Friday, December 22, 2017

The Christmas That Almost Wasn’t (1966) – MST3K Review


When your name is Phineas T. Prune (Rossano Brazzi) then I suppose you are entitled to hate everything and everyone. Turns out that Mr. Prune does hate children and anyone that gives them joy. This puts Santa Claus (Alberto Rabagliati) on his hit list. Prune has amassed incredible wealth and ended up buying all of the North Pole! Now he is Santa’s landlord, and Prune is going to evict the kindly old man if he can’t pay the rent. We all know that Santa doesn’t make any money for his endeavors, so he is looking at an eviction notice.

In desperation Santa turns to the only boy in the world who ever wrote him a Thank You note: Sam Whipple (Paul Tripp). Now a grown up lawyer, Sam may have the skills to help Santa out. Sam journeys to the North Pole and meets Mrs. Claus (Lidia Brazzi), the eccentric Jonathan (Mischa Auer) and a whole mess of elves. He crafts a plan to get Santa the money and pay off Mr. Prune. But once Prune gets wind of this plan he and his butler Blossom (John Karlsen) attempt to thwart Sam and Santa. Will we ever find out why Mr. Prune hates everyone so much? Will Sam be able to save the day so we can all remember this as The Christmas that Almost Wasn’t?

Movie Review:

Don't get used to smiling Santa. 
When it comes to Christmas movies you have a few elements that are necessary to make the whole thing work. You need to deliver the overall feeling of joy and good cheer. Even movies like It’s a Wonderful Life that dwell in despair and darkness, do it to build to a triumphant ending. You need a touch of whimsy or magic to add to the feel of the season. And if you are going to include Santa Claus in your story, well you’ll need to crank that whimsy up to 11.

Sadly few Santa Claus themed films seem to get the mixture right. Most are too sweet and silly for adults to enjoy. Some take the concept of magic and whimsy and go into the strange and bizarre. And yes I’m looking directly at SantaClaus and Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. But then you get The Christmas that Almost Wasn’t. I’m not sure if they were trying to avoid over egging the pudding, or if they just threw in all the popular Christmas film tropes into a blender and hit puree. The result is a discombobulated mess that is more tedious than fun.

Let’s look at the basic plot. Santa is threatened by has landlord and hires a lawyer. Seriously. Does that sound fun and delightful? Does that sound like it can inspire a sleigh ride full of magic and joy? No. It sounds drab and bizarre - which describes this film. This may be an attempt to make Santa’s plight more relatable to the audience, or a way to keep the budget controllable (because it becomes pretty obvious that there wasn’t a lot of money to go around). But with this uninspired core to the story, you know you are in for a weak film.

Prune even dresses dastardly.
Looking at specific plot points you begin to see where other Christmas classics were stitched together to create the monster known as The Christmas that Almost Wasn’t. Mr. Prune is essentially Ebenezer Scrooge and goes through the same transformation at the end of the story. Santa ends up working as a department store Santa mimicking the vastly superior Miracle on 34th Street. They even rip off specific beats from the older movie including the little girl pulling on Santa’s beard. And then the ending directly cribs from It’s a Wonderful Life where all the kids who love Santa band together and bring him money in huge heaps so he can pay off Mr. Prune. It really feels like the writers thought that if they just threw together a bunch of memorable moments from other films and stitched them around a Santa related film, they would have a winner.

They were wrong.

Meet the Clauses.
The Christmas that Almost Wasn’t is doomed from the start because of that dull core story. Then you have all other trappings that sink the whole thing. Visually the movie feels drab and lifeless. The brightest moments occur in the Primm’s Department Store, and they are like a breath of fresh air. Most of the film occurs in darkened streets, oppressive rooms with dark lighting and cramped quarters. Santa’s home and workshop at the North Pole are woefully unimpressive. The workshop is one tiny room crammed with elves and toys. Santa’s home is essentially a one-room cottage that looks like something from a Grimm’s fairytale. Compare this to the visuals on display in Santa Claus Conquers the Martians which also had obvious budget constraints, but they were able to do so much more. There was a real sense of fun and whimsy in that film that The Christmas that Almost Wasn’t just can’t compare too. And lets not even talk about the jaw dropping spectacle of the Mexican Santa Claus film, because that movie is on whimsy overload (and I love every minute of it).

So you have depressing visuals and almost no hint of magic or fun. Even the montage of Santa delivering gifts is a series of blurry stills over perky music trying to convey a sense of excitement. Instead it reminds you of an out of focus travel slide show playing mall holiday music. It is its own brand of depressing.

This relationship is all kinds of creepy.
One area where the film does manage to cobble together some kind of energy is with the performances. Just about everyone in The Christmas That Almost Wasn’t is playing broad. They are in a musical after all (I’ll get to the songs in a minute) and this is the 1960s, so you have to overact constantly. That is one of the reasons I really don’t like musical films of that era. But at least the cast is putting in the effort. Rossano Brazzi is actually pretty despicable as Phineas T. Prune. He is a classic mustache-twirling villain who is mean to everyone and growls out his lines with gusto. It is easy to dislike this character, which is what the film expects us to do. I also think that Lidia Brazzi as Mrs. Claus does a good job giving this side character a bit more personality and warmth that is lacking in the film.

Ah yes, this is how we see Santa in 90% of the film.
But the rest of the cast is much less engaging. Alberto Rabagliati brings us a down in the dumps, befuddled and depressed Santa Claus. I don’t want to say that the actor isn’t effective, because he really is. Each time Santa is on the screen you feel his depression coming off the screen in waves. This all comes from the script that has “the jolly old elf” deliver lines about hopelessness and despair. Again, I think they were looking at Miracle on 34th Street as inspiration. Near the end of that film Kris Kringle loses his faith in the world and ends up in an asylum. But in this sequence Kris is more disappointed and bitter. There is anger in him that simmers. It fits with the character we’ve seen and understand Santa to be. And it is short sequence before Kris realizes that he is feeling sorry for himself, and he can’t give up the fight. Contrast this to Santa in The Christmas that Almost Wasn’t and you have a man who is already defeated, and given up. It makes Santa pathetic, not a hero to be cheered on. It only adds to the completely anti-whimsy tone of the film.

Riddle me this, what is red and white and depressed
all over?
It is quite possible that they were relying on Paul Tripp as Mr. Whipple to provide all the joy and happiness in the film. Tripp overplays his hand, giving us this impish grin constantly. I think it is supposed to convey his delight at working with Santa Claus and show that he is still a child at heart. But it has the opposite effect. He capers around like a child, grins like a madman and comes across as completely incompetent and ineffectual as a lawyer. Again, compare this to Miracle on 34th Street and Fred Gailey played by John Payne. Gailey comes across as a generous man with a big heart. He feels bad for Kris and steps up to defend him, not because he really believes he is Santa Claus, but because he believes in everything Kris stands for. It is much more nuanced approach and one that allows Gailey to still come across as a competent lawyer and really make that final courtroom scene work. Damn, now I want to watch the 1947 film again instead of writing about this rubbish. In any case Tripp’s performance is nonsensical and grating. It seems to escalate as the film goes along, until he is grinning like an imp from hell and I keep expecting to see Pitch from Santa Claus to show up and try to recruit him.

Um... yeah... this also happens.
The other performances are just as odd. Sonny Fox plays the department store owner Mr. Primm with an elitist snarl. Blossom the butler seems to have walked in from a really stupid horror comedy. His relationship with Mr. Prune is just plain bizarre and unsettling. And then there is Jonathon the Elf Foreman played by Mischa Auer. I’m not sure whose idea it was to have this gangly old man hanging out with the little people and looming over the bookkeeping, but it feels off, like a fever dream. The scene where he stands with his legs wide apart and has the elves duck under his crotch to enter the toyshop is just plain WRONG!

The Christmas That Almost Wasn’t is also a musical of sorts. And wow… just… wow. I’m not sure if MST3K did some editing here, or if the songs were this half assed, but it seems like they rarely pass much beyond two choruses before petering out. I guess this is a good thing, since at their best they are not catchy and just take up time with the characters mugging at the screen. At the worst they are aggressively annoying and do nothing to further the story. The worst of the lot is when Jonathon the Elf Forman decides to sing about looking for the name Prune in his records. As he and the elves pull books off shelves he babbles on and on about the name Prune. It isn’t cute, or fun or entertaining. I was just shocked at how god-awful it was. Where is Krampus when you need him?

The dreaded "Prune" song never seems to end.
The music itself isn’t anything too interesting. It has that touch of whimsy that you expect, and the 1960s golden age sound. You get to focus on it a bit during two montages. One occurs in Primm’s department store as Whipple and Santa gad about with the toys and make hideous laughing faces at each other. The music doesn’t so much as add to the scenes as turn them into super sugary dollops of over acted cuteness. The other occurs when Santa delivers presents in a series of blurry still frames. This is supposed to be fun, but the lack of motion and even some of the expressions on the actor’s faces makes you feel otherwise. At least the music tries.

And that is why I feel a little bad about coming down so hard on The Christmas That Almost Wasn’t. I can tell the creators were trying to make a fun delightful family film with a small budget. They understood the types of ingredients that could make this a holiday classic, but continued to make choices that just turned it into something that is probably best forgotten. Even if I caught this as a kid, I would have probably been bored with it. But alas, I caught this as an adult. Let’s see of Jonah and the bots help make this go down a little easier with some egg nog.

Episode Review:

Jonah and the bots have a very special gift for you.
When Joel announced that one of the rewards for meeting the stretch goal for the Kickstarter to bring back Mystery Science Theater 3000 would be a Christmas movie episode, I was pumped. Some of my favorite episodes revolve around riffing on the bizarre and magical world of holiday films. There were plenty of great choices out there for the crew to pick from, so I was really looking forward this episode, even though I had never heard of The Christmas That Almost Wasn’t.

Well, let me amend that statement. I had heard of the film before. Joel actually mentions it during a host segment in Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. The name by itself just sounds goofy. I figured it was a poor made for television movie and would have the feel of a holiday themed San Francisco International. I was wrong on all counts. What I got was this badly dubbed, musical that was dreary from the first frame of low budget animation in the title sequence.

Santa looks a little tipsy. Should he be driving?
Now, dreary has never stopped Mystery Science Theater before. Season six is packed to the gills with slow and dreary episodes. But Mike, Kevin and Trace were at the top of their game and able to tackle things like The Beast of Yucca Flats and The Starfighters with great skill. But the thing is, the crew for season eleven is much less seasoned and they were coming to the end of their run. They did an Ok job with something like The Beast of Hollow Mountain. Sad to say, I think it impacted the riffing on this episode.

The boys do pick up on how odd the whole concept of the movie is and how strangely Santa is portrayed. At one point Jonah comments, “I never thought I’d get to see a Christmas film where Santa hits rock bottom.” Later when Santa frets about meeting kids while they are awake, Tom gasps, “How did we end up with a Santa with extreme anxiety disorder?” They come to the conclusion that “Giving Santa a lawyer sucks all the whimsy out of this movie.”

"Pamplona's running of the kids!"
Speaking of the lawyer Whipple he is the source of a running joke in The Christmas that Almost Wasn’t. When Tripp starts grinning directly at the camera the boys are disturbed. When Whipple puts on a bowler hat, Jonah does a pretty good Frank Gorshin in full Riddler mode and says “Now its time to kill the Batman!” But most of the time, his childish glee at everything Santa does fuels the boys saying “I’m a widdle baby!” or related baby references. I see what they are trying to do here, and certainly Tripp is playing the part with a bit too much gusto, but for some reason the “widdle baby” riffs just don’t land for me. And the boys really hammer them down (and use it as a base for the host segment later). Running gags are always dangerous, and in this case, the baby jibes just didn’t’ tickle me.

Luckily there are other moments that were really funny. Primm’s department store is packed with disturbing looking stuffed animals, and the boys riff a bunch of them. The moment when the elves have to pass under Jonathon’s crotch is a gift for riffing and they don’t miss the opportunity. At the end of the film when Prune is filled with Christmas joy the boys run down a list of all the 80s toys he missed out on. It is a fun mix of nostalgia and laughs.

Jonah and the bots are misfit elves with misfit toys.
The host segments are a mix of holiday cheer and elements inspired by the film. The episode starts with Jonah and the bots trying to sing a carol. It goes wrong. Before the invention exchange Kinga mentions her impending marriage to Jonah, which he is still not comfortable with. Jonah shows off his re-gifter box. Essentially it is a wrapped box you can just pass along to someone so they can use it next year. Kinga and Max have Humbug FM, the anti-holiday music channel that plays nothing but horrifying sounds. “It will X out X-mas” Kinga declares. At the first break, Jonah and the bots critique the odd wooden toys that always end up every Santa related Christmas film. Their cynical modern perspective on the wooden toy soldier, rocking horse and jack-in-the-box is pretty amusing. At the next break the boys try to explain away all the creepy stuffed animals in Primm’s department store. They come up with some funny back stories, but the horror overwhelms them. When we break again Santa arrives at the SOL and quickly proves to be even stranger than the one in the film. Widdle Baby Whipple is still with him and as annoying as ever. Joel gives it a solid try as Santa, but I have to say that Kevin nailed it in his brief appearance in Santa Claus. After the film ends, Jonah and the bots are caught in a badly filtered montage of joy, just like the characters in the movie. When we cut to Kinga and Max, they are also stuck in montage mode and seemed very confused by it. I was laughing pretty hard at the end.

Upon this night Prune was listed by three ghosts...
I’m going to be honest here and say after I watched The Christmas that Almost Wasn’t the first time, I was really disappointed. The film is so dreary and the riffing feels off. All the “widdle baby” jokes just failed to land. It was the weakest episode of Season 11 by far. And I still feel that way. But knowing how bad the film is helped me appreciate it for the second viewing. It has plenty of entertaining moments for sure, and is worth revisiting. But sadly it is the weakest holiday offering from MST3K.

I give it two elf head-butts to the crotch out of five.

This episode is available on Netflix download.

"Whatever you do, don't insult that polar bear behind you.
He's killed three mall Santa's this year!"

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

And Then This Happened... The Christmas That Almost Wasn't

Even for the best of us, work can get a bit dull. Especially when you are working on boring spreadsheets. But what happens when you are a right jolly old elf that has been working in a toyshop for centuries. You'd think all the joy and whimsey would keep you going. But maybe, just maybe it all gets too much.

Or maybe you're just stuck in a crappy Christmas movie like The Christmas That Almost Wasn't. Because that would explain why these elves look like they just watched the film they are staring in. Or maybe there is something more sinister going on. In any case, I think it may be time to caption this moment with our height challenged friends here.

And then this happened...

Friday, December 15, 2017

Star Wars: Rogue One (2016)


I’ve mentioned before that back in the 1990s I was a hard-core Star Wars fan. Yeah the prequels ended up killing some of that enthusiasm, but I still enjoy movies and shows set in the universe. There are plenty of stories to tell. What is interesting is that back in the mid 90s there was an experiment by Lucasfilm to see if folks were interested in non-film Star Wars events. Shadows of the Empire turned out to be a moderate success, and we were promised more (that idea got scuttled when the prequels were announced). I wouldn’t be surprised if one of these turned into the script for Rogue One.


Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) is the daughter of a famed Imperial scientist Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen). When she was a child the Empire abducted her father after he tried to escape their clutches. Jyn’s mother was killed and Jyn was found and raised by revolutionary Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker). Jump forward a few years and Jyn is a convict on an Imperial work moon. Luckily her life is about to take a different path.

The rebellion springs Jyn in the hopes that they can meet with the notoriously paranoid Gerrera and find out if the rumors of an Imperial super weapon are true. Gerrera has obtained a defecting imperial pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) who says Galen sent him. And so the adventure begins with Jyn joining forces with a motley crew. There is Cassian (Deigo Luna) a cynical battle hardened Rebel agent. K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) a reprogrammed Imperial droid with a chip on his shoulder. Chirrut (Donnie Yen) a Guardian of the Whills, a type of monastic order that treat the Jedi teachings as a sort of religion. There is also his protector the world weary Baze (Wen Jiang) who’s heavy weapon skills will no doubt come in handy. They will find themselves facing the might of the Empire lead by Director Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) a man out to prove to Darth Vader that he is worthy of praise. But will the Rogue One mission be a success, or a dismal failure.

Good Points:
  • The last half of the film is top-notch Star Wars style action and adventure
  • Alan Tudyk makes K-2SO the best character in the film
  • Really liked seeing this a return to this era of the universe

Bad Points:
  • The script is a mess
  • Most of the characters are not very compelling
  • The pacing in the first half is really off


Well here we have a completely middle of the road Star Wars film. When it comes to action and immersion in the universe the film hits all the right moments. Some solid acting also helps carry us past the fairly flat characters. Unfortunately the film feels messy with uneven pacing in the first half and some odd character motivations that don’t feel earned. It is solid entertainment as it is, but I see a much better film buried inside it and that is a disappointment.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 4
Sound: 5
Acting: 4
Script: 2
Music: 4
Direction: 4
Entertainment: 3
Total:  3

In Depth Review

Beach Party, Star Wars style.
When Disney announced that they were going to explore other facets of the Star Wars universe in films, I was curious about the idea. There were so many avenues to take the concept. Then they told us a little about Rogue One and I was really interested.

First off, before Disney declared the old expanded universe no longer cannon to the Star Wars saga, there was a hero who had obtained the Death Star plans and got them to the rebellion. In the video game Dark Forces you play as Kyle Katarn a rebel spy who infiltrates an Imperial base and steals the Death Star plans, beaming them to Princess Leia’s ship during Operation Skyhook. The operation was mentioned in the Star Wars radio drama. All that was out the window.

These two just blew their stealth roll.
Secondly, the idea of a band of rebels sneaking into an Imperial base and mixing it up with the Empire while having some of the main characters of the original trilogy lurking in the background – well that sounded just like the adventures you would create in the Star Wars Roleplaying Game by West End Games. This actually got me really excited, because I’ve been visualizing this since the 1990s. I envisioned a whole television series featuring these heroic rebel characters going on missions and attempting to find out more about the Jedi. This seemed like a film that was finally bringing that concept to life.

I think someone is ready for some beach volleyball.
But the specter of The Phantom Menace looms large over all things Star Wars related. So while I was very curious, I tried to keep my anticipation for Rogue One in check. Sure The Force Awakens was entertaining, but I kept hearing about many behind the scenes problems during the filming of Rogue One including a serious amount of reshoots. That rarely bodes well for a film.

The result is a film that feels messy. One of the best things about The Force Awakens was the nearly breathless pacing and constant feel of forward momentum. Rogue One feels sluggish and fitful for the nearly the entire first half of the story. Once the mission to steal the Death Star plans actually kicks in, the film generates suspense and builds action set pieces with great skill. Gareth Edwards is known for his action sequences and his expertise come through. But getting to that point is a bit of a chore.

Let’s focus on the good elements first. When it comes to immersing the viewer into the Star Wars universe prior to the events of A New Hope, Rogue One nails it. This movie looks like a natural progression toward the 1977 film. Everything from the tech, the uniforms, and down to the way the movie looks gives you the feel of a genuine predecessor to the series we are so familiar with.

A high tech game of Defender.
This is not an easy task, and great care was taken to ensure it felt natural. While there are a couple nods to the prequels, this film feels far enough removed from that shiny reality and are entrenched in the grittier dirty world of the original trilogy. It is great to see the rebels relying on the classic starships, including the X-wings and the Y-wings. Even the Imperial ships fall in the same boat. Vader does not arrive in the massive Super Star Destroyer from Empire Strikes Back, but on his regular sized juggernaut The Devastator.

The visual effects look pretty darn good for the most part. The starship battle at the end of the film is one of the best we’ve seen in the entire saga. It is framed well, easy to follow and intense as all hell. Alien creatures are pretty solid, there aren’t a lot of them featured in the film, our cast is all human. The strange tentacle beast that Gerrera uses against Bodhi is perhaps the most CG looking of all the creatures.

Speaking of CG there is one thing I can’t avoid talking about. Because of the film’s setting, we have some familiar faces in the movie. Darth Vader’s costume is actually a wonderful replica of the one from A New Hope (which is slightly different from the ones used in Empire and Jedi). He makes out fine. But we also have Grand Moff Tarkin (who was played by Peter Cushing in 1977) and Princess Leia (played by Carrie Fisher).

There is something uncanny bout seeing Tarkin again.
Tarkin plays a key role in Rogue One. The decision was made to have Guy Henry play the part with a CG replica of Cushing’s face placed on him in postproduction. The result is a mixed bag. When he is not speaking, he looks pretty darn convincing. Henry even has Cushing’s mannerisms down. But when he speaks, although the voice is nearly perfect, the face just hits that uncanny valley way too many times. And they were obviously proud of the work, because he gets some really long close ups. The result kept pulling me out of the film and being distracted by how disturbing he looked and not listening to his actual dialogue. Faring worse, with even less screen time is Princess Leia. She has about 30 seconds of screen time, but once again they have her walk right up to the camera and with her uncanny valley CG face right there, it just looks wrong. It actually soured the ending a bit for me.

Disney has pulled this before with Tron Legacy by having some really close up moments of Jeff Bridges youth enhanced face filling the screen. Rogue One suffers from the same issue. Recasting would have been fine, or keeping the stand ins backs to the camera would have worked too. But this was just a misstep and one that I think will age really poorly over time. Since it impacted my engagement in the film, I had to knock the visuals down a grade.

Is it just me or does he look like he could be
related to Dengar?
Sound effects work was top notch though. The movie is filled to bursting with classic Star Wars sound effects, it really added to the immersion factor of this film. Little touches only fans would notice, like the bass rumble when Vader uses his Force powers, or the chattering of the silver instectoid droids were fun audio Easter eggs for fans.

When it came to music we had a first for the Star Wars film saga. John Williams has scored every live action Star Wars theatrical film. But for Rogue One a new composer was asked to step up. Originally French composer Alexandre Desplat was working on the score. But after all the reshoots Desplat was unable to continue working on the project because of other commitments. Disney turned to one of their most dependable composers who had already scored the revamped version of Star Tours, Michael Giacchino.

Giacchino is a huge Star Wars fan, and he was one of the candidates to score The Force Awakens if John Williams was unavailable. This time Giacchino had a real test on his hands. He had to score a massive wall-to-wall orchestral work based on his favorite franchise (with all the fan expectations along with it) and do it in four weeks. It was an insane request, and Giacchino had already had a packed year scoring films like Star Trek Beyond and Doctor Strange. But he stepped up to this challenge and did his best.

"How did I let them talk me into this?"
The result is a score that captures the feel of John Williams 1977 score in tone and style, but is also clearly built by Giacchino. His voice comes through in the new themes and the application of all the thematic moments. It was a tricky balancing act, where Giacchino picks up motifs and ideas that were used by Williams only in A New Hope, but fleshes them out a bit for Rogue One. Other times he has his new material from Director Krennic play in counterpoint to the Imperial March or the Death Star motif. You can tell that Giacchino spent as much time and care as he could crafting this score. With the accelerated schedule and immense pressure we got a fine bit of film music.

There are a few moments where the score falters a bit. The use of his Hope theme during the opening title is a little too on the nose and almost sounds like a parody moment. There are also times where the Giacchino’s style that he established for the Abrams Star Trek films bleeds through into the Rogue One score. I think that time crunch he was under probably forced Giacchino to use some style shortcuts that people are familiar with. I know it is an issue when YouTube reviewers mentioned that some of the music made them wonder if Captain Kirk was going to show up and save Jyn at the end.

I think the droid is looking down on her.
The acting in Rogue One is solid all the way around. The fact that I’m not all too invested in the characters has less to do with the actual acting and more to do with the messy script. The cast does the best with the material they are given, and in some cases it is very little. Felicity Jones does an admirable job with a flat character. The script wants us to be invested in Jyn’s journey, but she is given little to do but react to events around her. We don’t see what really motivates her, or what fuels her actions. Jones is often left observing events and reacting to them. She has a few good scenes dealing with her father, but that is about it.

Faring a bit better is Luna as the jaded and cynical Cassian. Here is a character that feels like he sprung from a full back-story. Luna makes Cassian’s dedication to the Rebellion feel real and his actions have weight. Again, not much is given in the script, but Luna takes the small nuggets and runs with them. He feels like the most fleshed out of the main characters and it is due to his excellent performance.

These Stormtroopers have never heard of the blind
swordsman before.
For as little screen time as Yen and Jiang have, they actually create enough camaraderie between their characters. You feel like these two have been together for quite a while. They have some amusing banter and Yen in particular invests his character with some interesting moments. You could have almost had him play a larger role in the film and it would have been much more interesting. There is a story behind Chirrut, but sadly we just get hints of it.

Alan Tudyk is always great in pretty much anything he is in. He imbued Wash in Firefly with a lot of charisma. Playing the droid K-2SO doesn’t hinder him in the slightest. He makes the most of his limited screen time. And by the end of the movie, he was the hero I was most invested in when it came to their fate.

He has no problem blowing up your planet.
On the villainous side I will say that I liked Mendelsohn’s performance. He plays the ambitious and deadly Imperial officer perfectly. I love his arrogance and the way he has no problem talking back to Tarkin, and even a little bit to Vader (although he looks appropriately cowed after that encounter). He makes for a solid antagonist and again, I wish we had gotten just a little more time with him. It felt like there was more of story behind him, but it just didn’t make it to the screen.

Whitaker, Mikkelsen and Smits all do fine jobs with their small moments. But when you have guys like these why waste them in such small moments. I know that Whitaker had a lot of his scenes reworked, and his eccentric performance here feels a little off in some ways. But at the same time it added this uncertainty to his scenes. You never knew just what he was going to end up doing. If the script had served him a bit better, it would have been a great character. I will also say that Genevieve O’Reilly makes a perfect Mon Mothma. See Disney, you can recast a part and still make it work.

Jyn is finally ready to take action.
While most of the parts are in place to give us a movie that should work, it is the structure of Rogue One that just falls apart. I think the writers were hoping that giving Jyn a backstory with her parents and tying her directly to the Death Star in some way would raise the stakes. The problem is that Jyn never feels like she is motivated to really act for any reason. She is pretty much shuttled from location to location and only when her father dies does she really make up her mind about doing something. But this moment comes across so limp that it just doesn’t resonate. If we had more time with Jyn, seeing her yearning for her past, seeing her interaction with Gerrera it might have helped. But what we get is so sparse it just doesn’t have the impact it should. So for the bulk of the first half of the film you end up with character building moments that just don’t deliver.

Trying to make heads or tails of the rewrites.
This same thing happens with Director Krennic. Instead of building him as a threat, the movie spends time showing his struggles with Tarkin and Vader. It starts to fee like more scenes built around fan service than actual service to the story. His story has an ironic twist, but again, it feels limp and doesn’t really do much for the overall impact of the tale. And speaking of fan service, the film goes a bit overboard in that department with C-3PO and R2-D2 not to mention the thugs that harass Luke in the cantina showing up for no other reason than to make fans smile.

What really needed to happen was for the creators to pick a direction and stick with it. Instead we get a film that feels like it is trying to do too many things at once. It wants to turn Jyn into a variant of Rey from The Force Awakens. They wanted to create a mission impossible type film or a full-blown Dirty Dozen type movie. But those films focused more on building up to the mission than trying to create limp character moments. They knew they were building suspense and action set pieces. And we get that in spades in the second half of the film. That is what the whole movie should have been.

Darth getting a little dramatic.
In my mind Rogue One could have used fewer characters, a simpler narrative and the guts to go for something straightforward and intense from the first scene forward. We should have had this elite team of rebels, maybe see them in action during the pre-credit sequence James Bond style. Then have them receiving their mission to steal the plans. The rest of the film could be them coming up with a strategy to get the plans, maybe a small adventure getting a secret code or something to sneak into the base. Then the rest of the film with them attempting to get Skyhook pulled off. They should have picked a single villain as the main antagonist. Could be Tarkin or Krennic, but not both. Keep Vader for the big surprise at the end, that whole sequence works great. But those scenes with Gerrera and finding Galen could be dropped.

In the end, you get a muddled movie. I’ll admit, I was really hoping for something like a film version of Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game. And I was really disappointed during my first viewing. But seeing it a second time, I was able to enjoy the film for what it was: a flawed movies set in the Star Wars universe. It hits the sweet spots for fan service and action. But beyond that it feels like a disappointment. There is a really good (and maybe even great) movie somewhere in there. It’s a shame we didn’t get that.

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Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Nostalgia Nugget: Joining the Rebellion

80's Mickey Mouse dressed as Captain
EO back in 1987!
1987 was the tenth anniversary of Star Wars: A New Hope. I don’t remember there being all that much hype surrounding this. For most folks Star Wars was looking long in the tooth and a bit uncool. Most kids I knew were more into Transformers and G.I. Joe at the time. But the big topic of discussion was the Nintendo Entertainment System. I had many lengthy conversations about secrets in The Legend of Zelda during those days.

All that changed for me when my family went to Disneyland that year and rode the newly opened Star Tours. It reminded me of why I loved that film series and started my obsession with the series for the next couple of years. After the ride ended, you walked directly into a gift shop and distinctly remember my dad commenting on the overt commercialism of it all. But I didn’t care. I was in a Star Wars induced dream world. Of all the things that caught my attention, there was a pair of large books all about Star Wars. I flipped through one and was surprised at all the new information about the creatures, droids, spaceships and everything else was contained within. I asked for both, and my parents let me pick one.

The book that sparked dozens of
When I got home and started reading the book I was even more excited. Not only was it a wealth of new information, but the book described how to create your own adventures in the Star Wars world, and play these adventures with your friends. That’s right I had picked up West End Games Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game (or just SWRPG from now on). Both it and the Sourcebook were published that year in time for the anniversary.

I had played a tiny bit of the basic ruleset of Dungeons and Dragons at that point. I understood how the game was played, but the few times I tried to get a few friends to play it just didn’t go well. The great thing about SWRPG is that is seemed a lot less complex.

Eventually I got my hands on The Sourcebook, which included even more information about all kinds of Star Wars related things. The writers not only provided game stats and rules, but provided full-blown descriptions and histories for each entry as well. This was well before we had regularly published books in the Star Wars universe. So for the fan in the 80s this was a treasure trove of information. The book covered Starship systems, nearly every starship featured in the films and a few from the 80s novels. It had info on droids, alien species, and creatures. It also provided in depth explorations of weapons, standard bases layouts for rebels and imperials and then a full exploration of key heroes and villains from the series. Most of these are fun to read now, because things have changed so much with the prequels and expanded universe material. But back in 1987, West End Games let their imaginations go (I’m sure with Lucasfilm’s blessing) and crafted some really interesting stories.

So many secrets packed into this book!
Both books are packed with stills from the films of course. But they also used concept art that I had never seen before. The Sourcebook especially was imagination fuel. I actually started working on my first bit of fan fiction because of the material in these books and all the information and images they provided.

The RPG book had 12 color plates that were awesome. Most were color stills from the film. But the others were creative and very amusing ads directly from the Star Wars universe. One was a recruitment poster for the Imperial Army. One was an ad for the new X-Wing starfighter, touting all its advanced weapons and speed. There was another ad for the R2 series of droids extolling their versatility. The last was my favorite, a travel ad for a Star Cruise to all your favorite planets from the Star Wars universe. Visiting Bespin on a cruise starship sounds like a blast.

Time went by and I enjoyed reading and rereading the books, but I never got to actually play a full-fledged roleplaying campaign. Then in college I somehow managed to sucker my girlfriend, my sister and a friend from down the street to play a session or two. I had created a couple adventures over the years. So I dusted those off, revamped them a bit and helped them create characters.

Micro Machines released a bunch of small Star Wars
figurines and vehicles. We used these during the
game to figure out battle tactics.
My girlfriend created a specialized character (because I gave her preferential treatment and let her be the most powerful character of the three… yeah I broke all the tabletop gaming rules. I was young and in love… and I had convinced her to play an RPG based on STAR WARS with me. I was going to do anything I could to keep her playing). She was a rebel special agent, kind of like a galactic James Bond character. She used to be part of a smuggling organization, so they had a bounty out on her, but now she was one of the rebellions top field agents. My sister played an outlaw whose family had been massacred by the Empire, and now she was on a vendetta to kill the Colonel in charge of the massacre. She was a sharpshooter and bad ass. My pal from down the street wanted to be a Jedi. The only problem was that this game takes place after the events of A New Hope, so the Jedi order was destroyed. You could pick from a couple of force adept characters. He selected the best Minor Jedi. Essentially the character was trained by an old Jedi Knight who died before the training go too far along. So the Minor Jedi has some powers, but they are on the weak side. He does have a lightsaber so that is always fun.

Just look at these guys... our crew never
got this motley. 
So these three characters started their journey. Along the way they created a couple of other characters they would play instead or along with the ones they normally played. There was a little kid named Beatrice who tagged along sometimes. I remember a scout that helped them out on a few of the far-flung missions. He died in a dramatic moment and that fueled the other players to avenge him – especially my sister’s outlaw character who had a crush on him.

If this all sounds elaborate, that is because it was. We played nearly every week for two years. What started out as something to try, exploded into a full blown campaign that stretched from the end of the Battle of Yavin to the final shots fired on Hoth. By that point my sister and my girlfriend were still playing, and their characters were presumed dead by the rebels and left behind during the evacuation. The next adventure was going to be them attempting to steal an Imperial transport of some kind and escaping the frozen wasteland. But my sister was starting college and my girlfriend and I were getting more battered by our own workload at university. I just didn’t have time to craft the adventures. We stopped playing and those two characters were left on Hoth. We’ll never forget you Zendra and Sara. I’m sure they made it to the rebel alliance and were there celebrating on Endor.

The blank character sheet just
waiting to craft a new hero.
So yeah, two years worth of adventures, and I have to say it was some of the most fun I ever had writing and creating stories. Once we had a set group of characters I started to tailor the missions to their strengths and weaknesses. We actually played two campaigns. The first revolved around the search for an ancient storehouse of Jedi knowledge. I combined Raiders of the Lost Ark with Star Wars for that one, and it was a blast. The players didn’t want Darth Vader to find this before they did, so they were racing against the Empire trying to put the clues together. They had to interact with all kinds of characters who had pieces of the puzzle. They even went to Ben Kenobi’s old hovel on Tatooine to find out if he had anything hidden away about this lost storehouse. It was a ton of fun, and the finale sessions were intense and difficult as the Empire arrived right after our heroes and they had to decide if they would destroy the storehouse or try to fight off the enemies. They got what they could and destroyed the place, killing a Imperial General that had been dogging them the whole campaign and escaping before Vader arrived on the scene.

The second campaign was a bit looser in structure. My buddy wanted to seek out a Jedi mentor, so that was part of it. I also had them discover that the Empire was working on a new Star Destroyer for Lord Vader. They traced the location of that and committed some sabotage to slow the construction process on the Executor. They ran into a couple of Jedi who offered to train them, and turned out to be Vader’s protégés. That was a lot of fun. Then I had the past come back for all the characters in some form or the other. My girlfriend’s character ran into some of her old smuggling buddies and then bounty hunters just started appearing in nearly every session gunning for her. Word on the street was that Boba Fett himself was considering hunting her down. She decided to end this and take on her old boss herself. By this time she was starting on the Jedi path because of the information they extracted from the storehouse. My friend down the street moved, so his Minor Jedi character was killed, and so the agent picked up his lightsaber and went from there.

Hunting down the right pack for the ships we needed
in an upcoming adventure was always fun.
Together we made some great stories, and by this time I was able to pull characters and situations from the expanded universe books as well. So while this was all still happening before The Empire Strikes Back in the timeline, I kept it feeling new and exciting as this small group of rebels accomplished impossible missions. And boy did they keep me guessing. They came up with some amazing solutions to problems, talked their way out of trouble more than once and would often take the story in directions I never considered. One time in particular always stands out.

At one point they landed on a planet and made some real trouble for the Empire. But they had difficulties getting out of the entanglement and Imperial forces were able to mobilize and lock down the spaceport. At this point it was just the two player characters, Sara the jedi/agent and Zendra the sharpshooting outlaw. Against them was a whole battalion of stormtroopers just waiting for them to show up. They had set up heavy gun emplacements, they had a couple AT-STs on patrol. It was going to be a hard fight. As they snuck forward Zendra managed to kill a stormtrooper on patrol with a single well-placed shot and do it quietly. Then my girlfriend got an idea, she took off the trooper’s helmet, put it on and then sent out a emergency notification that the rebels were attacking at the opposite end of the port. She had to roll pretty high to con the commander who was already on alert. She rolled very high indeed. Not only did he believe her, but he sent most of his forces in that direction. They two pretty much waltzed right into the port hopped on the ship before the Empire even knew what was going on. I had planned out this huge battle for this finale to the session, and was ready for it to really test them. But when they attempted that trick, I had to let them have it, because it was so clever and my girlfriend rolled so high.

What do you mean someone made a movie of
the Star Wars RPG?!?
So I created a whole bunch of fan fiction with my friends, creating this set of interesting characters, filling it with all kinds of adventures and not really involving the main characters form the series all that often. It was a lot of fun and something that created a lot of memories that my sister and my wife (who pulled that stunt with the stormtrooper helmet all those years ago) will still bring up from time to time.

These days Star Wars has a completely different roleplaying system that is enjoyed by lots of folks. The old West End Games is remembered fondly by a lot of people because of how easy it was t explain and play and how entertaining the rulebooks were. Seriously the writing had a great sense of humor and plenty of good advice for new players. It was one of the most enjoyable bits of fiction writing and tabletop gaming I’ve experienced. There is really something neat about crafting a story with other people, building and exploring characters and diving into a fantasy world where the only limit is your imagination.

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Friday, December 8, 2017

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016)


It may have taken eight movies, but we finally experienced the entire Harry Potter saga on the big screen. For most of us it was an entertaining experience and the adaptations were handled about as well as you could hope for a series of novels with so much detail in them. But studios can’t let a good series end without trying to wring a few more stories (and dollars) out of it. Soon enough we heard that series author J.K. Rowling was working on a new storyline set in the same world, but occurring before Harry Potter was born. Sounds intriguing, but Hollywood prequels have never been all that great.


Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) arrives in New York in the middle of the 1920s. He’s on a mission to return a rare magical creature back into the wilds of Arizona. Unfortunately he has a mishap with a non-magical man named Jacob (Dan Fogler) who ends up with Newt’s case. When the case opens, some of the magical creatures inside escape, and start to run amok in New York!

At the same time the magical society in New York is dealing with internal struggles. Some feel that the “no-maj” denizens are creating more trouble than should be allowed. They feel the time may be ripe for wizards to step forward and assert some kind of control. Others are against the idea. But this results in uncertain times where breaking the law is bad for everyone. Newt’s little indiscretion is going to cause some major problems. Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), a  employee for the magical government, tries to get a handle on things, but each move she makes puts her in the way of Graves (Colin Farrell) a man who is on a mission of his own. Will Newt be able complete his quest for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, or is he going to find himself involved in something much more dangerous?

Good Points:
  • Gives us a look at the wizarding world in the United States and in the 1920s
  • Performances by the four main protagonists pull you into the tale
  • A score that captures the feel of the earlier series but gives it a jazzy twist
Bad Points:
  • Feels like it is trying too hard to set up future tales instead of focusing on its main tale
  • The movie moves in fits and starts
  • Some of the action sequences are difficult to follow

Solid entertainment if you are in the mood for a deeper look into Rowling’s wizarding world. But all the world building and story set up for the later films takes up a lot of screen time and is actually the less entertaining part of the film. I was more interested in Newt’s search for his lost beasts and his interactions with Jacob, Tina and Queenie. That story was full of laughs, whimsy and fun characters. The darker material felt more obligatory. In the end I hoped for something a little less calculated and more engaging.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 5
Sound: 4
Acting:  4
Script: 3
Music: 4
Direction: 3
Entertainment: 3
Total: 3

Curious about a full review, sent me an email and I’ll make additional thoughts to this review.

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