Rogue One clearly satisfies (no spoilers)

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The latest in the Star Wars galaxy of offerings launched last night to rousing applause, and I was there, in the audience, wearing my 3D goggles.

What did I think of the movie? I’m not really sure that it matters.

Like so many movie franchises out there, if you have bought into the Star Wars series, you are going to see this movie and there is damned little that any number of reviewers could say to dissuade you from that. Personally, I have been invested in this cultural icon since it first launched almost 40 years ago.

So, what is the point of reviewing the movie? None, other than an effort to satisfy my own self-importance.

This was a good movie that opens slowly, offers little in the way of character development, fulfills all of the expected (demanded?) tropes of battles and mentors and silly robots, and essentially adds nothing to the canon of Hollywood history or the art of filmmaking. I don’t know that the movie ever had the opportunity to be great, but if it did, it certainly walked the other way.

That said, the audience applauded or cheered several times throughout the movie, and I think it is fair to say that pretty much everyone left the theatre satisfied with their experience.

And there is my problem with the series, as much as the movie: satisfied.

[Hereafter, I will talk more about specifics within the movie, so you may wish to stop reading now. I will avoid spoilers, speaking more in generalities out of respect for movie-goers.]

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Ep IV and V changed movies forever. Everything else was merely adequate.

Movies have evolved extensively since the launch of A New Hope in 1977, especially in the area of special effects. With franchises like Alien and Star Trek getting complete reboots, comic book universes unfolding in myriad interwoven ways, and standalones like Interstellar and Inception dazzling the eye, it is becoming increasingly difficult for individual movies to stand out from the crowd, to chart new ground.

If for no other reason, this is why I raved about the recently released Arrival (my review), which stands apart not through its special effects, but rather the execution of its central theme. There is great intelligence behind a beautiful film.

When A New Hope arrived on the scene, it changed the game of movie-making by bringing the scale of a biblical epic to hokey old Westerns and WWI dog fight movies. If Jaws initiated the summer blockbuster craze, A New Hope solidified the idea. And if that’s where it stopped, this crazed then-teenager would have been quite satisfied.

But then came The Empire Strikes Back, which somehow managed to make A New Hope look hokey and dated, although I still contend that the first movie had a better, more complete story. For a young movie goer, The Empire Strikes Back was like riding in a bullet train only to have someone throw on after-burners; it was a whole new level of acceleration that pinned me to my seat.

That feeling has never been duplicated by a Star Wars movie since.

[In fairness, there is one interesting technical achievement in Rogue One, but to describe it would be to spoil a couple of moments in this film.]

Hollywood, instead, has caught up and moved past the franchise. And perhaps even more broadly, entertainment has surpassed even Hollywood in the form of immersive video games, which I do not play.

For its part, the Star Wars universe struggles to achieve the bar, if it really even tries. And each successive movie feels like it was designed with a check list of tropes George Lucas did not invent, but that he executed perfectly in the early films.

Thus, for a Star Wars film, Rogue One is completely adequate.

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Adequate to their task, offering little more

Character development has largely been dispensed with. As the movie opens, we are presented with a seminal moment in the life of Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), the central character of this movie, and then we catapult ahead 10+ years to find her in imprisoned, where our adventure begins. And with the exception of the odd note dropped into the dialogue, we have no idea what happened in those lost years.

The same is true for almost all of the other characters. Each offers the briefest allusions to why they have arrived in this place at this time, but there is little to hold onto as the story careens forward. Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) has done some bad things in the name of the Rebellion. Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen) clings to his belief in the Force like a child clutching a blanket, while his partner Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen) scoffs good-naturedly, mourning his lost faith.

And I have to say that I have no idea why rebel renegade Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) is even in this movie. If his subplot had been written around, the story would not have suffered one iota. Like so many other movie franchises these days, I will put this choice down to something in the cartoon, novel or comic book series.

Perhaps this reveals something about me, but much as I did with Prometheus, I found the robot character to be the most evolved. In Rogue One, K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) stole the show, having the best lines of dialogue and routinely offering broader perspective on the chaotic stumblings of the inferior humans around him.

And as with the original movies, the villains proved the most exciting element of the story.

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Mendelson’s Krennic brings life and depth to this movie

Somehow, the writers and director managed to make Darth Vader even more imposing than he was in any of the other movies. This was something between the uncontrolled fury of Anakin Skywalker in Revenge of the Sith and Lord Vader’s iron control in The Empire Strikes Back. Here, Vader was a cold-hearted menace who toyed with his food as time allowed, but was also happy to get his light saber dirty.

And then we have Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelson), the man charged with the construction of the Death Star and who, but for an inability to tap into the Force, might have made a delicious challenger to Darth Vader. If they do more parallel timeline movies in the future, I would love to see the evolution of this character.

Aside from these few characters, however, the movie was merely passable as a Star Wars film. The plot was straightforward, if a little padded in places, with well-choreographed battles and requisite deaths (no spoilers).

And there must be at least 837 easter eggs in this movie, tiny moments that tie in to the other movies in the series, and as my friend Danny tells me, into the cartoons, as well. While a younger me might have been enthralled by these inserts, the present day me found them distracting, particularly as they almost always served no purpose to the plot and jerked me out of the story as I realized, “Hey, those are the guys from…” (no spoilers).

But as I said at the beginning, none of this likely matters to you if you are a Star Wars fan. You will see this movie, enjoying some parts and complaining about others. It is just what Star Wars has become…and I find that a little sad.

Unlucky Lucy – a review

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What if every time…

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someone tried to tell you something…

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they inserted a photo or video…

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that showed the same thing they said?

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Pretty irritating, eh?

Welcome to the first 30 minutes of Luc Besson’s Lucy, released to theatres this weekend.

(I’ve done my best to avoid spoilers, below.)

What could have been—should have been—an amazing sci-fi thriller about the possible repercussions of a young drug mule who becomes exposed to the drug and slowly finds her brain building to 100% functional capacity, was instead a massive disappointment weighted down by a ton of metaphoric sledgehammers and drowning in a sea of over-exposition.

To be sure, there is a really interesting movie somewhere in the middle of the morass that ironically becomes its own metaphor by the end of the movie. But it’s as though Besson the Director didn’t trust the story written by Besson the Screenwriter to simply let the story explore itself.

As the drug takes hold of Lucy, she goes from being an interesting female character (if a little cliché) to an automaton who simply narrates…literally narrates…what is happening inside her.

The drug lord Mr. Jang has the emotional range of complete indifference to mild irritation, which no doubt also expresses the feelings of acclaimed actor Min-Sik Choi, who portrayed him.

Even the calming voice and reason of Morgan Freeman’s Prof. Norman quickly gives way to befuddled camera-mugging and WTF?

The only truly interesting character was French police detective Pierre Del Rio, played beautifully by Amr Waked, who clearly functions as the eyes of the audience. As a friend of mine pointed out, even he at one point turns to Lucy and asks “What do you need me for?” What, indeed.

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To be certain, the visual effects in several parts of the movie were stunning, but as with so many movies I’ve seen in the past few years (e.g., Prometheus, Transcendence), the visual effects have become sleight-of-hand to keep you (or try) from seeing the weaknesses of plot and character.

The action sequences highlighted in the trailers take about as much time in the full movie as they did in the trailer, and so little is ever in doubt with the plot that the movie truly cannot be described a thriller.

But perhaps where the movie was most disappointing was in its promise to explore the nature of what it is to be human when faced with super-human capabilities. THIS is what the movie should have been about!

But Besson largely discards the question as quickly as he raises it in two short scenes involving a call home to mom and a simple kiss. And in both cases, Lucy coldly explains her conundrum, her human fears represented by the odd tear drop down an otherwise lifeless cheek. Rather than see Lucy struggle with her transformation, we watch her turn into a robot bent on a mission…a mission that she basically accomplishes without struggle.

But just to be sure we get the great metaphysical concepts behind the story, Besson then reverts to his earlier legerdemain, smacking the audience around with a brutally metaphoric journey through time and space. I give you intergalactic sperm meteors…you’ll know then when you see them.

And all this rancour without even touching on the biochemical, biomedical, anthropological and astronomical issues that run rampant in this mere 90 minutes.

This could have been an amazing movie. It wasn’t.

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