Friday, December 16, 2016

Rouge One: A Star Wars Story

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is a mixture of Star Wars and a traditional war film, set in the Star Wars universe.  As such, it feels like a different kind of Star Wars movie, with more gritty realism and less style.  It is a prequel to the original Star Wars movie, A New Hope, and events in Rogue One lead right up to the beginning of A New Hope.

When Jyn Erso is a young child, her father is taken prisoner by the Galactic Empire and forced to do research on a new weapon, the Death Star.  She is raised by a rebel extremist Saw Gerrera, but eventually finds herself imprisoned by the Empire and headed to a forced labor camp.  She is rescued by the rebellion, who want to use her to get to her father.  Her father has smuggled a message to the rebellion, saying that there is a weakness in the Death Star, and if they could find a way steal the plans, then they could destroy it.

Whereas the previous Star Wars films were ensemble pictures with many great characters, I feel like the only great character in this film is the protagonist Jyn Erso.  There are a handful of other characters that are interesting at different levels, such as Rebel Alliance Intelligence officer Cassian Andor, who becomes a love interest for Jyn, weapons researcher Orson Krennic, blind rebel warrior Chirrut Îmwe, and rebel-owned Imperial enforcer droid K-2SO, who also provides some comic relief.  Because there is much going on in this movie, most of the secondary characters don't get a lot of screen time, so we don't get to know them as well as we would like.

Various characters from the original movies make appearances here, most notably Grand Moff Tarkin, Darth Vader, Mon Montha, R2D2 and 3CPO, and briefly Princes Leia.  Grand Moff Tarkin and Princess Leia are played by Guy Henry and Ingvild Deila respectively, who look nothing like Peter Cushing and a young Carrie Fisher, so some special effects magic is used to make them appear like the original actors.  In the case of Grand Moff Tarkin, I kept thinking that he didn't look exactly like Peter Cushing, but it was close enough to be convincing.  However, the brief appearance of Princes Leia is slightly unsettling thus spoiling the effect.  Although the character does look like a young Carrie Fisher, the face is a little too round and lacking the sharp lines we would expect.  Nevertheless, the appearance of Princes Leia does give the film some extra emotional impact.

Darth Vader's appearance in the middle of the film isn't particularly meaningful, and the voice by the 85 year old Jame Earl Jones doesn't have quite the same impact it once did.  There is a subplot here about Orson Krennic having a power struggle with Grand Moff Tarkin, but this seems more like a distraction.  However, this is made up by Vader's later appearance where he is for a moment completely badass.

Rogue One compared to The Force Awakens is slightly stronger on plot, but a little weaker on characters.  Rogue One has more characters, but consequently each character gets less attention. Neither movie feels like a perfect Star Wars film, but both are good enough.

Did we really need this movie to fill in the story between Episode III and Episode IV?  No, but it does make for an entertaining diversion providing something that we have not seen before.

Rating:  * * * 1/2.

A friend asked me to rate the movie on a A through F scale.  On this scale I would give it a B+.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Doctor Strange

There is no such thing as magic.    It is impossible to conjure weapons out of thin air.  As far as anyone can prove, there is no Astral Plane for our soul to reside in when it temporarily leaves our body.  There is no mirror universe.  As far as anyone knows, it is impossible to turn back time.  So a movie based upon these things requires a great deal of suspension of disbelief, which at first was difficult for me.  I can more easily accept the magic in the Harry Potter movies because they are kid friendly, but not as easily in a film for adults.  

However, Doctor Strange so effortlessly drew me into its world that I found myself forgetting any kind of logic and just enjoying it for the really good action picture that it is.  It helps that Dr. Strange starts out as a flawed character who reaches the lowest point of his life before he is able to slowly lift himself back up.  It makes him relatable.  His suffering means that his eventual journey has high stakes, and the path he takes is a very wild ride which leads him to a place that he never thought he could go.

The action sequences in this film, like the action sequences in most movies today, tend to be a little over busy making them harder to follow.  Despite this, the action sequences are very good, which makes for an entertaining picture.

Rating:  * * * 1/2

Dr. Strange has a 91% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Out of the Furnace

Out of the Furnace proceeds at a leisurely pace.  It opens with a scene that I could have done without, where a hillbilly gangster scumbag named Harlan Degroat beats up his date and someone else at a drive in theater.  The movie establishes that Harlan, played wonderfully by Woody Harrelson, is about as evil as one can get.  Switch to Russell Baze, played pensively by Christian Bale, who is trying to keep his life together working at a steel mill and dealing with his aimless battle scarred military brother, played admirably by Casey Affleck.  His brother keeps getting into debt with bookies and Russel keeps bailing him out.  Things do not go well for Russell when he is sent to prison for a fatal auto accident that was not his fault, but he had had a couple of drinks which did not look good.  After getting out of prison, he goes back to work at the steel mill, but his problems with his brother escalate, which slowly builds up to a confrontation with Harlan Degroat.

All the performances in this film are wonderful, including Zoe Saldana as Russel's ex girlfriend, and Forrest Whitaker, who is always great, as Sheriff Barnes, and William Dafoe as a low life bookie.  This movie is driven by great performances, because the plot takes it time building up to any kind of action.  However, the film doesn't meander.  Every scene moves the story to the next plot point and the next great performance by the actors.  The tone of the movie reminded me of What's Eating Gilbert Grape, although it is considerably more interesting.

The film steals one scene from The Dear Hunter, where Russell, who is so damaged by life, decides to not shoot a deer on a hunting trip.  

I have to take issue with Roger Ebert's review of the movie, who said that for long stretches it doesn't know what it wants to be.  I think that the film knows exactly what it wants to be.  The point is exactly the same as the point of Hell or High Water, where poverty is the overwhelming force that drives people who could have potentially been good to do bad things.  Like that movie, people are trapped in the world they grew up in.  Believable performances lead to an inevitable "Taxi Driver" type of conclusion.  The journey to get there is one that I found very compelling.  

Rating:  * * * 1/2

Out of the Furnace has just a 53% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.  I think that it is an underappreciated gem.  The great performances make it well worth watching.

I have come to believe that many movies have a barely hidden political agenda.  Out of the Furnace and Hell or High Water don't advocate any kind of policy to deal with poverty, but instead show us the us the terrible consequences that poverty has on people's lives.