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Entries in Jedi (2)

Saturday
Dec172016

ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY

Stars: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Alan Tudyk, Donnie Yen, Wen Jiang, Ben Mendelsohn, Forest Whitaker, Riz Ahmed, Mads Mikkelsen and Jimmy Smits.
Writers: Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy.
Director: Gareth Edwards.

Reviewed at the Australian Premiere; Wednesday, December 14 at Hoyts Entertainment Quarter Cinema 1, Fox Studios. 

Rating: 5/5

Director Gareth Edwards takes an unapologetically hard line with Rogue One, the first of Disney’s planned series of stand alone Star Wars films. His version of the ever-expanding Lucas-verse is dirty, violent and vast; everyone bears a grudge, carries a vengeful sword, pulsates with a determination to either halt the march of evil or forge its destructive path. It carries the burden of being about odds and stakes, of legacies and consequences, of understanding destiny and the degrees of virtue and sacrifice required to honour it.

Edwards, working with scripters Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy, has delivered a Hollywood franchise entrant that harkens back to an era before those words carried ugly loading. Chronologically, it exists in a time and place just prior to the events of Star Wars: Episode IV and it feels of that era in terms of narrative and thematic shadings. In this Marvel tentpole world, where faux dramatics are conjured to create the illusion that superheroes are fighting for something of some value, Rogue One is indeed rebellious, posing a quest that resonates with emotional engagement and grand illusion.

Which accounts for the dirty, desperate soldiers willing to risk all in Rogue One. Edwards’ heroes are angry, sad, complex characters, the kind whose psyches can just as easily invoke violence and anger as they can a purity of character and rare heroism. This illuminates the direct lineage between Lucas’ Star Wars and Edwards’ Rogue One. Both share a single hero’s journey on a grand scale, physically and psychologically, shaded in light and dark and disguised as a B-movie space opera. Luke was driven by a sense of righteousness that soon turns to sour vengeance; our new heroine Jyn Urso (a commanding Felicity Jones) must confront that dichotomy reversed, having seen her mother murdered and father Galen (Mads Mikkelsen) long since made a puppet of the Empire.

Jyn carries the burden of a hurt, hate-filled soul, a spiritual weight that has seen her disappear to the edges of society, and Rogue One soars emotionally on her gradual understanding and acceptance of the Rebel’s cause (just as a wide-eyed Luke came to understand the balance between his Jedi faith and human rage). Jyn has no royal romantic foil or a rogueish space pirate to lighten her load; her offsider is Rebel security heavy Cassian Andor (Diego Luna, superb), a driven assassin willing to kill his allies for the cause. Edwards understands that a universe under Imperial rule is one of death and carnage; to suggest Rogue One’s intense battle scenes and cataclysmic destruction might be too intense for the under 10s is to conveniently ignore the fate of Jawas, Ewoks, the people of Alderaan, Death Star workers, Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru, to name only a few.

Rogue One is steeped in essential series mythology, including most profoundly the patriarchal bond. A mid-section sequence set on the rain-soaked Imperial outpost of Eadu explores this thematic element with visual and emotional bravado; in a film of sublimely constructed passages, it may be the most breathtaking. It is also a crucial sequence as it leads to the formation of the unbreakable bond shared between Jyn, Andor, turncoat Imperial pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), blind Jedi devotee Chirrut Îmwe (Hong Kong superstar Donnie Yen), his accomplice, the ace marksman Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang) and android K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk). Villainy comes in the caped form of Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn, whose seething callousness and desperate lust for power make him a truly malevolent figure (though his human frailties are exposed in one memorable encounter with a certain Imperial Lord).

Gareth Edwards’ respectful and deeply rooted adherence to lore should not imply Rogue One is constricted by its legacy. It is, in fact, the most daring film to date in the Star Wars canon; bold storytelling flourishes are entirely convincing, silencing detractors of a certain ‘exhaust port’ plot development in Episode IV, while bright, beautiful sunlight and stunning space-scapes (gorgeously blending the real-world lensing of Aussie DOP Greig Fraser with the out-of-this-world work of the effects crew) give the film a patina unseen in the seven films to date. Edwards even dares to CGI-conjure characters from a bygone time who performed integral roles in both the implementation of and fight against the Death Star; that first glimpse of a long-gone Imperial leader is one of many extraordinary moments in Rogue One.

All of which may be why some analysis has stated that Rogue One is, “one for the fans.” In many ways, it most certainly and proudly is, given the thrill associated with hearing well-place sound cues, glimpsing a familiar face in the corner of the frame or piecing together fragmentary elements that non-fans will miss entirely. But that comment, “one for the fans”, also insinuates that something about Rogue One keeps it confined to the Star Wars universe, that it fails to break free of the lore that has gone before.

That is certainly not the case; Rogue One embraces its heritage then honours the past by crafting a magnificently large, fittingly glorious story of dignity, redemption and, of course, hope. It is about the birth of a rebellion, of what it takes to inspire the repressed population to unite and fight, of the bravery of the freedom fighter. In this year more than any other, that should resonate with a thunderous echo. Rogue One is set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, yet feels more immediate, even prescient, than any Hollywood film in recent memory.

Thursday
Dec172015

STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS

Stars: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Adam Driver, Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Lupita Nyong’o, Gwendoline Christie, Domhnall Gleeson, Andy Serkis, Peter Mayhew, Max von Sydow, Warwick Davis, Anthony Daniels and Kenny Baker.
Writers:  Lawrence Kasdan, J.J. Abrams and Michael Arndt.
Director: J.J. Abrams.

Watch the trailer here.

Rating: 3.5/5

The Force Awakens is to A New Hope, as A New Hope was to the Flash Gordon matinee serials of yesteryear. Just as those creaky two-reelers inspired a young George Lucas to rework sci-fi adventure tropes for a new generation, so to does director J.J. Abrams now imprint his own frantic filmmaking flourish on Lucas’ source material for the millennial mindset.

Whatever factors rob The Force Awakens of the soulful essence of Lucas’ 1977 blockbuster are, frankly, impossible to define; it will be something as intangible as timing or fate or some such thing. Unlike Lucas’ work, which bowed at the birth of the blockbuster era and spoke with a clear and classic heroic voice, the likes of which young audiences had not encountered previously, Abrams’ vision is very much of its time – busy, self-aware, giddy in the thrall of its own energy and aesthetic. Just as he did so successfully with the Mission Impossible and Star Trek brands, Abrams has breathed new life into Star Wars; why it should then feel lacking in a strong pulse at times is worth pondering.

On the record as a die-hard Star Wars fanatic, Abrams' fan cred comes through in his reverential treatment of thematic and narrative elements synonymous with the series. This honouring of lore may represent his geek-boy spiritual bond or may be in answer to Disney’s demands to not mess with the formula, or both. The blueprint to which Abrams adheres is a strength and a weakness; the warm glow of nostalgia is all over The Force Awakens and imbues immediate goodwill, but Abrams does little to earn his own stripes as a conveyor of franchise mythology (unlike Irvin Kershner achieved with The Empire Strikes Back or, to a lesser extent, Richard Marquand on Return of The Jedi).

The heroic characters are strong in this one, with Daisy Ridley’s desert scavenger Rey firmly establishing a spunky, resourceful central figure and strong bond with the plucky droid, BB-8; John Boyega’s defecting Stormtrooper ‘Finn’ is slightly less well defined, but the actor is a strong presence and establishes an honest chemistry with Ridley. Oscar Isaac’s X-wing hero Poe Dameron is all square-jawed gusto; Lupita Nyong’o’s CGI-rendered cantina owner, the wizened Maz Kanata (looking too much like The Incredibles’ Edna Mode) seems poised to become Yoda 2.0. The impact of Harrison Ford as aged scoundrel Han Solo is invaluable, his superstar charisma and weathered ‘grey fox’ appeal the pic’s greatest asset. His scenes opposite Carrie Fisher’s Leia (no longer a ‘princess’, now settled into a strategic role with the Rebellion) are melancholy and warm.

Abram’s villains are less compelling, none matching the malevolence of Eric Bana’s Romulan Nero in the 2009 Star Trek reboot. Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren casts a meagre shadow over the proceedings, his merciless mean-streak seeming no more ominous than that of schoolyard bully when faced with Rey’s resistance. Some convoluted plotting that ties Ren to our heroes does not convince, leading to a development that should be a series-defining moment but which instead plays as a throwaway contrivance. Andy Serkis lends his mo-cap skills to the CGI-generated Supreme Leader Snoke; solid actors such as Domhnall Gleeson and Gwendoline Christie adopt the stuffy Brit baddie archetype in the dark-suited military roles (then it was ‘The Empire’; now, it is ‘The First Order’).

When the film does soar it is on the back of the production design and effects crews. A sequence that re-introduces the Millenium Falcon leads to a thrilling chase sequence on the desert planet Jakku; majestically staged dogfights between screeching Tie Fighters and beautiful X-wing crafts are truly breathtaking.

To put it in ‘old franchise’ perspective, The Force Awakens is immeasurably better than the dire Lucas-directed prequels and probably as good as Return of The Jedi. But it lacks the free-wheeling bravado and pure thrill of A New Hope and the smart scripting and artistry of The Empire Strikes Back. As a kicker for a new raft of sequels, spin-offs and merchandising, it is serviceable and entirely enjoyable. The bitter irony is that the very thing that inspired its existence also created the frenzied, blockbuster-hungry studio system that reins in its potential.