Elstree 1976

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There have been countless documentaries on the “Star Wars” movies, most of which feature interviews with actors who will forever be associated with the famous characters they first brought to the screen many years ago in a galaxy far, far away. But with Jon Spira’s documentary, “Elstree 1976,” we finally get to meet the supporting actors who were either hiding behind a stormtrooper mask or were on the screen for only mere seconds. Regardless of how small their roles were, they got to be part of a movie phenomenon which remains as popular as ever, and this documentary allows them to tell their stories and get out of the shadows for a change.

The documentary’s title refers to Elstree Studios where “Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope” was filmed back in 1976. Spira takes his time to talk with 10 actors who were cast in various roles in the classic movie, and any fan of George Lucas’ space opera will find their conversations fascinating. Some of these actors played characters who are fan favorites, but we never got to see them with their masks off. Others played roles where, if you blinked, you will miss them, but Spira does take the time to capture their moments in a near-freeze frame to show their big moments for everyone to see.

Perhaps the best way to approach “Elstree 1976” is to not go in expecting a “Star Wars” documentary. Yes, “Star Wars” plays a big part here, but it’s not really the point. It’s about working class actors who don’t have the same name recognition as Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher or Mark Hamill, and of how they managed to carve a career for themselves in a business where only a tiny few can possibly make a living. The fact they were in a “Star Wars” movie, however, has come to define their careers in more ways than one. There are scenes from “A New Hope” here as well as ones from other movies, but John Williams’ classic music is never heard.

One of the most fascinating moments comes early on as each actor discusses how they got cast in “A New Hope” and of how none of them had any idea of what they were about to be a part of. For all they knew, they were acting in some TV film or Grade Z science fiction movie which would be lucky to get any kind of distribution. While any of us would have killed to be on the set of this movie like these actors were, their reactions are easy to understand as they had yet to see the impact this one movie would have on generations of moviegoers. David Prowse, who inhabited the costume of Darth Vader, even remarked, “Maybe it won’t be as terrible as it promised to be.”

Prowse is one of the better-known actors featured here, and we learn of how he started off his career as a bodybuilder but was told he wouldn’t win any competitions because of his “ugly feet.” He would later go on to work with filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick who cast him as a bodyguard in “A Clockwork Orange,” and he played the Black Knight in Terry Gilliam’s “Jabberwocky.” But the role he is proudest of, even more so than Darth Vader, is that of the Green Cross Code man, a character used in British road safety television commercials. At least you got to see his face in those.

If there’s anything disappointing about “Elstree 1976,” it’s that I came out of it wanting to know more about what went on during the making of “A New Hope.” Again, this is not meant to be a “Star Wars” documentary, but the fan inside of me was eager to hear more behind the scenes stories of what went on. Indeed, there are a few told here such as from one actor who didn’t realize he had just asked Lucas to get him a cup of coffee, and of how the stormtroopers kept falling over one another on the set. In terms of introducing the actors to us, their names are shown next to the action figures of the characters they played, but it is hard to keep up with who is who after a while.

The last half deals with these actors’ lives after “Star Wars” as some went on to act in other movies while others found another career path for themselves. Whatever the case, many of them have gone on the convention circuit to talk with fans who want to know every single detail about the making of one of their all-time favorite movies. Just being in any “Star Wars” movie has had a major impact on their lives, but while some fans love meeting these people, others see them as nothing more than “bit part actors” which is a bit dispiriting.

But the real strength of “Elstree 1976” comes in how Spira shows us what the life of a working-class actor is like, and it’s a nice gesture how he brings these 10 people out of the shadows to give them the recognition they have long deserved. Whether they had big scenes, small scenes or scenes which sadly got left on the cutting room floor, “Star Wars” impacted their lives and for the better in many ways. They may never get the fanfare of the bigger name actors, but they still get to put this movie on their resumes which must have made a big difference.

Coming out of “Elstree 1976,” I felt like the documentary could have gone deeper in certain areas and revealed more, but we have here is still entertaining and a must for “Star Wars” fans as they will want to know about everything connected to this cinematic universe. And this is regardless of the fact it does commit the one unforgivable sin no “Star Wars” related movie has any right to make: it shows Greedo shooting first. Damn you Lucas!

* * * out of * * * *

 

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Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

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I went into “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” with the hope it would be a true spinoff and not just a “Star Wars” sequel in disguise. This is the first in a series of “Star Wars” anthology movies which are meant to exist outside the main saga we have all grown up on. While “The Force Awakens” was heavy with nostalgia, this can’t be the case with “Rogue One.” Otherwise, what would be the point of making this one other than to make a gazillion dollars and sell a lot of toys?

Well, “Rogue One” proves to be an excellent “Star Wars” movie as it breaks new ground in the infinitely popular franchise. Set before the events of “Episode IV: A New Hope,” it follows a band of rebels as they attempt to steal the design plans for the just-completed Death Star, something which might be mistaken for a moon but is actually a space station capable of destroying planets. While we go into this movie knowing they will succeed in getting these plans to the Rebel Alliance, we have yet to see how they will pull this off and how bad the odds are, something our heroes never want to be told about.

The main character of “Rogue One” is Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), and we meet her as a child when she is separated from her mother and father. Her father, research scientist Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), is one of the main designers of the Death Star, and as we catch up with Jyn years later when this deadly space station has finally reached its final stage of completion. Along with a ragged platoon which includes intelligence officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), blind warrior and die hard believer in the Force Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen), warrior and mercenary Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen), and a Rebel-owned Imperial enforcer droid named K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk) whose sarcasm knows no bounds.

One thing which really struck me about this “Star Wars” spin-off is how many Jedis it has in its character roster, which is just one. Darth Vader shows up for a spell, but he is too enamored with the dark side to help our heroes in any way, shape or form. Essentially, this group of rebels are on their own. The force is strong with them, but they are not as desirable to the Rebel Alliance as Luke Skywalker or Princess Leia. For the Rebels, they are basically a means to an end.

I liked how “Rogue One” focused on the power struggles which take place within the Empire and the Rebel Alliance. Both factions deal with inner turmoil as they do what is necessary to gain the upper hand in a galactic war bound to have many casualties. Even the Rebels come across as dubious as they are willing to sacrifice their own to achieve victory. With the Empire, the power struggle is all the more intense as Director of Advanced Weapons Research Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) looks to claim all the credit for the Death Star even as Grand Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing, brought back to life through some incredible CGI) is not about to let that happen.

The movie also deals strongly with the themes of sacrifice and courage as our main characters fight for a cause so much bigger than themselves. Seeing them do what is necessary to achieve peace in the galaxy actually hit me harder on an emotional level than I expected, and it made “Rogue One” all the more exciting and invigorating to sit through. Granted, seeing what happens to these characters might make it seem like an emotional endurance test for the youngest audience members, but many “Star Wars” fans will be quick to appreciate what Jyn Erso and company are willing to do for the sake of so many others.

Directing “Rogue One” is Gareth Edwards who previously gave us “Godzilla,” the good one, a few years back. His direction of this spin-off feels very confident as he gives fans a good dose of what they expect from a “Star Wars” movie, but he also gives it a gritty feel none of the other episodes had. There are many sweeping shots of grandeur throughout “Rogue One,” thanks to Director of Photography Greig Fraser, as we go from one planet to the next, but this feels a lot more down and dirty as these characters do not live in a world of glamour and never will.

It’s also refreshing to see a “Star Wars” movie with a female lead as comic book movies have yet to offer the same thing. Felicity Jones, so good in “The Theory of Everything,” turns in a strong performance as Jyn Erso, and she makes the character a formidable warrior even as she sneaks around dozens of stormtroopers who would be quick to take her down if they ever discover her true identity. There are also some nice supporting turns by Diego Luna whose Cassian Andor finds his conscience getting in the way of his orders, Mads Mikkelsen who plays a scientist caught between duty and family, Ben Mendelsohn whose villainous character is ever so ruthless and eager to climb up the Empire food chain of power, and Donnie Yen is especially good as a blind warrior whose faith in the force is never misplaced.

It’s also great to see Forest Whitaker on board here as Saw Gerrera, a Clone Wars veteran who raised Jyn from a girl into a fighter. I do have to say, however, that watching him breathe through his oxygen mask quickly reminded me of Dennis Hopper’s character from “Blue Velvet.” I don’t know if it was the intention of the director or screenwriters to draw inspiration from Frank Booth, but it definitely crossed my mind every time I saw Whitaker onscreen.

“Rogue One” also contains some eerily effective CGI which allowed the filmmakers to bring actors like Peter Cushing back to life in a way which feels all too real. Cushing has been dead for two decades, but here he looks like he just rose from the grave. On top of Jon Favreau’s “The Jungle Book” which also contained a number of photorealistic characters, it makes me worry how soon actors could be replaced with CGI creations. Here’s hoping it’s not for a very, very, very long time.

“Rogue One” is by no means perfect as the movie rushes us from one planet to the next to where we have a hard time keeping up with all the places we have been to, but I admired what the filmmakers were able to accomplish. They have succeeded in giving us a fresh take on a franchise which has lived on from one decade to the next, and it bodes well for future installments like “Episode VIII” and the Han Solo movie as well. I very much enjoyed it, and I have no doubt the fans will as well as there are many easter eggs to discover. Plus, with us all living in such a volatile political climate which begs for a rebellion of some sort, this movie could not have come out at a better time. Timing is everything, and the time to rebel against our oppressors is at hand.

“Rogue One” definitely ensures that the “Star Wars” franchise will live long and prosper. Yes, that’s a saying from “Star Trek,” but it feels very appropriate to use here.

* * * ½ out of * * * *