Thursday, December 15, 2016

Day 1847 - Rogue One

Rogue One

Or as many people are going to call it - Star Wars: Episode 3.5.  It's pretty great.  But before I talk about about it, I really want to stress that I'm going to be as spoiler-free as possible.  There's a lot of fun stuff in this movie, and I really want people to experience that for themselves. 

Okay, down to brass tacks.  This movie takes places right before Episode 4, and it details how the Rebels ended up with the plans to the Death Star.  What's that, you say?  You haven't watched any of the previous Star Wars movies, and everything I've just written is just nonsense.  Well, let's amend that.

The movie starts off with Mads Mikkelsen playing a farmer (Galen Urso), who's visited by representatives of the Empire.  They want him to work on a weapon of mass destruction for them.  Apparently he's a super-smart scientist, and has been in hiding.  He sends his family off to safety, so the Empire can't use them as leverage against him.  It doesn't go well.  Fast-forward 15 years, and Galen's daughter, Jyn (as played by Felicity Jones), is forcibly recruited by the Rebels to find her father, and get information on the Death Star (that weapon of mass destruction).  All of this leads her to become inspiration for a small group of followers who believe in her mission to help fight the tyranny of the Empire.  And here's where the movie really shines.

Earlier in the year, there was a forgettable remake of The Magnificent Seven.  This movie appropriates a lot of the same plot, but it does so in a way that succeeds where the Seven remake failed.  It introduces characters slowly and deliberately.  Each character becomes fully formed throughout the film (even the main bad guy).  You have Jyn, who is on a quest to follow in her father's footsteps, but also trying to find him, so she can get some much needed closure.  Then there's Diego Luna's Cassian - a daring rebel fighter who still has moments of humanity, even amidst the terrible decisions he has to make.  And I can't forget about the reprogrammed Imperial Droid K-2SO.  In, what could have been a very dark and dour film, K-2SO provides the much needed comic relief.  And it all stems from his character.  It's never forced, and that's an accomplishment.  Riz Ahmed does a great job of taking what could have been a throwaway role of defecting Imperial pilot Bohdi Rook, and turning him into a character that you have real empathy for.  And finally, there's the fantastic duo of Donnie Yen and Wen Jiang, as they portray a blind man (Jedi?), and his best friend/protector.  This magnificent six are given so much room to grow as characters, that when all the action really starts to come, we have become fully invested in them. 

And that action.  For me, the last forty minutes were so involving and breathtaking, that I barely breathed.  We all know what's going to happen.  But we don't know how.  I still remember watching Return of the Jedi and being stunned by all the space ships doing battle.  This movie takes all of that and leaves it in the dust.  When a squadron of tie fighters fly out of a hanger, you can do nothing but be both amazed and terrified for the Rebels that have to face them.

This reminds me of an older style of movie, because of all the emphasis on the characters.  And also, because of its reliance on practical effects.  Don't get me wrong, there's a ton of digital effects (especially during scenes that I don't want to talk about), but when the movie creates alien creatures that are people in costume, it just feels comforting.  And it makes things seem more real.  Like real characters are sacrificing themselves for the greater good.

So, yeah, I liked it.  It has heart, great characterization, and treats aplenty for those of you who have actually seen any of the six movies that have come before.  It's worth avoiding the spoilers and seeing it as soon as possible.

***1/2 (maybe even ****)

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Day 1842 - Seeing John Cleese (and it was everything I hoped it would be)

Earlier this year, I got to say "Hi" to Terry Jones and get his autograph.  For those of you who don't know who he is, he's one of the six members of Monty Python.  Tonight, while I didn't get to say "Hi" or get his autograph, I did get to see John Cleese in person as he answered questions and talked about Monty Python and the Holy Grail, as well as Life of Brian (Meaning of Life never gets any love, except from me).  The tickets cost me a pretty penny, but I figured that I had a very limited window to see someone I consider a true comic genius in person.  And he really was a treat.  From stories about fellow cast members, the difficulty of crafting a story for films, religion, politics, and what might cross the line of good taste, he was everything I hoped for.  I'm never going to get a chance to meet Graham Chapman (who passed away in 1989), but I can still hope to see Eric Idle, Michael Palin, or Terry Gilliam before it's too late.

And that's the thing.  I like doing this.  I honestly don't know how many other people like doing stuff like this.  I mean, the show sold out (or was close enough), so I know there's at least that many people.  But I have a little catalog in the back of my brain of the people I've met or seen perform, and it gives ME a warm little glow.  A couple of years ago, I was figuring out what some of my favorite concerts were, and I ended up just listing as many as I could remember.  Each one has it's own special place in my heart, and I haven't seen THAT many concerts.  For someone who let all that go by in high school and college, I feel like I did a good job playing catch up over the years.  I've seen a variety of musicians, and I feel satisfied that I haven't wasted the opportunities that have come along.  Tori Amos stealing my pen, an Easter Bunny rocking out to Garbage, Tom Waits singing "What's He Building in There?" are moments that will forever be etched in my brain.  Seeing Davy Jones in the "Real Live Brady Bunch," pushing my way into an auditorium to listen to Paul Williams talk, saying "How're you doing?" to Thomas Hayden Church on the way to a screening of the film The Specials are all just treasures that I've been lucky enough to force myself upon.

I like my life.  I like the fact that there have been many, many things and people that have shaped it into the way it is.  And when I get the chance to see someone (or even tell that person) that has helped mold me into the person I am today, it simply adds more to the whole package.  There are more than a few things that I regret not doing in my life.  But sometimes, rather than looking back on those, I find it comforting to look back on the things I don't regret.  Seeing John Cleese in person cost me a good chunk of money and I could have sat there and listened to him talk for much longer than he did, but I don't regret it, because I got to see, in person, a performer who added just a little bit to my own personality.  And that's satisfying.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Day 1837 - Recent Movie Roundup

So... It's been a little more than a month since I last wrote something.  And that last thing was on the election and its results.  I had more people read that piece than anything I've written since I started this second go around as The Critic Wannabe.  Let me tell you, that gives one pause.  I hate politics and the strife that it brings, but let me tell you, there was a tiny part of me that wanted to continue in that same vein.  Thankfully, like gas, it passed.  Instead, you get my thoughts on some of the movies I saw in the last month or so.  It's not going to crush in the views, but I hope you enjoy it anyway.

The Handmaiden - Chan-wook Park directed Oldboy.  If you've seen that movie, you know that he's a director who likes to push the audience's buttons.  For good or bad, he wants to get a reaction out of you.  The Handmaiden is no different.  That being said, for its three act Rashoman-like structure, The Handmaiden tells a story that is twisty, sensual, violent, gorgeous, and one of the best things I've seen this year.  Enough time has gone on, that I'm able to think about the "twists" and recognize them as legitimate storytelling devices.  The story follows four people - Count Fujiwara, a swindler who hires a thief, Sook Hee, to be his accomplice as he tries to marry  Lady Hideko before her Uncle Kouzuki can do so. 
Act one is all about the set-up, as we meet all the players, and we have a pretty basic understanding of what each of them want.  Act two goes back, and shows all sorts of scenes from different points of view, as well as additional scenes that reveal more about the characters.  And act three ties it all together as different players realize that they're being played be the others.
This is sometimes not an easy movie to watch.  Uncle Kouzuki is a reprehensible man, and only in the second and third acts do we really see the depths that he exists in.  Sook Hee has never known anything other than being a thief, so any change from that routine is a completely new experience, and we see her transformation over the course of the film, and it's astonishing.
Again, this is a movie that's not for the casual viewer.  I'm happy I got to see it in the theater, because when that happens, you can't be distracted by outside forces. You're forced to either engage (which I gladly did), or not.  It seems that every scene is there to either be beautiful or move the story along (and sometimes both).  Simply great.

Doctor Strange - Ah, the new Marvel movie.  Like the previous Marvel movies, it's simply a good time.  Is it slightly derivative (egotistic know-it-all has it all stripped away and has to rebuild from the ground up - check)?   Sure.  But it's all in the casting and execution, and this movie has that in spades.  The movie is a fun time (love the cloak of levitation/magic carpet), but where it really succeeds is in creating another pocket in the Marvel Film Universe, and showing us where it fits into the larger picture.  And it does it pretty effortlessly.  It rests pretty squarely in the middle of the Marvel Films, and that's really all we want, isn't it?

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them - The J.K. Rowling-penned screenplay that sets up the magical world pre-Harry Potter is a solid flick.  It takes a little time getting a move on, but when it does, it really starts to work.  My problem with the movie, and I couldn't put my finger on it until I read author Carrie Vaughn's review of it, is exactly what she said - the movie is about the wrong person.  Instead of concentrating on Eddie Redmayne's Newt Scamander (the wizard), the movie would have been better served if it had focused on Dan Fogler's Jacob Kowalski (the human).  That would have brought a whole different viewpoint to the film, and might have made it a touch more magical (excuse the pun).  (Carrie's pretty great - read her blog here... ) And I never believed that I would ever want more of Dan Fogler in anything.  It might be a Christmas miracle.  I still don't care for Katherine Watterson as an actress, but that's my own personal bias (she plays the by the book, eventual love interest to Newt).  And I still enjoyed the film, but I could have watched another hour of Jacob and Alison Sudol's Queenie (the mind-reading sister of Katherine Watterson's character) and been fine.  They were completely charming.  In a wizarding duel between this and Doctor Strange, Strange takes this one down easily, but they're playing to different crowds.

Arrival - Been wanting to see a great sci-fi movie recently?  Here you go.  Aliens come to Earth, and here in America linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is teamed up with physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), as they try to communicate with the aliens.  It's a complicated process, but they seem to be getting it.  But, while America is cautiously being open about some of the things they've learned, other countries are getting scared and war against the aliens is being planned.  This is a very personal story told on a very large scale, and it posits some very deep ideas about time, honor, and what we do with the information we have (on both a small scale and a large one).  I liked it, and I like talking about the story that it's based on (Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang), and how and why they differ.  If you've seen the movie, I think it's worth it to either read the story it's based on, or see what the major change was.  I think it enhances the experience.

Edge of Seventeen - I thought this was pretty great.  But I'm getting tired, and running out of adjectives.  Great acting, real heart, embarrassing texts, awkward situations all highlight this very smart film.  Exactly what I was hoping for when I saw it.

There you go.