ROGUE ONE - A Star Wars Tale

                Rogue One is the best Star Wars film in 36 years.
                There y’go.  If you read no further, you know everything you need to know.  Rogue One is the best thing to come out of the Star Wars universe since Empire.
                You still here? 
                Right, well, in that case, you probably want me to elaborate, to explain why I’m so blown away by the film.  Why did I wait ’til I’d seen it twice before putting finger to keyboard?
                Well, a large part of my appreciation lies in the way that this is a grown up Star Wars film.  It’s still only a 12A (or PG13 for you colonials) like every big budget film has to be to stand a chance of earning big profits.  It also suffers somewhat from the modern malaise of having thousands of people killed at a stroke - all off-camera.  But you don’t need to have blood, sex and swearing to be a grown up.  You need to treat your audience like adults, expect them to be able to keep up, to follow complex plots, and to understand deftly-sketched emotional character traits.
                The characters in it are not children.  But, y’know, when I was a kid, I didn’t need all my protagonists to be my age ... I liked the sensation of bigging up, of getting a glimpse of the adult world through the eyes of an adult hero. 
                Apparently some younger viewers have been complaining that this film is too slow and too dark for them.  Good.  It hasn’t been made just for them.  Star Wars wasn’t made for children back in 1977; it was made for adults who were nostalgic for Flash Gordon.  Rogue One has been made for adults who are nostalgic for Star Wars!
                So, this film is perfectly safe for kids ... It just won’t talk down to them or wait for them to catch up.  If that’s not what they’re used to ... Well, it’s about time they learned.  Once or twice it explains more than it needs to (like why the droid K-2SO has a sarcastic personality) but mostly it trusts the writers, actors and audience enough to leave them to fill the unspoken gaps.
                When Star Wars came out, I was eleven.  There was none of this A New Hope malarkey then, it was just Star Wars.  I, like everyone else, needed guiding through the Hero’s Journey because I, like everyone else except George Lucas, was unfamiliar with it.  But Star Wars (A New Hope) changed all that; and pretty much every big budget movie released since then has taught us the lesson afresh.  So, do we really need to have everything explained to us?  No.  We know this territory now; we can find our own way.

Just so were clear (for later on) this photo is obviously a publicity shot, not a frame cut from the fillum.
                The film knows this from its opening scene where Jyn is (apparently) left orphaned.  We know these characters need to be orphans.  Them’s the rules.  But, when your audience knows the rules, that gives you the opportunity to play around with them.  To confound expectation, to surprise and delight.  And this film does - from its first frame.
                There’s no Star Wars fanfare.  But, there wouldn’t be, those legendary themes are associated with Skywalker and the rest, and this isn’t their story.  There’s no slow crawl telling us the story so far.  But there wouldn’t be, this film doesn’t present itself as a myth.  We’re not on Tattooine anymore!
                This film comes across as a gritty, contemporary war film featuring a bunch of desperate characters thrown together by circumstance and who are given little or no time to get to know each other, they just have to work together and trust each other or die trying.  I’ve asked around and a lot of the people I saw this with have no idea what most of the characters are called.

Now don't tell me ... There's the blind kung-fu Jedi, and his mate and ... Forrest Whitaker? 
                This is partly because clumsy names like Chirrut Îmwe, Baze Malbus and Saw Gerrera don’t exactly trip off the tongue - and they are as unfamiliar to most viewers as Obi Wan Kenobi and Grand Moff Tarkin were 40 years ago ... But that doesn’t matter.  The characters are visually distinct, the actors sufficiently charismatic and the relationships between them so deftly written that we know them and like them even if we can’t name them. 
                Do you know the names of the characters in The Magnificent Seven (the proper 1960 version, not this year’s remake nonsense)?  All of them?  I don’t; but I know their strengths and weaknesses, they are memorable, charismatic and (that much over-used term) iconic and, partly because of this, the actors who weren’t already famous (which is to say pretty-much everyone except Brynner) went on to become stars.
                In the heat of battle, alliances are forged out of people’s actions and loyalties, not their names and races.
                And what races there are.  In-keeping with Lucas’ original vision, this is a patchwork galaxy made up of a diversity of races, from the Cthuloid creature Jyn shares a cell with at the beginning, to the Wampa in the rebel army in Jedha, to various throw-forwards to Star Wars (like the walrus faced Ponda Baba who will soon pick a fight with a kid in a bar on Tattooine ... with messy results).  
                These bits of fan service are unnecessary but - with the exception of the obviously-grafted-on-at-the-last-minute cameo from R2D2 and C-3PO - they don’t jar (jar) and they don’t interrupt the narrative.  This film doesn’t really require prior (or subsequent) knowledge.  It tells you what you need to know as you go along.  There’s an oppressive military Empire, there’s a disorganised but well-meaning rebellion, there’s lots of different planets with daft names and some people believe in this defunct religion called ‘The Force’ ... That’s really all you need.  Everything else is just gravy.
                I was impressed by the casual diversity of the film too.  In common with Force Awakens, it makes a damn fine fist of compensating for the sausage fest that most of the existing Star Wars films have been (Carrie Fisher often mentions that she was the only girl in the boy’s club - although recent revelations suggest she made the most of the opportunities this offered to a young liberated woman).  So here we have a young female protagonist, one who can fend for herself, who casually takes out several stormtroopers with a stick (shortly before Îmwe makes a meal of doing much the same with his bigger stick).  She doesn’t need rescuing (although Cassian insists on doing so towards the end anyway) and her team is made up of a Mexican Han Solo, a couple of Chinese warriors (which will be money in the bank when the film opens there next week) an English Pakistani pilot and a Texan robot who thinks he’s Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon.  That’s pretty bloody diverse!

Leonard, Penny and Sheldon, Star Wars style.
                Rogue One doesn’t really look like any Star Wars film, either.  Yes, the design elements are familiar, buildings with rounded roofs, Imperial vehicles that are all corners, characters wearing hoods and robes ... But this is all in the background, you can either notice it or not.  There are echoes of the films and stories we know - but they are distant echoes, like the sparse strains of the melodies we know which appear briefly and sparsely.  Like the chatter of foreign voices and the crowds of alien faces.  Like the shattered statue half buried in the sand, betraying the existence of a magnificent Jedi culture ... which passed away a long time ago.

Even Liam Neeson's Jedi wasn't that stony faced.

The colour palette is subdued - sandy browns and chilly blues - making the film look like most any ‘gritty’ film of the last ten years - and the camerawork is noticeably hand-held and messy - like any thriller or war film since Bourne and Private Ryan (Matt Damon has a lot to answer for) - because this is a dirty, glamour-free universe.  These characters are not designed to sell toys (even though, let’s face it, they will anyway) they are designed to tell a story.
                Essentially, what the film-makers have done is go back to first principles, to the ambitions Lucas had for this universe when he first invented it.  Don’t forget, Lucas is the one who wanted to make Apocalypse Now as a 16mm documentary rather than a sprawling epic.  He wanted to make his Star Wars film in, essentially, the same way, to show the universe as tatty and second hand.  We aren’t at the centre of the action, we’re out in the boondocks, seeing worlds that are not dwelt upon, but are quickly sketched-in.  It’s a real, vivid, lived-in universe, just as George wanted.  He didn’t want to concentrate on lingering shots of beautiful impossible vistas (as 2001: A Space Odyssey had) but instead to tell a pacy story in which most of the characters have unpronounceable names, speak made-up languages or wear masks throughout.
                Like Lucas’ vision, the universe we see here is a bit clunky and not terribly pretty and populated by a wide variety of British bit-part actors.  It is to the credit of Edwards and his team that they have slavishly copied Lucas’ process and intentions rather than his actual films.  This has made Rogue One truer to the feel of the original Star Wars.  This film reached out to my inner eleven year old, much more than last year’s Force Awakens did, that was little more than post-modern pastiche. 
                I really love the way that this film changes the way we perceive the Rebellion (and this must surely be Tony Gilroy’s input) as disorganised and riven by in-fighting.  Even though he’s on the same side as them, they see Saw Gerrera as a threat.  Even though they’re supposedly the good guys, when they send the X-Wings in to attack Eadu you find yourself wanting them to fail because they’ve been given the wrong target at the wrong time.  When they have their big council meeting, they are revealed to be cowardly and indecisive and hobbled by political posturing.  So, as always, the scrappy kid with nothing to lose has to take matters into her own hands.
                Of course, the Empire aren’t much better.  They are all so busy stabbing each other in the back and clambering over each other to attract the eye of the Emperor, that they don’t notice their catastrophic mistakes.  These are summed up in the trajectory followed by Director Krennic. 

Oooh, I'm so evil I can wear a white cape and not look camp!
                Ben Mendelsohn’s performance is pitch perfect, he comes across from his first moment as an eminently reasonable and level-headed megalomaniac.  He exudes the casual confidence of the genuinely evil yet, in the film’s opening scene, he makes the mistake that will lead, eventually, to the death of his beloved Emperor and the collapse of the Empire, oh, and to his own death.  He forces his old friend Galen Erso to come back and continue working on the Death Star.  To motivate him, he kills Galen’s wife.  This gives Galen all the impetus he needs to build a weakness into the Death Star and leave the instructions on how to exploit that in the all-important plans.
                Finally, when he has made his weapon work, and had it taken from him by the master-manipulator, Tarkin, Krennic fails to secure those plans and, in a beautifully karmic moment, is vaporised by his own weapon.
                And let’s spend a moment thinking about that weapon.  In Force Awakens, they beefed-up the Death Star idea to make it a ‘Starkiller’ which does pretty much what it says on the tin.  It sucks all the energy out of a star and it can destroy an entire solar system with one blast.  That’s too big.  Billions of people die with one shot.  It’s too much for the audience to parse.  One can’t feel the pain of that.  It’s destruction on a scale we literally can’t imagine.
                But, in Rogue One, we see tanks rolling down bomb-damaged desert streets.  That’s on image we see every day on the news.  We see guerrilla fighters taking on a vastly superior military force with improvised weapons.  Again, that is unfortunately a daily occurrence in the Middle East.  So this is a star war with which we can identify.  It feels tangible.  Believable.  Therefore, when they unleash the Death Star weapon and destroy just one city - we feel that!  We literally feel the earthquake it causes, we feel the panic of those escaping the blast and we feel the horror of it because it has a victim count which we can, sadly, imagine and understand.

The Death Star seen through an atmosphere is truly chilling.  That really is no moon!
                No, I don’t know why Saw Gerrera sends Jyn away then just stands there and waits for the blast, but I suspect it may be because he knew he’d filled his purpose in the narrative and had nothing else to do.  Either way, the piece de resistance for this sequence, is Krennic’s irony-free comment that the explosion is ‘beautiful’.  If you didn’t hate the Empire before, you just must after that.
                Yes, thousands of people die off camera, in a PG13 or 12A-friendly kinda way, but I felt their loss more keenly than the billions who died in The Force Awakens or in any of Roland Emmerich’s global disaster movies.
                This explosion makes the escalation to destroying a whole planet in Star Wars all the more monstrous.  It helps us feel Leia’s pain as she watches her home blown away, it actually improves Star Wars for us.  It ups the ante in A New Hope.

                The heart of this film is not in the star war, but the ground battle.  And, in this case, it isn’t arrogant men in cloaks jumping athletically in the air and sword-fighting; no, this is war as we recognise it ... Boots on the ground, troopers hiding from Stormtrooper blasters (although, as Îmwe demonstrates, they probably don’t need to bother), grabbing one piece of land at a time.  Then the smoke parts, and the walkers arrive.  A spine-tingling moment of cinema.

Completely impractical all-terrain vehicle - And still my absolute favourite mode of Star Wars transport.
                I confess that I was disappointed when I heard that John Williams wasn’t doing the music.  But Michael Giacchino’s score is the best he has yet done.  It has Williams’ DNA running through every note, yet doesn’t ape any of his tunes, doesn’t copy, but rather - like the film it is part of - channels the spirit and the energy without diminishing the original.  I’d go as far as to say it’s better than the work Williams himself did for The Force Awakens.  Yes, you read that right. 
                Giacchino’s music swells and lifts the emotional highs then, when it isn’t needed - such as in the slow motion Star Destroyer crash - it just gets out of the way.  It’s the best blend of sound and vision I’ve heard in a film in a lot of years.
                As gorgeous as that mournful piano-led treatment of the Imperial March they used in the trailers was - that music isn’t right for this film,  this isn’t Vader’s story.  It isn’t Skywalker’s story.  Their themes have no place here. 
                That’s not to say that Rogue One is perfect, it isn’t.  It’s third act is a little too much like Jedi.  Key cast members are thrown away once they have fulfilled their narrative purpose (most notably Chirrut Îmwe, Baze Malbus and Bodhi Rook).  The flagrant lack of health-and-safety in Imperial design continues - with data files safely stored over a bottomless drop, while the satellite dish has two controls, one of which is at the end of a narrow spit overhanging another precipitous drop.  This isn’t because it makes any sense, it’s simply so our characters have one more obstacle to overcome.
                Then there is the whole Cushing question.  Cushing’s face is first seen as a reflection, and that’s significant, as this isn’t the man himself (of course), but rather a CGI version of him.  The motion capture performance beneath the virtual skin is by Guy Henry whose physical and vocal impersonation is quite uncanny.  But uncanny is the word.  In some of the shots, Tarkin looks properly alive, but in others, especially around the eyes, his image falls straight down the uncanny valley.  And you’ll find a cogent explanation of just what that means here courtesy of Gizmodo.
                It’s interesting that a week into the film’s release, there are still no photos available of the Cushing clone.  I’ve even been to look at the official Disney publicity site and there’s nowt there.  They really aren’t letting us get a good look at that face.
                Which brings us to the subject of advertising.  There were seismic shockwaves rippling through the internet a week ago when it was realised that so much of the footage in the film’s trailers wasn’t in the actual film.  I confess, when I was watching the film, I didn’t notice.  It was only afterwards when I watched the trailers that I saw what I hadn’t seen (if you see what I mean).  I don’t think this is an attempt to create false advertising, I think this is a very mature and brave creative decision.  Editing is as much a creative process as the writing and shooting and, during the edit, things can change.  If a line of dialogue or an image doesn’t work in the film, it has to be removed or redone - even if it looks ace in the trailer.  This is why Jyn’s eminently quotable “I rebel” line isn’t there.  That’s why Gerrera’s “what will you become” speech, that the first trailer was built around, is also gone.  Like all creative writers are taught - kill your darlings.  Those lines were the definition of a darling!
                In case you, like me, didn’t actually notice the differences, here is a handy dandy edit featuring every trailer shot that you didn’t see in the actual film.

                I know we’ll never know for sure why the film was re-shot and why the third act (particularly) is significantly different from the one we see in the trailers (because Disney doesn’t really like people to see too far behind the scenes) but - rather than a studio meddling where it shouldn’t - it all suggests that Disney allowed Edwards to make whatever creative decisions he felt were right.  He got to do the opposite of what Warners (apparently) made David Ayer do with Suicide Squad.  He re-shot and re-cut Suicide Squad to make it more like the trailer and, consequently, lost the plot.  Rogue One has been re-shot and re-cut to find the plot. 

The most oft-used image from the first trailer.  Not in the film.

Krennic going paddling on the beach at Scarif. Not in the film.

Jyn's close encounter with a TIE Fighter.  Not in the film.

Also not in the film.  Just saying.

                In that first trailer, Jyn comes across as cocky.  That’s what the “I rebel” line is about.  When General Draven asks if she understands her mission, she smirks at him and gives him an ironic “Yes.  Sir.”  But, if she starts off cocky, that doesn’t leave her character anywhere to grow.  In the film I saw, she isn’t cocky at the start, she’s defensive.  She’s been made cynical by life.  It’s a subtle change, but an important one.  Gradually, she finds a direction, a cause and, like Luke Skywalker before her (after her), she finally becomes radicalised when her family dies.  This means that her rallying speeches to the Alliance - and later to the troops on the transporter - are all the more effective, because she’s lost her cynicism and found hope.
                Cunningly, all this means that her story more closely follows the standard arc of The Hero’s Journey.  All the ingredients are there,  but mixed together so skilfully I didn’t find myself ticking them off the list (Here’s the bit where the supposedly dead character comes back to life ... Oh, here’s the bit where the old guy dies), instead, I just sat there and enjoyed it.
                Let's discuss the ending ... That ending ... it’s a masterstroke!  A perfect build-up to the first light sabre reveal (something that they got badly wrong in Force Awakens).  And did you notice they discuss ‘’hope’ a lot: “Rebellions are built on hope”.  Well, those closing moments suddenly make the reason perfectly clear.  The information they have snatched from under the noses of the Empire is a new hope.  Making this the perfect conclusion to this story and the perfect introduction to the next.  I still can’t quite believe they actually went all the way with this.  A $200 million movie with a sad - but triumphant - ending.  Incredible.
                It’s been a long time since I could just enjoy a Star Wars film.  Just bask in it, responding to it emotionally rather than rationally.  In fact, it’s been quite difficult writing about it, because I don’t want to dig too deep into what made my scalp tingle, in case it doesn’t happen when I go back to see it a third time.

As I'm putting the finishing touches to this piece in the early hours of Christmas Eve, I learn that Carrie Fisher has been struck down with a heart attack on her way home for the holiday.  She's a tough woman.  The Force is strong with her.  Get well, Carrie.  Here's hoping this becomes nothing more than an anecdote in the opening chapter of your next memoir.

Casting The Runes

I’m sitting in a library … Which feels appropriate, because I want to write my first review in some considerable time … And it involves libraries.
M. R. James’ story Casting the Runes is about the power of the written word and about the mortal dangers of writing a scathing review.  Well, it’s a shockingly poor piece of work, Monty; you should be ashamed of yourself!
(Waits for disaster to descend)
Nothing in the trees?  Nothing coming?  Phew.
Just joshing.
Actually, Casting The Runes is one of the key texts of English horror fiction, featuring the malicious occultist, Karswell who, despite being almost entirely absent from the narrative, strikes me as one of the most malignant antagonists in horror literature.  I have just this evening seen a magnificent theatrical rendering of Casting The Runes, which is why I have felt moved (after all this time) to put finger to keyboard (and take my life, therefore, in my hands) by reviewing it.

The story is simple: An ‘alchemist’ called Karswell desires to be taken seriously.  To that end, he has written an academic paper, ‘The Truth of Alchemy’, which has been roundly rejected on the grounds that it is ‘nonsense’.  The person who made this judgement is one Edward Dunning and he, to his cost, will learn that Karswell is a vengeful man.  The story follows Dunning as he becomes gradually aware of then eventually mortally afeared of Karswell.

Imagine the repercussions of telling Hannibal Lecter you didn’t like his foie gras and you get the idea.

He learns that Karswell has cursed him, by passing him a slip of paper with a spell written on it.  His only way to save his own life is to conspire to get Karswell to take it back, but he isn’t going to do that willingly.

Now, if this sounds at all familiar, that may well be because you are thinking of the film Night of the Demon (1957), known by some (wrongly) as Curse of the Demon, which is a movie adaptation of the story. 

I first saw that film as part of one of those long-gone and much-lamented BBC2 late-night double-bills.  It was screened as such in 1980 and, even at the cynical bewhiskered age of 14, I found its opening scene to be every bit as attention grabbing as that of Jaws (1975) …

So, what does this have to do with libraries?  Well, in the original story and in the film version and, indeed, in the theatrical rendering I saw this evening, the curse is passed over to Dunning in a library. 

All three versions are very different in feel and approach, but all three are equally involving.  James’ original has his trademark mannered and loquacious style, as befitting an antiquarian.  The film has that polite, faintly embarrassed air that all British genre films of the period carry, but still makes the most of its American (and therefore exotic) lead, and manages to be pacy and chilling.  As hokey as that demon may look to 21st century eyes, the way it is lit and shot means it remains disturbing, especially because of the remarkable insectoid sound effect they use to accompany it. I can think of nothing to match in in British 50s cinema.  No, not even Quatermass.

So, why am I mentioning all this?  Well, I’m glad you asked.

I’m attending a conference on ‘Weird Fiction’ at Loughborough University and the first day culminated in a performance by the theatrical company Boxtale Soup.  I’ve never seen them before, never even heard of them but, based on what I witnessed tonight; I can’t wait for my next chance to do so.

Their version of Casting the Runes is very simply staged.  There are just the two of them, arriving on stage with suitcases which contain their costumes and are consequently employed as pretty much everything they’ll need.  These, I imagine, are the boxes containing the tales.

The mise en scene is deceptively simple, the set and props are made from cardboard, in shades of grey and brown.  The costumes are black and white, with highlights of newsprint and the odd splash of crimson.  One could even say slash of crimson.

Noel Byrne as Dunning and Antonia Christophers as ... everyone else. (photo © Boxtalesoup)
Noel Byrne plays Dunning with an easy confident air that slowly erodes as he realises the seriousness of the trap in which he is caught.  Antonia Christophers plays everyone else, swapping convincingly from character to character with a simple change of a skirt or a scarf, accompanied by a different accent and a different demeanour.  I won’t tell you how they depict the devilish Karswell, because that delight is especially effective if seen unspoiled.

It's important that Byrne stay in character because, as the focus of unseen malevolent forces, it helps the drama for us to experience his slowly fermenting fear with him.  The performances are naturalistic, even intimate (especially if seen in a small performance space) from the moment the actors take the stage and patiently put on their costumes.  I particularly like the way Byrne assumes the mantle of Dunning by pulling his tie taught with a resigned sigh.  I feel like that when I put a tie on. 

However, the tie in question, being decorated with text, is a fine thing.  I’d wear that tie.  They should sell them as merchandise!

So cocky is Dunning, in a delightfully meta-textual moment, he debunks his own tormentor to his students, exposing some of the stage-craft they have themselves used.  He dismisses the use of fishing wire and magnets to create so-called ‘magical’ effects, and then the production makes careful and clever use of these tricks to create its own effects.   But this show isn’t about the effects, it’s about the people.

He's guarding that tie with his life! (photo © Boxtalesoup)
The scene transitions are achieved through musical segues played and sung by the two performers (which typically evoke The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, a text about breaking a curse, referenced in the original story) while Christophers makes quick and simple costume changes and Byrne moves the suitcases around to form the next setting.  All very simple and effective.

Because the actors never leave the stage, and even make eye contact with the audience from time to time, I found myself becoming more and more emotionally involved with them.  Empathy and identification are key tools in creating horror and this works especially well when you feel a connection with the actors as well as the characters.

There is a palpable and building tension here, which is made all the more pleasantly surprising given the relatively short running time of the play (just under an hour) and the lack of theatrical artifice.

I was put in mind of Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman’s Ghost Stories, which I saw last year.  That had all the heft of a full West End production, involving lighting and sound effects, moving sets and a sizeable cast (not to mention the involvement of Derren Brown’s creative collaborator) to produce an undeniably creepy and clever show.  But at £50 a seat – it bloody well better be effective!

This production, with the barest of sets and the simplest of effects, is every bit as dread-full (in a good way!)  This demonstrates a great understanding not only of the source material but also of the stagecraft needed to bring it to life in a very different medium.

The attention to detail in the production is magnificent, from the confident script they wrote themselves, to the folky music they composed (with possibly a deliberate nod to The Wicker Man), to the cunningly-constructed hand-built props and, of course, to the subtle and careful performances.

I should be head-first in a book right now, preparing for some more weirdness tomorrow, but I’m not, I’m sitting in this library casting my own runes, because I feel that these performers deserve my response.

This is a clever, cunning, elegantly simple production that doesn’t let the stagecraft get between the audience and the drama.  Sitting in the front row, I felt exposed; in harm’s way.  What more can one ask of a horror story?

Boxtale Soup’s website is here.
They are a charity and deserving of your time ad consideration.  And I want to buy one of those ties, guys!

Everything you could ever want to know about the Loughborough Uni Weekend of Weird (which I will henceforth refer to as "WoW", by the way) is available here.

If you want to know more about Night of the Demon (and if you think you don’t, you’re wrong) then may I point you in the direction of the book Beating The Devil by the film industry’s second favourite Yorkshireman*: Tony Earnshaw.  Learn more about it and him here.
If you'd like to know more about the original story, you can do so at the click of a mouse.  There are various audio-book versions of the story available but this is, I feel, a particularly good one.  We'll forgive Mr. French for being an American whilst reading something quintessentially English, since he has such and excellent voice.

And now, a bit of fun.  If that phrase from the film ‘It’s in the trees, it’s coming’ rings a bell … Here’s why.

*Sean Bean, alright? I’m sorry, but them’s the rules.  Hey look – Sean Bean made it to the end of something … Namely, this blog.
Has it really been almost four years?

Lying here, gathering dust ... Ignored ... Disregarded ... Unloved ...

And yet, I just plug it in, flick the switch and ...