Monday, January 9, 2017

Song and Dance, Man: LA LA LAND

I saw La La Land a few weeks ago and, though fun, the more I’ve thought about it the less I’ve thought of it. There’s much to admire about its shaggy fastidiousness bringing the movie musical to an aw-shucks shuffle and mumble aesthetic bursting with glitter at the margins. Writer-director Damien Chazelle glides the Steadicam with dancers great and small, dialing up the colors in the smooth cinematography to just shy of Technicolor vibrancy. The songs don’t exactly burst forth in memorable wit or hummable melody, but noodle around with a passive aggressive earworm tendency to quietly wrap a measure or two around the back of the brain. There’s something appealing about sitting in the theater watching it unspool, but little to stick with you beyond the feeling of having seen something largely pleasant, a mostly empty exercise in style and self-satisfaction. But that's not so bad, considering.

It begins with one of the most exuberant curtain raisers in recent memory, pure joy as a traffic jam erupts in dance, buoyant and colorful gestures totally swept up in moving to the beat. The movie ends with an even better sequence: one of the loveliest sustained passages in any movie I’ve seen lately. I held my breath as the film steps into a poignant, melancholy, graceful dream ballet about fleeting moments, about love and loss and the fantasy of what might have been. In between the film isn’t quite as enchanting and transporting, but it’s really trying, you know? Chazelle has traded in cachet gained from the gruff, buzzy, and percussive Oscar-winning drama Whiplash for the chance to make an original movie musical. We don’t get too many of those anymore, let alone evocations of a Jacques Demy style peppered with allusions to MGM’s Freed unit fare all nestled in a quipping romantic comedy (another genre that’s fallen fallow of late).

Like his earlier film it’s an exploration of artists pushing their talents to the limit, unsure whether their passion is enough to get them to the level of success necessary to make a living, let alone becoming a Great. But instead of that film’s dark central relationship – a jockeying for power between a domineering professor and an aggressively ambitious student – this film is a fuzzy and light romance, as charming as can be while still maintaining a simmering striving sadness underneath. This film’s central couple is a pair of dreamers trotting through a fantasy Los Angeles. She wants to be an actress like her studio-era idols. A huge Golden Age Hollywood poster covers one wall of her tiny bedroom in a cramped apartment shared with three other girls, a place to crash between auditions and barista shifts at the Warner Bros. lot. He wants to run a jazz club. In the meantime he’s obsessively hording artifacts from when jazz was king and piecing together savings from small time gigs playing background noise piano in restaurants or New Wave cover bands at shallow parties.

She is Emma Stone. He is Ryan Gosling. They turn up the movie star charm and crackling chemistry as they perform the expected rom-com moves, starting out prickly, jabbing at each other with glowing conversational daggers. They don’t like each other, each quick with an insult. But they dance so swimmingly in sync, a soft shuffle of steps, a sudden graceful motion, a swooping flourish. In true Astaire and Rogers fashion (in spirit, but definitely not in skill) feet tell the real story of feelings. We know they’re meant to be, and soon they’re giving it a go. Their only problem is being young in 2016, a time in which it’s awfully hard to make jazz pianist or glamorous star a career goal. (Not that it was ever easy to succeed in those professions, but it sure was a lot smoother when there was popular demand.) This makes La La Land, a self-consciously colorful and charmingly artificial romantic musical, a bittersweet tale of people who just weren’t made for these times. They bond over artistic passions – he explaining jazz, she taking a backlot tour – and fall in love, before the demands of selling-out start them on separate paths.

Chazelle makes use of his leads’ appealing banter and expressive moves, turning this into a slight two-hander. No time to flesh out others, it is a duet for young talent with enough experience to shoulder the demands of the roles and smooth-enough faces to play striving ingénues and ambitious self-starters. They are figures conjured for genre play, the types we’d expect to find in a movie like this, their movements and behavior dictated by the way a dress should ruffle, the way glitter should float on a puff of breeze, the way a hop-skip-slide should gleam under a lamppost at night. It’s all rather sweet, but narrow. Their pursuit of success (and each other) is the movie’s exclusive interest, crowding an ace supporting cast (fleeting glimpses of Rosemarie DeWitt, J.K Simmons, Finn Wittrock, and others) out of the chance to strut their stuff. And in the end, even their relationship is lopsided – far more interested in his jazz than her acting – and remains vague on their actual progress to career destinations.

The central question for the characters is whether or not they’ll be true to their artistic ambitions – he likes real jazz; she prefers serious roles – or give in to temptation. And maybe choosing one means losing the other, or each other. That their potential sell-out moves – a gig playing fun popular music with a John Legend type (played by the man himself); a role on a series described as Dangerous Minds meets The OC – sound at least as, if not more, fun than their dream art maybe muddies the movie’s point. Gorgeous widescreen colors stretch across the screen, and the film’s protagonists’ swooning, naïve worship of modes of artistic expression fallen from peak popularity (clinging to an ideal that keeps their prospects slim and dusty instead of embracing the actual mess of creating art) is mirrored in the fussy (and sometimes fusty) evocation of genre gone by. I was frustrated by all this inconsistency, but then there’s that final dreamy conclusion that practically lifted me out of my seat. And, hey, it was worth hanging in there after all. Any movie with two great scenes bookending a technically accomplished (if hollow) middle can’t be all bad.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

For Better; For Worse: FENCES

Fences is the sort of smart, big hearted, densely written, deeply felt, smartly blocked, stirringly performed theatrical experience that can knock you sideways for the rest of the day.  Denzel Washington’s powerful film adaptation of August Wilson’s Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning play is thoughtful, patient, considered, literary. It uses the medium of cinema to recreate the full feeling of having spent and been spent by a consuming, heavy-duty, satisfying evening at the playhouse. Feeling no pressure to open up or embellish upon the text, Washington uses screen staging to bring full expression to Wilson’s writing, letting actors roam the frame, boxed in by their circumstances and holding court for each other as a way to feel heard, even and especially if they’re simply talking past each other. Here is a film with no frivolous exchanges. Every line is imbued with forceful personality and deep meaning. A complicated film, this rich text is contrary to the usual contemporary cycle of instant reaction and shallow analysis. You have to sit with it. You have to live in it. The film creates a fully formed world out of a backyard, entire lives out of conversations.

We sit in and around the home of Troy and Rose, a black couple living paycheck to paycheck in 1950s’ Pittsburgh. They have a mostly happy life, but there are unresolved dramas, neglected compromises, and lingering regrets. He (Washington) is a frustrated garbage man still hoping to get ahead, discrimination be damned. Once a potential Negro league star, he just missed the desegregation of the major leagues. He’s trapped by what could have been, caught in the tug of war between prejudice and opportunity that defined the Northern migration of African Americans looking for better futures in the time between Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Movement. And yet for as much as his circumstances defined his possibilities and his worldview, he has made progress, with a steadfast wife (Viola Davis), a loyal friend (Stephen McKinley Henderson), a troubled brother (Mykelti Williamson), and two sons (one grown (Russell Hornsby), the other (Jovan Adepo) almost there). He can’t quite reconcile his offspring’s ambitions (jazz and football) with his sense of practicality. He worries for them, and though times have changed and are about to continue changing, he can’t quite see it, because they didn’t change in time for him.

Human and humane, Wilson’s worldview makes the story and characters not a sociological specimen or mere vehicle of messaging. No, Fences is stirringly true to life, with characters full of complications. And into these people a perfect cast breathes astonishing life. In long, complicated, dense dialogues and monologues they speak. We hear them gossip, reminisce, plan and dream, and yet underneath we can hear their fears and see their foibles. Fully rounded and shaded figures, they aren’t always easy to get a read on. They reveal flaws and disagreeable aspects of themselves, sometimes through trying to hide their truth, and other times because they’ve run out of obfuscations and must now confront their human failings. There’s a core elemental quality to the film’s specificity, true to Wilson’s sharp evocation of race, class, time, and space, and his keen ear for the ways in which speech can bring people closer and pull them apart, how the sum total of a person’s experience can both expand and contract a person’s possibilities. We can see and hear how some are taken for granted, and others show affection through gruffness, how cruelty can be a kindness and how compassion can flower even in withering relational pains.

What’s most thrilling about Washington’s directorial approach here is how he turns the movie house into a playhouse, importing all the immediacy of live theater while retaining all the power of the wide big screen image. He finds large emotional scenes subtly wrought, moments of deep psychology and powerful exchanges played not to the back rows but perfectly calibrated with delicate electrifying intimacy for the cameras. He, with cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen, builds frames with a proscenium in mind, not stagey but thrillingly contained. The blocking (often a lost art in a world of bland coverage and frivolous CG-assisted swoops) is thought through so deeply, each actor’s placement on the screen, as well as every element of production design, strategically situated to reveal and deepen the emotion of the moment. Watch how a fence becomes metaphor sitting unfinished behind people working to build separations. See how a tree looms above, sturdy growth, or a bat leans ready to strike, full of unspoken potential. Spot movement through a back window, a sight alternating between comfortable domesticity and intentional isolation.

A most intelligently constructed film, Washington has engineered every moment to highlight the power of the play’s text, and the impressively felt, effortlessly deployed performances by himself and his tremendous co-stars. This is a movie of small gestures, quiet revelations, sharp exchanges, quicksand confessions, and dazzling complexity. In its smallness, it grows big, breathtakingly apparent that it’s a major work. More than a surface transposition from theater to cinema, Washington (who surely knows the play inside and out, having starred with Davis in its 2010 Broadway revival) interprets, making it a vital and unshakeable moviegoing experience. He provides space for his talented cast to inhabit their characters, digging deep into their drives and desires, dramas and disagreements, hard pasts and talented possible futures. Through their conversations whole worlds open up. Without visualizing a flashback, Washington need only let the camera linger as he or one of his colleagues holds forth in colorful language, evoking whole strains of conflict and trauma or love and loss in a nod, a fleeting expression, a softly spoken word. It is a rich, dense, and hearty meal in a multiplex otherwise full of empty trifles.

Friday, December 30, 2016

History of Violence: ASSASSIN'S CREED

The director, cinematographer, and stars of last year’s effectively muddy and bloody production of Macbeth have reunited for another movie about fate, ambition, and violence. Unfortunately, and confusingly, the movie is Assassin’s Creed, a murky, inscrutable video game adaptation that goes heavy on the action and portent but light on sense. How they ended up here, other than an eagerness to collect a paycheck, must have something to do with the material’s stupid clever conceit. A modern-day criminal is hooked up to a sci-fi contraption and sent to eavesdrop in the brain and senses of a violent ancestor living 500 years ago. (It’s a Quantum Leap with less responsibility.) There’s a nugget of a fascinating concept about historical inevitability and genetic determinism in this idea, but it is developed in a scattershot way, draining suspense and intrigue the more it tries to complicate matters. At first glance it may look and sound more important than the usual attempts to make action movies out of video games, but the longer it goes the worse it grows – tin-eared, nonsensical, consequence-free.

But you can’t say director Justin Kurzel isn’t trying. He has cinematographer Adam Arkapaw whip up a textured and dusty look for the past and a gleaming antiseptic blue-grey sheen for the future. Into these dark (dim, really) frames goes Michael Fassbender, bringing far more neck-bulging Macbeth emotion than the writing requires. He plays a man on death row who gets injected with the executioner’s chemicals only to awake in a covert institute in Spain where a mysterious Marion Cotillard (a little less Lady Macbeth-y) hopes to use his DNA to extract the history of a centuries-old assassin (also Fassbender) and his mission to hunt down the apple Eve bit in Eden. Yes, you read that correctly. This movie began pleasingly silly in the way plenty pompous pulp pictures do: with a wall of text. This one is describing an ancient battle over supernatural relics fought between the Knights Templar and Assassin’s Creed. The following confounding opening sequences are preposterous and exciting, cutting ruthlessly between slashing violence in the past and glowing doohickeys in the near future, trying breathlessly to tie two timelines and Fassbenders together into one nutty narrative.

By the time the swirling screenplay (by one writer who has adapted Shakespeare and two who adapted Vernoica Roth, if that indicates what’s going on here) settles into its main groove, the full incomprehensibility comes to the fore. We watch as our modern man gets attached to a giant apparatus that allows him to fully experience the sensations of his ancestor’s battles. Yet he can’t change the past. He’s merely an observer. And the company bankrolling Cotillard – and which also employs other great thespians Jeremy Irons, Charlotte Rampling, Brendan Gleeson, and Michael K. Williams, all asked to speak in hushed monotone – simply wants him to see where the elaborate historical action sequences – galloping horses, jabbing swords, and medieval parkour – take the apple. Why they can’t take him directly to when the apple is dropped off somewhere is beyond me. And what will this apple do once found? Nothing less than give them control of Free Will, though what that looks like or accomplishes is left awfully fuzzy. But if you’re already accepting a technobabble process by which DNA can be decoded into the ultimate VR experience, what are one or two more disbeliefs to suspend?

We’re watching two timelines: one in which unknowable future people stare at monitors, and one in which preordained action plays out without suspense because A.) we know they get the apple, and B.) our protagonist’s only involvement is paying attention to it. As a result, my attention dipped dramatically once I got used to the silliness and saw the stasis of it all. Sure, it looks striking and Kurzel has a tremendous amount of acting talent playing along with the inherently goofy story done up in total straight-faced seriousness. It has the thunderous sound design and huge CGI budget of a big studio production, and the constant drumbeat of flashy spectacle and weightless violence required of its genre. But every second that goes by means less and less as the groaning sturm und drang adds up to hollow, pointless confusion. The pseudo-mystical medieval swashbuckler hidden under layers of contrived convolutions would be a lot more fun if it wasn’t tied to such a ponderous drag about Fate and Conspiracy and Revenge. By the end, with the action finally mattering as it (mild spoiler, if you care) erupts in the other timeline, as the Assassin bloodline has its revenge on the techno-Templar, I found myself wondering why they hadn’t done that an hour earlier and saved us all the trouble of sitting through the hectic nothing. No movie this stupid can afford to be so dull.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Stranger in Strange Land: AMERICAN HONEY

American Honey is a long, aimless road trip of self-discovery. It begins with a lost, disadvantaged, impoverished young woman escaping a bad relationship by running away with a wild band of scrappy twentysomethings piling in an old van to travel the American mid- and southwest selling magazine subscriptions. It ends with her having a little bit more of an idea about what she wants to do with her life, but not so much more that there’s anything like a natural endpoint. The movie simply travels along as the group stops at different towns and cities, adding up to a portrait of a nation of juxtapositions and inequalities: rural and urban, rich and poor, young and old. British director Andrea Arnold has traversed similar territory before, albeit in a much more contained setting, in her small, powerful Fish Tank, about a teenage girl living in miserable London poverty. Here, though, Arnold expands her canvas, trying to take in a whole generation, a whole country with one massive, rambling journey. She’s in search of some overarching truth that remains out of reach.

It’s in the tradition of films that find acclaimed foreign directors making a movie about “America.” (Trace the history back further and you could draw a line to Alexis de Tocqueville.) On the one hand, there can be great observations made from an outsider’s perspective. On the other, there can be some clumsiness in what might be more a commentary on America as a symbolic place onto which filmmakers can project their own interests. Thinking of the great eccentric examples of cinematic exchange, like Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point, Wong Kar-wai’s My Blueberry Nights, and Lars Von Trier’s Dogville, it’s clear the most fascinating cross-cultural USA pictures are those which are most obviously a director’s preoccupations and pet theme’s layered over a new landscape. In the case of American Honey an anthropological curiosity tips over into an indiscriminate eye, looking for beautiful squalor, indulging lengthy sequences of its characters milling about, and failing to filter its incidents into anything like a coherent statement. It’s a grab bag of worst-case scenario Americana: convenience stores, truck stops, cheap motels, Wal-Marts, shallow suburbs, dusty highways, dirty dumpsters, and anywhere motes and bugs flit in the air.

A protracted, lumpy journey, the scraggly band of young people drift from place to place, bouncing along to thumping hip hop and shooting the breeze as they travel empty roads through wide open spaces. The lead (newcomer Sasha Lane) is charmingly inscrutable, energetic and open to new experiences but containing an essential unknowable mystery. She draws in interest, but also holds her motivations at a beguiling remove. She’s always in the moment, but her eyes betray a mind that’s always in two places at once. Others in the troupe include a guy she has a crush on (Shia LaBeouf, looking unkempt and un-showered) and the icily alluring leader of the pack (Riley Keough). The rest are a jumble of interesting faces with wild, unpredictable behaviors and personalities that blur together. You’d think spending nearly three hours with characters would let you get to know them pretty well, but this movie is interested in poses and episodic encounters – hooking up, robbing, hitchhiking, dancing, scavenging – than exposition or exploration of what makes these people tick. When it’s time to get down to business, they go door-to-door hawking their wares, telling unconvincing sob stories and hardly looking like trustworthy salespeople. It’s never clear how anyone could be buying what they’re selling.

For a long stretch of American Honey, with its tire-spinning repetitive grind of incident and Arnold’s typically claustrophobic square-framed trashy/beautiful cinematography, I felt like I’d always been and always would be watching this movie. It feels endless, content to live, and wallow, with the pretty poverty of its hard-living characters. Feinting at honesty when it’s really aestheticized and empty, the film ogles at unwashed skin, desperate situations, crumbling lives as if its act of looking through pretty filmic lenses is equivalent to having something to say. When it’s compelling, losing itself in the makeshift tribal rituals of bouncing and chanting along to mantras and raps or in stealing away moments of fleeting joy in crushing pain and poverty, the actors bring excitement and convincing lived-in feeling to the proceedings. But when it’s at its clumsiest, it’s rootless and pointless, drifting along on borrowed observations and trite conclusions. This is an ode to a lost generation, to young people who are wandering doom- and debt-laden into a world where hope and possibility have been dried out in the wake of their elders. And yet it has no real sense of why that might be or how these characters feel about their plight. It’s as lost and unaware as they are, striking to look at but with little to say.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Don't You Worry 'bout a SING

Sing is the least you can do to make an inoffensive all-ages animated amusement. It’s not particularly inspired or entertaining, with none of the visual beauty of a Laika or Ghibli, the innovation of a Pixar, or the all-around crowd-pleasing nature of a Disney. Despite a host of celebrity voices and colorful shenanigans, it doesn’t even have a leg up over Trolls, the other recent jukebox karaoke musical comedy aimed at youngsters and the adults who don’t mind taking them to such things. No, Sing doesn’t have higher highs or lower lows, because it’s not trying to do as much. It’s set in a world of animals behaving like people in an expansive metropolis, but hasn’t a tenth of Zootopia’s imagination. It is filled with characters yearning to make something of themselves, but with nary the picture book psychology of an Inside Out. It finds a plucky koala (Matthew McConaughey) throwing a singing competition to save his crumbling theater – Muppets much? – and gathers a menagerie of contestants with individual little dramas and conflicts, but isn’t interested in setting up American Idol suspense. It just wants to live up to its title and sing. That’s it. And so it does.

Totally undemanding, the movie starts out like it’ll be a family friendly Altman picture, swooping around its city to find the characters who’ll be the finalists. There’s a harried hog mother (Reese Witherspoon), soulful gorilla (Taron Egerton), moody porcupine (Scarlett Johansson), sleazy rat (Seth MacFarlane), shy elephant (Tori Kelly), sparkling pig (Nick Kroll), and others who fall by the wayside as the big show approaches. That they all have little problems to overcome – stage fright, gambling debts, bad dads, and so on – is par for the course. That none of these issues derail the movie’s genial good spirit and even keel plotting contributes to its blasé sense of anodyne amiability. Some wild cards – a lazy rich sheep (John C. Reilly) whose grandmother (Jennifer Saunders) was once upon a time a theater (or, as she’d pronounce it, “thea-tah”) star – enter the proceedings just to keep churning incident between bobble-headed snippets of pop songs sung loudly and enthusiastically from the mouths of cartoon critters.

The songbook is at least somewhat admirably diverse. Animals sing hits by Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, Van Halen, Frank Sinatra, Nicki Minaj, Elton John, and many, many more. Remember those infomercials for multi-CD sets of “Greatest Hits,” which would reliably end with brief excerpts from songs included while a complete tracklist would scroll by in garish yellow font? That’s how many a child parked in front of the TV would get introduced to earworms of times gone by. (That and the oldies stations were formative instruments of pop knowledge.) So maybe that’s the function Sing will serve in this on-demand age, letting kids hear a broad swath of easy pop listening while their parents smile in recognition at a couple measures of, say, Crazy Town’s “Butterfly.” That we get a plot punctuating abbreviated musical numbers is too bad, as the whole thing grinds to a halt when we need to care that a mammal is cut from the competition due to his excessive flatulence or that another critter in need of money throws a car wash and uses his fur to buff and dry.

There’s really nothing else to it other than bland believe-in-yourself moralizing that’s been done better, and with more conviction, in a dozen other animated family films of the last quarter century. It has a whole colorful animal world that’s been imagined at the level of a particularly underdeveloped picture book, with not even a scrap of the visual ingenuity and clever visual gags of a Zootopia. There’s even a missed opportunity for an exploration of what these real-world singers look like in the parallel animal world. Think of all the puns left for the taking. Diana Sloth. The Beetles. Llama Summers. Weird Al Yak-ovic. Director Garth Jennings (of the decent Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy from a decade ago) and the team at Illumination (of the Despicable Mes) are content to simply groove on the borrowed charms of fun songs to power their blandly amiable time-waster.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Long Space Journey Into Night: PASSENGERS

It’d be impressive how brainless Passengers is if it didn’t also come with an attendant sense of overwhelming boredom. Here’s a movie that does the heavy lifting to establish a concept with a modicum of compelling interest, then squanders it. Thirty years into a century-long spaceflight, two passengers wake from hibernation. Unable to return to suspended-animation – what with their pods malfunctioning and whatnot – they’re simply trapped to live out the rest of their lives on a cross-universe flight, doomed to die before even reaching the colony that was their destination. Great, right? But the movie seems to care not a stitch about the horror of the situation, nor does it particularly care that the central location is a bland cavernous 2001-themed shopping mall with a cruise ship aesthetic and stole its best ideas from WALL-E. Add to this an underlying creepiness on the doomed voyage that the filmmakers mistook for romanticism – Titanic this ain’t – and I started to get almost grateful that the movie was so devoid of interest. It lulled me to sleep with its stupidity and no amount of gleaming sci-fi gewgaws or flattering shots of attractive movie stars could hold my attention.

The movie stars in question are Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence, here playing future people who were eager to sleep off a hundred years and wake up colonists on a new planet. What would make a person agree to such a momentous prospect? The movie’s eager to shrug it off to get to the smooching. Normally I wouldn’t be opposed to such a task, especially in a movie built around two actors who we know will end up together for no other reason than because they’re the only two around. (Well, there is an android bartender played by Michael Sheen, but the movie’s not that nutty.) Consider the circumstances that bring them together. Pratt’s pod malfunctions, so he’s left the only waking life on the ship. He wanders around like this for a year, getting beardy, bedraggled, and deeply lonely. (Think Forte’s wildest moments in Last Man on Earth filtered down to the lowest shiny studio denominator.) It’s then that Pratt decides to open up another pod, the prettiest lady in hibernation thus summoned to be his playmate. He hides this fact from her, of course, thereby enabling a castaway romance the movie wants us to root for.

If you can stomach such a rocky foundation for a relationship, you can enjoy these two pretty people swimming, playing basketball, going on picnics, drinking in a bar like The Shining’s complete with the aforementioned unreal barkeep, talking to robots, plundering the ships stores of food, and making gauzy backlit tastefully PG-13 love. We’re supposed to feel the isolation as harrowing and cozy in the same moment, a romantic getaway for two surrounded by the howling void of galactic expanses. In one of the movie’s worst moments, as the couple fights, Pratt (all charm before it curdles to smarm) mentions giving Lawrence (flat and unconvincing, except for her perfume-ad poses in a tight white bikini) some space. “Space is the last thing I need,” she groans, while we silently wait out the dead air left around this cornball laugh line. Still, the movie does acknowledge their untenable situation from time to time, especially as the ship’s malfunctions escalate, increasingly threatening to put a quick end to their good times. That is, if she doesn’t discover the truth first.

Here’s where I started idly wondering if Jon Spaiths' script was just told from the wrong perspective. Instead of spending a year with Pratt before he wakes Lawrence from her sci-fi slumber – thereby stealing her future, and thus, in effect, murdering her – what if we woke up with her? She’d be told their pods malfunctioned, deal with her suddenly rewritten future, grapple with knowledge she’ll die alone in space, and slowly get drawn into a romantic entanglement with the only warm body around. Then – what a twist! a sick, cruel, surprising twist! – she learns she’s been betrayed, and trapped with him forever. Sounds better to me, but that’s premised on sorting out not only the perspective, but the tone, approach, and the filmmaking’s smooth, polished, nothings. The movie’s simply too bright and empty, even at its bleakest and most complicated, to really dig into its implications. (It doesn’t even give its stars cool future fashions, instead leaving them in boring leisure wear.) Director Morten Tyldum (of the almost equally bland Imitation Game) gives the whole thing an unreal sheen, too dutifully proficient to cook up any real heat and too sedate to gin up any excitement. It’s so vacant a production, not even a zero-g swimming pool calamity can get something going.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Dark Side: ROGUE ONE

Rogue One takes what could’ve been trivial noodling around in Star Wars lore and turns it into a proficient sci-fi action movie building to intimations of grand space operatic tragedy. It’s the second film made after creator George Lucas sold his remarkable galaxy to Disney, who have thus far been studious, respectful, and cautious custodians. Instead of an idiosyncratic vision from one artist’s mind, it’s a committee polishing up effective fan service. (At least the emphasis is on “effective.”) For promising new narrative future, this latest film has nothing on last year’s The Force Awakens, with its immediately vibrant new personalities and their lingering unresolved promise: the simmering twisted villain Kylo Ren and fresh Force heroine Rey. But in staging Star Wars-ian action, Rogue One is the more complete experience, with a beginning, middle, and end, a style more efficiently beholden to what came before without strain, and a tone more willing to fit the enormity of the sacrifice in this conflict. It’s overly engineered to be a gleaming widget, fitting seamlessly into the larger franchise plan instead of springing from a singular revelation. But at least this is still a film that dreams a little bigger than most blockbuster product, playing in a hugely enjoyable and intricately imagined fantastical universe with some sense of the painful struggle to resisting brutal fascism.

This entry tells a big, confident tale of a dark corner of the galactic conflict we’d long known about but never seen: the process by which the Rebel Alliance discovered the existence of the super-weapon Death Star and stole plans that’ll end up given by Princess Leia to R2-D2 in the 1977 original’s opening moments. A self-contained – despite the endless references and offshoots into other areas of franchise canon – and admirably scruffy combat heist film – think The Guns of Navarone…In Space!! – it has a motley diverse crew of insurgents striking back against the forces of an evil empire. Better symbols than characters, the underwritten rebels make decent action figures. Through swooping, crashing, clamorous adventure sequences across all manner of terrain – deserts, villages, space stations, jungles, and tropical beaches – they fight. Reluctant rebel Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) joins a spy (Diego Luna), a comic-relief combat robot (Alan Tudyk), an Imperial defector (Riz Ahmed), and two monk-like warriors (legendary Chinese action stars Donnie Yen and Wen Jiang bringing fun choreography). Their mission: contact her father (Mads Mikkelsen), an unhappy Imperial scientist who knows how to take the Death Star down.

This leads to varied action beats, like an ambush in a far-flung marketplace, a mountainous recon mission in a downpour, and a dizzying dogfight above a gleaming citadel. Along the way we learn a little more about the Rebellion than the earlier films had time to explore, with different factions of the Alliance debating battle plans and how to deal with extremists (like an under-used Forest Whitaker) in their midst. This mirrors the Empire’s side, as a commander (Ben Mendelsohn) fights off the life-and-death office politics of battle-station life. The script, pieced together by four credited contributors (Chris Weitz, Tony Gilroy, Gary Whitta, and John Knoll) juggles the movie’s hard-charging tough-minded warfare with hit-and-miss cameos, fun one-liners, smart retcons, terse exposition, and shorthand emotion. That’s a lot of balls to keep in the air – and the strain sometimes shows, especially in the final product’s clearly tinkered dropped connections and foreshortened beats – but there’s fun to be had in the tactile look and crisp pace. There’s even a welcome commitment to feeling the losses, culminating in a staggering shot of good characters embracing certain doom knowing they’ve done all they could to win some small hope for their cause.

Although this is a side story, a spin-off, it’s identifiably Star Wars in its concern with family dramas writ large in galactic conflict and a sense of spirituality amidst tactics, plus gearhead love of spaceships taking off and landing and fantasy anthropologist appreciation of interesting creatures and beasties. (We get all the old familiar X-Wings and TIE Fighters and fish-heads and tentacle-haired beings, as well as slick new designs and goofy new aliens, like a massive Force-sensitive slug used as a lie-detector test.) Plus it has a key insight to style the cast like they’re actors from the 70’s – shaggy hair, groovy mustaches – playing the characters. Though cinematographer Greig Fraser shot gorgeous location photography and ILM filled it up with top-of-the-line digital fakery, it has the scuffed retro-future look of the original trilogy, like a modern re-creation of a 70’s vision. The much-ballyhooed lived-in universe aesthetic of Lucas’s original trilogy still draws visual appeal because it’s so densely designed. It proves there’s still a sense you could find a fascinating new story around every corner in every frame of this series. It also proves once more director Gareth Edwards (of 2014’s great Godzilla) is a master popcorn image-maker (despite many eye-popping shots featured in trailers ending up on the cutting room floor).

The movie works best when it has soaring spectacle clued into the enormity of its scale – a shuttle dwarfed by a planet behind it, the orbiting Death Star creating a solar eclipse, a city destroyed by laser-blast sending enormous shockwaves ripping up surrounding terrain in waves, and massive space structures colliding in the way everyone has played with the toys has dreamed about. But even in the moments when it’s merely workmanlike – or overworked franchise caretaking – it has some of the appeal the old Expanded Universe paperbacks did, varying in quality but consistently a drip, drip, drip of more, more, more for fans. It has all the bells and whistles, the immediately identifiable sound effects, music cues, and visual hallmarks of the series, even if it now has an over-polished committee’s recreation of what was once a singular personal pulp remix. The best thrills – a sensational final battle like something out of N64’s Rogue Squadron video game – feature dazzling effects and action better staged than Abrams’. It may still be imitation Lucas – or maybe imitation Kershner at this point – but it’s sturdy and entertaining nonetheless.
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