a bit overwhelming to deal with.

Thor (Hemsworth) is the God of Thunder and son of Odin (Hopkins), the Highfather of the Norse Gods. Thor isn’t exactly a teenager but he acts like one – reckless, arrogant and foolish. The mortal enemies of the Gods are the Frost Giants, whom Odin defeated a thousand years before and took their most fearsome weapon from them. Now, a trio of them has attempted to steal it back, unsuccessfully which cheeses off Thor big time. Not just because they dared to cross the borders of Asgard itself, which Thor sees as an act of war – but because they did it on the day that Odin named him his heir over his younger brother Loki (Hiddleston).

So Thor decides to pay the Frost Giants a little visit, taking along his good friends the Warriors Three – handsome Fandral (Dallas), taciturn Hogun (Asano) and voluminous Volstagg (Stevenson), as well as Loki  and Sif (Alexander), an intense but loyal female warrior. To get there they must cross Bifrost, the Rainbow Bridge which is guarded by the grim Heimdal (Elba), who normally wouldn’t allow Thor to cross on such a fool’s errand – but he is curious as to how the Frost Giants got into Asgard without him knowing, so he allows them to pass.

Of course this turns out to be a very bad idea. The confrontation quickly turns ugly and the Asgardians must fight their way past a kind of gigantic dog-like creature as well as a horde of Frost Giants, necessitating their rescue by Odin himself. He asks Laufey (Feore), the King of the Frost Giants if the incident could be forgotten but Laufey says a brusque no. War, it seems, is coming to Asgard.

Thor continues to be petulant about the whole thing and he and his dad get into a shouting match. Odin, pissed off beyond all measure, exiles Thor to Earth, stripping him of his powers and sending his enchanted hammer Mjolnir after him. When Thor learns some patience and gains the wisdom that is worthy of the hammer, he’ll be allowed to use it once again.

Meanwhile, on earth, a trio of scientists is studying some mysterious radiation surges in the New Mexico desert. Jane Foster (Portman) is extremely dedicated and passionate to her scientific muse. She is mentored by pragmatic Scandinavian Dr. Erik Selvig (Skarsgard) and aided by flighty intern Darcy Lewis (Dennings), who is a bit science challenged (she’s majoring in Political Science but this was the only internship she could get). They are out in the desert when a giant funnel cloud opens up. Of course Jane drives right into it – and smack into a Norse God which she strikes with her car.

As she begins to analyze her scientific data she theorizes that what she encountered was one end of a wormhole, through which the “really cut for a homeless guy,” as Darcy describes him, travelled. At first, he seems a bit demented. He is courtly to near ridiculous levels, freakishly strong, socially awkward by our standards and continually spouts out insane statements about Norse mythology, asserting that he is the God of Thunder and carries an enchanted hammer. Yeah, right.

In the meantime, the government agency SHIELD, led by the somewhat brusque agent Coulson (Gregg) has taken over, throwing a cordon around the hammerfall site and taking all of Jane’s research, including her journal. Thor, finding out where his hammer is, determines to go get it and prove himself worthy to Odin.

Up in Asgard, things have gone from bad to worse. Odin has fallen into a coma, Loki has proven to be treacherous and has taken the throne, threatening to annihilate the Frost Giants once and for all. Thor’s friends Fandral, Volstagg, Hogun and Sif come to Earth in a desperate attempt to retrieve Thor and set things to rights. Loki, discovering their treachery, sends down a Destroyer robot to end the lot of them and give him the throne of Asgard free and clear.

At first glance, Branagh is an unusual choice for directing a superhero comic adaptation. After all, he is best known for his Shakespeare adaptations and somewhat classical approach to film. However, he turns out to be the perfect choice; he immediately saw the epic quality in the story that even the Bard would have appreciated and Branagh wisely approaches the story in a matter befitting Shakespeare.

The result is a visually stunning, well-acted superhero movie painted on a cosmic canvas. Hemsworth, memorable as George Kirk in the Star Trek reboot, proves to be a solid and charismatic lead. He has all the makings of a big star, which bodes well for the Marvel Universe. His Thor, although petulant and impulsive is also easy-going and good-hearted. It’s nice to see a superhero mature onscreen in front of you as opposed to the darker superhero tales which seem to be more in vogue these days.

He gets some pretty good support, particularly from Hopkins who lends every inch of gravitas possible to Odin. Portman makes for a sweet romantic interest, in a PG kind of way. Skarsgard, one of the more reliable character actors around, is flinty and stolid as Dr. Selvig; skeptical and practical but also loyal to Jane, the daughter of an old friend. Dennings provides ample comic relief, which is surprising since in previous roles she didn’t strike me as the sort. I’m pleased to see Dennings show that kind of range – I’ve always liked her as an actress, so having that sort of versatility does make career longevity more of a possibility. Rene Russo also makes a rare and welcome appearance as Thor’s mother (and Odin’s wife) Frigga.

Hiddleston makes a fine Loki – tormented, mischievous and hateful. He is not the pure evil that sometimes he is portrayed in the comics; his origin also diverges from Marvel canon somewhat but in a good way I think. He proves to be a formidable opponent for Thor.

I also liked Elba as Heimdal, lending the kind of gravitas usually associated with James Earl Jones, Morgan Freeman and Patrick Stewart. While we’re on the subject of the guardian of the rainbow bridge, the bridge makes one of the more arresting visuals of the movie. It is a combination of magic and science that is colorful (as you’d expect) and in an odd way, sensible. The city of Asgard itself is also gorgeous; certainly a CGI creation but looking almost like a miniature in many ways. It looks very much like a city of Gods.

As you can tell from the plot description, the story is a bit ponderous in places, with lots of characters showing up from the pages of Thor and Norse mythology in general. Fleeting glimpses are made of the Infinity Gauntlet, Hawkeye (of the Avengers) and Stan Lee. Keeping track of everything and everyone can be taxing at times, particularly for those who aren’t as well-versed in the comics.

Still, this is a very good start to the franchise; not quite to the level of Iron Man but surprisingly close. Now that the Marvel moviemaking machine is in full gear, it’s good to see that the quality standards are still high. Hopefully that’s something that will turn out to be as eternal as the Gods themselves.

REASONS TO GO: Asgard is beautifully realized. There’s an epic and Shakespearean quality to the story. Hemsworth acquits himself well as a leading man, with fine supporting performances by Portman, Hiddleston, Hopkins, Skarsgard, Elba and Dennings.

REASONS TO STAY: The story can be a bit confusing in places.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some science fiction/fantasy/comic book violence and a couple of scary monsters.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Marks the first appearance of Rene Russo in a feature film in six years.

HOME OR THEATER: Most definitely the big screen to maintain the epic quality of the movie.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Tropic Thunder