No Ewoks, No Jar Jar: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016, directed by Gareth Edwards)


rogue_one_a_star_wars_story_posterA long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…

The evil Galactic Empire spent what had to be billions of Imperial credits to build the greatest weapon in the universe.  It was known as the Death Star and it housed a laser so powerful that it could blow up a planet with just one shot.  And yet, for all the effort and all the years that were spent building it, the Death Star had one glaring vulnerability, an exposed exhaust valve that the Rebel Alliance twice used to the destroy it.

For years, fanboys debated why the Empire would go to the trouble to build a super weapon with such an obvious design flaw.  I have to admit that I was often one of them.  No one else seemed to care but, to us, this was a huge deal.  If the Empire could figure out how to blow up a planet with one super laser, why couldn’t they figure out how to protect that one valve?

Now, thanks to Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, we have an answer.  We not only know why that valve was there but we also know what was meant in New Hope when the rebel general said that the plans to the Death Star had been stolen at great cost.

Rogue One is a fan’s dream, one that answers questions while expanding on the Star Wars mythology.  Unlike the previous prequels, it adds to the story without cheapening the original films.  In fact, of all the Star Wars films, Rogue One is the first to make the Death Star into a believable weapon of mass destruction.  When it appears over one planet, it blots out the sun.  When it blows up a rebel base, we see the destruction from inside the base instead of observing it from the safety of Death Star.  Director Gareth Evans does for the Death Star what he previously did for Godzilla.

death-star

Unfortunately, like Godzilla, the action and the special effects in Rogue One are usually more interesting than any of the film’s characters.  Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Donnie Yen, Jiang Wen, Alan Tudyk, and Riz Ahmed are all good actors but they’re all playing underwritten parts.  No one steps up like Harrison Ford did in the original trilogy.  Commander Kennec, played by Ben Mendelsohn, has a little more depth than the typical Imperial villain but, for better or worse, the film’s most memorable performances come from a CGI Peter Cushing and James Earl Jones providing the voice of Darth Vader.

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Despite the underwritten characters, Rogue One is still the best Star Wars film since Empire Strikes Back, a return to the grittiness, the thrilling action, and the awe of discovering new worlds that distinguished the first two movies.  For once, a Star Wars film seems to have more on its mind than just selling toys.  Though we already know what is ultimately going to happen to the Death Star at the end of New Hope, Rogue One is a frequently downbeat film.  There are no Ewoks and, to great relief and rejoicing, Jar Jar is never seen.  The closest that Rogue One gets to comic relief is Alan Tudyk providing the voice of a cynical robot.  The emphasis is on the horrors of war and even the rebels are troubled by some of the things that they have done.  For once, the Rebel Alliance actually feels like a rebellion and the evil of the Empire feels real instead of cartoonish.

Rogue One is projected to be the first of many “Star Wars stories,” stand-alone film that will expand the universe and hopefully clarify some of the points that were left unclear by the original trilogy.  I think it’s going to be very successful very Disney.  I’m just dreading the inevitable Jar Jar origin story.

 

Review: Game of Thrones Ep. 07 “You Win Or You Die”


HBO was kind enough to allow people who registered for their HBOGO.COM service to watch this seventh episode of Game of Thrones a full week before it aired. I wasn’t planning on watching it ahead of time, but since I already was signed up I decided to just go ahead and watch it. I must say that this latest episode continues to build on what has been a very strong first season for the tv adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s popular and critically-acclaimed medieval fantasy novel series of “A Song of Ice and Fire”.

The last episode was a major turning point for some of the characters in this series. “A Golden Crown” saw Daenerys Targaryen finally become her own woman in the face of her older siblings buffonery and childish tantrums. Behavior which finally got him the “golden crown” he deserved from Khal Drogo (and one which Daenerys seems to approve of). Tyrion Lannister using his wit and cunning mind to get himself extricated from the craziness that was Lysa Arryn and her court in the Eyrie of the Vale. The episode also brings together all the clues and evidence Ned Stark had been gathering about the death of the previous Hand of the King.

One would think that nothing could top all the pivotal events of episode six’s “A Golden Crown”, but this seventh episode surely tops that one with some building on the revelations of the previous episode. It’s really a major testament to showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss at how they’re able to not just stay true to the source material but also condense some of the minor threads of subplots and backstory into an hour episode that’s thrilling, engaging and not pandering to it’s audience.

This episode was aptly titled, “You Win Or You Die” as the fight for the throne of the Seven Kingdoms finally begins. We see the introduction of the Lannister patriarch who has loomed over the series as some unseen Sword of Damocles who holds King Robert’s tenuous hold on his kingdom. It was a treat to see veteran British actor Charles Dance as Tywin Lannister and see him playing the character as a no-nonsense, pragmatic but ruthless leader of his House. His brief time in this episode told us all we needed to know about Tywin. He’s so unlike his three children and this fact has become such a burden to him that he’s willing to take whatever virtue from the one child he sees as his most capable heir in Jamie that he’s willing to forgo all the faults. The scene of him butchering and dressing the stag while talking down (and propping up) Jamie for his foolishness with challenging Ned in episode five was very prophetic.

The episode also sees the return of Jon Snow and his part of the series’ story as he finally gets formally inducted into the Night’s Watch with Sam and the rest of the new recruits. What should’ve been a momentous occasion has been tempered by the sudden news of his uncle Benjen’s disappearance north of the Wall. It also shows Jon at his most petulant. What he saw as punishment from the Night’s Watch trainer and resident asshole in Ser Allister when he gets assigned as the Commander’s squire and steward was seen by his friend Sam as Jon being groomed for future command. For those who have been quite tough on chubby and cowardly Samwell should really have second thoughts about just how useless he is. He is surely becoming the voice of reason and logic to Jon’s more impetuous and “act now, think later” mentality. We also see the return of one of the direwolves as Jon’s (aptly named Ghost) brings him a gruesome gift once he has taken his vows.

The third major event in this episode before we get to it’s climactic finish brings us back to Vaes Dothrak and to Daenerys and Khal Drogo. With Viserys now out of the picture we see Daenerys begin to assert herself on Khal Drogo. While her brother’s dreams of becoming the ruler of the Seven Kingdoms have been dashed with a golden, metallic clang her own ambitions have not. She now sees herself as the true Dragon and still wishes to have the Iron Throne for her unborn son, Rhaego. While Khal Drogo still doesn’t see such things as important for him and his people an event in a marketplace which puts his khaleesi and son in danger finally convinces him of the danger the Seven Kingdoms poses.

This all leads us to the beginning of the “game of thrones”. Ned now fully knows why his predecessor was killed as the secret of Joffrey “Bieber” Baratheon’s lineage becomes quite clear. While more crafty and politically adept individuals would keep the secret from Cersei this is Ned Stark we’re talking about and he confronts his Queen with the news. To say that Cersei wasn’t flustered would be an understatement. This episode showed Lena Headey in full control of the Cersei character as we see her play the role with more iron and spine than what was shown in the novel.

“You Win Or You Die” finally sees an ignominious end to King Robert and his whoring and drinking. What was suppose to be a boar-hunt to help alleviate the stress he has been getting from both the Lannisters and the Starks finally gets him gored by the very boar he’s trying to hunt (though there’s suspicion that his inattentiveness during the hunt may have had some help). Mark Addy does a great job as Robert on his deathbed as he confesses his failings not just as a ruler but as a husband and as a father to the Seven Kingdoms, Cersei and Joffrey respectively. He appoints Ned to become the Regent of the Kingdoms until Joffrey is of age and does so officially with a sealed document.

One would think this final and dying declaration from a dying ruler would be enough to give Ned the power he requires to put the kingdom into order from the coming chaos but that would be selling all the characters with something to gain short. Robert’s not even cold when his younger brother Renly approaches Ned about plans to seize the throne from Cersei, but Ned being the honorable type refuses. Whatever ally he might’ve had to help him leaves the city as he confronts Cersei and Joffrey about the plans of succession. This is where the episode finally explodes into the conflict that’s been building since the very episode.

Some might say that this episode seems quite full of subplots and story threads and might not devote enough time for each. In fact, I was surprised at how much the writers were able to cram into this episode and still make each storyline have the time to make their events important to the series as a whole. While the episode ends with the the “game of thrones” in full swing in King’s Landing, the episode could also mean that things in the Wall and north of it has finally sunk into Jon and his fellow recruits as being truly serious. He and his new brothers must win or die. It’s as simple as that. Even Daenerys’ situation across the Narrow Sea fits the episode title well. With her now the bearer of the Targaryen line and her husband the leader of a powerful army she must also win or die.

Everyone in this episode seems to know the rules of the game their playing except the one person who seemed to be the one who had the most to win or lose. This episode showed Ned at his most intractable and honorable self, but it also showed just how much ill-prepared he is to fight in a battlefield where he doesn’t know who to trust and the very people who he shouldn’t trust might be his only allies. The final scene of the episode really highlight’s this dilemma for Ned and was such a great cliffhanger for the final three episodes to come before the series end’s it’s first season.

For fans of the books this episode shouldn’t disappoint and for new fans it should excite and really pull them in deeper into the world of Martin’s creation. Next week should continue the events we’re left to process as this latest episode ended. Will war finally break out between the two major houses of Lannister and Stark? Will Drogo finally bring his Dothraki horde into the Seven Kingdoms to gift his wife the Iron Throne she covets? What agenda does Littlefinger have and will it be the downfall of one of the houses?

There’s so much to be answered but seeing how this series just seems to get better with each successive episode I don’t doubt that episode eight will drop the ball and disappoint us with the answer (or will more questions arise) to those very questions.

Review: Game of Thrones Ep. 05 “The Wolf and The Lion”


For those bemoaning the fact that the last couple episodes of Game of Thrones had been lacking in the action department and had veered into exposition territory should be sated by the events of the fifth episode simply titled, “The Wolf and The Lion”. This episode still retains much of the excellent writing and storytelling done by showrunner David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, but it also brings to the forefront the violent conflict that will soon engulf the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros.

George R.R. Martin’s books of which this show’s based on never lacked for brutality and medieval violence on a scale not seen often in fantasy. “The Wolf and The Lion” finally brings to this series the two lead houses which becomes the spark for the show’s upcoming conflict. The episode adds more intrigue to the proceedings even as it begins a hard boil into the climactic end that should make the second half of this series to finally and fully hooked it’s viewers.

We see Lady Catelyn and her entourage on the road as they travel to her sister’s realm at the Vale to conduct a trial of Tyrion Lannister who she has accused of conspiring to assassinate her young son Bran. It’s while on the road we see a hint at how violent this show can get as brigands from the hill tribes on the road to the Eyrie in the Vale ambushes her group. Blood flows and even Tyrion gets a chance to prove his martial prowess in defense of the very woman who has accused and planning to pass judgment on him. I must say that his scene with the kite shield and the head of a hill tribesman probably brought more than a golf-clap and courtesy cheer from fans of Peter Dinklage.

This episode also continues the show’s growing habit of inserting more backstory to supporting characters like Theon Greyjoy who we see visiting his favorite redhead Ros outside of Winterfell. This scene may seem out of left field for those who have never read the book, but for those who have it’s a nice touch seeing the seed of doubt enter Theon’s mind about his relationship with House Stark and his role as a noble son of House Greyjoy of the Iron Islands. Though I must say I think I became temporarily blinded when the camera failed to pan up and audiences were shown Greyjoy junk flapping in the breeze.

The rest of the episode really centers on the Wolf, the Lion and the Stag. The wolf would be Ned Stark who continues his investigation on the true reason why the former King’s Hand was killed. Each question answered brings up new ones and we begin to see Ned finally begin to notice that he is definitely out of his element. Intrigues, schemes and shadow-games surround him and for a man used to fighting enemies he knows and sees this revelation really knocks him back. The final nail in his growing fear that he made a mistake coming south is brought to bear by his friend and king.

A council meeting conducted by Robert himself brings the question of what to do with the newly pregnant Daenarys Targaryen. While Daenarys doesn’t appear in this episode her presence still looms large over the episode’s many subplots and threads. She’s deemed a danger to the Seven Kingdoms and Robert is willing to do the unthinkable (in the mind of Ned, at least) to make sure Daenarys never crosses the Narrow Sea with an army of 40,000 Dothraki horsemen and the might Khal Drogo to take back the Iron Throne. It’s this decision by Robert and his council to expedite Daenarys with extreme prejudice that finally convinces Ned that it’s time to go back North where the real danger to the Seven Kingdoms lie waiting for winter to arrive.

I won’t spoil the rest of the episode. Especially the last five minutes which really amps the action for this series. For fans of the books this sequence should be a delight. The show has been readily accepted by the book’s fans despite some changes in how certain characters have been introduced and allowed to grow. While these very fans understand the nature of adapting a novel of over 800 pages into a 10-episode series of an hour per they still worry that too much cutting and trimming will occur to fit the first novel into this season. I’m happy to say that the series and the book have met pretty much in the same place in terms of storytelling and further trepidations about how the showrunners ar ehandling the adaptation should really go away by now. If one is a fan of the book and has stayed with this series up to it’s halfway mark then complaining about changes and tweaks to characters and storylines is just nitpicking. For those who are new to the work of George R.R. Martin then this episode should whet their appetites even more for more action, intrigue and, of course, sex as the show moves inexoribly towards a boiling point and the explosion of war and violence when it finally occurs.

It will be interesting to see the second half of the first season of Game of Thrones play out as we finally begin to see battle lines being drawn. House Stark and it’s allies on one side and House Lannister and the lesser houses and bannerman loyal to them in the other. Then there’s the King Robert himself stuck in the middle trying to keep the Seven Kingdoms from imploding as the threat of a Targaryen with an army of Dothraki horsemen looms dangerously on Westeros across the Narrow Sea. This episode didn’t even mention anything about the problems at The Wall and what lies beyond it to the north. Not once did this episode mention anything about “winter is coming” yet that unspoken warning also looms like a shadow over everyone.

It’s going to be a very long wait til the next episode and, for those who have HBOGO, the next two episodes. Up next week will see the return of Daenarys and her idiot brother Viserys in the sixth episode titled, “A Golden Crown”.

Review: Game of Thrones Ep. 04 “Cripples, Bastards and Broken Things”


We’ve now come to the fourth episode of HBO’s very ambitious and expensive medieval fantasy series based on author George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” saga of which the first  book make’s up the first season. The first three episodes have done a great job at not just setting up the rules which govern this fantasy world of Martin’s but has deftly handled the many characters both main and supporting. It’s always been one of the many trepidations by fans of the books that the show may dumb down and simplify all these personalities both big and small for the tv screen. Luckily, for both fans and non-fans of the book the writers of the show have kept much of these characters intact.

“Cripples, Bastards and Broken Things” is quite an apt title for this latest episode as it deals with exactly just that. The show explores those three subjects. We begin with both cripple and bastard finding a common ground as Tyrion (Peter Dinklage in what could only be an Emmy-winning performance as the Lannister Imp) shows compassion instead of pity to the crippled Bran Stark despite his very own suspicion as to the cause of Bran’s fall. It’s also in these scene where we see the appearance of fan favorite Hodor (Kristian Nairn). Hodor’s introduction is one of several instances which has allayed my concerns that such minor characters would be trimmed from the book as it makes its way onto the show. While I’m sure the show will not introduce every name from the book at least they’ve taken a deep understanding as to which of the supporting cast in the book must remain even if they are quite minor.

The rest of this episode really deals with the “Broke Things” of the title. We see just how broken the situation has become not just in Castle Black with the Night’s Watch but all across the Seven Realms of Westeros. The king’s insistence in holding a tourney for his newest Hand has led to more debt as more people flood into King’s Landing to witness this event. We see the broken relationships between family members in the houses of Stark, Lannister and Targaryen. It’s these cracks which has led to corruption and intrigue which could only lead to tragedy for the current holder of the Iron Throne and for all of the Westeros.

Even some of the characters themselves show signs of being broken things with the most visible being Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) whose cocky and self-absorbed personality shows hints of humanity. He sees what his king has been doing to hurt not just the kingdom he serves but to his sister Cersei whom he loves. There’s a brief hint in his expression as he stands guard outside Robert’s bedroom as whores attend his brother-in-law knowing he cannot do anything to fix it without living up once more to his infamous moniker of Kingslayer.

This episode introduces several new characters that should have some impact in the coming weeks as the show leads to it’s climactic season finale. One character which should please fans and make non-fans of the book lean with interest is the “Mountain”. Gregor Clegane is aptly named and comes in as Sandor “The Hound” Clegane’s (Joffrey Bieber’s personal guard with the half0burned face) older and much more brutal brother. We don’t hear him speak, but his entrance and what he does during the jousting tournament looms large in that sequence. It helps that Petyr Baelish (Aidan Gillen great in the role) gives Sansa a brief tale concerning the “Mountain” and the “Hound” which adds some mystery to the two siblings which the writers will hopefully explore further as the series moves along this season and the next.

The other new character that gets some major time in this episode was one of the stronger ones in terms of portrayal. Samwell Tarly (John Bradley-West sticking the role almost perfectly) is the latest recruit to don the black of the Night’s Watch and he’s as far from the ideal candidate for the black as any this show has shown. He’s fat, cowardly and almost effeminate in his behavior, but the character comes in as a broken thing. He’s forced to join the only thing he knows would accept him despite his shortcomings and the only haven from the suffering he has endured from his own family. At first it seems like pity that forces Jon Snow to take Sam under his wing for protection, but as he learns more of Sam’s background from Sam himself the more he sees similarities between the two of them. Only the turn of the fate having put Jon in the compassionate care of Eddard Stark has made him into the young man he is and becoming. It’s this growing rapport between Jon and Sam which really governs the Night’s Watch part of Game of Thrones.

But the show is not all about cripples, bastards and broken things. We see the beginning of the inner fires in both Daenerys Targaryen and Catelyn Stark in this episode. With the former we see how much she continues to grown into the role of Khaleesi of the Dothraki Horde. The confrontation between her and her older brother Viserys should begin to allay fears fans have had about how the writers have been handling the Daenerys character. Yes, the first three episodes haven’t really shown Daenerys being strong and kickass, but even in the book she wasn’t written to be such a character right from the onset. In both book and show her growing confidence still takes time. It just happens that the show just made her quite pliable and weak to start off with. I think that by the time this season ends Daenerys will grow into the confident character fans have been waiting to see.

With Catelyn Stark the situation has been a bit more complex as her character has been given several more layers of complexities with her book counterpart didn’t have. In the book she’s almost Ned Stark’s equal in almost everything, but lost in that was an emotional core which the show has given her. It’s this emotional layer which has added a loving motherly aspect to the character. It sometimes came off as helplessness in the previous episodes, but what mother wouldn’t feel so frozen with worry and inaction for the tragedy to have struck one of her sons. The fire that fans have been waiting for begins to fan as Catelyn sees herself confronting one of the very Lannister’s who she believes had a hand in the assassination attempt on her crippled son, Bran. Her reciting the many different bannermen who are loyal to her house and to her husband’s house was very inspiring and just a hint of what will come next as a storm of swords and a clash of kings loom over the horizon of Westeros.

Overall, “Cripples, Bastards and Broken Things” continues a streak of excellent episodes in the premiere season for Game of Thrones. We see more intrigue and machiavellian machinations than action, but it’s entertaining and thrilling nonetheless. This show has shown that fantasy, especially on TV, doesn’t have to be always about battles and bloodshed (though the spearing of the knight at the joust was done bloody well enough). It’s the political maneuverings and intrigues which will ultimately drive this show towards the very battles and bloodshed fans of these type of shows end up craving for.

Next week’s episode will be “The Wolf and The Lion”.


PS: It was great to see Jon Snow’s direwolf finally appear in its grown form. We’ve already it as an albino pop, but not grown like we’ve already seen with Summer, Nymeria and Lady. Ghost will soon become a favorite with the show’s fans the more he appears. The only one’s we haven’t seen are Robb Stark’s Grey Wind and Rickon Stark’s Shaggydog.