‘Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’: Review

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*Nobody reads these things, but mad spoilers ensue*

Rogue One works because it knows when to be a Star Wars movie and when not to be a Star Wars movie. The film is billed as a standalone movie in the franchise, and technically it is seeing as the cast is 90% new characters. It’s really Episode 3.5, as it provides a connective link between the two sets of trilogies and shows how the Death Star came to be.

The thing I hate more than anything else in movies deep into a franchise, spin-offs or whatever of the like is the cute little winks and nods to popular characters of the past just for the simple sake of getting a quick rise out of the audience just for mentioning them. This film has them, of course, but it’s done in such a small scale and organic way that it never feels like the film is stepping aside from its story to focus in on these elements. It bridges the gap between the two trilogies so it makes sense to shade in element of Darth Vader’s rise and fill out the story of how the Death Star came to be and what exactly lead to the moments at the beginning of A New Hope, the place we all originally were thrust into this world. Every other nod is treated as more of an easter egg where if you’re just watching the movie on face value (and/or you’re just a casual fan) you might not get it, but nothing will seem wildly out of place, but for more heedy viewers all the little references are there.

This is all in contrast to The Force Awakens where they pretty much just copied A New Hope and had a heavy presence of characters from the original trilogy. I mean, sure they kind of had a different mission to accomplish with The Force Awakens compared with Rogue One, where the former movie had to re-instill and reboot this franchise in people’s mind by playing to the broadest sensibilities possible to a. ensure the movie and subsequent franchise would be a success and b. to have a connective vessel point for these new characters. Whereas Rogue One is in the wake of the success of that movie and can follow a more niche guide because they knew it was going to be a one-and-done film rather than a direct sequels that had to follow in the story wake of The Force Awakens.

But, mostly Rogue One works because it makes sense and its chief example of this is that every damn body dies in this thing. It makes sense that since we’ve never heard of any of these people in the original trilogy that probably a lot of them wouldn’t be around at the conclusion of it. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t expecting it at first, of course some people were going to die, but then the body count started rising and it all clued in for me and I hoped they would go that sensible route, because it made sense, and they did. I’m still amazed that Disney green lit this movie where literally the whole main cast dies, good and bad. Sure, they had in their back pocket the up note of an end scene where Princess Leia gets the Death Star plans and we see her in all her CGI glory, kicking directly off into A New Hope. But still, damn, I keep scrolling through the main cast on IMDB and I’m just like, “Dead, dead, dead, dead, dead.”

Honestly, I was just as excited about getting a new Gareth Edwards film than I was another Star Wars movie. I absolutely loved his first film Monsters which is almost a masterpiece for me. I was less enamoured with Godzilla, as I thought it was just fine and didn’t really do anything new. But, what I knew with both of those movies is that he obviously has a flare for staging epic battle scenes, but his sensibilities also extends into a passion for smaller human elements. I felt that Rogue One was actually pretty skimpy on the dramatic emotional beats, outside of the Galen Erso and Jyn Erso father/daughter stuff, but it served the film well in that there wasn’t an overabundance on any of that (not that it was bad or anything, it just picked and choosed well what it wanted to accomplish), as the film clearly wanted to focus on the larger battle aspects. And I thanked the high heavens that they didn’t do anything with a Jyn Erso/Cassian Ando romantic relationship because few things are worse than shoehorning a romantic relationship into a movie just because that’s what 95% of them do.

I gotta say I was pretty lukewarm on the movie for about the first 80%, but they really stuck the landing on the last section of the film and were seemingly allowed to do what they wanted and pulled everything off. Like I said earlier, I think this film was allowed to succeed in that it was operating inside of this area between the two trilogies where they knew this would be a one-and-done movie and could go all out and tell a story that didn’t need to be extended or have the end set up sequels (because they’re already made!) or have characters do unnecessary things because they needed to bank on them for the future. I don’t know fully where this stands for me in regard to the whole series, although I do find people thinking this is the best one pretty ludicrous, but I do know if they keep giving these films to auteur action/genre directors like Gareth Edwards and Rian Johnson then we’ll be in more than good hands.

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‘The Martian’: Review

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The Martian is a great example of a film being adapted from the book, maintaining what it was that made the book so great, and all the while not having to sacrifice or change things to make the film version work better. As The Martian in its original book film is very movie-esque in the first place, besides all the lengthy science-y descriptors, it acts as an engaging thriller of sorts with conundrum after problem after conundrum to deal with. I enjoyed the book in-so-far as that’s exactly what it was, not some great literary piece of work, but a thrill ride that puts you in this unimaginable place and dares you to think of the impossible, being trapped alone on Mars and somehow fending for your survival.

The first thing that came to my mind watching the film, and something I rarely really comment on, but something that this film hit out of the park is how perfect the casting was from how the characters were imagined on the page to how they were represented on film. Matt Damon is perfect as Mark Watney with him being nerdy, sarcastic, but also has those elements of action set-piece hero. Jeff Daniels is perfect as the no nonsense head of NASA, while Chiwetel Ejiofor (who is just great in everything) is more down-to-earth and provides a more humanly touch to the NASA mission director. MacKenzie Davis gave me a “uhhh, duh, of course she’s the perfect person for this role” moment as the satellite analyst, someone who has been doing great work on Halt & Catch Fire in a similar smart, computer nerd role. Donald Glover does much of the same tapping into his anti-social math/computer genius role. I could go on and on about how perfect others like Chastain, Pena, Mara and Bean were, but you get the picture, phenomenal casting all around.

My biggest and really only major problem with the film is the exact same one I had with the book and a major part of how the story is segmented, so it’s not really a fault of the movie. Coming into the book I was excited about reading this one man character study and seeing him slowly try to come to grips with his situation and try to survive the best you can when you’re literally the only person on a planet. And it is that largely, but then the book switches to the perspective of the people on Earth and tells their part of the story trying to make contact with Watney and figuring out how to get him back. A strong part of me yearns for the version of this story where we never flip back and forth and just like Watney we are trapped on Mars, feeling the claustrophobia and the impending doom around the falsest of moves. But, the tension, is constantly alleviated when we get to retreat back to Earth, where sure they’re worried about getting Watney back, but it’s so much more inviting and so much of a retrieve. The book balances this a lot better, where I felt the trials and loneliness of Watney, but as the film goes on it seems like we spend a lot more time on Earth over Watney’s struggles on Mars. Sure, it’s harder to make a film and make it engaging when it’s solely on one person, the book makes this easier, but to retreat back to all the characters on Earth so much just seemed to take the stakes away from the film and questioned why it was called “The Martian” in the first place, when Watney’s POV seemed less and less a focal point.

But, outside of all that, within what the film is as released it’s an excellent adaptation and a film that seems to fill out the definition of “crowd-pleaser” perfectly where I think everybody can find a lot in this film to enjoy. It’s an engaging science-fiction film, scientists are the strong heroes and protagonists, it maintains its humour throughout, embraces (somewhat) rational though to solve its problems, and tries its best to tell a story about the human spirit. I don’t really see any combination of talent behind-the-scenes making a much better film from the source material. It’s everything you’d ever want from the book, and divorced from the book it’s a unique and fun sci-fi experience.

On a final and side-note, I saw this in 3D, because you basically have no other option nowadays. Like, seriously, around where I live, the only non-AVX and non-3D showing as in just a regular screening was at, like 6:00PM which I feel is like the most purposely inconvenient time where people won’t go to see it at that time (dinner, just getting off work/school etc.) and thus making you pay the extra money to see it in whatever new format they got. And it was fine, it made Mars look cool and gave it that National Geographic documentary look, but the 3D is always just fine in these movies, but never enough to justify it’s inflated price.

‘The World’s End’: Review

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I’m not really a huge Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and Edgar Wright fan, granted I like them, but I don’t fawn over them like it seems a lot of the internet does. Out of all of it, I’d say I’m most a fan of Wright’s directing which is often very confident and assured, but willing to skew into any weird tangent. That’s why I think he’s been so good with this “Three Flavours Cornetto” trilogy dipping into three different sub-genres, where his directing prowess can easily transform to fit. I don’t know why I;m going to say this, but I am, on a strict ability to adapt, Wright has some Spielberg type skills where he’s able to quickly morph into a new form to cover this certain film’s different challenges without missing a beat. I’m really looking forward to seeing him tackle the “Ant-Man” movie.

Anyways, yeah, The World’s End. I really don’t have much to say about it, hence why I’m padding out this review with Edgar Wright praise. I actually didn’t know the film was going to be a sci-fi flick, but I guess after a zombie and buddy cop one, this feels like a nice progression. I was prepared for just a straight up “drinking” comedy, like a less ridiculous Beerfest or something, but the whole storyline of an alien invasion where they made copies of people or whatever was a nice anchoring point. I did feel like all this alien cannon and backstory was laid on a little thicker than it needed to be, but since Pegg, Frost, and Wright are all sci-fi junkies it’s not surprising that they took the ball and ran with it.

The acting was pretty great all around as well, and of course was a main proponent in selling a lot of the comedy and making the sci-fi/alien stuff as believable as possible. I really like Pegg playing a dick, and just an asshole, as he made for a fun and interesting “hero.” Frost was kinda boring, but I always find I’m the least drawn to him in these films anyways. Martin Freeman is forever just the coolest guy on earth, and I love seeing him get bigger and bigger roles. It’s hard to see him now all those years ago as lowly Tim just trying to win Dawn’s heart. Oh, yeah, by the way, I laughed a bunch of times during the movie. Just thought you’d like to know that.

7/10

‘Upstream Color’: Review

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Shane Carruth’s Primer was one of those cool indie films I had always heard about, and people would always mention in passing, but it always alluded me. A smart and realistic take on time travel is what I always heard, going beyond the cheesy conventions of what sci-fi usually does with it, and grounding it. When I finally saw it, I was in awe of what Carruth was able to do with not only revitalizing that area of sci-fi culture, but how he framed the whole device. The film is set up so realistically and true to everyday life that the story could’ve spun out into anything and had been believable, but it just so happened that it was time travel. Beautifully put together and hauntingly real, Carruth took one of the most grandiose and dreamt upon ideas and made it stunningly real.

With Carruth’s follow up, amazingly coming nine years later, Upstream Color follows in the same vein as Primer, both in concepts and craft. Like his first film, Upstream Color is a mindfuck of equal proportions, a film demanding that you pay attention for every passing second, or else be in real fear of even falling further behind in what’s happening. Carruth’s films, and especially Upstream Color, aren’t designed just to confuse you, he’s not aiming to purposefully screw with you. His films aren’t surprising or even really revelatory, they’re not built on huge twists that destroy the fabric of what came before it. No, they are organic pieces of storytelling, ones that unfold in a less than particular manner, and aren’t just tricks for the sake of tricks.

Upstream Color is all about connections, biologically, physically, mentally, and what brings us all together, formulated or not. A worm and chemicals are released into Kris, she doesn’t become herself anymore, off and not knowing exactly why after being drugged, attempts to rid them of her body. Later, the “Thief,” the perpetrator removes this worm puts it in a pig, and sends her on her way. Kris eventually meets up with Jeff who she forms this bond with. It grows, like an organism, she feels love for him, whether that’s intrinsically true or not, they almost seem like one, arguing over the origin from each other of stories they’ve told. We cut back and forth with the “Thief” at his pig farm, his mad-scientist dealings and the havoc he’s wrought over her life. As her mind unravels and new things are discovered within her, she realizes she’s not the only one, and finds many other people who have been afflicted the same.

I’m dancing around some things, but it’s a film that should be experienced in its abilities to create connections, and explore what they truly mean, and how they shape and form relationships. That’s what Carruth does with these “scif-fi” elements, he grounds them and then shapes them into real-world applicable means, and shows off its universality. Carruth’s two films are almost like art-house sci-fi experiences, and I hope it takes less than nine years for Carruth to come out with his next.

8.5/10

‘Face/Off’: Review

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Face/Off is a film that is utterly ridiculous and implausible, but the film relishes these fallacies, embraces them and creates a dedicated tone to telling a relatively “serious” story among it all. It of course comes as no surprise that John Woo was behind  the helm of this thing, making the fun and off-the-wall plot even more bizarre by his stylized direction and choices. The idea alone is very cool, basically all boiling down to John Travolta’s FBI agent character Sean Archer switching faces with the Nicolas Cage villain Castor Troy in order to infiltrate his dependents and hopefully take him down. Troy in turn takes the face of Archer’s and a fun and interesting dichotomy is born when they’re fighting against each other as each other. Again, it’s a cool concept made all the better by the direction.

John Woo of course knows his way around an action film, and it’s no different here, getting his first real crack at a Hollywood movie completely under his control. You get all the things you want, epic fight scenes, sprawling gun battles, a speedboat chase, goddamn doves flying around Nic Cage in slo-mo, epic music, religious allusions, it’s stylized to the nth degree. While it may seem a bit bunch, or outwardly cheesy, it all works in concert, especially with the fantastic and committed roles from Cage and Travolta, nobody takes the film lightly and thus never suffers any drop in quality.

As mentioned, I think the biggest strong suit of the film are Cage and Travolta. They are game for anything, and introduce a fidelity and realism to this heightened world that draws you even further in. I was looking forward to seeing Cage ham it up as the fantastically weird villain he created, but of course the whole facial swap saw Travolta mainly taking that role. Travolta was great as a bad guy as well, but nothing like seeing Cage wild out when he can be as crazy as he wants. I think that’s the strength of this film though, and why Cage and Travolta were so perfectly cast, because both of them can expertly and believably play a crazy villain, or a pretty straight and narrow good guy, that them switching back made it seamless and enjoyable.

Everything coagulates into a really fun and entertaining movie. On the outset it seems a bit bunch, and just another sci-fi action flick that pops up on TV randomly on your sci-fi channel. And, no, it’s no high-art or anything, but it at least strives to be a bit more than your average mindless thriller. With Woo’s unique direction and the dedicated performances of Cage and Travolta, they’re all able to elevate the seemingly benign material into some of substance.

8/10