Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Rogue One: The Star Wars Prequel Fans Deserved

Star Wars fans seem to agree on one thing: ignore the prequels.  However, fans can rejoice in Rogue One as it blends the new and the old while offering a fantastic space ride and just enough character throwback (or foreshadowing?) to satisfy your all your nerdy needs.  The movie tells the story of the people who steal the plans to the Death Star, and despite knowing the end result, I was still invested in every character, every moment.  Spoilers ahead.

(Source: Wikipedia)

The protagonist Jyn Erso is the daughter of Galen Erso, who is responsible for the design and construction of the Empire’s Death Star.  Galen sends a message through a defected pilot that he has placed a hidden weakness in the weapon.  When the Rebellion recruits Jyn for her help, she must convince them of her father’s good intentions and exploit the Death Star’s weakness.  We know from the original trilogy that she and the other characters succeed but die in the attempt, since none of them greet Luke Skywalker in A New Hope.  Although this could have stolen the tension, it instead creates a ticking time bomb for the characters to operate in.

I liked Jyn as a headlining female character (though not quite as much as Rey).  She looks tough, she is tough, but her devotion to her father carries the story as she reveals a greater amount of hope than she initially had.  Rebel officer Cassian Andor possesses an interesting moral nuance as a man who believes in the cause but who has done pretty ugly things to support that cause.  Then there are just plain cool characters such as Chirrut Imwe, a blind warrior who taps into the Force to kick everyone’s ass and take names - though he isn’t himself a Jedi.  His capabilities reminded me of Toph Beifong from Avatar: The Last Airbender.  K-2SO, a former imperial android, was by far the sassiest character.  He had the best lines.  I didn’t think I would find a droid the most relatable character, but here we are.

Meanwhile, Saw Gerrera wasn’t used much despite his important relationship to Jyn.  After her father was kidnapped, Gerrera rescued and raised Jyn until she was sixteen and he abandoned her to “protect” her - a fact that was skimmed over in a fast and awkward conversation.  I guess you can only cover so much, but I would rather not be set up to believe a character is more significant than he is if he’s only going to fall away in the first act.

The movie quickly establishes that Galen Erso is an unwilling accomplice to the Empire’s Death Star, but I thought it missed an opportunity to amp up the moral grayness. One of Jyn’s childhood flashbacks hinted that Galen was once willingly working with the Empire.  I thought the story could have explored his involvement more and make the audience wonder whether Jyn is right to automatically trust him.  But that’s just a thought.

I also want to gush about the diversity of the cast.  Almost all of them were people of color, which makes me wonder where they disappeared to in the original trilogy.  Even better, Andor is played by Mexican actor Diego Luna.  A Mexican in Star Wars!  I’m so proud because it means have a chance.

Rogue One offers a fun and fast-paced space adventure that mixes the appropriate amount of action and just enough fan service to make me squeal at the right moments.  I hope that this film signals more quality Star Wars content in the future, from Episode VIII to the Han Solo spin-off to whatever else Disney churns out for us.  It’s a good time for geeks to be alive.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Moana Review

Moana is a strong, independent woman who don't need no man.  Well, she recruits help from a demigod, but when you watch the movie my point still stands.  I consider Moana another Disney hit (as if the box office numbers don't already speak for themselves) that deserves attention for its beauty, its sound, and its heart.  Disney has created yet another fun animated film with catchy music, exciting adventure, and rich culture.  Real culture.  Even though I'm not Polynesian, I saw a lot of myself in Moana's design: dark skin, dark wavy hair, brown eyes.  Of course I'm not salty about still waiting for a Latina princess movie.  At all.  But I can move past that to enjoy myself anyway.

(Source: Wikipedia)

The demigod Maui (voiced by Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson) stole the greenstone heart of island goddess Te Fiti until he was attacked by a lava demon and lost it in the sea.  The ocean, personified to be a character of its own, chooses Moana (voiced by Auli'i Cravalho) as a child with the heart of Te Fiti.  I question why the ocean would give a toddler such an important object, but her grandmother took good care about it in the meantime so I'll let it go.  Moana grows up dreaming of sailing across the ocean, but her father insists she focus on her upcoming role as chief of Montunui.  You know how that's going to go.  Because Te Fiti's missing heart has caused their island to start deteriorating, Moana must follow the call of the ocean and her seafaring ancestors with the loving support of her grandmother behind her.

Moana has a great dynamic with demigod Maui.  They create a comedic duo (with no romantic entanglements!) who eventually form an emotional bond.  I give snaps to the movie for keeping me engaged with a story that mostly takes place with just two characters out on the ocean.  One of my favorite moments in the film was Moana insisting that she wasn't a princess and Maui replying that if she has a dress and an animal sidekick, she's a princess.  Moana is the chief's daughter and will soon be chief herself, but she makes clear that this is not the same as a European concept of a princess.  Where was this hilarious meta-commentary during Pocahontas?  I was disappointed that Moana's idiotic chicken was the animal sidekick rather than the pig.  The pig was way cuter.

(Source: Wikipedia)

Because Disney cannot resist its compulsion to make everything musical, we hear songs from Moana, Maui, and other characters throughout.  The soundtrack isn't my favorite of all time, but "How Far I'll Go," "Where You Are," and "We Know the Way" have beautiful vocals and sound.  I loved that Polynesian talent went behind writing, producing, and voicing Moana, and that the film explored wayfinding, which is how islanders discovered and planted themselves in every habitable island in the Pacific - a real-life historical phenomenon.  However, make no mistake that this movie is not a completely accurate representation of Samoans, Tahitians, Hawaiians, and other distinct peoples that were mashed into one island.  Perhaps that's obvious, but if people can believe Africa is a country then I must make this disclaimer.  I have seen the conflicted response to Moana - pride in being represented on some level and anger at sacred traditions, clothing, mythology, etc. being appropriated, homogenized, and commodified by Disney.  So, what to do with this knowledge?

Moana is a fun and inspiring movie that managed to touch me and surprise me.  I think there's nothing wrong with appreciating the film, but I hope it encourages people to learn the real history and customs and peoples behind it.  If Moana's success inspires its audience to do so, then it will have done a great service to Polynesians and to the world at large.  Education is powerful, friends.  And so is Moana.  Don't let either go to waste.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Doctor Strange Review

The Marvel formula has succeeded again.  The first origin story since Ant-Man, Doctor Strange opens an exciting new dimension of the multiverse: magical mysticism and sorcery.  (I watched this on the same day I watched wizardry and witchcraft in Fantastic Beasts.  Here's hoping I don't burn in hellfire for the double whammy.)  While the film has its issues, from the casting controversy to its formulaic pattern, Doctor Strange still engaged me with stunning visuals and some surprises behind the curtain.

(Source: Wikimedia Commons)

I cannot imagine how hard the special effects team worked to make the film happen.  Even without seeing it in 3-D, I was entranced and engulfed by the colorful kaleidoscope world that they created.  The new visual and psychological presence of mysticism fascinated me.  Meanwhile, although Dr. Strange doesn't offer a wit quite on par with some other Marvel characters, he was good for an occasional laugh.  I had no comic book background with the character, so perhaps that's why I was surprised at how much Stephen Strange remind of Tony Stark.  For one thing, they have similar facial hair, and they're both arrogant.

However, Strange's (excuse me, Doctor Strange's) pride takes an interesting shape.  He is an excellent neurosurgeon who saves a person's life in the first scene and has saved many other lives before that, but it turns out he only takes the cases that will make him look good.  Near hopeless cases he tosses aside.  I have no idea why Pepper Potts - I mean Christine Palmer - puts up with him.  A former lover and current colleague of Dr. Strange, Palmer stays by his side when a car accident steals the steadiness of his hands.  I liked watching Dr. Strange coming into his own.  His arc goes the way you might expect of an initially self-glorifying character who learns to be a hero.  We've all seen it before.  That's because it works, and it works for this movie.

(Source: Wikimedia Commons)

My real enjoyment began when Strange goes to Nepal to be healed by the Ancient One, master of sorcery, played by whiter than bread Tilda Swinton.  I'll give credit to Swinton for playing a character with so much nuance and, frankly, really badass magical skills.  Her teaching technique can be summarized with this: that she stranded Strange on Mount Everest until he learned to create a portal back to Nepal.  If that isn't immersion learning I don't know what is.  The Ancient One serves as a rich resource of wisdom and a strong juxtaposition against Doctor Strange's personality.  Yet at the same time, she has a mystery about her that Strange suspects.

Her powerful force makes me all the more disappointed about a white woman being cast as her.  The original Ancient One was a Tibetan man.  The movie creators have given us all kinds of reasons as to why Swinton rather than an Asian actress was cast.  The Washington Post does an excellent job breaking down their excuses.  I would like to add that the director's fear of an Asian Ancient One becoming a Dragon Lady stereotype wouldn't have happened with the way her character was written and performed.  A Dragon Lady is strong, mysterious, domineering, and manipulative.  The Ancient One is certainly the first two, but I would hardly describe her as domineering or manipulative.  And how wonderful it would have been to see the stereotype of a meek, quiet, shy Asian woman broken with a powerful, complex, wise master of mystic arts.  If people automatically label such a thing as "Dragon Lady," that's their prejudice and their problem.

People have a right to be upset about whitewashing in Doctor Strange.  If it wasn't for that, I would have no qualms about recommending it.  For me, the movie was worth watching to continue following the Marvel Cinematic Universe and be able to see and discuss for myself what is right and what is wrong with Doctor Strange.  I hope Marvel has learned their lesson from the controversy.  With the talent of their writers, directors, and actors, the studio can and has created three-dimensional characters rather than racist caricatures before.  Marvel can afford to take a few risks with other characters of color.  Starting with - and I know this is pretty radical - casting an Asian actor for an Asian character.  What a concept.