“There’s a problem on the horizon. … There is no horizon.” Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

“You’re confusing peace with terror.” – reluctant Death Star engineer Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen)

“Well, you’ve got to start somewhere.” – power-hungry Imperial overlord Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn)

It’s December again. And in the new merchandise-mad, money-hungry cycle that Lucasfilm’s corporate parent Disney has established, it’s new Star Wars movie time too. May is now Marvel’s month, and that makes me a little sad. Summer was Star Wars season when I was a kid, so I equate that long-stretch of warm weather as the period you escaped the rigid confines of public school and caught up with Luke, Leia, Han, Lando, Darth, and friends, reenacting big screen adventures in the backyard or poolside. Unless we all plan to ride Tauntauns across Hoth’s frozen tundra (#nerdjoke), ain’t too much role play happening in the backyard this holiday season.

The latest entry in the series is being dubbed a standalone “Star Wars story” in that it is not tied into any particular trilogy of films. Rogue One fleshes out a throwaway reference in the original 1977 film (now known as A New Hope), explicating how the plans for the original “Death Star” make their way from Imperial architects to the shiny dome of one bee-booping droid R2-D2.

It’s a clever (and wisely capitalistic) conceit, and, for the most part, the film satisfies the inquisitive fifth-grader in us all, acting out a scenario many may have tried to imagine 30-some years ago using piles of Kenner action figures.

Director Gareth Edwards (Godzilla) and screenwriters Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy have concocted a blockbuster that is one part The Guns of Navarone with a sprinkling of Saving Private Ryan and one part The Wizard of Oz with a dollop of Little Orphan Annie, blended with a whole heaping helping of deep geek references to the infrastructure and mythology of the original Star Wars films – heavier on the 70s/80s entries, but not entirely neglecting the better parts of thee 90s/00s flicks. Rogue One is a darker journey (in a-not-terribly-shocking SPOILER alert, let’s just say things don’t end particularly well for the new characters), exploring the bowels of the Star Wars universe and setting up the oppressively fascistic milieu of A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi. I mean the Rebel Alliance has to rebel against something, right?

Much has been made in the news (well, FoxNews … ironic, since Fox used to own the franchise) about the filmmakers’ social media critique of President-elect Donald Trump and of their allusions to the frightening similarities between the fantasy world concocted by George Lucas and the hateful xenophobic power-grabbing of our real-world politicians. Let it be said that there is nothing in this film that satirizes directly the shenanigans of this past fall as we head toward January’s inauguration. How could there be? The film was shot in 2015, with a mountain of special effects to achieve in post-production until now. However, in these fraught days of dubiously motivated cabinet appointees, tumultuous international relations, heartbreaking Middle East conflict, and cyber-attacks of an unprecedented (NOT “unpresidented”) scale, I found it difficult to enjoy the escapist “fun” of a band of scruffy rebels fighting unscrupulous bureaucrats, planet-hopping at a dizzying pace, engaging in bloody street battles across crowded and dusty marketplaces, and hacking into monolithic computer systems to release state secrets. But maybe that’s just me.

Rogue One is entertaining and gives us longtime fans a lot of intriguing backstory upon which to chew for months to come. I fear that the casual viewer will find it too talky and somber by half, waiting for the trademark space dogfights to kick in. And they do – the last 45 minutes are a doozy. For us Star Wars nuts, the “palace intrigue” will be a hoot, albeit a bleak hoot, with effective reappearances by Darth Vader (voiced again by James Earl Jones) and Grand Moff Tarkin (creepily CGI-reincarnated Peter Cushing, looking like a refugee from The Polar Express).

The series newcomers blend in well, if not leaving any lasting impressions. Felicity Jones, so good in The Theory of Everything,  is haunting if a bit dour throughout as protagonist Jyn Erso. She is yet another in the long line of Star Wars orphans, abandoned by parents more invested in political statements than child-rearing; consequently, she has a reason to be rather glum. Like The Force Awakens‘ Rey (Daisy Ridley), she is a welcome addition to a series that hasn’t always celebrated strong, independent, adventuring women. Her father Galen Erso (a soulful Mads Mikkelsen) is the chief designer of the much-vaunted Death Star, and his change of heart puts both him and his family at great peril when he flees the project, hiding out as a moisture farmer on some forgotten planet. (The Roy of 30+ years ago would have been able to remember all of the planets named/visited in Rogue One. Present-day Roy? No clue. Nor do I care.) The Empire, led by Orson Krennic (a rather forgettable Ben Mendelsohn in a stiff, starchy, heavily-creased white cape that implies there are neither fashion designers nor irons in space) tracks Galen down and drags him back to work, leaving Jyn effectively orphaned for a really long time.

Eventually, the nascent Rebel Alliance seek the adult Jyn out. Jyn is now a felon, living the Lucasfilm equivalent of Orange is the New Black after being raised by cyborg Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker in his typical scene-killing-ham mode). You see, the Rebels want Jyn to help them find her pa, get the plans for whatever the Empire is cooking up (“That’s no moon!”), and save the day. Along the way, Jyn meets cute with Cassian Andor (a pleasant but uncharismatic Diego Luna) and his comically nihilistic robot buddy K-2S0 (voiced delightfully by Alan Tudyk, proving that he is always the MVP of any movie in which he – or his pipes – appear). The trio collect a band of good-hearted and refreshingly diverse misfits (actors Donnie Yen, Riz Ahmed, Jiang Wen – all turning in credible, nuanced character turns) on their way to the inevitable denouement, setting up neatly the opening sequence of A New Hope.

Rogue One is stingier with the whimsy than other Star Wars films. The humor is sardonic, not Saturday Matinee side-splitting. As the Death Star baddies use their new toy for target practice, noble Cassian scans the incoming cloud of debris and destruction and mutters, “There’s a problem on the horizon. … There is no horizon.” It gets a laugh, but not a hearty one. Perhaps, we in the audience are just a bit too worried about our own horizon these days to find the humor any more.

Maybe I will go play with my old Kenner toys in the backyard, frostbite be damned. I need the escape.

“It’s not a problem if you don’t look up.” – Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) when asked how can she live in a world where Imperial flags oppressively dominate the landscape

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

Star Trek: Live in Concert with the Grand Rapids Symphony … one part Marx Brothers, one part Royal Shakespeare Company, one part Buster Crabbe’s Flash Gordon.

12079688_10206862455778854_5846344351949275749_nI wasn’t sure what to think of the proposition of watching the Grand Rapids Symphony performing the soundtrack to J.J. Abram’s 2009 Star Trek reboot live while the film played on a screen above. The idea sounded intriguing, but it also sounded like it had the potential for a nerd-centric train wreck. (Star Trek: Live in Concert was the October 17 installment in the Grand Rapids Symphony’s Symphonicboom Series at DeVos Performance Hall.)

DeVos Performance Hall ... or the U.S.S. Enterprise?

DeVos Performance Hall … or the U.S.S. Enterprise?

Conservative, yuppified Grand Rapids is one of those places that, in my head, is the antithesis of anything a Ann Arbor liberal like me would, could or should enjoy (totally closed-minded of me … I get it).

Yet, when you’re there, it’s all gleaming spires, clean streets, pleasant people (saw a LOT of “Ready for Hillary” and “Feel the Bern” buttons and bumper stickers, so I suspect my prejudices about the region are all kinds of wrong), and well-curated on-street art installations. It’s actually a very nice town.

And the joy of watching a woman dressed in full Klingon regalia sitting right beside a snooty, Eileen Fisher-garbed symphony patron pleased every ounce of my soul.

Chris Pine at James T. Kirk

Chris Pine at James T. Kirk

The performance itself was an amazing experience. For anyone who loves movies and music and appreciates the alchemic power when those two worlds collide, this presentation style is pretty epic and completely moving.

The Grand Rapids Symphony exhibited a precision and a coherence akin to the finest symphony orchestras (not that I’ve heard that many, but these guys are on point). In fact, I rapidly forgot there was even an orchestra on stage (strange praise, I realize), as their fine work blended so seamlessly with the images and dialogue being projected on the screen. Likely, this kind of production is the closest any of us will come to watching an orchestra actually record the soundtrack for a blockbuster film.

Star Trek‘s director J.J. Abrams, much like his inspirations George Lucas and Steven Spielberg and their legendary cinematic partnership with John Williams, has hitched his directorial star to a singular composer: Michael Giacchino. Smart fellow. Giacchino’s fusion of jazz-style sketches and orchestral bombast is as distinctive as it is compelling, an approach that lovingly augments and accentuates Abrams’ reverence for all the Gen X sci fi classics.

Zachary Quinto as Spock ... Winona Ryder as his mom?

Zachary Quinto as Spock … Winona Ryder as his mom?

I had always had an appreciation for Giacchino’s work (The Incredibles soundtrack is a particular favorite), but, hearing his Star Trek score performed live, I was able to grasp more of its thematic nuance and playful fun (lots of great homages to the classic Star Trek Theme and other incidental cues).

With the benefit of a live orchestra, there were colors and light between the notes that one fails to appreciate seeing the film in its original state. The copious talent of this symphony, guest-conducted by Constantine Kitsopoulus, coupled with their evident respect and delight for Giacchino’s sprightly work, made for a transporting experience.

(No, I’m not going to make a stupid “Beam me up, Scotty” teleporter joke here. Nope. Though I will admit that the performance left me quite “energized” … see what I did there?)

Eric Bana as Nero

Eric Bana as Nero

Oh, and the movie itself? That ain’t bad either.

It’s been quite a while since I revisited this particular Star Trek installment, and, much like when I caught The Wizard of Oz again on the big screen at the Michigan Theatre a few years ago, I had an entirely different appreciation.

Not unlike that 1939 classic, this film stands on its own, not just as fantasy, but also as a really funny, super-clever, swashbuckling comedy. Abrams and his exceptional cast appropriately genuflect before their source material but aren’t afraid to work in some winking criticism of the franchise’s cornier, paste-board legacy.

Chris Pine (Kirk), Zachary Quinto (Spock), and Karl Urban (Bones) channel the hammier tics of their forebears, while bringing a rich inner life that their respective characters never enjoyed until this point. One part Marx Brothers, one part Royal Shakespeare Company, one part Buster Crabbe’s Flash Gordon. And it works beautifully.

12122656_10206862538300917_654733001025449790_nWatching the film again and enjoying Abrams’ kicky reinvention of these campy icons, I am now even more intrigued to see what he does with this December’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens re-launch.

In fact, I was struck by how his Star Trek is a delightfully shameless swipe of Star Wars: A New Hope: a galactic madman (Darth Vader or Nero?) roaming the galaxy, astride a planet-destroying machine (Death Star or Narada?), while a rogues’ gallery of rebellious do-gooders – sparky farm boy (Luke Skywalker or James T. Kirk?), smart-mouthed neo-feminist (Princess Leia or Uhura?), coolly logical mentor (Obi-Wan Kenobi or Spock?), long-in-the-tooth scalawag (Han Solo or Bones McCoy?) – and their various comic sidekicks assemble to destroy the Big Bad and save the day.

12072661_10206862455618850_6847623126827410694_nThrow in a very Star Trek time travel conundrum, – that has the side benefit of literally rebooting an infinitely marketable, utterly toyetic franchise – and you have a super-sized sci fi Star Wars-ish blockbuster. My comparison may be stretched a bit, and the Star Trek vs. Star Wars people will have all kinds of minutiae upon which they’ll feel the need to correct me, but I think I’m on to something. 🙂

J.J. Abrams’ take on the socially conscious Star Trek mythos is much more Buck Rogers-esque escape than Communist Manifesto-commentary. And that may be why I enjoy it so much, so his version of Star Wars has my curiosity piqued indeed.

Thanks to Lori Rundall for her thoughtful wedding gift of the tickets to see this provocative meld of cinema and live music. If you get a chance to take in such a show, I highly recommend it, regardless the film or the composer or the venue!

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Image by Lee Gaddis of Gaddis Gaming

Drawing of yours truly as a superhero by Lee Gaddis of Gaddis Gaming

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital)In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

“Look at us! We’re all losers … well, I mean we’ve all lost something.” Guardians of the Galaxy

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Marvel Studios (and, of course parent company Disney) seem to understand key principles of comic book film-making (or any film-making for that matter) infinitely better than rival DC Comics (and their owner Warner Brothers): make it fun, make it light, give it heart.

I was always a DC over Marvel fan. To me, Superman and his pals have richer history and greater visual interest, but, more often than not, DC’s flicks (Man of SteelGreen Lantern – blech.) are self-serious, ponderous, deadly dull (narratively and chromatically) while Marvel zips past on a celluloid sleigh made of gumdrops and cheekiness (Captain America, Thor).

Yes, Christopher Nolan’s Bat-films are great and artistic and DEEP! but they ain’t much fun, and I don’t see myself re-watching any of them when I’m bored on a Saturday afternoon. Iron Man or The Avengers on the other hand …

Please don’t mistake this as saying Marvel has no depth. They do – see Captain America: The Winter Soldier. They just don’t think a message has to be stultifying to be taken seriously. And, yes, they’ve had their share of missteps – notably Thor: The Dark World and Iron Man 2. I may have been the only person who enjoyed Edward Norton’s Incredible Hulk as well.

My apologies for the by-way into the always-inconsequential “DC vs. Marvel” debate, about which only we fanboy nerds ever seem to care, but I was reminded yet again this afternoon of just how well Marvel gets it while watching the delightful Guardians of the Galaxy.

Whether or not you know that Guardians is based on a comic book (it is – a really irreverent and subversive one), you will have a great time with the movie. Director James Gunn (Super, Slither) and the Marvel production team (thank you, Kevin Feige) know that, for an adaptation to work it has to understand what makes cinema (particularly in the summer) sing: pithy dialogue, solid character development, sympathetic underdogs in improbably silly circumstances, poignant back-story, Keystone Cops-meet-Paul Greengrass action sequences, and comedy arising naturally from absurd situations.

The Guardians are comprised of the following oddballs:

  • “Star Lord,” a wiseacre space cowboy (expertly played by Parks and Recreation and Everwood TV veteran Chris Pratt), masking his man-with-no-family sadness with a reckless joie de vivre and a love of bad 70s “AM Gold” pop rock
  • “Gamora,” a deadly assassin (a smooth and witty Zoe Saldana of Avatar, Star Trek, and the recent Rosemary’s Baby remake) who may or may not be interested in saving the universe while burying her accidental teammates
  • “Drax the Destroyer,” a heartbroken tattooed thug (a surprisingly soulful, deftly comic portrayal by WWE wrestler Dave Bautista) seeking vengeance for his lost wife and daughter
  • “Groot,” a walking tree (voiced with one singular, repeated phrase “I am Groot” by Vin Diesel) and one half of the film’s comedy duo, stealing the spotlight with Looney Tunes anarchy and gleeful mayhem
  • And (my favorite) “Rocket,” the other half of said duo, a rat-a-tat 40s gangster trapped in the body of an adorable (and deadly) anthropomorphic raccoon (voiced hysterically by an unrecognizable Bradley Cooper)

These characters are tossed together by a slapstick prison break on their way to pursuing some galaxy-destroying bauble called an Infinity Gem (ok, it is a comic book movie after all). They are chased by assorted creepy baddies like Lee Pace’s nightmare-inducing genocidal maniac “Ronan the Accuser” and Michael Rooker’s dentally-challenged space pirate “Yondu.”

The plot really doesn’t much matter as it is there chiefly in service to one whimsical set-piece after another. What gives the movie heart is the sheer broken-ness of each hero. At one point, Pratt observes, in one of his character’s many earnest but misguided Yogi Berra-esque “inspirational” moments, “I look around and I see losers. We’re all losers … well, I mean we’ve all lost something.” We laugh but we know exactly what he means.

(Not surprising to anyone in my immediate circle, but I was moved to tears when an inconsolable “Rocket,” after a drunken brawl, laments how soul-crushing it is when people call him “vermin” or “rodent,” not understanding the pain he has experienced in his short life. Said pain is in fact quite literal as his very existence is a result of invasive and cruel experimentation. I assume that’s a thread future films may explore, but, for this animal rights and comic book nut, it was a touch that I appreciated.)

As testament to the power of Marvel Studios, a myriad of heavy hitters show up for (and have a ball with) tiny supporting roles: John C. Reilly, Glenn Close, Djimon Hounsou, Benicio del Toro, Josh Brolin. If the Harry Potter movie series was the place where BBC and Royal Shakespeare Company-British actors could get their genre ya-yas out, then Marvel now must  serve that same purpose for their Academy Award-winning/nominated American contemporaries.

In a summer 2014 movie season that has given us high quality (generally) but little joy, Guardians of the Galaxy is a welcome throwback to hot-weather film fun of another era … well, my 1980s era, when Lucas and Spielberg reigned supreme. It’s a sparkling Valentine to all us misfits. Don’t miss it.

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Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Thanks to BroadwayWorld for this coverage – click here to view. In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.