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.

Four Lions

Rubberdinghyrapids, bro

Can you make a comedy about terrorism?  I don’t know.  I’ve heard Chris Morris’ Four Lions described as a “Jihadist satire,” but the implications of that term grind my gears a little bit.  In order to turn something into  satire or comedy (yes, even a black comedy), you need subject matter that can, under the right set of unusual or absurd circumstances, become laugh-out-loud comical.  Suicide bombing is not one of those subjects – and if it is, for you, you may want to take a moment and think about why.

None of this is to suggest Four Lions isn’t a good film.  It is, to a point.  I’m still just not sure what kind of movie it is.  It has some very humorous moments, which stem not from the subject matter but from Morris/Armstrong’s sharp writing.  If there’s one thing that adds charm to a film of this type, it’s the dark British humor (remember our “like Guy Ritchie but…” category?).  The story follows Omar (Riz Ahmed), a radicalized (but married) Muslim man aspiring to become a suicide bomber along with a few friends: Barry (Nigel Lindsay), a white convert to Islam, Waj (Kayvan Novak), the “slow” member of the group who will agree with pretty much anything Omar says, and Faisal (Adeel Akhtar), who likes to use animals for bomb experiments.  Eventually, the group recruit Hassan (Arsher Ali), a Tupac-quoting young Muslim man who fakes a bombing during a panel discussion.  Once he joins, we notice the count is one member high, and we begin to wonder which of the five will suffer a hilarious demise halfway through the film, leaving the “four lions” described in the title.

Surprisingly, there is scant conflict to speak of.  The friends cannot seem to agree on a target for their “plan,” but that’s about it.  Omar and Waj screw up their opportunities at a training camp in Pakistan and return home, but even then, the assertive Omar manages to keep his group under control (despite Barry taking a command position every time Omar is out of the room).  Even Omar’s wife (Preeya Kalidas) and child know what he’s planning, and fully support Omar blowing himself to bits.  This is striking, considering they seem to be a very moderate family, and whether the family’s blind acceptance is part of the joke, we’re left to decide for ourselves.  There are some excellent dialogue scenes early on, featuring witty derision between Omar and Barry (who you’d think would be the most comic character, but he’s established early on as the most ruthless and antagonistic), as well as Matt (Craig Parkinson), Omar’s co-worker/superior at his normal job.  Some of these scenes, specifically one in which Barry teaches the group to swallow their cell phone SIM cards in order to avoid being tracked, sets up the payoff at the end of the movie, some of which is excellent.

For whom are we supposed to root, you ask?  I’m not certain.  Obviously, we don’t want the group’s plan to succeed – it involves blowing up as many innocent bystanders as possible.  But we also don’t want these likable characters (except Barry, maybe) to be killed or apprehended by the government.  Since these are the only two options, the film doesn’t have what can be considered a “happy” ending, which goes against the Shakespearean idea that a happy ending is what makes a story a comedy.  Regardless, after the group decide to detonate themselves at a crowded marathon and begin their journey there, the story has a few nice slopes.  The fates of certain characters are brimming with irony, and while they may not generate laughter, they’ll certainly garner appreciation for the writing.  “Squat jogs, yeah?” the oblivious Matt states after Omar convinces him the group is carrying sports equipment, not explosives, and explains why they’re all running so strangely.

Ultimately, Four Lions is a clever, risky film packed with brilliant moments and good actors, but the tone is never defined.  What is supposed to be funny?  Why is it funny?  Sure, there are areas in our world (Gaza, for instance) where children are raised to believe martyrdom is heroic, but in a film like this, are we supposed to laugh at Omar’s likening of himself to Simba from The Lion King when explaining to his son how he’s going to blow himself up?  Again, why?  The tone darkens in the film’s final third.  Even some of the deaths, I think, are meant to be darkly humorous, but not everyone will laugh.  Some of the wrong people get blown up, which is expected, and the ending seems to ask, “Wasn’t that sad and regrettable?” after presenting us with a group of unfaltering extremists who barely lend a second to doubting what they are doing is right.  I’ll let you decide whether I’m talking about the characters or Morris and his film crew.

Four Lions (2010); written by Chris Morris and Jesse Armstrong; directed by Chris Morris; starring Riz Ahmed, Nigel Lindsay,  Kayvan Novak and Arsher Ali.