Thursday, June 22, 2017

Review - The Princess Diarist by Carrie Fisher


Short review: Carrie Fisher found some old diaries she wrote when she was filming Star Wars and having an affair with Harrison Ford. She used them as the basis for a book.

Haiku
When filming Star Wars
Fisher had a fling with Ford
Now she remembers

Full review: In 1977, the movie Star Wars transformed the awkward and insecure Carrie Fisher from "Debbie Reynolds' daughter who also had a bit part in Warren Beatty's movie Shampoo" into Princess Leia, a title she would wear for the rest of her life. She played the part again in Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, and forty years later she came back to the role in The Force Awakens (and will presumably also appear in the forthcoming The Last Jedi). Though Fisher appeared in dozens of other roles on both the big and small screen, after 1977, she would forever after be first and foremost Princess Leia. The Princess Diarist is part memoir, part diary, and part self-reflection, with Fisher looking back upon what amounts to her lifetime sentence to playing the role of an entirely different person.

The catalyst for this book was Fisher's rediscovery of a set of diaries that she wrote during the filming of the original Star Wars back in 1976. These diaries form the foundation of The Princess Diarist, but they mostly serve to launch Fisher into a series of reminiscences about her life growing up as Debbie Reynolds' daughter, her acting background and romantic history before she arrived on the set of Star Wars, and then some reflection from forty years later on what that time in her life meant to her. To be blunt, the printed portions from the 1976 diaries are the weakest part of the book. The woman Carrie Fisher grew up to be was impressive in many ways - from her skills as an actress and script doctor, to the take no prisoners attitude of a woman who bit back at questions about her weight and took her dog Gary to interviews, but the girl Carrie Fisher was at nineteen was, well, she was an unsure, inexperienced, and awkward nineteen year old. To be perfectly honest, the inner thoughts of a typical nineteen-year old are kind of dopey, and while Fisher had grown up in the limelight, her educational background was relatively indifferent, resulting in the kind of inner thoughts that seem pretty humdrum overall.

The diaries are mostly interesting for two reasons, neither of which are really related to the actual content. First, they are interesting because they reveal that the thoughts of nineteen year old Fisher were pretty much the same as the hopes and dreams of many other nineteen year olds, despite the fact that she was in the midst of filming a movie that would essentially change cinema forever. The fact that the diaries written by someone participating in the creation of a cultural landmark were so astonishingly banal is a somewhat interesting note. This is, however, the lesser of the two reasons these diaries are interesting. The real reason anyone cares about this particular set of diaries is that the man that Fisher was mooning over with her overwrought teenage prose and poetry was Harrison Ford, with whom she was having a secret and kind of awkward affair at the time.

A lot of the buzz about the book related to the revelation of this affair, which was considered to be somewhat scandalous because not only was Ford thirty-five when he had this liaison with nineteen year old Fisher, he was also married to Mary Marquardt at the time and the father of two young sons. One thing that is somewhat interesting is that while Fischer acknowledges the existence of Ford's wife in the book, she doesn't mention her by name and for the most part doesn't even really consider this situation from her perspective. This is somewhat excusable in the diary sections of the book - after all, nineteen year old kids are notoriously self-absorbed - but it seems like an odd omission in the reflective sections that come before and after the diary excerpts in which Fisher tries, from a forty year distance, to reflect upon and put into context the whirlwind romance she had shared with Ford. Other than this somewhat conspicuous omission, everything about the affair is pretty banal, whether one is reading about it via the overwrought prose of a teenager's diary or through the more world-weary and snarky version that Fisher uses to frame her earlier thoughts. As Fisher says at one point in the book, she and Ford had a three-month long one-night stand, and that's pretty much about as significant as the affair seems to have been to either of them. This results in a story that is salacious and mildly titillating, but ultimately not very compelling.

To a certain extent, the same is true of the entire book. For the most part, Fisher's accounts are readable and humorous, but they are mostly only noteworthy because they involve her, and not because the stories being recounted are anything more than ordinary. Fisher's story about being cast in Shampoo is a fun little interlude, but it is a story that seems similar to that of a thousand other actors getting their first on-screen role. When Fisher recounts the whirlwind her life became after Star Wars was released, the account seems similar to the stories told by countless other celebrities riding the pop culture wave of a hit movie. Fisher's discussion about going to science fiction conventions to sign autographs and get her picture taken in exchange for money will only be revelatory to people who have never been to a large media style convention, although her description of the routine as being a "celebrity lap dance" is pretty much both on the nose and funny. While the first section and the last section that surround the diary entries are much more enjoyable to read, this is mostly because Fisher became a lot better as a writer in the intervening forty years, not because the stories themselves were particularly notable.

The Princess Diarist is a fun little book that gives a snapshot into the life of a woman on the edge of phenomenal superstardom and a bit of reflection and self-deprecating humor from the superstar that she became. That said, there's nothing particularly outstanding about the book unless one considers the details of what amounts to a pretty staid forty-year old infatuation to be "shocking" in some way. This is, in the end, a fairly light book filled with funny anecdotes told in a humorous and irreverent manner. Anyone looking for a deep and meaningful experience is likely to be disappointed by this volume's contents, but anyone looking to spend just a little bit more time with the snarky and irascible Princess turned General that her fans now miss will find this to be just the prescription they need to fill the void for just a little bit of time.

Carrie Fisher     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

Monday, June 19, 2017

Musical Monday - Wonder Woman Opening Theme (1975-1979)


Last week, while talking about the 1966-1968 Batman television series, I pointed out that the theme song for that series had become iconic to such a degree that it was almost universally known. I also noted that the theme songs for other live-action super-hero shows of bygone eras such as The Incredible Hulk, The Amazing Spider-Man, and Wonder Woman have not had nearly the same cultural resonance, and seem to have mostly been forgotten.

That is pretty much all true, but even so, some of the theme songs for these shows were pretty good. Wonder Woman, for example, had a catchy, mildly funky, and vaguely disco-ish theme song that had elements reminiscent of the Batman theme song in some parts (such as the repeated refrain of "Wonder Woman!"). The theme song, like the show itself, evolved over the years, replacing the anti-Nazi themes found in the first season with more general crime fighting lyrics in the second, and eventually losing most of the lyrics entirely in the third season as the show attempted to rebrand itself as a more generalized "action adventure" show. Personally, I think that the theme song was better in its earlier iterations, but it is still good no matter what version one is listening to.

Previous Musical Monday: Batman Theme (1966-1968)

Game, Movie, and Television Music     Musical Monday     Home

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Book Blogger Hop June 16th - June 22nd: There Are Exactly 208 Five-Bead Necklaces Drawn from a Set of Beads with Four Colors


Jen at Crazy for Books restarted her weekly Book Blogger Hop to help book bloggers connect with one another, but then couldn't continue, so she handed the hosting responsibilities off to Ramblings of a Coffee Addicted Writer. The only requirements to participate in the Hop are to write and link a post answering the weekly question and then visit other blogs that are also participating to see if you like their blog and would like to follow them.

This week Billy asks: How do you organize your blog in terms of what is in your side bar? Do you have categories and defined sections in your side bar?

I think I have a fairly well-organized blog, including the side bars. Basically, you can reach any of the 2,800+ pages on my blog through one of the links at the top or sides of the page.

Along the top I have the ten static pages that are permitted by the Blogger platform. These are the pages that organize most of my reviews and related pages. My A-Z lists of book reviews, magazine reviews, movie reviews, television reviews, authors, and musical artists are on those pages, as are my Musical Monday selections, and the genre-fiction related book awards that I track.

On the right sidebar of the blog I have some pages that I use to keep track of the various other categories of pages that I post, the round-ups of the book challenges that I have participated in over the years, the links to use to follow this blog, and my blogroll.

On the left sidebar of the blog, I have links to the challenges I am participating in this year, the Follow Friday meme I participate in, and then some sundry features such as the "Most Popular Posts", the blog archive, and the list of labels that I use on the blog.


Book Blogger Hop     Home

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Random Thought - Justine: The Kind of Black Woman the Wonder Woman Movie Needed

Among people who have seen (and for many of us, loved) the movie Wonder Woman, one thing that is noticeable is the lack of black women in substantive roles. The movie is, of course, centered on a woman, and so it gets kudos for that, and there are two men of color with fairly notable (albeit problematic in their own way) roles, but with the exception of a handful of Amazons, women of color are notably absent from the movie.

Note: There will be spoilers. You've been warned.

I have heard two responses to this lack of representation for women of color in the movie:

The first response is that the black women who do appear in the movie are important people. They are Amazon teachers or warriors, and at least one is an Amazonian Senator. These are clearly people of note in their society, and so black women should feel well-represented by these nods. The problem is that while they are clearly important in their own society, they are minor players in the story being told. Pointing out that a character is an Amazonian Senator doesn't really mean much if the sum total of her presence in the story is a single line in a single scene. There is a difference between being important in the fictional world the story is set within, and being important in the story set in the fictional world. None of the black Amazons in Wonder Woman are particularly important to the story.

Red Cross Workers in World War I
The second response is that the responder simply cannot imagine black women running around World War I era Europe. This, I think, is a sign of both a lack of imagination and a fair amount of historical illiteracy. There were people of color in Europe during World War I. In fact, there were a lot of them. To begin with, all of the combatant nations with colonial holdings drew upon the populace of those colonies to fill out the ranks of their armies. Hundreds of thousands of men from Africa and Asia fought and died on the battlefields of Western Europe. Not only that, a lot of black and Asian women also came to the war - as army nurses, Red Cross workers, and for a myriad of other reasons. There were also black women in Europe simply because that was where they lived. France, for example, was well entangled with places like Algeria, and there were a lot of people who had emigrated from there to France simply living in the country. On an interesting side note - getting the data on the demographic make-up of France is somewhat difficult due to an 1872 law that prohibits making a census that distinguishes between citizens based on race. That said, while we don't know its exact size, we do know that France had a population of African and Asian emigres in the World War I era, because we have records of their presence in the country.

The only reason that it is hard to imagine the presence of people of color in Europe during World War I is that history has obscured their presence, and has been aided in this task by media that has omitted them from books, films, television programs, and other artistic representations set in that era. They have essentially been erased from our cultural memory, and the act of saying "I can't imagine black women in World War I Europe" simply continues that erasure.

So, there were black women in Europe, and none of the black women who are actually in the movie are actually important to the story. The only question is how would one put a black female character into the movie in such a manner that she was a substantive character. This is just me throwing an idea against the wall and seeing how it might work, but I would insert such a character into the story just before the battle across No-Man's Land. In my opinion, one of the weaker elements of the story is the set up for Diana's charge into the German lines. Basically, the scene in the movie centers around a woman who is a refugee from a village across the battlefield huddled in a corner of a trench holding her baby. Diana talks to her, and she informs Diana that the Germans have seized her village, taken the villagers' possessions, and started using the remaining villagers as slave labor. Confronted with this, Trevor argues that Diana and their other companions need to stay the course and continue their mission, leaving the poor villagers to their fate. Diana rejects this and heads out to liberate the village.

This sequence is functional, but a little bit unsatisfying. Once the refugee village woman delivers her bit of exposition, she more or less vanishes from the narrative. After the fighting is over, there is a brief scene in which Diana, Trevor, Chief, Sameer, and Charlie bask in the glow of victory, have some beers, and dance (or rather, as Diana says, sway back and forth). The villagers never show up again, not even when the villainous Ludendorff fires poison gas into the village as a demonstration of the effectiveness of his new chemical concoction. The presence of villagers on the British side of the field also raises the question of how they got over there, and how long have the Germans occupied the village. As Trevor points out, the British regiment in that sector hadn't been able to make an inch of headway in a year, so the Germans had presumably occupied the village for that whole time. Further, how did the refugees cross No-Man's Land without getting killed? And so on.

Red Cross Drivers
in World War I
Here's how I would reset this scene: Instead of a random French woman, Diana, Trevor, and the rest come across a Red Cross nurse arguing with the British regimental commander. Like many Red Cross workers during the war, this woman is black, as are the other Red Cross personnel with her. To give her a name, we can call her Justine. She and her fellow workers had been working in the village providing relief to the civilians and were recently expelled by the Germans, who sent them across No-Man's Land under a white flag. The Germans tried to hide it, but Justine learned that the Germans were carting away villagers at the order of General Ludendorff to work on some secret project. Justine is arguing that the lives of the villagers are important and that the British should attack, while the British commander is demurring. Instead of having Trevor give a status report on the British troops, the British commander can. For her part, Justine can make the moral argument for helping the innocent that spurs Diana to make her stand.

That's a minor change, but the real meat of Justine's role in the movie comes after the village of Veld is liberated. Justine and her fellow nurses begin to care for the wounded of both sides and try to help the villagers. When Diana tells Justine what she knows about Ludendorff's plans, Justine makes the decision to help her. Because Justine has been in the area for an extended period of time, she has local contacts, and can use them to find out where Ludendorff is (which would have the side effect of eliminating the cringe-worthy "smoke signals" scene with Chief). Justine can also use her network of friends to get Diana and Trevor into the castle for Ludendorff's gala (this time eliminating the cringe-worthy scene where Sameer grovels his way through a guard post), possibly sneaking Trevor and Diana in through the kitchens or some other service entrance. Justine through this segment plays an active role in helping the heroes get to the places they need to be, and then returns to Veld.

Of course, Justine returns to Veld just in time for Ludendorff to hit the village with some poison gas shells. She and her fellow nurses can then try to evacuate people, getting some to safety, but perhaps at the cost of their own lives. One of the weaknesses of the movie as presented is that when Ludendorff kills off the people of Veld, it doesn't have a whole lot of impact, mostly because the villagers were never fleshed out as characters. If Justine is killed, or even just severely wounded, this sequence would have had far more impact on the audience. Have Diana find Justine just on the brink of death, and have Justine tell her that helping others is worth facing injury or death. If Justine doesn't die in the poison gas attack, she could be worked into the rest of the plot with too much difficulty, perhaps putting her as a thematic counterpoint to Lady Poison in the final battle sequence where Diana has to choose between love or rage. The end result would be a character who played a significant role in the movie, and could be a full realized, well-developed person on-screen.

So that's one idea. I'm sure there are others, many of which would probably be better than mine. The point here is that working a substantive black female character into Wonder Woman would not have been all that difficult. All the film makers needed to do was to decide to do it.

Random Thoughts     Home

Monday, June 12, 2017

Musical Monday - Batman Theme (1966-1968)


We lost Adam West this past weekend. He was, of course, best known for his role as Batman on the 1960s television show Batman, and without him I contend that we probably would not see the surge of super-hero properties that have arisen in the last two decades.

Over the years, there has been something of a cottage industry among comic book fans competing to see who could deride the Batman television show the most. It was campy. It was silly. Batman was too much of a boring Boy Scout. The villains were dumb. And so on and so forth. But I think all of these criticisms miss the mark. The Batman television show was foundational because people remembered it. Because it made a mark on the cultural landscape. Because people who have never seen the show still say things like "same Bat-time, same Bat-channel", or remember the theme song, or the big cartoon "Pows!" and "Bams!" and "Boffs!"

Batman certainly wasn't the first live action super-hero show. The Adventures of Superman with George Reeves, for example, predated it by more than a decade. And it certainly wasn't the last - shows like Wonder Woman with Lynda Carter, The Incredible Hulk with Bill Bixby, and The Amazing Spider Man with Nicholas Hammond dotted the television landscape of the 1970s. Even though many of those shows were generally well-liked, and often hold a special spot in the hearts of comic-book fans, they just didn't have the same impact as Batman did. Can anyone remember the theme song of The Incredible Hulk? Or The Amazing Spider-Man? I couldn't and I watched every one episode of both of those shows when they came out. Or the villains - can anyone remember the villains from any of the other shows? On the other hand, the villains of the Batman show have become iconic: Julie Newmar and Eartha Kitt as Catwoman, Frank Gorshen as the Riddler, Cesar Romero as the Joker, Burgess Meredith as the Penguin, and even silly villains like Vincent Price as the Egghead. The main thing about the Batman show is that it was instantly memorable, and cemented into place the idea that costumed heroes could fight costumed villains in live-action, knowing that it was a ridiculous scenario and yet simply not caring.

And in the center of all of the over-the-top villainy, the absurd Bat-gadgets, and a sidekick who seemed to say "Holy ______ Batman!" with every other line, was Adam West. Yes, he looked goofy in the Bat-suit. Yes, he was kind of wooden with his delivery at times. But he sat in the middle of all of the silliness and acted like it was perfectly normal. He provided the anchor to the show, and more importantly his character provided a moral center to the show that demonstrated that super-heroes, even when surrounded by the most whacky of settings, can still stand for fundamental decency and goodness, Every filmed super-hero that came before Batman pointed to Adam West's character, and every live-action super-hero production that came after has either been inspired by, or been a reaction to, West's portrayal of the caped crusader. He was clearly the inspiration for Christopher Reeve's portrayal of Superman, and clearly what Tim Burton was reacting to when he created his Batman.

The Batman Animated Series highlighted this tension when it, although clearly influenced by the darker version of Batman exemplified by Michael Keaton's portrayal, included West in an episode as the Grey Ghost, a character that inspired that show's version of Batman, spiritually tying this series back to the 1960s one. All of the super-hero movies that we all love - Spider-Man, Iron Man, Wonder Woman, Captain America, and even the entire DC Animate Universe, are all Adam's West's legacy. The caped crusader will live on in all of his goofy glory, and as a result, though West is gone, he will never truly die.

Previous Musical Monday: Wonder Woman Main Theme
Subsequent Musical Monday: Wonder Woman Opening Theme (1975-1979)

Game, Movie, and Television Music     Musical Monday     Home

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Book Blogger Hop June 9th - June 15th: Cao Cao Won the Battle of White Wolf Mountain in 207 A.D.


Jen at Crazy for Books restarted her weekly Book Blogger Hop to help book bloggers connect with one another, but then couldn't continue, so she handed the hosting responsibilities off to Ramblings of a Coffee Addicted Writer. The only requirements to participate in the Hop are to write and link a post answering the weekly question and then visit other blogs that are also participating to see if you like their blog and would like to follow them.

This week Billy asks: If you could have lunch with any living authors and/or book bloggers, who would you choose and why?

Ursula K. Le Guin
So, I have actually had lunch with a few authors. I had lunch at a local diner with Ursula Vernon one year that I went to Balticon. I ate lunch at an Uno's during another Balticon with the authors Tom Doyle and David Walton. I ate dinner with Scott Edelman at a pop-up restaurant that served the best ramen I've ever had. I once at dinner in a bar with a group of authors that included Alethea Kontis, Sunny Moraine, and Ceallaigh McCath. I've been to dinner with Day al-Mohammed a couple of times. This is more or less a side-effect of going to a fair number of conventions and making friends with authors while you are there. However, the author that I have not had lunch (or any other meal) with who I would most want to is Ursula K. Le Guin. I have written multiple times of my deep and abiding love for Le Guin's writing and that, coupled with her general all around brilliance, is why I would desperately love to be able to sit down with her for an hour or so and just listen to her talk about pretty much anything she wanted to.

Mike Glyer
As far as book bloggers go, that is a somewhat more difficult question. Although I fit into any reasonable definition of "book blogger", I am generally not all that well-connected to the book blogging community. My blogging relationships are all much more in the "fan writer" category of blogger, using the term in the science fiction fandom sense. So, for example, one of my closer blogging friends is Natalie Luhrs, who blogs at Pretty Terrible. Although she does post some book reviews, that's not really her primary focus. I have, however, had lunch with her. Another would be Paul Weimer, who blogs at Blog, Jvstin Style. Once again, though he does review some books, that isn't really the meat of his blog. Or there is Camestros Felapton, who blogs at, naturally enough, Camestros Felapton, and once again, book reviews are not really the focus of his blog. I have not had lunch with either Paul or Camestros. However, if we expand the question to simply "what blogger would you want to have lunch with", I'd probably have to pick Mike Glyer, who publishes File 770, posting what is essentially an online fanzine, keeping everyone appraised of the news, events, and goings-on related to science fiction fandom. He started publishing File 770 as a paper fanzine in 1978, and moved it to a blog format in 2008, so he has a store of historical knowledge that would almost certainly make for an interesting conversation.

Previous Book Blogger Hop: "206 Bones" Is a Novel by Kathy Reichs

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Friday, June 9, 2017

Review - Wonder Woman


Short review: Diana grows up among the Amazons in Themyscira, but when World War I comes to their doorstep, she leaves the island to confront the war god Ares.

Haiku
Amazon princess
Trained to be a warrior
Becomes a hero

Full review: Set mostly during World War I, and telling the story of how an Amazon princess came to the world of men to stop their horrific war, Wonder Woman is easily the best DC super-hero movie since at least The Dark Knight, and possibly the best since the 1978 Superman movie. It might not be as good as the best of the recent Marvel movies, but it definitely ranks up there with those in the very next tier down such as Iron Man, Captain America: The First Avenger, and Ant-Man.

Diana turning into Wonder Woman
That said, this is a movie that, unfortunately, will never be as meaningful to me as it is to women like the redhead who have been waiting for a top-notch movie featuring a super-heroine for most of their lives. For me, Wonder Woman is a fantastic movie, but it is just one more fantastic super-hero movie in an era that has been full of fantastic super-hero movies. Since at least 2002 with the release of Spider-Man, fans of movies featuring comic book super-heroes have been blessed with a wealth of great movies to choose from. And yet none of those movies have featured a woman in the headlining role. There have been women in secondary roles: Black Widow and Scarlet Witch in the movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe series. Storm, Jean Grey, and a few others in the X-Men movie series. Gal Gadot's brief appearance as Wonder Woman in Batman v. Superman. And so on. But none of these movies had a female hero in the feature role. Even team-oriented movies with storylines in which a female super-hero should have been the featured performer have had women take a backseat to the dudes around them: In X-3, which is ostensibly an effort to bring the Phoenix Saga to the big screen, Jean Grey more or less just turns into Magneto's sidekick for most of the movie. In Days of Future Past, Shadowcat's pivotal role in the story is handed over to Wolverine instead. Hollywood has kind of grudgingly accepted the idea that there could be female super-heroes, but seems to have tried to put them to the side as much as possible, apparently hoping that they could keep female fans satiated with the thin gruel that they were willing to provide.

With Wonder Woman, Gal Gadot and Patty Jenkins have, quite bluntly, changed the game. The excuses about female-led super-hero movies being unprofitable, or unappealing to movie-goers, or any of the other excuses that filmmakers have made simply won't hold water any more. Wonder Woman features a female hero and doesn't make any apologies for centering her in the narrative and making everyone else onscreen into a secondary character who is present solely to advance her story. From the first moments of the movie to the very last, this movie is unreservedly about Diana, and to have an action movie with such a focus feels like a breath of fresh air.

The movie opens with a scene set in the modern day in which Diana has apparently taken up a job working in or near the Louvre in Paris. A faded picture is delivered to her by armored car courtesy of Bruce Wayne, which sends Diana's thoughts to the past and allows the story itself to begin. To be perfectly honest, the modern day sequences were the worst part of the movie - not because anything particularly bad happened in them, but because they reminded one of the fact that this movie is connected to the wretched movies that make up the rest of the DC Expanded Universe series. These sections, at the beginning and end of the movie, are mercifully brief and the action moves pretty quickly to Themyscira and back in time to when Diana was a child to tell the story of where Wonder Woman came from.

Themyscira
Young Diana, played quite effectively first by Lilly Aspel and then by Emily Carey, is a headstrong little girl, fascinated by the hardened Amazon warriors who surround her and eager to learn how to fight like them. In many movies, the dialogue given to children feels forced, and artificial, putting words and patterns of speech suited to adults into the mouth of a child, but here, Diana's interactions with Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) and Antiope (Robin Wright) feel almost perfect. When her requests to train for combat are refused, Diana sets about negotiating exactly how far she can go, offering to be careful, and use no sharp edges. When Hippolyta offers to tell her a bedtime story, Diana grouses that her mother has told her that story before. Time and again, young Diana steals the scene she is in with the innocence of her dialogue and the skill of the actors playing her.

Diana and Hippolyta
Themyscira and the Amazons who inhabit it are stunning in the movie. The island is beautiful - and the only time in the movie in which the sky is blue and clear with the sun shining overhead. Every other part of the movie, including the scenes set in the modern day, are grey and overcast at the very least. Under the sun, the Amazons are shown hard at work, training for war in scenes of breathtaking beauty and power. Many of those cast in the roles of the Amazons are world-class female athletes, and Patty Jenkins uses their skills to full effect, with the women displaying feats of strength and agility in their training sequences that make it clear that Diana's training regimen is certain to have been unmatched in its rigor. More importantly, these scenes are framed in such a way that the women are allowed to display their abilities without also highlighting their sexuality. They are, in short, allowed to simply be athletes and warriors without the camera worrying about whether they are going to be sexy enough to satisfy the prurient interests of moviegoers interested in some tits and ass. This is something that runs through the entire movie - even when Diana unveils her Amazonian battle garb in no-man's land, the camera doesn't frame her in a sultry or salacious manner. Instead, she is shown simply as an action hero, without regard to how attractive a particular pose or maneuver might make her.

The sequences on Themyscira are also used to tell the backstory of the Amazons by means of a semi-animated book with illustrations done in a Baroque style. To sum up, the gods, led by Zeus, created men which made Ares very upset. Ares created dissent among men leading to war, and also set about killing his fellow gods. Zeus created the Amazons to fight Ares and died while wounding the war god and driving him into hiding. Since that era of myth eons ago, the Amazons have waited for Ares to return and prepared to fight him to protect mankind. Hippolyta also tells Diana that Zeus left a number of gifts, including Hestia's lariat and the God-Killer sword to be used to carry out that duty. This exposition also serves to explain why Diana is the only child on Themyscira, and though Hippolyta is technically Diana's mother, the story makes clear that she is essentially doted upon by every woman on the island. Themyscira itself is depicted quite matter-of-factly as a society run by and for women, and the movie makes very little comment upon this. When Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) shows up, he accepts this feature of the island with little comment. Like the Amazonian warriors themselves, the movie simply lets Themyscira exist without the need to spend time explaining it - although there is a rather hilarious exchange that takes place between Diana and Steve about the nature of sex after the pair have left the island that puts some things into perspective in a rather pointed manner.

Antiope has had it with your shit
The idyllic tranquility of Themyscira is shattered when Steve Trevor literally crashes out of the sky pursued by a German naval ship. Before too long, the beach is swarming with German soldiers and the Amazons set out to do what they have trained for so many millennia to do: Go to battle. This scene is absolutely glorious, with some Amazons rappelling down the cliffs bows in hand, and others charging across the sand on horseback. Once again, the battle scenes with women are framed in such a way as to highlight them as warriors and not sexual objects. Shortly thereafter, Trevor tells the incredulous Amazons about the existence of World War I, a conflict that has engulfed dozens of nations and cost countless lives. Diana immediately identifies the cause of the war as Ares, but Hippolyta, fearing for her daughter's safety, forbids the Amazons to intervene. Trevor also reveals that he had been at a secret German weapons facility in Turkey where the chemist Doctor Maru (Elena Anaya), known to the "boys in the trenches" as Doctor Poison, had developed some deadly new chemical agents under the direction of German Chief of Staff Ludendorff (Danny Huston). Trevor had stolen Dr. Maru's notebook and was headed for England in an effort to find a way to stop her inventions from killing millions when he was shot down. This, of course, leads the headstrong Diana to disobey Hippolyta, grab hold of all of the gifts of the gods and head off with Trevor to kill Ares and stop the war. During this sequence there is a beautiful scene in which Diana discovers that she has a strength and power that she did not know she had, and her reaction is one of almost serene satisfaction. This becomes a running theme in the movie, as Diana sets out to do what she sees as the right thing to do, and along the way finds that she has more strength and skill than she knew.

Dr. Poison
Diana and Trevor sail off to the U.K., arriving in what seems to be an improbably short period of time. Some have criticized this sequence, but on the other hand, leaving out extraneous transitional material seems to be an intentional part of Jenkins' directorial style, and I can't really argue with it. After all, what would have really been gained by having some sort of sailing montage or other interlude to show the passage of time? The voyage between Themyscira to London is, for the most part, irrelevant to the story, and any screen time wasted on it would have only delayed getting on with the the real action. Once in London, we get a taste of what really makes Wonder Woman heroic: She notices people. While the other characters are going about their business with their eyes more or less on the plot, Diana sees and cares about the extras - the woman with a baby, the man who sells her ice cream, the soldiers who are returning from the war, the soldiers who don't even appear on screen that are offhandedly condemned to die with a shrug from a senior officer. Diana defends the weak because she sees the weak, and for most of its length, effectively no one else in the movie really does, not even Steve Trevor.

London also begins the framing of Wonder Woman in a manner similar to the way male super-heroes have been framed in previous movies. Some sequences, such as a street fight in London, are presented in a way that explicitly reference this movie's antecedents, such as the 1978 Superman movie. Other scenes are presented in such a way as to merely allude to the action sequences of other super-hero movies, most notably movies featuring Captain America or Thor. Some criticisms have been leveled at these action sequences, more or less amounting to complaints that movie fans have "been there and seen that" already. These criticisms miss the point: We have seen male super-heroes put on screen in these sorts of sequences. Sometimes elements of a movie are necessary to include, not because of their importance to the plot, but because the movie has to tell the audience something via the meta-narrative. For example, The Force Awakens had to be very much like the original Star Wars: A New Hope to signal to fans of the franchise that Disney was going to shake off the accumulated ill-will engendered by the prequel movies and go back to the "old" style of Star Wars stories. In Wonder Woman, I contend that Jenkins presents Diana in a way that replicates the way male super-heroes have been portrayed specifically to demonstrate that Wonder Woman is "in the club" so to speak. Jenkins wants you to think of Christopher Reeve's Superman when Diana deflects a bullet in an alleyway. Jenkins wants you to think of Captain America when Wonder Woman breaks into a warehouse in Belgium and fights a collection of German soldiers while carrying a shield. And Jenkins wants you to think of Thor when Wonder Woman engages in an epic battle involving beings of god-like power. These call backs are not only intentional, they are necessary. This movie shows Wonder Woman, in all her glory, as no less a super-hero than any of her male counterparts, and in some ways, a far superior one.

Chief
After some twists and turns, Diana and Trevor end up in Belgium having acquired a collection of sidekicks - Sameer (Saïd Taghmaoui), Charlie (Ewan Bremner), and most importantly Chief (Eugene Brave Rock). Sameer provides an interesting perspective and some relatively gentle humor, while Charlie, as a character who clearly has PTSD and refuses to accept any sympathy for it out of a sense of macho, offers a view into some of the hidden human costs of the war. It is the Native American character Chief, however, who features in what I consider to be one of the most pivotal scenes in the movie when, late at night by the campfire, when everyone else is asleep, he tells Diana of the losses his people have suffered - he has nothing left to fight for because everything was taken from his people. When Diana asks who took it from them, Chief simply points to Trevor and says "His people". This is a powerful moment in the movie, but it is also critical for establishing the underlying narrative as well. Trevor has, for the most part, been portrayed thus far as a heroic individual, fighting on the side of good against both the bureaucracy of the Allied leadership and the perfidy of the German war machine. But this movie isn't about heroic Americans fighting dastardly Germans - if it was, then shifting the classic Wonder Woman origin from World War II to World War I would not have made any real difference. This story is about how war, to a certain extent, makes villains of everyone it touches. Chief's simple, two word line says that the Germans are the villains now, but fifty years ago, Trevor's people, at least from Chief's perspective, were the villains. This resonates through to the climactic moments in the story where Trevor tells Diana that he can save today from the threat posed by the plots of Doctor Poison and Ludendorff, but that she has to be there to save the world. Trevor is on the right side right now, but Diana is a figure that needs to be on the right side for all time.

Diana in No-Man's Land
The centerpiece of the movie, and the clip seen in pretty much every trailer or advertisement for the film, is Wonder Woman's battle across no-man's land. There are later battles against the ostensible heavy-hitting bad guys of the story, but it is the moment when Diana steps out of the heavy cloak she is wearing and climbs the ladder out of the trench into the line of fine where the movie hits its high point. This moment is where Diana, Princess of Themyscira, becomes Wonder Woman (although no one ever actually calls her Wonder Woman in the movie). Once again, this scene drives home what makes Diana a hero, because her motivation is a conversation that she has with a refugee from the village on the other side of no-man's land. No one else - not Trevor, not Sameer or Charlie, not Chief, and not even the ordinary British soldiers in the trenches - pay any attention to these refugees. As they walk past, they look right through the wretched people huddled in the mud. Trevor even argues that they have to simply move on and ignore their plight so as to continue their mission. The war has brutalized everyone to such an extent that they don't see the suffering of the people right under their noses, but Diana does. Her refusal to simply accept this as an unavoidable cost of the war is what makes her moment heroic, especially since when she goes over the top she doesn't actually know that she will be successful. She only knows that the right thing to do is to try, and so she does.

The real Erich Ludendorff
I do have minor nitpick about the movie, and it involves the use of the German General Ludendorff as one of the primary villains. Erich Ludendorff was an actual general during World War I, and following von Falkenhayn's ouster as the Chief of the German General Staff in 1916 after the disastrous Battle of Verdun, Ludendorff was made Quartermaster General of the Army with the stipulation that he and the new Chief of Staff, Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, would exercise joint command. Ludendorff held this post until just before the war ended in 1918, and was the architect of most German strategy, including the operations that helped drive Russia out of the war and the successful but ultimately counterproductive Michael Offensive. One of the most important things about Ludendorff is that in reality he outlived the war, and didn't die until 1937, becoming a fairly important figure in right-wing German politics during the interwar period. Ludendorff's writings, for example, became some of the foundational elements of the "stab in the back" version of history that helped fuel the rise of the Nazi Party. (One has to wonder, given the way events play out in this movie, whether World War II actually happened in the DC Extended Universe). One of the other important things about Ludendorff is that he, along with Hindenburg, told the Kaiser that he had to sue for peace, which makes having Ludendorff be the "the war must go on" guy in the movie slightly odd.

This is sort of a long-winded way of saying that the Ludendorff we see in Wonder Woman is an alternate history version, and was kind of an odd choice to boot. For one thing, a General in the position Ludendorff held in reality and which the movie ascribes to him wouldn't need to do even the limited amount of political maneuvering that he does in the movie in order to get his way - effectively, Ludendorff controlled the entire German economy and military by the end of the war, to such an extent that when there was a large scale strike in 1918, he had a million striking workers rounded up and sent to the front. This is not to say that these sequences in the movie are not interesting elements to the plot, but rather choosing to have Ludendorff be the individual implementing them is a strange choice. Using an actual historical figure for this sort of role will always raise a collection of questions, especially if the story uses that figure in a strange way as was done in this movie. There isn't any other notable character based on a historical figure in the movie - Doctor Maru wasn't a real person; Steve Trevor wasn't a real person; Sir Patrick Morgan wasn't a real person; and so on. So why use Ludendorff and not some invented general whose story one could craft from whole cloth? Or, if one is bound and determined to use an actual German general in the story, why not one of the seventy generals who actually died in the war? Given the way that Ludendorff's story plays out in the movie, one has to wonder if German post-war politics would have given rise to the Nazi Party at all, and if not, whether World War II would have actually happened in the DC Extended Universe. As I said before, this is just a nitpick, but there was really no reason for it, and it irks the history-lover in me to see a character like Ludendorff used in this way.

Trevor and Diana
This is, however, just a niggling detail in the overall scheme of things. There are a few other minor missteps in the movie. Sameer's character could have been fleshed out more and he could have been used more in situations that were not intended as mildly salacious comic relief. The portrayal of Chief was for the most part well done, but he could have been given an actual name, and one particularly cringe-worthy scene relying upon a Native American stereotype could have been omitted. The Amazons played by women of color could have had more substantial roles in the movie. These are, overall, relatively small blemishes on an otherwise excellent tapestry, although they are real concerns that one would hope are dealt with better in the future. On the whole, comic book based movies have not had a good track record with respect to either women or people of color, and while Wonder Woman is a vast improvement on one front, it makes clear that there is still a long way to go on both fronts - although much further on one than the other. Despite the fact that Wonder Woman is fantastic in so many ways, the genre of super-hero movies can do better, and should aspire to do better.

Wonder Woman
After the battle across no-man's land and beyond, the movie pauses for a moment, as if gathering itself for the final push. There's a bit of intrigue which mostly seems to exist so that Diana can put on a ball gown and get mad at Steve Trevor before everything proceeds to the "punch everything" part of the story. From this point forward, the movie powers through its remaining minutes, slowing down only briefly enough to explain what is going on now and again. Diana gets angry, dukes it out with a super-villain, there's a fairly predictable plot twist, there's a fairly predictable (albeit very well-done) attempted seduction of evil, there's a fairly predictable complication, there's a fairly predictable sacrifice, and there's a fairly predictable battle against the really big bad villain. This part of the movie is flashy, spectacular, and filled with lots of action, but compared to everything that went before, it feels somehow less important. It is a given that super-hero movies have to have an epic confrontation at the end, and the battle is exciting and suspenseful and a little bit tragic, but it seems almost anticlimactic by the time the film gets there.On the one hand, it is exhilarating to see Diana gaining confidence in her abilities while she sheds her props one by one and relies upon her own inner resources, and it is great to see her framed in a massive confrontation with evil in a manner akin to the way other superheroes have been framed, but on the other hand, the movie doesn't really feel like it needs this denouement. It still gets it, in all of its high-powered, over-the-top glory, and the whole resolution feels (pardon the pun) wonderful.

Wonder Woman is, quite simply, a fantastic super-hero movie. It is almost everything that everyone who loves the character had hoped it would be, and then some. The concerns, quite frankly well-founded, that this movie would be yet another disappointing entry in the recent string of bad DC-based movies have turned out not to have come to fruition. Instead, what we have gotten on the screen is a movie worthy of the character, and worthy of her legions of adoring fans that stands head and shoulders above anything else in the DC Expanded Universe, and among the upper tiers of all super-heroic movies.

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Wednesday, June 7, 2017

2017 Mythopoeic Award Nominees

Location: Mythcon 48 in Champaign, Illinois.

Comments: As usual, the fiction categories for the Mythopoeic Award are full of good books - most notably Ghost Talkers by Mary Robinette Kowal and Kingfisher by Patricia A. McKillip. Once again the Myth and Fantasy Studies category looks to be populated by a collection of interesting books on a wide range of topics. And once again, the Scholarship Award in Inklings Studies feels cramped and limited - to such an extent that J.R.R. Tolkien's own translation of Beowulf was nominated in this category for the third year in a row.

I know that the Mythopoeic Society exists in large part to promote awareness of the works of the Inklings, and that promoting works of scholarship about the Inklings is seen as integral to that objective. The only problem is that year after year the nominees for the Scholarship Award in Inklings Studies show that there really doesn't seem to be sufficient depth to support such an award. Maybe there is some vast reservoir of books about the inklings out there that aren't apparent to most people, but based on the nominations in this category, I rather doubt it. It seems to me that the Mythopoeic Society would probably do best to fold the Inklings Studies category together with the Myth and Fantasy Studies category and strengthen the field of both, but I doubt they will, which is kind of a pity.

Best Adult Fantasy Literature

Winner:
TBD

Other Nominees:
Ghost Talkers by Mary Robinette Kowal
Kingfisher by Patricia A. McKillip
The Raven Cycle by Maggie Stiefvater
Thessaly Trilogy by Jo Walton
Will Do Magic For Small Change by Andrea Hairston

Best Children's Fantasy Literature

Winner:
TBD

Other Nominees:
The Evil Wizard Smallbone by Delia Sherman
The Inquisitor’s Tale: Or, The Three Magical Children and their Holy Dog by Adam Gidwitz
The Mapmakers Trilogy by S.E. Grove
The Rat Prince by Bridget Hodder
When the Sea Turned to Silver by Grace Lin

Scholarship Award in Inklings Studies

Winner:
TBD

Other Nominees:
Approaches to Teaching Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and Other Works edited by Leslie Donovan
Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary, together with Sellic Spell by J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien
The Chapel of the Thorn, Charles Williams edited by Sørina Higgins
The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams by Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski
Tolkien’s Theology of Beauty: Majesty, Splendor, and Transcendence in Middle Earth by Lisa Coutras

Myth and Fantasy Studies

Winner:
TBD

Other Nominees:
Children’s Fantasy Literature: An Introduction by Michael Levy and Farah Mendlesohn
Elf Queens and Holy Friars: Fairy Beliefs and the Medieval Church by Richard Firth Green
Grimm Legacies: The Magic Spell of the Grimms’ Folk and Fairy Tales by Jack Zipes
Otherworlds: Fantasy and History in Medieval Literature by Aisling Byrne
The Tropes of Fantasy Fiction by Gabrielle Lissauer

Go to previous year's nominees: 2016
Go to subsequent year's nominees: 2018

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Monday, June 5, 2017

Musical Monday - Wonder Woman Main Theme


This past weekend, the redhead and I went to see Wonder Woman. It was fantastic, easily the best DC superhero movie produced since The Dark Knight, and possibly even better than that. I'm going to write about it soon, but what I want to talk about today is the fact that in its opening weekend the movie it made $100 million in the domestic market and another $122 million internationally. This should put to rest the notion that female-led superhero movies won't make money. It won't. I can already hear the rationalizations that will be made to dismiss the possibility of more women-led super-hero films.

I'm not having any of those excuses. And we shouldn't accept that this is the one movie "for the girls" to keep the women happy and then let the studios go back to making all dude movies. If Wonder Woman can be a big hit for DC, why not Black Canary? Where is the movie about Power Girl? How about Zatanna? Can't we have a movie about her? Maybe DC should think about making a movie about Batgirl instead of yet another movie about Batman's origin, who at this point is possibly the most boring and overused character in super-heroic cinematic history. There are just so many possibilities that are more interesting and have more potential than the usual cast of dude characters. Given that Wonder Woman was by far the best movie you've made in your DC Extended Universe series of movies, maybe it would be a good idea to try telling some movies featuring female characters instead of the broody dudes you've put forward thus far.

And Marvel doesn't get a pass on this either. Sure, their movies have been a lot better than DC's movies so far, but they have been pretty sausage-heavy affairs. There have been fifteen movies released thus far in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and not one of them headlines a woman. Sure, Black Widow has shown up in a handful, Scarlet Witch has been in two, and Gamora has been in both Guardians of the Galaxy movies, but I'd like to see a movie where Black Widow is the headlining star. Wait, scratch that, let's have two Black Widow movies. They'd probably be more interesting than Thor: The Dark World. We've got the Captain Marvel movie to look forward to, but that will be the twenty-first movie in the series. The fact that there won't be a female-led Marvel movie until then is just ridiculous. Even the Wasp has to share her movie debut with Ant-Man. How about we have a Wasp solo movie instead? Can we have a Ms. Marvel movie too? We've had five Marvel series on Netflix, four of which were good. Which one was the best? Jessica Jones. Can we get another series about her and just cancel Iron Fist1 forever? There are so many good female Marvel super-heroes, let's balance the scales and have fifteen movies in a row starring women.

And while we are at it, let's talk about Fox and the X-Men. Somehow you guys have managed to have two solo movies for Wolverine and another for Deadpool (with another on its way), and yet there hasn't been a solo Storm movie? How about a Polaris movie? Or one starring Rogue? Or Emma Frost? Hell, I'd even accept a movie headlined by Dazzler. How about we see some mutant women get the spotlight for once? I mean, it's not like the franchise has much to lose, given that only three or four of the movies in the series have actually been good.

I guess this is a long-winded way of saying to movie producers: Don't stop with Wonder Woman. There are so many great female super-heroes out there whose stories are waiting to be told. How about you all start telling them?

1 Apparently, Netflix has decided to cancel Sense8 and renew Iron Fist for another season, which is just straight-up bullshit of the first order. The only way Iron Fist should ever appear onscreen again is paired up with Luke Cage in a team-up series, and even then, I absolutely insist that Iron Fist be required to wear the ridiculous green jumpsuit with the yellow collar and sash belt at all times. Yes, even in boardroom scenes. The 1985 movie The Last Dragon was a better Iron Fist story than the Iron Fist Netflix series, and that movie wasn't even about Iron Fist and featured a villain named "Sho'nuff".

Previous Musical Monday: Section 60 by Kansas
Subsequent Musical Monday: Batman Theme (1966-1968)

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Sunday, June 4, 2017

2017 Campbell Award Nominees

Location: Campbell Conference Awards Banquet at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, Kansas.

Comments: The Campbell Awards are often an outlier when it comes to genre fiction awards. While the Nebulas, Hugos, and Locus Awards often have some crossover, it seems that the Campbell Award often walks to the beat of its own drummer. I guess this is the long way of me saying that when these nominations were announced, I hadn't read any of them. This is fairly typical of a Campbell ballot - I simply haven't had enough time to read as many of the books that have been nominated for this award over the years as I would like to. I should probably get to remedying that, and sooner rather than later.

Best Novel

Winner:
TBD

Second Place:
TBD

Third Place:
TBD

Finalists:
Alien Morning by Rick Wilber
The Arrival of Missives by Aliya Whiteley
Azanian Bridges by John Nicholas Wood
Central Station by Lavie Tidhar
The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij Johnson
Everfair by Nisi Shawl
Into Everywhere by Paul J. McAuley
The Medusa Chronicles by Alastair Reynolds and Stephen Baxter
Occupy Me by Tricia Sullivan
Rosewater by Tade Thompson
Underground Airlines by Ben Winters
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Zero K by Don DeLillo

Go to previous year's nominees: 2016
Go to subsequent year's nominees: 2018

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Saturday, June 3, 2017

Book Blogger Hop June 2nd - June 8th: "206 Bones" Is a Novel by Kathy Reichs


Jen at Crazy for Books restarted her weekly Book Blogger Hop to help book bloggers connect with one another, but then couldn't continue, so she handed the hosting responsibilities off to Ramblings of a Coffee Addicted Writer. The only requirements to participate in the Hop are to write and link a post answering the weekly question and then visit other blogs that are also participating to see if you like their blog and would like to follow them.

This week Billy asks: Do your bookshelves have books ONLY or do you also have bookish items on the shelves?

Most of my shelves have books on them. A few shelves have DVDs, and a few others have games. But most of them have books. There are some other things stacked in front of the books on some shelves - pictures, Rubik's cubes, dragons, spiders, Lego constructions, a stuffed Slimer, a Corinthian helmet, and a couple other things I'm forgetting right now. Sometimes there are books stacked in front of books on the shelves. There are more than 11,000 books in my house, so they have to go somewhere.


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Thursday, June 1, 2017

Review - Rogue One: A Star Wars Story



Short review: A convoluted story sends Jyn Erso to Scarif with a band of ruffians where they set about stealing the plans for the Death Star and kick off the plot of the original Star Wars movie from 1977.

Haiku
Her father taken
A secret design flaw
Desperate mission

Full review: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is the eighth movie set in the Star Wars universe, but the first that is not directly tied to the "Skywalker Saga". The announced intent is, for the foreseeable future, to alternate between additional "Saga" movies - such as 2015's The Force Awakens and the upcoming The Last Jedi, scheduled to be released in December of 2017 - and "anthology" movies featuring ancillary stories that are set in the Star Wars universe, but have plots that are related but not integral to the ongoing "Saga" such as Rogue One and the upcoming "young Han Solo" movie.

Rogue One is about the rebels who stole the plans for the first Death Star, whose actions set up the plot of the very first Star Wars movie. This movie is not about the "many Bothans" who died in the service of the Rebel Alliance, because those Bothans died recovering intelligence about the security surrounding the late stages of the construction of the second Death Star, which led to the events the took place in The Return of Jedi. One thing that is somewhat sad is that the existence of Rogue One would seem to make it less likely that there will ever actually be a movie about those Bothans, as having two movies about a desperate attempt to steal classified military plans would seem to be redundant. On the other hand, the Star Wars series includes three movies that are essentially all variations of a desperate effort to destroy a giant planet-destroying super-weapon built by the forces of evil, so maybe having a redundant plot isn't really all that big of an obstacle.

Given that this is a new style of movie for the Star Wars franchise, the first question one must ask is, does this new format work? And the answer is a qualified yes. The story of how the rebels stole the Death Star plans is, to a certain extent, a predictable one: The audience knows when they are walking into the theater that at the end of the movie, someone will be handing the Death Star plans to Princess Leia, who will then jet away to be caught in the skies over Tattooine at the beginning of A New Hope. On the other hand, the ending of a story is just that - the ending, and the important part is how one gets there. Unfortunately, for much of its run time, Rogue One seems to be something of a disjointed mess. It is fairly apparent that the movie was substantially rewritten at some point during the filming process, and what is on the screen frequently seems to be material that was cut from some other, possibly more coherent movie and then stuck together to make a new story. Everything comes together in the final section of the movie, which is something like a combination of the Dirty Dozen and Midway, and that makes up for the somewhat scattershot nature of what goes before, but there is still a lot of this movie that feels somewhat off-kilter.

The story of Rogue One is, more or less, the story of Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), the daughter of the scientist Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) and his wife Lyra Erso. In the opening scenes of the movie, Lyra is killed and Galen is abducted by Imperial forces under the command of Director Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn). Jyn hides from Krennic's death troopers and is rescued by the Rebel leader Saw Guerrera (Forest Whitaker). The movie jumps forward in time by about a decade and a half and rebel spy Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) has learned that an imperial pilot has defected to Guerrera with a secret message about the doomsday weapon that the Empire is building. The trouble is, in the intervening years, Saw has become an "extremist" and the faction he leads has broken off from the rest of the Rebel Alliance.

The Rebel Alliance decides to locate Jyn, being held in Imperial custody for a variety of crimes, and breaks her out with the hope that she will be able to introduce them to her former benefactor. After some twists and turns in the Holy City on the moon Jedha that introduce the characters of the droid K-2S0 (Alan Tudyk), Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen) and Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang), Jyn gains entry to Guerrera's hideout and hears the message, which turns out to be from her father and reveals that he has been forced to help construct the Death Star but that he secretly planted a flaw in it that can be revealed by a careful study of its plans. Meanwhile, Grand Moff Tarkin demands a test of the freshly completed Death Star's capabilities and destroys the Holy City, apparently killing Saw and most of his partisans in the process. Jyn, Cassion, Chirrut, Baze, and the imperial pilot (named Bohdi Rook and played by Riz Ahmed) all escape.

It is in these sections of the movie that the somewhat haphazard structure of the film is most apparent. despite being played by Forest Whitaker, Saw Guererra is only in a handful of scenes, and doesn't do much of anything in any of them. For the most part, Guerrera's role in the movie is to hold the defector Bohdi and show Jyn a hologram message from her father. Not only does this seem like a waste of the talents of an actor like Whitaker, but there are indications that at one point the role of Saw Guerrera was much more prominent in the story - with his numerous cybernetic parts and frequent need for an air mask, he seems like a thematic counterpart to Darth Vader, someone becoming more machine than man in service of the Rebellion just as Vader did in the service of the Empire. Perhaps Guererra was intended as metacommentary upon the price one might pay for having too much devotion to a cause, but we will never know. We are told that he is an "extremist", but there's never any demonstration of what that might mean. We see men in his service attacking a storm trooper patrol in the Holy City on Jedha, but that seems like awfully weak tea as far as "extremism" goes. I suppose his methods of interrogating Bohdi are a bit ruthless, but that also seems like a pretty limited place to hang the label of "extremist" upon him.

Further, the story that Guerrera was part of the Rebel Alliance until recently, and only left due to disputes over tactics leads to another question: Why doesn't anyone in the current Rebel Alliance know Jyn Erso? According to Guerrera, she was his best soldier until he abandoned her when she was sixteen to protect her from rumors among his other followers. That can't have been more than ten years before the events of Rogue One, so the idea that Jyn never worked with anyone from any other part of the Rebel Alliance seems somewhat implausible, especially given that Cassian says he has been fighting the Empire since he was six. But when they pick her up, the Rebel Alliance acts like they have never had contact with her before. To a certain extent, they act like they had never heard of her before they brought her in when Guerrera became important to the cause again. There are other oddities as well: Cassian meets a contact in the Holy City, but then he and Jyn actually connect with Guerrera's group in the middle of a firefight, and then they are abducted. Who was the contact? What was the actual plan? Was there a plan? Guerrera uses an alien beast to interrogate Bodhi, using a method that is supposed to damage the mind of the subject. Later, when Jyn and Cassian find Bohdi, he seems like a man with a broken mind, gibbering almost incoherently in his cell. A few scenes later, when the time comes to break out and escape from the onrushing wave of destruction caused by the Death Star, Bohdi seems to be perfectly fine. How he was able to recover so quickly is never explained. Time and again, it feels like scenes were reordered, removed, or realigned, leaving the viewer feeling like there is something missing from these parts of the story. On can only surmise that the wrinkles that don't add up are held over artifacts from the original version of the story that were left in because it would have been too difficult to reshoot the scenes that have them.

The obvious slicing and dicing of the intrigue and adventure in the early parts of the movie would be forgivable is one were able to think that it was done simply to try to cram as much of that as possible into the story, but instead the movie keeps shifting away from Jyn, Cassian, K-2SO and the rest of the intrepid rebels to focus on what can only be described as the deadly dull office politics of the Imperial Officer class. In large part, all these scenes really do is provide a really long-winded answer for the question "How did Grand Moff Tarkin become the commander of the Death Star", which is a question that pretty much no one actually asked to be answered. These scenes have the additional downside of retroactively making Tarkin a less imposing villain in A New Hope, as he comes off as a petty backstabber whose only real skill is leeching off of the accomplishments of others, and makes Krennic look like a cloddish buffoon in this movie. Every time the story cuts away from the heroes to these boardroom shenanigans, any momentum the movie has built up grinds to a screeching halt as we watch CGI Peter Cushing outmaneuver Krennic and take over the Empire's new superweapon.

This is probably the juncture to discuss the two CGI characters that everyone noticed in the movie: Grand Moff Tarkin and Princess Leia. There was a third - K-2SO - but no one thought of the droid as being a particularly remarkable example of CGI work. As a CGI character, young Princess Leia isn't very convincing, and has kind of a plastic look about her. She's only on screen for a few seconds, and only has one line to deliver, so this isn't that big of a deal. Tarkin, on the other hand, is integral to the whole Imperial Officer backstabbing politics story, and so has to carry a fair amount of narrative weight. For the most part, the CGI effects recreating the deceased Peter Cushing for the big screen are fine, but the end result is pretty obviously not Peter Cushing. The CGI Cushing looks like the late actor, but Cushing was an incredibly skilled and subtle actor, capable of conveying enormous amounts of meaning with a slightly arched eyebrow or the tiniest curl of a lip and, well, the CGI Cushing just doesn't have those skills. The result is a performance by a creation that pretty much looks like Cushing, but is strangely flat and lifeless when compared to the actual actor.

After the group of would-be rebels escape from Jedha, they make their way to Eadu, which is the location of the Imperial research station where Galen Erso is stationed. The important thing about this excursion is that essentially nothing of importance to the story takes place on Eadu. Jyn thinks that the group has gone to Eadu to rescue her father, Cassian has orders to kill Galen, and everyone else is basically just along for the ride. Krennic shows up looking for the identity of the leaker who sent Bohdi Rook to Saw Guerrera and kills the entire staff of engineers except for Galen and then a squadron of Rebel fighters show up and bomb the whole base, killing Galen just in time for him to die in Jyn's arms. After a whole lot of meaningless activity, everyone leaves the planet and heads back to Dantooine to have a talk with all of the leaders of the Rebel Alliance. Once again, this entire sequence feels like it was stitched together out of scenes from another, more coherent story in which something notable happened on Eadu. As it is, this entire section of the movie could have simply been left out and there would have been almost nothing lost.

What saves Rogue One, in the end, are the characters and the final third of the movie. And by "the characters", I mostly mean K-2SO, Chirrut Imwe, and Baze Malbus. Krennic is a standard issue movie villain, backed by standard issue movie villain henchmen, with nothing that makes him seem particularly unique or even all that interesting. Jyn Erso is perfectly serviceable as a lead, made somewhat more interesting due to the fact that she is the female lead of an action movie, but for the most part she is a fairly standard character - a surly, disaffected rogue who finally finds something to believe in and ends up leading the way. Cassian is also pretty much a standard issue character as well, with nothing in particular that really makes him stand out from any number of other action movie heroes. K-2SO, on the other hand, is almost the platonic ideal of the anti-C-3PO. Snarky and rude where C-3PO is endlessly obsequious, competent and capable where C-3PO is mostly useless, and willing to be ruthless when needed, K-2SO is a droid unlike any seen before in the Star Wars universe, and provides a welcome counterpoint to the rest of the squad. One repeated joke has K-2SO bringing up the odds of something happening, but unlike C-3PO, who would give precise figures as calculated by R2-D2, K-2SO is almost always vague with his estimates, and usually gets cut off by those around him, who simply don't appreciate his wisdom.

The real highlight is Chirrut Imwe, the blind former guardian of the Jedi temple on Jedha. What makes Chirrut so interesting is not the fact that he is blind, or the fact that he is a practitioner of a Jedi-like martial art, although his fight sequences do raise the eternal question of what the Imperial stormtrooper armor is for, as Chirrut is able to knock stormtroopers senseless with nothing but a stick. No, what makes Chirrut interesting is that he is the first character who actually makes one believe in the Force as a religious belief. In previous movies the Jedi have used the Force, but for them it always seems like just a tool. Chirrut, on the other hand, believes in the Force in a way that no other character really has. Despite his religious leanings, Chirrut is also frequently hilarious, with insightful and humorous comments, such as his incredulity at Guererra's men placing a hood over his head when he is captured along with Jyn, Cassion, and Baze, "Are you kidding? I'm blind!" Chirrut's constant companion Baze is interesting by extension, mostly because he clearly doesn't share Chirrut's deep-seated religious beliefs, and yet the two are obviously extremely close. This sort of odd couple pairing isn't particularly original, but in this instance putting the idealistic Chirrut and the cynical Baze together simply works.

After kind of limping through the first two-thirds of the movie, Rogue One finally finds its feet once the heroes make their way to the Imperial records facility on Scarife to actually steal the Death Star schematics. This sequence, which takes up all of the rest of the movie, pretty much makes up for all of the deficiencies that may have gone before as the movie turns into a desperate fight against impossible odds. Jyn and her team of roguish volunteers try to infiltrate the Imperial base while also taking on a garrison of storm troopers and Imperial walkers, while the Rebel fleet valiantly tries to punch a hole in the planetary shield above them. The only notable weakness of this section is that it makes apparent that the movie has been suffering somewhat from Smurfette syndrome, as Jyn is the only woman in a strike team comprised of grungy dudes and at least one alien. This is offset somewhat by the inclusion of a handful of female fighter pilots in the space battle (and a few flying close air support in the land battle), but other than Jyn and these pilots, the movie is pretty short on substantial roles for women, which is something of a shame as the movie's cast is interestingly diverse in other ways. In any event, the battle plays out about as one would expect, which should be entirely unsurprising given that the movie is a prequel and the audience presumably already knew that the Death Star plans would end up in Princess Leia's hands. There is a lot of action, and all of the main characters have their heroic moment to shine. The space battle is exciting, with the inclusion of some references to the original Star Wars movie series that are just subtle enough to be noticeable without calling too much attention to themselves. Despite being predictable, then ending of the movie manages to remain thrilling and tense, with the final resolution being both a completely satisfying close to this story and the perfect launching point for A New Hope.

In the end, Rogue One is a flawed but still quite enjoyable installment in the Star Wars franchise. The somewhat disjointed nature of the plot in the first two-thirds of the movie is offset by the engaging characters and the climatic battle that finishes the movie. The only real downside to this movie is that, for rather obvious reasons, most of the characters who appear in it really can't be revisited in the future - it would have for example, been interesting to see a movie that told Saw Guerrera's story and the sequence of events that drove him from being a member of the Rebel Alliance to being the leader of an extremist splinter group. Even so, this movie is a good addition to the original Star Wars story, illustrating the high price extracted from the Rebels in their struggle against the Empire, and depicting the world of the "grunt" level soldiers in the fight. Ultimately, Rogue One contains everything that a Star Wars fan is likely to want in a movie plus some additional grit and self-sacrificing heroics that set it apart from the other installments and make it unique in the franchise.

2017 Hugo Award Finalists

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