Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Carrie Fisher
















"If my life wasn't funny, it would just be true and that is unacceptable.

As the internet rightly celebrates the life of Carrie Fisher, I felt inspired to do some writing about her as well and her legacy as the woman most certainly was more than just Princess Leia. She had a long and varied career, both as an actress and also as a writer in her own right. Unapologetically brash and bold, Carrie Fisher blazed her own trail while facing life with a self-deprecating sense of humor one can only admire. 

I should probably get Star Wars out of the way first, since they were the films she was best known for. Over the course of four films, Fisher tackled the role of Princess Leia Organa with a fierce strength that made the role iconic. Never the damsel in distress and not one to hesitate to pick up a blaster gun and get shit done herself, all with easily the most ridiculous hairstyle no less, Leia was a fantastic character portrayed wonderfully by Fisher. She continued the role through the subsequent three films, The Empire Strikes Back, The Return of the Jedi, and The Force Awakens. As we catch up with Leia again in the latest film, it is perhaps the most poignant rendition of the character we have seen. She is now a General in the Rebellion forces, her love, Han Solo, has left to go galavanting around the galaxy again with his "walking carpet" Wookie, Chewbacca, and she has lost her only son to the Dark Side of the Force. Having seemingly lost everything, she continues to stand tall and continue pushing forward against seemingly insurmountable odds. If ever there was a role model for the age we live in, it's General Leia Organa. By all reports, Fisher was proud of her work as Leia and said that of all the characters to be typecasted as, that one was not bad. 

She continued to work regularly, with memorable turns as Jake Blues' spurned girlfriend in The Blues Brothers, Tom Hanks' wife in Joe Dante's criminally underrated dark screwball comedy The Burbs and as Meg Ryan's matchmaking best friend in When Harry Met Sally. She never quite matched the blockbuster status of the Star Wars saga, but she continued to work steadily as an actress beyond that. 

However, as the years marched on she began to work more and more behind the camera as a writer, becoming a highly sought after script doctor known for helping save troubled productions with contributions to films as varied as Hook, Sister Act, The River Wild, Coyote Ugly, and many others. She also wrote the scene for her cameo appearance in Scream 3, where her character not only admits to her likeness to Carrie Fisher, but suggests Fisher slept with George Lucas to get the part of Princess Leia. Needless to say it was one of the funniest parts of the so-so sequel.

She was also an accomplished novelist and writer, with several novels under her belt including the semi-autobiographical Postcards from the Edge, inspired by her relationship with her mother, Hollywood celebrity Debbie Reynolds (although Debbie always insisted, "It's not about us."). She also wrote the screenplay for the screen adaptation, directed by Mike Nichols. She also wrote three memoirs, Wishful Drinking, Shockaholic, and The Princess Diarist, where she reveals her life with a sort of self deprecating humor and candor that can only be admired. Unflinchingly honest about her bouts with alcoholism, drug addiction and mental illness were admirable in her steadfast devotion to removing the stigma of mental health issues. All are worth checking out. She also did Wishful Drinking as a one woman show, which was recorded and aired on HBO. It's worth seeing, if only for the sequence where she relates the scandal of her parent's divorce and the ongoing aftermath from that leading to her helping her daughter determine if she and her would be boyfriend, a son of one of Fisher's father Eddie Fisher's exes children, are in fact related. At one point she pulls out a flow chart and takes us through all of it step by step and it is hysterical. 

I was saddened to hear of Carrie Fisher's passing yesterday. Not just because she played Princess Leia in Star Wars, but because I knew about so much of her other work. Her accomplishments as a writer are equally, if not more, impressive. Her work with de-stigmatizing Mental Health issues and both her humor and candor as she shared the issues she had personally struggled with in the process were an inspiration for many. I have seen so many posts on social media only mentioning Leia and while that is cool and everything and certainly something Carrie was proud of, even if she gently mocked it, there was so much more to her than just Leia. Her life wasn't an easy one, but the fact that she approached it with an unending sense of humor and biting wit should be enough to give everyone more strength. 


Edit: As I was writing this, I saw the news that her mother, Debbie Reynolds, has now passed away too. The two may have had their issues, but they were always close and even wound up living next door to each other. The fact that they both died within a day of each other almost makes sense, in a weird way. I'll have to think up some sort of tribute to Debbie as well as a separate post as I enjoyed much of her work as well. But for now, my thoughts and prayers are with their family, who have lost a mother, a sister and a grandmother all in the span of 24 hours. 

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Passengers
















I was intrigued by Passengers when I first read the synopsis for it on the annual Black List, a list of the best yet unproduced screenplays that is released each year. I was thrilled to hear it was finally getting made. But then a curious thing happened, the trailers were covering up a significant plot point in the film. It's an important plot detail that I will be including in my summary below, so if you want to go into the film knowing as little as possible, by all means go. It's a terrific and suspenseful sci-fi thrill ride with a nice dose of romance on the side. For those that want to know a little more first, by all means read ahead.

Jim Preston (played by Chris Pratt) is a mechanical engineer traveling on the galactic spaceship Aurora on it's way to an uninhabited planet as a colonist along with 5000 other people. As the ship travels through an asteroid belt, it triggers a malfunction and Jim's suspended animation pod turns off, waking him up. He is shocked to not only find himself the only person awake on a giant spaceship but that he was woken up 90 years too early, meaning he will effectively spend the entirety of his life on the ship completely alone, except for the android bartender, Arthur (played by Michael Shannon). Furthermore, as a passenger on the ship and not a member of the crew, he has no access to the command controls of the ship to try put himself back in stasis or get help. As he spends more and more time alone, his sanity begins to slip until he discovers the pod of Aurora Lane (played by Jennifer Lawrence). He looks her up on the ship's computer and learns about her, reads her writings (she's an author) and slowly falls for her. He begins to think about waking her up so he didn't have to be alone. He's knows it's wrong and wrestles with his conscience until the sheer loneliness makes him cave and he does it. Disoriented, he initially leads her to believe that her pod malfunctioned too, part of the growing number of malfunctions on the ship. But it's only a matter of time before she finds out. In the meantime, the two begin to bond and develop feelings for one another. But as the problems on the ship grow to become critical, it becomes clear the two are going to have to work together to fix the ship and ensure it reaches it's destination. 

The main point of contention for people with this film is going to be the fact that Jim deliberately wakes up Aurora, rather than both of them waking up by accident as the trailers lead you to believe. And I will concede, it is a total dick move. He is essentially robbing her of the life she chose without her consent. At the same time, you can see why he did it. He spends an entire year on the ship completely alone and comes damn close to killing himself. It's not an excuse, I know, but it does show why he does it and that he probably wasn't in the head space to make a good decision, even if he does wrestle with it for quite some time beforehand. I know some people are going to hate this movie on those grounds alone and that's fine. I totally get it. The hero of all your films have to be 100% likeable all the time and can't have any flaws or make any mistakes. But I actually liked the movie more for it. Jim is flawed. He makes a selfish decision. He doesn't wake her up because she's important, like the ship's designer or a crew member or something. He does it because after looking her up on the ship's computer and reading her writing he fell for her. It's that plain and simple. And her blind rage at him when she finds out (because of course she finds out) is completely justified. 

The film was directed by Morten Tyldum from a script by Jon Spaights. The film gives us a unique take on a desert island scenario, with a largely limited cast that is mostly focused on our two main characters for much of the run time. But the film has enough drama and story to keep the film interesting with just the two characters, along with the android Arthur. Jon Spaights manages to create a unique vision of the distant future that also feels tangible and possible. The technological advances seen in the film seem plausible even if there are some more out there elements such as the shipboard swimming pool, which even proves to be nearly fatal for one of the characters when the ship suddenly loses it's artificial gravity and the water (and swimmer) no longer remain in the pool. Still, because the setting of the story seems real, it makes the plight of our main characters that much more palpable as well. The effects work is well done throughout the film as is the production design. The main "public" areas of the ship are clearly based on cruise liners (the passengers would spend roughly four months aboard the ship before their arrival at their destination) but given a futuristic upgrade as well.  

The performances in the film are strong considering that the bulk of the film falls on the shoulders of the two lead actors. Chris Pratt does a great job as Jim, show his progression as a character quite well throughout the ordeal as he first realizes he's alone on the ship, his initial panic and desperation, moving into acceptance as he begins to take ownership of the surroundings, enjoying the more luxurious areas of the ship he otherwise wouldn't have had access to. But the thrill wears off as loneliness sets in and Pratt does a great job showing the growing desperation Jim feels and his struggle as well as his deep need to someone to be with. Jennifer Lawrence does well with what she has, but her part isn't quite as well developed as Pratt's character, although she does have some great moments of her own. She and Chris Pratt do share some decent chemistry as well, which helps make the second act of the film work, even as we as the audience are waiting for the other shoe to drop. 

Overall, Passengers is an interesting blending of survival drama, romance and thriller all into one film and it for the most part worked for me. At times the film could be predictable but it still kept my interest throughout. Other people have called the film slow, but I felt it kept a good pace throughout, even though the very end of the film seemed a bit rushed. It's not perfect, but it had a little bit more depth to it than people might think. The moral conflict at the center of it was a nice touch when the filmmakers could have so easily taken the easy way out and I appreciated that. It's not a perfect film, but it was one that entertained me, intrigued me and left me thinking about it for some time afterwards. So, there is that at least. 

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

















When I first heard that they were making a film detailing the events preceding the first Star Wars film, I was simultaneously intrigued and perplexed since the original film essentially spoils the outcome of the film. But yet, there was a chance to spin a unique chapter of the Star Wars saga and much to much surprise they really managed to pull it off. 

Jyn Erso (played by Felicity Jones) is a rebel fighter rescued from captivity by the Rebel Alliance for a specific mission. The Rebel Alliance wishes to create a partnership with rogue rebel extremist Saw Gerrera (played by Forest Whitaker) and since Jyn has a history with Saw (he rescued her as a child when her mother was killed and her father Galen (played by Mads Mikkelson) was captured by the Empire) they think she may help him be more receptive to the message if delivered by a friendly face. Partnering her with Rebel Intelligence Officer Cassian Andor (played by Diego Luna) and his reprogrammed Empire droid K2SO (played by Alan Tudyk), they are given the assignment of contacting Saw as well as retrieve a holographic message that Saw is said to be in possession of from a defecting Empire pilot in regards to a new Empire weapon, the Death Star.  Once there, Jyn first encounters blind warrior Chirrut Imwe (played by Donnie Yen), whose connection to The Force helps him compensate for his lack of sight. They also encounter his mercenary friend Baze Malbus (played by Jiang Wen), a close friend of Chirrut. They eventually make it to the hideout of Saw Gerrera, who recognizes Jyn and plays the message from her father for her. He tells of the new Empire weapon, one capable of destroying entire planets. Galen was forced to build it and he agreed because it allowed him to build in a secret fault in the weapon that if hit in the right spot would destroy the entire thing. When presenting this information to the Rebel Alliance, they feel they have been defeated. Not ones to quit, Jyn, Cassian and their new friends Chirrut and Baze set off on a new mission: Steal the plans for the Death Star by any means necessary.

Rogue One is a welcome break from the main storyline that has run through the series thus far and in the process has opened up the universe of the series in new and interesting ways. By making the story a far more of an ensemble cast we are able to be exposed to a greater scope of the rebellion and it's different factions and how it operates. Director Gareth Edwards, as well as screenwriters Tony Gilroy and Chris Weitz really drive home the sacrifices and moral ambiguity that can come from war, much more so than the previous films that for the most part operated strictly within the either wholly white or wholly black. Unlike previous entries, our heroes this time out, especially Jyn and Cassian, aren't afraid to get their hands a little dirty even if they are doing it for the greater good. 

The performances are strong overall from a diverse cast. Felicity Jones leads the film as Jyn and gives a great performance portraying a character who has been a rebel all her life ever since her family was torn apart by the Empire when she was still a child. Diego Luna is someone I have been a fan of ever since I saw him in Y Tu Mama Tambien back in 2003 and it's great to see him tackling the role of Cassian, who as an Intelligence officer for the Rebel Alliance and at times feels his conflicting morals getting the better of him. Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen are great as best bud warriors Chirrut and Baze (even though I am not entirely convinced they are "just friends"). The surprise of the film for me though was Alan Tudyk as K2SO, who provided plenty of much needed comic relief throughout the film as a droid whose chief malfunction was just saying whatever was on it's mind with little regard for others. He also reminded me at times of Alan Rickman's performance as Marvin, the depressed robot from the underrated Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. There are also a few surprise appearances in the film that I won't dream of spoiling but were a lot of fun to see again. 

Rogue One proves to be a welcome respite from the main "Skywalker" storyline of the usual films and in the process expands and grows the universe of the galaxy a long time ago in a galaxy far far away. I also have to appreciate the fact that the film fixes the biggest nagging plot hole of the entire series so efficiently and perfectly. Well done there, filmmakers.