Review: Beauty and the Beast (2017)

Any remake of Beauty and the Beast is going to be a tough sell for someone like me.  That 1991 classic so touch my heart and so shook my notions of what an animated feature could accomplish that any attempts to recapture its magic could only come off as an imitation.  That, in essence, is what we have here.  The live action version of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast is so close to the animated version that you might as well be watching that earlier film; it imitates it beat for beat, but it misses out completely on what made those beats special.  All the songs are here, all the characters are here, but there’s an element of wonder that is missing.  It has moments of inspiration and some hints of magic but, all the while, your mind keeps floating back to the original.  That should not be happening.

Up till now Disney has been very good at turning their classics into live action in a fresh way.  Both The Jungle Book and Pete’s Dragon redialed the story so that even the short-comings of their original source material were tuned out.  One asset of The Jungle Book was that you felt that the filmmakers were making the jungle into a character.  We were allowed time to soak in the landscapes which were lush with greenery.  Here that’s not the case.  Much of the film is photographed with a palette of darkness that keeps essential elements in shadow.  I understand that this plays to the nature of The Beast’s dilemma but there is low lighting in key scenes that should be sparkling with light and magic and color.  That’s especially true of the film’s key scene, the ballroom dance in which the two lovers finally connect.  I kept waiting for the high notes to accompany the lights coming up, but no, the scene remains in low light.  There are moments when I found certain scenes difficult to see.

For everything that this movie gets right, there’s something that it gets wrong.  Take, for example, that wonderful Menkin/Ashman song “Gaston” in which the film’s egoistical villain gets to extol the virtues of his own wonderfulness.  It’s a great production number and Luke Evans does a wonderful job in the role, but the song leaves out the line that everyone remembers.  Remember the line about his chest hair?  Unless I’m wrong, it’s not here.

Another example is The Beast.  He’s played beautifully here by actor Dan Stevens as a self-loathing mope who is spaced away from the world.  There’s a deep melancholy to his performance and a hint of childishness in his demeanor.  He does a very good job of emoting even while buried under tons of make-up.  The problem is that his leading lady isn’t nearly as interesting.  Don’t get me wrong, I love Emma Watson, but she’s underplaying the role of Belle in such a way that it removes our sympathy.  It could be said that her version of Belle is given far more agency and less Stockholm syndrome than her dilemma allowed in the original, but her character doesn’t come alive with personality.  Watson seems sour and distracted.  She’s an actress who works well at internalizing but she’s place in a role that requires more of an extravert.

My major issue though is one of gravity.  In The Jungle Book it all worked because the characters were grounded in the fact that they were animals who live even without talking.  Here, the task is much more difficult because we’re dealing with inanimate objects that, in live action, are bound to the forces of gravity.  Lumiere and Cogsworth and Mrs. Potts worked beautifully in the animated form, but they look just plain weird when set in the real world.

That’s my basic problem here, a live action version of Disney animated Beauty and the Beast just doesn’t work as a whole.  There are moments when it comes alive but, again, my mind kept drifting back to the original.  Jungle Book and Pete’s Dragon had problematic source material to improve upon, but Beauty and the Beast was so perfectly modulated that the remake can only be an imitation.  Maybe it needed something new, something fresh.  Maybe it needed a new twist.  Maybe it simply needed something anything that wasn’t there before.


Leave a comment

Posted by on 04/07/2017 in In Theaters


Review: Five Came Back (2017)

By this point, it is reasonable to assume that we’ve seen and heard just about all there is about World War II.  That’s not a swipe at The Greatest Generation; it just means that every third documentary made in the last 40 years seems to have dealt with this conflict.  Given that, the average filmmaker really has to be at the top of their game to bring something new.  I had that cynicism going into Netflix’s three-part series Five Came Back, the story of five legendary film directors – Frank Capra, John Ford, John Huston, George Stevens and William Wyler – who used their extraordinary gifts to film and document the most epic conflict in modern history.  What surprised me was how intimate the film is about their experience, both as men and as artists.

Five Came Back is a special film about the power of art as expression.  It is no surprise that the Second World War changed the world, but what the film presents is how it changes these five artists personally and professionally.  What did their experiences do to their craft, and how did those experiences ultimately shape the way in which the public saw the war?  It extols the power of cinema as the most powerful tool of expression and manipulation.

Based on the 2014 book by journalist Mark Harris, this adaptation does a brilliant job of setting us in the terms of the time; a time shortly before the advent of television, when the only visual news medium was the newsreel.  Americans were going to the movies every night of the week and amid the pre-feature coming attractions and cartoons were moving footage of the war that they couldn’t get anywhere else.  This was a time before the cynicism of the century’s second half took hold, when most Americans trusted their government to get the job done – which was crucial since, at the time, Americans were still mired in The Great Depression.  At this moment there was a tight union between Washington and Hollywood and the government who, at first, hired filmmakers for propaganda in order to shine a positive light on the war to keep up morale on the homefront and collect money for war bonds.

That’s really where the film begins; with the build-up of the propaganda machine.  We see how the films were constructed and how they were shaped for maximum effect.  We see that the propaganda machine was vital in light of the fact that Hitler’s propaganda machine, under the direction of Joseph Goebbles and filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, was proving to be second to none.  As Capra, Ford, Huston, Stevens and Wyler enter the European and Pacific Theater their experiences bring a complexity to their work.  At home the dynamics of the war begin to shape the perception of what is going on overseas and also at home.  It might have been enough to cut and recut footage of aerial combat and ground troops shooting it out with the Nazi soldiers, but the political landscape was shaped as well.  There is growing concern with how African-American soldiers are being portrayed (if, at all) and how the public will perceive the Japanese and Germans once the war is over.

Each director joined the service with the intent on documenting the war and they put themselves in the thick of combat in order to give the world the experience of combat in a way that no screenwriter could ever conceive.  The most dramatic story is how George Stevens and John Ford landed on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day in order to capture footage of the invasion knowing the they and their cameramen might not come out alive.  What they experienced physically and psychologically was a mirror of how the world would be affected by the film they brought home.  That’s especially the came with Stevens’ famous film of Dachau which was used against the Nazis at the Nuremberg trial.  Those images told a story of man’s inhumanity to man that no book or eye witness could ever tell – it was so disturbing that Stevens himself couldn’t bear to watch it again.

The masterstroke in this film is that Harris and director Laurent Bouzereau allow the story to be told on-screen by five directors who, themselves, are legends in their own time.  Instead of a lot of talking heads with scholars and historians, the stories of Ford, Huston, Wyler, Stevens and Capra are told in interviews by Steven Spielberg, Guillermo Del Toro, Paul Greengrass, Francis Ford Coppola and Lawrence Kasden who understand the craft of shaping and editing the footage for maximum effect (it helps that each of these directors has made a war film as well).  They understand the craft and so they reveal how the directors used their talent to tell a story.  Editing is crucial – cut the footage too short and the battle scenes come across as entertainment; cut it too long and the footage could be demoralizing.  There are a surprising amount of scenes shown in this movie that (thankfully) the public never saw.  Take D-Day, for example, with the bodies strewn on the Normandy beaches and piles of guts littering the floor of the troop ship.

If there is a weakness in the film it is probably that I wanted the story to continue.  The last half hour is dedicated to the post-war experience, of how these directors used their experiences to create films that spoke of their feelings about the state of the world – Wyler made The Best Years of Our Lives; Capra made It’s a Wonderful Life and Huston made Let There Be Light, a document of soldiers effected by PTSD that the military kept under wraps for nearly 40 years.  This chapter feels a bit glossed over.  We understand clearly how the experience effected these men but the film leaves us wanting more.  Maybe that’s the value of the story telling here – I wanted more.

Leave a comment

Posted by on 04/06/2017 in Uncategorized


Joss Whedon’s ‘Batgirl’: A bittersweet personal concern . . .

I guess when you write about movies on a regular basis, you learn never to expect too much.  Movie news is as regular as night and day but not nearly as reliable.  I am not a knee-jerk kind of guy when it comes to movie news, but this week something exciting got my attention that also came with a touch of the bittersweet.

The recent news that Joss Whedon was going to helm a stand-alone Batgirl project fills me with anticipation.  Batgirl is my favorite superhero, hands down, end of story.  This is not new – my love for Batgirl goes back to my days in single digits.  Plus – much like The Force Awakens – it is a movie that I never thought would happen.  So, yes, I’m excited.

But . . . .

I’m on the front lines when it comes to the fact that the DCU hasn’t yielded a string of greatness.  I’ve seen all of their films in a theater, usually opening weekend.  Every time I come away feeling burned, yet I keep going.  Like a bad relationship, I keep returning even though my love dun me wrong.

Outside of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, this expanded universe has yielded product that has ranged from ragingly mediocre to historically terrible.  Unlike Marvel’s line of product, which is consistently good, DC’s lineup of films have flopped over and died more times than a zombie that won’t stay dead.  Starting with 2011’s Green Lantern, we’ve suffered the ills of Man of Steel, Batman v Superman and the ragingly mediocre Suicide Squad.  Given that, I can’t exactly break out the pom poms for Batgirl even if Whedon’s creative hands are at the controls.

I hope it works.  Whedon has a special talent for handling female characters and for world-building.  He also has a unique talent for reconditioning superhero movies into a narrative that quietly speaks to us about the state of our world.  Plus, there’s a lot of potential politically and culturally; there’s hope that he can use this platform to break Hollywood’s quizzical fear of female heroes (I confess that I have no confidence in Wonder Woman) and maybe open up the gates of gender equality that the genre so desperately needs.

And yet, there’s a sticky issue afoot here.  Would the movie dig into Barbara Gordon’s disability?  Overlooking her paralysis could render a problem, yet dealing with it in the wrong way might make a lie of the character.  My guess is that the movie will probably deal with Barbara’s origins and how she came to acquire the cape and cowl.  That’s the safer alternative, but those of us who saw the wider scope of Nolan’s trilogy know that the Bat-verse can be more that just action and pointed-ears.

There’s hope for the movie.  There’s hope that it will break DC’s pattern of trying to make superhero pictures more “adult” but only succeeding at making them feel like a long car ride on a rainy day.

Moreover, I can hope that the film will be fun.  I miss that from DC.  Where’s the levity?  Where are the jokes?  Where’s the great spirit that I got all those years ago from the Christopher Reeve Superman movie, and recently from the Marvel pictures?  Who says super hero movies have to be sour and dark?  Who says they can’t be fun at the same time?  Let’s put it this way: there’s a reason Deadpool grossed $700 million last spring, and if the studio execs can’t figure that out then they might as well clean out their overstuffed desks.

I would like to be more excited about this.  I’m settling into a “wait and see” mentality but I’m not expecting the movie to fall on either side of the fence.  Maybe it’ll work.  Maybe this will be the film to break DC’s deadlock.  I can have hope . . . but then, I had hope for Suicide Squad.

Leave a comment

Posted by on 04/03/2017 in Blog


My Annual (and reasonably accurate) Oscar predictions


If you aren’t in love with La La Land, the awards probably aren’t going to be much fun this year.  Yet, due to the Academy’s valiant attempt to make up for last year’s #oscarsowhite scandal, some well-deserving nominees will finally have their day.  Here now are my annual (and I think accurate) Oscar predictions in every category.

Best Picture

The Nominees: Arrival | Fences | Hacksaw Ridge | Hell or High Water | Hidden Figures | Lion | Manchester by the Sea | Moonlight

What is clear about this year’s Oscar nominees is that last year’s “whitewashing” controversy didn’t go unnoticed.  There is a wide birth of diversity in this year’s Best Picture group, a clear representation of the African-American experience than has ever been seen in this category before.  However, while Fences and Moonlight and Hidden Figures are great showcases for the black experience, they will all have to take to step aside in the face of a movie that has been cleaning up this award season.

Damian Chazelle’s La La Land, a sweet romantic (though, I thought, rather ordinary) musical about the aspirations of a jazz musician and an aspiring actress, is the darling of this year’s academy voters.  Why?  Well, the critics will tell you that the movie is lovely, knowing and beautifully crafted.  That may be true, but I think it’s a case of location, location, location.  La La Land is a love letter to The City of Angels and considering that most voters live and work in and around Los Angeles, it would be rather odd if they passed it over.

Dark horse?  Probably not, but I wouldn’t dismiss Denzel Washington’s Fences.

Best Director

Nominees: Damien Chazelle for La La Land | Mel Gibson for Hacksaw Ridge | Barry Jenkins for Moonlight | Kenneth Lonergan for Manchester by the Sea | Denis Villeneuve for Arrival

When a film is pushed to the front as much as La La Land, you can only expect that its director will go along for the ride.  That’s the story with thirty-two year-old Damien Chazelle who proves to be a great visual storyteller – anyone will tell you that making a musical is as hard as making great comedy.  How sure are this chances at the Oscar?  Well, he won The Director’s Guild Award, which is voted on by the exact same body of voters who select the Oscar winner for Best Director.  You do the math.


Best Actor

Nominees: Casey Affleck for Manchester by the Sea | Andrew Garfield in Hacksaw Ridge | Ryan Gosling in La La Land | Viggo Mortensen for Captain Fantastic | Denzel Washington in Fences

For a while, it seemed that Casey Affleck would be the year’s front runner for Best Actor, but then the charges of sexual harassment turned into a scandal and many think his chances at the gold went out the window.  That was apparently especially when Denzel Washington took home the Screen Actor’s Guild Award for his acting.  He’s a triple-threat.  He has not only starred in the adaptation of August Wilson’s Fences but he also produced and directed it.  Washington is becoming Hollywood royalty and they want to reward him for his effort.


Best Actress

Nominees: Isabelle Huppert in Elle | Ruth Negga in Loving | Natalie Portman in Jackie | Emma Stone in La La Land | Meryl Streep in Florence Foster Jenkins

If there were any justice, this year’s Best Actress prize would be an upset going to Natalie Portman for her shattering portrayal of Jackie Kennedy from the moment of her husband’s murder until the moment that she buried him.  She not only gets the voice and the clothes right, but she climbs inside the mind of this woman whose whole world fell to pieces in a matter of moments and then was forced to move out of the White House and on with her life while still dealing with what happened.

But, Natalie will have to sit on the sidelines.  For this year, the Academy is selecting Emma Stone.  The Academy loves youth, beauty and talent and in her they have all three.  They’ve been courting her for years, waiting for the moment to finally laud praise upon her.  Two years ago she got her first nomination for playing Michael Keaton’s daughter in Birdman and here she is again, and not only does she act, but she also sings and dances.  Who can’t love that?
Best Supporting Actor

Nominees: Mahershala Ali in Moonlight | Jeff Bridges in Hell or High Water | Lucas Hedges in Manchester by the Sea | Dev Patel in Lion | Michael Shannon in Nocturnal Animals

This is a great group of actors and anyone one of these performances could win in another year, but the gold belongs (and rightfully so) to Mahershala Ali who play Juan in the first half of Barry Jenkins Moonlight in the kind of performance that has you thinking about his long after he leaves the screen.  As a drug dealer who turns father-figure to a shy kid who is struggling with his sexuality, Juan is a completely realized soul, a man whose life has been full of spikes and nails and wants to see this wayward kid become something more than what his negative environment expects of him.


Best Supporting Actress

Nominees: Viola Davis in Fences | Naomie Harris in Moonlight | Nicole Kidman in Lion | Octavia Spencer in Hidden Fences | Michelle Williams in Manchester by the Sea

Oh dear, sweet Viola Davis.  Viola, Viola, Viola.  You’ve been circling Oscar since 2008 and now it’s your turn, hands down.


Best Original Screenplay

Nominees: Hell or High Water | La La Land | The Lobster | Manchester by the Sea | 20th Century Women

Although I’m not a fan of the movie, I will concede that Ken Lonergan’s script for Manchester by the Sea (which he also directed) was something I hadn’t seen before.  He presented us with a gaggle of miserable, unlikable characters and forced a change through circumstances beyond their control.


Best Adapted Screenplay

Nominees: Arrival | Fences | Hidden Figures | Lion | Moonlight

I have every reason to think that Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney will (and should) win this award for Moonlight.  Their achingly sad story of twenty years in the life of an African-American boy and how his negative environment, coupled with the people in his immediate hemisphere, shape the man he will become.  YET, there’s competition from the late playwright August Wilson who penned the screenplay for Fences before his death in 2008.  Posthumous Oscars make for great Oscar moments.


Best Animated Feature

Nominees: Kubo and the Two Strings | Moana | My Life as a Zucchini | The Red Turtle | Zootopia

For my money, Laika’s Kubo and the Two Strings was the best animated feature of the year.  But I always feel that the Academy voters can’t resist the lure of The Mouse.  With Pixar out of the running, Walt Disney Pictures had two films in the running, one fantastic and the other so-so.  Fortunately, the former will be the winner.  Zootopia was something new and different and I think the voters will agree.


Best Foreign Language Film

Nominees: A Man Called Ove | The Salesman | Tanna | Toni Erdmann | Land of Mine

If topicality be the specialty of the day then look no further than The Salesman, which has nothing to do with Trump’s travel ban, but the director Asghar Farhadi has chosen not to attend the ceremony in protest.  That’s irresistible for a show going out to a global audience.


Best Original Song

“Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” from City of Stars
“Can’t Stop the Feeling” from Trolls
“City of Stars” from City of Stars
“The Empty Chair” from Jim: The Jim Foley Story
“How Far I’ll Go” from Moana

Disney almost always dominates this category whenever possible and that’s good news for the feel-good “How Far I’ll Go,” but my money is on “City of Stars” features a whistling earwig that I’ll bet has stuck in the minds of voters as much as it has with me.  I’m whistling it right now.

Best Original Score

Jackie | La La Land | Lion |Moonlight | Passengers

Wouldn’t it be kind of a kick to the crotch to have a movie like La La Land, a modern musical so beloved and so hailed and NOT having it win for Best Original Score.

Best Costume Design

Allied | Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them | Florence Foster JenkinsJackie | La La Land

The sweep of La La Land seems to promise that Mary Zophres has the edge here but my money leans toward Madeline Fontaine and the legendary pink suit worn by Jackie.

Best Makeup and Hairstyling

A Man Called Ove | Star Trek Beyond | Suicide Squad |

A rather puny group this year, so my money is on Star Trek Beyond.

Best Production Design

Arrival | Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them | Hail, Caesar! | La La Land | Passengers

Another gold for La La Land.

Best Cinematography

Arrival | La La Land | Lion | Moonlight | Silence

While I think this should go to James Laxton for Moonlight, I see Linus Sandgren collecting yet  another gold for La La Land.

Best Film Editing

Arrival | Hacksaw Ridge | Hell or High Water | La La Land | Moonlight

I say this every year.  The key to Best Editing is guessing who’ll win Best Picture.  La La Land.

Best Visual Effects

Deep Water Horizon | Doctor Strange | The Jungle Book | Kubo and the Two Strings | Rogue One

The Star Wars fan in me wants Rogue One to win here.  The movie fan in my wants Kubo.  My common sense says that the box office blockbuster The Jungle Book will be the winner.

Best Sound Editing

Arrival | Deepwater Horizon | Hacksaw Ridge | La La Land | Sully

‘nother gold for La La Land.

Best Sound Mixing

13 Hours | Arrival | Hacksaw Ridge | La La Land | Rogue One

Again, it would be a massive snub if a big old Hollywood musical like La La Land didn’t win here.

Best Documentary Feature

Fire at Sea | I Am Not Your Negro | Life, Animated | O.J. Made in America | 13th

The African-American experience is dominating here and it all depends on whether or not the voters will sit through five hours of O.J.  If not, 13th.

Best Documentary Short

Extremis | 4.1 Miles | Joe’s Violin | Watani: My Homeland | The White Helmets

Joe’s Violin was about a holocaust survivor.  You do the math.

Best Live Action Short

Ennemis interieurs | Le femme et le TGV | Mindenki | Timecode | Silent Nights

None of these were available to me, but I find that the frontrunner is Ennemis interieurs, the story of how two men come together in the 90s when Algerian terrorism reaches France.

Best Animated Short

Blind Vaysha | Borrowed Time | Pear Cider and Cigarettes | Pearl | Piper

Piper, the story of a hungry newborn sandpiper whose mother tries to help it overcome hydrophobia brought on by some crashing waves was adorable and featured some groundbreaking animation.  Plus it may be Pixar’s only chance this year.


The 89th Annual Academy Awards air Sunday February 26th on ABC

Leave a comment

Posted by on 02/25/2017 in Uncategorized


The Oscar Nominees: Hidden Figures


From now until February 26th, I will be taking to be taking a brief look at the nominees for The 89th Annual Academy Awards, one film at a time in several categories.

Nominated for: Best Picture | Best Supporting Actress (Octavia Spencer) | Best Adapted Screenplay

It is difficult to arrive at a movie like Hidden Figures after having seen two inspired pictures (and fellow Best Picture nominees) about the black experience that transcended their subjects so much that they became more than just a racial profile.  Both Fences and Moonlight were about black men affected by the world around them, how they see their role in the world and also the inside journey of their own souls.  Denzel Washington’s film was about a very flawed man who holds court over the family, the household and the small community of friends that make up his whole world while also dealing with questions of his own mortality.  Moonlight dealt with three decades in the life of a black man who is shaped by the people and experiences around him, dealing with questions of morality and personal and sexual identity.  These were great films.

Having come through those two experiences, Hidden Figures is significantly more conventional.  It’s more a Hollywood treatment of a chapter of African-American history that up until now has been either forgotten or ignored.  It takes place in 1961 as during the heated space race between The United States and The Soviet Union as NASA feels the pressure from the government to get men into space.  Desperate for a break, the NASA team reaches out to an unknown, untapped group of black women (this is at the height of the Civil Rights movement).  The women, Dorothy Vaughan (Supporting Actress nominees Octavia Spencer), Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae), and Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) are incredibly proficient at advanced calculations but, of course, must overcome the racial barriers set for them by the times.

What comes of this is not at all surprising.  It is also not as challenging as it should be.  The movie seems to soft-peddle their struggle to find equality in a white (and mostly male-dominated) environment.  Of the three women, the one who comes off the best is Taraji Henson.  She has the bigger part as Katherine Johnson, a shy single mother trying to find a place in an arena where few black women were allowed, and in an arena in which people with her skills were about to be replaced by computers.

Hidden Figures plays much more like The Help then it ebbs close to Fences or Moonlight.  By that I mean it takes an extremely soft-touch to a subject that should be far more challenging.  It’s not a great movie, its plotting and dialogue feels more like the invention of a screenwriter than something that seems to be welling up from the past.  It has some inspiration but you kind of walk out of it feeling as you’ve seen a manufactured product than a portrait of history.  Yet, that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a bad movie either.  Henson is the key here.  Her performance resides in the center of the story and she is the emotional fulcrum.  Hidden Figures is a safe movie, but not one to dismiss.  See Fences and Moonlight first though.  You’ll be glad you did.


The Oscar Nominees: Rogue One


It is understandable to approach Rogue One – the Star Wars saga’s first stand-alone adventure – with a touch of trepidation.  Massive experiments in narrative time-bending have never been this series’ strong point.  I must admit that, up until I saw the movie, I had been predicting that it would be a stem-to-stern appetizer, a movie whose only function was to satiate Star Wars fans hungry for next year’s Episode VIII.  I feared that in rewinding the clock to tell the story of the events that led directly into Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope we might be in for a lot of fan gratification without much meat on the bone.  I am excited to report that this isn’t the case.  This is not only an exciting entry in the Star Wars saga but one that is so well constructed that it gives a new and much deeper poignancy to the events that are to come.

The most unexpected element to Rogue One is that the filmmakers recognize that the key to George Lucas’ world is that you can always sense that millions of stories exist just off-screen.  His is a universe so rich and so full and so lived-in that you get the feeling that every character, even those lurking on the sides of the screen, are going somewhere to do something.  Everything wandering in and out of the frame from the humans to the creatures to the technology to the terrain seemed to have been thought about and considered in great detail.  His universe was always in motion and you always had the feeling that you wanted to sink your teeth into those areas that the movies couldn’t explore.

Teetering now on the edge of its 40th anniversary, Star Wars exudes a universe that is as familiar to us as the letters in our own name.  If you were lucky enough to have been a kid when George Lucas’ original trilogy was new then you probably spent your Sunday afternoons seated on the floor of your bedroom pushing around small plastic versions of Star Wars heroes and villains using your imagination to pick up and expand Lucas’ grand universe where his movies left off (I can assure you that describes at least one skinny, spectacled kid in north-eastern Ohio.)  We would like to imagine that those kids also included director Gareth Edwards and screenwriters Tony Gilroy and Chris Weitz.  They know this world, they understand it with intimacy.  Best of all, they respect it.  They understand the story that is before them.  Their story is so well written that it plugs up holes in A New Hope that have lingered for decades – like how the Imperial engineers overlooked a small thermal exhaust port in The Death Star that could destroy it.  Also, why and how Leia managed to get her hands on the technical readouts of The Death Star in the first place and how and why she came to call on Obi-Wan Kenobi.

Rogue One (the words “A Star Wars Story” are nowhere on the screen) is basically a heist movie, all about how a rag-tag group of misfits were able to steal the The Death Star plans so the Rebellion could find a weakness and exploit it.  Yet, it never pulls back on letting us know what the stakes are.  The Empire in this movie is seen as an all-consuming galactic nightmare, a massive military regime with the power to control and enslave an entire civilization just by force of will – and this is before Vader is put in command.  The Empire knows how to show its muscle and the timeline here begins at a moment when their new super weapon is still thought to be only a rumor.  That fantasy is crushed the first time that The Death Star is used to strike at a city from space and we clearly understand what that means for the rest of the galaxy.  Time is of the essence here.  One of the values of this film is that its special effects are able to take it places that the original films could not go.  In a horrifying scene, we get to see what the Death Star’s laser does to a large desert city – we see the ground pulled up and torn apart in ways we didn’t see with the destruction of Alderaan.

The setting owes everything to Star Wars but the story owes its nuts and bolts to all those great World War II mission movies like The Dirty Dozen and The Bridge on the River Kwai and especially The Guns of Navarone (another film about the need to destroy an enemy super weapon.)  These are desperate times, when the Empire has taken control and plunged the galaxy in darkness.  When Obi-Wan called this “The Dark Times” he wasn’t kidding.  We can feel the boot of the Empire pressing down on even the most mundane aspects of day-to-day life.  Those who fear the regime hovel in corners and shanty towns and outposts where they eek out a living in poverty.  The Jedi are all but extinct and those who worship The Force are mired in the remnants of a hokey religion that breeds far-flung cults of little significance.

The central figure of Rogue One is Jyn Erso (played by a straight-faced Felicity Jones) whose father Galen (Mads Mikkelsen) was a noted Imperial Engineer who was heavily involved in the construction of The Death Star until he jumped ship and went into hiding.  An incident in Jyn’s childhood left her homeless so she was adopted and raised under the care of no-nonsense revolutionary and Clone War veteran Saw Gerrera (Forest Whittaker) whose broken body is kept alive by the same technology that keeps Darth Vader breathing.

Through events too vast and complicated to explain here, Jyn gets herself hooked up with a band of revolutionaries: A Rebel assassin named Cassian (Diego Luna), a blind swordsman named Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen); A gun-toting cynic name Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen); A recently defected Imperial pilot called Bodhi (Riz Ahmed); And the scene-stealing K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk) an imperial droid who is a much more stolid and far less-reassuring version of C-3PO.  They get mixed up with a Rebel Alliance that is, in truth, at war with itself.  In meeting rooms, arguments wage between those who want action and those who want a strategy.  The Empire has cut off and killed nearly every option that the Alliance has and so they are eventually forced to put their trust in the hands of Jyn and her crew who know about the weakness in The Death Star but are unable to prove it.  Their mission is to sneak into the lion’s den, so to speak, and retrieve the plans that they can be given to the Alliance.

That explanation might make the film sound dull and familiar, but the pacing, the logic, the sense of dread and the ticking clock mentality make this story far more exciting then it probably has any reason to be.  Over on the Imperial side, we see a far more organized but no less fractured union between officers.  If the fractures in the Alliance are the results of desperation, then the fractures in the Imperial hierarchy is the result of overbearing egos.  The major conflict comes between the imperious Grand Moff Tarkin (played by a computerized reconstruction of Peter Cushing that is just weird) and Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), the Director of Advanced Weapons Research for the Imperial Military.  He’s a bitter snort who has a connection to Jyn’s past that makes her mission into an act of revenge.

The connections between the new characters are probably the film’s weak point, but its hard to lay that on a movie since their mission doesn’t leave much time for quiet introspection.  We feel the weight of the world pressing down on each of their shoulders, the movie is so busy that its hard to get a sense of how they connect with one another.  The mystery of these characters is guessing their fate.  Since this is a stand-alone, it’s hard to guess who will live and who will die.  The one new character that I was able to connect with was Chirrut, the blind swordsman.  He’s a man of faith who marches into battle chanting to himself, “I am with the Force, the Force is with me” identifying him as a holy man cementing the fragmented pieces of his fallen faith.  He has a one-liner during capture by Stormtroopers that brings down the house.

While the new characters leave something to be desired, there is a tickle in revisiting the old and the familiar.  Yes, Darth Vader has a minor supporting role but its not insignificant.  We get the giddy joy of once again hearing the mechanized voice of James Earl Jones and finally FINALLY seeing Vader fight at the top of his power, it’s a thrill.  More on this I will not say.  What I can say is that the movie is littered with in-jokes, cameos and tiny asides that are forecasts of things to come, yet they don’t get in the way.  They don’t quake the story like some of George Lucas’ alterations to the classic Star Wars films.

What quakes this movie in the most positive way is it’s third act.  WOW!  What an achievement of narrative within action.  In an era when so many action movies go on automatic pilot and give us the tired old crash and bash nonsense, here is a movie that gets it right.  The drama is built on our orientation of the placement of the players at every moment.  We understand what is happening, what’s at stake and what the odds are.  We know placement of men and hardware so that we get involved rather than sitting back and just watching a lot of random pyrotechnics.  Rogue One is a masterwork of action and suspense, and while it all leads up to where we expect, it doesn’t do it in the way in which we expect.  The actual mission to retrieve the plans is accompanied by a ground assault that starts small and then escalates into a full scale war that never for a moment loses its forward momentum.  It’s the most exciting thing this series has seen since the climax of The Empire Strikes Back.  And since the characters aren’t burdened by having to return for sequels, their fate is not telegraphed in advance and some sacrifices are not only necessary but poignant.

I’m sort of on a high from this movie, first from having seen it with 250 other Star Wars fans on opening night, and second because it’s the first time in a very long time that I feel that the characters in a Star Wars movie live in an organic environment, one that is burdened by darkness and questions of morality in a way that I haven’t felt since The Lord of the Rings.  As with Jackson’s trilogy, Rogue One allows us to feel the pressure of a fallen society, crushed under the heel of an overbearing entity.  There is a complete world here.  There are histories, rules, religions, traditions, connections.  There is a weariness in the spirit of these characters worn down by two decades of war and oppression.  Rogue One is so much more than I expected, and so much more than I ever thought to expect.  It’s a grand adventure with a force all its own.


The Oscar Nominees: Deep Water Horizon

From now until February 26th, I’m going to be taking a brief look at the nominees for this years Academy Awards, one film at a time.

Nominated for: Best Sound Editing | Best Visual Effects

The most unnerving thing about Peter Berg’s retelling of the Deepwater Horizon tragedy is that it in trying to recount the events, it turns out to be a visually exciting entertainment.  That’s absolutely the wrong approach to this material, particularly when recounting an event in which 11 men lost their lives.  Of course, one could argue that a movie like Titanic did the same thing, but the difference is that James Cameron’s film made sure that we understood the human element first.  His visual effects were in service to the story, not simply in service to giving the audience its money’s worth.

My basic problem here is that the movie glosses over the people involved.  The men on the oil rig, particularly those who didn’t make it back home are not seen as flesh and blood human beings, but as pegs used to be propped up and knocked down.  When we see photographs of the real men at the end of the film we have no idea where they were in the movie or who played them.  They are simply a vague name and then a casualty.  That’s a disservice to this tragedy and one that made this critic unusually uncomfortable.

Whatever you think about the events that transpired on that doomed oil rig, this is a standard disaster film from top to bottom.  There are the good blue-collar joes doing their job vs. the big bad corporate money men who want to cut corners.  That may play as good conflict but it doesn’t accurately portray the events that led to the explosion.  This film is going to make damned sure that blame is place one a single individual and that you get your money’s worth in the visual effects department.

The special effects department is really the star here, the whole last third of the film is made up of impressive visual effects but there’s little-to-no orientation to give us a sense of placement, where are the men in conjunction to the danger zones?  Who are the injured?  Whose been killed so far?  We need to be part of the experience here not just part of the action.

Leave a comment

Posted by on 02/13/2017 in Uncategorized