Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Star Wars: the modern era.

A year ago I foretold of a Star Wars episode 7 review and then promptly never got around to it.  I'm planning on posting my top ten movies for 2016 soon, but before I get going there's a handful of must-sees that I haven't seen yet.  So in the meantime, I thought I would weigh in on all things Star Wars in the here and now.

The question that popped into my brain right after I saw Rogue One was - "Which one was better, Ep VII or this one?"  I figured I needed to see Rogue One a second and maybe third time before I confirmed my initial reaction, so I did.

The very first time I saw it I thought Rogue One was rather slow and confusing but had a fantastic final act.  On the second viewing I was much less confused and totally dialed into the subtext of the first two thirds of the movie - in other words I liked it a lot more.  I did see it a third time, and by the time the credits rolled I was very much in love with the movie.

Rogue One is a perfect stand alone Star Wars movie, in that there will never be a sequel or prequel with it's characters (well, they may somehow talk themselves into a prequel, but that would be very ill advised) and yet this is still very much a story that will resonate for a long time.

I am never one to be enamored by prequels or origin or any kind of 'how did this go down originally?' type movie, especially when it comes to big film franchises.  I have no burning desire to see Fantastic Beasts, though I imagine I will someday, and I find the whole idea of digging out nuggets from great movie franchises and exploiting them by spelling out every detail to be rather obnoxious and speaks to a great lack of imagination on the part of Hollywood.

I don't need to see Han Solo make the Kessel Run in 12 Parsecs.  I don't need to know that Darth Vader used to enter pod races when he was 10. (Sorry George!)  Dense and layered backstories are a big part of what make franchise films great, because they are left unexplored and provide us the audience with only a blueprint, our imaginations fill in the rest.

So I was very skeptical when I heard that one of these backstory lines in Ep IV, "Many Bothans paid with their lives for these plans." was going to be turned into a full feature film.  Don't need to see that, don't need to relive the dirty dozen in space thanks.  I was fairly irritated, because what I love about the original Star Wars saga films is that there are literally thousands of little details, from lines of dialogue to set designs and costume choices, that weave a marvelous backstory just enough that our imaginations can take them and run with them.  I don't need to see the Bothans infiltrate the Death Star and die whilst fighting old school Stormtroopers and a CG Grand Moff Tarkin.

But when the first images emerged, and then the trailer, I had to admit that I was cautiously intrigued.  The trailer especially just screamed a faithfulness to the very first Star Wars movie.  I was a bit concerned though that the female lead seemed an obvious candidate to be Rey's mum, but thankfully as we know they didn't go that lazy and sloppy route.

In fact, much to my surprise and delight, they didn't make nearly any conventional choices at all in the final film.  I say final film because I understand, and can gather pretty readily by the sheer number of shots that are in the trailer and not the movie, that a lot was changed after principal photography - no doubt for the better as the final product is outstanding.

Pretty much every choice down the line was excellent; from the gritty production design, faithful to the worn-in ethos of Eps IV-VI, to the grim but determined nature of the heroes.  I even applaud that they did in fact go with a CG Tarkin, something that I had guessed at and dreaded when I first heard about this project - but somehow even that worked out just fine.  More on him later.

But of all the choices, the one that I'm glad they didn't fail to make, was the most obvious one.  Everyone does indeed die.  Spoiler alert ha ha.  This one fundamental choice, the most obvious one, yet the most likely one for a studio to fail to grasp, somehow came down on the correct side.  It in turn gives the entire movie a weight that would otherwise be absent.  Bravo Gareth Edwards and bravo Disney.

So, the characters that I loved.  Gyn Erso, from a scared little girl to an almost but not quite broken adult scrounging and scraping to stay alive.  She embodies a weary hope that eventually rises to the surface and shines as bright as the Death Star blast that ends her life.  Most of all I'm ecstatic that she has nothing to do with Rey, which would've been the easiest and laziest thing in the world.

The Samurai guy and his machine laser gun buddy.  A classic pairing of two battle veterans who somehow sense that this is the last round up.

K2SO, much needed levity and a delightfully sour disposition makes him the anti-cute droid.  When K2 got blasted in the end, I knew we were on the right path and everyone else was likely to get it too. I could also feel the collective gasp around the theater.

The characters that have grown on me - Cassian the French guy who it turns out is actually hispanic.  Had no idea.  I thought his character was a bit thin at first, I also rolled my eyes a bit at his line "We've all done things for the Rebel Alliance that we are ashamed of..."  Really?  Why?  The cause is just, don't be a Debbie Downer dude.  But okay, I can concede that war is never pretty and neither side is ever entirely clean.  The line works in the end because he does restrain Gyn from finishing off Krennic.  A great moment that gets more and more powerful with each viewing, just as the character and the actors performance grows more and more nuanced.

Speaking of Krennic, I grew to love this also-ran of a bad guy.  You can tell he wants to be a big bad ass so much, and yet just can't seem to catch a break.  Or at least that's what he thinks.  One of my favorite scenes in the whole movie is his showdown with Tarkin - the only reason that scene works is because of the actor's conviction.  Good stuff.

As for my favorite scenes - they are in no particular order...

Darth Vader kicking ass at the end.  Well duh.  Yes, this is the best moment, but it also has very little to do with the bulk of the film, in fact my big disappointment with Vader in this film is that he doesn't really need to be in it.  Still, the nostalgia juices flow heavily at the sight of this classic bad guy who demonstrates in the modern parlance of special effects wizardry just how bad ass he really was.

Gyn seeing the hologram message from her father.  Felicity Jones' performance in this scene really tugs at the heart strings, even more so than when she actually catches up with him.  She is utterly heartbroken and in her face you can see that her short life has been nothing but a long stretch of bleakness from the moment that her mother was gunned down in front of her.

The deaths of the secondary characters.  Loved how Brody the defector bought it.  So simple, so devastating.  Also dug how blind dude and machine gunner met their makers, great choices in editing  - both pacing and selection of takes.

The space battle above planet Sandals.  Very nostalgia stimulating - beautifully done.  Actually glad I saw this in 3D.  The planetside battle is also impressive, nice tactical touches keep it grounded.

The death of Gyn and French dude who was really hispanic. Probably the most powerful and affecting moment in the movie.  The filmmakers went for it and I'm so grateful they did.  My 12 year old was initially appalled, her mind was a bit blown - but I think she pretty quickly grasped that this was the way it had to be.   Very strong stuff.  I could watch those moments, when first one then the other realizes that this is to be their fate and then they embrace - over and over.  Get the chills just thinking about it.

And as for my favorite set - it had to be the Cairo like city on yet another desert planet, beautifully detailed and gritty.  A lot of labor and a lot of love went into the building of that environment.  Great action sequence in there as well.

So yes, I loved Rogue One.  It certainly wasn't perfect - a few nitpicks...

The death of Gyn's mom and her father's abduction seemed really forced and badly thought out.  It made no sense that she would try to bum rush Krennic when he's surrounded by death troopers.  I did appreciate the little girl's performance.  I also loved the production design and how everyone was soaked.  Well done.

Gyn and her father's reunion didn't play as powerfully as I thought it would - it's good, but Gyn's reaction to her father's hologram beats his actual death by a lot in terms of raw emotion.

I'm not going to bash the idea of a CG Tarkin or a CG Leia or recreations of other long gone characters and long dead actors - I'm on board with it.  But I wish that Tarkin had been a little bit more shadowed so that his CG-ness wasn't so jarring.  Same with Leia.  Still, my wife had zero idea that Tarkin wasn't real, so what do I know.

In the end - I really love this movie, and I'm very grateful that a studio like Disney which has perfected the art of the story and truly does put story first, is at the helm of this franchise.

So, how do I think this measures up against Episode VII?  Well first - I need to tell you what I think of 2015's Star Wars release.

You've probably already gathered that I love it, as it was my number 2 film of that year - but read on to delve into the what and why.

First and foremost, a new Star Wars saga film was going to live and die by it's leads, and thankfully two of the three are transcendent and the third one (the villain) shows a lot of promise.

Rey is a revelation of strength and luminescent beauty.  I am very glad as a father of a daughter who was 11 when the movie came out that Star Wars under Disney has chosen to showcase a young woman as THE hero of this trilogy.

Rey is powerful, she is strong, she is at times believably fearful and reluctant - but most of all she is hopeful.  Like Gyn Erso, she has led a very bleak existence.  Whatever happiness she might have known as a little girl evaporated in the cloud of dust that a ship left in it's wake depositing her on the God forsaken rock known as Jakku.

From that moment on it is very clear to us, and this is what I love about the best kinds of story telling in movies - that even though we haven't seen it, she has absolutely had a hell of a difficult time growing up in a very harsh and often dangerous environment.  And yet, there she sits, optomistically chowing down on her hard earned slop before clumsily donning a rebel helmet like a little kid.  I love this entire sequence, because it says so much about who she is and how she has grown up in just a handful of shots.  How many dangerous situations has she been in?  Probably a lot.  As adults we wonder how often she found herself under threat of assault of all different kinds, even the worst imaginable.  Probably a lot.  And here she is, seemingly unscathed in body and for sure undiminished in spirit.

She has had nothing but danger around her for most of her life, but she is resourceful and powerful.  She is full of hope despite everything around her that says she should be full of despair.  She is absolutely radiant on the screen and in the fully realized fictional world she inhabits.  She is completely larger than life and we are all the better for it.

But like Luke before her, she is frozen in fear of the unknown - and yet she feels the pull of destiny, and so do we.  I love Rey so much, and I am full of admiration for the young woman that is Daisy Ridley who brought her to life.

And then there's Finn.

Finn is a bit of a fuck up.  But that's why I love him.  While Rey is the larger than life Jedi to be, Finn is every bit the every man and very much one of us.

He falls down and is clumsy in almost every respect - he's afraid, he's unsure, and he is in way over his head.  And yet, like Rey, it is his hope that is his salvation.  In one moment in the first scene of the film, he makes a spectacular choice that makes him an absolute hero.  He looks at the First Order and says 'no'.  No to killing for them, no to despair.  In this way, with everything stacked against him, being stolen from his family, being indoctrinated to the nth degree, being presented with only one despicable option - he somehow looks inward and comes up with the right answer.  No.  Not this.  Not me.

In this way Finn is my favorite.  He is rightly in awe of Rey.  I mean, just look at her.  She has it all and doesn't even know it.  She's stunningly beautiful and inspiring in every way.  Finn doesn't know a nut from a bolt, quite literally in one scene.  And yet, as overwhelmed as he is, he never gives up and he never loses sight over what is right.   True, he does buck at one moment - when he almost leaves the planet with Cantina 2 on it, but Rey also has her moment of weakness there, in a spectacular flashback/dream/vision sequence when she touches the light saber and ends up forsaking it.

But in the end Finn, and Rey as well, choose to fight.  And they are each inspiring in their own way.

Kylo - what can I say.  Did not expect the choices in story or in Adam Driver's performance, but I am thoroughly intrigued by the character and I hope that Ren lives up to his promise in the guaranteed to be much darker Episode VII.

There is a lot of baggage in the Star Wars fan community when it comes to what happened after the Original Trilogy.  I am only on the periphery of this community, but I know enough to know that the subject of Han and Leia's kids has been brought up in many permutations in the books, in the comics and in the minds of fans since 1982 when the last OT film came out.  So J.J. and Larry, and Disney of course, decided to go with one kid (for now) and yes, he has fallen into the dark side.

Thankfully we are spared the details of how this happened and we can gather enough on our own to fill in the blanks.  This mostly works - but it is hard to shake the specter of fan-fiction that hangs over this choice.  This is a development that has been discussed by writers and fans for over 30 years; to have a dorky looking guy be Han and Leia's kid and have him already turned evil when the story starts - it's a tough sell, but I think they've pulled it off so far.  The success of this choice I think is largely contingent on more revelations in the next movie.

So what scenes are my absolute favorites?  Let's go down the list shall we...

The aforementioned montage of Rey at home, making dinner, eating and chilling out in a rebel helmet.  Just love how her entire backstory is captured in just these few shots, and the music is sublime.  Probably my third favorite moment in the entire film.

The reveal of the Millennium Falcon and the chase that follows.  Got a huge cheer in the theater and rightfully so, yes we are all suckers for the power of nostalgia - and the images of the old ship coming to life and staggering out of the junk yard touches the heart of every fan boy and girl.  The following chase through derelict Star Destroyers is expertly staged and utterly exhilarating, in no small part thanks to the enthusiasm and commitment of Ridley and Boyega.

Rey strapped to a chair and being interrogated by Kylo.  I am in awe of the sound design of this sequence - combined with potent performances and frame perfect editing, this scene is absolutely tremendous in it's power and implications.  The sequence of events here, Kylo's attempt at a brutal violation followed by Rey's resistance and eventually turning the tables on her captor is a bold feminist statement that plays on a very adult level.  This show is still family entertainment, but if you're paying attention to how this is set up, the consequences could be every bit as dire as the most gruesome Game of Thrones scene.  Mercifully, good is triumphant - and the force awakens.  This really is the entire heart of the movie here, Rey not only repels her potential assaulter but she has a revelation and uses it to great effect to make it clear that what happened on the Cantina 2 planet, being frozen and then knocked out, will never happen again.

The death of Han Solo, or rather what happens immediately after.  Look, I was not surprised whatsoever that Han died.  I, and any other Star Wars fan that was half paying attention, knew this was his last round up.  I can say, the sequence was done exceptionally well - and yes, despite being prepared for it, the lightsaber entering Han's chest was still shocking and a jolt to the heart.  But for me what elevates this scene, isn't the dialogue between father and son and the result (though this is all done very well) it's Rey's reaction.  Daisy's expression of horror and grief segue's perfectly into blind rage and she pulls the trigger of her blaster through her tears.  Stunningly powerful, more so even than Han's actual death and again testifies to the strength of this film - it rests entirely on the shoulders of Finn and Rey.

The final battle in the forest - specifically two moments.  First, when the lightsaber finally lands in Rey's hands.  Probably the number one moment in the film - the culmination and the promise being fulfilled of a new hero for a new generation.  I cannot emphasize how happy I am that J.J. Abrahams made sure to shoot and edit moments like this correctly - to give the right amount of time on a camera move and to make sure that the correct musical cue came with it.  This is a seemingly obvious choice of obvious tools, but I am shocked at how many filmmakers over the years absolutely miss it.

George Lucas lost a HUGE golden opportunity in Ep I when he didn't give Obi-Wan the correct emotional beat before leaping out of the pit and slaying Darth Maul.  J.J. get's it right with Rey, twice. First when she catches the saber and turns it on, and just as impressively when she closes her eyes and calls on the force before putting down Kylo Ren.  Moments of stunning beauty and clarity, all made possible by performance, directing, music and editing.

So in the end, if forced to choose between 2015 and 2016's Star Wars offerings, I have to go with 2015.  Rogue One is magnificent and gets better with every viewing, but Episode VII is the Star Wars saga that I grew up with and it's imbued with a legacy and faith that R1 only hints at.  I am grateful that I got to go on Gyn Erso's journey, bittersweet as it was - but I am even more grateful that I know Rey and Finn and will get to see what happens next.

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