Rogue One

Jynglorious Basterds

jynersoI became worried about Rogue One when it was reported that George Lucas loved it.  That the creator of the Star Wars prequels, writer of the infamous “I don’t like sand” monologue, father of Jar Jar Binks, who apparently found zero value in last year’s powerful The Force Awakens, would love this one, concerned me more than any amount of reshoot reports.  On top of that, I keep hearing that Rogue One is “brutal,” a “war film,” and “a Star Wars movie for grown-ups.”  But wait a minute.  There’s not even any blood in this movie.  The Force Awakens had blood, both rubbed on a stormtrooper’s helmet and leaking out of Adam Driver’s body as he punched himself in his own gunshot wound.  That movie was also full of psychological terror and contained the telepathic version of sexual assault.  I’m starting to think that a certain number of people either don’t remember what they saw last year, are still sore about Han Solo, or Disney simply told them to fall in line on this one (they did).

A note here: Rogue One is better than a good percentage of blockbuster fare, but as the studio has at least four more Star Wars films coming up (and a responsibility to make them good), I think it’s more important to discuss what sucks about this one.

The film follows a ragtag group of misfits who find themselves involved in a mission to steal the plans to the Death Star, leading up to the moments before A New Hope.  The mission is led by Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), who has had enough of the squabbling and doom-saying of the Rebel Alliance’s brass. She is joined by Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), a Fulcrum operative who plays like a darker Han Solo; Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), a pilot who defects from the Empire; Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen), a warrior monk from Jedha (essentially a Mecca for Force-believers); Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen), Chirrut’s bodyguard/apparent life partner; and K2-S0 (Alan Tudyk), a wise-cracking droid who works as Cassian’s copilot and comic relief (because let’s face it: Cassian is a bit of a downer).

On the other side of things, ambitious bureaucrat Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), who has been invested in the Death Star project for over a decade, continues to try to impress the Emperor and become the station’s commanding officer.  As we all know, that role eventually goes to Grand Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing, recreated here with terrifying CGI).  Mendelsohn plays a great villain and Krennic is even sympathetic at times, but if you haven’t read the tie-in novel, James Luceno’s Catalyst, Krennic comes off as a bit of a hollow shell with no motivation but to be a badder bad guy, and he’s upstaged by the combo of Tarkin and the returning Darth Vader.

In fact, none of the characters are greatly developed; their depths as people and reasons for sacrificing themselves to the cause are thrown aside in favor of exhaustive battle scenes involving mooks in different shades of black/white/gray armor.  The entire third act is like playing chess with one of those special boards where the pieces actually look like people: it’s a bummer when you lose one, but it’s not a real person, so what are you really losing?

The haphazard treatment of characters is even more infuriating if you’ve read the novel.  Lyra Erso (Valene Kane), Jyn’s mother, whose perspective you’ve spent hundreds of pages on, is predictably and unceremoniously killed in the first five minutes of the film (and in a way her novel counterpart could have easily escaped from, given that she dealt with much worse).  The other returning characters, Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) and Saw Gererra (who also appeared on the Clone Wars series and in Catalyst, played here by Forest Whitaker), are given only slightly more to do before they’re dismissively brushed off the board.  It’s all in an effort to showcase the “Wars” part of the series title, which mostly works, but you have to be willing to pretend you don’t see each cliche coming.

But the most egregious disservice goes to the main characters themselves.  Yen’s limited screentime causes his character to have no real reason to be in the final battle, unless you headcanon the idea that the Guardians of the Whills allow the Force to use them as a tool, and that he sees a purpose for himself (none of this is addressed directly though).  Chirrut and Baze have a close and seemingly very old relationship, but we don’t get to be part of it.  Bodhi’s redemptive arc and ordeal at the hands of Gererra are all for nothing, as he magically recovers from the supposedly irreversible torture, and is sloppily eliminated from the film just as he becomes one of its best characters.  Gererra, so important to Jyn’s upbringing, simply allows himself to die after he gives her some vital info, as if he’s fully aware that the plot no longer needs him.  What happened to his Che Guevara rebelliousness?  How/why did he end up with a breathing apparatus and golf clubs for legs?

Speaking of Jyn, the newest in a line of incredible Star Wars heroines with their own stories (Leia, Rey, Ahsoka, Asajj Ventress, etc.), the part is played with such confidence and skill by Felicity Jones that it’s a shame this character will never get more room to expand and breathe.  Despite her motivations for launching a suicide mission being a bit murky, she’s ultimately the film’s sun and moon, and I would have traded any amount of fanservice for more time with her.

The biggest delights in Rogue One are references and easter eggs planted there for superfans and the generally observant: unused footage of Red Leader and Gold Leader from A New Hope; the inclusion of Hera Syndulla from Rebels; a run-in with the ill-fated Dr. Evazan and Ponda Baba; a mention of the Whills; the line “May the Force of Others be with you” (the original “May the Force be with you” before Lucas revised it), to name the most notable ones.  A cameo by C-3p0 (Anthony Daniels) and R2-D2, which felt jarring to many, was a relief for me.  “Hey,” I thought.  “At least those guys make it out of this.”

The original ending of this film had the characters surviving, but last minute changes led to a “darker” ending where the characters achieve a Pyrrhic victory by sacrificing themselves to get the plans to Princess Leia.  This change supposedly came late in the process, with director Gareth Edwards not knowing that Disney would be fine with him killing everybody off. I’m not sure I buy the idea that two ships run as tightly as Lucasfilm and Disney didn’t communicate about this before production even began, but whatever happened, the real sacrifice was that triumphant shot of Jyn and co. storming the beach, Death Star disk in hand, living to see the fruits of their labor.  I’m not saying everyone needed to survive, but the deaths of all seven characters aren’t earned by the time they happen.  And Edwards/Kennedy’s justification for this?  “Well, they’re not in A New Hope.”  Do I need to mention that the Rebels were battling the Empire all across the galaxy?  That Luke/Han/Leia just happened to be at the center of the group that fought Imperial leadership, and thus are the ones we follow in the original trilogy?  That there were thousands of Rebel ships at the battle of the Second Death Star, with unnumbered pilots and solders we don’t see?  That characters in the Aftermath novels (canon stories approved by Lucasfilm) fought on Endor, but weren’t in the movies?  There were plenty of ways to end this without a contrived bloodbath.  The ending isn’t the worst this film could have had, but it’s rushed and out of order.

One thing I do appreciate is the diversity of the cast.  However, it’s a diverse cast of people destined to be cannon fodder and who are never remembered by the main characters of the trilogy.  Now we know why the original Star Wars is all white people: everyone else died in this fucking movie.

220px-rogue_one2c_a_star_wars_story_posterRogue One (2016); written by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy; directed by Gareth Edwards; starring Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, and Donnie Yen.

Ip Man and Ip Man 2

Rush upon loss of contact

For those not in the know, Wing Chun is the deadliest Chinese killing art, said to be created by Ng Mui, one of the Five Elders (the only survivors of the Shaolin Temple’s destruction by the Qing Dynasty).  Popularized by grandmaster Yip Man (Ip Man), the first to teach it openly, Wing Chun is currently the most globally widespread form of Southern Kung Fu.  One of the most famous recent practitioners was Bruce Lee, and although he didn’t learn the entire system, he credited Wing Chun for many of his greatest accomplishments.

Ip Man is a biopic loosely based on the life of the title character, and while taking several liberties with historical accuracy, it’s an excellent film that captures the spirit of Wing Chun and gives spinal shivers to anyone passionate about martial arts, camaraderie, and family.  The atmosphere goes from peaceful to gritty as the Japanese begin to occupy China, and the family mentality of the Foshan Chinese is a heartfelt, tear-inducing spectacle – call it “nationalism” if you must, but it’s more than that, something much more raw.

The story of the film concerns Ip Man’s rise to popularity as the folks of Foshan beg him to teach them Wing Chun.  He politely refuses, choosing to focus instead on his wife, Wing-sing (Lynn Hung) and his toddler son Ip Chun (Li Chak), and only displays his abilities in friendly, private exhibitions with friends.  When a Mongolian practitioner of Northern Fist, played by the famous Fan Siu-wong, enters Foshan with a group of bandits and roundly defeats the masters (Sifu) of Tai Chi Chuan, White Crane and several others, Ip is forced to step in and defeat him to uphold the dignity of Foshan.  Following this bout, during which Police Inspector Li (Lam Ka-tung) and most of the town’s people listen in, Ip’s fame becomes unprecedented.  Japanese occupation begins shortly after, and Ip is forced to get a job as a coolie at a coal mine while the local Japanese general, Miura (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi) and his sidekick Colonel Sato (Shibuya Tenma) use Ip’s own mansion as a place to hold martial arts exhibitions.  When two of his friends are needlessly killed during these fights, Ip decides to take a stand.

One of my favorite things about this film is the privilege of seeing many unique styles of Foshan kung fu that are now all but extinct: Northern Fist, Kwon Dao, White Crane, and so on.  The music is gripping, and the direction of Wilson Yip makes every scene (even the occasional flat dialogue) vibrate with passion.  Donnie Yen’s performance as the legendary grandmaster is absolute, and I believed him from the start.  Yen, a popular Chinese actor who has studied many forms of martial arts in his time, was instructed by the real-life Ip Chun (the son of Ip Man) in Wing Chun, and has solidified his place as not only a dedicated actor but a true martial artist in order to play this role.

Areas of improvement have been cited by Ip Chun, including the appearance of the mansion (apparently quite different from real life) and the fact that while the film takes place in Foshan, it was not shot on location.  I’d argue, however, that Yip’s re-imagining of Foshan is inspired and effective, and every time I see this film I feel like I’m walking through those streets in the time that it was a quaint martial-arts prefecture and not its current state (which isn’t much different in appearance from Los Angeles when you look at it from above).

One of the most impressive scenes is the one in which Ip Man bests ten karate black belts at once.  Less-educated critics have criticized the scene, saying it took them out of reality, but having a brother who practices Wing Chun and having visited a Kwon myself, I argue the other side.  Battling several people at once is an enormous part of what Wing Chun is for, and practitioners/students do learn those rapid punches you see Donnie Yen obliterating several hopefully-well-paid actors and stuntmen with.

The second film, definitively titled Ip Man 2, focuses on British colonization in China, during which time Ip Man had begun taking on students.  Originally intended to focus on the relationship between Sifu Ip and Bruce Lee, fate intervened and an agreement could not be reached with Lee’s descendants.  This film can be divided into two halves as far as the narrative focus is concerned: 1) Ip Man begins taking on students and forms a rivalry with a nearby Hung Ga school; 2) the British make their presence known and Ip must once again make a stand for his culture.  The first half is stronger as we are once again treated to different forms of martial arts rarely used in the present world, including Hung Ga, Mantis, and others, and the direction really focuses on what Wing Chun is: a family.  The later third of the film is more or less a carbon copy of Rocky IV, with our hero dueling a seemingly-invincible foreign guy and then giving a speech about how he wishes our respective cultures could be at peace with one another.

This film treats us to many great new characters in addition to the ones returning from the first film.  The new characters include Sifu Hung, played by renowned choreographer and international action star Sammo Hung (who also choreographed both films in this series); Twister (Darren Shahlavi), the inexplicably sociopathic British boxing champion who considers Chinese boxing to be rubbish; and Fatso (Kent Cheng), a police officer and good friend of Hung.  The film also features Huang Xiaoming in a terrific performance as Wong Shun Leung, one of Ip Man’s first real-life students and eventual trainer of Bruce Lee.  Xiaoming plays the role with near-unrivaled coolness and has a strut comparable to Lee himself in Enter the Dragon.  Siu-wong’s character even returns, this time as an ally of Ip Man.

Ip Man 2 is, overall, very well-done.  While the first film was about survival, this one is about living.  Lives have gone on, some for the better and some not so much, and Yip’s decision to include some very human moments in addition to the fights (which are more frequent in this second installment) is refreshing and keeps the film from wandering too far from what it’s really about.  For example, Simon Yam’s character returns after being shot in the head and forgetting everyone he knows.  Ip’s devastation at not being remembered by his friend is incredibly touching, even (and perhaps especially) in scenes where no dialogue is even spoken.  Despite the cartoonishly awful and over-the-top performances of the British characters, western attitudes towards the Chinese are captured very well, almost to the point that we westerners wonder whether we’ve ever looked that stupid when talking about another culture.

I’ve heard complaints about the final fight scene from actual Wing Chun practitioners, which I agree with: if Ip was able to strike, Twister would not have been absorbing half of those blows.  However, by the same token, this is a film, and the bad guy needed to be more imposing and put up more of a fight than General Miura did.  That said, the fight is well-choreographed, although it’s damn near impossible for me to find a boxer engaging to watch (a whole lot of random swinging and unnecessary noise if you ask me).  Hasn’t been done since Rocky 3.  Luckily, Donnie Yen’s moves, coupled with the fact that we know he’s eventually going to break this redwood of a man down, save the fight from being a bore.

These films are an excellent, chest-wrenching journey through time, the evolution of martial arts, and the importance of family in all cultures.  Check them out as soon as you can.

Ip Man and Ip Man 2 will be available on official DVDs in the U.S. next month (July).

Ip Man (2008); written by Edmond Wong; directed by Wilson Yip; starring Donnie Yen, Simon Yam, and Hiroyuki Ikeuchi.

Ip Man 2 (2010); written by Edmond Wong; directed by Wilson Yip; starring Donnie Yen, Sammo Hung, and Huang Xiaoming.