“ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY” (2016) Review

“ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY” (2016) Review

When I had first learned of Disney and Lucasfilm’s plans to create a series of stand-alone films within the STAR WARS franchise, I felt a little taken aback. I had felt certain that the new owners of the franchise would stick to a series of films that served as one chapter in a long story. But following the release of “STAR WARS: EPISODE VII – THE FORCE AWAKENS” and my slight disappointment over it, I was willing to accept anything new.

“ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY” was announced as the first of a series of those stand-alone film. However, I found this ironic, considering that the plot for “ROGUE ONE” more or less served as a prequel to the first film in the franchise, 1977’s “STAR WARS: EPISODE IV – A NEW HOPE”. The 2016 film’s plot centered around the Rebel Alliance’s discovery of the first Death Star and their efforts to steal the very plans that served as a plot incentive for “A NEW HOPE”. Upon contemplating the movie’s plot, it occurred to me that Disney/Lucasfilm could have re-titled the movie, “STAR WARS: EPISODE IV – ROGUE ONE” and change the title for all of the films that followed chronologically. Especially since “ROGUE ONE” seemed to have a major, major impact upon the narrative for “A NEW HOPE”.

Actually, “ROGUE ONE” begins with a prologue set thirteen years before the film’s main narrative. Research scientist Galen Erso and his family are discovered to be hiding out on the planet Lah’mu by Imperial weapons developer, Orson Krennic. The latter wants him to help complete the Death Star, which had began construction several years earlier. Although Galen instructs his wife Lyra and daughter Jyn to hide where they can be found by Rebel extremist Saw Gerrera, Lyra instructs Jyn to hide and tries to rescue her husband from Krennic. Unfortunately, Lyra is killed, Galen is escorted away by Krennic and a squad of death troopers and Jyn spends the next few years being raised by Gerrera.

Thirteen years pass when Imperial cargo pilot Bodhi Rook defects from the Empire in order to smuggle a holographic message from Galen to Gerrera, now residing on the desert moon Jedha (where the Empire is mining kyber crystals to power the Death Star). Rebel intelligence officer Captain Cassian Andor learns about Bodhi’s defection. He frees Jyn, now a minor criminal in her early twenties, from an Imperial labor camp at Wobani. He brings her before the Rebel Alliance leaders, who convince her to find Gerrera and rescue Galen so the Alliance can learn more about the Death Star. While meeting Gerrera on Jedha; Jyn and Cassian become acquainted with Bodhi, who is Gerrera’s prisoner; a blind former Guardian of the Whills named Chirrut Îmw; and Chirrut’s best friend, a former Guardian of the Whills-turned-freelance assassin named Baze Malbus. While Jyn and the others escape the destruction of Jedha’s holy city by the Death Star and head for Galen’s location on Eadu, they are unaware that Cassian has been covertly ordered by Alliance General Draven to kill Galen after confirming the existence of the Death Star.

I noticed that the media tend to describe the plot for “ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY” as a mission for a group of rebels to steal the Death Star plans. And yet . . . after watching the film, I noticed that “theft of the Death Star plans” story line did not really kick in until the last thirty-to-forty minutes. Most of the film seemed to be centered on the Rebel Alliance confirming the existence of the Death Star. By shifting the actual attempt to steal the Death Star plans to the movie’s last act, Gareth Edwards and the film’s producers may have undermined the actual narrative surrounding the mission. It seemed . . . well, it reminded me of Luke Skywalker’s plans to rescue Han Solo from Jabba the Hutt in 1983’s “STAR WARS: EPISODE VI – RETURN OF THE JEDI” – confusing, a bit lame and out of left field. It also struck me as a bit rushed. I also found the major battle over Scarif during the heist of the Death Star plans a bit too much. I thought it was unnecessary to include it in the movie. Since the opening crawler for “A NEW HOPE” had made it clear that the Rebel Alliance had won its first major battle against the Galactic Empire, while the plans were being stolen, I can blame George Lucas instead of Gareth Edwards. So now, the movie is a . . . what? I do not know. Perhaps I had been expecting a Star Wars version of a heist film. Or an espionage film that did not a major battle. Instead, I found myself watching a movie that seemed to have more than one kind of narrative.

I had a few other problems with “ROGUE ONE”. Once the movie had moved past the prologue regarding Jyn Erso’s childhood, the narrative rushed. At breakneck speed. It rushed from Cassian Andor’s meeting with an informative on a planet whose name I do not remember, to his rescue of Jyn Erso from an Imperial prison transport, to Bodhi Rook’s disastrous meeting with Saw Gerrera and finally to Jyn’s meeting with the Rebel Alliance leaders on Yavin. Once Jyn, Cassian and the latter’s companion – a reprogrammed Imperial droid called K-2SO arrive on Jedha; the movie slows down to a tolerable pace. I also had a problem with the movie’s prologue – especially the circumstances surrounding Lyra Erso’s death. I am still wondering why she had believed she could save her husband from Orson Krennic and a squad of death troopers with a blaster. Was she really that stupid? Or did the screenwriters simply found a lazy and contrived way to kill her off?

“ROGUE ONE” also featured the appearances of a few characters for fan service. C-3P0 and R2-D2 were briefly shown at the Rebel Alliance base on Yavin before they were supposed to be aboard the Tantive IV. Their appearance struck me as unnecessary and forced. Speaking of the Tantive IV, what kind of transport did Bail Organa used to return to Alderaan? Especially since the corvette was his personal transport and his adoptive daughter, Leia Organa would end up using the ship for her mission, later on. I was very surprised to see Cornelius Evazan and Ponda Baba, the thuggish pair who had harassed Luke Skywalker in “A NEW HOPE”. This pair had bumped into Jyn and Cassian on the streets of Jedha City. Considering that an hour or two later, the Holy City was destroyed by the Death Star, I found myself wondering how they had avoided death in order to reach Tattoine in time to encounter Luke and Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi in “A NEW HOPE”. I eventually learned that the pair had left Jedha just before the city’s destruction. Okay . . . but why include them in this movie in the first place? It was unnecessary. And their presence in the movie nearly created a blooper within the saga.

“ROGUE ONE” also featured the return of the Death Star commander, Grand Moff Tarkin and a young Leia Organa. Since Peter Cushing, who had portrayed Tarkin in the 1977 film had been dead for over two decades; and Carrie Fisher was at least 58 to 59 years old when the movie was shot; Lucasfilm had decided to use CGI for their faces. Frankly, it did not work for me. I feel that Lucasfilm could have simply used actor Guy Henry to portray Tarkin without pasting Cushing’s CGI generated image on his face. They could have done the same for actress Ingvild Deila, who briefly portrayed Leia with Fisher’s image. Honestly, the CGI images of the two characters reminded me of a video game. A relative of mine had pointed out that both had a “dead in the eyes” look about them.

And yet . . . despite these quibbles, I still managed to enjoy “ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY” very much. I enjoyed it a hell of a lot more than I did Disney’s other entry for the franchise, “STAR WARS: EPISODE VII – THE FORCE AWAKENS”. The movie’s narrative seemed very original in compare to the 2015 movie. Of all the STAR WARS movies I have seen, it seemed more like an espionage flick than any other in the franchise. And like the Prequel Trilogy, “STAR WARS: EPISODE V – THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK” and the last act of “STAR WARS: EPISODE VI – RETURN OF THE JEDI”; “ROGUE ONE” seemed willing to explore the ambiguity of its characters and its plotlines.

This especially seemed to be the case for characters like the ruthless Rebel Alliance General Davits Draven, Alliance leader Mon Mothma, the extremist Rebel freedom fighter Saw Guerra and one of the main characters – mercenary Baze Malbus. Forest Whitaker had been cast to portray former Clone Wars veteran and Rebel freedom fighter, Saw Guerra; who had served as Jyn Erso’s guardian following her mother’s death and father’s capture. I noticed that Whitaker, who seemed to have a talent for accents, had utilized a slight West African one to portray Guerra. However, I was more impressed by Whitaker’s portrayal of the imposing Guerra as a slightly withered soul, whose years of political extremism and violence had left him physically disabled and paranoid. I really enjoyed one scene in which Whitaker conveyed Guerra’s fear that his former protegee, Jyn, had sought him out to kill him. Alistair Petrie did an excellent job in combining both the commanding presence of General Draven and his ruthless ambiguity. After all, this was the man whose sole reason behind the search for Galen Erso was to have the latter killed. Genevieve O’Reilly had portrayed the younger Mon Mothma in 2005’s “STAR WARS: EPISODE III – REVENGE OF THE SITH”, but her scenes had been cut. Eleven years later, she returned to portray the same character. Only in this film, O’Reilly’s former Senator Mothma who is nearly rendered speechless by Jyn’s revelation about the Death Star. O’Reilly did a first-rate job in portraying a Mon Mothma never seen before. Yes, she behaved like a leader. However, O’Reilly got the chance to convey some of Mon Mothma’s uncertainty about the Alliance dealing with the Death Star. I realize that some of you might find it odd that I would list Baze Malbus as one of the movie’s more ambiguous characters. He really did nothing in the movie to hint his ambiguous nature, considering that he spent most of his time coming to the aid of his friend, Chirrut Îmwe or their companions. But I noticed how actor Jiang Wen skillfully conveyed Baze’s cynical personality and reluctance to play hero and get dragged into the rebellion against the Empire.

If there were two characters that truly reflected the movie’s moral ambiguity – namely the two main protagonists, Jyn Erso and Captain Cassian Andor. Since the age of eight or nine (I think), Jyn has endured a lot by the age of twenty-two – the loss of her parents via death and capture, being raised as a Rebel fighter by an extremist like Saw Guerra and eventually abandoned at age sixteen, and life as a petty criminal (which included the occasional prison incarceration). It is not surprising that by the time the Rebel Alliance had recruited her, Jyn had become a cynical, wary and slightly ruthless young woman. And Felicity Jones did one hell of a job in bringing her to life. This is not surprising. Jyn Erso was such a complicated character and Jones was talented enough to convey this aspect of her. Cassian Andor, an intelligence officer for the Rebel Alliance, had experienced a hard life since the age of six. His homeworld of Fest had joined the Separatists during the Clone Wars. This means that Cassian has been fighting for twenty of his twenty-six years – first against the Galactic Republic and later against the Empire, after he had joined the Rebel Alliance. Cassian shared Jyn’s ruthlessness. In some ways, he is a lot more ruthless and pragmatic than her. And unlike Jyn, Cassian is a dedicated warrior, rebel . . . and loner. But unlike her, he was also a very dedicated warrior and rebel. It seemed very apparent to me that those years as a freedom fighter had not only transformed him into a loner, but almost into another Saw Guerra. And Diego Luna gave a brilliant performance as the ruthless and pragmatic Captain Andor. I have only seen Luna in two other roles, but his performance as Cassian Andor was a revelation to me. Perhaps I should check out some of his other work.

“ROGUE ONE” featured other interesting performances. Donnie Yen gave a very charismatic performance as the blind former Guardian of the Whills priest, who believes in the Force. I must also add that I thought that as a screen team, both he and Jiang Wen seemed to be the heart of the movie. Another interesting performance came from Alan Tudyk, who provided the voice for K-2SO, the former Imperial enforcer droid reprogrammed to serve Cassian and the Rebel Alliance. Jimmy Smits gave a charmingly brief performance as Alderaan’s senator and royal prince, Bail Organa – a role he had originated in the second and third Prequel movies. He and O’Reilly enjoyed a poignant moment on screen, as they discussed the possibility of requesting the help of none other than former Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi. Riz Ahmed gave a very memorable performance as the very man who helped Galen Erso kick start the events of this film, former Imperial shuttle pilot turned diehard Rebel, Bodhi Rook. Whether being scared out of his wits by Saw Guerra or enthusiastically supporting Jyn’s scheme to steal the Death Star plans, Ahmed’s Rook seemed to be a bundle of raw energy. Speaking of the Erso family . . . Mads Mikkelsen gave a very poignant and sad performance as Galen Erso, a brilliant scientist who willing helped the Empire complete its construction of the Death Star following the death of his wife and his daughter’s disappearance. Before one can label Galen as another one of Mikkelsen’s villainous roles, he turns out to be an unusual hero who surreptitiously gives the Rebel an opportunity to destroy the weapons station . . . before he is betrayed by them. The movie’s main antagonist; Orson Krennic, the Director of Advanced Weapons Research for the Imperial Military; was actually portrayed by Ben Mendelsohn. Krennic proved to be something different as far as STAR WARS villains go. Mendelsohn did a first-rate job in conveying Krennic’s murderous tendencies and raging ambition. At the same time, he did a great job in allowing Krennic’s inferiority complex to crawl out of the woodwork . . . especially when in the presence of the domineering Grand Moff Wilhuff Tarkin or the very intimidating Anakin Skywalker aka Darth Vader.

Many have claimed that “ROGUE ONE” is either the darkest or ambiguous film in the STAR WARS franchise. I do agree that the movie is ambiguous. Most of the main characters were not portrayed as dashing heroes or idealistic heroines who made little or no mistakes. With the exception of a few like Bodhi Rook, Chirrut Îmwe, Bail Organa and Orson Krennic; the movie featured some very ambiguous characters . . . three of them being Jyn Erso, Cassian Andor and Saw Guerra. I was especially impressed by how screenwriters Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy portrayed Jyn Erso. Instead of feisty heroine or someone who is ridiculous ideal, they had portrayed her as a young woman who had aged before her time, due to the hard knocks she had experienced. A few STAR WARS fans had complained that Jyn’s reason for going after the Death Star plans had not been motivated by some kind of patriotism or ideal. Someone even went so far as to criticize her for not being some leader or a person with “special” abilities. Personally, I am glad. With the exception of Rey, who proved to be a little too perfect for my tastes, I had no problems with the saga’s other lead women characters. I liked that Jyn could not give a rat’s ass about the Rebellion. I liked that she felt a great deal of anger toward the Rebellion Alliance for what happened to her father. And more importantly, I am glad that her decision to go after the Death Star plans was based upon a personal reason – to finish what her father had started.

But what I had found even more interesting were the screenwriters and Gareth Edwards’ willingness to shine an unflattering light on the Rebel Alliance. Looking back at the Original Trilogy’s portrayal of the Alliance, the latter came off as an organization governed by morally upstanding and brave people. Perhaps a little too shiny or a little too . . . “good”. Not so in “ROGUE ONE”. One example of their moral ambiguity was featured in a scene in which the Alliance political and military leaders expressed reluctance and fear to do something about the Death Star, let alone continuing with the rebellion. Despite my annoyance at the “town hall” style meeting, I must admit that I enjoyed watching the Rebel Alliance leaders express their flaws and fears. I was also fascinated by how the filmmakers – through the Cassian Andor, Saw Guerra and General Draven characters – reveal how low the Rebel Alliance would sink for its cause. This was especially apparent through Cassian’s murder of a Rebel informant and Guerra’s paranoia, which led to his torture of Rook Bodhi. However, General Draven’s orders for Cassian to assassinate Galen Erso, along with his second plan regarding the scientist really conveyed the ugliness of the Rebel Alliance. And I loved it.

But is “ROGUE ONE” the “darkest” or most ambiguous of the eight current films in the STAR WARS saga? Personally, I believe that honor still belongs to the 2005 film, “REVENGE OF THE SITH”. Yes, “ROGUE ONE” was willing to convey the more unpleasant sides of its main characters. Then again, I could say the same about the Original and Prequel Trilogies. Especially the latter. And yes, “ROGUE ONE” was willing to reveal the uglier sides of the Rebel Alliance. Although I cannot say the same about the Original Trilogy, the Prequel Trilogy seemed very ambiguous in its portrayal of both the Galactic Republic and the Jedi Order. But I cannot regard “ROGUE ONE” as the saga’s most ambiguous film. Despite the mistakes and crimes committed by many of the film’s protagonists, the theft of the Death Star plans and the Battle of Scarif pretty much provided redemption not only to the movie’s protagonists, but also the Rebel Alliance. One cannot say the same for the protagonists from the Prequel Trilogy. Nearly all of them, along with the Galactic Republic and the Jedi Order, suffered the consequences of their mistakes and crimes . . . for years to come. There was no last minute redemption for the by the end of “REVENGE OF THE SITH”. Perhaps that is an ending that certain moviegoers could not swallow, especially in a STAR WARS movie.

I have no memories of Michael Giacchino’s score for “ROGUE ONE”. None whatsoever. David Crossman and Glyn Dillon’s costume designs earned them a Saturn Award nomination. Personally, I did not see what the big deal was about. I will give Crossman and Dillon credit for creating the right costumes for the movie’s characters and setting. Otherwise, they almost strike me as a rehash of John Gallo and Aggie Guerard Rodgers’ work in the Original Trilogy. I felt somewhat impressed by Doug Chiang’s production designs – especially for the Jedha City and Scarif sequences. His work was enhanced by Greig Fraser’s photography. Speaking of the latter, I noticed that Fraser’s photography of the Jedha City streets brought back memories of Gilbert Taylor’s photography of the Mos Eisley streets in “A NEW HOPE”. Both settings seemed to possess a similar lighting and atmosphere as shown in the two images below:

The Maldives served as a stand-in for the planet of Scarif, location of the Death Star plans and the movie’s major battle. Between Chiang’s production designs and Fraser’s photography, part of that sequence brought back memories of various World War II movies set in the Pacific Theater:

In the end, I rather enjoyed “ROGUE ONE”. There are some aspects of it that struck me as very original – especially in its characterization and its portrayal of the Rebel Alliance. Yet, at the same time, its plot and setting made it clear to me that the Disney Studios and Lucasfilm are still chained to some kind of nostalgia for the Original Trilogy – a nostalgia from which I feel they need to break free. And although I feel that the movie possess some flaws in its narrative, I still believe that it proved to be first-rate in the end.

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Moral Compass and the STAR WARS Fandom

 

MORAL COMPASS AND STAR WARS FANDOM

The more posts and articles that I read about the STAR WARS saga, the more I begin to wonder if a great deal of the franchise’s fandom would have preferred if Lucas had allowed the saga to maintain the black-and-white morality of “STAR WARS: EPISODE IV – A NEW HOPE”.

All of the STAR WARS films have their flaws. And although “A NEW HOPE” had its moments of moral ambiguity in the character of smuggler Han Solo, the moral compass presented in the 1977 film seemed more black-and-white than ambiguous. I can even recall one guy complaining on his blog that “A NEW HOPE” was the only film in the franchise that he liked, because the other films that followed had too much ambiguity. I also noticed that when discussing “STAR WARS: EPISODE V – THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK”, many fans tend to ignore or make excuses for the questionable actions of the major characters in that film.

Fans made excuses for Chewbacca’s assault upon Lando Calrissian in the 1980 film, because the latter had sold them out to Darth Vader and the Empire in order to prevent the deaths of the Bespin colony’s citizens. They also made excuses for Princess Leia Organa’s support of Chewbacca’s assault. Yet, very few fans and critics have seemed willing to criticize Chewbacca and Leia’s actions . . . or the fact that neither of them ever considered the possibility that their arrival at Bespin had endangered Lando and the citizens. And when I had once questioned why Han never noticed bounty hunter Boba Fett shadowing the Millennium Falcon during its long journey from the Hoth system to Bespin (without an operating hyperdrive), many either dismissed my question or refused to even ponder on that situation. I had also discussed Luke Skywalker’s willingness stop his rage-fueled assault upon his father, Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader in “STAR WARS: EPISODE VI – RETURN OF THE JEDI”, many saw this as an example of Luke’s moral superiority. No one ever pondered on the possibility that Emperor Palpatine’s verbal interruption may have stopped Luke from killing his father.

When it comes to the moral ambiguity of the characters in the Prequel Trilogy movies, a lot of fans tend to scream “bad writing”, instead of exploring the possibility that even the good guys are capable of bad or criminal actions. They reacted at least three ways in regard to the actions of the Jedi characters. One, they tend to accuse Lucas of bad writing when major Jedi characters like Yoda, Mace Windu or Obi-Wan Kenobi made bad decisions. Or they would make excuses for their questionable actions – especially Yoda and Obi-Wan. Or . . . the only Jedi characters they are willing to criticize are Mace Windu for his attempt to kill Palpatine in “STAR WARS: EPISODE III – REVENGE OF THE JEDI” and Qui-Gon Jinn for insisting that Anakin Skywalker be trained as Jedi in “STAR WARS: EPISODE I – THE PHANTOM MENACE”. Yet, hardly anyone seems willing to question Yoda for his own attempt to deliberately kill Palpatine or Obi-Wan’s willingness to leave a seriously wounded Anakin to slowly burn to death on one of Mustafar’s lava banks in the 2005 movie. Why? Is it because both Yoda and Obi-Wan are considered heroic favorites from the Original Trilogy? Who knows?

Speaking of Anakin, many fans seemed to be upset that Lucas had not portrayed him as some adolescent or twenty-something “bad boy”. Many fans have also expressed displeasure that the Prequel Trilogy had began with Anakin at the age of nine. Why, I do not know. Either this has something to do with the “cool factor”, or they cannot deal with the idea that a mega villain like Darth Vader began his life as an innocent and rather nice boy. Most of all, many fans and critics seem incapable of dealing with Anakin giving in to evil for the sake of his love for Naboo senator Padme Amidala . . . despite the fact that Original Trilogy characters like Luke Skywalker, Leia Organa and Chewbacca have either done or nearly done the same.

Once the Disney Studios had acquired LucasFilm from George Lucas, they seemed bent upon returning to the black-and-white moral compass of “A NEW HOPE” with their 2015 film, “STAR WARS: EPISODE VII – THE FORCE AWAKENS”. The Finn character seems to be another version of Han Solo – starting out as an ambiguous character and emerging as a heroic figure. Aside from one moment near the end of the film, Kylo Ren seemed more like a one-dimensional villain. Perhaps director-writer Rian Johnson will allow the character to break out of this shell in the upcoming “STAR WARS: EPISODE VIII – THE LAST JEDI”. As for the 2016 stand-alone film, “ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY”, many critics and fans had complimented the film for its exploration of the main characters’ ambiguity. Yet, the Jyn Erso character is already being unfavorably compared by the media to the more ideal Rey character from “THE FORCE AWAKENS”. And by the last half hour of “ROGUE ONE”, the main. characters had ditched their ambiguity and embraced being heroes. Not even the current LucasFilm production company, Disney and director Gareth Edwards would allow the main characters to remain ambiguous.

Lucas had started the STAR WARS saga with an entertaining and well done tale with very little ambiguity in 1977 and developed it into a complex and ambiguous saga that I believe did a great job in reflecting the true ambiguous nature of humanity. And yet, it seems that a lot of people remain angry at him for daring to explore our ambiguity in the first place. Some have claimed that STAR WARS is the wrong movie franchise to explore moral ambiguity. Personally, I do not see why not.

The “STAR WARS” Prequel Movies . . . and Mace Windu

THE “STAR WARS” PREQUEL MOVIES . . . AND MACE WINDU

I came across this article on the RETRO ZAP website about the “STAR WARS” Prequel movies called “Beyond Good & Evil in the Prequels”, written by Michael O’Connor. And while I had no problems with most of the article, I had a problem when he centered his focus on Mace Windu.

In a passage from the article, Mr. O’Connor wrote:

“Mace Windu, in particular, is a scowling character who seems fond of putting fools in their place, whether it’s a fellow Jedi like Qui-Gon Jinn or Anakin Skywalker or an adversary like Count Dooku or Chancellor Palpatine.

But the most telling moment for the character may come in Revenge of the Sith, when he insists to Anakin that Palpatine is ‘too powerful to be left alive!’ It can’t be a coincidence that Lucas has him parroting a line Palpatine said to Anakin earlier in the film after Skywalker insists that killing an unarmed Dooku is not the Jedi Way. ‘He was too dangerous to be kept alive’, Palpatine casually notes in that moment.”

Mace seemed “fond of putting fools in their place” . . . including Anakin Skywalker and Qui-Gon Jinn? What exactly was Mr. O’Connor trying to say? That Master Windu, one of the senior members of the Jedi Council, had no right to put others in their place when they stepped out of line? Why? Was it because the character was not featured in the Original Trlogy? Or was it because Master Windu was portrayed by an African-American actor? Had Mr. O’Connor really forgotten that other Jedi characters like Qui-Gon, Yoda, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Ki Adi Mundi had done the same?

And why did Mr. O’Connor point out Mace’s attempt to kill Palpatine in “STAR WARS: EPISODE III – REVENGE OF THE SITH”, yet failed to point out Yoda’s murder attempt on the same character? In the same movie? Was Mr. O’Connor trying to say that as a character portrayed by a black actor, Mace did not have the right to step out of line in such a manner? Only Yoda was allowed? He pointed out that Yoda had not only accepted the Clone Army on behalf of the Republic, he also led them into battle on Geonosis in “ATTACK OF THE CLONES”. He also pointed out Yoda’s lies to Luke Skywalker or withholding of the truth about Anakin/Vader’s true identity. But he failed to point out Yoda’s attempt to murder Palpatine. Why?

Mr. O’Connor also pointed out Obi-Wan Kenobi’s condescending attitude toward beings he considered as lesser being – like Jar-Jar Binks and nine year-old Anakin Skywalker. Yet, he failed to point out Obi-Wan’s capitulation to rage after Darth Maul had struck down his Jedi master, Qui-Gon Jinn in “STAR WARS: EPISODE I – THE PHANTOM MENACE”. Mr. O’Connor failed to point out Obi-Wan’s attempt to convince the older Anakin to spy on Chancellor Palpatine (whom the Jedi believed had a Sith Lord within his circle), even when the younger man felt uncomfortable about the suggestion. And he failed to point out that Obi-Wan had left a disabled Anakin to slowly burn to death on a lava bank, following their duel on Mustafar. Many claim that Obi-Wan could not bring himself to quickly kill his former apprentice . . . as if his lack of action was something merciful. As far as I am concerned, it was not. Leaving someone to slowly die in agony does not strike me as merciful.

I admire Mr. O’Connor’s attempt to point out that the “STAR WARS” saga was not one painted in a black-and-white morality. Well, most of it. And I admire his willingness to appreciate the moral ambiguity in George Lucas’ tale – especially in the Prequel Trilogy. What I did not appreciate was his willingness to use Mace Windu as the main scapegoat for the mistakes of the Jedi Order. Or paint the character as the worst offender within that organization. If he was so willing to point out the worst that Master Windu had done, he could have done the same for not only the other Jedi characters, but other characters within the Prequel Trilogy as well.

“STAR WARS: EPISODE VII – THE FORCE AWAKENS” (2015) Review

“STAR WARS: EPISODE VII – THE FORCE AWAKENS” (2015) Review

During the fall of 2012, the media and many film fans were stunned by news of filmmaker George Lucas’ sale of his production company, Lucasfilm, to the Walt Disney Company. I was flabbergasted. However, this sale led to Disney’s plans to continue Lucas’ “STAR WARS” movie saga with future releases, television shows, novels and comic stories.

One result of this sale proved to be Disney’s new film, “STAR WARS: EPISODE VII – THE FORCE AWAKENS”. The first of three movies for the franchise’ “Sequel Trilogy”, “THE FORCE AWAKENS” is set some thirty years after the 1983 film, “STAR WARS: EPISODE VI – RETURN OF THE JEDI”. Some time after the Galactic Empire’s major defeat at the Battle of Endor, remnants of this political force formed a new galactic power known as the First Order under the mysterious leadership of Snoke, a Force user. Within less than thirty years, the First Order has managed to take possession of new worlds and become a powerful force within the galaxy. Although appalled by the First Order’s development, the New Republic government decided to do nothing.

Former Rebel Alliance leader, Leia Organa, managed to form a military organization from the rank and file of the New Republic’s armed forces called the Resistance. Believing that the Resistance need more help, Leia recruited a pilot named Commander Poe Dameron to acquire find a segment of a star map that was in the possession of the legendary explorer Lor San Tekka on Jakku. This map would lead to the whereabouts of her brother, Jedi Master Luke Skywalker, who had disappeared into exile following the destruction of a new generation of Jedi under his tutelage. Unfortunately, the village where Tekka lived was captured by a force of First Order stormtroopers under the command of one of Supreme Leader Snoke’s enforcers, a Force user named Kylo Ren. Ren ordered his troops to kill Tekka and the other villagers, while he took Dameron captive. Fortunately, the Resistance pilot had hidden the map inside his astromech droid, BB-8, which managed to escape. Even more fortunately, Dameron was rescued by a stormtrooper designated FN-2187, who wanted to use Dameron to help him defect from the First Order.

Finn and Dameron stole a TIE fighter plane and returned to Jakku to find BB-8. However, the plane crashed. FN-2187 – renamed “Finn” – by the pilot, encountered a desert scavenger named Rey, who had already found BB-8. Realizing that the First Order was after the droid, the pair made their escape from Jakku aboard the old freighter, the Millenium Falcon, and set out to find the Resistance forces. Along the way, Finn and Rey attempted to evade the pursuing Kylo Ren and met the Falcon’s former owner, Han Solo and the latter’s companion Chewbacca; who ended up helping them with their goal.

Many critics and moviegoers hailed “THE FORCE AWAKENS” as a return to what the franchise used to be back in the late 1970s and early 1980s. And not surprisingly, it became the top earning movie released in 2015. Lucasfilm, now headed by producer Kathleen Kennedy (who had worked with Lucas and Steven Spielberg for years), turned to producer-director J.J. Abrams to helm this first film. Screenwriter Michael Arndt was originally hired to write the movie’s script, following Lucas’ treatment. But Lucasfilm and Abrams decided to scrap both him and the treatment. Then Abrams and filmmaker Lawrence Kasdan created their own screenplay . . . one that obviously pleased a lot of people. How do I feel about the movie? Well, like many films, “THE FORCE AWAKENS” has both good and bad qualities. I am going to start what I liked about it.

For me, the stars of “STAR WARS: EPISODE VII – THE FORCE AWAKENS” are actors John Boyega, who portrayed Finn; and Harrison Ford, who reprised his role as Han Solo. Their performances gave this movie an energy that could not be matched by the rest of cast. In the case of Ford, this movie featured his best performance in the four “STAR WARS” he has appeared in. And of the new cast members for the Sequel Trilogy, I feel that Boyega has quickly emerged as the best of the bunch, thanks to his energetic and humorous portrayal of a very complex character. Actually, Finn reminded me of a younger Han Solo. Perhaps that is why he clicked so well with the veteran actor. Come to think of it, he also managed to click well with the other two new leads – Daisy Ridley and Oscar Isaac. My only problem with Finn is that his character sometimes came off as some doofus who seemed to stumble his way through life. Two other performances in “THE FORCE AWAKENS” that really impressed me came from Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o, who served as the voice and movements behind a new character called Maz Kanata. And Peter Mayhew, like Ford, was marvelous as always as the aging Wookie, Chewbacca. In a way, I found this miraculous for both Ford and Mayhew, considering that both suffered health issues during the movie’s production. What else did I like about “THE FORCE AWAKENS”? Well to my utter surprise, I enjoyed the new astromech droid, BB-8. When I had first saw it in some of the movie’s trailers, I had dismissed it as a second-rate version of R2-D2 and C3-P0. I was very surprised at how quickly I grew fond of the character.

There were other aspects of “THE FORCE AWAKENS” that I enjoyed, as well. If I have to brutally frank, I did not find most of Dan Mindel’s photography that impressive. But there were a few scenes that did impress me. I found Britain’s Lake District, which served as Takodana, very beautiful, thanks to Mindel’s photography. I was also impressed by his photography of United Arab Emirates and New Mexico, which served as the planet of Jakku. Mandel even managed to include an iconic shot, as shown below:

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One last aspect of the movie that impressed me was Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey’s editing. I thought they did a pretty damn good job in the sequence that featured Finn and Rey’s escape from Jakku aboard the stolen Millennium Falcon. But I found their work in the sequence in which the pair, Han Solo and Chewbacca get into conflict with pirates gangs who want to settle a score with Han, while three Rathtar creatures run rampant throughout the Falcon and Han’s other ship . . . to be very impressive. And it lacked the taint of confusion which has hampered many action scenes in the past.

Did I have any problems with “THE FORCE AWAKENS”? Unfortunately, yes. A lot of problems. I read somewhere that Lucasfilm/Disney had originally hired Michael Arndt to write the movie’s screenplay, but in the end, Kathleen Kennedy and J.J. Abrams rejected it. Abrams recruited Lawrence Kasdan, an old Lucasfilm veteran to rewrite the script and the result is what ended on the movie screens. And honestly . . . I was not impressed. Not by a long shot. The main problem I had with “THE FORCE AWAKENS” is that it shared too many plot points and characterizations with the first film in the franchise, 1977’s “STAR WARS: EPISODE IV – A NEW HOPE”. Hell, Abrams and Kasdan managed to borrow a bit from 1980’s “STAR WARS: EPISODE V – THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK” and the Prequel movies. It is one thing to lift certain aspects of from other works of art and even history – especially in the science-fiction/fantasy genre. It is another to literally borrow from another movie . . . within the same movie franchise. Just to verify my complaint, I had come across an Entertainment Weekly article that listed eighteen similarties between “THE FORCE AWAKENS”and “A NEW HOPE” that included:

*A droid carrying valuable information who finds himself on a desolate desert planet
*A Force-sensitive, masked, and darkly clothed antagonist who arrives on the scene shortly after the information is handed off, looking for the droid
*A lonely, Force-strong desert dweller who dreams of more
*A cruel military officer who holds a comparable level of authority to his Force-sensitive, masked, and darkly clothed colleague
*A massive spherical weapon that’s used to destroy a planet
*A coordinated aerial attack on the massive spherical weapon that’s monitored from a control room by Leia

Six similarities between the two movies strike me as disturbing. Eighteen similarities seem utterly ridiculous to me. Even worse, I managed to come up with four similarities between this movie and “THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK”. The masked enforcer is revealed to be a member of the Skywalker family, the heroes end up on an ice planet, the roguish protagonist is left in dire straits by the end of the movie and the potential Force user meets an aging Jedi master for new lessons. J.J. Abrams, Kathleen Kennedy and the Disney Studios might as well stop protesting and admit that their new blockbuster reeks of unoriginality and plagiarism.

Another problem I had with “THE FORCE AWAKENS” proved to be characterization. I had no problem with the idea of characters from the saga’s previous trilogies making an appearance. I had a problem with the new characters being a rehash of other characters – like our desert future acolyte Rey being a remake of the young Luke Skywalker; the First One enforcer Kylo Ren aka Ben Solo being another Anakin Skywalker; Resistance pilot Poe Dameron being another Leia Organa (but without the caustic wit); former stormtrooper Finn being another Han Solo; Supreme Leader Snoke is another Chancellor/Emperor Palpatine; and General Hux is another Grand Moff Wilhuff Tarkin (without the presence). Actually, this video clip from You Tube/Dorkly.com pretty much said it all. The similarities between the saga’s characters strikes me as another example of the lack of originality in this movie.

But some of the characters proved to be very problematic for the movie’s plot. One of the biggest problems proved to be the character of Rey. As a woman, I found it satisfying that a leading STAR WARS character is not only a Force user, but a young woman. Unfortunately, Abrams and Kasdan took this too far by nearly portraying Rey as a borderline Mary Sue. Well, Lucas nearly transformed Luke Skywalker into a Gary Stu (same thing, male version) – especially in the last half hour of “A NEW HOPE” and the first hour of “RETURN OF THE JEDI”. But with Rey, Abrams and Kasdan took it too far. Using her strong connection to the Force as an excuse, they allowed Rey to become a talented pilot who could rival Han Solo and Anakin Skywalker, easily learn how to utilize the Jedi Mind Trick and defeat an experienced Force user with a lightsaber without any training. Without real any experience or training whatsoever. By the way, that last achievement really rubbed me the wrong way. I mean . . . what the hell? What is she going to do in the franchise’s next movie? Walk on water? Now . . . Daisy Ridley gave a nice performance as Rey. But she failed to knock my socks off. Her performance was not enough for me to overlook the ridiculous level of skills that her character had accomplished.

Equally problematic for me proved to be the Kylo Ren character, who turned out to be Han and Leia’s only son, Ben Solo. According to the movie, he was one of Luke’s padawan learners, before he made the decision to embrace evil, kill of Luke’s other padawans and become an enforcer for the First Order. Why? I have not the foggiest idea. “THE FORCE AWAKENS” made it clear that he seemed to worship his grandfather’s role as a Sith Lord. I can only assume that either the next movie or “EPISODE IX” will reveal the reason behind young Ben’s embrace of evil. I hope so. Because the reasoning presented in this film really sucks. It sucks just as much as Ren’s man child behavior. You know, I could have stomach this behavior if he had been around the same age as his grandfather in the Prequel Trilogy’s second and third movies. But Kylo Ren is pushing thirty in this film. He strikes me as too old to be engaging in childish temper tantrums. I can only assume that contrary to Han’s “He has a bit of Vader in him” comment, Kylo Ren is more a chip off the old block – namely his dad, who had behaved like a man child in the 1977-83 films. And why did Han and Leia name their son after Obi-Wan Kenobi, who used the name “Ben” during his years of exile on Tatooine? Leia never knew him . . . not personally. And Han never really clicked with Obi-Wan on an emotional level. So, why did they name him after the long deceased Jedi Master? As for Adam Driver, he gave a decent performance, but honestly . . . it was not enough for me to be fascinated by his character. It was just . . . decent.

Leia Organa seemed to be a ghost of her former self, thanks to Carrie Fisher. God bless Fisher, she tried. She really did. Abrams and Kasdan even gave her a few witty lines. But . . . Fisher’s performance reminded me of the one she gave in“RETURN OF THE JEDI” . . . lacking in any real fire. And I was disturbed by one scene in which Leia rushed forward to hug Rey, following the latter’s return from the First One’s Starkiller Base. Why did Leia ignore Chewbacca, who must have been torn up over Han’s death? Why did Chewie ignore her? Poe Dameron proved to be a real problem. One, he was not an interesting character to me. Frankly, I found him rather bland. And considering that Oscar Isaac portrayed the character, I found myself feeling very disappointed. A talented actor like him deserved a better role than this. Also, why did Poe leave Jakku and returned to the Resistance’s base? His mission was to acquire information leading to Luke Skywalker’s whereabouts . . . information that he had stored in his BB-8 droid before the First Force appeared at that Jakku village. After Finn had rescued him from Kylo Ren and the First Force warship, Poe insisted that they return to Jakku, so he could find BB-8. What did he do after his and Finn’s TIE fighter crashed on the planet? Poe walked away from the crash, found transport off the planet and returned to his Resistance base. Not once did he bother to finish his mission by searching for BB-8. What the fuck? He went through all that bother to drag Finn back to Jakku and failed to hang around long enough to find BB-8? SLOPPY!! As for Mark Hamill . . . why was he even in this movie? He appeared in the movie’s last scene without speaking one word of dialogue. What a waste of time!

There were other scenes that rubbed me the wrong way. Critics made a big deal over the Nazi-like speech that General Hux gave the First Order troops on the Starkiller Base, swooning over the idea of Nazi metaphors in a “STAR WARS” movie. Big deal. There have been Nazi metaphors in the franchise’s movies since the first movie in 1977. Only Lucas did not resort to a ham fisted speech, similar to the one given by actor Domhnall Gleeson. I also found Leia’s little military conference rather laughable. She did not confer with a handful of military leaders. Instead, she seemed to be conferring with anyone – commanders, pilots, etc. – who seemed to have made their way to her table. It was like watching a STAR WARS version of a town meeting. What the hell? And what was the big deal over the First Order’s search for Luke Skywalker? So what if he was the last Jedi? According to the Lor San Tekka character portrayed by Max von Sydow, there can be no balance in the Force without the Jedi. Really? Since when is the balance of the Force depended on the presence of a religious order that had not been in its prime for over half a century? With Tekka’s comment, Abrams and Kasdan regressed the saga back to the Sunday School morality of “A NEW HOPE”. And could someone please tell me how the lightsaber that Anakin had first constructed following the loss of his first on Geonosis and which Luke had lost during his duel against the former on Bespin, end up in the possession of Maz Kanata on Takodona? How? And why on earth did Abrams and Kasdan thought it necessary to re-introduce it into the saga? Why? It was nothing more than a lightsaber . . . a weapon. There was no need to transform it into some kind of mythologized artifact.

Aside from the colorful photography and editing, I was not that impressed by the movie’s other technical aspects. One, Lucasfilm and Disney allowed both the Resistance and the First Order to use military technology that was last scene in the 1977-83 trilogy. Why? Why did the Resistance and First Order characters wear the uniforms that members of the Rebel Alliance and the Imperial Fleet wore? How cheap is that? And why have the Resistance and the First Order use technology from the same groups? The only new technology I had spotted was the two-seater TIE fighter for the First Order and the lumbering desert vehicle that Rey used on Jakka. Were Kathleen Kennedy and the Disney Studios too cheap to hire someone to create new designs for the military in this film? Or was this another over-the-top attempt to re-create the past of the first trilogy? As for John Williams’ score . . . uh . . . not really impressed. Mind you, I had nothing against it. The score served the movie’s plot rather well. But there was nothing memorable or iconic about it.

I can see why many critics and moviegoers praised “STAR WARS: EPISODE VII – THE FORCE AWAKENS” as a return to the “magic” of the Original Trilogy. The movie not only utilized many technical aspects of that first trilogy, but also characterization and plot. To be brutally honest, I believe that this new movie had more or less plagiarized the first trilogy – especially “STAR WARS: EPISODE IV – A NEW HOPE”. Many might regard this as something to celebrate. I do not. I regard this “celebration” of the first trilogy as an artistic travesty and a sign of the lack of originality that now seemed to plague Hollywood. From an artistic point of view, I do not believe the Force was with this movie.

 

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R.I.P. Kenny Baker (1934-2016)

 

The Celebration of Mediocrity and Unoriginality in “STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS”

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“THE CELEBRATION OF MEDIOCRITY AND UNORIGINALITY IN “STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS”

Look … I liked the new “STAR WARS” movie, “THE FORCE AWAKENS”.  I honestly do.  Heck, I feel it is better than J.J. Abrams’ two “STAR TREK” films.  But I am astounded that this film has garnered so much acclaim.  It has won the AFI Award for Best Picture.  It has been nominated by the Critics Choice Award for Best Picture.

“THE FORCE AWAKENS”???  Really?  It did not take long for certain fans to point out that the movie’s plot bore a strong resemblance to the first “STAR WARS” movie, “A NEW HOPE”.  In fact, I am beginning to suspect that J.J. Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan had more or less plagiarized the 1977 film, along with aspects from other movies in the franchise.  Worse, it has some plot holes that Abrams has managed to ineffectively explain to the media.  In other words, his explanations seemed like shit in the wind and the plot holes remained obvious.

Then I found myself thinking about “THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.”, Guy Ritchie’s adaptation of the 1964-1968 television series.  I will not deny that the movie had some flaws.  Just about every movie I have seen throughout my life had some flaws.  But instead of attempting a carbon copy of the television series, Ritchie put his own, original spin of the show for his movie.  And personally, I had left the movie theater feeling impressed.  And entertained.  It is not that Ritchie had created a perfect movie.  But he did managed to create an original one, based upon an old source.  Now that was impressive.

But instead of having his movie appreciated, a good deal of the public stayed away in droves.  Warner Brothers barely publicized the film.  Worse, the studio released in August, the summer movie season’s graveyard.  And for those who did see the movie, the complained that it was not like the television show.  Ritchie had made changes for his film.  In other words, Ritchie was criticized for being original with a movie based upon an old television series.

This is incredibly pathetic.  One director is criticized giving an original spin to his movie adaptation.  Another director is hailed as the savior of a movie franchise for committing outright plagiarism.  This is what Western culture has devolved into, ladies and gentlemen.  We now live in a world in which the only movies that are box office hits are those that form part of a franchise.  We live in a society in which glossy and mediocre shows like “DOWNTON ABBEY” are celebrated.  We live in a world in which a crowd pleasing, yet standard movie biopic like “THE KING’S SPEECH”can receive more acclaim than an original film like “INCEPTION”.

In regard to culture or even pop culture, this society is rushing toward conformity, familiarity and mediocrity.  God help us.

 

“BABYLON 5” RETROSPECT: (2.16) “In the Shadow of Z’ha’dum”

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“BABYLON 5” RETROSPECT: (2.16) “In the Shadow of Z’ha’dum”

About eighteen months ago, I had posted a list of my favorite Season Two episodes from the 1993-1998 syndicate series,“BABYLON 5”. And one of those episodes happened to be (2.16) “In the Shadow of Z’ha’dum”. For the sake of sentiment, I recently re-watched the episode to see if my views on it had changed.

The series’ second season – titled “The Coming of Shadows” – introduced a new character to the “BABYLON 5” universe. Captain John J. Sheridan first appeared in the season’s premiere episode, (2.01) “Points of Departure” to replace Babylon 5’s first commanding officer, Commander Jeffrey Sinclair. Like the latter, Captain Sheridan was a veteran of Earth Alliance’s last major conflict, the Earth-Minbari War, which was fought over a decade before the series’ setting. Sheridan was the only Earth military commander who scored a major victory over the Minbari, who possessed superior forces and weapons. Sheridan was also a married man, who became a widower following the death of his wife, Anna Sheridan. Two years earlier, Anna was killed while serving as a member of a planetary expedition aboard a ship called the Icarus for a mission to explore an obscure planet called Z’ha’dum.

The episode (2.02) “Revelations” dealt with Sheridan allegedly coming to terms with Anna’s death. But the events of “In the Shadow of Z’ha’dum” proved otherwise. The story began with the arrival of a Human named Mr. Morden to Babylon 5. Following his first appearance in the Season One episode, (1.13) “Signs and Portents”, Mr. Morden managed to form an alliance with Ambassador Londo Mollari of Centauri Prime. Using his connections with an ancient and powerful race of aliens known as “the Shadows” – whose homeworld happened to be Z’ha’dum, Morden helped the Centauri deal with its main enemy, the Narns. During Morden’s latest visit to Babylon 5, Security Chief Michael Garibaldi unintentionally identifies him as a regular visitor to the station during a private conversation with Sheridan. When the captain realizes that Morden had been a member of the Icarus expedition that led to Anna’s death, he has the man arrested and placed in a holding cell. Sheridan becomes obsessed with learning about the details of Anna’s fate; and also the details behind Morden’s survival and failure to inform Earth Alliance. This obsession leads the good captain to break security rules, alienate members of command staff and attract the attention of the Centauri, Minbar and Vorlon ambassadors.

During my latest viewing of “In the Shadow of Z’ha’dum”, I tried to pinpoint what I did not like about it. I managed to find one aspect that struck me as unappealing. Sheridan’s manipulation of resident telepath Talia Winters’ only meeting with Morden struck me as rather forced. David J. Eagle’s direction and Christopher Franke’s score tried a little too hard in making this scene dramatic by amping up the suspense. The scene’s build up struck me as over-the-top that it almost overshadowed the pay-off of Talia and Morden’s actual meeting. It is a flaw I have spotted in other “BABYLON 5”episodes – even in some of its best.

“In the Shadow of Z’ha’dum” may not have be perfect, but I believe it might be one of the best episodes of Season Two . . . and in the entire season. The ironic thing is that hardly any action occurred in this episode, aside from a well deserved slap that Sheridan received from Talia. And yet, “In the Shadow of Z’ha’dum not only helped drive the series’ main narrative forward, it also foreshadowed two major story arcs in future episodes – Sheridan’s conflict with the Shadows and Garabaldi’s role as Babylon 5’s security chief. It also foreshadowed a minor plot – namely Morden’s future fate. These story lines are major examples of series creator J. Michael Straczynski’s use of foreshadow in his writing. And as far as I am concerned, no one else did it better other than George Lucas for his “STAR WARS” movie franchise.

However, I believe the best thing about “In the Shadow of Z’ha’dum” was the development of the John Sheridan character. Many fans had not been pleased when Bruce Boxleitner replaced the late Michael O’Hare, who portrayed Jeffrey Sinclair, as the series’ new leading man. They accused the Sheridan character of being lightweight and dubbed him with the nickname of “Captain Smiley”. Personally, I never had any problems with Sheridan before this episode. But this is the first time the series ever focused upon the negative aspects of Sheridan’s character. And I found it very interesting. “Revelations” had revealed that Sheridan had yet to recover from his wife’s death. “In the Shadow of Z’ha’dum” revealed that Sheridan’s inability to recover from his grief brought out the worst of him – his temper, his penchant for brooding, his stubborness, his talent for manipulation and most importantly, his ruthlessness. Sheridan’s reputation as “Captain Smiley” disappeared after this episode. For good.

The episode also featured a minor story line regarding the arrival of an Earth Alliance official named Pierce Macabee. The latter represented Earth Alliance’s Ministry of Peace, which served as a security and propaganda machine for President Morgan Clark’s administration. Macabee arrived at Babylon 5 to recruit the station’s crew into Earth Alliance’s new paramilitary organization, Nightwatch. These members were instructed to uncover and report on what they perceived to be “subversive” activities – namely open criticism and defiance of Clark’s Administration. This story line was introduced in such a subtle manner that it almost seemed like afterthought. Almost. It allowed audiences to hear Macabee’s speech about Nightwatch and watch him recruit some of the station’s crew – including Zack Allen, who served with Babylon 5’s security force under Garibaldi. Although Zack joined Nightwatch simply to earn extra credits, his decision will prove to have a major impact upon the series’ main narrative, early in Season Three. The Nightwatch story arc proved to be another example of Straczynski’s talent for using a minor story line as foreshadow. Very few writers and producers seemed capable of using this narrative device with any strong effect. Pity.

“In the Shadow of Z’ha’dum” also featured some first-rate performances. Regular cast members such as Claudia Christian, Mira Furlan, Jerry Doyle and Richard Biggs gave strong supportive performances. Although I was critical of the scene featuring Talia Winters’ encounter with Mr. Morden, I certainly had no problems with Andrea Thompson’s performance. The actress did an excellent job in conveying Talia’s horror and later, outrage over Sheridan’s actions. Jeff Conway really made the role of Zack Allen his own in this particular episode. I have always believed that one aspect that made a performer a first-rate screen actor or actress, is his or her ability to react to other characters. Conway was very effective in utilizing this acting tool in his scenes with Boxleitner and Doyle. And his performances in scenes with certain supporting characters struck me as effective and subtle at the same time. Especially in one scene in which Zack arrested Mr. Morden. I also have to commend Alex Hyde-White for his guest-starring turn as Nightwatch recruiter, Pierce Macabee. He did a superb job in projecting the Ministry of Peace’s menace with such subtle charm.

Ed Wasser, who made such an impression as the quiet, yet menacing agent for the Shadows – Mr. Morden – in previous episodes, continued his excellent work in this episode. However, “In the Shadow of Z’ha’dum” also featured other dimensions to Morden’s personality – fear, surprise and impatience – that Wasser conveyed with great skill. I especially enjoyed his work with both Stephen Furst and leading man Bruce Boxleitner. I have always been a fan of Furst since I first saw him in the 1978 comedy, “ANIMAL HOUSE”. His time on NBC’s “ST. ELSEWHERE” and “BABYLON 5” revealed his talent for dramatic acting. Furst effectively combined his skills for both drama and comedy in one particular in which Centauri Ambassador Aide Vir openly expressed his dislike for Morden. It is one of my favorite moments from the series.

Although the “Captain Smiley” nickname for the John Sheridan character disappeared after “In the Shadow of Z’ha’dum”first aired on television, Bruce Boxleitner’s reputation as an actor suddenly gained momentum among the series’ fans. I do not understand why. I have seen Boxleitner portray the darker aspects in previous roles very effectively. But I must say that I believe his performance in this episode may end up being regarded as one of his best. Boxleitner was superb as a ruthless Sheridan, obsessed with not only learning the truth about his wife’s death, but also Morden’s survival and revenge. It is a pity that the Emmys rarely acknowledge excellent acting or writing in the Science-Fiction/Fantasy genre.

“In the Shadow of Z’ha’dum” may not be my favorite Season Two episode from “BABYLON 5”. But it is definitely my second favorite. And it is certainly one of my favorite episodes of the series. J. Michael Straczynski wrote an excellent episode about the consequences of grief for the series’ main character. Thanks to fine writing, first-rate direction and excellent performances from a talented cast – especially series lead Bruce Boxleitner.

“MALEFICENT” (2014) Review

 

“MALEFICENT” (2014) Review

I am probably the last person on this earth who would associate Angelina Jolie with a Disney film, let alone one made for children. Then again, I have never seen Jolie in another movie like her recent film, “MALEFICENT”.

Despite some adult themes found in this new film, I honestly believe that “MALEFICENT” is basically a movie for children. It is not just based upon Charles Perrault’s 1697 fairy tale, “La Belle au Bois Dormant”, but also the Disney Studios’ 1959 animated adaptation, “SLEEPING BEAUTY”. Only this film is told with a twist. Some would say with a feminist twist. Linda Woolverton’s screenplay features the story’s main villainess, the evil and vindictive fairy, Maleficent, as the movie’s main protagonist. The film begins with Maleficent as a young and powerful fairy who serves as the main protector of a fairy realm called Moors that borders a human kingdom ruled by ruthless monarch named King Henry, who covets it. Maleficent befriends a young boy named Stefan, who works as a kitchen servant for the king.

The years pass as Maleficent and Stefan’s friendship grows to something close to a romance. But King Henry’s latest attempt to invade Moors leads him to offer his daughter’s hand in marriage and his kingdom to the man able to kill Maleficent. Ambitious and longing to rise above his station, Stefan sets out to collect the bounty on his old friend. Unable to kill her because of their friendship, Stefan drugs Maleficent and burns her wings off with iron (a substance lethal to fairies) and presents the latter to King Henry as proof of her death. Stefan eventually marries King Henry’s daughter, Princess Leila, and eventually assumes the throne following his father-in-law’s death. When Maleficent learns about the birth of Stefan and Leila’s infant daughter, Aurora, she appears uninvited at the christening and places a curse on the infant princess. On her sixteenth birthday, Aurora will prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel and fall into a death-like sleep. After Stefan is forced by Maleficent to beg for his daughter, she alters the curse with the addition that it can be broken by true love’s kiss. Stefan arranges for Aurora to be raised by three pixie fairies – Knotgrass, Flittle and Thistlewit. And despite her initial dislike of Aurora, Maleficent begins to secretly care about the girl, when the neglectful pixie fairies fail to take properly care of her.

There is a good number of elements for “MALEFICENT” that I found very admirable. I believe it is one of the more visually stunning films I have seen in recent years. A great deal of credit has to go to Dylan Cole and Gary Freeman’s production designs. The pair did an excellent job in recapturing medieval life . . . at least in a fantasy world. Dean Semler’s photography of parts of rural England, which served as King Stefan’s realm, added to the movie’s visual style. But the work from the special effects team, especially for creation of the fairy realm and other sequences that featured magic, truly enhanced the movie’s visual style. I also have to add a word about Anna B. Sheppard’s costume designs for the film. I could wax lyrical on how beautiful they looked. But there are times when I believe that images can speak louder than words:

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I will not claim that Sheppard’s costumes are an accurate reflection of medieval fashion. But . . . hey! I cannot deny that I found them beautiful.

As for the plot for “MALEFICENT”, I cannot deny that it proved to be something of a conundrum for me. Woolverton’s screenplay and Robert Stromberg’s direction clearly seemed to hint that it is basically a movie for children. The dialogue, the movie’s style of humor and especially its use of the three fairy sisters as the movie’s comic relief practically screams “Kiddie Film” to me. And yet . . . Woolverton’s screenplay also featured elements that seemed to indicate a movie with strong adult themes. The most obvious element proved to be the theft of Maleficent’s wings. Unless I am mistaken, the entire scene struck me as a metaphor for rape. Think about it. Stefan drugs Maleficent (a stand-in for any rape drug) to knock her unconscious. Using iron – an indication of violence – he physically violates her by burning off her wings. The relationship that develops between Maleficent and Aurora not only proved to be unexpected, but is given a feminist twist. Aside from Maleficent’s relationship with her aide Diaval, a raven whom she had saved by transforming him into a human; the male-female relationships in this movie proved to be either ineffective or disastrous. Even the use of “True Love’s Kiss” had a twist I had failed to foresee . . . until several minutes before it actually occurred.

There have been other productions – both television and film – that mixed elements of children’s stories and adult themes. ABC Television’s “ONCE UPON A TIME” seemed to use a great deal of adult themes in its twist on fairy tales. Yet, the series continues to maintain some semblance of childlike morality in its portrayal of magic. J.K. Rowling’s “HARRY POTTER” literary (and film adaptations) series becomes increasingly ambiguous as the saga progresses. And aside from the first film, George Lucas’ “STAR WARS” film saga strikes me as a case study of moral ambiguity with touches of humor and characterizations for children. But these science-fiction/fantasy sagas seem capable of balancing humor and storytelling for children with adult themes.

I cannot say the same about “MALEFICENT”. The movie’s childish humor – courtesy of the three fairy sisters – struck me as heavy-handed and not at all funny. I also believe the movie’s 97-minute running time made it difficult for Woolverton’s script to maintain that balance between children and adult themes. More importantly, the movie’s running time forced Stromberg and Woolverton to rush the story forward at a unnecessarily fast pace, especially during the movie’s last half hour. Other aspects of the plot – Maleficent’s background, her relationships with both Stefan and Diaval, and especially her developing relationship with Aurora. But there are two aspects that struck me as rushed – namely Aurora’s relationship with the fairy sisters (which barely seemed to exist) and the last half hour in which the sleeping curse is played out. I cannot help but wonder if Disney’s penchant for cinematic penny-pinching forced Stromberg and Woolverton to rush the movie’s climatic act.

I certainly had no problems with the movie’s performances. Angelina Jolie was outstanding as the movie’s protagonist, the fairy Maleficent. Being the top-notch actress that she is, Jolie effortlessly captured every nuance of Maleficent’s character – both the good and the bad. I have been a great admirer of Sharlto Copley in the past – with the exception of his villainous turn in the 2013 sci-fi movie, “ELYSIUM”. Thankfully, his complex portrayal of this movie’s villain, King Stefan, reminded me of his skill at portraying complex roles. At first, Elle Fanning seemed to be stuck with a role that struck me very sweet, kind . . . and boring. Fortunately for her, the Princess Aurora character became more interesting in the movie’s second half and Fanning got the chance to show off her acting chops – especially in the scene in which Aurora confronts Maleficent about the curse.

The movie also featured solid performances from Sam Riley as Maleficent’s confidant Diaval, Kenneth Cranham as King Henry and Hannah New as Queen Leila. I have been longtime fans of Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville and Juno Temple. But I have to be honest – I was not that impressed by their portrayals of the three fairy sisters. It was quite obvious to me that Staunton, Manville and Temple did their best to make the three sisters – Knotgrass, Flittle and Thistlewit – interesting. Nor can I accuse them of bad acting. They were obviously giving it their all. There are times when external forces have a way of affecting an actor or actress’ performance, whether due to bad direction or bad writing. In the case of the three actresses who portrayed Aurora’s fairy guardians, I suspect their performances were sabotaged by Linda Woolverton’s writing. The screenwriter’s sense of humor struck me as subtle as a stampeding buffalo. I also believe that her screenplay may have hampered Brenton Thwaites’ performance as Prince Philip. How can I put it? Thwaites gave a bland and boring performance, because he was forced to portrayed a bland and boring character. The 1959 animated version of the prince had more zing than this latest version. And I blame Woolverton’s screenplay, not the actor.

Do not get me wrong. I rather liked “MALEFICENT”. I found it to be a visually stunning film with some strong moral ambiguity in its plot and in some of the major characters, and a solid cast led by outstanding performances from Angelina Jolie and Sharlto Copley. I also enjoyed the feminist twist on the “Sleeping Beauty” tale. But due to some flawed characterizations and a failure to balance both the children and adult theme in its plot, I can honestly say that I did not love “MALEFICENT”.