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Terrible Reviews: Rogue One (with bonus terrible review of a terrible review)


Whether the downplaying of the formidable cast’s charismatic energies is an intentional downplaying of the potential risk to the characters that they play—whether it’s a matter of not actually allowing viewers to get too attached to characters or actors, not allowing viewers to be bummed out by bad news but rather breezing past it in a spirit of fealty not to these characters or performers but to the franchise—is the kind of corporate Kremlinology that would rightly take the place of criticism in assessing the substance and tone of the movie.

That’s culled from Richard Brody’s review of Rogue One in The New Yorker, and holy crap. I mean, holy crap. That’s one sentence. One. I challenge you to read that sentence without going glassy-eyed.

But let me circle back to that review in a minute.

I saw Rogue One this weekend. It’s good. Overhyped, I felt, but then, what in the recent Star Wars universe isn’t a little bit overhyped?

The film sort of paints itself into a corner, though. It’s branded as a stand-alone chapter in the Star Wars Universe, not part of the saga, but just a story living in that particular story world. Which … kind of … okay, I guess? It was important that we learn how the rebellion got hold of the Death Star plans, maybe? I dunno. “Many Bothans died to bring us this information” was a bit too glib for some, I guess, but I guess it doesn’t hurt to tell the particular story of how they came by the plans.

Except, the story’s a bit too flat, a bit too pat, a bit too much rehashing of old tropes with not enough of the Star Wars sweeping grandiosity and magic for me. I know, I know. Rogue One‘s selling point is: no Jedi, no magic, no Skywalkers, no soup for you. Still. For me, it’s a bit of a miss, but one that still hits some targets — like aiming for that one stormtrooper that’s running right at you, but missing him and hitting the big crane behind him that dumps a big load of space rocks and crushes, like, five stormtroopers instead. Except then, you get shot down by that one stormtrooper, which is totally demoralizing, not just because you got blasted, but because you got blasted by a stormtrooper.

So let me explain (and here’s where I flash the big red SPOILER sign).

The best thing about the movie is Jyn.

Wait, scratch that. The best thing about the movie is Alan Tudyk’s K2S0, but if you’ve read any other reviews, you know that already. He’s Marvin, the Paranoid Android, of HHG2G renown, but with a healthy dose of ass-kickery thrown in for good measure, and he’s an absolute delight.

But yes, Jyn.

She’s the second heroine of the Star Wars Universe under the Disney regime, which is nice. Orphaned, scrappy, disillusioned, all par for the course; possessed of a convenient-but-not-gamebreaking skillset that will allow her to go far, but not without the help of some well-placed allies. Look, as a character, she’s fine. You’ll get no argument from me on Jyn, just like you’ll get no argument from me on Rey from TFA.

And I’ll go ahead and insert here the obligatory: the cast is diverse, which is a good thing. Female lead? Non-white males in major roles? Villains portrayed by the white dudes who would otherwise be excluded? Check, check, and check. Disney is making sure to show us that there are other things besides white guys in the galaxy. Some people might call that pandering, but for my money, there’s nothing forced about it. And that’s a welcome change.

The problem comes in, not with the actors playing the parts, but the characterization of  everybody else in the movie. I’ll be honest: I’ve entirely forgotten their names, and that’s not just because it’s two days after the fact and I’m up way past a martini. It’s because the characters are entirely forgettable.

There’s the captain of the ship, who’s tasked with bringing Jyn to a rebel leader for some help. He’s about as bland as they come, with hints of a dark past, but don’t go looking for any fleshing out of that dark past, because this is a stand-alone movie.

There’s the comedy-relief rock ’em sock ’em duo of Donnie Yen and another scraggly guy with a big heavy blaster. Yen is a blind monk who desperately wants to be in touch with the Force, and he kind of is, but not really? And his buddy is … well, he’s along for the ride, but we don’t particularly know why, and we won’t be finding out, because again, this is a stand-alone movie.

And there’s a defected Imperial pilot, who of course helps the ragtag band of adventurers sneak into the heart of the Empire to do the thing, and while it might be nice to find out why he defected or what he hopes to accomplish outside of suddenly-coming-to-his-senses-and-laying-down-his-life-for-the-good-guys, we won’t be finding that out either, because, as has been established, this is a stand-alone movie.

Look, it’s serious-spoilers-for-real time again, but remember how we established earlier that this movie painted itself into a corner? By dint of its placement (before episode IV, but after the prequels, which will not be mentioned) it practically shouts at you that none of these characters will have relevance outside of this movie. Which is shorthand for saying that they aren’t gonna make it out alive. I know, right? It’s a shock, except that it isn’t, because if Jyn and whoever the rest of these scrubs were actually played a role in the events that followed Rogue One, then where were they and why have we not heard of them in episodes IV through VI?

And therein lies the problem. We know from the start that they won’t be making it out of this — or even if they do, they retire to the edge of the galaxy and sip on blue milk for the rest of their lives — and so their stake outside of this movie is nil. Which means that, as far as an audience is invested in them, we have to make it count right away, right now, in this movie, in this moment.

But it doesn’t count. There’s no backstory for any of these guys except the standard Empire is evil, let’s band up and take them out because this is a movie and hey why not. Donnie Yen’s blind kung-fu master is awesome for a few fight scenes, but he gets himself killed because of course he does; he’s a blind man in the midst of a nutty laser battle. Then his buddy gets himself killed avenging Yen because what else is he gonna do? Imperial defector plays his role, too, and so does Captain NoName, and the bodies keep piling up.

Jyn, at least, has a lovely character arc established, and damn, if we don’t feel something when she goes. Problem is, what we feel is frustration, because we’ve been made to care about this heroine who then gets wiped off the table with all the ceremony of swatting a gnat.

So, Rogue One kinda sucks.

Except it doesn’t. It’s fantastically paced, visually striking (the overall drabness of the film as a whole contrasted with the final battle on a tropical beach planet? Superb), and witty — if mostly in the guise of the humble droid. It’s firing on many of the same cylinders as TFA, which, given it’s the second iteration of the franchise under Disney rule, isn’t surprising.

But TFA has something that Rogue One doesn’t, and that’s the give-a-fargo factor.

Rey and Finn, Han Solo and Chewbacca, Luke and Leia, Kylo Ren and Snoke? Yeah, I may be missing some backstory on some of them (*glares hard at Rey and her deliberately mysterious past*), but I know those details will be given to me in future chapters. These characters are woven from a larger tapestry, they expand beyond TFA, and that means I don’t mind being strung along a little in TFA because there’s a payoff coming. Jyn and captain guy, kung-fu dude and heavy blasters, K2s0 and imperial defector pilot? This is all we’re getting of them. There’s no more to come, so I’m not nearly as invested.

So, Rogue One, I’m sorry to say, doesn’t measure up to The Force Awakens. It just doesn’t. It’s a good Star Wars movie — I might even say it’s a decent movie in general — but TFA, for all its recycled tropes and paper-thin homages to the original films, is better in every phase of the game.

Still, Rogue One is way better than the prequels. Which isn’t much of a yardstick, but anyway.

Which brings me back to the review I quoted at the top.

The review is subtitled “Is It Time to Abandon the Star Wars Franchise,” and I know that the hotness these days is provocative, clickbait-y titles, but holy shark. Maybe The New Yorker‘s target demographic is a bit more intelligent than the average bear, but just try re-reading that sentence. Try it. That single sentence has more tentacles of dangling modifiers and criss-crossed clauses than Cthulhu, and more self-important verbal masturbation than Donald Trump’s twitter feed.

“Corporate Kremlinology”? “Time to Abandon the Star Wars Franchise”? Did I just watch another bit of fluff in the Star Wars Universe or a goldfingered treatise on socioeconomics in the alternate realities of a fascistic puppet regime?

Star Wars, for all that it’s a product of our times, and as such, has meaning beyond itself, and everything is symbolic, and yadda-yadda-English-teacher-babble blah blah blah. Fine and good. But sometimes? Sometimes we go to the movies to watch the rebels stick it to the Empire, whether the narrative is “perfect” or not, whether the movie delivers in all respects or not.

So can we maybe cool it on the microscopic overanalysis of a film which is, at its heart and core, just a bit of fluff and filler? A plate of cheesesticks and mozarella, delivered to us to keep Star Wars in our hearts in anticipation of ep VIII next year? THINGS DON’T ALWAYS HAVE TO MEAN THINGS.

TFA is a more perfect piece of the Star Wars Universe than Rogue One. It handles its characters better, it plays on the motifs of the saga and panders to its audience better. It’s a bloody fantastic aperitif for the banquet that looks to be in the making. (I watched it again this afternoon. It’s still awesome. When Ren freezes that laser blast in the beginning? The literal darkness overtaking Ren before he kills his father? Rey summoning Luke’s lightsaber right past Ren before their climactic duel? I STILL GET CHILLS.)

But that doesn’t mean that Rogue One is part of the prequel dumpster fire. It isn’t. It’s savvy and sharp and compelling like TFA, it’s got shout-outs and nods to the old, grizzled fans like myself while delivering enough of its own punch to stand outside of the saga as a whole, albeit less strongly than I’d like.

All of which is to say, it’s not a perfect film, by any stretch. But it’s a damned good time, a thrilling bit of escapism. And given the 2016 we’ve all been having, a bit of escapism is exactly what we need, no matter how flawed.

I give it three out of four Imperial AT-AT Walkers in smoldering ruin.

Constrained by a flat and inexpressive script, “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” lets neither its characters nor even its special effects come to life.

PHOTOGRAPH BY JONATHAN OLLEY / WALT DISNEY STUDIOS MOTION PICTURES / LUCASFILM LTD. / EVERETT

Anyway. I know some people out there (including my dad!) think that Rogue One is basically the best thing to come out of Star Wars, but it didn’t do it for me. Your thoughts?


Star Wars Owes You Nothing


There’s been a lot said about the new Star Wars movie. (Sidenote: Star Wars: TFA originally stood for Totally Fargoing Awesome) And, by the way, it’s been out in the ecosystem chomping down lesser films and records and pooping out money for almost three weeks, so, here’s your SPOILER ALERT: Go see the movie. There are spoilers below. Not big ones. But they exist. Seriously. See the movie.

I will happily place myself in the “loved it” category along with the millions of people out there who don’t have sticks up their butts about movies. Hell, I often have sticks (plural) up my butts (plural) about movies, and I still loved the movie. But, man oh man, the criticisms keep coming. And then the whiners. And then the haters. Even George Lucas has said he felt like he sold the film to “white slavers,” in a WTF moment that seriously just makes me want to sit down and wonder when the man was visited with an involuntary lobotomy. (The comment, of course, indicates that he does not approve of the new direction of SW7, which is fine, except that the mouth speaking the words is the mouth that gave us Jar-Jar, and … yep, sitting down.)

And look, critique is okay. It’s fine. Opinions are like funny uncles and all that. You’re entitled to dislike the movie! Rey’s too capable, too quickly. Poe isn’t featured enough. Starkiller Base is lame. Kylo Ren is too whiny. All this is fine, and maybe valid.

So much of the critique, however, takes on a different flavor than simple pro/con. Many critiques look far beyond what the film is and venture into the murky waters and unexplored jungles of what it could or should be. The plot is too derivative; it should have been more original. Star Wars has already shown us this father/son conflict, it needs to show us some totally new conflict instead. SW7 feels like a remake; we were expecting a sequel.

To any and all critiques in this vein, I say BOLLOCKS.

Finn

All thoughts in this vein share something in common: that is, they bring to bear the viewer’s expectations for the thing, and not just the thing itself. They presuppose that Star Wars, as a film franchise, as a part of their childhood experience, as a story in any shape whatsoever, OWES them something.

But Star Wars owes us nothing. It does not belong to us.

Sure, our experience with it belongs to us. My eight-year-old self, having just seen Empire, wanting an AT-AT walker of his very own to stomp across the neighborhood in was all well and good for me, but it doesn’t mean that George Lucas couldn’t, in Episode VI, drop an AT-AT into the middle of the forest for no goldfingered logical reason at all, just because he felt like doing so. (Seriously. How does that thing deal with trees at all? it corners slower than the Titanic.)

The creators of story are in no way beholden to their readers. We like to think they are, because stories matter to us. Stories which affected us, and especially stories which have aged with us, matter to us all the more. And sure, on some level, there’s a trust established between creator and audience; certain things are off-limits, whether due to constraints of the universe of the story, or out of fear of losing the audience. (We can all, after all, simply stop buying books and going to see Star Wars films.)

In short, the owners of Star Wars (and that’s now Disney, for better or for worse — though I’ll argue, especially with the prequels fading into distant memory, that it’s for the better) are free to do with it what they want.

Now, Disney wants to make money. It plans to achieve that goal through making media that draws people in, media that we want to consume over and over again and own tiny little pieces of. Well, just look at their box-office earnings: MISSION BLOODY ACCOMPLISHED.

But look a little deeper. Disney wasn’t in this just to make a film (or films — there will be two more, you know) to scratch the itch that fans have been picking at for thirty years. Why make a film just for the over-thirty crowd? They wanted to hook new viewers, too, while also keeping those older fans on the hook for a new series. Does it rehash old ideas, familiar tropes, well-visited themes of the original trilogy? No doubt. But it does so in a way that I found fresh and compelling, and that (and here I really apologize to any die-hard fan of the original trilogy) makes for a better film than ANY of the originals.

Seriously. Show any teenager Episode IV, and then show them Episode VII. We don’t even have to talk about which one they would enjoy more. Now, I’m not saying that a teenager is the best judge of a film’s quality (though, if you want to make money, teenagers are the ones to target). But a teenager is able to do something you and I can’t do: namely, view the original film(s) without the rose-colored rearview mirror of nostalgia.

I challenge you: go back and watch Episode IV, having recently seen Episode VII. (I did this when I posted about the similarities between the two films.) Cut the predecessor some slack for technology available at the time (notwithstanding the edits made in the 90s), and then — and this is the hard part! — strip out as much of your nostalgia as you can. What you’re left with is a very pretty action film about a whiny kid who goes on a space adventure. It starts off pretty good, but then the pacing drops out and doesn’t really get going again for about thirty or forty minutes. Then it’s fargoing excellent again until the ending, which features a repetitive and entirely-too-protracted battle in space and an abrupt-as-hell ending. On the other hand, you have Episode VII, which features two protagonists, both of whom have compelling backstories right from the gun (and they’re not white dudes, bonus for that), flung into a story which is paced like a chipmunk that’s been greased up and lit on fire. Sure, there’s a lame samey bit with a planet-sized space base that can blow up other planets. And maybe the last shot with Luke leaves a funny taste in your mouth. But there are multiple simultaneous plotlines. There’s a better, more deliberate sense of mystery. Even the villain is more relateable, whether you find him overly whiny or not — he shows weakness, he shows vulnerability, he has depth (and yeah, sure Vader has depth, but not in Episode IV).

I’ll argue that if you complete that exercise faithfully, you’ll find that SW7 is a better all-around movie than the original.

Kylo Ren

In my mind, the folks arguing about what SW7 should’ve or could’ve been are not so different from the blowhards railing against gay marriage (even after the book has been closed on it). You’ve got this nebulous thing which means something to you and which you probably feel strongly about, but the true meaning of which is flexing and adapting to fit the world we actually live in. The tide is inevitable. Star Wars owes you nothing, just as the institution of marriage owes you nothing. These things are just changing to stay viable for the times we live in. You can either go along for the ride or get trampled by the literal hordes of people getting on the ride without you.

Personally, I’m on board with the new Star Wars, and I can’t wait to see where it takes us … even if we’ve been there before.

 

 


71 Ways The New Star Wars is Exactly Like the Original Star Wars


My wife and I went to see Star Wars VII again the other day. (It holds up just as well on the second viewing. In fact, it’s maybe even more enjoyable, because you start to pick up on things you missed on the first go-round; like the training droid Luke used in Episode IV that Finn tosses aside while hunting for parts in the Millenium Falcon.) We went specifically to give the film a close viewing to see if we could discern any more about what’s going on with Rey, what’s going on with Kylo Ren, and — well, honestly, it was just so good we both wanted to see it again.

We noticed on first viewing that the new film is very much an homage to the first film, sharing not just similar themes and plot arcs, but often very specific details in common. So we came home and watched episode IV again, just to contrast and compare. And because we’re both that guy when it comes to movies and stories and nerd stuff, we took notes.

20151224_073604.jpg

Seriously, a lot of notes.

Here, then, are 71 ways that Star Wars IV: A New Hope and Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens are basically the same movie.

There are spoilers below. These things are not necessarily in order (but a surprising number of them are).

  1. Opening shot of a ridiculously big starship flying over an alien planet.
  2. A robot that talks only in bleeps is prominent, especially in the opening scenes.
  3. The robot is given a super-secret map by its owner.
  4. The bad guys invade. They wear masks and believe in a shoot-first-ask-questions-later policy.
  5. The bad guys pretty much rout the rebels they’re attacking.
  6. The Big Bad Guy (henceforth BBG) shows up, intimidates a ton of people, but doesn’t actually do any fighting himself.
  7. BBG straight-up murders a defenseless man because he doesn’t like what the guy has to say.
  8. The robot narrowly escapes capture by the faceless bad guys.
  9. The robot is separated from its owner.
  10. The robot becomes stranded alone on a desert planet
  11. This desert planet should, by all accounts, cripple the robot’s wheel-based propulsion, but doesn’t, because movies.
  12. The bad guys begin a hunt for the robot on the desert planet. You’d think they’d be able to use scanners or scopes to find it, but movies.
  13. The robot’s first encounter is with a scavenging alien critter who wants to sell the robot (maybe for parts).
  14. A young, somewhat dashing hero-type liberates the robot from its captors.
  15. This hero is exceptionally dusty, because he/she does dirty, manual labor to scrape out a meager existence.
  16. The robot follows the hero home like a little lost puppy.
  17. This hero’s parents are absent.
  18. The hero discovers that the robot is involved in the rebellion and gets hyped.
  19. The robot’s secret cargo points the hero toward an ancient, long-lost Jedi Master.
  20. C3PO slaps R2D2 around, perhaps a little more than is necessary.
  21. C3PO thanks the Maker, and it feels a little forced and weird.
  22. The hero drives a red, hovering vehicle.
  23. The hero gets attacked by local brutes.
  24. The hero is revealed to have a convenient set of piloting skills.
  25. The hero is presented with Anakin Skywalker’s lightsaber by a mentor figure.
  26. The BBG is revealed to have once been a good man who was later seduced by evil.
  27. The BBG is a little more consumed than his cohorts with finding the robot.
  28. The BBG force-chokes a subordinate officer over losing the robot.
  29. Extreme and gratuitous violence by the bad guys drives the hero to leave the home planet.
  30. The BBG personally tortures a captive from the earlier raid for information.
  31. The hero escapes from danger by Jedi mind-tricking a hapless stormtrooper.
  32. There is a bar full of weird aliens of dubious persuasion.
  33. A hero seeks passage off the planet and away from the Empire with a pair of shady guys.
  34. Han Solo’s debts catch up with him.
  35. Han straight-up murders a dude to escape capture or death himself.
  36. The female lead finds herself in the hands of the enemy.
  37. The interrogated female has “considerable resistance” to the BBG’s mind probe.
  38. The bad guys reveal that their newest base of operation is also a weapon capable of blowing up entire planets.
  39. The bad guys blow up entire planets, partly out of revenge, partly as a show of force.
  40. Shady aliens in the bar rat the hero’s presence out to the bad guys.
  41. The Millenium Falcon is where the Band of Heroes comes together.
  42. The Millenium Falcon, on first sight, is described by the hero as, basically, garbage.
  43. Han Solo bristles at the heroes’ unrecognition of the Millenium Falcon’s awesomeness.
  44. The hero escapes the desert planet aboard the Millenium Falcon.
  45. The Millenium Falcon, soon after escaping the desert planet, is caught by hostiles in a tractor beam, and the heroes find themselves in an unfriendly situation.
  46. The captured prisoner sasses the BBG interrogating him/her, and pays a price for it.
  47. Chewbacca punches out a bad guy captain to gain access to a restricted area on the enemy base.
  48. The Band of Heroes goes looking for the captured female on the enemy base.
  49. The BBG “senses the presence” of the mentor/father figure in the Band of Heroes.
  50. The captured female turns out to be just as capable of kicking ass as her “rescuers”.
  51. Han Solo has a bad feeling about this.
  52. A Stormtrooper, probably named Wilhelm, dies to the sound of a well-known film scream.
  53. The mentor/father figure separates himself from the Band of Heroes to disable a critical part of the enemy base.
  54. Heroes shoot the controls to a mechanical door; this causes the door to operate in their favor.
  55. The mentor/father figure engages in dialog with the BBG about his wicked ways.
  56. The mentor/father figure deliberately lowers his guard to the BBG.
  57. The BBG then straight-up murders the mentor/father figure.
  58. The Millenium Falcon goes to pieces inside (circuitry bursting into flames etc) during an escape attempt.
  59. A high-ranking bad guy doesn’t entirely trust the BBG.
  60. The rebel base is disguised in a series of caves and ruins on a forest planet.
  61. The rebels hold a big-ass strategy meeting to figure out how to destroy the bad guys base/weapon.
  62. Han Solo offers the hero a job as an alternative to going on the quest.
  63. A member of the Band of Heroes bails out of the quest to save his own skin.
  64. The rebels attack the bad guys’ base/weapon in tiny fighter ships as opposed to bringing in heavy artillery.
  65. The attack is focused on a video game weak point in the base’s construction.
  66. There is a minute-to-minute countdown all through the final sequences as the big bad enemy weapon prepares to fire.
  67. The BBG points out to his cohorts (and himself) that the Force is strong with the hero.
  68. In the final skirmish, the villain is neutralized for this battle — but not killed.
  69. The ally who left for selfish reasons comes back to aid the hero at the enemy base.
  70. The enemy base/weapon is struck by a few strategically well-placed shots from an ace pilot.
  71. The enemy base/weapon explodes in dramatic fashion.

So, this is all good fun. Of course, the films are also very different. The hero is not a whiny teenager but rather an ass-kicking desert girl. The villain is dark and terrifying, but is also incredibly vulnerable. The plot lines are more layered, more intertwined. And, my god, the film and its special effects are absolutely gorgeous.

It’s clear to me that this film is a sort of love letter to fans of the original series who were disillusioned with the prequels. “Look,” Episode VII says, “We see and respect the source material that you love so much, and we’re going to treat it lovingly and with respect.”

Only a year and a half until the next one.

See something we missed? Something we got wrong? Let me know below.

*Runs away making lightsaber noises*


A Non-Review Rave on Star Wars: The Force Awakens


I’ve just seen the new Star Wars movie, and waiting the two days after the opening to see it was … difficult. I’ve been avoiding social media pretty carefully to make sure I didn’t ruin any of the movie for myself. (Spoiler alert: there are no spoilers in this post.)

But anyway, I’ve seen it. And … I’m not going to write a full review right now, or maybe ever, because I have a feeling more talented people than I will surely have that covered.

What I will say is that this guy:

Kylo Ren

Image lifted from starwars.com.

has just absolutely taken the heart of me.

I thought I knew what good and evil were in the Star Wars universe. I thought I knew what I could expect from a villain. But I did not.

Upon the first viewing, Kylo Ren strikes me as certainly the most interesting villain in the Star Wars universe so far (including good ol’ Darth Vader, though that’s maybe Lucas’s fault for making the prequels so … weird), and possibly one of the most interesting villains in recent blockbustery cinematic history. He has a terrifying, yet imperfect, control over the Force. He’s bad, but not in the way you expect him to be bad.

He’s vulnerable. Which is something no Star Wars villain has ever been, really. They tend to be invincible, until they’re not. Not so, Kylo. His quest leaves him scarred inside and out. And while his identity is not a mystery — we learn about halfway through the film who he is — what is a delightful mystery is what has happened to him to make him who he is.

A mystery for the future films to explain, no doubt.

But let me dispense with any possible spoilerating. The movie is as good as advertised. I suspected this about five minutes into the film, but knew it to be true beyond a shadow of a doubt thanks to my wife: my wife, who is as much a Star Wars fan as a cat is a fan of trying to murder you on the stairs (not so much seeking it out, really, but if the opportunity is there — well, why not). She leaned over to me about twenty minutes into the film and whispered, “I think I’m really into this.”

Me, too.

Now, having just come in from seeing the movie, I hope you’ll excuse me. I just … I just need a minute.


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