Tag Archive: Star Wars


Rogue Fun

Rogue One: The Prequels Strike Back

(A totally spoiler-free review of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story)

Let’s sum it up for the Twitter crowd:

Pros

  • A good prequel
  • Hardcore Fan service
  • Casual fan service
  • A more adult kind of Star Wars movie
  • Puts the “war” in Star Wars
  • Focuses on new characters
  • A crafted puzzle piece that fits well with the other episodes, particularly Episode IV: A New Hope
  • Adds more depth for certain returning Star Wars characters
  • Shows off some really good special effects

Cons

  • Not a “saga film” and isn’t about main saga characters or their their conflict
  • The Michael Giacchino soundtrack is good, but not very memorable
  • Some of the fan service scenes felt gratuitous. As in: “that’s cool, but is there a logical reason for that?”
  • Feels like a studio “fan film”
  • Some scenes depended on contrivances that felt phony

I was very impressed with Gareth Edwards’ first feature film, Monsters (2010), shot on a shoestring budget down in Costa Rica by a then-unknown Edwards. The film used home-made-on-my-PC special effects sparingly, but to great effect. The chemistry between the main characters during an alien invasion of Mexico was a story worth telling, and had a great payoff. His second film was the more tedious and forgettable Godzilla reboot starring a sprawling cast of cameos (which was frankly overproduced and poorly written).  But Edwards delivers the goods in Rogue One; the end result feels like Lucasfilm contracted him to make the world’s most expensive Star Wars fan film.

And what a fan film it is! Instead of the usual home light-saber battles found on YouTube, Rogue One combines a more modern, gritty, science-oriented realism to the Star Wars universe, while retaining the production design that seems to fit the aesthetic foundation established by George Lucas’ original Star Wars (Episode 4: AHN). The film’s pervasive use of Easter eggs and callbacks to other SW films and even the TV shows makes it feel like vital connective tissue between the Star Wars prequels and the original trilogy.i heard it compared to Joss Whedon’s Firefly, and that’s a really good comparison in more ways than one: it’s gritty sci-fi, and it’s about a crew of outlaws hopping planets fighting The Man.

If you’re just casually acquainted with Star Wars, as most people are, you’ll find this movie either awesome or disappointing, depending on what you expect from, and what you like about Star Wars. George Lucas was first and foremost a student of Joseph Campbell’s hero myth, and his Star Wars films are really more fantasy than sci-fi, and were heavily guided by the hero’s journey. As such, the Jedi, Sith, the Force, and their back stories were very archetypal. Their light saber duels and their codes of conduct made them more “space samurai” than sci-fi characters. If this quintessential to the Star Wars experience for you, you may be disappointed.

Now, there is also a sci-fi component to Star Wars: space battles, hyperspace, ray guns, and galactic politics. This is what Rogue One focuses on: the science behind the fiction. Ok, they gloss over plenty; this isn’t science-based fiction the way Andy Weir’s The Martian, or Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey are. We’re not getting an explanation of how the potatoes were grown on Mars, just that potatoes were involved. Rogue One makes real the people, engineering, and resources behind the creation of the Empire’s most important military asset: The Death Star. It also makes the Rebellion (who are mostly background characters in the saga film) the primary characters. No midichlorians, no Force Ghosts delivering exposition, no space samurai. Just a motley crew of misfits, rebel scum, and troublemakers and their fight to free the galaxy.

I don’t think it’s a spoiler to mention that Darth Vader is in the film. While his scenes are few, they are absolutely some of the best in the film, and not just for fan service. He’s an important side character involved in the events surrounding the theft of the Death Star plans, which, (non-)spoiler alert: is the plot of this film. James Earl Jones’ creamy bass tones is a touchstone of the Star Wars movies, and worth the ticket price alone. Other character(s) from the saga trilogies make cameo appearances, courtesy of some groundbreaking special effects–to say who would be a spoiler. But I was both geeked out and delighted by what they did. Yes, I’m adult moved to tears by digital special effects what the hell is wrong with me.

And that would be OK, as this film is a more adult version of Star Wars. Gareth Edwards had described it as a “war movie,” inspired by the classic films from the 50s and 60s depicting daring WWII combat adventures. And it is. Besides being gritty in production design, it makes war look and feel gritty, ugly, tragic. Rogue One solves one of my biggest complaints about the George Lucas-directed prequels: that the combat was too sanitized, bloodless, and kid-friendly. Most of the conflict was between keystone-cop silly battle droids and disposable clone army who were born slaves to the Republic. As such, the death and destruction were centered on manufactured military assets, not innocent civilian casualties. War felt like a video game. I will give both Disney and Lucasfilm huge props for letting the writers and director take the film in this direction. The movie has the right mix of levity, adventure, and a dark tone. I wouldn’t describe the ending as dark, nilhilist, or sad, but that could be because I already know what happens next. If someone new to Star Wars saw Episodes I-III, then Rogue One before seeing Episode IV, they might find this movie kind of a downer.

The new characters have good chemistry, and I really enjoyed the space battles, particularly the one at the end. I didn’t think they could top the space dogfights from the previous Star Wars movies, but they did. You don’t need to have a trench run, pod race, or asteroid chase to feel a rush from a space battle. I found a few POV shots looked really good in Rogue One in 3D; I also saw the film in 2D and trust me: you’re not missing anything. The 3D conversion looks OK, no weird parallax effect, but mostly wasted in the vast majority of scenes.

There was a running joke in this season of South Park in which Trey Parker and Matt Stone shit all over last year’s Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens. They criticized the film and/or the audience for liking it because it seemed to rehash classic elements of A New Hope. What would they make of Rogue One, an actual prequel set before the events in A New Hope? Does it get a pass for rehashing original trilogy material because it’s set during the time of the original trilogy? Or are we the audience victims of the “member berries” and deserving of meta-scorn for craving more from the same buffet of Star Wars characters, themes, and story lines? My opinion is that the audience has expectations about anything called Star Wars, and Disney is not going to ignore that, Parker and Stone’s metacriticism notwithstanding.

Disney and Lucasfilm say that how well Rogue One is received will help them decide whether they need to keep making saga films. Personally, I prefer saga films, so I was a little disappointed by what wasn’t in Rogue One. But having seen it a second time, I can say that it’s grown on me, now that I know what I’m going to get. I hope they continue make saga films, as long as the right filmmakers are involved in filling George Lucas’ proverbial shoes. But if this is the future of Star Wars, I’m in as long as they can continue to find good characters and stories to tell. 8/10

My rankings:

  1. Empire Strikes Back
  2. A New Hope
  3. Return of the Jedi
  4. The Force Awakens
  5. Rogue One
  6. Revenge of the Sith
  7. Attack of the Clones
  8. The Phantom Menace

 

 

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Rey & Finn’s Excellent Adventure

SPOILER-FREE!

(I will mention character names, but not reveal anything about the plot)

IT was the will of The Force that brought together the creative and talented minds that culminated in me sitting in a comfy chair at the iPic Theater sipping an overpriced beer and snacking on Turkey sliders on the evening of December 17, 2015, awaiting the return of Luke Skywalker in a galaxy far, far away. Around me were mostly a young adult audience, smack in the middle of the 18-45 year old demographic. Some wore costumes, although the kind of tasteful ones you might go to a party in. The iPic had a “no mask that covers your face” policy posted. Because, Star Wars brings that out in fans.

Lights go down, the first note in the Star Wars timeless fanfare scored by John Williams plays like it was Beethoven’s 9th and the Star Wars logo comes up against a star field. Chewie, we’re home. It’s fucking surreal.

Assuming you have seen at least the teaser trailers, and have a basic knowledge of the cast, this is a new adventure set in the Star Wars universe, a direct continuation of the story from Return of The Jedi, but set a vague number of decades in the future. You already know this is the first Star Wars movie since Lucasfilm was sold to Disney and that gen-X director and fanboy JJ Abrams (best known for his work in TV and his reboot of the Star Trek franchise) is at the helm.

No pressure.

JJ and his team of producers from his Bad Robot production company have put together a pretty good imitation of a Star Wars movie. Wait, imitation? Now you’re intrigued. Keep reading.

Let’s get this out of the way: it’s a good movie. If you’re on the fence about seeing it, go. If you’re waiting for it on video, just go and see it in a proper theater. If you’re not a Star Wars fan, just go. If you’re William Shatner, then stay home on twitter and make fun of Star Wars while you nurse that bruised ego. (We love you, Bill. Stay classy)

Think about it: JJ Abrams has to jump start a storied sci-fi/fantasy franchise for a new studio, this means staying true artistically and story- and character-wise to the films that came before, please critics and fans, while beckoning new generation of millennials (including kids) for whom Star Wars has no special meaning because it was a movie their fucking parents grew up on. (The last thing kids want to do is like the same cultural touchstones that their parents did). Did they succeed on hitting all these notes? As I’m sitting at the airport waiting on a flight, it’s December 19 and I haven’t read any reviews except the one quickly posted by @Colebrax, but I’m going to predict that JJ has done it. The stakes are high and he nailed it, based on the age group I saw the movie with. Naturally, this is going to be skewed towards a certain demographic through self-selection (nearly everyone seeing it on December 17 bought their tickets a month in advance). But the movie balances Star Wars tradition, but updated to reflect our modern sensibilities and expectations from modern sci-fantasy blockbuster films (something that Star Wars created in 1977, literally).

This film is about new characters, new story, but a familiar backstory. Some old characters reappear. And the themes are as timeless as the John Willams score, or Ben Burtt’s unique sound effects.

If Star Wars (Episodes 4-6) were “The Adventures of Luke Skywalker” and Episodes 1-3 were “The Adventures of Anakin Skywalker” then Star Wars Episode 7 could be seen as “Rey & Finn’s Excellent Adventure.” Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Finn (John Boyega) are the new stars of the next trilogy, and they’re good. They’re likable. This is their galaxy, and this is their adventure. Opposing them are the well-armed military forces of the First Order, the face of which is General Hux(played deliciously by Domhnall Gleeson). There’s also a masked and caped villain with a red saber (I didn’t have to tell you that’s how villains dress in Star Wars, did I?), named Kylo Ren. Not the Ren who hung out with Stimpy. If you’ve seen the trailers, you already know the Millennium Falcon, Tie Fighters, and stormtroopers are in it.

In short, this is Star Wars interpreted through the eyes of JJ Abrams, which is necessarily different from the one told by its creator, George Lucas. It’s clear JJ is a fan of the first trilogy. Whereas the second trilogy relied on CG to the point that the whole movie was essentially assembled in Photoshop instead of filmed, JJ has gone back to Kodak cinema film stock for that creamy, dreamy color, real sets shot on location, practical effects, and limited CG where it made sense (or was the only way to make the scene work). As a result, it looks like Return of the Jedi, which spent a lot of time on Endor, and looked suspiciously like the forests of Northern California. Film stock creates an analog look and feel that you can only get as an Instagram filter these days.

In fact, this conscious artistic choice by Abrams makes Lucas’ penchant for going nuts with CG in the second trilogy all the more painfully obvious. It’s almost as if he was testing the limits of what software could draw on screen.

Abrams’ Star Wars movie is essentially a fast action movie. He groks that it should feature archetype heroes, villains, and wise sages. It should have The Force as interpreted as a supernatural, mysterious, intangible energy that grants Force wielders supernatural abilities and not a medical condition. Good and evil are as clearly labeled. He also understands that each story beat should be taken from the Flash Gordon (or now Star Wars) book of space opera story beats: daring rescues, seductions, betrayals, being hunted, out-running or out-gunning the enemy forces in a daring escape. Light saber duels. These are the Legos from which a proper Star Wars adventure are made.

The thing that surprised me was the movie’s fast pacing. From the opening scene to the ending, the story unfolds at a sustained brisk pace. Sure, the action beats are spaced out, but there’s little exposition between action scenes to let the story or backstory unfold. It’s basically: here’s our situation, and this is what we’re gonna do next, boom: scene. This is cinematic wine and you want to let it breathe a little before tasting it, Star Wars isn’t something you chug. But we’re gulping it down pretty fast.

What is an achievement is that writers JJ Abrams, Larry Kasdan, and Michael Arndt have created new characters who are genuinely likable and heroic (or villainous) from the get-go, without being annoying (see Jar-Jar Binks). Rey and Finn are the main characters, along with Han Solo (Harrison Ford who probably never predicted he’d be playing Han Solo in his retirement years, but still nails it) crack X-Wing jockey Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac who just oozes charisma), Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). BB-8 plays the role of the adorable Xmas gift BB-8. The magic is that I didn’t know any of these characters and within 10 minutes of them appearing on screen, I liked them and wanted to see them achieve their goals. Or at least see what they’ll do next. Especially Rey. As the movie progresses, it becomes clearer that this is her story. Episodes 8 and 9 haven’t been produced yet, but we may someday call the third trilogy The Adventures of Rey. My fearless prediction, gentle reader.

There’s just the right amount of original characters in the movie (Han, Leia, 3PO, and R2D2) to assure the fans who grew up with the older movies that the new story is indeed taking place in the same universe where the Rebels knocked out two Death Stars. There’s a part of me that longed for more adventures with them, that we would continue their story, but it’s clear that Episodes 7, 8 and 9 are not going to be “More adventures of Luke, Han and Leia.” This is both a practical decision as well as a sound one. The torch has to be passed, and shoes needs to be filled. Done and done. This feels a bit like Abrams’ reboot of Star Trek in 2009, in which he cast Leonard Nimoy as time traveller Spock Prime to pass the proverbial torch while assuring fans that these were the same characters and universe, just with a new coat of digital paint. The difference is that Han and Leia get enough screen time that their roles are more than to stitch together trilogies. They still inhabit this galaxy, and are involved in the fight against the First Order.

So why did I call this movie an imitation of a Star Wars movie? That came to mind within the first few minutes of the opening scene. My brain was trying to believe I was watching a Star Wars movie, but something felt different, off.  Something subconscious, and I couldn’t put my finger on it–not at first. As the movie progressed and the characters and plot unfolded, the feeling went away. The not-so-subtle fan service scenes helped assure me that, yes, this is really happening: it has been nearly 40 years since Star Wars and you’re watching a genuine sequel to Return of the Jedi.

There was some noise from the fringe corners of the Internets about the diversity in the new Star Wars cast (and extras). My thinking: it’s about time, and so fucking what? I was frankly more upset over Rey having a British accent, as bad guys in Star Wars traditionally had British accents, and good guys had American accents. But that’s because I’m a geeky fan, not a racist. But I got over it. I like Rey. She kicks ass.

I recommend seeing it in 2D. I have seen it both in 3D and 2D. The 3D conversion does work and has depth, but it added nothing to the movie because shots were not made for 3D cinematography. Also, it was my first experience with Dolby 3D, and the glasses provided had more cross talk between left and right eye, causing some double vision, which looks like overall blurriness. 8/10.

Hope you all have a great Xmas, Hanukkah, and New Years!

The Fanboys (and Fangirls!) Awaken

I’m going to put all my Star Wars trailer-related comments into a single blog posting to spare my Twitter followers from filling up their timelines. (Sorry if you followed my Twitter account mainly for the cat and LOL videos). Since I use my blog for a lot of movie-related stuff, this will work out perfectly as new content for those following my (sorta) movie blog. And if this is your first time on my blog, welcome!

If you haven’t heard or seen the Star Wars: The Force Awakens trailer, it’s officially available (as an exclusive) on iTunes Trailers, but of course, it didn’t take long for the megabytes to escape iTunes exclusivity and find its way onto the YouTubes.

GOOOOOOOOOOAL!!!

GOOOOOOOOOOAL!!!

It’s still trending on Twitter, with a lot of people talking about the few scenes that gave just a flavor of the next movie. There’s also a fun Lego-version of the trailer. I am, for one, glad the trailer gave no hint as to what the story was about, and none of the scenes featured any major characters or spoilers.

The bemusing (and spoofed) lightsaber with fancy hilt

The bemusing (and spoofed) lightsaber with fancy hilt

I fully expect @nerdist to make fun of either the trailer or the Lego version of the trailer on Monday night’s broadcast of Comedy Central’s @midnight. Everyone in the trailer seems to be running away with various looks of concern on their faces. What are they running away from? And has R2D2 been turned into a soccer ball? Why do lightsabers now have a blade and two extra bladettes in the hilt? And why does this lightsaber crackle and spark? And the Millennium Falcon‘s old round radar dish (which got knocked off during the assault on the second Death Star) is now rectangular shaped! Upgrade? And are we back to Tatooine? It seems like a popular place for Star Wars movies. In any case, we shall find out in about 382 days. Can you wait that long?

Actress Daisy Ridley will play a main character in the new trilogy.

Actress Daisy Ridley will play a main character with a concerned look on her face in the new trilogy. Notice the dreamy warm-blue color of the sky, courtesy of Kodak Vision3 5219 film stock.

It’s kind of a big deal for Star Wars fans, and closet fans like myself. This one’s going to be co-written and directed by JJ Abrams, the executive producer mostly known for TV shows like Felicity, AliasLost, and Fringe. More recently, he directed the Star Trek reboots (starring Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto), and a little 80s-era Spielberg-esque pastiche called Super 8. Abrams is a self-professed Star Wars fan, and he belongs to a generation the grew up with Star Wars (the original movies), before becoming a TV producer and filmmaker himself. I’m certain that his work on rebooting the Star Trek franchise for Paramount (which had fallen into a kind of creative malaise before he took over) and turning it into both a commercial and critical success earned him a spot as the director of Episode 7.

The Millennium Falcon vs. TIE fighters: a timeless struggle.

The Millennium Falcon vs. TIE fighters: the eternal struggle.

But Abrams has his detractors, who feel he “cheapens” things he touches through mimicry or imitation. They point to such chintzy effects like deliberate (as opposed to accidental) anamorphic lens flare (those blue, horizontal streaks that appear when light is internally reflected inside that type of lens), and the use of plot twists via deliberate misdirection (deception) so that it can be followed later by a reveal (“My real name is Khan!”) — the cinematic equivalent of a magic trick.

Abrams is guilty of all of the above. But whether he applies these tricks to Star Wars or whether he can restrain himself remains to be seen. I have faith that Abrams gets the gravitas of what he is tasked to do creatively. This isn’t an homage project like Super 8, this is Star Wars. You’re working for Lucasfilm, not Bad Robot. You are now George Lucas. You’re in charge of the next episode of Star Wars. I’m sure that sank in at some point. Star Wars is not the kind of franchise you set a director like Alejandro Jodorowski or David Fincher loose on (as interesting and original that might be!), Lucasfilm has to choose a director who can walk that thin line between giving older Star Wars fans the experience they expect and want, bringing in new elements to extend the canon for future films, providing solid entertainment for the broadest audience (kids included), and in whatever wiggle room is left over, letting the director bring whatever personal touches or style they want. In short, you want someone who is creative, but “gets” Star Wars. Someone who can parse the things that make it Star Wars. There’s only a handful of “generation X” directors with the experience to pull this off. Joss Whedon (another TV producer turned filmmaker) immediately comes to mind. After Episode 7, Rian Johnson (writer-director of Looper) will direct Episode 8.

JJ Abrams on set during production of Star Wars The Force Awakens

JJ Abrams on set during production of Star Wars: The Force Awakens

I don’t think Abrams will reboot Star Wars–it doesn’t need that. His toughest job is to introduce new characters and a new major conflict that will continue the saga for the (planned) 3 final episodes. I think the writing is the most critical part: if the story is weak, it’ll be blasted to pieces. How Star Wars survived The Phantom Menace is beyond me. Nostalgia for the franchise and the visuals probably pushed it through. Star Wars has been been critically successful when other directors and screenwriters took over the actual day-to-day production. So while Lucas is officially “out” of Star Wars (he sold his ownership in Lucasfilm and handed over creative control of the franchise), Abrams has retained Lucas as a story consultant for Episode 7, and this suggest that some of Lucas’ original ideas for Episodes 7-9 survive in Abrams’ script. At least, that’s one way to interpret Lucas’ “story consultant” role (it’s a vague title that could mean anything). According to Wikipedia, Lucas considered stories that centered on Luke’s progeny, rebuilding the Galactic Republic, and having Luke hand down what he learned as a Jedi. There’s also the reference to The Force “awakening” (whatever that means). I assume it means the midi-chlorians set their alarm clocks to 76 years after the birth of Anakin Skywalker, which is approximately when the new movie takes place (Luke and Leia would be 53, according to the new canon timeline). Outside of the movies, The Clone Wars TV series is also considered canon and there are a few episodes (available on Netflix) that explains the conscious nature (or will) of The Force. Maybe it has something to do with this?

So what do you think it will be about? Leave a comment below if you have an opinion!

I hope that in the next year before the film’s release, no one spoils it by publishing a leaked script or details about the story. It’s difficult to do with so many people involved in producing a film like this, but thankfully, the inbred Hollywood system assures us that anyone who incurs the wrath of studio executives “will never work in this town again.” The real threat is from outsiders stealing this information and leaking it, as there are lots of miscreants on the Internet. Let’s hope they care enough about the Star Wars franchise to not spoil it for the rest of us.

May The Fourth Be With You

As we await the coming of the next Star Wars movie, I was pondering what goes into a Star Wars movie. Besides two droids, kid-friendly aliens, and lightsaber battles, and that epic John Williams score, what should we expect from a Star Wars movie? Here’s a quick list:

  • A big central “galactic” conflict. Don’t know who will be facing off in JJ Abrams’ version of Star Wars VII, but someone has to rule the galaxy, and someone else has to want to overthrow the ruling party.
  • A big 15-20 minute battle between the main combatants in the galactic conflict.
  • Sith vs. Jedi. Without this, it’s not fucking Star Wars.
  • Lightsaber battle between Jedi and Sith character. You want this.
  • Somebody dies.
  • Speeder chase. George Lucas was a fan of fast cars so nearly every Star Wars pic except A New Hope featured some kind of speeder chase, or its equivalent in The Phantom Menace, the pod race.
  • Some dead Jedi ghost haunts the main character. Maybe Hamlet’s father.
  • Somebody says “I got a bad feeling about this”
  • The Wilhelm scream.
  • There’s a lot of running and jumping in some kind of long action sequence.
  • Main characters are part of the Skywalker family tree. Apparently that was the line of continuity through the first six episodes.
  • Someone falls in love. Hopefully without the awkward dialogue scenes.

What do you think? It doesn’t sound too difficult to put these elements together in a blender and come up with a new Star Wars movie. They are somewhat formulaic at this point, but that’s OK. We’d be disappointed if it colored too far outside the lines. That being said, however, I wouldn’t mind being pleasantly surprised, and there’s an outside chance that JJ Abrams can bring some fresh creativity to the culturally historic sci-fi-fantasy franchise. The pedigree of the writers (Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan) are impressive, and I’m looking forward to what they come up with. But I’m sure that Expanded Universe fans will be complaining: they already are.

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