Rogue One

We waited to go see Rogue One until Kate was home for Xmas break. I managed to avoid spoilers too. And speaking of, this post will have some, so if you haven’t seen Rogue One and care about such things, stop reading now.

Overall, I enjoyed Rogue One. It was a more successful film for me than The Force Awakens. The story was sensible and the movie felt like Star Wars. Donnie Yen stole the show with a cool character who brought some Hong Kong action to the party. And the call backs to the original Star Wars were well chosen and narratively appropriate. “Here’s why the call sign Red 5 is available for Luke,” for example.

The thing I think held Rogue One back from greatness was the character development. Jyn Erso is the heart of this story and her character arc is not convincingly portrayed (by the writing, to be clear, not he acting; I thought Felicity Jones did well with what she had). At the start of the film she is supposed to be an apolitical rogue who is uninterested in the rebellion. She then does a complete 180 in no time at all and with little exploration of why that is. She feels like the wrong character to deliver the big speech about hope at the rebels’ all hands meeting.

While I generally try to avoid trailers, I saw one of the Rogue One trailers ahead of another movie earlier this year. It had Jyn delivering this fantastic line: “This a rebellion, isn’t it? I rebel.” This is missing from the film and I think that is telling. It’s like they wanted to dial Jyn back to make her conversion more believable, but it doesn’t work. Han Solo showed his roguishness all the way through Star Wars. He helps the rebellion for money, and goes so far as to take it and fall out with Luke before having a change of heart. Jyn’s character is underdeveloped from the start and has no crisis moment. We can guess that she is willing to undertake a suicide mission to make her father’s sacrifices mean something but this isn’t dramatized in any way.

Similarly, I thought Saw Gerrera (whose name I thought was Sol for the entire movie) had a death that did not square with his character. Here’s a guy who has fought the empire for decades, who was so hardcore he broke with Mon Mothma and her crowd because they were too wishy washy. When finally presented with a chance to destroy the Empire’s secret weapon, he says, “Nah, I’m good. I’ll just stay here and die.” This makes no sense at all. I understand if they didn’t want another character hanging around in a movie with too many already but at least give Saw a death worthy of his convictions.

Ironically, the attempt to give the secondary characters worthy deaths is what leads to two other minor problems. First, the third act is too long. Second, the important message Rogue One must get through to the rebel fleet is not actually important. The fact that the shield gate must be destroyed is not news to the fleet. There are only two ways the Death Star plans are getting off that planet: in a ship or by transmission. Either way requires the shield gate to be destroyed, and indeed the fleet had already been trying to do so before getting that message.

I do give Rogue One big points for taking the story to its logical conclusion. Having all the main characters die is bold for a Star Wars movie. Hell, even Seven Samurai (a clear inspiration) had some survivors. I would totally watch a buddy flick about Chirrut and Baze (Donnie Yen and and Wen Jiang) but I consider a prequel to a prequel to be unlikely.

One test I have as to how much I liked a movie is whether I want to watch it a second time. For me The Force Awakens was one and done. It was fine but didn’t draw me back. Rogue One I can see watching more than once. That’s a pretty good result considering the smoldering wreckage that George Lucas left the franchise after the prequels.

Star Wars: The Feels Awaken

The other day when the new Star Wars trailer hit, I almost said some snarky things on social media but held back. First, I didn’t want to shit on anyone’s enthusiasm. Second, my stance on Star Wars can’t be summed up in 140 characters. Hence this bit of blogging. For clarity’s sake, let me point out that I generally avoid trailers because I prefer to go into movies knowing as little about them as possible. I like the experience to wash over me. I thus skipped the trailer, though of course I have not been able to avoid the chatter and the stills.

I remember quite clearly when the first trailer for Star Wars, Episode I came out. I was working at Wizards of the Coast and basically all of R&D stopped working, gathered around computer screens, and watched it. And people were jazzed about it. “I felt like I was 8 years old again,” was a common refrain. It seemed like the old Star Wars was going to come back. For my part, I was cautiously enthusiastic. I hoped the prequels would be good. The original movies had been an important part of my childhood. I saw Star Wars in the theater 13 times in 1977. (In retrospect, I wish I had spent 1977 seeing The Clash, The Damned, The Avengers, the The Saints, and other first gen punk bands, but I was 8 years old so that was pretty unlikely.)

You, of course, know how this story goes. They made some nice trailers but the prequels were fucking awful. Just absolute dreck that killed most of my enthusiasm for Star Wars. The positive feelings I retained were solely due to BioWare’s Knights of the Old Republic video game, which was terrific and felt way more Star Wars than any of the new movies. Ironically, it was during this period that I got to work on Star Wars miniatures at Wizards of the Coast and visit Skywalker Ranch on two occasions. The second time was to read the script of Episode 2 while it was in production (I hoped to make a Star Wars space combat minis game but that never happened). The script was a mess and I actually asked the Lucas licensing people about a major story point that made no goddamn sense. They were sure George would “fix it.” He didn’t.

Anyway, those three movies were like kicks in the face and I know I was not alone in feeling that way. So after that, I’m going to take a lot more convincing. As a rational person, there is one thing that would change my mind: evidence. My basic plan is to avoid all the hype and just wait until the new movie comes out. No two minute trailer can undo those prequels. If reviews are actually good, I will go see it. If it’s the prequels all over again, I will not.

The one positive thing I can say at this juncture is that I’m happy that two of my friends (Cecil Castellucci and Chuck Wendig) are getting to write Star Wars novels. Cecil has been a huge fan as long as I’ve know her (we met in 1987 at college) and I know getting to write a Princess Leia novel is a dream come true for her. So kudos, writer pals! I hope your stories are 100% awesome and 0% Jar Jar.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Review

 

I took Nicole and Kate to see The Hobbit last night. I had been looking forward to it for a long time, and had attempted to learn as little as possible about the production beforehand. Only when we saw Skyfall last month did I even see a trailer. I wanted to go in fresh without preconceptions. I also made sure to re-read the novel beforehand.

My verdict: it was…good. I wish it had been great though.

Spoilers for Book and Movie Ahead!

I should say right away that I do understand the problems faced by Jackson and his writers. The Hobbit is very different in tone than the Lord of the Rings. It was a children’s book after all. If they did The Hobbit as written, it would have been a lot more light-hearted and well, goofy than the previous three films. Tolkien was a serious world builder though, and the story of The Hobbit has an important place in the history of the Third Age of Middle Earth. What Jackson and crew were trying to do was put the story in its proper context by bringing in a lot of material from Tolkien’s other writings. Obviously, they want these three new movies to serve as a lead-in to the original three to form a larger epic. I don’t have a problem with this approach. In fact, as a Tolkien nerd, I applaud it but it did have some consequences in the way they changed things.

As you watch The Hobbit, it’s hard not to notice the way the film is similar to Fellowship of the Ring. Thorin is in the Aragorn role. The actor they picked and the hairstyle they gave him reinforce the point; he looks like mini-Strider. In the Fellowship, Jackson and his writers created a new villain specifically for the film: Lurtz, the Uruk-Hai leader. His purpose was to give the climax of that movie a villain that could be overcome. The audience could thus have a little satisfaction at the end of the movie, even though the Fellowship was broken and the heroes’ fates uncertain.

In The Hobbit, they use Azog in this role. He is not in the novel, and for very good reason: he’s dead. Azog, you see, was the King of Moria and he did lead the orcs against the dwarves in the Battle of Dimrill Dale as depicted in the film. However, Thorin’s cousin, Dain Ironfoot, beheaded Azog in that battle. It’s Azog’s son Bolg who appears in the novel and leads the orc forces in the Battle of Five armies.

I find it strange that in order to give the broader backstory of The Hobbit, Jackson changed the story simply so he could have his Lurtz for the movie. Lurtz himself was a made up character and few people minded because adding another Uruk war leader didn’t seem like a stretch. It would have been wiser to follow that lead here than muck things up so badly with the lore. Bolg is King of Moria in the novel. Will he just be shoved aside by Azog in the next movie? If not, why is he king when his father still lives? And why let Thorin steal Dain’s thunder when he’s likely to be an important character in the next two movies?

We see more echoes of Fellowship in the Rivendell sequence. In the novel here’s what happens there. Thorin’s company arrives and the elves feed them and their ponies. Elrond identifies the swords from the troll lair and reads the moon runes on the map. The elves give them fresh provisions and wish them farewell and good luck on their quest. That’s all. In the movie, however, there’s a whole subplot about how Thorin doesn’t want to go there and doesn’t trust the elves. Elrond doesn’t think their quest is a good idea, just as he had doubts about Aragorn in Fellowship. I did not mind the impromptu meeting of the White Council (as this helps set up the action in Dol Guldur that’s presumably happening in movie three), but changing the original story again to echo Fellowship seemed unnecessary.

My other major problem with the movie the inclusion of many scenes of big things crashing into other big things while people leap like gazelles through the wreckage. This was  the sort of stuff that made King Kong tedious. He takes one paragraph from the book in which stone giants are throwing rocks at each other as a game and turns it into a 10 minutes action scene with mountain peaks swaying this way and that. Then it’s “crazy bridges” in Goblin-town, whereas in the book Gandalf simply slays the Great Goblin and all his minions freak the hell out. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for a good fight scene and some of the bits were cool, but those sorts of scenes are to Peter Jackson what white doves are to John Woo.

All my annoyances came together in the climactic battle. The scene that takes place in a forest in the novel is re-positioned on a crag so now trees can crash into each other until one (populated, of course, by all the protagonists who have just leaped from tree to tree!) hangs over the edge. Azog the already dead arrives to kill Thorin and then we don’t even get the satisfaction of having the mini-villain killed. The whole climax was a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing. At least there were giant eagles though.

I suppose this all makes it sound like I hated the film but I didn’t. Much of it was enjoyable and if you are not a lifelong Tolkien nerd like me, you won’t really give a shit whether it’s Azog or Bolg in the Battle of Five Armies. I will say I thought the riddle sequence with Bilbo and Gollum was terrific. And man, Gollum technology has advanced a lot in 10 years. I must note though that Jackson and his writers do in fact make Bilbo a thief. In the novel, he finds the ring by accident while stumbling around in the dark. In the movie, he sees Gollum drop it and then picks it up. This actually gives Gollum a moral leg to stand on, which he certainly did not have in the books.

In the end The Hobbit is a good fantasy film, certainly better than the shit we endured in the 80s. I just think the choice, conscious or not, to pattern it on Fellowship of the Ring was a mistake. Now granted, I haven’t seen parts two and three. Seeing the trilogy in its totality may change my mind. Right now, I can’t see why certain things were done to the story but maybe that’ll be made clearer in the next two.

That’s my basic review. Now I’m just going to toss out a few nitpicks that only the hardcore Tolkien fans will have any interest in. You can stop reading now if you want; I won’t be offended!

  • From the moment Balin came I screen I thought he looked too old. This is the dwarf who’s going to lead the Moria expedition decades later. In the novel Thorin is actually older than him. You would not guess that in the film.
  • Elrond going on an orc hunting expedition? Sorry, but no. That’s the sort of thing his sons Elladan and Elrohir do.
  • Glamdring and Orcrist also glow blue blue when orcs are near but did not in the movie.
  • Radagast is not described in great detail by Tolkien, so the film’s depiction of him isn’t wrong per se. The wacky factor was amped way up though.

Forgotten Soldiers

The 26th Cavalry Regiment of the Philippine Scouts. They made the last mounted charge in the history of the US Army.

This past Saturday I went to the Museum of Flight for a special screening of a documentary called Forgotten Soldiers. It tells the story of the Philippine Scouts, US Army soldiers recruited from native Filipinos and led mostly by American officers. The Philippine Scouts were some of the first US soldiers to fight in World War II, since the Japanese began their invasion of the islands on Dec. 8, 1941 (the day after Pearl Harbor).

Forgotten Soldiers is competently made, akin to something you’d see on the History Channel. What makes it rise above such fare is the story itself and the number of surviving vets who tell their own stories. I’ll happily overlook rough transitions and overuse of reenactor footage if the story is compelling and it certainly is.

When the Japanese invaded, the Philippines was in the midst of an 11-year transitional period to full independence as a commonwealth (which was completed in 1946). The raising and training of the Filipino Army went slower than planned, so when the fighting started it was the Philippine Scouts who were the best trained and equipped troops available. They went into action quickly, blunting the Japanese attacks. They then fought a series of rearguard actions as General MacArthur ordered his forces to retreat to the Bataan Peninsula. The fighting was furious. The first 3 Medals of Honored FDR awarded during World War II were to men of the Philippine Scouts for actions in this campaign.

The Scouts then defended Bataan for four months with other American and Filipino troops. In this period, their 26th Cavalry Regiment made the last horse mounted charge in the history US Army, successfully recapturing a village from the Japanese. The food situation was so dire on the Bataan Peninsula though that the regiment was order to hand over its horses for slaughter shortly after their epic charge. This is one of the most poignant moments in the movie actually. Over 70 years later the vets are still broken up about the horses who had served them so well meeting such a fate.

The troops on Bataan waited for a relief convoy that was never dispatched. After the Japanese brought fresh troops and mauled their defenses, US Major General King surrendered 75,000 Filipino and American troops went into captivity, including the Scouts. Although exhausted and starving already, the troops were sent on the soon infamous Bataan Death March. Thousands died on the way to an overcrowded prison, where more died of disease and starvation.

About a year later the surviving Filipinos were released from prison, providing they signed a pledge not to attack the Japanese. At this I would have considered my duty done, but many of the Scouts joined guerrilla bands as soon as they regained their strength. They fought their occupiers until MacArthur came back and defeated the Japanese. Then many of the Scouts returned to formal duty and served on subsequent campaigns until the Japanese surrender in 1945. The Filipino veterans were offered American citizenship in recognition of their efforts and many came to the US and settled here.

So yes, great story and one worth telling. The early events of America’s war are often glossed over quickly because people don’t like to dwell on defeats. The bravery and endurance of the Philippine Scouts is worth recognition though, so I hope Forgotten Soldiers finds a wider audience.

I would have been happy enough to just see the movie, but there was a panel afterwards put together by The Philippine Scouts Heritage Society. The President of the group, Jose Calugas Jr., was there. His father (Jose Sr.) won the first Medal of Honor in WWII and passed away in 1999. The greater surprise was the presence of Dan Figuracion, one of the Philippine Scout profiled in the movie. He survived the war, stayed in the army, and then fought in Korea and Vietnam. He’s 93 and lives in the Seattle area.

A Q+A followed. I got to ask Dan something I’ve wondered about for a long time. Namely, how did the troops feel when Gen. MacArthur took off for Australia and left them behind for capture, brutality, and privation? “I have returned,” is a great tale, but I figured it didn’t look so noble to guys on the ground. Dan’s answer? “I didn’t even know he was gone! I didn’t hear anything about MacArthur until he came back.” Ha!

A few minutes later this women in the audience took the mic and introduced her father. He was 95 and also a former Scout. He had been in one of the engineering units. The guys on the panel waved him up and he joined them onstage. It was a surprising and touching moment.

I’m glad I had the chance to go to the screening. The Museum of Flight is a great place and I’m happy I’m a member so I hear about events like this. If you are a history nerd like me, seek out Forgotten Soldiers.

 

A Long Time Ago in a Childhood Far, Far Away

While today I can wish that I was in London in seeing The Clash, The Damned, and the X-Ray Spex in 1977, in truth I was 8 years old at the time and thus the perfect age for the debut of Star Wars that summer. Like legions of burgeoning scifi and fantasy fans, I loved Star Wars instantly. I don’t think I ever saw a movie in the theater more than once before that, but Star Wars I saw something like 13 times. My brother and I would get dropped off at the theater at 1 pm and watch both afternoon showings, comically hiding from the indifferent teenage ushers between them so we could see it twice for the cost of one matinée ticket. We waited eagerly for the next two installments, and I was so smitten with the series that I could even forgive it Ewoks.

When I was in college, the Star Wars RPG from West End came out. Despite it being the 10 year anniversary of the first movie, there was surprisingly little going on with Star Wars when the game came out. I played a fair bit of the game over the years, and for the longest time it was the RPG I’d recommend to introduce new gamers. No need to explain the setting, you say, “It’s Star Wars; go!” The archetypes also made it easy to make characters, which was a plus.

Round about the time those Timothy Zahn novels started coming out, my interest began to wane. To me Star Wars was always the movies and just the movies and I didn’t care about the comics or the novels. Naturally, my interest perked up when I heard there were going to be new movies. I was working at WotC when these started. I remember the day the first trailer came out. We all gathered around monitors and had a shared geek moment. The trailer looked promising, so we dared to hope. The reality: Phantom Menace was a piece of shit. Still, we hoped that this was but a misstep and the rest of the trilogy would find the spirit of the original movies that seemed so lacking in Phantom Menace.

In 2001 I had an interesting opportunity. I was working on miniatures at WotC. We were planning some RPG accessory minis but we wanted to do some Star Wars games as well. I was interested in doing a spaceship combat game with two iterations. One would be a simple game using a limited number of ships and targeted at the mass market. The second would be a full on fleet battle game with scaled up rules for the hobby.

That year I made two trips to Skywalker Ranch. The first was to hand carry sculpts of our first Star Wars miniatures down there for approval. The second trip I and several other designers got to read the script for Attack of the Clones. I was hoping for a lot of spaceship combat, so i could tie in the proposed mass market game to the new movie. I was also hoping for a better movie. The script unfortunately had serious problems. After the reading, the licensing people asked what we thought. I said I wasn’t sure about this whole clone army business. It clearly seemed like a Sith plot but Yoda of all people shrugs and says, “Who cares who created this clone army we’ve never heard of before? Let’s use it and damn the consequences!” While one of my co-workers was having a heart attack that I had dared to criticize the script in the heart of Lucas country, I was assured by the licensing people that efforts were already underway to make the whole clone army thing more ambiguous, so its embrace by the Jedi would make more sense.

I was quite curious to see the finished movie. How much would it differ from the script I had read? As it turned out, hardly at all. They had a scene with young Jedi in weird animal clans and that got cut. All the stuff that I thought was problematic? Still in there. By the time the third movie came out, I didn’t even care enough to go see it. If you told my 8 year old that the fabled sixth Star Wars movie with the origin of Darth Vader would come out and I would skip it, I would never have believed it.

I eventually did see Revenge of the Sith. I was on a business trip in Ft. Wayne, IN and I stayed over on a Sunday night when everyone else had already gone home. Let me tell you, there’s is crap all to do in Ft. Wayne on a Sunday night, so I watched Episode III in my hotel room. And yeah, it was a little bit better than the previous installments, but it still sucked. The entire prequel trilogy was terrible and it’s a shame that young kids think that is Star Wars.

The only bright spot in its galaxy in the last decade has been the Knights of the Old Republic video game. That was awesome and felt so much more like Star Wars than any of the prequels. And maybe BioWare can do it again with their upcoming MMO (and if they can’t, no one can). Overall though, the Star Wars brand is badly damaged. Those prequels missed the mark so widely that bashing them has become a competitive sport at geek gatherings of all sorts. And that shit has been licensed to death. If you can slap Star Wars on it, it’s probably been licensed.

So yes, Star Wars shambles on, a zombie property bereft of the creative spark that enthralled me in my youth. And hey, if folks still like it, I have no beef with that. For me though, Star Wars is over. The original trilogy is still two and a half good movies, but that’s where my interest ends.

You can imagine my reaction then when I started getting all these e-mails yesterday asking if Green Ronin had secured the rights to Star Wars. This trip down memory lane was a very long way of saying no, no we did not. Nor would we even try.

Originally published on on LiveJournal on December 16, 2010. 

Vancouver Weekend

This Thursday is Nicole and I’s 9 year wedding anniversary. Since I’m going to be up visiting BioWare Monday to Wednesday and on Thursday the guys are arriving for the Green Ronin Summit, we decided we had best celebrate over the weekend. So Friday we drove up to Vancouver, dropped Kate off with her dad, and checked into the Hyatt downtown. Our plan was simple: spent time together alone. Our apologies to our Vancouver friends, but we just wanted to relax and be together. We did not bring computers and tried not to worry about work, money, or my impending move to Austin.

We’re back now and I have to say mission accomplished. We decided we didn’t want to run around a lot, so the basic plan was to eat well, see movies, and lounge around in between. We saw three movies: Machete, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and The American. That’s the order we saw them in and also how’d I’d rank them for enjoyment. Machete was a blast. It delivered exactly what was promised in that original trailer and then some. Over the top, funny, and politically appropriate for this year. The Girl Who Played With Fire was also good. Both of the leads do an excellent job and the story continues to be engaging. The American I was lukewarm on. It was slow paced, didn’t have a lot of dialog, and didn’t do much to make me give a shit about George Clooney’s character. And the ending was pretty much exactly what you’d suspect.

For food we went to a mix of old favorites and new places. Friday night we just sort of stumbled on to a Greek place, Kalypso. While it was no Panos Kleftiko (our favorite Greek place in Seattle), it was decent and their calamari was excellent. Saturday we went to this placed called The Edge. We had picked it because its menu boasted things like poutine with ox tail gravy. On arrival we discovered that they were only serving food from their brunch menu, so no poutine. On the upside, the eggs benedict with sockeye salmon was delicious. Saturday night we went to Tojo’s, a great Japanese restaurant we’ve been patronizing since the 90s. We were saddened to discovered one of favorite dishes (Tojo’s baked oysters) was taken off the menu during the Olympics and has not been reinstated. We love that dish so much we had planned to order one for each of us and lick the shells clean. The food we did have was excellent apart from the snapper (which was a little tough and not nearly as buttery as the sablefish they typically serve). Sunday we went for dim sum at the restaurant formerly known as Bo Kong. It’s called the Whole Vegetarian Restaurant now, but the menu is exactly the same and just as good. We got many old favorites like fried bean curds in black bean sauce and turnip cakes, but also tried some new stuff like vegetable cutlets with orange sauce. That latter tasted uncannily like fried chicken and we devoured it.

Saturday we also spent a couple of hours browsing at Chapters. I always like seeing what Canadian bookstores have that you wouldn’t find down here. I ended up getting Juno: Canadians at D-Day, June 6, 1944 by Ted Barris. I noticed that there was a cookbook for Vij’s, a terrific Indian restaurant in Vancouver that we did not get to on this trip, and that came home with Nicole. I’m looking forward to tasting some of those recipes.

I’m glad we had a chance to get away, even for a couple of days. Cheers to 9 great years with my awesome wife. I’m going to miss Nicole and Kate hard when I’m in Austin without them.

And now that I’m back from Canada…I’m leaving for Canada in the morning. This time to Edmonton for business. I have unpacked and repacked and I’m ready to go. Maybe I can get some poutine up there…

Originally published on LiveJournal on September 27, 2010.