Review: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

•December 16, 2016 • Leave a Comment

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The ending to this story has been known for nearly forty years. Where can we find suspense in a narrative to which we already know the outcome? In some ways, the theft of the Death Star plans and the battle station’s eventual destruction are as pivotal a moment in the Star Wars narrative as Pearl Harbor was to America. The big picture facts of both events are plain and clear, but the individuals involved in those battles are the stories worth exploring. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story provides the franchise with an in the trenches account of the desperate mission, using an almost entirely fresh ensemble that does well enough to show how despair transforms into hope.

As the first of Lucasfilm’s stand alone Star Wars adventures, Rogue One throws us right into space, sans title crawl, with a prologue involving Imperial Director Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) arriving at the farming homestead of scientist Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen). Both men had once worked on the Death Star project together, and Krennic has been tasked to bring back Erso to do more scientific work for its completion. Knowing his family is in danger, Galen urges them to flee, but the situation quickly turns tragic. Erso’s little girl manages to escape, and is eventually rescued by family friend and Rebel extremist Saw Garrera (Forest Whitaker).

The film then jumps years later, and it begins setting up several of the key players who will eventually form the Rogue One team. We meet Captain Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), a Rebel intelligence officer and his reprogrammed Imperial droid, K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), who receive information concerning the whereabouts of Galen. The intel comes from a defecting Imperial pilot named Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), but he’s currently in the custody of Saw Garrera, whose relationship to the Rebel Alliance is tenuous at best. Cassian manages to track down Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), now an adult and deeply skeptical of the Rebel cause. With the influence of the Rebel leadership, Jyn realizes that finding Bodhi Rook could lead to her father, and in turn, provide the Alliance with the weakness to the Empire’s terrifying new weapon.

Structurally, Rogue One really rushes to establish itself and set up all of its characters in the first act, so much so that the flow of information can be difficult to follow. The opening prologue in particular has some striking visual moments in it, yet the editing is so haphazard that the emotional impact feels stunted. Some streamlining could have improved other expository scenes as well, as the film hops across at least four planets in the span of twenty minutes. Once the mission kicks into gear, however, the film settles into its own groove. As the crew grows in size and the stakes of their mission increase, the overly anxious pacing eventually translates into genuine urgency.

One of the biggest challenges of Rogue One is that its core ensemble is made up of brand new characters, all of whom must earn the investment of the audience. While there are an abundance of cameos, Rogue One does not have the luxury of leaning upon familiar characters. In this test, Rogue One mostly passes, in that many of the new characters are likable and well defined, but it only rarely lends itself to full emotional investment as the stakes grow. Jyn Erso is another strong independent woman in the tradition of Star Wars female protagonists, but Felicity Jones’ performance doesn’t fully click until about halfway through the film at a critical emotional juncture. While Mads Mikkelsen’s presence in the film is fairly minimal, he also carries the film’s most resonant line, one that spurs his daughter into action. Saw Garrera falls on the morally grey spectrum of characters whose justifications go beyond allegiance to any single party. Forest Whitaker is ideal for the role, and gives Garrera a crazed personality that has spawned from decades of battling oppression. Diego Luna does solid work as Cassian Andor, who must also wrestle with his own moral compass at times, and also confront Jyn in times of intense hardship. K-2SO is the clear element of comic relief in the film, and Alan Tudyk’s timing rivals some of the best one liners among the Star Wars films. Bodhi Rook is one of the most important components of the Rogue One crew, and Riz Ahmed imbues him with a nervous energy throughout, always cognizant of what the consequences might be of every decision he makes. On the planet of Jedha, the crew runs into two refugees who operate on opposite ends of the spiritual spectrum. Though he is not a Jedi, the blind warrior monk Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen) intuits the Force in combating his enemies, while his friend Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen) relies on his formidable artillery to do the talking. Rogue One touches somewhat on the idea of the Force existing beyond the familiar practices, yet it also resists investigating the other ways it might manifest itself. To round out the core cast, every group of Rebels needs a menacing foe, and at the start, Ben Mendelson’s Director Krennic fits the bill. His encounter with Galen at the film’s start oozes charisma and sliminess, but as the film progresses, Krennic finds himself at the mercy of his superiors.

Consider this paragraph a spoiler warning, as the discussion turns to the various cameos in the film. Several key members of the Rebel Alliance play minor supporting roles in Rogue One, and while their presence is brief, seeing faces like those of Mon Mothma and Bail Organa provide added weight to the proceedings, especially knowing the latter’s eventual fate. However, other cameos feel like full on fan service and are frankly unnecessary, particularly Jyn’s brief run in with the Mos Eisley cantina denizens who give Luke Skywalker a rough time in A New Hope. Perhaps even more controversial is the resurrection of two major players from that film. Indeed, thanks to advances in CGI and motion capture, ILM has managed to resurrect Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin. It’s an astonishing accomplishment, aside from the fact that the digital double’s mobility is looser than the original rigid and calculating performance by Cushing. Even more surreal is seeing a young Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia in a single shot, as she utters an inevitably obvious line to fully connect Rogue One to A New Hope. And of course, the Dark Lord of the Sith himself makes an appearance in the film. Yes, Darth Vader is as fearsome a figure as ever, and in his brief screen time, director Gareth Edwards makes the most of two opportunities that add to the mystique and terror of the greatest of all cinematic villains. And yet, the contexts of those scenes feel unnecessary for Rogue One, and to a lesser extent, perhaps excessive to Vader himself. His effect on the film threatens to steal the thunder of the story we should be following.

Director Gareth Edwards is no stranger to spectacle on screen, but Rogue One delivers some of the largest scale sequences that Star Wars has seen. The aforementioned planet hopping may be too erratic at times, but new worlds like Jedha and the tropical Imperial outpost of Scarif add to the size and dimension of the galaxy. With the influence of war films throughout, Rogue One is also one of the most action packed Star Wars films, changing from close quarters street combat, space battles, and ground assault. Some of these earlier action beats are harder to follow because of the prevalence of handheld photography and over reliance on editing, but the film’s third act is often outstanding in its execution. If there’s one major element that Rogue One seems to be lacking in, it is the score. Naturally, a new Star Wars film on an annual basis is far too much for John Williams to keep pace with, and Michael Giacchino is a highly capable composer, considering he was hired as a replacement only four months ago. Ultimately, the music rarely carries the story in the same way it does in other Star Wars films, engaging at best and perfunctory at worst.

Ultimately, a film like Rogue One demonstrates the trajectory for what Lucasfilm and Disney may want to do with their most valued franchise. Two films in, there’s been a delicate line balanced between taking risks, and falling back on reliable safety nets. Rogue One goes out on a limb with its characters’ trajectories and thematic investigations in the thorny relationships that build loyalty and unification, and yet it never quite arrives at moments that define Star Wars at its transcendent best. Nevertheless, what is most exciting about Lucasfilm in contrast to so many other franchise shepherds is that it is always in search of new and exciting filmmakers to put their own stamps on these stories. As long as these voices are continually welcomed into the fold, then this galaxy will always be worth exploring.

Review: Captain America: Civil War

•May 8, 2016 • Leave a Comment

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In this cinematic climate of ever escalating franchises, perhaps it’s best to evaluate these films as one would another variety of franchise: fast food. If the comparison seems unfair, it is simply a reflection of how these types of films have taken over the popular culture. Much like fast food, these films are meant for mass audiences and thus are consumed by them. Each new outing is about the equivalent of a new item on the menu. There may be some minor variations, but crowds will always return because they know what they like. Sure, in most cases, the films may be tasty and familiar, but is there any actual nutritional value? Marvel has mastered this form of branding better than any other active franchise. Indeed, their films are fairly entertaining, and more importantly to the studio, all of them have enjoyed financial success. Captain America: Civil War stays true to that brand, proficient and even rousing in spurts, but given the stakes such a title forbodes, it also manages to somehow be minimally consequential.

“Actions have consequences” is a well known phrase, but for a while, one could be mistaken for thinking that many of these superhero films left it out of their vernacular. Captain America: Civil War aims to dispel that notion, by taking that issue head on as its own thematic framework. After the past disastrous climaxes in previous Marvel films, the United Nations seeks to put the Avengers in check. An accord is put forth, in which the Avengers should answer to and take orders from the U.N. directly. Those who defy such safeguards will be prosecuted or forced into retirement. This puts the group at odds with itself. On one side is Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), who once dissolved his own weapons manufacturing when he witnessed its devastating collateral damage. As the bankroller for the Avengers, Stark takes personal responsibility for their collective actions. Steve Rodgers (Chris Evans), on the other hand, sees the Avengers as the best equipped to handle their unique missions, and sees the accords as limiting their ability to prevent worse catastrophes. With the reemergence of the Bucky Barnes, the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), lines are drawn between loyalty to friends and loyalty to nations, with conflict sure to follow.

There’s a bit of a strange dichotomy at work with Captain America: Civil War, which is that it is both Marvel’s most thematically compelling film to date, yet it takes safe and occasionally contrived paths in order to reach its conclusion. There’s a key antagonist played by Daniel Bruhl who chooses to expose the brainwashed flaws of Bucky Barnes to wreak havoc, but his motivations and objectives are half baked. A conflict stemming from within the Avengers themselves makes for richer drama rather than manipulation from a new third party. The head arguments between former comrades set the foundation for the sparks that fly later on in actual combat, but the ultimate resolution lacks any real impact or, if Marvel truly took a risk, trauma.

Given how large the cast is, it’s easy to see Civil War as Avengers 2.5 instead of a Captain America film, but it does a good job from being too overcrowded. The supporting characters’ sides in conflict essentially come down to their preexisting loyalty to either Iron Man or Captain America. The new additions here are welcome, even if their integration into the plot varies. Prince T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) brings a stoic honor to super heroism, and the third cinematic iteration of Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tom Holland) feels the most shoehorned, and yet he provides the most dazzle and wit to the entire affair.

When we see all of these heroes drop the gloves and brawl each other, the natural reaction is a fanboy’s wet dream. The action choreography in the German airport showdown is top notch, and the acrobatic camerawork keeps things comprehensible along multiple points of conflict. It’s a visually tremendous sequence, as are a couple of other action scenes, but there’s a lack of melancholy in seeing former allies duke it out. When those emotional cues finally do hit in the late stages of the film, they’re a product of an unfortunate plot contrivance. There’s still a good deal of fun and excitement to be had in Civil War, but as directors, the Russo Brothers seem to be operating at a more baseline proficiency level rather than risk anything major for their heroes. Of course, this is all in service of maintaining the brand for Marvel, which has touted long form storytelling, and has certainly delivered on spectacle, but is also too reliant on tried and true formulas. Sometimes a Big Mac is a Big Mac, and on some days that’s good enough.

Review: Everybody Wants Some!!

•April 3, 2016 • Leave a Comment

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After making one of the great high school films over two decades ago, perhaps it was only a matter of time before Richard Linklater would follow up on good vibes of Dazed and Confused and make a film about college. In the intervening years, it’s been rare to find filmmakers expand upon the proven formula of college films, dominated by lewd humor, gratuitous nudity, and all of the other expected tom foolery. Yes, these things exist in Everybody Wants Some!!, Linklater’s ode to the 80’s college experience, but they merely obligatory elements in a film otherwise rife with testosterone loaded competition and camaraderie, and the occasional philosophical nugget to ponder.

It’s three days before the start of the first semester, and Jake (Blake Jenner), has just pulled up to the baseball house that he’ll learn to call home presumably over the next four years. The rules of this house are simple but strict: no alcohol and no girls upstairs. Naturally, the anxious and rabble rousing residents pay no heed to these laws, for the next 72 hours are all about jamming in as much fun as possible. It’s evident that they’re all at the school for baseball rather than academics anyway. While most of his teammates are welcoming enough, some are also biased against Jake for being a pitcher, fostering some playful taunting. Jake himself is all about having good time, but he’s not a dumb jock, quietly hiding a more discerning persona under the athletic exterior, one that catches the eyes of one or two girls on campus.

If you’re going into Everybody Wants Some!! looking for a plot or college sports action, then know that Richard Linklater has no intention of conveying anything generic or expected. The film moves casually along at its own pace, driven by the energy of these young lads discovering the freedoms of their new, largely unsupervised lives. They throw crazy parties, get thrown out of bars, go dancing in three wildly different locales, and one up each other at every opportunity. The film’s perspective comes from the eye view of the post-adolescent male and all that it entails, so that’s where the obligatory raunchiness comes into play. It goes without saying that Linklater captures the college atmosphere to a tee, albeit one from three decades ago, bereft of the internet and cell phones with their electronic screens.

The cast is uniformly terrific throughout, even if at least half of them look too old to be college baseball players. Nevertheless, their rapport is instantly infectious, a testament to the casting and Linklater’s facile grasp of the interplay that happens in tightly knit groups, especially sports teams. What’s even more amazing is how Linklater rounds out identities for over ten different characters, refusing to conform to easy stereotypes. They’re all made up of contradictions and strange quirks, and Linklater celebrates them for those presumed flaws. Indeed, embracing one’s weirdness is one of the many little thematic gems Everybody Wants Some!! has to offer. Linklater’s trademark philosophizing is sprinkled throughout the film, with all sorts of various insights applicable to the scenes on hand, never obtrusive and always perceptive.

Richard Linklater has never been known to be a particularly cinematically fussy director, but Everybody Wants Some!! might be one of his most adventurous outings to date. Granted, he doesn’t go over the top with editing or photography, but he layers his shots more deeply, yielding a few long takes with multiple planes of action amongst his actors. It’s a subtle but highly impressive way of showing the boundaries expanding for these young men minute by minute. Of course, the soundtrack is jam packed with dozens of late 70’s and early 80’s staples, from the title stolen from Van Halen, to Blondie, Pat Benatar and Pattie Smith. Above all, there may be not be a more delightful scene this year than seeing the guys cruise around campus to “Rapper’s Delight.” It’s moments like these that so many filmmakers strive to emulate, and Linklater does it effortlessly. Indeed, as any pro athlete would attest, making it look easy is a telltale sign of someone who is clearly among the best at what they do.