Friday, December 15, 2017

Star Wars: Rogue One (2016)


I’ve mentioned before that back in the 1990s I was a hard-core Star Wars fan. Yeah the prequels ended up killing some of that enthusiasm, but I still enjoy movies and shows set in the universe. There are plenty of stories to tell. What is interesting is that back in the mid 90s there was an experiment by Lucasfilm to see if folks were interested in non-film Star Wars events. Shadows of the Empire turned out to be a moderate success, and we were promised more (that idea got scuttled when the prequels were announced). I wouldn’t be surprised if one of these turned into the script for Rogue One.


Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) is the daughter of a famed Imperial scientist Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen). When she was a child the Empire abducted her father after he tried to escape their clutches. Jyn’s mother was killed and Jyn was found and raised by revolutionary Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker). Jump forward a few years and Jyn is a convict on an Imperial work moon. Luckily her life is about to take a different path.

The rebellion springs Jyn in the hopes that they can meet with the notoriously paranoid Gerrera and find out if the rumors of an Imperial super weapon are true. Gerrera has obtained a defecting imperial pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) who says Galen sent him. And so the adventure begins with Jyn joining forces with a motley crew. There is Cassian (Deigo Luna) a cynical battle hardened Rebel agent. K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) a reprogrammed Imperial droid with a chip on his shoulder. Chirrut (Donnie Yen) a Guardian of the Whills, a type of monastic order that treat the Jedi teachings as a sort of religion. There is also his protector the world weary Baze (Wen Jiang) who’s heavy weapon skills will no doubt come in handy. They will find themselves facing the might of the Empire lead by Director Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) a man out to prove to Darth Vader that he is worthy of praise. But will the Rogue One mission be a success, or a dismal failure.

Good Points:
  • The last half of the film is top-notch Star Wars style action and adventure
  • Alan Tudyk makes K-2SO the best character in the film
  • Really liked seeing this a return to this era of the universe

Bad Points:
  • The script is a mess
  • Most of the characters are not very compelling
  • The pacing in the first half is really off


Well here we have a completely middle of the road Star Wars film. When it comes to action and immersion in the universe the film hits all the right moments. Some solid acting also helps carry us past the fairly flat characters. Unfortunately the film feels messy with uneven pacing in the first half and some odd character motivations that don’t feel earned. It is solid entertainment as it is, but I see a much better film buried inside it and that is a disappointment.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 4
Sound: 5
Acting: 4
Script: 2
Music: 4
Direction: 4
Entertainment: 3
Total:  3

In Depth Review

Beach Party, Star Wars style.
When Disney announced that they were going to explore other facets of the Star Wars universe in films, I was curious about the idea. There were so many avenues to take the concept. Then they told us a little about Rogue One and I was really interested.

First off, before Disney declared the old expanded universe no longer cannon to the Star Wars saga, there was a hero who had obtained the Death Star plans and got them to the rebellion. In the video game Dark Forces you play as Kyle Katarn a rebel spy who infiltrates an Imperial base and steals the Death Star plans, beaming them to Princess Leia’s ship during Operation Skyhook. The operation was mentioned in the Star Wars radio drama. All that was out the window.

These two just blew their stealth roll.
Secondly, the idea of a band of rebels sneaking into an Imperial base and mixing it up with the Empire while having some of the main characters of the original trilogy lurking in the background – well that sounded just like the adventures you would create in the Star Wars Roleplaying Game by West End Games. This actually got me really excited, because I’ve been visualizing this since the 1990s. I envisioned a whole television series featuring these heroic rebel characters going on missions and attempting to find out more about the Jedi. This seemed like a film that was finally bringing that concept to life.

I think someone is ready for some beach volleyball.
But the specter of The Phantom Menace looms large over all things Star Wars related. So while I was very curious, I tried to keep my anticipation for Rogue One in check. Sure The Force Awakens was entertaining, but I kept hearing about many behind the scenes problems during the filming of Rogue One including a serious amount of reshoots. That rarely bodes well for a film.

The result is a film that feels messy. One of the best things about The Force Awakens was the nearly breathless pacing and constant feel of forward momentum. Rogue One feels sluggish and fitful for the nearly the entire first half of the story. Once the mission to steal the Death Star plans actually kicks in, the film generates suspense and builds action set pieces with great skill. Gareth Edwards is known for his action sequences and his expertise come through. But getting to that point is a bit of a chore.

Let’s focus on the good elements first. When it comes to immersing the viewer into the Star Wars universe prior to the events of A New Hope, Rogue One nails it. This movie looks like a natural progression toward the 1977 film. Everything from the tech, the uniforms, and down to the way the movie looks gives you the feel of a genuine predecessor to the series we are so familiar with.

A high tech game of Defender.
This is not an easy task, and great care was taken to ensure it felt natural. While there are a couple nods to the prequels, this film feels far enough removed from that shiny reality and are entrenched in the grittier dirty world of the original trilogy. It is great to see the rebels relying on the classic starships, including the X-wings and the Y-wings. Even the Imperial ships fall in the same boat. Vader does not arrive in the massive Super Star Destroyer from Empire Strikes Back, but on his regular sized juggernaut The Devastator.

The visual effects look pretty darn good for the most part. The starship battle at the end of the film is one of the best we’ve seen in the entire saga. It is framed well, easy to follow and intense as all hell. Alien creatures are pretty solid, there aren’t a lot of them featured in the film, our cast is all human. The strange tentacle beast that Gerrera uses against Bodhi is perhaps the most CG looking of all the creatures.

Speaking of CG there is one thing I can’t avoid talking about. Because of the film’s setting, we have some familiar faces in the movie. Darth Vader’s costume is actually a wonderful replica of the one from A New Hope (which is slightly different from the ones used in Empire and Jedi). He makes out fine. But we also have Grand Moff Tarkin (who was played by Peter Cushing in 1977) and Princess Leia (played by Carrie Fisher).

There is something uncanny bout seeing Tarkin again.
Tarkin plays a key role in Rogue One. The decision was made to have Guy Henry play the part with a CG replica of Cushing’s face placed on him in postproduction. The result is a mixed bag. When he is not speaking, he looks pretty darn convincing. Henry even has Cushing’s mannerisms down. But when he speaks, although the voice is nearly perfect, the face just hits that uncanny valley way too many times. And they were obviously proud of the work, because he gets some really long close ups. The result kept pulling me out of the film and being distracted by how disturbing he looked and not listening to his actual dialogue. Faring worse, with even less screen time is Princess Leia. She has about 30 seconds of screen time, but once again they have her walk right up to the camera and with her uncanny valley CG face right there, it just looks wrong. It actually soured the ending a bit for me.

Disney has pulled this before with Tron Legacy by having some really close up moments of Jeff Bridges youth enhanced face filling the screen. Rogue One suffers from the same issue. Recasting would have been fine, or keeping the stand ins backs to the camera would have worked too. But this was just a misstep and one that I think will age really poorly over time. Since it impacted my engagement in the film, I had to knock the visuals down a grade.

Is it just me or does he look like he could be
related to Dengar?
Sound effects work was top notch though. The movie is filled to bursting with classic Star Wars sound effects, it really added to the immersion factor of this film. Little touches only fans would notice, like the bass rumble when Vader uses his Force powers, or the chattering of the silver instectoid droids were fun audio Easter eggs for fans.

When it came to music we had a first for the Star Wars film saga. John Williams has scored every live action Star Wars theatrical film. But for Rogue One a new composer was asked to step up. Originally French composer Alexandre Desplat was working on the score. But after all the reshoots Desplat was unable to continue working on the project because of other commitments. Disney turned to one of their most dependable composers who had already scored the revamped version of Star Tours, Michael Giacchino.

Giacchino is a huge Star Wars fan, and he was one of the candidates to score The Force Awakens if John Williams was unavailable. This time Giacchino had a real test on his hands. He had to score a massive wall-to-wall orchestral work based on his favorite franchise (with all the fan expectations along with it) and do it in four weeks. It was an insane request, and Giacchino had already had a packed year scoring films like Star Trek Beyond and Doctor Strange. But he stepped up to this challenge and did his best.

"How did I let them talk me into this?"
The result is a score that captures the feel of John Williams 1977 score in tone and style, but is also clearly built by Giacchino. His voice comes through in the new themes and the application of all the thematic moments. It was a tricky balancing act, where Giacchino picks up motifs and ideas that were used by Williams only in A New Hope, but fleshes them out a bit for Rogue One. Other times he has his new material from Director Krennic play in counterpoint to the Imperial March or the Death Star motif. You can tell that Giacchino spent as much time and care as he could crafting this score. With the accelerated schedule and immense pressure we got a fine bit of film music.

There are a few moments where the score falters a bit. The use of his Hope theme during the opening title is a little too on the nose and almost sounds like a parody moment. There are also times where the Giacchino’s style that he established for the Abrams Star Trek films bleeds through into the Rogue One score. I think that time crunch he was under probably forced Giacchino to use some style shortcuts that people are familiar with. I know it is an issue when YouTube reviewers mentioned that some of the music made them wonder if Captain Kirk was going to show up and save Jyn at the end.

I think the droid is looking down on her.
The acting in Rogue One is solid all the way around. The fact that I’m not all too invested in the characters has less to do with the actual acting and more to do with the messy script. The cast does the best with the material they are given, and in some cases it is very little. Felicity Jones does an admirable job with a flat character. The script wants us to be invested in Jyn’s journey, but she is given little to do but react to events around her. We don’t see what really motivates her, or what fuels her actions. Jones is often left observing events and reacting to them. She has a few good scenes dealing with her father, but that is about it.

Faring a bit better is Luna as the jaded and cynical Cassian. Here is a character that feels like he sprung from a full back-story. Luna makes Cassian’s dedication to the Rebellion feel real and his actions have weight. Again, not much is given in the script, but Luna takes the small nuggets and runs with them. He feels like the most fleshed out of the main characters and it is due to his excellent performance.

These Stormtroopers have never heard of the blind
swordsman before.
For as little screen time as Yen and Jiang have, they actually create enough camaraderie between their characters. You feel like these two have been together for quite a while. They have some amusing banter and Yen in particular invests his character with some interesting moments. You could have almost had him play a larger role in the film and it would have been much more interesting. There is a story behind Chirrut, but sadly we just get hints of it.

Alan Tudyk is always great in pretty much anything he is in. He imbued Wash in Firefly with a lot of charisma. Playing the droid K-2SO doesn’t hinder him in the slightest. He makes the most of his limited screen time. And by the end of the movie, he was the hero I was most invested in when it came to their fate.

He has no problem blowing up your planet.
On the villainous side I will say that I liked Mendelsohn’s performance. He plays the ambitious and deadly Imperial officer perfectly. I love his arrogance and the way he has no problem talking back to Tarkin, and even a little bit to Vader (although he looks appropriately cowed after that encounter). He makes for a solid antagonist and again, I wish we had gotten just a little more time with him. It felt like there was more of story behind him, but it just didn’t make it to the screen.

Whitaker, Mikkelsen and Smits all do fine jobs with their small moments. But when you have guys like these why waste them in such small moments. I know that Whitaker had a lot of his scenes reworked, and his eccentric performance here feels a little off in some ways. But at the same time it added this uncertainty to his scenes. You never knew just what he was going to end up doing. If the script had served him a bit better, it would have been a great character. I will also say that Genevieve O’Reilly makes a perfect Mon Mothma. See Disney, you can recast a part and still make it work.

Jyn is finally ready to take action.
While most of the parts are in place to give us a movie that should work, it is the structure of Rogue One that just falls apart. I think the writers were hoping that giving Jyn a backstory with her parents and tying her directly to the Death Star in some way would raise the stakes. The problem is that Jyn never feels like she is motivated to really act for any reason. She is pretty much shuttled from location to location and only when her father dies does she really make up her mind about doing something. But this moment comes across so limp that it just doesn’t resonate. If we had more time with Jyn, seeing her yearning for her past, seeing her interaction with Gerrera it might have helped. But what we get is so sparse it just doesn’t have the impact it should. So for the bulk of the first half of the film you end up with character building moments that just don’t deliver.

Trying to make heads or tails of the rewrites.
This same thing happens with Director Krennic. Instead of building him as a threat, the movie spends time showing his struggles with Tarkin and Vader. It starts to fee like more scenes built around fan service than actual service to the story. His story has an ironic twist, but again, it feels limp and doesn’t really do much for the overall impact of the tale. And speaking of fan service, the film goes a bit overboard in that department with C-3PO and R2-D2 not to mention the thugs that harass Luke in the cantina showing up for no other reason than to make fans smile.

What really needed to happen was for the creators to pick a direction and stick with it. Instead we get a film that feels like it is trying to do too many things at once. It wants to turn Jyn into a variant of Rey from The Force Awakens. They wanted to create a mission impossible type film or a full-blown Dirty Dozen type movie. But those films focused more on building up to the mission than trying to create limp character moments. They knew they were building suspense and action set pieces. And we get that in spades in the second half of the film. That is what the whole movie should have been.

Darth getting a little dramatic.
In my mind Rogue One could have used fewer characters, a simpler narrative and the guts to go for something straightforward and intense from the first scene forward. We should have had this elite team of rebels, maybe see them in action during the pre-credit sequence James Bond style. Then have them receiving their mission to steal the plans. The rest of the film could be them coming up with a strategy to get the plans, maybe a small adventure getting a secret code or something to sneak into the base. Then the rest of the film with them attempting to get Skyhook pulled off. They should have picked a single villain as the main antagonist. Could be Tarkin or Krennic, but not both. Keep Vader for the big surprise at the end, that whole sequence works great. But those scenes with Gerrera and finding Galen could be dropped.

In the end, you get a muddled movie. I’ll admit, I was really hoping for something like a film version of Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game. And I was really disappointed during my first viewing. But seeing it a second time, I was able to enjoy the film for what it was: a flawed movies set in the Star Wars universe. It hits the sweet spots for fan service and action. But beyond that it feels like a disappointment. There is a really good (and maybe even great) movie somewhere in there. It’s a shame we didn’t get that.

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Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Nostalgia Nugget: Joining the Rebellion

80's Mickey Mouse dressed as Captain
EO back in 1987!
1987 was the tenth anniversary of Star Wars: A New Hope. I don’t remember there being all that much hype surrounding this. For most folks Star Wars was looking long in the tooth and a bit uncool. Most kids I knew were more into Transformers and G.I. Joe at the time. But the big topic of discussion was the Nintendo Entertainment System. I had many lengthy conversations about secrets in The Legend of Zelda during those days.

All that changed for me when my family went to Disneyland that year and rode the newly opened Star Tours. It reminded me of why I loved that film series and started my obsession with the series for the next couple of years. After the ride ended, you walked directly into a gift shop and distinctly remember my dad commenting on the overt commercialism of it all. But I didn’t care. I was in a Star Wars induced dream world. Of all the things that caught my attention, there was a pair of large books all about Star Wars. I flipped through one and was surprised at all the new information about the creatures, droids, spaceships and everything else was contained within. I asked for both, and my parents let me pick one.

The book that sparked dozens of
When I got home and started reading the book I was even more excited. Not only was it a wealth of new information, but the book described how to create your own adventures in the Star Wars world, and play these adventures with your friends. That’s right I had picked up West End Games Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game (or just SWRPG from now on). Both it and the Sourcebook were published that year in time for the anniversary.

I had played a tiny bit of the basic ruleset of Dungeons and Dragons at that point. I understood how the game was played, but the few times I tried to get a few friends to play it just didn’t go well. The great thing about SWRPG is that is seemed a lot less complex.

Eventually I got my hands on The Sourcebook, which included even more information about all kinds of Star Wars related things. The writers not only provided game stats and rules, but provided full-blown descriptions and histories for each entry as well. This was well before we had regularly published books in the Star Wars universe. So for the fan in the 80s this was a treasure trove of information. The book covered Starship systems, nearly every starship featured in the films and a few from the 80s novels. It had info on droids, alien species, and creatures. It also provided in depth explorations of weapons, standard bases layouts for rebels and imperials and then a full exploration of key heroes and villains from the series. Most of these are fun to read now, because things have changed so much with the prequels and expanded universe material. But back in 1987, West End Games let their imaginations go (I’m sure with Lucasfilm’s blessing) and crafted some really interesting stories.

So many secrets packed into this book!
Both books are packed with stills from the films of course. But they also used concept art that I had never seen before. The Sourcebook especially was imagination fuel. I actually started working on my first bit of fan fiction because of the material in these books and all the information and images they provided.

The RPG book had 12 color plates that were awesome. Most were color stills from the film. But the others were creative and very amusing ads directly from the Star Wars universe. One was a recruitment poster for the Imperial Army. One was an ad for the new X-Wing starfighter, touting all its advanced weapons and speed. There was another ad for the R2 series of droids extolling their versatility. The last was my favorite, a travel ad for a Star Cruise to all your favorite planets from the Star Wars universe. Visiting Bespin on a cruise starship sounds like a blast.

Time went by and I enjoyed reading and rereading the books, but I never got to actually play a full-fledged roleplaying campaign. Then in college I somehow managed to sucker my girlfriend, my sister and a friend from down the street to play a session or two. I had created a couple adventures over the years. So I dusted those off, revamped them a bit and helped them create characters.

Micro Machines released a bunch of small Star Wars
figurines and vehicles. We used these during the
game to figure out battle tactics.
My girlfriend created a specialized character (because I gave her preferential treatment and let her be the most powerful character of the three… yeah I broke all the tabletop gaming rules. I was young and in love… and I had convinced her to play an RPG based on STAR WARS with me. I was going to do anything I could to keep her playing). She was a rebel special agent, kind of like a galactic James Bond character. She used to be part of a smuggling organization, so they had a bounty out on her, but now she was one of the rebellions top field agents. My sister played an outlaw whose family had been massacred by the Empire, and now she was on a vendetta to kill the Colonel in charge of the massacre. She was a sharpshooter and bad ass. My pal from down the street wanted to be a Jedi. The only problem was that this game takes place after the events of A New Hope, so the Jedi order was destroyed. You could pick from a couple of force adept characters. He selected the best Minor Jedi. Essentially the character was trained by an old Jedi Knight who died before the training go too far along. So the Minor Jedi has some powers, but they are on the weak side. He does have a lightsaber so that is always fun.

Just look at these guys... our crew never
got this motley. 
So these three characters started their journey. Along the way they created a couple of other characters they would play instead or along with the ones they normally played. There was a little kid named Beatrice who tagged along sometimes. I remember a scout that helped them out on a few of the far-flung missions. He died in a dramatic moment and that fueled the other players to avenge him – especially my sister’s outlaw character who had a crush on him.

If this all sounds elaborate, that is because it was. We played nearly every week for two years. What started out as something to try, exploded into a full blown campaign that stretched from the end of the Battle of Yavin to the final shots fired on Hoth. By that point my sister and my girlfriend were still playing, and their characters were presumed dead by the rebels and left behind during the evacuation. The next adventure was going to be them attempting to steal an Imperial transport of some kind and escaping the frozen wasteland. But my sister was starting college and my girlfriend and I were getting more battered by our own workload at university. I just didn’t have time to craft the adventures. We stopped playing and those two characters were left on Hoth. We’ll never forget you Zendra and Sara. I’m sure they made it to the rebel alliance and were there celebrating on Endor.

The blank character sheet just
waiting to craft a new hero.
So yeah, two years worth of adventures, and I have to say it was some of the most fun I ever had writing and creating stories. Once we had a set group of characters I started to tailor the missions to their strengths and weaknesses. We actually played two campaigns. The first revolved around the search for an ancient storehouse of Jedi knowledge. I combined Raiders of the Lost Ark with Star Wars for that one, and it was a blast. The players didn’t want Darth Vader to find this before they did, so they were racing against the Empire trying to put the clues together. They had to interact with all kinds of characters who had pieces of the puzzle. They even went to Ben Kenobi’s old hovel on Tatooine to find out if he had anything hidden away about this lost storehouse. It was a ton of fun, and the finale sessions were intense and difficult as the Empire arrived right after our heroes and they had to decide if they would destroy the storehouse or try to fight off the enemies. They got what they could and destroyed the place, killing a Imperial General that had been dogging them the whole campaign and escaping before Vader arrived on the scene.

The second campaign was a bit looser in structure. My buddy wanted to seek out a Jedi mentor, so that was part of it. I also had them discover that the Empire was working on a new Star Destroyer for Lord Vader. They traced the location of that and committed some sabotage to slow the construction process on the Executor. They ran into a couple of Jedi who offered to train them, and turned out to be Vader’s protégés. That was a lot of fun. Then I had the past come back for all the characters in some form or the other. My girlfriend’s character ran into some of her old smuggling buddies and then bounty hunters just started appearing in nearly every session gunning for her. Word on the street was that Boba Fett himself was considering hunting her down. She decided to end this and take on her old boss herself. By this time she was starting on the Jedi path because of the information they extracted from the storehouse. My friend down the street moved, so his Minor Jedi character was killed, and so the agent picked up his lightsaber and went from there.

Hunting down the right pack for the ships we needed
in an upcoming adventure was always fun.
Together we made some great stories, and by this time I was able to pull characters and situations from the expanded universe books as well. So while this was all still happening before The Empire Strikes Back in the timeline, I kept it feeling new and exciting as this small group of rebels accomplished impossible missions. And boy did they keep me guessing. They came up with some amazing solutions to problems, talked their way out of trouble more than once and would often take the story in directions I never considered. One time in particular always stands out.

At one point they landed on a planet and made some real trouble for the Empire. But they had difficulties getting out of the entanglement and Imperial forces were able to mobilize and lock down the spaceport. At this point it was just the two player characters, Sara the jedi/agent and Zendra the sharpshooting outlaw. Against them was a whole battalion of stormtroopers just waiting for them to show up. They had set up heavy gun emplacements, they had a couple AT-STs on patrol. It was going to be a hard fight. As they snuck forward Zendra managed to kill a stormtrooper on patrol with a single well-placed shot and do it quietly. Then my girlfriend got an idea, she took off the trooper’s helmet, put it on and then sent out a emergency notification that the rebels were attacking at the opposite end of the port. She had to roll pretty high to con the commander who was already on alert. She rolled very high indeed. Not only did he believe her, but he sent most of his forces in that direction. They two pretty much waltzed right into the port hopped on the ship before the Empire even knew what was going on. I had planned out this huge battle for this finale to the session, and was ready for it to really test them. But when they attempted that trick, I had to let them have it, because it was so clever and my girlfriend rolled so high.

What do you mean someone made a movie of
the Star Wars RPG?!?
So I created a whole bunch of fan fiction with my friends, creating this set of interesting characters, filling it with all kinds of adventures and not really involving the main characters form the series all that often. It was a lot of fun and something that created a lot of memories that my sister and my wife (who pulled that stunt with the stormtrooper helmet all those years ago) will still bring up from time to time.

These days Star Wars has a completely different roleplaying system that is enjoyed by lots of folks. The old West End Games is remembered fondly by a lot of people because of how easy it was t explain and play and how entertaining the rulebooks were. Seriously the writing had a great sense of humor and plenty of good advice for new players. It was one of the most enjoyable bits of fiction writing and tabletop gaming I’ve experienced. There is really something neat about crafting a story with other people, building and exploring characters and diving into a fantasy world where the only limit is your imagination.

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Friday, December 8, 2017

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016)


It may have taken eight movies, but we finally experienced the entire Harry Potter saga on the big screen. For most of us it was an entertaining experience and the adaptations were handled about as well as you could hope for a series of novels with so much detail in them. But studios can’t let a good series end without trying to wring a few more stories (and dollars) out of it. Soon enough we heard that series author J.K. Rowling was working on a new storyline set in the same world, but occurring before Harry Potter was born. Sounds intriguing, but Hollywood prequels have never been all that great.


Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) arrives in New York in the middle of the 1920s. He’s on a mission to return a rare magical creature back into the wilds of Arizona. Unfortunately he has a mishap with a non-magical man named Jacob (Dan Fogler) who ends up with Newt’s case. When the case opens, some of the magical creatures inside escape, and start to run amok in New York!

At the same time the magical society in New York is dealing with internal struggles. Some feel that the “no-maj” denizens are creating more trouble than should be allowed. They feel the time may be ripe for wizards to step forward and assert some kind of control. Others are against the idea. But this results in uncertain times where breaking the law is bad for everyone. Newt’s little indiscretion is going to cause some major problems. Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), a  employee for the magical government, tries to get a handle on things, but each move she makes puts her in the way of Graves (Colin Farrell) a man who is on a mission of his own. Will Newt be able complete his quest for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, or is he going to find himself involved in something much more dangerous?

Good Points:
  • Gives us a look at the wizarding world in the United States and in the 1920s
  • Performances by the four main protagonists pull you into the tale
  • A score that captures the feel of the earlier series but gives it a jazzy twist
Bad Points:
  • Feels like it is trying too hard to set up future tales instead of focusing on its main tale
  • The movie moves in fits and starts
  • Some of the action sequences are difficult to follow

Solid entertainment if you are in the mood for a deeper look into Rowling’s wizarding world. But all the world building and story set up for the later films takes up a lot of screen time and is actually the less entertaining part of the film. I was more interested in Newt’s search for his lost beasts and his interactions with Jacob, Tina and Queenie. That story was full of laughs, whimsy and fun characters. The darker material felt more obligatory. In the end I hoped for something a little less calculated and more engaging.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 5
Sound: 4
Acting:  4
Script: 3
Music: 4
Direction: 3
Entertainment: 3
Total: 3

Curious about a full review, sent me an email and I’ll make additional thoughts to this review.

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Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Score Sample: Fantastic Beast and Where to Find Them (2016)

The Harry Potter films actually have a pretty impressive film music history. The series started with the maestro himself, John Williams, crafting memorable themes for the first three films. Hedwig's Theme has become the identity for the franchise and is used in nearly every instance of Harry Potter mentioned in television or movie form. After that you had composers like Patrick Doyle and Alexandre Desplat providing some equally impressive scores for the series.

So when Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was announced many film score fans wondered who would take up the mantle and if Williams themes would be used. The job fell to James Newton Howard, who has provided some excellent fantasy adventure scores in his day. He seemed like a good fit for the project. What is more, the film is set in the 1920s, so Howard was able to have some fun with the score. He took John Williams signature sound for the earlier films, added a bit of jazzy 1920s style and created a wonderfully fun score that hits all the sweet spots. 

This concert suite shows off both sides of the score using the memorable main them and taking it through variations. The last couple minutes go full 1920s jazz, and it is a lot of fun. So here is the track A Man and His Beasts from James Newton Howard's score to Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

MOVIE SIGN - MST3K Will Return

I'm a little late in posting this update, but things have been a bit crazy around here. As you may be aware, each Thanksgiving Day for the past few years Shout! Factory has held a marathon of Mystery Science Theater 3000 episodes to enjoy. Lately the episodes have been hosted by Joel Hodgson bringing us good cheer and news on the return of the series. He will usually have guests show up to banter with, mostly folks who worked on or are working on the new show.

This year Joel, Felicia Day and Jonah Ray hosted the Turkey Day marathon and talked about behind the scenes adventures of making Season 11. As the marathon wrapped up (with a showing one of my favorite episodes: Santa Claus), Joel declared that Netflix had given a green light for season 12. He said that Season 11 was one of the highest rated and most watched shows on the service and thanked everyone for making it such a wonderful success.

I have to admit, I was a bit worried about how Season 11 was received. While overall internet buzz was positive, it felt like it had a moment of hype that died quickly. But this is great news. Season 12 is on the way and I'm looking forward to enjoying another year of puppets mocking movies.

That also means I need to get my butt in gear and wrap up my reviews of Season 11 before the new season kicks off. Have you had a chance to enjoy any of the episodes from season 11? If so, what did you think of it so far?

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Hawk the Slayer (1980)


The 1980s were the Barbarian Age of fantasy films. We had a ton of flicks featuring muscle bound heroes saving topless women from monstrous puppets. It became so pervasive that the genre oversaturated the theaters and direct to VHS market by 1988.  Fantasy films kind of fell off the map for a decade or so. But imagine my surprise when I discovered this little gem of a film that attempted to tell a sword and sorcery tale, before the barbarians struck the gate.


In a legendary time two brothers battled in a far away land. Voltan (Jack Palance) had a heart filled with hate, and had become a minion of the forces of Darkness. Hawk (John Terry) was heroic and battled to save the land from evil and oppression. In their youth, the brothers fell in love with the same woman, but a quarrel killed their beloved and left Voltan horribly scarred.

Years later Voltan returns with an army of evil and threatens the Abbess of Caddonbury (Annette Crosbie) unless he receives a massive ransom of gold. Hawk comes to the aid of the abbey with help of his companions of old. Gort, (Bernard Bresslaw) the giant wielding a mighty hammer. Baldin, (Peter O’Farrell) the dwarf who eats just about anything. Crow, (Ray Charleson) the elf whose skills in archery make him deadly. Ranulf (Morgan Sheppard) the warrior whose wicked crossbow can shoot rapid fire bolts of death. And the mysterious witch (Patricia Quinn) whose power (and ping pong balls) may prove unstoppable. Do they have any hope in succeeding or is this the last adventure of Hawk the Slayer?

Good Points:
  • Commits to the adventurous feel and fantasy style
  • Takes inspiration from classic stories and movies and gives them a fantasy twist
  • Jack Palance is deliciously over the top
Bad Points:
  • The budget is low: impacting visual effects and sets
  • The humor misses the mark
  • Hawk is a pretty bland hero

No one would confuse this for a great film, but I will say it is pretty good for what it attempts to do. The over the top villains against Hawk’s varied crew make for some entertaining viewing. The low budget visuals add unintentional laughs to the whole thing. The intended humor is often pretty weak, but if you can get past those moments, you’ll find a movie with its heart in the right place and plenty of of fun viewing for bad movie night.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 4
Sound: 3
Acting: 4
Script: 3
Music: 3
Direction: 3
Entertainment: 4
Total:  4

In Depth Review

Hawk and his party of adventurers.
Ah, Hawk the Slayer where were you all my life? If I had run into this movie when I was a kid, I’m certain it would have been one of my favorite VHS watches. Unfortunately I didn’t discover it until the early 2000s when a coworker introduced me to it. She knew I was a big fan of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and figured this would be right up my ally. I borrowed the DVD from her and my wife and I had a great time watching it. The combination of the over the top performance by Palance, the wobbly sets, the hilarious “magic” effects and the ripe dialogue made it an instant winner for bad movie night.

And while the film isn’t going to win any awards, I don’t know if I’d necessarily call it a “bad movie”. Compared to dreck like Outlaw of Gor or Cave Dwellers, Hawk the Slayer is Lord of the Rings. It has a coherent story. It has actors who are committed to the roles. It has a certain style to it (not that the style succeeds, but it really tries). When it attempts to entertain, it mostly manages it (except for the funny parts).

What makes Hawk the Slayer an interesting film from the era is the fact that it was made before Conan the Barbarian and The Beastmaster set the course for fantasy cinema for the next decade. In fact its influence is more varied and therefore creates a movie that feels familiar and yet is unique among the films that surround it.

Hawk tries to play catch with the pommel of his sword.
There are two obvious influences on Hawk the Slayer. The first is Dungeons and Dragons. The game was first introduced in 1974, but had grown in popularity over the years and by the time 1980 rolled around it was already into a second iteration as Advanced Dungeons and Dragons or AD&D. And while a group of diverse characters teaming up to fight evil in a fantasy setting may have originated from The Lord of the Rings, the characters in Hawk the Slayer feel much more like a D&D party of adventuring heroes from the tabletop game. I could see this film appealing to young fans of the game (I’m sure the kids from Stranger Things have this in their VHS library).

"How do you solve a problem like Voltan?"
But the film also feels heavily influenced by Arthurian and Celtic legends. While you have fantasy characters like elves, dwarfs and giants running around, it is mentioned that they are all the last of their kind. We see Christian symbols all over the film, especially the Celtic cross that Eliane (Catriona MacColl) gives to Hawk. This cross plays a vital role in defeating Voltan and his dark powers. Then you have the fact that you have an abbey full of nuns and a powerful abbot as characters in the story. There is a feeling like this is a world changing from paganism to Christianity, much like another film from the same era: Excalibur.

Riding through a gauzy flashback.
But the movie has other influences from visual, story structure and even music. When you look at the story structure it is actually built like Seven Samurai and The Magnificent Seven. You have a group of defenseless innocents (the nuns in the abbey) threatened by a mob of wicked men (Voltan and his minions). He will return for their gold in a set time frame. The nuns send out a local villager for help and he gets ronin/gunslinger’s (Hawk) attention and they work together to gather a team to help the innocents. You get a series of vignettes as the ronin/gunslinger gathers the team and we see each team member in action. Then the final act plays out as the team battles against the raiders. Along the way some heroes and innocents are killed, but the raiders are defeated.

Posing for the action figures?
Some of the influence goes beyond the story structure. Some scene blocking and set up is clearly inspired by Kurosawa’s style. Each of the new companions has a clear personality and unique way of handling problems that makes them valuable to the group. Direct correlations can be made between the character types. For example Baldin the dwarf reminds me of the humorous Heihachi (Minoru Chiaki) whose laid back attitude helped ground the group Seven Samurai. Then you have the deadly Kyuzo (Siji Miyaguchi) who is the quiet master swordsman who fears nothing. I get the feeling that Crow the elf was supposed to be taken from the same mold. You can continue this comparison with all the heroic characters, with the only real exception being the witch.

Lots of close ups on Hawk's eyes.
That leads to the next influence, Sergio Leone’s Man with No Name films, like A Fist Full of Dollars and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. While a movie like The Warrior and the Sorceress went for what is essentially a rip off of Yojimbo directly, Hawk the Slayer comes at it a bit more subtly. Hawk is a man of few words, who often stands and coldly stares at his opponents before springing into action. The camera work in these scenes is heavily influenced by Leone, with close narrow shots of Hawk’s cold blue eyes and quick cuts to the enemies’ sweaty faces.

And then you have the music by Harry Robinson. Since this is the early 80s we have synths and some awesome disco backbeats pumping the music along. Seriously the music is an awesome flashback of cheesiness. But once you get beyond the disco synths, you get this synth whistle sound every time Hawk appears or there is a close up on his eyes. It is very reminiscent of Ennio Morricone’s uses of the whistle in The Good, the Bad and The Ugly. I’m not sure it is nearly as effective, but I’ll get to that in a little bit.

Now, I’m not coming down on Hawk the Slayer because of all these influences. In fact I think the movie handles them well enough that they all kind of work together to make something interesting. It doesn’t directly rip off any of these movies. Instead it takes the Star Wars approach and borrows here and there to make something unique, especially in 1980.

Voltan love scaring the simple folk, especially this
innkeeper played by Mr. Salt from Willy Wonka
and the Chocolate Factory
As unique as Hawk the Slayer is, that doesn’t mean it is a successful film. One of the elements that just doesn’t work for me is the acting choices. I think this may stem from the tone. While there is a consistent tone of adventure and peril in the film, there is also this odd feeling that they are targeting the movie towards a younger audience. So you get some very broad acting styles combined with some more serious story elements. It is a strange mix that makes the whole thing feel off, but usually in an unintentionally humorous way.

So you have Palance as Voltan just ranting and raving away. His scenes where he threatens his son Drogo (Shane Briant) and his men are hilariously evil. His unbridled rage at Hawk is also pretty amusing. Palance is not holding back and it makes all his scenes a lot of fun. Sadly his outfit isn’t all that threatening, even if the helmet is obviously going for the Darth Vader look.

Unfortunately John Terry is stuck in a role that requires him to be the cool, calm guy. Most of the movie is spent with Hawk standing, staring and saying things in measured tones. And as good as Terry is in other films, he just doesn’t have the presence to pull off this type of role. The result is that Hawk is actually a bit of a bland character.

Uh oh, another "humorous" moment.
Especially compared to all the insane supporting characters around him. Hawk the Slayer has a great group of heroes, well great in that they are all uniquely odd. Gort the giant is the most normal of the group. He’s just a huge hulking guy that talks loud and people assume he’s a bully. But no, he’s just loud, eats a lot and has a heart of gold. Bresslaw does a good job expressing all these qualities in the film, and he becomes Hawk’s right hand giant. Playing off of him is Baldin the dwarf. He’s small, but he eats a lot. And he lies to get more food. And he teases Gort… and um. Well he’s short. So there’s that. He’s basically the comic relief of the film. But comparing him to Gimli from The Lord of the Rings is not a good thing. Baldin is just kind of annoying. The set up for most of his jokes goes on way too long and the punch lines are just lame. The action just kind of stops when the jokey scenes happen. Bresslaw and O’Farrell seem to have the comic chops, but the material just isn’t there. On top of that, as a hero, Baldin doesn’t bring all that much to the table. At least the character he’s modeled after in Seven Samurai could fight, but Baldin just doesn’t do much at all but eat and make stupid jokes.

Ranulf should have patented his machine gun/crossbow
The two archers of the group are also interesting. Ranulf actually gets a lot of screen time as the film starts. He’s a villager that survives an off screen raid by Voltan, but loses his hand in the process. He then crafts a full repeating crossbow that self loads! With this bad boy he’s out for revenge on Voltan and his minions. Powerful motivation and a solid performance by Morgan Sheppard makes this one of the best characters in the film. Sadly he gets pushed to the side of the film once all the heroes are assembled. The odd thing is that Crow the Elf is less interesting but ends up with more screen time. Again, I think he’s supposed to be calm and cool. And when he doesn’t speak, he almost pulls it off. We find out he is the last of his kind, and there is a bit of that melancholy in Charlson’s performance. But then he talks. I’m not sure what the hell happened. They attempted to modify his voice higher… I think. But he is also talking in complete monotone – like the way a kid sounds when he’s a robot. I’m not sure why he chose to play an elf this way, but man is it distracting. It leads to some of the funniest lines in the film, all because of the delivery and the attempt to make Crow cool.

You can tell she's magical because her hula hoops
glow green.
Finally you get the ladies in the film. Crosbie does a good job as the Abbess. I also think MacColl is solid in the key role as Elaine. But the scenes are so short it is hard to get much chemistry between her and Hawk. Sister Monica plays the naïve nun who thinks Voltan will keep his word. Cheryl Campbell sells it well with real conviction, so even when you are shouting at her blind faith, you see where she is coming from. But the best performance is by Patricia Quinn as the witch. She brings all the magic to Hawk the Slayer, and she does a good job being mysterious and deliver her cryptic lines with mystic skill. The film also has her voice coming through clearer in ADR, and since she is whispering all her lines it gives it an unearthly quality. Not sure if it is intentional, but it all works out.

Hawk is ready for the final battle.
The film itself moves a little on the slow side. The set up in the first third is a bit belabored, with some flashbacks thrown in to make things a bit clearer, but they low the momentum down. The scenes where Hawk recruits each team member are all done in this vignette style inspired by Seven Samurai, but much less effective. In all of them, the outsiders are all being threatened or oppressed in some way and Hawk’s arrival saves the day. It’s a bit contrived, but fun. The movie still always feels like it moves in fits and starts, lacking moments that flow into the next. Even the use of traveling montages and awesome disco synths just end up making you chuckle at what the director was attempting.

What happens when fireflies mate with ping pong balls.
But nearly all the action scenes are fun. The stage fighting isn’t great, but it’s much better than Outlaw of Gor or Deathstalker and the Warriors from Hell. You also get a lot of in camera effects to show the speed of the crossbow and bow of the heroes, with editing tricks to speed up the action. It is very obvious and kind of silly, but entertaining. The real joy comes from the low budget magic effects. Blacklights, florescent paint and all kinds of house hold items combine to make the magic feel really darn goofy. When Hawk uses his magic Sword of Mind to call the weapon to him – you can see the string. What makes those scenes even frunnier is the fact that in nearly every case, Hawk doesn’t need to use magic to pull the sword to him. He could just reach over and grab it. There is no reason for him to use the magic, and I kept forgetting it had that ability.

You also get some of the more standard magical visuals that include smoke blasts and a fog machine. There is even a bit of simple animation, but the big finale battle with the ping pong balls has to be seen to be believed. I was laughing so hard the first time I watched it. Great stuff.

Hawk the Slayer is a lot of fun. Like Star Wars it feels familiar, but fresh at the same time. It’s has plenty of moments to enjoy because of the silly dialogue, questionable acting choices and music. It is the exception to the Barbarian Age of fantasy films, managing to carve its own path, but is still silly enough that fans of the genre should check it out.

Gort doesn't like being called "big boned".

"You'd tell me if this helmet made me look goofy, right?"

Medieval eye surgery. It doesn't go well.

Hawk and his crew ready for the next adventure.

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