Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Rogue One Is A Classic "Star Wars Story"

The Star Wars franchise was successfully re-launched in 2015 with The Force Awakens, a sequel whose events took place after 1983’s Return of the Jedi. The latest entry in the saga, Rogue One, focuses on a daring group of rebels who are trying to steal the plans for the Empire’s new battle station, the Death Star. Sound familiar? This is the same set of plans that Princess Leia hid inside R2D2 at the beginning of the original Star Wars, released in 1977. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is a prequel that can stand on its own, but adds to the unique tapestry of the universe created by George Lucas. You could argue that this just may be the best overall Star Wars film since The Empire Strikes Back.  Please note this review will be largely spoiler free, so you can enjoy the the fantastic Rogue One if you haven't seen it yet.

The movie follows the story of Jyn Urso, who’s the daughter of one of the scientists working on the Death Star project. Jyn's father, Galen, has sent out a secret message to the rebels. He wants to stop the Empire, and has information that can help destroy the Death Star. The rebels want Jyn’s help in locating him. So she and a ragtag band of heroes try to find a way to rescue Galen and gather this important intel regarding the Empire’s ultimate weapon before it’s too late. Along the way, we’re treated to an exciting, action-packed tale that features some intriguing new characters, as well as appearances by some long-time favorites in the series, both heroes & villains. There are also some visual nods & musical references to past entries in the saga. Kudos here to Michael Giacchino’s music, which quotes John Williams' classic themes throughout the movie, but is also an evocative & original score in its own right.

Director Gareth Edwards (who also helmed the well-done 2014 Godzilla reboot) clearly loves playing in George Lucas’ sandbox; the film is visually dazzling, and features several memorable & kinetic action sequences. It not only looks like, but also feels like a Star Wars film, and has that same sense of wonder & excitement that personified the original trilogy. The performances are strong, especially Felicity Jones as Jyn, Donnie Yen as Chirrut Imwe, a kick ass warrior who helps Jyn in her quest, and Alan Tudyk as the voice of K-2S0, a somewhat cranky but extremely helpful droid. Mads Mikkelsen is also very good as Galen. The relationship between father & daughter is one of the threads that holds Rogue One’s story together, much as themes regarding parents & their children permeate some other films in the series. It's also nice to see another intelligent, strong & resourceful female character take center stage in the saga, following in the tradition of Princess Leia from the original trilogy, and Rey from The Force Awakens.

Rogue One is a thrilling adventure that will resonate most strongly to Star Wars fans, but can also be enjoyed as a standalone science-fiction film. The story has a slightly darker tone than The Force Awakens, but there are some welcome moments of humor amid the action & excitement. It’s kind of a Dirty Dozen (or The Guns of Navarone, if you prefer) style "secret mission" story set in the Star Wars universe. Director Edwards and his cast & crew have done a remarkable job capturing the essence of Star Wars, but also creating their own spin on the "Lucas-verse." I’m not going to detail the cameos & references featured in the film, as I promised to be spoiler-free, but I will say this; Rogue One ends where classic Star Wars begins. I will note that there is some use of CGI to recreate a couple of characters that some viewers & critics have found a bit off-putting, but it does not hurt the film’s overall effectiveness. Rogue One is now in theaters; here’s a link to the trailer:

I can't close this week's post without noting the recent passing of Carrie Fisher, who played Princess Leia in the Star Wars films, among her many other roles. RIP, Carrie. Thanks for being one of the toughest, sassiest & smartest heroines in the universe. This is also the final Eclectic Avenue entry for 2016. Wishing all my readers & their families & friends a Happy New Year! Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

A Retro TV Christmas

Many TV series have aired "special" holiday episodes over the years, but here at Eclectic Avenue, I'd like to focus on a trio of entries that would make a fine evening of viewing and truly warm the hearts of classic TV fans during the holiday season. Let's take a look at these entertaining stories:

Art Carney in "Night of the Meek"
The Twilight Zone - "Night of the Meek" - This story originally aired on December 23rd, 1960, during Season 2 of Rod Serling's classic anthology series. It was one of six episodes that were shot on videotape for budgetary reasons. This moving tale concerns a down on his luck department store Santa named Henry Corwin, who's fired on Christmas Eve for showing up late & being drunk on the job. Corwin is something of a dreamer (like so many Serling characters) and he wishes he had a way to make the residents of his tenement neighborhood (especially the children) happy on Christmas. Through that ethereal magic that seems to permeate the world of The Twilight Zone (and the help of a very special bag of gifts) he's able to do just that, and more. This is a moving & sentimental episode with an outstanding performance by Art Carney as Corwin and fine support by well known character actor John Fielder as his boss. While the more cynical minded among you might find this a bit too schmaltzy, it's always been one of my favorite Christmas stories, and I try to watch it every year. It's very well written by Serling (featuring some of his trademark poetic dialogue, nicely delivered by Carney) & well directed by Jack Smight, who helmed several other episodes of the series. "Night of the Meek" is available for online viewing on Netflix & and you can also purchase it as part of the various DVD & Blu-ray releases of the series, from sites such as Amazon.

Angela Cartwright & Bill Mumy in "Return From Outer Space"
Lost In Space - "Return From Outer Space" - Producer Irwin Allen's outer space saga details the adventures of the Robinson family, who become well, lost in space, during a mission to Alpha Centauri. This episode originally aired on December 29th, 1965 during the series first season. In this entry, young Will Robinson, played by Billy Mumy, finds himself teleported back to Earth by an alien machine, and ends up in a small town in Vermont. Will tries to convince the locals that he's part of the Robinson expedition, but no one believes him. They think he's perhaps a runaway, an orphan, or a little bit crazy. While some of the townspeople try to find him a new home, he just wants to help his family, and make his way back to them. The Christmas holiday, and the wintertime setting, is used as a backdrop for the episode, and it adds nicely to the atmosphere of the story, written by Peter Packer.  Mumy is very effective as Will here, and gives a strong performance, under the direction of Nathan Juran. Reportedly, it's one of his favorite episodes of the series. Guest star Reta Shaw (who'll be very recognizable to classic TV fans from her appearances in shows such as Bewitched & The Ghost & Mrs Muir) does a wonderful job as the kindly Clara Simms, who wants Will to stay put and live with her & her nephew. Oddly enough, despite the fact that it's supposed to be the then future time of the 1990s, it looks like Will's landed in a version of Andy Griffith's Mayberry! Still, this sentimental outing is a strong episode in the series initial season, and is worth viewing. You can see it online on Hulu, and purchase it as part of the series Blu-ray or DVD releases.

Richard Basehart, Michel Petit & Carroll O'Connor
in "Long Live The King"
Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea - "Long Live The King," is a first season episode of this series (also produced by Irwin Allen) detailing the exploits of the crew of the amazing nuclear submarine Seaview. This story, which originally aired on December 21, 1964, finds the Seaview delaying the crew's Christmas leave to pick up the young prince of a small (un-named in the episode) country. The prince's father, the king, has been assassinated. The Seaview must transport Prince Ang home to help stop a revolt. But there's a traitor on board; will he kill the young ruler before they get him back to his kingdom? Who is the mysterious castaway named John that the sub rescues? As Admiral Nelson (Richard Basehart), Captain Crane (David Hedison) & the crew dodge an enemy sub & try to discover the traitor's identity, John & the prince (who's initially kind of a brat) form a strong friendship. Will the prince get home in time....and will he grow up a little before Crane tosses him in the brig? Will the crew get to celebrate Christmas? This is an enjoyable tale; it's a bit more light-hearted in tone than some of the show's espionage themed early episodes, and features a strong guest star turn by Carroll O'Connor as John. Written by Raphael Hayes & directed by Laslo Benedek, the episode is available for online viewing on Hulu, and can be purchased as part of the DVD set of the series first season. So warm up some cocoa, light the fire & cozy up with some Yuletide TV from Rod Serling & Irwin Allen! I'd like to wish all my readers & their families and friends a Merry Christmas & Happy Hanukah!

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Solving the Mystery of an "Arrival"

Arrival is like a breath of fresh air for science-fiction cinema. In this era of comic book franchises, YA series adaptations & endless big budget action movies, it’s nice to see a more cerebral genre film. I’m not disparaging popcorn movies, mind you; it’s just that we don’t get to see a movie like this one very often. The film is a fascinating & mind-expanding tale of first contact. The movie begins as many “alien invasion” stories do: large spacecraft appear at various locations throughout the world, and the intent of the alien visitors is unknown. Amy Adams stars as Louise Banks, a linguist who is brought in by the military to decipher the aliens’ language. A physicist named Ian Donnelly, portrayed by Jeremy Renner, joins her on the mission. Together they try to figure out what these beings want, and how to communicate with them.

How do we understand beings whose language & world we have no frame of reference for? How can they, in turn, relate to us? As the team tries to have a meaningful conversation with these visitors and exchange ideas, tensions escalate around the world. Some countries don’t wish to wait to until we can speak with the aliens. They want to attack them before they can attack us. But there’s more going on here than mastering the nearly impossible task of finding common ground with these travelers from another world. As the story unfolds, an additional mystery presents itself; Louise is having flashes of memory regarding her late daughter, and her life before the visitors arrived. Are these memories being triggered by the presence of the aliens? What does it all mean for Louise, and for us? What do the aliens really want?

Arrival is at once a race against time thriller, and a compelling tale about communication & understanding. As a possible conflict with the aliens draws near, Louise & Ian must learn how to see things from a unique perspective, and also teach the otherworldly visitors to understand the world we know. Is the ultimate solution tied to the visions Louise is having? This is a movie that challenges the viewer as it moves toward its conclusion. There are no easy answers to the central questions, and it’s the journey’s end (or is it a beginning?) that really is the most intriguing part of the story. It’s an uplifting, mysterious & powerful film, that will resonate most deeply with fans of thoughtful & humanistic science-fiction films such as Contact, Close Encounters, Starman & the original The Day The Earth Stood StillThe well-written screenplay is by Eric Heisserer, based on the novella “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang.

The acting is excellent. Amy Adams gives a rich, well-rounded performance; she’s luminous, and imbues Louise with a great deal of strength, heart & emotion. Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, and Michael Stuhlbarg offer solid support in their roles. Director Denis Villeneuve and his team give the film a unique look; not the bright lights & flashy visuals of films like Independence Day, but a truly eerie, otherworldly feel that suits the movie. The unique score by Johann Johannsson adds immeasurably to the film's success. Arrival is currently finishing up it’s run in theatres, and a home video release should be announced soon. If, like me, your mind was captivated & thrilled as much by Close Encounters of the Third Kind as it was by Star Wars back in 1977, then seek out Arrival. This is one of the very best movies I’ve seen this year; highly recommended. Here’s a link to the trailer:

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Pete Yorn Enthralls at The Outer Space

Pete Yorn - photo by John V
Singer-songwriter Pete Yorn has been delighting his loyal cadre of avid fans (myself included) with his tuneful blend of rock, pop & folk since his debut album musicforthemorningafter was released in 2001. On Friday, December 2, he played to a packed house at The Outer Space in Hamden. Yorn is touring in support of his latest release, ArrangingTime. It was a terrific performance, featuring a generous helping of songs from the new disc, including the propulsive show opener, the catchy “Screaming at the Setting Sun,” the alternative rock sounding “She Was Weird” and the beautiful, 1960s baroque pop flavored  “Summer Was A Day.”

Of course there were also the fan favorites, like the signature hit  “Strange Condition,” the ballad “Just Another” and “Murray,” which inspired one of the most ebullient audience sing-alongs of the evening. He even threw in one of my favorites “Paradise Cove,” from his under-appreciated 2009 release, Back & Fourth. Yorn was in fine voice, notably on the lovely ArrangingTime track “Halifax” and a plaintive cover of John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy,” as well as an impressive "Life On A Chain." His guitar playing was strong & assured, and the top-notch band provided strong support throughout the show. The group featured Scott Seiver on drums, John Spiker on bass & Joe Kennedy on guitar, keyboards & harmonica. They were all fantastic, and it was obvious from their interaction that they enjoyed playing together. These masterful musicians helped enhance the soundscapes of the music, adding extra energy & dimension to the live versions of these excellent songs; and they rocked.

Yorn spoke briefly in between numbers about the genesis of (or influences on) some of his songs, and how his thinking had changed about some of the tunes he wrote back in his 20s now that he's a bit older. The intimate nature of The Outer Space lent itself well to his melodic, atmospheric music. After an almost two hour performance, Yorn & the band tore through a fantastic version of “For Nancy, (Cos It Already Is) ” to close the concert and left us all wanting more. It was a spectacular show, and I definitely suggest catching Pete Yorn live in the future if you possibly can. He may not be a household name to some music fans, but he is a talented artist who has a great sound and an array of excellent songs in his catalog. I’d also highly recommend ArrangingTime, which is a wonderful album. Here are links to acoustic versions of “Halifax” and “Summer Was A Day”