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.

The Force Awakens…to a Khan job (SPOILERS)

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J. J. Abrams is on my shit list.

That statement alone should tell you everything you need to know about my experience with Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Ep. VII).

As background: I am old enough to have seen Star Wars: A New Hope (Ep. IV) in theatres as a young teenager. And I was so impressed by the film that I immediately came home from the theatre and wrote a sequel…400 hand-written pages of a screenplay. My first screenplay, in fact, at the ripe maturity of 13 years.

Star Wars is my birthright. I will defend it tooth and nail.

Thus, J. J. Abrams is on my shit list.

After the underwhelming prequels (Ep. I-III), I looked forward to Abrams’ take on the saga. I was a big fan of his reboot of Star Trek, although I had a bit of a nagging doubt after the reboot sequel Into Darkness. But if anyone had a sense of the epic, almost operatic scale of the Star Wars universe, it should have been Abrams.

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And to some extent, he fulfilled his end of the bargain.

Shivers went down my spine when we scaled across the vast deserts of Tatooine…I mean Jakku.

I worried when R2…I mean BB-8, was captured by the Jawas…I mean scrap metal scavengers.

I bounced happily with the music of the Mos Eisley cantina…I mean the Takodana cantina.

I cheered when R2 successfully arrived at the Rebel base…I mean BB-8 arrived at the Resistance base with the vital information.

I sat back in awe as I saw the might of the Death Star…I mean Starkiller Base, for the first time.

J. J. Abrams is on my shit list.

To get back to Star Trek: Into Darkness, briefly, we all knew that Abrams was rewriting the story of Kirk’s greatest nemesis Khan Noonien Singh. And the movie didn’t disappoint in its grand opening flourishes and early Starfleet intrigue.

But then, at some point, it was like Abrams had run out of ideas and so simply inserted the last 20 pages or so of the original Wrath of Khan screenplay, hoping we wouldn’t notice.

The least tweaked moment of overlap between the two movies was the scene between Spock and Kirk across the glass as one dies from radiation sickness. Abrams simply swapped the positions of the two characters.

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Some might consider this an homage to the original. A friend of mine, in discussing The Force Awakens, called it alt-universe mirroring. I call it bullshit, and lazy bullshit at that.

Now, Into Darkness was not intended to be a prequel to any of the older Star Trek movies, so I can buy into the alt-universe idea a bit. But The Force Awakens is Ep VII of a saga. It is not an alt-universe but the same freaking universe 30 years later.

An homage is the holographic chess set. An homage is NOT a beat-for-beat repetition of Ep IV, even if jumbled up a little bit and with a few scenes from Ep V and Ep VI thrown in.

The spell of childhood memories faded rapidly as The Force Awakens played out on the screen, and I spent much of movie sitting with an attitude of “Really?”

And as I walked home from the theatre…a 40-minute walk…I just got angrier and angrier as the volume and sheer audacity of the parallels continued to sink in.

J. J. Abrams is on my shit list.

Droid capture

“You’re pretty bang on, but it’s what I was expecting,” explained a friend whose ear I bent. “It’s the old ‘the same, but different’.”

“I saw it more as a mirroring of the previous six films; a device to draw in new fans and satiate old fans,” another friend said.

I call bullshit…not of my friends, you understand, but of the idea that The Force Awakens needed to remind us of the saga up to now or reinvigorate fans.

Please, how could anything from the Star Wars saga fail to draw box office records?

I know I’m in the minority here. Most fans won’t clue into any of the parallels but instead simply wrap themselves in the old familiar or marvel at the new spectacle. Cool, I am glad they enjoyed the film.

Even I will likely see it again as my first viewing was in regular 3D—strange to think of that as a thing—and not in IMAX or AVX.

And as much as I would buy Henry IV, Part Three if Shakespeare wrote a sequel to his first two Henry IVs, I will eventually add this movie to my Star Wars collections.

But J. J. Abrams is on my shit list, and I will approach any of his future movies with suspicion and cynicism.

And that, more than anything, I am saddest about.

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Race in writing

One race, many peoples (from mediadiversified.org)

One race, many peoples (from mediadiversified.org)

I’ve spent a few months now reading dozens of teleplays, and one thing that stood out as a new trend for me was the phrase “mixed-race” when describing a character.

“Attracted to the noise, JOANNE (27, tall, mixed-race) looks up from her laptop. A smile blossoms across her face.”

Now, lest anyone take offence, I really don’t care to what race a character is attributed. Nor do I care if the character has parentage of different races or even different species (looking at you, Spock).

Instead, what struck me was that in only one of these teleplays did the fact that the character was mixed-race in any way influence the story and/or the character’s worldview. Which begs the question:

Why mention race at all?

In a screen- or teleplay, you should only be telling me things I need to know to understand the story or interpret a character’s behaviours and attitudes. Unless being 7 feet tall means a character can do something no one else can do and the plot in some way turns on that ability, then I don’t need to know the character is 7 feet tall.

Likewise, if a character is a Korean-Italian and the only thing this fact influences is possibly his or her name, who cares? Where are the subtextual or textual influences of this genetic melange?

Spock was every bit his warring human and vulcan sides

Spock was every bit his warring human and vulcan sides

In the case of Spock, entire stories were built around the internal and sometimes external conflicts arising from his mixed heritage. He fought constantly to suppress his human side and that influenced his relationships and reactions with everyone else.

In the single teleplay I read where the character’s mixed lineage did matter, the character struggled with being treated as an outsider by both communities. Thus, in being ostracized by both cultures, she built the defence of being a rebellious loner and responded to her world thusly.

American father, Chinese mother, Kwai Chang Caine lived conflicting cultures

American father, Chinese mother, Kwai Chang Caine lived conflicting cultures

In none of the other teleplays was anything like this even remotely the case. In none of those scenarios, did the writer use the choice to inform the character. In fact, in almost every mixed-race teleplay, the writer never specified what races had been mixed.

That’s how unimportant this fact was to these writers. And there’s the real shame.

Although I don’t know what the writers intended by making their characters mixed race, I suspect it was simply to make themselves look socially conscious.

What they achieved, at least in my eyes, was the exact opposite.

Close but no Clouseau

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So, I just finished watching the 2006 reboot of The Pink Panther with Steve Martin, Kevin Kline and Jean Reno, and all I can think is nice try.

Hollywood has always loved its remakes and reboots—this is not a new phenomenon—and sometimes they pay off. For example, I particularly enjoyed the Star Trek reboot of 2009, although its follow-up remake of Wrath of Khan was a bust for me.

But I seriously believe there are a handful of quintessential films that simply cannot be remade or rebooted, and in each case, I suspect it is because the lead character was so completely defined by the actor who played him or her.

Such is the case with Inspector Clouseau.

One of these men is an imposter

One of these men is an imposter

In the 2006 reboot and its unfathomably inexplicable sequel in 2009, Clouseau was performed by Steve Martin, a man for whom I have the utmost respect as a comedian and actor. But the key term there is “performed”. Steve Martin portrayed Inspector Clouseau.

But Peter Sellers was Inspector Clouseau. He didn’t portray or perform the honoured member of the Surete, he gave birth to the man, he lived the man, he was the man.

And when the beloved actor, comedian, writer, raconteur passed away in 1980, so too should have any thought of reviving Clouseau. For all intents and purposes, Sellers’ tombstone might also have read “Here reposes Chief Inspector Jacques Clouseau”.

Sellers was that kind of an actor. He was a shape-shifter, a modern-day Proteus. Upon donning the hat, moustache and trench coat, Sellers ceased to be and Clouseau emerged.

And in giving birth to Clouseau, he launched onto the world a character that would become immortal, and thus a character who cannot simply be portrayed.

Perhaps one day, an actor will come along who can inhabit the character, be the character enough to do it justice, but I can’t think of anyone. And even if such an actor exists, someone with that kind of talent is better served giving genesis to new characters of the immortal prowess of Clouseau.

So, bless director Shawn Levy and Martin for trying, although over-trying might be more appropriate. You and the rest of the cast and crew had pretty much no chance to leave a footprint given that your predecessor left craters.

* * * * *

For reference, another actor I put in the unrebootable/unremakeable category is Orson Welles.

Can you imagine anyone else trying to step into the roles of Charles Foster Kane (Citizen Kane) or Harry Lime (The Third Man)? I can’t.

Harry Lime and Charles Foster Kane

Harry Lime and Charles Foster Kane

Weekend plans (re: boots)

Superscript You will believe that a screenwriter can try.

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Tonight, I go to see The Man of Steel, the latest reboot of the Superman origin story…but unlike most nights when I go to a movie with friends, tonight I shall take notes, because tomorrow it’s back to the keyboard.

Tomorrow, I will write a screenplay for the next reboot of the Superman origin story.

And then next weekend, I will write a screenplay for the subsequent reboot of the Superman origin story.

And perhaps every weekend after that, I shall write screenplays for subsequent reboots of the Superman origin story.

For, having lately seen Batsmen, Stars Trek and now Supersmen, it would appear that Hollywood only wants what they already know or more importantly, what they already know sells. Originality, it would appear, is anathema in Lotus Land.

In the meantime, I throw my head back and yell: ZOD!!!!!!!!