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Rogue One

This is long overdue, but I finally have time to share a few thoughts on Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, the latest Disney/Lucasfilm tentpole. Cutting to the chase, Rogue One is terrific. While the film is not completely without fault, I find that the majority of my criticisms fall in the “nitpicks from a Star Wars fan” category, and do not add up to anything that seriously hinders the experience.

rogue one star wars story poster

The beautiful one-sheet for “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story”

Chief among my gripes, and one of the major talking points regarding the film (unfortunately), are the fully-CGI renderings of Governor Tarkin and Princess Leia (Peter Cushing and Carrie Fisher circa 1977). Many have grappled with the ethics of using the likeness of the deceased Cushing (which I don’t see as an issue), and it will be interesting to see how Fisher’s character will be used in future installments after her tragic and untimely passing. My bugaboo is that the characters didn’t look great on the screen, and the distraction hardly seemed worth the trouble. Leia was the more convincing of the two, but I imagine her minimal screen time helped a bit. Tarkin, as well as Cushing himself, is iconic, and while I like the idea of him having a presence in the story, he didn’t need to be a fully-fledged character responsible for anchoring multiple scenes. The likeness was not quite good enough for that and resulted in a distraction that makes a Star Wars fan powerless to think about anything but the weirdness of seeing a major character in a modern movie played by an actor long dead. Not a movie-wrecking travesty, but a distraction nonetheless.

This serves as a natural segue into a few other pain points revolving around how Rogue One related to the canonical Star Wars episodes. [Prepare yourself for a paragraph of petty beefs followed by what I actually liked about the movie… I promise.] Darth Vader appeared in a couple of scenes. In his scene with Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), you might notice that Vader doesn’t appear quite himself. Whether the great James Earl Jones’ (now 86) iconic timbre isn’t what it used to be, or the costume wasn’t quite right (I’ve heard many diagnoses, but haven’t been able to put my finger exactly on it), the small details in this scene were bound to distract longtime fans and could have been altogether avoided without harming the story if the scene were trimmed. Jimmy Smits was a welcome sight, but did he have to come with a verbal reference (might as well have been a wink) to Princess Leia—especially when you’ve already got her lined up for a killer cameo later on? It’s just a matter of redundancy bogging down the proceedings when subtext would suffice. There are other pocks, but I’m going to stop now before I forget that I actually really liked the movie a lot.

Speaking of Krennic, Ben Mendelsohn was one of many highlights in what has to be one of the best genre movie casts in recent memory. Mendelsohn, a delightful character actor who has made a name for himself in recent years playing all manner of scumbag-types, shines in his all-too-few moments as Director Krennic, the well-dressed (and caped!) Imperial officer overseeing the completion of the Death Star. The role could have been juicier, but a little Mendelsohn is always going to be better than no Mendelsohn.

As for the lead role of Jyn Erso, Felicity Jones takes another underwritten part and makes the best of it. Even if, story-wise, Rogue One seems to skip the part where Jyn transitions from a bratty malcontent into a believable rebel leader, Jones smoothes things over a bit with her suitably heroic performance.

The largely international cast also includes Mads Mikkelson (Casino Royale and TV’s Hannibal), Diego Luna (Y Tu Mama Tambien), Riz Ahmed (Nightcrawler), and Donnie Yen (Yip Man). Rogue One, and Donnie Yen in particular, deserves credit for making a blind Zatoichi-inspired character pay off as meaningfully as he did without coming off corny. The cast list certainly goes on, but there’s not a weak link on it.

Alan Tudyk can’t be forgotten either for voicing K-2SO, a reprogrammed Imperial droid, who was crushing one-liners left and right when he wasn’t crushing stormtroopers.

Rogue One is an immediate prequel to the original Star Wars (Episode IV – A New Hope, for completists). It chronicles the horror and sacrifice of the mission to steal the Death Star plans. The events of Rogue One are alluded to in the opening text crawl from the 1977 movie:

During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR, an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet.

Though “many Bothans” were not featured in Rogue One, the events of the latest Star Wars film end almost exactly where the original begin. More so than any of the other installments, Rogue One plays like a war movie. It features heroic characters (but not actual heroes per se) risking their lives for a greater cause in the face of very long odds. Once the story really gets rolling, and Rogue One fully embraces its identity as a war film, it soars on rising action and poignant drama.

Director Gareth Edwards (2014’s Godzilla) really knows how to capture hectic battle scenes and grand-scale action on film. Whether it’s a shot of the Death Star looming just over the horizon of a doomed planet, or a brutal ground assault on the planet Scarif, or Vader’s instantly iconic death romp toward the end, the action features uncommon gravitas. Gorgeous to look at from the opening scene, Rogue One is the most impressively lensed Star Wars to date.

While Rogue One clearly looked the part, the sense of sacrifice packs an emotional wallop. One of the movie’s greatest successes is conveying the depth of sacrifice inherent in any war. In doing so, it ascribes even greater meaning and urgency on the events of the original trilogy, which is no small feat.

Rogue One‘s production had hiccups. The backpedaling from the first (and best) trailer, the news of rewrites and re-shoots deep into production seem to correlate to some of the issues with the final product. Just how much was changed and how much of the final product are owed to Tony Gilroy rather than Edwards remains to be seen, and we may never really find out.

Regardless of some unevenness in its first half, Rogue One is ultimately a strong foray into non-episodic storytelling for the franchise. Despite clinging to its original trilogy ties, the willingness to include Tarkin and Young Leia does give upcoming Star Wars anthology films a sense of unpredictability. Sure, we know movies about Han Solo and are likely on their way, but beyond that, there doesn’t seem to be anything off-limits in the Star Wars universe. I consider that exciting. Rogue One is a good Star Wars movie and a borderline great war movie. It features trademarked movie magic, while hinting that Star Wars can satisfy kids and mature fans alike.

28 Days Later (Happy Halloween)

In 2002, director Danny Boyle and screenwriter Alex Garland unleashed 28 Days Later upon an unsuspecting public. This low-budget zombie outbreak thriller is arguably the impetus for the collective fascination with zombies that has festered ever since, cresting with TV’s The Walking Dead. 


While the first Resident Evil adaptation hit theaters a few months before 28 Days Later, it was the latter that forged a new path for screen zombies. It was also the first to feature running zombies. Not just running zombies, but sprinting, infected rage-beasts. These more dangerous iterations instantly became much scarier than the cuddly-by-comparison zombies of George A. Romero’s revered saga that had been kicking around for the past several decades.

Though not really zombies in the traditional sense, but humans (possibly still somewhat alive?) infected by an incurable rage-inducing virus, the parallels for these new and improved deadites are strong enough to defy nitpickery. They bite, they scratch, they flail, and any resulting contact with exposed blood, saliva, unshielded corneas, etc., means for a rapid and ugly end (if you’re not ripped limb-from-limb first that is). For an IRL analog, imagine a naked person running at you full speed. To what lengths would you go to avoid getting the naked on you? If said naked person really wanted to make an uncomfortable amount of naked contact with you, then to what extent would you even be able to prevent it? Yeah, scary. Read more…

The Lobster

The Lobster Movie 2015 Colin Farrell

“Now have you thought of what animal you’d like to be if you end up alone?”

You already know the tantalizing premise. Single folk are shipped to a hotel for a 45-day stay. In that time, they must find a compatible partner, or be turned into an animal of their own choosing. David (Colin Farrell) tells the hotel manager that, should it become necessary, he would like to be a lobster—hence, The Lobster.

It’s a desperate scenario, and one that widows and sad-sacks seem generally resigned to, complacent even. It’s not until fairly deep into the movie that the machinations of the damaged souls who would rather not be turned into some sort of house pet begin to show. Some guests fake certain characteristics in order to seem more appealing to prospective partners. Some enter into uneasy relationships and only to have their overlords assign them children—you know, in order help smooth things over. Some have have difficulties adapting to the rules of the hotel, and have their hands toasted as punishment (any movie trafficking in absurdity is really only as good as its non-sequitur game—and The Lobster’s game is strong). Read more…

A look back at SPHERE

Sphere kind of came and went in 1998. It was a big-budget production—and still looks it—that got poor reviews and lost money, even counting the international box office. That was the life cycle for many movies before the streaming revolution. Today, it seems most movies are counted on not only to earn most of their ticket stubs internationally, but to find their audiences over an extended period of time through streaming and home media.

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Image courtesy

Sphere was not something I saw when it had its theatrical run but, always the sucker for science fiction, I couldn’t help queuing it up recently when I saw that it would soon expire from Netflix. Those expiration dates are never really set in stone, but if you’re reading this, then the aforementioned expiration date (June 1, 2016) has probably passed.

Adapted from Michael Chrichton’s novel of the same name, Sphere, embraces the feel of a novelistic adaptation. The slow build-up is paced just right for getting to know the characters and feeling a distinct sense of wonder. There are even chapter headings. I don’t have a good answer for why some movies choose to disrupt the narrative with title cards announcing new chapters. It probably works really well somewhere, but I can’t think of an example that isn’t distracting, and in this case, the distraction doesn’t serve much purpose other than reminding us, “hey, don’t forget that this is based on a Michael Chrichton novel.” Read more…

Interview: Documentary Filmmaker Mark Mathis

I’ve been doing magazine work for a little while now. For the most part, it’s far removed from the world of pop culture, but I did recently get to interview a filmmaker. His name is Mark Mathis, and he has two provocative oil-and-gas-related documentaries under his belt. Since I haven’t posted here recently (sorry), I wanted to provide a short introduction to the Q&A I conducted (reproduced below), as well as a link to another profile I wrote.


We are in an election year. Although this means we are treated to the daily sights and sounds of Presidential candidates saying terrible things about one another, we generally don’t get a lot of in-depth chatter about the issues we actually care about. Is it not counter-intuitive that candidates’ platforms become as vague as possible so not to alienate potential voters? Sure, voters are the name of the game, but it is frustrating when the system becomes more about winning than about advocacy. It’s not the best system in the world.

Anyway, here to give us a guided tour inside the proverbial sausage factory, is Mark Mathis. Mathis’s latest, Fractured, is a documentary in Errol Morris’s single-interview style, in which he addresses myths and broken language surrounding our energy industry. I say broken, Mathis might say “fractured,” but Mathis’s point is that the most common phrases we use when conversing about oil and gas are prejudicial and unfair to those in the industry.

With a premise like that, one would expect Mathis to be a great outspoken advocate for oil and gas production. He is. What is surprising, but ultimately telling, is that he does not have much support from the within the industry. This seems like a grave missed opportunity. As I have learned, people in energy are practical and engineering-minded above all, and not interested in engaging in controversy. Unfortunately for them, this behavior doesn’t endear them or their work to the public. If the major oil companies are ever to be undone, it will more likely stem from an unwillingness to play the media game than from Earth actually running out of oil.

The energy industry is like most international industries. Huge, possibly unstoppable, far from perfect, and governed by law. Judging by the stark politics surrounding oil and gas, those laws are likely much more suffocating than those governing other problematic industries. I don’t want to speak for Mathis, though I suspect he would agree that oil and gas production have allowed this country to become what is today. Not everyone is pleased with what our country has become (and some want to make it great “again”), but that doesn’t change the fact that a lot of us lead relatively comfortable existences. Sure, alternative sources of energy are likely to catch on in the future, but they have not done so yet. We would do well to stop trying to cripple the one industry that makes life easier and better for everyone, particularly the world’s poor. Gasoline is a playing field leveler.

Without further ado, here is what I wrote about Mark Mathis. He gave me a memorable, colorful interview and I hope his independent film gets seen. I have seen it twice now and can vouch that it is very compelling, and that it forced me to consider energy perspectives that had not previously occurred to me. I think his approach to this material is fascinating and has the potential to make people question even their most firmly-held beliefs about the oil and gas industry.

Click here to read the profile (Talkers And Doers). Read on for a reproduction of the Q&A.

From Permian Basin Oil & Gas Magazine (April 2016 issue):

“The Energy Thinker”

Filmmaker Mark Mathis made time for a Q-and-A session with PBOG discussing film, the Permian, and more.

Mathis and co-producer Kevin Miller.

Mathis and co-producer Kevin Miller.

Some movies are what you might call “thinkers.” For Mark Mathis, calling a movie a thinker is among the highest possible compliments. “Thinkers” are not content to let audiences passively sit back. They engage and provoke. The new documentary film, Fractured, analyzes the inherent flaws in common discussion of the energy industry. That such a challenging film came from Mathis, a man who esteems “thinkers,” is no surprise.

Thinkers come in all shapes and sizes. Bennett Miller’s Moneyball (2011) was a sports thinker showcasing the iconoclastic management style of Bille Beane. Robert Zemeckis’s Forrest Gump (1994) was also a thinker, offering a historically-rich tapestry woven together by subtle unifying themes. While these films rate highly with Mathis, Fractured is something else entirely.

With Fractured, Mathis, a former television news reporter, turns the camera on himself for a single-interview style doc. This comes in stark contrast to spOILed, Mathis’ previous feature-length film.

“In spOILed, we interviewed some of the finest thinkers on energy in the world,” said Mathis, referring to his impressive roster of interviews including Robert Hirsch, Dan Kish, Robert Bryce, and U.S. Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.). “That was very much a traditional documentary format. The reason I made something different with Fractured was mostly an economic decision. [Traveling and interviewing is] time-intensive and it’s expensive.”

About deciding on this more stripped-down approach, Mathis said, “There were three basic movies that I thought about and said, ‘this can work.'” His allusion was to The Fog Of War, The Unknown Known, two works by the legendary Errol Morris, and Chris Smith’s Collapse, a film that touches upon “peak oil” theory, among other topics.

Okay, Mark Mathis’ cinephile bona fides hold up. Read on for the remainder of our wide-ranging conversation. Read more…

2015 In Film: Part 4 – The Good Stuff

In case you missed Part 1, Part 2, or Part 3, here are the links. Since we are now post-Oscars, you’ll forgive us for any comments that now seem oblivious to the Oscars results, as this discussion took place during the week leading up to the ceremony.


Poster courtesy A24

Tony: My top ten of 2015:

  1. Inside Out
  2. Phoenix
  3. Ex Machina
  4. The Revenant
  5. Sicario
  6. The Hateful Eight
  7. The Martian
  8. Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens
  9. Mad Max: Fury Road
  10. Carol

Read more…