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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Independence Day: Resurgence


Jeff Goldblum realizes it was a mistake to read the reviews.

Jeff Goldblum realizes it was a mistake to read the reviews.

(2016) Science Fiction (20th Century Fox) Liam Hemsworth, Jeff Goldblum, Jessie T. Usher, Bill Pullman, Maika Monroe, Sela Ward, William Fichtner, Judd Hirsch, Brent Spiner, Patrick St. Esprit, Vivica A. Fox, Angelababy, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Deobia Oparei, Nicolas Wright, Travis Tope, Chin Han, Gbenga Akinnagbe, Robert Loggia, John Storey, Joey King. Directed by Roland Emmerich

 

“If you’ve seen one alien invasion, you’ve seen them all.” That may not be an aphorism in Hollywood, but it damn well should be. Ever since the original Independence Day back in 1996, there have been a plethora of invasion flicks of technologically superior aliens trying to rid our planet of its native population and steal its resources for themselves, which sounds an awful lot like a metaphor for colonialism if you ask me.

In Independence Day: Resurgence, twenty years have passed since the last alien invasion failed. Technology scavenged from fallen ships has pushed our own technology far ahead, allowing us to rebuild more quickly and even expand our presence with a modern defense station on the moon. Daniel Levinson (Goldblum) is now in charge of defensive strategies for the planet, which has united after nearly having been annihilated. He believes, like most of the planet’s leadership, that the aliens will be back and we’ve been preparing for twenty years for the inevitability of that fact.

Former President Whitmore (Pullman) is visited regularly by his daughter Patricia (Monroe) who is now an aide to current President Lanford (Ward). Like her dad, Patricia is an ex-fighter pilot. She’s also engaged to hotshot maverick fighter Jake Morrison (Hemsworth) who was exiled to the moon after clipping the wing of the fighter jet of golden boy Dylan Hiller (Usher), son of the late Stephen Hiller, the hero of the War of 1996. The three of them had been close friends but were now leading separate lives. Those lives are about to get a whole lot different.

Because the aliens are back and this time they’ve brought a Mothership the size of a continent. When it lands in the Atlantic Ocean, it covers the entire ocean. The aliens, aware of what happened to the last invasion, are mad as hell and want to finish us off, something having to do with taking the molten core of the planet and using it for fuel. Dr. Brakish Okun (Spiner), who’s been in a coma since his own close encounter with an alien, awakens and has some ideas for saving the Earth (although we get to see a little bit more of his hind end than we ever wanted to) but some of those may well have to wait for the sequel that will one day come. ID4 Part 3 anybody?

There are those in Hollywood who believe that the secret to a great sequel is more of what was in the original, and that sums up this film in a nutshell. Emmerich has, justly or unjustly, gotten a reputation of delivering spectaculars with plenty of destruction but not a lot of thought in the plot department. Here, again, there are things in the story that anyone with even basic knowledge of science will roll their eyes over. For one thing, something that big landing in the Atlantic would send tsunamis that would essentially drown every coast on that ocean, as well as send enough steam and vapor into the air to cause a nuclear winter. Having something that size impact the Earth might also have consequences in terms of knocking the planet off axis. Keep in mind that a much smaller object impacting the Earth may have caused an extinction level event. Even at reduced speeds, the Mothership would have killed half the population of the planet off in an instant just by landing here gently; and they wouldn’t need to land gently to get what they’re after. It would actually be in their best interests to deliberately knock the planet off its axis; it would make their task easier.

It is a hoot to see Goldblum, Pullman, Spiner and Hirsch back in roles that we identify them with, and all of them make the most of their return. Goldblum and Pullman get the lion’s share of time, but Spiner and Hirsch are effective in their supporting roles. The “new kids;” Hemsworth, Usher and Monroe mainly are a little flat; none of them individually or collectively can replace Smith who really made the first film more fun with his swagger and his comic timing, as well as his action chops. Smith reportedly asked for $50 million to sign on here; I’m wondering if it might not have been worth it for Fox to give him what he wanted.

The special effects are, as you can doubtlessly imagine, spectacular although like much that is in this film, much along the same lines as what you saw in ID4. Monuments and icons get destroyed. People flee in terror down streets choked with cars. Dogs get saved. Catchphrases get uttered. Hordes of fighter craft engage the enemy. And as an added attraction, we get to meet the alien Queen. Note to Ellen Ripley on that one; you’re going to need a bigger boat.

This is what I would consider decent summer entertainment; no more and no less. The script is a bit lame-brained but I don’t think anyone is expecting David Mamet here. The effects are more than equal to the task, but they don’t really set the bar any higher; once you blow up the White House (as they did in the first film) the sight of famous places getting destroyed doesn’t really do much for a savvy audience. In short, this is a time-waster that is perfect fodder for shutting your brain off, drinking an ice cold soda, stuffing your face with popcorn and candy and escaping the summer heat for a couple of hours.

REASONS TO GO: Impressive visuals as always. It’s a hoot to see Goldblum, Hirsch, Spiner and Pullman still at the top of their games.
REASONS TO STAY: Plot riddled with holes of logic and science. A bloated and often incomprehensible plot is not helped by the absence of Will Smith.
FAMILY VALUES: Lots and lots of destruction (they always go for the landmarks), plenty of violence, some profanity and a couple of disturbing alien images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Seven actors reprised their roles from the original; the part of President Whitmore’s daughter Patricia was recast from Mae Whitman in the original to Maika Monroe here because Whitman isn’t conventionally pretty met with outrage on the Internet. Also, Will Smith (whose salary demands were rejected by the studio) appears as a portrait in the White House.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/16/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 32% positive reviews. Metacritic: 32/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Battleship
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Free State of Jones

Red Tails


Red Tails

The Tuskegee Airmen, circa 2012.

(2012) War (20th Century Fox) Cuba Gooding Jr., Terrence Howard, Bryan Cranston, Nate Parker, David Oyelowo, Tristan Wilds, Cliff Smith, Rick Phillips, Ne-Yo, Lee Tergesen, Daniela Ruah, Elijah Kelly, Marcus T. Paulk, Andre Royo, Gerald McRaney, Michael B. Jordan. Directed by Anthony Hemingway

 

The story of the Tuskegee Airmen is one of the most inspiring ones to come out of the Second World War. An all-black Air Squadron in the U.S. Army Air Corps (kind of a precursor to the Air Force which didn’t exist at the time), the group encountered prejudice and the prevailing attitude that African-Americans were incapable of learning the complex workings of the fighter planes and were cowardly in nature, certain to turn tail and run in combat. Spurious studies done by the U.S. Army War College apparently supported that myth.

Most people who saw the brilliant HBO movie The Tuskegee Airmen will know that the Airmen shattered that myth, posting one of the proudest records of any squadron in the war. They protected the bombers that were dropping the smackdown on Hitler and saved uncountable lives; not just the men in the bombers but the soldiers on the ground as well for whom the war was shortened because the bombers were able to do their work.

It’s high time that the Tuskegee Airmen got a proper treatment on the big screen and George Lucas, creator of the Star Wars saga, has been trying to do just that since the 1980s. However, studios were reluctant to approve a big-budget movie with an all African-American cast – it seems some battles remain un-won in the struggle.

Unfortunately, the movie that Lucas placed in the hands of first-time feature director Hemingway (who has helmed the justly acclaimed “Treme” series for HBO) falls way short of the mark. I’m not even sure where to begin with it. The script I guess for starters; it’s cliché and full of cut-out characters taken from war movies of bygone times. It’s predictable in the extreme, lacking in either vision or creativity. For whatever reason, Lucas opted to go with a fictional version of the Airmen and these Airmen lack depth and are even worse, uninteresting.

Howard fares best as Maj. Bullard, the squadron commander. He at least has some life in what he does and commands screen attention. Gooding, who was in the HBO version of the story, uses a pipe to distraction, substituting props for creating a genuine character. He sleepwalks through the part, lacking his usual energy.

Lucas is well-known for his dogfight sequences in the Star Wars movies and has said in interviews that the fights in this movie are as close as we’re going to ever come to an Episode VII in that series. If that’s the case, it’s a good thing they cut it off after six. The CGI is not just bad, it’s embarrassing. It never looks very realistic at all; it looks like a ten-year-old videogame.

For some odd reason, it appears that Terence Blanchard, who composed the score, went for a beat-heavy synthesized score rather than something more period-friendly. It’s distracting which is not what you want from a score; it should enhance the film experience, not be noticed for all the wrong reasons.

I can understand wishing to make an action movie based on the exploits of the Airmen; that would expose the squadron to a wider audience, theoretically. That’s admirable, but at least if you’re going to do that, give that wider audience a movie they’re going to want to not only see in theaters but recommend to friends.

There is an elephant in the room about this movie that I guess I’m going to address here. I’m a white critic criticizing a nearly all-African American film. To say that I don’t like the movie doesn’t mean I don’t like the subject, or that I don’t like African-Americans. I have nothing but respect for the accomplishments of the Tuskegee Airmen; I just wish they had a better film that honors those accomplishments.

REASONS TO GO: Howard lends some dignity and restraint.

REASONS TO STAY: Where to begin? Poorly acted, amateurish CGI, one of the most annoying film scores ever, a movie-of-the-week plot…the story of the Tuskegee Airmen deserved a better movie.

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of war violence, some of it gruesome and there’s also some sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: George Lucas has been developing the story since 1988; since studios have not been willing to finance the project, he has put his own money into making the film, almost $100 million for production and marketing.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/29/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 35% positive reviews. Metacritic: 46/100. The reviews are bad to mixed.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Miracle at St. Anna

AERIAL COMBAT LOVERS: There are a few scenes in which you get an idea of the chaotic nature of WW2 dogfights.

FINAL RATING: 2/10

TOMORROW: El Bulli: Cooking in Progress