Friday, December 16, 2016

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Year 8, Day 350 - 12/15/16 - Movie #2,491

BEFORE: Wow, it's been a full month since I watched "Southpaw", and I've abstained from movies for 30 days, except that over the Thanksgiving weekend I re-watched "Magnolia" and "Big Fish" while staying at my parents' house after attending my 30th high-school reunion. (I'll comment more on that event in a few days...).  What's been going on?  

Well, Thanksgiving was fine, we met my parents up in Connecticut, about halfway between their house and mine, and had a spectacular dinner.  Our 2nd year at this restaurant, and they've hit a home run both times.  I got turkey this year, not because I felt I had to, but after abstaining from turkey on Thanksgiving for about 5 years, I was ready to go back to it. (Sure, I could have had prime rib, or seafood, and I'm sure they would have been fine, but I was curious again to have a fine restaurant really nail the sides like cornbread stuffing and cranberry sauce.)  Add a fall harvest salad and a bowl of N.E. clam chowder, pumpkin pie for dessert, and I was a happy camper.  

Then after that, we're all kind of whirled into the holiday season, with gift lists and Christmas cards to write, lights and decorations to hang, plus I had to put my annual holiday music CD together, though I wasn't exactly in a festive mood at first, and think about getting together with friends for drinks, work out when we're going to drive up to Massachusetts, where we're going to sleep (looks like a hotel this year), and so on.  December has a tendency to come and go in a flash, so I can't really be watching movies, because every day is critical when there are only 20 or so days until Christmas.  

This is when I have to fall back on the "carrot and stick" method to motivate myself.  Getting the holiday tasks like hanging the lights on the porch and shopping for gifts out of the way then enables me to reward myself, and this year the reward includes a new "Star Wars" film.  OK, so that's the carrot that's been pushing me forward these past few weeks.  So where's the stick?  Maybe it's better to think about this karmically, like on that TV show "My Name Is Earl" - if I do good things, good things will happen to me.  If I get my shopping done and my Christmas cards mailed out, I get a new "Star Wars" film to watch.  (I just peeked back at my review of SW: Ep VII almost exactly one year ago, and I mind was more or less in the same place - new "Star Wars" is here, so I must have done something right.)

Christmas shopping was very easy this year, we drove out to the Tanger Outlets in Long Island on a Wednesday (I earned a day off by working all weekend at an Animation Art Sale...) and only spent about 5 hours on it, start to finish, including lunch.  Walk to the next relevant store, look around, tear out the coupon from the book, and pay the balance.  Repeat as necessary - we drove home with a car full of gifts, plus a few things for ourselves from Old Navy, and felt like we'd cheated, and won Christmas.  Now I'll probably have to spend a whole day wrapping, but that can wait.  My holiday mix CD is another whole story, I'll table that for now and tell that story a little closer to Dec. 25.  

Because new "Star Wars" is here, and that's almost better than Christmas. Let's get the details out of the way - Forest Whitaker carries over from "Southpaw", so I've been thinking ahead for sure.  With just 9 slots left in the 2016 Movie Year, what comes AFTER "Rogue One"?  Well, that's where things get a little dicier.  I've got two Christmas movies on the docket, "The Night Before" and "A Merry Friggin' Christmas".  The perfect acting link between these two films, in retrospect, was "Hot Tub Time Machine 2" (Jason Jones links it to the former, and Clark Duke links it to the latter.)  But I watched that in the John Cusack chain, which was a mistake because only Cusack's PHOTO appeared in the film (how was I supposed to know that?) much like only Judi Dench's photo appeared in "Skyfall".  I can't believe what some people get an IMDB credit for, but that's out of my control.

So, I had to devise a new strategy - and now it will take THREE films to link between those two Christmas films, but this will enable me to clear at least one film off the list that was nearly impossible to link to for a very long time, as well as the two films I watched in September about that guy who tightrope-walked across the World Trade Center.  And if all goes well, there will be just one gap in the linking between here and movie #2,500.

But why not make "Rogue One" Movie #2,500?  Ah, well, I'm glad you asked.  To do that, I'd have to watch the Christmas films much too early, and more importantly, there wasn't a clear path toward working in 9 more films before "Rogue One".  The chain between here and the end of the year makes much more sense to me if I watch "Rogue One" now, as film #2,491.  Besides, I went a few years thinking that "Star Wars: The Clone Wars" was the first film I watched in this project, when after a careful review of Year 1, it turns out it was movie #3.  So since I didn't begin that year with a "Star Wars" film, I don't feel the absolute need to END this year with one.  Does that make sense?  Since I can't bookend the last 2,500 films with similar films, it feels better to bookend Year 8 with similar films, and I'll get to explaining that next week. 

So, on to "Rogue One", and then tonight I really have to get the last of those Christmas cards and holiday CDs packed up for tomorrow's mail.  Hey, at least I got HALF of them out before I let myself have the carrot.  

FOLLOW-UP TO: "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" (Movie #2,200)

THE PLOT: The Rebellion makes a risky move to steal the plans for the Death Star.

SPOILER ALERT: Which I almost never say, because I never intend to offend, but hey, it's Star Wars and I don't want to spoil this for anyone.  Anyway, go out and see "Rogue One" before continuing, please.  Thanks.  

AFTER: It's early Friday morning, and I just got in from Manhattan, where I caught the 8:30 pm screening on Thursday night.  That's right, Thursday, because I live the Star Wars lifestyle, and I need to know that I saw the film before at least 95% of other people.  Oh, I'll allow for a few star-studded premieres and benefit screenings, but opening night of a "Star Wars" film, I simply MUST be there.  "Star Wars" has given me so much, not just entertainment but a direction in my life, a career and perhaps most importantly, something to discuss with other like-minded people.

And so I want to bring up two discussions I had Wednesday night at the office Christmas party, only one of which concerns "Star Wars" directly, but both are still relevant to "Rogue One".  The first is about the film "Contact", released in 1997.  I had read the Carl Sagan novel it's based on in high-school, and it got me thinking about what it might look like as a film, and I may have made a feeble attempt to adapt it into a screenplay.  I had a vision in my had of what it would be as a film, what music would play during certain scenes, etc.  Maybe a lot of people read books and imagine them as movies, and very few people get the chance to adapt them into movies, but I felt like maybe I had a shot, once I got out of film school, somehow. But after film school I got with other work, and got married, divorced, etc. - long story short, I never figured out how to make a movie out of "Contact", never even got close to having that kind of opportunity.  Someone else did, and then I had to go see that film in the theater, and realize that it was quite different from what I had envisioned, which was probably a good thing for all concerned, including me.

Now, every "Star Wars" fan worth his or her salt knows that the Death Star plans were beamed aboard the Tantive IV (Princess Leia's ship) shortly before the start of "A New Hope", and some eager fans and authors have probably taken stabs at telling that story over the years.  I know I've seen many attempts in various comic books, so there must be a ton of fan fiction about this as well.  Now it's been adapted into this movie, and I think it's better than any other version of it I've seen, so there is that.

My second discussion, however, concerns a Dark Horse comic book set in the Star Wars universe, called "Tag & Bink Are Dead".  I think it was a 2-issue series (followed by another 2-issue series later) about two very unlucky, hapless characters who stumble around locations like Tatooine and the Death Star, somehow managing to be in the background of every famous "Star Wars" scene, though you'd never see them in the movie, even if you were looking.  There was a character in that series who played a major role in getting the plans to the SECOND Death Star, seen in "Return of the Jedi", and his name was Manny.  Manny Bothans.  As in "Manny Bothans died to bring us this information." Now, this was played for comic relief, so allegedly Mon Mothma was mis-heard and seemed to be pointing out the sacrifice of many people from the planet Both, or something like that.

Ignoring the comedic angle, it's hard to see why the story of Mr. Bothans needed to be told - it simply didn't, it was just one author's lark of an idea, resulting from a play on words.  But I'm left questioning whether the story of the Rogue One agents needed to be told, and I'm not convinced that it did.  The reason being, true Star Wars fans already know where this particular story is likely to end up, in fact, where it HAS to end up, so is the method by which it gets there really significant?  Which is more important, the journey or the destination?  I don't know the answer.

Ultimately, it's a heist picture, and carries with it a lot of the tropes and pitfalls of any heist film - namely we end up rooting for thieves, and even if they're noble thieves with good intentions, it's still a little questionable.  Do we root for Billy Bob Thornton's character in "Bad Santa"?  Maybe, I guess some people probably do.  I know people rooted for the protagonists of the "Ocean's Eleven" series, but by the third film I recall the plot had to bend over backwards to make the Vegas heists seem noble.  What else, "The Town", "Three Kings", "A Fish Called Wanda"?   Maybe it all goes back to Robin Hood, and he was a rebel in his own way, right?  Fight the king, fight the Empire, it's all the same.

But now we've got conservatives who are alleging that the appearance of a film focusing on rebels trying to take down the government appearing right after an election is no coincidence, which if you carry the metaphor to its logical conclusion, just means that Vader is Trump and the people who are claiming this are also admitting this connection, despite the fact that a big-budget Hollywood sci-fi film takes YEARS to produce, therefore it must have been conceived and written long before anyone could have predicted the outcome of the 2016 election.  But no, go ahead, keep spreading the rumor because it's only going to make open revolt cool again, and force some kind of social change, or at the very least, help keep people on their toes for the next four years.

I'm going to need to see this film again, in early January, to confirm my feelings, and maybe if the film flows better during the second viewing, I'll feel a little better about it.  As with "The Force Awakens", the first viewing was just to let the plot wash over me, to get immersed in the tone of that universe once again, to have the nostalgic feels again.  I don't want to get too bogged down in the details now, but I'm sure I'll notice many more NITPICK POINTS later, in addition to the big one I saw tonight.

But I will say that if the thing you hated most about "The Force Awakens" was all of the callbacks to the first six films (or echoes, or shout-outs, or whatever you call them) - Hey, another Death Star!  Hey, another desert planet!  Hey, another problem with the Falcon's hyperdrive! - then you're really not going to like "Rogue One".  There are plenty more callbacks to be seen here, especially if you're a sharp-eyed Star Wars expert, like I am.  And they really punch them up, too - they really want you to KNOW that this background character was later seen in a particular place and time in "A New Hope" (I won't say any character names...) and some author's probably already working on a short story that explains how he got from Jedda to Tatooine, and why.

I want to care about these things, I really do, but it's a big, big universe, and it's hard to believe that the central characters of different eras can keep bumping into the same people.  Like the way that "Revenge of the Sith" revealed that Yoda and Chewbacca once defended Kashyyyk  together at the end of the Clone Wars.  Sure, it's a strange coincidence, and maybe that's a little gift tossed in for the hardcore fans, but in the end it doesn't really seem all that important, it's just a little anomaly.  They never encounter each other in Episodes 1-3, so who cares?

My fear is that upon further review, I'll come to regard "Rogue One" as a film centered around the "Star Wars" equivalent of a bunch of IT guys uploading a file to their server.  Which honestly, doesn't sound that interesting, people do stuff like that at work all the time.  OK, so they're not surrounded by TIE fighters or a bunch of stormtroopers with blasters, but the essence is the same.  And I don't understand all these spy or "hacker" movies lately that seem to think that watching a progress bar of a file downloading (or a virus uploading) is somehow a valid substitute for action or suspense.  It's not, it's a lame attempt, plus I can see that happening on any computer, it's really not that exciting.

How much drama can you get out of a simple file transfer, after all?  Wait just a second, the computer's not recognizing my flash drive. (Hurry, the Imperials are approaching!)  Damn, now I need to reboot the server. (Hurry, the stormtroopers are knocking on the door!)  Wait just a second, now my browser's updating the Flash plug-in...  (Hurry, they're blowing up the lock!)  Oh, wait, I want to print a confirmation, but the printer's out of ink, I have to change the cartridge.  (Damn it, they're in the room!)  And....scene.  See, if you take out the parenthetical parts about the stormtroopers, it's just another boring day at the office, and that's where the problem lies.

But let's look at the positives - like "The Force Awakens", this is another SW film where the central character is a strong female - who was also separated from her family at a young age, so Jyn Erso is almost like a rare call-FORWARD to Rey in Episode 7... In fact, if anything highlights the difference between the Rebel Alliance and the Empire, it's the realization that the Rebels are equal-opportunity, with lots of high-ranking females, and the Empire still functions like a patriarchy - seriously, it's like 99.9% male, even if you count Captain Phasma, and she won't break the glass ceiling for another 30 years.  So perhaps that's why some people are picking up on this Democratic/Republican thing, because the GOP still works like an old white men's club?  The Alliance is also more racially diverse, which I don't think is an accident either - more minorities are in the Democratic Party as well, and I think that's why it's easy to draw the connections.  Hey, people once thought that Palpatine and Vader were a thinly veiled Reagan + Bush analogy, didn't they?  Or was it that the deceit that Palpatine fostered during the start of the Clone Wars seemed an awful lot like the misleading justifications to invade Iraq?  People are always going to see political things in the "Star Wars" films, I guess.

I reserve the right to update this review later with more NP's after the second viewing.  For now, my rating stands at a number which states that it's a thrilling film, but I've got a few issues.  I know, shocking, right?

Also starring Felicity Jones (last seen in "The Invisible Woman"), Diego Luna (last seen in "Frida"), Donnie Yen, Wen Jiang, Ben Mendelsohn (last seen in "Exodus: Gods and Kings"), Riz Ahmed (last seen in "Centurion"), Mads Mikkelsen (last seen in "Casino Royale"), Jimmy Smits (last seen in "Switch"), Genevieve O'Reilly, Alistair Petrie, Ben Daniels, Paul Kasey, Ian McElhinney, Jonathan Aris, Fares Fares, Sharon Duncan-Brewster, Valene Kane, Aidan Cook, Daniel Mays, Ingvild Deila, with the voices of Alan Tudyk (last seen in "Serenity"), James Earl Jones (last seen in "The Angriest Man in Brooklyn"), Anthony Daniels, and cameos from Warwick Davis, Angus MacInnes.

RATING: 8 out of 10 Kyber crystals

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