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

REVIEW: Doctor Strange

4 11 2016

There are so many movies of the VFX-driven variety, most of which have interchangeable and ultimately forgettable spectacles. Films that feel as if they want to try something new, or head into uncharted waters, are a rarity. Genuine surprise and awe is hard to come by.

Color me delighted to report that “Doctor Strange” actually does manage to achieve true visual astonishment in its action set pieces. The titular hero, his allies and his pursuers do not just duel in urban areas. They bend space and time in a manner that’s appropriately gobsmacking, recalling to some extent the wow factor of Christopher Nolan’s “Inception.”

Before you let your mind run away with you on that comparison, that’s primarily speaking of the feast for the eyes. “Doctor Strange” is a cut above the average Marvel Studios production, and I do not even mean that as damning with faint praise. The company has figured out a way to tell satisfying origin stories (“Iron Man,” “Ant-Man“) when the concern is establishing a character, not connecting to mythology or chronology.

Benedict Cumberbatch’s smug, silver-tongued surgeon turns into a dimension-hopping hero after seeking faith healing for his damaged hands. He’s appropriately equipped with smart-ass banter and lessons to learn while perfecting his manipulation of matter. Strange also has an exalted mentor in the Ancient One (a bald Tilda Swinton) and a menace to fight in her turncoat former mentee Kaecilius (a manbun-sporting Mads Mikkelsen). And maybe I was just reading too much into the score from Michael Giacchino, which sounded an awful lot like his work on “Star Trek,” but Strange also seems to have a Kirk-Spock dynamic with his straight-laced partner in crime Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor).

The action unfolds predictably, but also beautifully and humorously. For all those who thought it would take a maverick like Terrence Malick or Harmony Korine to get Tilda Swinton to narrate trippy shots of alternate universes, guess what? It happened in a Marvel movie. Note to whoever is preparing a career highlight reel for Swinton’s lifetime achievement awards in a decade or so: feel free to use this as the backbone of the montage. B+3stars

REVIEW: Valhalla Rising

18 06 2016

Valhalla RisingCall director Nicolas Winding Refn what you will (and I can think of a few things), but the man is never short on ambition. He has always worked to incorporate avant-garde elements into familiar genres like the prison film, the heist film and the gangster film. Each worked in varying degrees, often depending on the extent to which Refn decided to push the pre-established boundaries.

His 2010 film “Valhalla Rising,” however, might be the most purely effective of all his recent work. That’s not say it makes for the most entertaining or provocative watches. But this five-chapter tale of Norse mythology does mark his most sparse, stylistic work.

Story frequently takes a backseat to form, tone and mood, all of which Refn controls quite nimbly. The director has often called himself a pornographer of violence, and he certainly delivers the action. Yet “Valhalla Rising” does show him willing to engage in courtship, flirtation and foreplay before getting onto the hard stuff.

Of course, as is often the case with stylized exercises, the show gets old rather quickly. With little beyond the subdued fury of Mads Mikkelsen’s one-eye to carry the brutal, hallucinatory tale, “Valhalla Rising” sags under the weight of its own grand zeal to arouse. Still, it makes one wonder what Refn could produce if he went down a path even more uncommercial than this. B-2stars


F.I.L.M. of the Week (March 24, 2016)

24 03 2016

A Royal AffairI’ve been pressed (in person) by two loyal readers who want to know the rationale behind my aversion to period pieces, in particular the so-called “costume drama.” I do try to elucidate when I hold an entire genre or subgenre in contempt – see my pans of “The Young Victoria” and “The Invisible Woman” as well as my praises for “Mr. Turner” and “Far from the Madding Crowd” for examples.

It essentially boils down to this: save your threads for the museums and the palaces. If you have something to say about the past that has some relevance to contemporary society, then tell your story as extravagantly as you like. Nikolaj Arcel’s “A Royal Affair,” which depicts the painful struggle to enlighten Denmark, is such a film with real heft for modern times. As such, I am happy to name this lavish costume drama my “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”

Prior to Alicia Vikander winning the Oscar, and being in every other movie you see, she starred here as British royal Caroline Matilda, who gets unceremoniously married off to Danish king Christian VII (Mikkel Følsgaard). Once she produces an heir to secure the political bond between the two nations, Caroline mentally checks out in their marriage having fulfilled her duties. It’s not like she gets anything in return from the mentally unstable – and actually, quite disturbed – Christian.

Enter Mads Mikkelsen’s Johann Friedrich Struensee, originally brought in as a personal physician to Christian but ultimately a man of much greater influence. A disciple of Rousseau, his reason and rationality begins to inspire Christian to pass progressive reforms in his own country. Struensee also finds a captive audience for his learned views in Caroline, who is also in need of romantic and sexual fulfillment. The resulting fracas that plays out in “A Royal Affair” feels entirely relevant as, sadly enough, governments still reject common sense legislation and subjugate (or at least fail to prioritize) the needs of women. So, indeed, I found a reason to care about these people in lush wardrobes. Our struggles are still theirs.

REVIEW: The Salvation

13 03 2015

The SalvationSometimes it takes an outsider to really make a cinematic genre reflect the American character; I’m thinking specifically of Brit Christopher Nolan making the ultimate statement about post-9/11 USA with comic book flick “The Dark Knight.”  This is not necessarily the case with Danish director Kristian Levring’s western “The Salvation,” however.  (Yes, the American West.)

“The Salvation” has its modest thrills, like the classic “High Noon” bred with a modern Liam Neeson-style revenge caper.  The film sees Mads Mikkelsen’s Jon lose his newly immigrated wife and son at the hands of two gangsters, Jon’s retaliation, the gang leader Delarue (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) throwing down the gauntlet in the tiny Western town, and the townspeople cower in fear from offering Jon any assistance.  And all in a slender, 90 minute runtime, no less!

Mikkelsen is powerful as ever, but any fans of his should just reexamine the complexities of “The Hunt” or binge watch “Hannibal” for a more worthwhile use of screen time.  And as for those interested in or passionate about westerns, it’s hard to recommend something like “The Salvation,” a film rather average and unspectacular, when multiple watershed John Ford westerns are so readily available to stream.  B-2stars

REVIEW: The Hunt

30 05 2012

Cannes Film Festival

I wasn’t invited to serve on Nanni Moretti’s jury this year, but if I had been, my vote for the Palme D’Or would have gone to Thomas Vinterberg’s “The Hunt” without question or hesitation.  More than any of the twelve competition films I saw, it captivated me from the outset and proceeded to shake me to my core all the way to its jarring ending.  Much like “In a Better World” or “The Class,” this film has the ability to play well in any country and in any language due to the universality of its story.

I quickly forgot I was reading subtitles as I got drawn into the film’s narrative.  Vinterberg’s film, which he also co-wrote with Tobias Lindholm, has echoes of Arthur Miller, one of the biggest compliments I can provide to a piece of writing.  This contemporary “Crucible” follows Mads Mikkelsen as Lucas, a Danish kindergarten teacher, as he must fend off accusations of indecent exposure to a young child and the ensuing social stigmatization.  While Lucas is reserved, Mikkelsen never lets us doubt for a second that his character is an upright man who is merely the victim of a child’s curiosity being spun into something untrue.

And Mikkelsen, rightful and deserving winner of the Best Actor prize at Cannes, keeps our eyes glued to the screen as we watch the harrowing toll of these false charges on his psyche as well as his estranged son.  The story unfolds rather predictably for the first two acts (no thanks to Arthur Miller), but Mikkelsen really goes unhinged in the film’s finale and absolutely kills it.  As the metaphorically hunted of the film’s title, he begins to strike back against those who defiled his reputation based on baseless and circumstantial evidence.

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