Monday, December 19, 2016

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

*** out of ****

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is a new type of motion picture for the nearly forty-year-old franchise and it is appropriately a major callback to the original 1977 film without imitating its plot. Certain places, characters and even subtle music cues that have not been revisited since that first entry take part in this movie. The idea behind these new "Star Wars Story” films is to tell original stories that take place at any desired point in the history established by the Star Wars Universe. What’s more interesting is that they are not stylistically beholden to the traditional filmmaking characteristics that define Star Wars.

The movie dumps sacred traits associated with the "Episode" series, such as the opening crawl with the famous theme and those classic iris and wipe transitions between scenes. It also utilizes cinematic techniques that are against the rules in the other series like location captions, flashback sequences and handheld cinematography.

The film’s ambivalent heroine is Jyn Erso, played with effective screen presence by Felicity Jones. She is a drifter in and out of trouble living under an alias ever since her mother was killed and her scientist father (Mads Mikkelsen) was kidnapped by the Empire to take part in the planning of a super-weapon.

The rough tutelage of a guerrilla warlord (Forest Whitaker) has taught her self-reliance, but no sense of direction to take aside from running and hiding to avoid the reach of the evil Empire. While imprisoned in a labor camp, she is rescued and taken to a familiar Rebel base where she is informed that the super-weapon of her father’s forced involvement is rumored to be complete. Using a lead, they want her on a team that can track down his whereabouts and find some key to destroying the construction of technological terror: The Death Star.

The team of heroes this movie brings us amusingly subverts George Lucas’ good-versus-evil vision and explores the gray area of war. Diego Luna portrays a morally questionable rebel spy/assassin. Riz Ahmed is an Imperial pilot in the process of defecting to the Rebel Alliance. Through voice and motion-capture, Alan Tudyk plays a sardonic and brave reprogrammed Imperial droid working with the Rebels that seems like the result of listing everything the cowardly C-3PO would never do. Donnie Yen is a blind warrior who religiously regards The Force as his protector while his doubting arsenal-clad friend, played by Wen Jiang, covers him at all times.

The excellent Ben Mendelsohn brings the most personality we’ve ever seen in a Star Wars villain as Imperial science director, Orson Krennic, a man who answers to characters we haven’t seen on the big screen in quite a long time - one of whom is a digital recreation of a deceased character actor that is probably more astounding than any previous attempt at something similar, but still eerily distracting. This brings to mind my gripes with the movie.

I think Rogue One could have ventured further away from Star Wars familiarity. The film's environment sells us on its setting so beautifully, that there is no need to dish out heavy-handed reminders of which famous characters could be residing in the same place. 

It is said that this film went through heavy re-writes, reshoots and changed composers rather late into production. I don’t know what the original shooting script or score were like, but I have the feeling that they were meant to be darker.

Michael Giacchino’s score is fine, but it’s easily the weakest in a series that has always used the immense talent of John Williams. My problem is that it feels like a pale imitation of the Wagnerian tone Williams was known for when this project presented the opportunity to go for something refreshingly different.

As for the characters and story, the plot is a little convoluted and the characters seem like they’re missing some important moments that clarify their motivations and bonds with one another. The preoccupation with inserting moments of unrelated fan service costs this movie a bit in terms of its own development –particularly at the very end.

To its credit, the film probably contains the best action in the entire franchise and lives up to the title “Star Wars” more than any other entry. This movie immerses itself in the feeling of danger when violence breaks out between a heavily armored military and an ill-equipped rebellion. In other words, don’t expect a goofball CGI creature luckily dodging laser blasts in this film. People die.

If I love anything about this movie, it is how it functions as the kind of prequel I wanted over a decade ago when I not only felt that George Lucas was failing to do a good job telling the backstory to his beloved original trilogy, but that he was telling the wrong story altogether. As a kid, I always wanted to know more about the people running the Rebel Alliance. If you were just some average person, how bad was it to live under the Imperial regime and what was the ideal intergalactic life that people were fighting for? This movie touched on some of these thoughts and relished in others.

John Knoll is the brainchild behind this film’s concept, which is pretty cool considering how long he’s been realizing the concepts of others as an innovative special effects supervisor who helped bring CGI to cinema and invented Photoshop with his brother.

It should be noted that while 2002's Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones was the first major motion picture to be shot on the digital format intended to replace film, it is nice to see that the digitally-shot Rogue One represents how far the medium has come since its premature debut -even if I prefer the glorious return to celluloid we saw in last year's The Force Awakens.

The film’s director, Gareth Edwards may not improve his lacking ability for character and story emotion, but I really respect his gift for producing atmosphere and this film proves that he knows and loves Star Wars.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story may be a corporate-mandated spectacle ride from Disney to keep fanboys like me enthusiastic, but it is clearly a labor of love that is a little tainted by some pandering. I think Star Wars fans have every reason to watch it over and over, because I know I will.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Manchester by the Sea

**** out of ****

Giving a film my top recommendation isn’t the same as giving readers a guarantee that it will be universally appreciated. Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea is a great accomplishment, but it’s not the kind of film most people seek out - even leading up to the end of the year when award-worthy slice-of-life films are expected to have a bittersweet kind of satisfaction. This movie has some dry laughs from its many realistically awkward situations, but "satisfying” and “entertaining” are certainly not the first words that came to my mind after seeing it.

Like Lonergan’s other films, it is about the day-to-day existence of characters experiencing a change in their life, which in some way connects to a painful tragedy in their past. Casey Affleck plays Lee, an antisocial Boston janitor who must return to his original home of Manchester, New Hampshire when his brother (played in flashbacks by Kyle Chandler) passes away due to a heart condition, leaving a teenage son without anyone to look after him.

To Lee’s surprise, his brother’s will named him as the boy’s guardian and trustee of his assets. Lee doesn’t want the responsibility, which means an interruption to his preferred solitude and requires relocating to the town he has very strong reasons to avoid.

To say that this character is damaged would be an understatement. Affleck captures the essence of a shell of a man who only lives out of a sense of duty and obligation when he isn’t having a violent outburst. Like many good dramas, the film tells us his backstory in selectively placed flashbacks, which eventually reveal a horrifying mistake in his past that most people couldn’t live with. Affleck has demonstrated his naturalistic talent in many films but is occasionally given the spotlight and this may be his greatest role.

The teenage nephew, Patrick, is played by Lucas Hedges –an actor I’ve noticed in a lot of east coast productions, like Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom and the recent American remake of the TV miniseries, The Slap. Hedges realistically communicates the emotional confusion that comes with most teenagers – even though his character is rather outgoing and popular. He’s on the high school hockey team, has a garage band, maintains his father’s fishing boat and is balancing two girlfriends who don’t know about one another. He claims to know what he wants and his nagging attempts to control affairs related to his father’s passing test Lee’s low tolerance for the emotions of others and provides most of the film’s engaging quarrels.

Lonergan is originally a celebrated New York playwright and his first film, You Can Count On Me was praised by critics for its funny insights into human behavior through the troubles between two siblings who have taken to adulthood in very different ways. His second film, Margaret, was a beautiful project that fell apart because he wrote and shot so many scenes revolving around a year in the life of his fictional teenage girl that it turned into an editorial nightmare that was never fully resolved.

Like that last film, Manchester by the Sea also feels more like a long collection of scenes about its characters than a story. Along with assorted classical selections to score the film, it uses simple but effective cinematography that communicates the existence of its characters and the distinctive environment of their New England surroundings. At 137 minutes, it may feel taxing to some, but I could have spent the better part of the day in my fascination with these people.

The movie also co-stars talents like Gretchen Mol, C.J. Wilson, Heather Burns, Matthew Broderick and Michelle Williams - who is understandably given a great amount of emphasis in ads for her small role due to its undeniable power, but this marketing could easily mislead people into assuming she’s Affleck’s primary co-star and that this is a love story. Not the case.

I expected this to be one of 2016’s best and it is, but it isn’t a crowd-pleaser. Even if you think you don't like it, this is the kind of movie that has raw, sobering, emotional moments of truth that are likely to crawl back into your mind years from now.


***1/2 out of ****

It is strange to observe that Disney’s computer animation has advanced to the point of being more photogenic than a lot of live action films that have been digitally color-graded beyond resembling the gorgeous potential of our world. 

In their new animated musical, Moana, there is a musical number where the characters are surrounded by two-dimensional hand-drawn animation and I was reminded of movies like Mary Poppins for how it combined live action people and cell-drawn animation. In this case, everything is animated, which is amazing considering the variety of style that is exploding from the screen.

Moana comes from a team of writers and directors, some of whom worked on recent projects like Big Hero 6, and other more seasoned artists responsible for films like Aladdin. It is a vibrant escape and a gorgeous spectacle to behold on the big screen. The bright blue skies, ocean waves and character designs are all masterfully rendered while possessing perfect combinations of realism and artistic manipulation in their presence.

Inspired by Polynesian folklore, the story is a fantasy about an isolated island whose people live a happy existence that is supposedly free from an ancient curse said to be spreading throughout the ocean. As Moana (voice of Auli'i Cravalho - her first role), a future leader of her island, deals with new troubles like bad crops and less fish in the ocean to catch, she suspects that the curse has reached their land.

Knowing that she has secretly possessed a power to communicate with the ocean, she defies her father’s law for everyone to stay on the island, and sets out on a voyage to find a herculean demigod (the voice of Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson) - ostensibly responsible for causing the ancient curse - in order to make things right.

Along the way, strange and unusual obstacles are encountered, including a giant crustacean (voice of Jemaine Clement – doing his David Bowie impression) and some Mad Max-like pirates in the form of vicious coconuts. Otherwise, the story goes down a very typical path, but not in a boring way. The atmosphere of the film is too breathtaking to cram complexity into its narrative, so I’m unsure if repeat viewings will reveal a strong story. What matters, is that everything about this odyssey feels focused.

Following Disney’s recent princess musicals Tangled and Frozen, Moana feels familiar for giving its lead more emphasis as a heroine. This time there isn’t even a love-interest. While I admire this new movement in their storytelling, I hope that it doesn’t become a redundant formula and that they keep inventing new types of stories.

I’m not sure if this film needed to be a musical, but I’m glad that they’ve reached a point of moderation, alternating between songs and no songs with the animated films they put out every year. I remember back in the nineties when they just about did their musical shtick to death. The songs in Moana, like their other recent princess films walk that line between classic Broadway show tunes and tacky modern pop music. These songs won’t be on my iTunes playlist, but I can’t deny that they’re pretty catchy.

With my first child on the way, there is a chance that in a few years, I’ll be among a world of parents who regularly have Disney songs sung at them day and night. Until then, I can take delight in experiencing the sweet magic of movies like Moana at my own leisure. Recommended.


***1/2 out of ****

In Loving, Joel Edgerton brings to the screen a hero that the film's writer/director Jeff Nichols has been presenting to his audience in most of his work: A rural man with little regard for law or politics whose heart guides him into a world of trouble. In his new film, it is the woman in his life, played by Ruth Negga, who works to achieve their freedom by responding to calls for change that are too broad for the individualism of her husband.

This film is based on the true story of Richard and Mildred Loving, an interracial couple in 1950s Virginia, who legally wed in Washington DC, but were soon after taken from their home in the middle of the night by police for breaking their state's anti-miscegenation laws.

The film's presentation of their long ordeal - which required moving to avoid jail time and eventually a Supreme Court case represented by the American Civil Liberties Union - avoids the kind of melodramatic sensationalism found in most historic films about fights for equality. The deeper their lives become entangled in the litigation and media exposure, the more difficult their relationship became. 

All this is communicated more with visuals than dialogue. Loving is a simple film, but rather meticulous in execution and without any flaws that bothered me. Perhaps the most unique thing Nichols brings to us with the film's primary setting, is a microcosm of racial harmony in a time and place that were not known for such things, but this auteur is always eager to share unexpected qualities in people slightly removed from the social norms of more populated areas.

The film comes across as honest, quiet and patient. Even if it is a little slow, it successfully tells an important chapter in civil rights history with tasteful grace.

Friday, December 2, 2016


**** out of ****

Moonlight is a three-part story about the childhood, adolescence and adulthood of a poor black male growing up in a section of Miami that is steeped in drugs and violence, while regularly suffering for being quiet and distant, if not for the fact that he is gay.

The first part is about him befriending a local crack dealer (the excellent Mahershala Ali) who becomes something of a sober father figure to a kid who has been given little guidance, encouragement or love. At the same time, the dealer struggles with the guilt of his chosen profession, which contributes to the decay that makes this kid’s life so tough.

As we skip to the teen years and then adulthood of our main character, we see how his formative years influence his need to survive as a man. It’s hard to write more about the plot, but I will simply say that this is a slow –yet hypnotically intense film that is captured with brilliantly planned sound and imagery reminiscent of films by Terrence Malick and Gus Van Sant.

With known talents like Andre Holland, Naomi Harris and the three actors playing the main character at different ages, the cast in this film does solid work. Writer/director Barry Jenkins deserves a lot of recognition for such an accomplished piece of filmmaking. Moonlight is easily among 2016’s best movies.


**1/2 out of ****

There are a strange amount of strengths and weaknesses to Allied, a spy/romance thriller set during World War II. For the most part, it’s a good-looking melodrama with some interesting plot twists (avoid seeing the trailer) while on the other hand it’s missing some essential elements necessary to emotionally engage its audience.

Steven Knight’s screenplay tells an interesting story about a Canadian spy (Brad Pitt) working for British Intelligence, who is sent on a mission to meet a French spy (Marion Cotillard) in Morocco, where the two will pose as husband and wife while tasked in the assassination of a German Chancellor.

This section of the story is all you should know going into the film, while the plot that follows has a way of unfolding that is best left for the movie viewing experience. This is an intriguing drama with a lot of good talent involved. So why didn’t I love it?

While a director like Robert Zemeckis, a man responsible for some highlight movies of my life, brings a lot of spectacle to this film (including some excellently choreographed action segments), some of it is phony-looking and costs the film’s atmosphere a sense of realism in places where it is needed.

The other problem is sadly another talent I normally admire: Brad Pitt. With certain exceptions, Pitt mostly has a gift for playing somber and reserved characters. Having him play a spy makes sense, but a spy in a melodrama? Mr. Pitt isn’t up for the task. While the filmmakers are doing everything to convey this character’s emotions, Mr. Pitt isn’t doing the same job. For me, this void hurt an otherwise strong film.