REVIEW: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

16 12 2016

Filmed entertainment in the “Star Wars” universe is valuable, expensive real estate – and I am somewhat skeptical that “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” is a good use of it.  Admittedly, it is nice to see a film contributing something to a multiverse that isn’t a mere brand extension. But given that the events are a direct vamp up to the pre-determined beginning of the original 1977 film, what’s the point in spending two hours with characters working towards an outcome we already know? Why invest in them?

“Rogue One” has plenty to cheer on, not the least of which includes the thrill of watching the coalition of women and minorities successfully band together to defeat the fascistic empire-seeking men. (Do these things only happen in fiction now?) In a deftly constructed battle sequence to steal the plans to Darth Vader’s Death Star, they come together in an act of valiant sacrifice to save the galaxy. It’s a sight to see, though it does feel like a component or two has gone missing.

The rebel team of rivals, which includes the daughter of the Death Star’s architect (Felicity Jones’ Jyn Erso), a rebel intelligence officer (Diego Luna’s Cassian Andor), an Imperial pilot defector (Riz Ahmed’s Bodhi Rook), a blind Force-wielder (Donnie Yen’s Chirrut Îmwe) and his mercenary pal (Jiang Wen’s Baze Malbus), comes together over the course of “Rogue One.” Given the somewhat languorous speed at which their union occurs, one would think that this is a setup for multiple sequels, “Avengers“-style. By the end of the film, however, it’s quite clear that such is not the case.

So why does Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy’s script take such a cursory approach to defining each of these characters? The threads they tie together by the final battle are quite thin. Jyn Erso leads her band of rebels into a daring maneuver with the call to action, “Rebellions are built on hope!” The line falls short of rousing because we know so little about her. We know even less about her companions. For all the vicarious inspiration “Rogue One” provides, it offers almost nothing in the way of personal connection and emotional investment. B-2stars

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REVIEW: Mississippi Grind

29 11 2015

Mississippi GrindEarly on in Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s “Mississippi Grind,” a small detail stood out to me. As Ben Mendelsohn’s Gerry sits down on the can to relieve his bowels, he reaches for something to wipe – and realizes he’s at the end of the roll of toilet paper. While most films, admittedly, avoid portraying such activities in the first place, how many of them bother to include this kind of widely shared frustration?

Boden and Fleck’s film, which they both co-wrote and directed, has one of the most thoroughly lived-in feels of any recent film. The way they capture the loneliness of a locale like an Iowa bar with such specificity comes across as so effortless that it might go unnoticed. But those who know to look will find a highly considered setting for an entertaining story.

“Mississippi Grind” takes the familiar form of a road trip between two buddies, although the pair in this movie only meets when the narrative begins. Gerry has many years of gambling under his belt (and plenty more in debt) before Ryan Reynolds’ younger Curtis comes along and strikes up a chummy rapport. The two head off towards New Orleans for the least Hollywood-like bender of booze and betting.

The favored cliché when describing any road trip or travel story is “it’s not the destination, it’s the journey.” That may apply to many movies, though it rings especially true for “Mississippi Grind.” Boden and Fleck are not building towards any kind of giant showdown in The Big Easy. Rather, it’s just the natural end point for the duo. The joy of the film comes from watching their little side trips and micro moments, grappling with their troubled pasts and bracing for the uncertain future. B+3stars





REVIEW: Slow West

6 07 2015

Slow WestIf there is one compliment I can pay writer/director John MacLean’s “Slow West,” it is that the film bears a particularly apt title.  It is slow, and it is set in the west.

This revisionist genre flick follows Scottish traveler Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee) as he moseys through the American West with sporadic guidance from grouchy nomad Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender).  He’s in pursuit of his love, Rose (Caren Pistorius), but the goal seldom seems as important as the experience of wandering.  As foreign visitors often do, Jay sees the landscape differently, a view that MacLean echoes through Robbie Ryan’s photography that shakes up the expected Western playbook.

“Slow West,” even in its tediousness, interrogates the land rather than gaze in wonder at it.  MacLean’s incorporation of humor serves as further evidence of his revisionist – and borderline parodic – intent.  But aside from his hilarious send-up of the classic “wanted” signs, the comedy of the film feels indeterminate.  He switches from cruel irony, which is drier than the deserts that Jay and Silas travel through, to slapstick humor at the drop of a hat.

The voyage ultimately does pay off in one hell of a climax with quite the statement of the genre’s gunfire.  But whether the conclusion is enough to salvage the sluggish start is a decision up to each moviegoer.  Since “Slow West” only runs 84 minutes, I figure the relatively small expenditure of time is more worth it than not.  B-2stars





REVIEW: Lost River

1 05 2015

Lost RiverRyan Gosling’s directorial debut, “Lost River,” opens with a crooning Americana theme (“In the Still of the Night”) playing over alternating images of alternating suburban decency and urban decay in Detroit.  It might be the strongest sequence in the entire film – and definitely the most lucidly realized.

Gosling clearly aims for David Lynch and Nicolas Winding Refn (the DNA of disastrous “Only God Forgives” is obvious) but winds up in borderline nonsensical territory.  He has beautiful visuals and haunting soundscapes yet no discernible theme or thesis underlying the film.  “Incoherent” might be a little strong to describe the experience, but the images have the cohesion of a two-day-old bandage and the logical progression of a Tumblr feed.

“Lost River” also falters by introducing an aspect of magical realism into the proceedings.  Given that whatever semblance of a plot the film possesses takes place in a very real city of ruins, the ambience feels contradictory.  This reliance on mood becomes first obvious, then annoying, since it has to essentially replace story in the film.

The narrative is also rather fragmented, seemingly two short films layered over each other.  They have an obvious familial connection, as the protagonists are a mother and her son, but they go in wildly different directions.  Christina Hendrick’s matriarch Billy goes to work at a Club Silencio-esque joint to repay a loan, while young Bones (Ian de Caestecker) faces down a neighborhood criminal overlord Bully (Matt Smith) to protect his love interest, Rat (Saoirse Ronan).  Their struggles are supposedly illuminating the subconscious of the ghost town they inhabit, although I found them mostly illustrating the vacuous expanses of hipsterism.  C2stars





REVIEW: Exodus: Gods and Kings

20 12 2014

Usually, when writers proclaim a story has biblical connotations, implications, or overtones, they suggest a certain primordial grandiosity of themes and conflicts.  Ridley Scott’s “Exodus: Gods and Kings” is quite literally biblical, however, and does not even come close to achieving that standard.  It takes far more cues from an interminable “Hobbit” film than it does from its source material that inspires billions.

The action on screen plays out like a final walk-through for a real movie.  The blocking of actors looks clumsy and without purpose.  Lines come across as recited rather than deeply felt.  And when the whole film plays out against a CGI-heavy background that can never overcome an overwhelming sensation of artificiality, “Exodus” feels like it could be capable of inspiring its own exodus of audiences fleeing the film itself.

The job of writing a compelling movie about the conflict between Moses (Christian Bale) and Ramses (Joel Edgerton) seems simple enough.  The clash of a pharaoh with a legitimate threat to his empire from a powerful deity is gripping in concept alone.  Then add in that the revolution is being spearheaded by his estranged stepbrother, and it becomes the kind of drama that ought to have writers drooling over their keyboards.

Yet most of the film’s problems seem to originate at the level of the script, which likely underwent quite a few drafts given that four writers are given credit.  The film certainly does not deserve to bear the name of great scripter Steven Zaillian (screenwriter of stellar work from “Schindler’s List” to “Moneyball“).  “Exodus” feels skeletal, the sketch of what a true screenplay should resemble.  The general progression of events is in place, but no one has affixed any supplemental scenes to give it depth of character or emotion.

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REVIEW: Starred Up

21 09 2014

Starred UpStarred Up,” not unlike its apparent next-of-kin “Bronson,” falls firmly into the category of great but not sensational British prison movies.  It’s entirely engaging and entertaining, even though it does not look beyond its confined setting.  And I’m totally fine with it.

The film begins with a silent bang as its protagonist, Eric Love, arrives to be locked away.  He’s the spiritual progeny of anarchic Randall P. McMurphy from “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and James Dean’s renegade Jim Stark from “Rebel Without a Cause.  Already hardened by years in a juvenile facility, Eric arrives to play with the big boys and establish his position at the top of the pre-ordained social structure.

Rising star Jack O’Connell brings writer Jonathan Asser’s creation to vivid life with a viciously physical performance.  O’Connell neither entirely humanizes nor animalizes Eric, yet he’s still a staggering force.  Even as he erects barriers preventing us from really sympathizing with Eric, he becomes all the more enticing of a character.

His insurgency, of course, causes conflicts with other hardened criminals in the pen.  But it also draws the interest of two figures who feel compelled to save Eric from his foolish youthful mistakes.  One is, somewhat predictably, prison counselor Oliver Baumer (Rupert Friend) who takes more interest than usually in psychologically stabilizing a potentially dangerous inmate.  More surprisingly, the other is Eric’s estranged father Neville (the highly underappreciated Ben Mendelsohn), who wants to make sure his son finds his place in the pecking order.

There’s no conventional battle for Eric’s soul.  There’s no giant climax the film towards which the film heads.  And, yes, there’s also nothing of particularly extraordinary merit in “Starred Up.”  But it has great storytelling and great acting that is wholeheartedly effective for the film’s entire duration.  Sometimes that in itself is sufficient.  B+ / 3stars