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“Rogue One”a step in the right direction


Last year, Disney reintroduced the Star Wars franchise to a new generation with “Force Awakens.” The positive of that was to see a new story on the big screen from the galaxy far, far away. However, my greatest disappointment was how so much time was spent rehashing material from the first movie instead of being its own thing. “Rogue One” has the upper hand because its a true prequel. This one has the advantage to expand on the universe while being a true link to “Star Wars.”

The main center of the story is a heroin named Jyn (Felicity Jones) who reluctantly assists a group of rebels to find out what the evil Imperial army is up to. I like how at first she doesn’t show interest but suddenly shows a sign of care once faced with what’s to come. Although she has little to no appeal in the space battles, her curiosity peaks when she learns how her father is in the mix of this. She is rebellious yet cunning. Honestly, I can’t think of a female character in the Star Wars universe that wasn’t highly determined.

Joining for the trip is an officer named Cassian (Diego Luna) whose only there to do his job. Tasked with the mission at hand, Cassian shares the same instincts but knows his limits. In one crucial moment, he’s told to assassinate someone vital to bringing down the Rebellion. Once in the moment, he hesitates questioning what value it would bring.  I like how he’s not stubborn to a new idea and at least there is no romantic pairing with Jyn. He’s an honest companion that questions his rights as a fighter.

Other rebels on the way range from a blind man who believes in the Jedi ways and his friend who is more militant. There’s sort of a ying and yang idea going on here as the two have different fighting methods. One is more resourceful on spiritual belief while the other is more into physical action. Its elements like these that make me wonder why “Force Awakens” wasn’t this clever with ideas like this. Sure it had Finn questioning if he’s a human or a fighting machine, but “Rouge One” was built around a fresh story.

To be fair, this one doesn’t shy away from reheating leftover elements. Case and point is an android named K-2SO. He’s obviously the C-3PO type who is very knowledgeable despite being the comic relief. Thankfully, Alan Tudyk’s performance saves the character from being a predictable variation making K more open to fighting when needed and hilariously pessimistic. In a way, this bot reminded me of Marvin the Depressed Robot or some kind of creation that only Douglas Adams would delight in.

Like I said, “Rogue One” doesn’t shy away from the bin of “oh, look its this from the other films” or “wow, that answers this.” I can’t begin to describe the amount of Easter eggs and things I’m sure Star Wars fans of old will be overjoyed in. The one I’m most surprised is a CGI recreation of Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin. I guess now in days you don’t need to hire a new actor with heavy make-up and I should be too shocked considering this same method was done in Tron Legacy to Jeff Bridges. Still, I liked how limitless this movie went when it came to linking itself to the older entry.

When you boil it down, “Rouge One” is hard to talk about without giving away most of the plot details. For fans of old and new, this will certainly be a nice Christmas treat. I know considering how much of a kick I got out of seeing real sets instead of CGI crafted ones, actual planet environments instead of studio built ones and intense battle scenes that challenge or match the charm of the original trilogy. I can’t tell you how much I smiled to see the AT-TA walkers during the big finale. This is a fun ball of nostalgia while also delivering a complex movie about power and fighting back.

Though parents, be fair warned. “Rouge One” is highly recommended not for smaller fans. This is a radically different movie as director Gareth Edwards wanted this to be more like a  war movie and I feel he succeeded. Despite the PG-13 rating, this is packed with many intense battle scenes and shootouts that parents might want to reconsider this as a Christmas gift for their kids. Even bigger of a debate is the ending (which I will try to avoid ruining) as key characters get killed off to which I’m certain will upset some viewers. For alternatives, I suggest taking them to either “Moana” or “Fantastic Beasts.” Both films have a kind charm that are better suited for the holiday. “Rogue One” is a good entry and an improvement over last year’s entry. But what irks me is how it won’t be canon with the new trilogy. Apparently, the idea is to make a series of Star Wars anthology movies that are more in line with the original films. Honestly, I’d more inclined to see them than watch the continuing retreaded adventures of Kylo Ren.

“Apes” conquer the summer…so far

The war between apes and humans begin...but its battle at the box-office is different...

The war between apes and humans begin…but its battle at the box-office is different…

When watching “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” with an actual audience, there was something I noticed. Right from the opening, there was nothing but total silence throughout the entire movie. And to me, that was a good thing. I feel the viewers easily understood the kind of film “Dawn” is. Intense and all-out spectacle. Sure they did laugh at moments that were meant to be funny and enjoyed the cute moments of Ceaser’s baby curiously looking at the humans in camp. But everything else was so thrilling and suspenseful, that the only thing you could hear was one person eating popcorn or a pin drop. Perhaps that is a good thing seeing how explosive and remarkable this entry in the Apes series truly lived up to being.

The story continues where “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” left off as apes of all kinds were getting a testing drug embellished into them as the miracle fluid acts more of a virus to people as it does to animals. Years later, the Earth is overcome by the genetic virus so much that the remains of humanity are greatly questioned as Ceaser (Andy Serkis returning once again in his motion capture role)  ponders this while trying to control his tribe in the woodlands of San Francisco. As luck may have it (or unluckily seeing how things progress), a colony of humans surviving from the virus remain in the city and are placed in a struggle to power on the city lights and electricity. The good news is that the city is connected to an electric dam and some tinkering is needed to get it up and running. The bad news is the location. The dam happens to be on Ceaser’s property and after an early encounter that doesn’t go too well, he declares all humans are banned from his territory.

A small band heads to the forest led by one person named Malcolm (Jason Clarke) who not only wishes to get power for the city but even hopes to establish peace between humans and apes. Something that even Ceaser secretly wants but unfortunately is unsure if humans truly want to co-exist or wage war considering the fear the simians establish. One of them named Koba (Toby Kebbell taking over the role) still has a hatred for humans noting the medical experimentation he was given in the previous film and only wishes to exterminate and conquer humanity than make peace.

A mirror image of that is Gary Oldman’s Dreyfus who is the leader of the surviving people and his trust with the ape-kind is extremely low. On top of that, he is very much a figure that makes speeches for huge crowds to send hope when at the same time fears anarchy among the group. In the first scene where he is talking down a group of people, Dreyfus looks like he’s ready to break down as he pulls out of hopeful message to the folks which feels off the top of his head and only says hopeful things to null the crowd. His character becomes more clearer later on for his fragile and nervous personality as his leadership skills feel that of the reverse Commission Gordon. Instead of provoking order and hope for the sake of pursuing to restore them, he hides behind a megaphone and says things to keeps the spirits up even when they are close to loosing electrical power for an eternity.

What works the best about “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is how you really can’t pick a side as humans and apes are given a purpose and reason to go against each other or try and make contact. The people fear the outside considering the amount of loved ones they lost as the apes do considering the chaos they created and how negative humanity sees them now. There is no “one-sided” conversation as both have their reasons for why they want to butt heads with each other or hope to make a form of treaty. Does it all work out in the end? That is something I unfortunately can’t ruin seeing its the heart of the movie. And to expose all that goes in the rest of the movie or even in any portion of it would be like taking a child’s Christmas gift two weeks before its due, rip it out of the box and plop it into his lap with a cynical drop. And that is something I wish not to do.

But what I can say is how slick and well-done the production vales are compared to “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.” While “Rise” was all set-up, “Dawn” is more fueled by story and emotion. You really want to see where things end up and at the same time feel bad for both sides and their bitter prejudice which doesn’t feel tossed in for manipulation. Again, there is support for this instead of “Avatar” that felt predicable and uneven. Even more so are the action sequences that are intense and  beautifully filmed to the point where you feel like you are there. The one shot takes and stylish camera moves enhance the battles to feel like all-out war instead of a basic shootout. Even the way the movie is played out in tone and atmosphere that its arguably the most quiet summer blockbuster I’ve seen in a way. Yeah the apes talk in sign language and speak in broken English, but since has there been a movie that tells its story through more visuals and less dialogue. Since when as there been a blockbuster that conveys emotion with no words and just one scene that describes a character. “Dawn” succeeds in that angle as it almost feels like “The Crow” of batch relying a lot on visuals and atmosphere and less focus on characters standing around and speaking their feelings.

What’s more is the evolution of WETA Digital as their special effects for this one have easily one-uped “Rise.” The texture of the fur and skin is so realistic that it almost feels like your seeing actual apes interact with people or ridding around on a horse in a battle scene. Never have I seen a film where its creatures are rendered so well that it feels like they are truly there and not a cheap graphic image. Another positive is the way the movie ends that I sadly can’t spoil. It concludes on a note that is neither high or disappointing and leaves enough room to set up another entry. Without giving too much away, there is no resolution and the message is well-delivered. There is no victor or good thing to war between two races as we know fighting is just one big circle we can’t break from and “Dawn” does its job well addressing that without feeling like our heads were sledgehammered with the message.

And Michael Giacchino’s score feels like they brought Jerry Goldsmith back from the dead to score this episodic and grand feature. Michael nails every beat to a tea to the point it feels like the original score from the 1968 film with little to no enhancements for a modern audience film. In fact, everything about this movie feels like the lost “Planet of the Apes” sequel we never got. The aspect of apes living in  a colony of their own as humans fight to keep out of the dark almost feels reminiscent of “Battle for the Planet of the Apes” and if not, a superior remake in a way that washes away the flaws of “Battle.”

While “Rise” felt like it was taking elements from “Conquest of the Planet of the Apes,” “Rise” also had the distinctive problem of placing little Easter eggs that felt like nods to the series but more distracting (most notable in “Rise” is the Statue of Liberty puzzel Ceaser plays with at one point and Tom Felton fouling up two iconic lines that are used there). On the other hand, “Dawn” not only takes these “Easter eggs” but also respect them. They are performed to the point it feels subtle and not forced and even unnoticed at times (like how the final shot reminded me of the ending to the unrated cut of Conquest or the underground tunnel looking vaguely like the one from Beneath the Planet of the Apes, or that Ceaser’s son is named Blue Eyes, the orangutan from the first movie is named Maurice, the fact that the first law they have is close to the one in Battle and the list goes on). Instead of feeling like moments that take fans of the original series out of the movie, they feel essential to the film and cleverly written.

Being an die-hard Apes fan, I can safely say this entry really brings it back to its roots. To compare, it reminds me a of scene from the fist movie when Charlton Heston’s character digs through some discovered artifacts from long ago to prove the connection between humans and apes. After rummaging through false teeth and eye glasses, he concludes he was a weak being. That scene alone sums up this movie. Its not trying to prove who is the better species but how frighteningly similar they can be. The franchise for years has been asking viewers to hold up a mirror to them and see how flawed we truly are. And this latest entry does that very well.

Rental Corner: “Empire” is crimminally underrated

A lost gem

A lost gem

Even after a few hours after watching “Empire of the Sun,” I feel its beginning to haunt me. Images of Steven Spielberg’s 1987 war drama are floating in my mind from the attack on Shanghai to the scenes in the prisoner’s camp with young Jim struggling to keep his youth from slipping to the harshness of the war and those around them. How can one film already make such an impact on me you ask? Well, you would be surprised.
Based on J. G. Ballard’s semi autobiography novel of the same name, James Graham, a young upper class school boy played by Christian Bale (yes, that Christian Bale) becomes literally lost in a sea of Japan’s battle to take over Shanghai International Settlement and eventually witnesses the horror of war that slowly diminishes his fantasy of it. His investment in airplanes keeps him trudging on and his fond view of pilots that guides his view through a depressing and episodic journey.

Most notable is a scene after the attack where he’s running around “surrendering” to Japanese troops who just shrug him off or see it as a joke. This is reality. Not a fantasy anymore. The streets that were filled with astounding hotels and amazing sights is close to rubble and being overcome by troops and urchins of the streets that try to take advantage of his possessions.

Not long after, he befriends an American Solider name Basie (John Malkovich) who looks like an aviator that the kid has dreamed of but during the film, we slowly see his true colors. Even the audience is duped by his “Artful Dodger” like nature as he tries to sell the kid’s teeth at one point and nearly abandons him as they are no good. The expectations are played around a lot as we don’t know if we should sympathize or hate him. In the end, we are drawn to our own conclusion as the stereotypical war image we see of him earlier is slowly stripped away to nothing more but an empty shell that has some kindness but not enough to deem him a hero.

Even pushed further is the depiction of the Japanese soldiers that hold Jim and a bunch of British and American refuges captive in a prison camp who at times respects some honor Jim responds back with and other times either test his faith or simply view him as a simple bystander. A perfect example is a moment when the general is destroy some of the camp in distraught over an attack on their harbor and is about to destroy the windows to the hospitals. As the doctor tries to prevent it, Jim instead smashes two of them and the general ceases the raid. Why does he do this? Does this mean he thinks Jim has some respect for him? Or was it just the thought of another American doing his work enough to please him? This is mirrored later when he beats Basie for a bar of stolen soap that Jim gave him and the kid tries to do the same thing but instead is fallen to a deaf ear. Moments like this really play with the viewer’s expectation and surrounding of the world. Is this all good faith or is it just action that means little or nothing?

Empire of the Sun is a beautifully filmed feature that I can’t do justice to. Even many have noticed the dream-like quality that carries out as Jim goes through the harsh moments while holding to every bit of innocence. This is brought further when Jim wonders if life is a dream by God or is it the other way around. The curiosity of a child that is even seen slowly eroded further when he sees the true horror of war. I don’t want to give anything too much away but by the end, you really start to feel the same amount of trauma creep into you that he gets.

The only problems I have is the theoretical aspect with Empire. Jim’s constant asking on the existence of God gets a bit redundant and is never given a good payoff. I curiously asked the significance until a certain key scene near the end when he questions it again that has some relevance but moments like that serve either little payoff or none at all.

Also is the transition from its dynamic moments to the light-hearted affairs midway. After much powerful imagery, when we take a five-year jump, it feels oddly uneven for a short bit as we see Jim’s established trading network and relationship with the captives. It’s not a bad scene but it nearly took me out of the movie for a moment for its sheer whimsy. After a long-range of powerful scenes in the tarnished streets and seeing people in reserves close to death, this is what we get. But after that, the film slowly trudges back its to roots that were placed in the beginning so you could argue that it was showing Jim in his prime before the negativity hits him again, but it felt a little off to me.

Even after that, the stuff that comes is nearly equally powerful to what we got earlier. There’s a moment when Jim watches a ceremony take place with a couple of Japanese aviators that causes him to break down and salute them. They look at him with curiosity but not enough to look back and return the honor or even cease his amazement. Let me tell you, not since E.T. have I shed a tear at a moment like this that captures the overall image of the film. In fact, the whole rest of Empire holds up really well and I never felt this emotionally attached to a Spielberg film in a long time or even cried more than once at it.

I really wish more people would check this one out and thanks to its Blu-Ray release, it looks marvelous in HD. This is up there with the Hudsucker Proxy and Pink Floyd’s The Wall as the kind of movie that deserves to be seen a huge screen. Its gripping, powerful, epic and showcases the director’s own view of the war and the tragedy it brings. It’s a coming of age story about the innocence of one boy and its struggle to hold on to it even he knows at some point, it has to be given up. And even as I write this, I’m fortunate to say a lot of it will haunt me to remind how much of our childhood doesn’t stay with us for long.