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

Advertisements




REVIEW: Arrival

13 11 2016

Fantastic Fest

Sometimes great films do more than change our thoughts. They change our way of thinking. Denis Villeneuve’s “Arrival” is one such film, reorienting our relationship with time and communication to jarring, enlightening effect. The only other recent comparison possible is a Christopher Nolan film: “Memento” or “Interstellar.”

The film attempts an ambitious coup that should be experienced, not described. But it spoils little to say that the ingenious storytelling from Eric Heisserer, adapting a short story by Ted Chiang, disorients a viewer to a point where entire sections of the film can come under reconsideration. By way of Amy Adams’ Dr. Louise Banks, a linguist tasked with figuring out how mysterious aliens express themselves, “Arrival” engages the brain while also raising questions about how that same organ processes information.

Much of the film unfolds rather plainly – Louise and a team of military personnel, including Jeremy Renner’s Ian Donnelly, insert themselves into the belly of a “heptapod” that has landed in a Montana meadow. (Many others also situate themselves across the planet.) Through a series of experiments, Louise attempts to crack an extra-terrestrial Rosetta Stone of sorts. Picture the climax of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” stretched to feature-length, and that is somewhat akin to “Arrival.”

Louise has few luxuries as she carries out her work. Time, of course, is of the essence. Many of her collaborators consider linguistics a pseudo-science, dismissing the seriousness of her mission. And with each successive trip into the heptapod, the world moves closer to the brink as media blowhards push a campaign to save the species.

With stakes this high, the average moviegoer might anticipate a massive shootout or intergalactic battle as “Arrival” heats up. Nothing of the sort happens. Villeneuve never relies on spectacle to sell the film; instead, he patiently lays the groundwork for a finale that reveals the firing of synapses in our brains as something worth celebrating and considering. This science-fiction tale has an optimism rooted in humanism, and that is something to celebrate. B+3stars





REVIEW: Out of the Furnace

11 09 2015

Out of the FurnaceThe small town, blue-collar workers in Scott Cooper’s “Out of the Furnace” are disappearing both from America and from the silver screen.  They deserve better than what they get here, a gritty realism riddled with clichéd storytelling conventions.

Cooper covers a lot of that up with a great cast that turns in predictably solid, if not dazzling, performances.  The explosiveness of Christian Bale, Woody Harrelson, and Casey Affleck in one movie alone is a sight to see no matter what. But it should be a powder keg, not a few sparks flying.

The film should receive some credit for being one of few to tackle the home-front experiences of Iraq War veterans like Affleck’s Rodney Baze.  He’s completely volatile, a pugnacious time bomb who will detonate if he cannot pulverize someone with his fists.  But everyone else in the Pennsylvania Rust Belt town in “Out of the Furnace” who tries to either defuse him or encourage him just fails to light up the screen in any way, shape, or form.

For a film whose title refers to an object capable of generating high temperatures, “Out of the Furnace” packs remarkably little heat.  C / 2stars





REVIEW: Southpaw

15 08 2015

Jake Gyllenhaal trained hard to get ripped and toned for his role as boxer Billy Hope in “Southpaw,” yet the physical transformation may not represent most impressive facet of his performance.  Underneath the chiseled six-pack of abs and behind the battered face does not necessarily lie the spirit of a champion.  In fact, Hope most resembles a pitbull backed into the corner of a cage.

Gyllenhaal makes the truly courageous choice not to play his character with some kind of rough-hewn heart that always finds a way to break through his hardened exterior. Hope came up through the New York City foster care system, never making peace with his parents before they passed and ending up incarcerated more than once.  To boot, he lacks some basic literacy skills (he’s unable to spell the word “incarcerted” with his daughter) and needs the firm support system provided by his wife, Rachel McAdam’s Maureen, to make even the most common-sense of decisions.

In Gyllenhaal’s hands, Hope becomes borderline unsympathetic.  If his character were dropped into the self-destructive drug addict role that Christian Bale played in “The Fighter,” we might not root for him.  Plenty of times in “Southpaw,” I questioned whether my desire to see him triumph came simply from the fact that writer Kurt Sutter made this character the protagonist.

When tragedy hits Hope, we feel pain not because we watch a good man drawn into a maelstrom of grief and anguish.  We feel pain because Gyllenhaal makes sure we know that this a person clearly ill-equipped to come to terms with the enormity of his wealth, power, and standing. A 43-0 record in the ring has not transformed Hope in any way. He’s still the same kid from the shelters who did not have the smarts to stay out of trouble.

Read the rest of this entry »





REVIEW: Dope

21 06 2015

DopeIf writer/director Rick Famuyiwa’s movie “Dope” were one of your friends at a party, he would be the friend that thinks himself invincible when letting any mind-altering substance enter his bloodstream.  This is the guy that thinks every jumbled fragment that leaves his mouth is divinely inspired and merits inclusion in some kind of philosophical toe.  He is the guy that makes dangerous decisions, assuming they are perfectly reasonable, and somehow convinces you to go along with them.

“Dope” tries to subvert racial stereotypes by having a drug dealer who knows what the phrase “a slippery slope” means (yet does not recognize it as a fallacy) and a main character, Shameik Moore’s dorky Malcolm, who prefers the artistry of ’90s hip-hop as opposed to the commercialism of present-day rappers.  The film attempts to be a coming-of-age story, a romance, a drama that grapples with race, a comic drug caper like “Pineapple Express,” and ultimately a heist film.

In other words, Famuyiwa attempts a lot and completes a little; what he does complete does not feel entirely convincing.

I can let a film that does mediocre humor slide – and with tired gags involving a floozy, coked-out heiress, “Dope” has quite a bit to spare. Not every con film needs to reach the heights of “American Hustle,” either.  But blowing what could have served as a vital discussion about racial identity at a time when America really needs to talk about thee issues just left a really bitter taste in my mouth.

Read the rest of this entry »





REVIEW: Ernest & Celestine

16 06 2014

Ernest and CelestineIn the effort to engage in the larger cultural conversation about “important” films, I realize that it must seem like I can only appreciate a movie if it tackles topics of great thematic heft or breaks some sort of cinematic mold.  But truth be told, I love a movies like “Ernest & Celestine” just as much because it possesses a remarkable sort of magic.  It has the power to return me to a childlike sense of spectatorship, allowing me a pleasant regression to a simpler state of mind.

The film’s story is nothing particularly extraordinary, but it charms from the get-go.  The indomitably curious mouse Celestine (voiced by Mackenzie Foy) wants to know what could really be so bad about the big, scary bears of whom all mice are warned to fear.  This very nearly ends her life when she goes above ground and winds up in the clutches of the hapless bear Ernest (Forest Whitaker).  Celestine doesn’t just convince him not to eat her; she makes him a friend.

Sadly, no one else is willing to accept their unconventional relationship.  It’s unnatural and scary to both species, unwilling to budge from their present ideologies.  And yet, the bear and the mouse persevere, teaching very important lessons about acceptance and affection.  As Abraham Lincoln once said, “The best way to destroy an enemy is to make him a friend.”  That’s a lesson “Ernest & Celestine” radiates with clarity as well as warmth, and I hope children from 3 to 93 everywhere take it to heart.  A- / 3halfstars





REVIEW: The Butler

17 08 2013

ButlerBased on the trailer for Lee Daniels’ “The Butler,” I had prepared myself for “Forrest Gump: Civil Rights Edition.”  It looked to be in a filmmaking tradition of heavy-handed, cloying, and over the top shenanigans designed to easily trigger emotion.  As it turns out, I didn’t even have to resist because the film was not any of these things.

It was just a plain, bad movie.  “The Butler” is poorly written, unevenly directed, and meagerly acted.  It vastly oversimplifies history, both that of our nation’s struggle for civil rights and also the remarkable life of one man who served many Presidents with honor and dignity.  And in spite of its golden hues and stirring score stressing the importance of every moment, the film just fell flat the entire time.

Screenwriter Danny Strong writes the story of Cecil Gaines, Forest Whitaker’s titular character, into a parade of presidential caricatures – leaving out Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter since they apparently never grappled with civil rights.  (I’m ok with a narrowed portrait of history, just not a narrowed portrait of the people who made that history.)  Each man is a waxwork figure, a set of immediately recognizable traits tied up in a bow by a crucial civil rights decision, that happens to be served tea by the same man.

And every president is somehow swayed by the mere presence of Cecil, who will make a passing remark to each.  He’s apparently the perpetual Greek chorus of the White House or even the nation’s most influential civil rights adviser.  It’s a little ridiculous to infer causality here, even with a generous suspension of disbelief.  This trick worked in Robert Zemeckis’ “Forrest Gump” because it was done with a wink and a sense of humor.  It fails in “The Butler” because no one can seriously believe Cecil was an actual policy influencer.

Read the rest of this entry »