Archive for December, 2016

jason_bourne_filmJason Bourne (2016)

Starring- Matt Damon, Tommy Lee Jones, Alicia Vikander, Vincent Cassel, Julia Stiles, Riz Ahmed, Ato Essandoh, Scott Shepherd, Bill Camp

Director- Paul Greengrass

PG-13- intense sequences of violence and action, and brief strong language

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F4gJsKZvqE4

Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) comes out of hiding when a CIA hack turns up information that may shed further light on his past.

I might not be the guy to ask, since I thought the Bourne series started to run out of story to tell a while ago — once an amnesiac learns that his lost memories are hiding a past as a soulless, amoral government killing machine, every other mystery to be solved is going to feel like a step down in overall significance; in my opinion, Supremacy and, to a lesser extent, Ultimatum only skated past because of the way they humanized their conflicts. In any case, there seems to be fairly widespread agreement that there wasn’t much story left after The Bourne Ultimatum, and that’s exactly the movie we got with Jason Bourne.

It’s a significant step up from The Bourne Legacy, a movie most people I talk to (including myself, for a while) completely forgot existed, but that isn’t the highest bar. For the most part, Jason Bourne is fine (oh, look, there’s that word again); it just has absolutely no reason for being, and even with talents like Paul Greengrass behind the camera, it fails to make anything it shows you feel important.

By the beginning of this movie, technically the fifth in the series though I expect fandom to immediately incorporate it as the fourth, Jason Bourne already more or less knows the whys and hows behind his past. There just isn’t much to solve. And not only is its latest mystery uninteresting in the grand scheme of things, the movie barely bothers to make it difficult to solve. In short, longtime ally Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) digs up classified information suggesting that Bourne’s late father, who died in an apparent terrorist attack, was more heavily involved in the formation of Treadstone than he previously was led to believe. Your first guess about the truth of the situation is probably the correct one; you’re thinking too hard about it if it isn’t. There’s a pretty limited number of steps in discovering it, too, so that plotline runs out of steam pretty quickly. And it has no effect whatsoever on what we already know about Bourne’s past — Treadstone was shady, and its leaders were ruthless monsters. Jason Bourne just introduces us to another entry on a long list of the specific ways in which they were ruthless monsters. It adds nothing to the series’ universe.

So the movie starts to pursue two other storylines — a typical “revenge is bad” plot centered on Bourne and a half-hearted critique of the surveillance state centered on the other characters. The two ideas barely touch one another; the second requires the movie to introduce a whole new set of characters who never meet Bourne and have next to no impact on his needs and motivations, simply occupying space in the plot solely to set up a climax that isn’t coming for another 90 minutes (it’s also another surveillance state movie that simply takes for granted that mass surveillance is a bad thing rather than exploring why it is, which I suspect is something movies made on this subject will need to start doing in the very near future). And the first flounders because it’s just too basic — it’s the storyline all action movies adopt when they aren’t sure what their storyline is (and, with equal typicality, Jason Bourne cheats on this theme to ensure that the hero technically learns something without having to deal with the potential consequences of that growth). It’s basically functional, to be fair, but repetitive nonetheless — Jason Bourne is a continuous two-hour stream of the main character staging elaborate distractions in public spaces so he can meet with a nervous informant while the CIA runs complicated counter-operations in an attempt to catch him and people on headsets look concerned. And because the plot’s twists and turns are so easy to predict, these sequences do very little to advance things; in fact, they seem calculated to give Bourne as little information as they can manage so they’ll still have a feature-length film on their hands.

Still, the movie has a few saving graces that nearly save it. Paul Greengrass directs with a conviction the movie otherwise lacks and almost manages to sell you on the importance of what you’re seeing. While I still wish he would hold his camera still once in a while and give viewers’ brains a moment to process what’s on-screen before cutting to the next shot, he stages some of the series’ biggest and most impressive action set-pieces in this installment, a motorcycle chase through the middle of a riot being a particular highlight. Matt Damon, as is the norm for him, has equal conviction in his action hero charisma and once again is thoroughly convincing as a cold but fractured former government killer.

Tommy Lee Jones is the real standout, though, as the CIA director and Jason Bourne villain-of-the-hour. With a sharper script, he might’ve been the series’ best antagonist to date. He doesn’t get to do anything all that interesting, but he makes the most of what’s there. He plays the part with the typical ruthlessness of government agents in a Bourne movie, but Jones injects unusual humanity into it. His character is willing to do whatever it takes and believes he’s doing it solely for the good of his country, but Jones makes him controlling and egotistical enough that you can tell he doesn’t quite know where the line is. If you’re a threat to his country, real or perceived, he’ll have you killed, and if you piss him off, he’ll convince himself you’re a threat to his country and then have you killed. His violence increases as he feels his grip on a situation slipping, regardless of whether that violence is actually required. He can’t tell where one begins and the other ends and lacks the introspection to recognize that his assessment of his nation’s problems is inherently flawed.

Alicia Vikander’s character might be similarly interesting if the movie didn’t completely bury her intentions for no reason — it isn’t even budgeting them for a big reveal; it just plain never tells you what game she’s playing and why. It seems as though it may be saving her for further sequels, to which I am sternly opposed.

Jason Bourne isn’t quite a bad movie, and it may have some appeal to fans desperate for something to salve the wounds of The Bourne Legacy. It isn’t quite a good one either, and that’s where it lost me. It seems to exist purely out of a sense of obligation to make up for its predecessor’s sins, and part of me thinks its reputation would be considerably worse had it been the actual fourth installment in the series. Ultimately, even if it isn’t nearly as bad as The Bourne Legacy, I suspect it will last roughly as long in culture’s collective memory. Twenty years from now, we may well still refer to the Jason Bourne series as a trilogy.

fences_filmFences (2016)

Starring- Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Jovan Adepo, Russell Hornsby, Mykelti Williamson

Director- Denzel Washington

PG-13- thematic elements, language and some suggestive references

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4IYt8A2vu7Y

In the 1950s, Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington), a garbageman who might have been a professional baseball player had he not come along before the age of Jackie Robinson, navigates complex family ties in a changing world.

When you grow up in the middle of nowhere as I did, you learn to live without much of an interest in theatre. There’s really no way to experience it often enough to cultivate a passion for it; at best, it’s something you do two or three times over the course of your life when you’re on vacation. So I went into Fences knowing nothing of its source material, and in the days since, I’ve only reached an approximate and completely theoretical understanding of it. I really can’t give you a blow-by-blow comparison between the two.

But even so, I’ve seen some theatre over the course of my life, nowhere near enough to become a critic but a sufficient amount to recognize that Fences probably worked better in that format, at least as presented. It’s a decent movie that strikes me as a much better play. On the big screen, as presented, it loses too much of the vitality it surely had live.

I assume it’s an extremely faithful adaptation. The only screenwriting credit is reserved for the original playwright, August Wilson, who died in 2005. Denzel Washington and Viola Davis were involved in a series of revival performances several years ago, and I understand getting it on the screen has been Washington’s passion project for a while now. But as a movie, it feels more like an act of cultural preservation than a means of telling a familiar story in a different way, more the actors committing the show to film so it will last in the public record than trying to expand upon its ideas. It isn’t so much an adaptation as a direct transplantation of the play to the big screen, resulting in a movie that’s always telling its story in another medium entirely, without accounting for the unique strengths and weaknesses of each format.

Fences is too stagey, in other words, and it never fully overcomes its self-imposed limitations. It isn’t inherently a problem that almost the entire movie takes place in its protagonist’s backyard; plenty of movies have worked wonders with a contained setting. The issue is that the movie’s borders don’t feel like a narrative decision; they feel like unnecessary carryover from the stage version, which, because of its medium, could only be so adventurous in terms of sets. The movie doesn’t take place almost entirely in one location because one location is all it needs; it takes place entirely in one location because its previous incarnation didn’t have access to much more. Told this way, Fences feels strangled, as though it desperately wants to wander outside its walls and explore other things but won’t allow itself to. It leaves the story and characters feeling strangely practiced and routine — “Something important just happened; everybody gather in Troy’s backyard for no reason and talk about it!”

This isn’t a significant problem on its own, but the effect it has on the story is. This is a constricted narrative that seems to take place entirely in the space between the most interesting beats. Fences is a movie seemingly constructed from other movies’ deleted scenes — the exposition between the big moments that gets cut for being inessential and screwing with the story’s rhythm. Off-screen, the characters make important decisions, have dramatic experiences, and develop as people; on-screen, they gather in the backyard and talk about it. It’s a story in which people tell you stories that you never actually see, even though movies can go places and show their audiences things that stage plays cannot.

It doesn’t help that Washington directs it like theatre as well. The actors test the boundaries of the sets in much the same way they would encroach upon the edges of the stage; they move as though they’re operating within the same physical limits. You can see where “exit, stage left” might have appeared in the script. The performances, too, come across stereotypically theatrical; they’re projecting to the back seats, going large because theatre isn’t a great place for subtlety. The difference is that there’s a camera and a screen between them and the audience, so it often feels as though the performances are pitched to viewers who aren’t there. And it’s weird because there’s so much greatness in them. I don’t know that I’ve ever enjoyed a Denzel Washington performance the way I enjoyed this one — here, he takes his sharp edge and drains it of most of his trademark charisma, convincingly filling the shoes of a miserable drunk whose best days are all behind him. He imbues the role with the complexity the script demands — fundamentally, it’s a movie about a dysfunctional family, but it’s one that examines the complicated impact of factors like race and class upon such a situation, and Washington appropriately plays Troy as a volatile mixture of flaws and virtues, usually a man doing the wrong thing for the right reasons, sometimes a man lapsing into just plain doing the wrong thing, and always a man who considers himself justified in its own mind. It’s a great performance — it’s just more a great theatre performance than a great movie performance. Washington still plays it large, works the “stage,” and plays to an audience that isn’t there. The other cast members vary — some match Washington’s approach, while others rein their performances in for something more appropriately intimate, chiefly Davis (who, contrary to what the trailers would have you believe, doesn’t spend the entire movie in a state of emotional meltdown).

I’m told Fences is a great play, and I believe it. As a movie, it has an embarrassment of riches in sharp, meaty dialogue and interesting thematics, as well as a universally great cast, regardless of the strange relationship its members have with the medium in which they’re working. It just hasn’t made the transition from the stage to the cinema. If its only function is to allow people like me, who don’t have access to a thriving theatre scene, to experience it, that alone is worth the price of admission. What’s been done here is essentially to film the play and distribute it to a wider audience. There’s value in that, and I’m glad I saw it. It just doesn’t have the staying power it needs; it’s too constricted, desperate to burst from the screen but unwilling to.

little_men_2016_filmLittle Men (2016)

Starring- Theo Taplitz, Michael Barbieri, Greg Kinnear, Jennifer Ehle, Paulina Garcia, Alfred Molina, Talia Balsam

Director- Ira Sachs

PG- thematic elements, smoking and some language

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gt27uI1z-i0

Two preteen boys in Brooklyn find their friendship threatened when conflict brews between their parents.

Little Men is a little movie, and that’s all right with me. I run into movies like it every now and then; the last time, or at least the most memorable time, was with This Is Martin Bonnerin 2013 — brisk, unpretentious films that live in the smallness of everyday, ordinary people with everyday, ordinary problems. They aren’t made to light the box office on fire, to win awards, to earn accolades, or to be anybody’s favorite movie of the year. They’re made to capture times and places and what they feel like. They fit snugly into the margins between their years’ bigger, flashier films, filling in the parts of the human experience that fly beneath their radars.

Little Men is the sort of movie I may well never watch again and yet feel considerably enriched by. It understands fairly universal experiences and communicates them with intelligence and insight; it makes you feel connected, a part of something bigger in the saga of the human race.

It isn’t really about a story, or a character, or even an idea; it’s filmmaking as a state of being, a naturalistic slice of life designed only to remind us of our history and our shared humanity, and to evoke emotions we’ve forgotten we had.

Little Men is about our childhood friendships, the social connections that mattered so much to us then and yet are forgotten now. It’s about that friend you spent almost all of your time with who could be dead today for all you know. It’s about those passing moments we didn’t realize were making us who we are today. It’s about our need to matter, to be heard, to make it, to thrive in our own skin.

Ira Sachs’ gift is in using those small, forgettable moments to hint at bigger concepts without allowing them to overwhelm the intimacy of the stories he’s telling. Little Men exists entirely in the moment but leaves you with plenty of intellectual threads to chase into larger, more esoteric ideas on your own time. He keeps things deceptively low-key and low-stakes throughout, content to charm you with his cast and his nostalgic depiction of the experiences we all share, but he can turn up the dial in a hurry and without warning. The movie seems light and freeform initially, but he’s subtly using all that time to fully earn the big payoff he knows is coming. As a result, Little Men is a movie that keeps you calm and happy until it abruptly drives a wrecking ball into your heart. It plays with emotion in a way that few movies do, drawing rich feeling from moments that seem insignificant and delivering it with ten times the force of a weepy Oscar drama.

I can also think of few filmmakers able to capture the ebb and flow of real life as Sachs does here. Usually, you have to pick one another — make it feel like reality, or move it just far enough afield to accommodate the narrative and character arcs that define a traditional story. Sachs manages to have it both ways; he tells his story subtly and manages to bury it beneath dialogue, performances, and scene flow that effectively approximate the conversations and experiences we have every day. Little Men feels simultaneously incomplete and emotionally satisfying. Real life doesn’t tie a neat ribbon on the things that happen to us. They don’t end as we like, and we don’t always get the closure we need. Mysteries remain mysteries, losses stay lost, gains don’t always satisfy as we hoped they would. So it is with Little Men — it’s a realistic piece of an ordinary life, so it doesn’t so much end as stop. But Sachs is the rare filmmaker who can pull that off. He leaves a bunch of infuriating threads dangling just out of reach but somehow brings the important things full circle. As incomplete as it is, you leave feeling as though you’ve been somewhere worthwhile.

And that’s all it means to do. Little Men isn’t designed to change your life or reorder your all-time favorites list. It’s here only to remind us that there’s value in stillness, meaning in simplicity, and emotion in the insignificant. It doesn’t seem to be about much of anything at all, but in its own way, it’s really about everything. Many other movies will leave more of an impression this year, but few will accomplish their purpose as humbly, as beautifully, or as thoroughly as Little Men.

barry_2016_filmBarry (2016)

Starring- Devon Terrell, Anya Taylor-Joy, Jason Mitchell, Ellar Coltrane, Jenna Elfman, Linus Roache, Avi Nash, John Benjamin Hickey, Ashley Judd

Director- Vikram Gandhi

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i6qlPeS1kGY

A young Barack Obama (Devon Terrell) deals with questions of identity as he begins school at Columbia University.

Neither of our dueling Obama in College movies have gone out of their way to deify their subject — Barry especially so — and that rates among their best features. It wasn’t enough, in my estimation, to save Southside with You, but it is enough to make Barry an engaging and largely worthwhile biopic — albeit not quite the great Obama movie society is waiting for.

Barry takes the same limited approach as Southside with You, focusing only on a slice of the man’s life — significantly more than a single day, of course, but probably not longer than several months. But I think it’s much better as a biopic because it tries to tap into experiences that more plausibly explain who made the nation’s first black president the person that he is. And it does that despite the fact that it largely retreats from politics, even more so than the already somewhat apolitical Southside with You (which featured the Obamas’ politics but presented them as character details more than central themes to be explored). Barry is about the man; it sees his day-to-day experiences as informing his politics rather than the other way around and devotes almost all of its focus to the former. Really, the movie is almost entirely apolitical (though it’s likely to be perceived otherwise in some cases, since “whether racism exists” has inexplicably become a political position).

That the movie manages to gain as much functional insight into its protagonist as it does is doubly impressive, given that the fact that he’s Barack Obama has almost no bearing whatsoever upon it. For most of the movie, characters simply refer to him as Barry; there’s only one scene I can recall, near the end, where someone refers to him as Barack. An audience member who doesn’t know the details of Barack Obama’s childhood and parentage could plausibly make it almost the entire way through the movie without realizing it’s about the current president of the United States. It isn’t focused on the historical record, trying to capture important things that happened to Obama at this age. Instead, it takes the general concept of his experiences as he has described them and crafts what is, to my knowledge, a mostly fictional film around them, one that gets at the spiritual truth of his young adulthood without delving into the literal truth.

As such, Barry is a film that’s more about the state of being biracial than the history-making future president. That grounding allows it to focus on the present rather than the future; Barry isn’t trying to imbue a prophetic sense of import to any of the things it depicts. It’s primarily a story about a guy who belongs to two worlds, or perhaps neither, wrestling with who he is and where he fits; that said guy is Barack Obama is secondary.

And despite some occasional clumsiness in execution — the movie does its best to tell its story with subtlety but struggles to externalize its protagonist’s inner turmoil, resulting in a few too many scenes where non-specific events lead to a few minutes of Devon Terrell ambling around in non-specific meditation — it emerges with enough insight to compel and to make its questions relatable. I love the way it tackles the situations that weigh heavily on Barry’s soul — quietly, and in a way that shows how the mere fact of being an outsider can act as its own form of oppression. The movie could easily have been a parade of overt racism, or of Barry being treated horribly by peers of both races, but there’s very little of that; when such scenes appear, they’re presented as either catalysts or the final straw, the things that leave him questioning a part of his identity or the culmination of questions he was already asking. That’s the thing about feeling like an outcast — it’s a sense you carry around with you even when no one is treating you badly; after one too many bad experiences, you approach the ordinary, everyday facts of life with caution and reserve; you’re careful how you present yourself and slip in and out of identities depending on the people you’re interacting with. Being an outcast, in short, isn’t being denied a seat at the table; it’s sitting at a table of people who are being themselves and knowing you can’t fully do the same.

It’s a fairly universal experience, albeit to different degrees in each person; the specifics of Barry’s situation are rooted in race. Upbringing, too — a kid with a mother from Kansas and a father from Kenya who didn’t really know the latter and split his childhood between Indonesia and Honolulu. He’s half-black, and that’s the half that has negative encounters with campus police officers and has to disturb the peace a little bit in the interest of representing his race during in-class discussions with almost exclusively white contemporaries. And he’s half-white, which creates tension with the radical fringes of racial activism, and his upbringing partially divorces him from what might be called the prototypical black experience. He’s caught between two worlds that he only somewhat understands but is constantly called upon to represent depending on the company he keeps. He is neither fully embraced nor fully rejected; wherever he goes, he can’t help but feeling like a curiosity — an observer, rather than a participant. The movie takes a while to reach the point where it conveys this in all its complexity, but once it does, it becomes a fascinating experience.

Its flaws are more in the execution, narrative rather than thematic. It has a talented supporting cast it seems largely unsure what to do with (I feel as though I was supposed to read something important into his roommate choosing to leave when a suite on-campus opens, but I have no idea what that was supposed to be), and I’m not completely sold on Devon Terrell in the lead role; something about the performance feels blank. I think there are a few minor senses in which the writing doesn’t help, but his take on the character ends up more a state of being than a full character. The way the supporting cast responds to him is occasionally strange as well; in one scene, a friend imitates him mockingly and ends up basically doing a comedy impression of President Barack Obama that has nothing in common with the way Terrell is playing the part. Its most significant problem, in my estimation, is its tendency toward cliche; it’s an indie biopic in just about every sense of the word and isn’t particularly concerned with carving out a niche for itself. What makes it worse is that the movie seems to be aware that some of these scenes are cliched but can’t figure out how to tell the story; as such, those scenes come across cheesy and anxiously waiting to accomplish their purpose so the awkwardness will stop. “Black character in college-campus racial issues indie drama argues with angry white Reaganite kid who thinks racism is over” is a scene I could go the rest of my life without seeing again, unless someone comes up with an interesting, nuanced, and fresh way to go about it.

But as this sort of thing goes, Barry is pretty good. It largely avoids the maudlin tendencies of similar films, it’s patient enough to successfully play a long game, and it’s clear in its goals and intelligent in its pursuit of them. I suspect the definitive Barack Obama movie has yet to be made and probably won’t be for a great many years, but Barry holds the position just fine for now.

magnificent_seven_2016The Magnificent Seven (2016)

Starring- Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, Byung-hun Lee, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Martin Sensmeier, Haley Bennett, Peter Sarsgaard

Director- Antoine Fuqua

PG-13- extended and intense sequences of Western violence, historical smoking, some language and suggestive material

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q-RBA0xoaWU

Peaceful villagers hire seven guns when the gold in their mountains catches the attention of a murderous robber baron and his thugs.

Hot take: A Bug’s Life remains the best American remake of Seven Samurai.

I’m not particularly fond of the original Magnificent Seven for largely the same reasons I’m not particularly fond of its remake. I always felt that it compressed the more patient and character-driven Seven Samurai and took all the soul out of it; since the latest adaptation doesn’t restore any of it, I’m left in largely the same place. Both movies have merit, but neither of them stand out enough to earn my praise.

It’s a remake that doesn’t enslave itself to the original; for example, the members of the seven are completely different characters than the original roster. It is very faithful to the original’s plot structure, however, and that may be where it goes awry in exactly the same way as its predecessor. It really only has three essential beats — gather the seven, train the locals, proceed to final battle — and struggles to make the steps along the way vital and engaging.

Seven Samurai was an original idea. It featured seven samurai because that was the number Akira Kurosawa thought the story needed. When Hollywood decided to remake it as a western, they decided to feature seven heroes because, well, seven is in the title. Most of those characters ended up being pointless; they had little to no personality and little to no role in the story other than existing and occasionally throwing in a line of dialogue. Because they weren’t developed as people, there were no interesting relationships between them; they didn’t play off one another the way the heroes in a team-up movie need to. That problem repeats itself in the latest remake.

Plot-wise, the number of them is completely arbitrary. Most of them don’t do anything important. Everyone other than Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, and Ethan Hawke just about disappears out of the movie in between their introduction and the climax; they appear now and then to remind you they exist but have no real purpose overall. None of them are interesting, or even entertaining; they’re either sarcastic western badasses or stoic, silent western badasses (or Vincent D’Onofrio, who’s just…weird? There isn’t really a character or a personality, just a strange and annoying voice and quirky mannerisms). Their motivations are thinly sketched, if they are sketched at all; the first half hour of the movie consists of nothing but variations on:

“Hey, cool guy who uses guns/knives/other specialty weapon very well, would you like to join us on our probable suicide mission for next to no money?”

“Not really, but” — sighs, stares into middle distance for a bit — “fine, I’ll come.”

And that’s a shame, because this is a great cast of characters on paper. The original seven were a collection of white men with fairly standard western movie backgrounds — lawman, noble outlaw, bounty hunter, cowboy, etc. Not only is this new seven more racially diverse, it’s more diverse in its characters’ history and place in the world — a black Union soldier and a white Confederate soldier who became lifelong friends after the former saved the latter’s life, a hard-edged Mexican outlaw, a Comanche warrior, whatever the heck Vincent D’Onofrio’s bizarre wild-man is supposed to be. This is a disparate group that should have really interesting dynamics, but for the most part, the movie ignores or fails to notice every novel personality trait that bubbles to the surface and ought to change how the characters understand and relate to one another. The group has an excellent metaphorical dimension, too — this is a very much a modern version of the story, one that sees a band of minorities and outcasts coming together to battle a rich man building his fortune on the backs of innocent villagers whose water he’s poisoned and whose labor he exploits. The story of the West is, in a lot of ways, the story of how America was built, and The Magnificent Seven has a direct line to the modern world. It invites everyone into the story, and I appreciate that — if only it developed that theme as something other than window dressing. The themes it actually builds into the story are less worthy of celebration — a glorification of violent revenge as an instrument of righteousness.

Most of the plot feels like padding anyway. The movie is really, really excited to get to the big final battle it has planned and seems to view everything else as the necessary evil that must be indulged in order to get there rather than important, engaging storytelling. The good news is that the climax is an absolute stunner — geographical, well-paced even though it suffers from a bad case of “you should probably lead with the gigantic gun next time,” high-stakes, and huge, one of the best large-scale western battles ever staged. It was almost good enough to make me write a positive review of the movie in general. And the bad news, of course, is that the rest of the movie feels like an act of reluctant obligation and bores viewers as much as it appears to bore itself. There’s the climax and the lead-up to the climax; those are the only parts of the movie where the scenes feel like necessary elements of the story that are building toward something.

I worry this review is reading a bit too negative. I didn’t hate The Magnificent Seven. I might prefer it to the original, which I know isn’t saying much; still, I at least give it credit for attaching a few interesting ideas to the premise, even though it doesn’t do much with them. I can’t really recommend it overall; the plot and characters offer very little that’s new or memorable, and its virtues tend to exist largely outside of them — window dressing, like I said. It’s almost worth watching for the stellar final battle alone, but it sure is a hard slog getting there.

rogue_one_a_star_wars_story_posterRogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)

Starring- Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Alan Tudyk, Donnie Yen, Wen Jiang, Ben Mendelsohn, Forest Whitaker, Riz Ahmed, Mads Mikkelsen, Jimmy Smits, Alistair Petrie, Genevieve O’Reilly, Ben Daniels, Paul Kasey, Stephen Stanton, James Earl Jones

Director- Gareth Edwards

PG-13- extended sequences of sci-fi violence and action

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sC9abcLLQpI

Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) has been on her own ever since the Empire took her scientist father (Mads Mikkelsen) away. One day, the Rebellion comes for her with a problem — a former ally, Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) excommunicated from the Rebellion because of his extremism, is rumored to have intelligence regarding a new Imperial superweapon. Saw raised Jyn after her father was taken, and the Rebellion believes she’s the only one who might be able to talk him into sharing what he knows. Reluctantly, she agrees and sets off for Saw’s hideout with a team that, unbeknownst to them, is about to become the only thing standing between the galaxy and the Empire’s fearsome new weapon — the Death Star.

I started moderating my expectations for Rogue One a while ago. It wasn’t that there were reshoots (they happen so much more often than people think they do); it was the specific things I was hearing about the reshoots from film journalists who I generally find to be trustworthy and well-sourced. I heard that Disney was dissatisfied with the finished product and didn’t think it worked too many times to think it a coincidence. And in my experience, it’s pretty rare that quality-driven reshoots result in anything other than a perfectly okay piece of corporate entertainment.

Rogue One half met those expectations and half exceeded them. It does feel like a movie that didn’t work at first and was touched up after the fact — the script is jumpy and kind of a mess but also seeded with interesting ideas and depth that seem to have been transplanted from another. It’s functional, it has its ducks in a row, it still isn’t great and needs some work. Where it pleasantly surprised me is that it still manages to feel like a film with a singular vision that wasn’t too badly hacked to death by studio execs trying to twist it into a certain tone or formula. There were a lot of rumors that Disney went after this movie for being too dark, but having seen the movie, I suspect that happened only minimally, if it all. It feels as though the core of the movie Gareth Edwards wanted to make is intact.

I’ll start with what’s great: Rogue One is, by a country mile, the best-looking Star Wars movie ever made. It really isn’t even close. Edwards’ last film, his Godzilla adaptation, proved he had visual chops; what it left somewhat unclear was whether he knew how best to employ them — in a rare move for a Hollywood blockbuster, he perhaps exercised too muchrestraint, giving us a Godzilla movie with maybe 15 minutes of Godzilla in it. In Rogue One, he finds the balance that film needed and proves he’s a force to be reckoned with behind the camera. It’s neither too quiet nor too loud; he gets in plenty of the spectacle he sometimes seemed to be itching for in Godzilla, but he also finds an abundance of visual splendor in the small, quiet moments. There really isn’t a single scene here that doesn’t feel perfectly calculated. Rogue One manages to run the gamut from one of the most thrilling space battles ever committed to film (seriously, that scene is going to be the new gold standard for that sort of thing), among plenty of other thoroughly excellent action sequences, to the kind of restrained but striking imagery George Lucas was able to capture in his best moments. He goes for (and accomplishes) the multi-pronged climax of Return of the Jedi while keeping his eyes open for memorable images along the lines of A New Hope’s twin suns.

The most exciting thing he does, for me personally, is make the Empire scary again — perhaps scarier than they’ve ever been. This is the Empire of The Empire Strikes Back and then some. This is an almost entirely visual achievement; the script helps but can’t do the heavy lifting on its own. Edwards gives the Empire and its iconography real weight and presence; the familiar ships and characters we’ve known for decades here are rendered as symbols of doom that immediately darken every scene. We’ve only ever seen the Death Star destroy a planet from afar; Edwards takes us to the ground level and slowly works us to the point that the mere sight of the Death Star looming on the horizon is enough to put your heart in your throat. And what he does with Darth Vader is even better. The character is only in two scenes, to my memory, and it only takes Edwards one of them to successfully restore all the dignity the prequels stole from him — this Vader is dangerous, an unstoppable demon you can only hope to outrun.

In general, I like the effect that Rogue One has on the rest of the series, and that’s maybe what pushes it from okay to good in my estimation. It’s actually a pretty decent prequel — what it adds to the story deepens it, it doesn’t over-explain silly things no one actually wanted to know about, and it mostly doesn’t conflict with established canon (the means by which Leia comes into possession of the Death Star plans at the beginning of A New Hope is kind of fuzzy now, in a way that theoretically can be explained but not very convincingly; either way, there’s nothing here like Anakin having built C-3PO or the mother Leia remembers dying while giving birth to her). The next time I watch A New Hope, I expect knowing what transpired just before the film opens will lend more power to the mission on which we meet Leia. That’s the effect any prequel should have on the series to which it belongs.

And now I’ll part ways with what appears to be the critical consensus: I actually really liked the majority of these characters, and that got me through a lot of the movie’s rough patches. I can’t know for sure, but I suspect this is where the reshoots stepped in and improved things. A lot of people are describing Rogue One’s characters as mostly personality-free, but I disagree: They have personalities, they’re just more subtly expressed, in keeping with the filmmakers’ stated desire to ground the tone and make something more akin to a war movie than a slam-bang sci-fi adventure. Jyn interested me as a protagonist; she’s not what I expected — headstrong, independent, yes, but also, for most of the movie, not explicitly heroic. She’s a neutral party in the war, just a petty criminal trying to get by under the totalitarian thumb of the Empire. She’s very much “not in it for your revolution”; she’s here solely for the chance at getting her father back. Other elements of the cast similarly express the heightened moral ambiguity the movie’s aiming for — rebel officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) is introduced killing a guy in cold blood and acts as the movie’s most consistent voice for doing whatever the characters deem necessary to succeed. His sidekick, K-2SO (voice of Alan Tudyk), a reprogrammed Imperial droid, just feeds that, being somewhat cold and unfeeling and pretty cavalier about violence (he’s also a total show-stealer — you can never quite tell whether he’s deliberately targeting sarcastic barbs at the other characters or if he is legitimately unable to filter his thoughts and has no idea how he comes off, and the movie’s ability to stay in that middle ground makes him consistently hilarious).

The other members of the main team fill in the edges nicely. Riz Ahmed, who is among the lesser-known actors I champion to the best of my ability, is predictably excellent as Bodhi Rook, the Imperial defector who brings the Death Star plans to Saw. He brings a sense of exhaustion to the role, playing Bodhi as a guy who’s seen and done far too much before the movie even begins and desperately needs an ounce of peace in his life. As Chirrut Imwe, a former guardian of the temples on Jedha, where both Saw and the Imperials have made their home, Donnie Yen is basically Ip Man in Space, but there’s a reason that movie managed to do so well internationally. He’s the sagely mystic who may or may not have drunk his own Kool-Aid. His best friend and constant fixture Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang) is more than happy to remind him of that — he’s loyal but figures it’s all mumbo-jumbo, basically the grumpy but strangely lovable older brother of the team.

I’m even coming around on the new villain, Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), the director of the Death Star project. I found him boring and a bit of a non-presence at first, but in retrospect, I think that’s part of the point. The larger specter of the Empire is the real threat here; Krennic is just a pawn in their scheme. Fundamentally, he’s a medium-rank Imperial officer having a really bad week, brought about mainly by the incompetence of his underlings and his own ambitions. In light of what’s backing him, I like that — the threat isn’t any one person but what they’re capable of collectively.

In short, they’re generally archetypes, but they’re functional ones. But now I have to address the bad — because the biggest flaw, in my estimation, is related. The characters have a solid foundation, but their development is really scattershot. This is the main reason I think the reshoots centered mainly on making them connect — they went back to add the necessary personality but could only do so much to change the shape of the narrative to the point that the character arcs would land. I think the only one that comes close to working is Bodhi, and that’s mainly because of how hard Ahmed kills it in the role. Jyn maybe, and for the same reason. Despite their likability, the movie never really comes up with a purpose of Baze and Chirrut — they attach themselves to the plot and spend the rest of the movie just kind of being there. The movie never forgets about or sidelines them but also devotes a lot of focus to them considering that they have no material impact on the plot. K-2SO is in a similar place — he’s funny and memorable, but he has no real reason to be there to the extent that he actually affects the plot and characters. Cassian crashes the hardest; his arc involves the most substantial change of any character and is never justified. There’s a scene in the beginning that establishes who he is, a scene in the middle that demonstrates he’s begun to doubt that, a scene at the end showing who he’s become, and absolutely no connective tissue between them. It’s an entirely plot-mandated arc that never carries any emotional weight.

The story more generally seems to have emerged as a series of largely arbitrary ideas that someone tried desperately — and only partially successfully — to unify after the fact. The first third of the movie needs a serious story edit at the very least; the movie opens and immediately begins jumping around between three or four different subplots with no real rhyme or reason. Some of the scenes are mere seconds long; the movie’s so determined to set everything in motion that it barely completes a thought before all of the characters are together, at which point it becomes much more compelling and efficient. Partly because that’s when the stakes become real as well. Truthfully, I’m not sure why it’s important that Saw exists, that he raised Jyn, that his methods are extreme (something that’s more stated than shown as well), that the Rebellion has to get the information from him — it affects very little in the rest of the movie. Since there’s no followable character development on the side, everything that happens on Jedha feels like padding — the characters are given intelligence that someone else has intelligence and must then go get that intelligence so the actual story can begin. In the long run, it’s easy to forget any of it ever happened.

Despite its admirable commitment to some of its riskier choices, the movie also has a bit of a tone problem. Like I said, it was described during production as the Star Wars version of a war movie, and in a lot of respects, that’s exactly how it feels — the characters are more grounded, the tone is more somber, and the action sequences are direct and in-your-face with violence that’s somewhat more brutal than the Star Wars norm. All of that is fine. The problem is that the movie marries this new tone to a script that’s still pretty standard Star Wars, if just a touch more serious, which is to say that it frequently goes for the same sense of triumph, excitement, and boyish adventure as the original trilogy. But when the violence is so much more felt, the disconnect becomes jarring. There were times, particularly during the climax, when I just wasn’t quite sure what to feel.

Last major criticism — Rogue One is a very solid prequel, but it fails to resist the temptation all such movies face to constantly poke you in the ribs like “hey, look at all this familiar Star Wars stuff that you remember from other movies you like.” This movie is much too heavy on the Easter eggs; it devotes so much overt attention to its references that non-diehards will wonder why the camera is focusing on this one weird thing that has nothing to do with what’s going on more than once. The cameos are the worst; the movie runs up to literal hours before the opening of A New Hope, and it makes sure to feature everyone it reasonably can, and a few it can’t. Some of those cameos are understandable. Bail Organa (Jimmy Smits) is implied throughout all of the movies to have had a major hand in the founding of the Rebellion, so it makes sense that he’s hanging out and contributing to the leaders’ decisions (though his introduction, a scene where he does nothing other than walk into a room and commands the entirety of the frame as he does so, is going to confuse people who don’t remember secondary characters from the prequels). I could say the same thing about another cameo/minor supporting role that it appears is supposed to be a secret I’m not allowed to reveal, but the means by which that character was brought back… Well, suffice to say we may be closer than you think to the actor-less movies Hollywood satires used to joke about.

But then there’s the attempted “I have a bad feeling” line-drop that other characters cut off midway through like they know it’s a catch phrase. And the space battle, where footage of fighter pilots from A New Hope is superimposed over modern CGI backgrounds. And Jedha, where the movie makes a big deal of Jyn pointlessly bumping into a character who was in maybe thirty seconds of one main series film. And that isn’t the end of them. They’re in the movie solely as fan service, and they took me out of it every time.

All that said — I really enjoyed Rogue One. I may have even enjoyed it more than I expected to, albeit not nearly as much as I wanted to. I’m an insane Star Wars diehard, so I’m sure it played differently to me than it will to everyone else — I’m already obsessed with this universe and will tolerate just about anything in the interest of spending more time in it, so I’m less concerned about the movie’s individual effectiveness than with its impact on the rest of the series. Mostly, it deepens the saga, so I had a pretty good time, especially when the movie finally played its hand and delivered one of the best third acts of the entire series. If nothing else, it goes out in a blaze of glory. I don’t know what it will do for the uninitiated, but you should give it a go anyway. It isn’t a particularly high bar, but it’s one of the better mainstream blockbusters this year and has plenty of merit to go alongside its myriad flaws.

southsidewithyoupromotionalposterSouthside with You (2016)

Starring- Tika Sumpter, Parker Sawyers

Director- Richard Tanne

PG-13- brief strong language, smoking, a violent image and a drug reference

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=erpUF2ToUls

A cinematic retelling of Barack (Parker Sawyers) and Michelle (Tika Sumpter) Obama’s first date.

My feelings toward the first movie about Barack Obama are, perhaps fittingly, nearly an exact mirror for my feelings toward his presidency: I wanted to like it, I liked many things about it, I appreciated what it represented culturally/historically, but there were a handful of major problems that held me at bay.

I’m trying not to criticize Southside with You for what it is, but it’s a little weird that the first movie made about this historic presidency is a mostly apolitical account of his first date. I suppose if you want to make a light and happy movie about Barack Obama, his family is likely to be the best subject — whatever his faults as a president, this he’s had one of the most together first families in modern times, with not so much as a whiff of scandal behind any of it.

Nevertheless, I think the movie suffers a bit from its context, which isn’t really its fault; it couldn’t have foreseen the 2016 election when it was in production. Even so, at the current moment, it feels like comfort food we aren’t ready for. There’s a shadow hanging over it that it couldn’t have known would be there. Beneath it, the movie’s sunny tone and lofty ideals can’t help but translate as bitter and sarcastic.

But like I said, there was never anything it could have done to prevent that. Analyzed on its own terms, though, I’m still unconvinced.

There’s certainly a lot to like in it, and I fully understand why everyone does. Of course, chief among its strengths is the magnetism of its leads, Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers. Both of them do absolutely tremendous work, perfectly calibrating their performances to that ideal place between shallow imitation and pure invention. They shade their performances with little touches of their real-life inspiration, enough that both of them are convincing as young people who will someday become Barack and Michelle Obama, but they don’t enslave themselves to a carbon copy. There are no scenes where you can hear their gears grinding as they try to work out how Barack Obama would say this line, or what Michelle Obama would do in this scene. Sumpter and Sawyers borrow a few mannerisms and a bit of speech and then imbue them into characters they’re making their own. Their decisions keep the film’s historicity from imposing upon its in-the-moment effectiveness; eventually, you forget that you’re watching a movie about the current president and first lady of the United States. It amazes me that neither of them appear to be anywhere near the Oscar conversation; I’m not saying these are definitively among the five best performances of the year, but lesser work by bigger stars would absolutely have earned frontrunner status by now.

Their date can be interesting in moments as well, depending on the subject of conversation. I’m hardly the first person to make this comparison, but it’s the best reference point — it resembles Before Sunrise in both timeframe and structure, being less about plot and more about the characters and the things they care about. Southside with You is perhaps a touch more story-driven; there’s a will-they-or-won’t-they quality that Before Sunrise lacks. Even so, it benefits from the same moments as that movie (and its sequels) — it’s at its best when who the characters are and what they’re talking about connect and emerge with real insight. There’s a conversation about fatherhood and parental legacies that assumes an interesting — and, at a glance, truthful — framework; characters manage the expectations of race with humanity and complexity; even something as simple as Barack’s account of an ex-girlfriend carries with it a realization that people often internalize their outsider status to the point that no one has to explicitly do anything to them to drag it up — it’s a matter of whether you feel understood or like you can be yourself without fear that it will signify something.

But the majority of the film’s grasps at meaning struck me as strained. The problem may be that it’s trying too hard throughout to say something important in every scene, every conversation, every interaction, no matter how casual. It’s trying too hard to create big moments for a story that is, by its nature, very small. The reason something like Before Sunriseworks is that it’s relaxed, natural, and not in a hurry to get anywhere. There are scenes where characters talk about nothing or make each other laugh, and every now and then, that builds into something deeper. It’s a hangout movie; it’s about allowing the characters simply to express themselves until you understand them. It finds meaning in the little moments — they comprise the majority of our lives, and they define us every bit as much as the experiences we single out in our memory. They’re the bridges to those experiences; none of us would be the same without them.

The best way for a movie like Southside with You to help us get to know major cultural figures — or at least to know someone else’s interpretation of them — is to thrive in those small moments. Show us what these people are like when the pressure is off. Let us know what they’re thinking about when the room is quiet. Give us their sense of humor, their perspective, their motivations. But Southside with You leans a bit too heavily into its historicity. Mercifully, it never gives into the temptation that claims most movies like this — it isn’t wrought with the kind of portent, or even the off-hand jokes, that hint constantly at the important future that awaits its characters. But it still seems determined to prove it did its homework. Too much of this movie consists of the leads basically explaining their Wikipedia biographies to each other. Those are the “important” beats, so the movie feels it has to cover them. But that’s information we know. We go to a movie like this for the context. The fundamental difference between Southside with You and Before Sunrise — and, I would add, the reason why the latter works while the former doesn’t quite — is that Before Sunrise began its scenes on the little, human moments that define its characters and hides the more expository stuff in the margins, while Southside with You dwells on the expository stuff and uses the small, humorous, relatable moments mainly to signify that a scene is ending and a transition is on the way.

I think that’s why I felt distant for most of the movie. When the script really digs into its characters and their perspectives, their senses of humor, their hobbies, their pet peeves, it’s marvelous. The problem is that most of it is grounded in things we already know that aren’t, on their own, all that instructive. The movie finds that emotional center but struggles to make it real to its audience — to find the human being behind the mythic American figureheads. It’s light, breezy, and charming, so it’s difficult to actively dislike, especially in the few moments that it’s firing on all cylinders. I just found it difficult not to want more from it.