The Arts

Star Wars … and all that jazz

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**

With the Force having awakened last year, Rogue One – billed as “A Star Wars Story” – purports to tell the story immediately preceding the events of the original Star Wars (1977), specifically how the Rebel Alliance obtained the plans for the Imperial Empire’s ultimate weapon, the Death Star.
Leading the charge is a ragtag bunch of misfit warriors headed by Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), whose own father (Mads Mikkelsen) was one of the designers the Death Star – the very one who devised its one weakness.
With the Empire spreading fear and terror, time is running out … although you wouldn’t necessarily know it from this bloated, exposition-heavy saga, which offers the requisite special-effects bonanza but otherwise comes up short, although that will scarcely matter where it counts the most: The box-office.
Rogue One’s credited director is Garth Edwards, whose Godzilla (2014) was almost as disappointing as this, although it’s been widely reported (in this universe, anyway) that rewrites and reshoots were supervised by Tony Gilroy, who shares screenwriting credit with Chris Weitz, himself a director. Whoever’s responsible scarcely matters, as this ranks alongside Revenge of the Sith (2005) as the weakest film in the Star Wars franchise.
Fans will undoubtedly enjoy the nods to the original film, including the set design and visual effects, as well as some very familiar characters. Yet it’s a foregone conclusion that many of the principal characters in Rogue One will perish, as they have no part of Star Wars.
There are also allusions to the films that inspired George Lucas to make the original Star Wars, including Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress (1958) and Seven Samurai (1954), the latter of course the inspiration for The Magnificent Seven (1960) – which was recently remade to no great effect – and even The Guns of Navarone (1961), itself a template for war stories in which a mismatched commandos must unite to commit an act of sabotage. That Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen play disgraced samurai-types lends credence to this notion.
Characterization and performance are not Rogue One’s strong suit. Jones is earnest and humorless, Diego Luna more downcast than devil-may care as resident hero and hunk Cassian Andor, and Ben Mendolsohn’s Imperial heavy a pale (albeit scowling) impression of Ian McKellen. As a wheezing and wizened Rebel hero – who provides even more unnecessary exposition – Forest Whitaker proves that even a long time ago in a galaxy far far away, ham exists in the galaxy.
The simple matter is that Rogue One doesn’t enhance or expand the stature of Star Wars in any way. The original film could have stood alone, on its own. It’s unnecessary.

Holiday woe

*

Office Christmas Party: Generic title. Generic movie.
This raunchy yuletide romp, which is never as fun-filled as advertised, comes from the directing duo of Josh Gordon and Will Speck, whose 2007 feature debut Blades of Glory is an axiom of screen comedy compared to Office Christmas Party.
Filmed in Georgia but set in Chicago, the flimsy story focuses on a wild bash thrown by the employees of Zenotek, a struggling data-storage firm trying to survive in the cutthroat corporate world. Surely, a sex-, drug-, and alcohol-fueled binge will turn the company’s fortunes around.
There are intermittent signs of life, and some of the actors do their level best to exhibit some zest and zeal under the lowbrow circumstances, but there’s an ever-mounting air of desperation.
For the most part, the comedy-friendly cast flounders: Jason Bateman, Kate McKinnon, Rob Corrdry, Jillian Bell, Randall Park, Olivia Munn (cute but wooden), T.J. Miller (who musters a bit of energy), Vanessa Bayer (better than the material), Courtney B. Vance (cutting loose in a rare comedic turn) and Jennifer Aniston, here playing the resident party-pooper.
Actually the real party-poopers are the writers – all six of them: Justin Malen, Laura Solon, Dan Mazer, Jon Lucas, Scott Moore and Timothy Dowling. Some jokes are telegraphed in advance yet prove not to be nearly as funny as intended (if at all), and far too many of them just hang there, slowly twisting and dying.
In the end, Office Christmas Party offers few laughs, no surprises, and zero holiday cheer. Maybe Bad Santa 2 wasn’t so bad after all …

Where eagles dare

***

In his feature documentary debut, The Eagle Huntress, filmmaker Otto Bell provides a glimpse into the culture and traditions of Mongolia as well as an irresistible underdog story in its title character.
Aisholpan Nurgaiv is a 13-year-old girl who wants to follow in the family tradition of being an eagle hunter and to participate in the annual Golden Eagle Festival, which thus far has been open only to men. That Aisholpan is a female doesn’t sit well with some traditionalists, who state that a woman’s place is in the home, not on hunts, and they don’t have the physical constitution to be an eagle hunter. Little do they realize just how strong the girl’s devotion is.
Encouraged by friends and family, Aisholpan is undaunted, and in this screen newcomer a star is born. The camera loves Aisholpan and her open, appealing, unforced presence. It’s impossible not to root for her. She may be young, and the odds may be stacked in her favor, but she is a model of determination and perseverance, without losing any of her youthful charm and innocence.
The English-language narration by actress Daisy Ridley (one of the film’s executive producers) is sparingly used, employed only in those select moments where the audience might need a slight clarification or explanation. Indeed, what lingers most in the memory is how The Eagle Huntress told almost entirely through its imagery, with the sweeping and perilous Mongolian landscape, the pomp and pageantry of the festival, and the glorious flights of the eagles beautifully captured by cinematographer Simon Nibletts. (In Kazakh with English subtitles)

Mark Burger can be heard Friday mornings on the “Two Guys Named Chris” radio show on Rock-92 (92.3 FM). Copyright 2016, Mark Burger

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