Rogue One

Jynglorious Basterds

jynersoI became worried about Rogue One when it was reported that George Lucas loved it.  That the creator of the Star Wars prequels, writer of the infamous “I don’t like sand” monologue, father of Jar Jar Binks, who apparently found zero value in last year’s powerful The Force Awakens, would love this one, concerned me more than any amount of reshoot reports.  On top of that, I keep hearing that Rogue One is “brutal,” a “war film,” and “a Star Wars movie for grown-ups.”  But wait a minute.  There’s not even any blood in this movie.  The Force Awakens had blood, both rubbed on a stormtrooper’s helmet and leaking out of Adam Driver’s body as he punched himself in his own gunshot wound.  That movie was also full of psychological terror and contained the telepathic version of sexual assault.  I’m starting to think that a certain number of people either don’t remember what they saw last year, are still sore about Han Solo, or Disney simply told them to fall in line on this one (they did).

A note here: Rogue One is better than a good percentage of blockbuster fare, but as the studio has at least four more Star Wars films coming up (and a responsibility to make them good), I think it’s more important to discuss what sucks about this one.

The film follows a ragtag group of misfits who find themselves involved in a mission to steal the plans to the Death Star, leading up to the moments before A New Hope.  The mission is led by Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), who has had enough of the squabbling and doom-saying of the Rebel Alliance’s brass. She is joined by Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), a Fulcrum operative who plays like a darker Han Solo; Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), a pilot who defects from the Empire; Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen), a warrior monk from Jedha (essentially a Mecca for Force-believers); Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen), Chirrut’s bodyguard/apparent life partner; and K2-S0 (Alan Tudyk), a wise-cracking droid who works as Cassian’s copilot and comic relief (because let’s face it: Cassian is a bit of a downer).

On the other side of things, ambitious bureaucrat Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), who has been invested in the Death Star project for over a decade, continues to try to impress the Emperor and become the station’s commanding officer.  As we all know, that role eventually goes to Grand Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing, recreated here with terrifying CGI).  Mendelsohn plays a great villain and Krennic is even sympathetic at times, but if you haven’t read the tie-in novel, James Luceno’s Catalyst, Krennic comes off as a bit of a hollow shell with no motivation but to be a badder bad guy, and he’s upstaged by the combo of Tarkin and the returning Darth Vader.

In fact, none of the characters are greatly developed; their depths as people and reasons for sacrificing themselves to the cause are thrown aside in favor of exhaustive battle scenes involving mooks in different shades of black/white/gray armor.  The entire third act is like playing chess with one of those special boards where the pieces actually look like people: it’s a bummer when you lose one, but it’s not a real person, so what are you really losing?

The haphazard treatment of characters is even more infuriating if you’ve read the novel.  Lyra Erso (Valene Kane), Jyn’s mother, whose perspective you’ve spent hundreds of pages on, is predictably and unceremoniously killed in the first five minutes of the film (and in a way her novel counterpart could have easily escaped from, given that she dealt with much worse).  The other returning characters, Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) and Saw Gererra (who also appeared on the Clone Wars series and in Catalyst, played here by Forest Whitaker), are given only slightly more to do before they’re dismissively brushed off the board.  It’s all in an effort to showcase the “Wars” part of the series title, which mostly works, but you have to be willing to pretend you don’t see each cliche coming.

But the most egregious disservice goes to the main characters themselves.  Yen’s limited screentime causes his character to have no real reason to be in the final battle, unless you headcanon the idea that the Guardians of the Whills allow the Force to use them as a tool, and that he sees a purpose for himself (none of this is addressed directly though).  Chirrut and Baze have a close and seemingly very old relationship, but we don’t get to be part of it.  Bodhi’s redemptive arc and ordeal at the hands of Gererra are all for nothing, as he magically recovers from the supposedly irreversible torture, and is sloppily eliminated from the film just as he becomes one of its best characters.  Gererra, so important to Jyn’s upbringing, simply allows himself to die after he gives her some vital info, as if he’s fully aware that the plot no longer needs him.  What happened to his Che Guevara rebelliousness?  How/why did he end up with a breathing apparatus and golf clubs for legs?

Speaking of Jyn, the newest in a line of incredible Star Wars heroines with their own stories (Leia, Rey, Ahsoka, Asajj Ventress, etc.), the part is played with such confidence and skill by Felicity Jones that it’s a shame this character will never get more room to expand and breathe.  Despite her motivations for launching a suicide mission being a bit murky, she’s ultimately the film’s sun and moon, and I would have traded any amount of fanservice for more time with her.

The biggest delights in Rogue One are references and easter eggs planted there for superfans and the generally observant: unused footage of Red Leader and Gold Leader from A New Hope; the inclusion of Hera Syndulla from Rebels; a run-in with the ill-fated Dr. Evazan and Ponda Baba; a mention of the Whills; the line “May the Force of Others be with you” (the original “May the Force be with you” before Lucas revised it), to name the most notable ones.  A cameo by C-3p0 (Anthony Daniels) and R2-D2, which felt jarring to many, was a relief for me.  “Hey,” I thought.  “At least those guys make it out of this.”

The original ending of this film had the characters surviving, but last minute changes led to a “darker” ending where the characters achieve a Pyrrhic victory by sacrificing themselves to get the plans to Princess Leia.  This change supposedly came late in the process, with director Gareth Edwards not knowing that Disney would be fine with him killing everybody off. I’m not sure I buy the idea that two ships run as tightly as Lucasfilm and Disney didn’t communicate about this before production even began, but whatever happened, the real sacrifice was that triumphant shot of Jyn and co. storming the beach, Death Star disk in hand, living to see the fruits of their labor.  I’m not saying everyone needed to survive, but the deaths of all seven characters aren’t earned by the time they happen.  And Edwards/Kennedy’s justification for this?  “Well, they’re not in A New Hope.”  Do I need to mention that the Rebels were battling the Empire all across the galaxy?  That Luke/Han/Leia just happened to be at the center of the group that fought Imperial leadership, and thus are the ones we follow in the original trilogy?  That there were thousands of Rebel ships at the battle of the Second Death Star, with unnumbered pilots and solders we don’t see?  That characters in the Aftermath novels (canon stories approved by Lucasfilm) fought on Endor, but weren’t in the movies?  There were plenty of ways to end this without a contrived bloodbath.  The ending isn’t the worst this film could have had, but it’s rushed and out of order.

One thing I do appreciate is the diversity of the cast.  However, it’s a diverse cast of people destined to be cannon fodder and who are never remembered by the main characters of the trilogy.  Now we know why the original Star Wars is all white people: everyone else died in this fucking movie.

220px-rogue_one2c_a_star_wars_story_posterRogue One (2016); written by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy; directed by Gareth Edwards; starring Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, and Donnie Yen.

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Arrival

I don’t know’s on third

arrivalDenis Villeneuve’s Arrival is probably the best first contact movie I’ve ever seen.  There’s no abduction, no galactic civil war, no silly “grays,” and no sainted white man who has to save the Earth.  In fact, there’s only one real character: Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a linguist who is summoned to translate the language of an alien race that has recently landed spacecraft in disparate locations across the globe.  Despite the fact that the militaries of every nation have more or less quarantined the “shells” from the public, conflict doesn’t seem imminent; everyone still thinks it would be a good idea to see what the aliens want first.

Louise’s present narrative, in which she teams with physicist Ian Donnelly  (Jeremy Renner), straightforward military grunt Weber (Forest Whitaker), and antagonistic CIA stooge David Halpern (Michael Stuhlbarg) to communicate with the aliens before the rest of the world – particularly China and their de facto leader, hair-trigger General Shang (Tzi Ma) – decides that it would be less trouble to open fire, is percussed by intermittent visions of her daughter’s life.  The flashbacks (or are they?) begin with a joyous birth, meaningful moments, and all the stuff you expect from movies-apologizing-for-reality montages, but then it becomes clear that Louise’s daughter, Hannah, died in adolescence from an inoperable cancer.  The past seems to weigh heavily on Louise, who struggles for the freedom to work in the quarantined shell zone, which is kept air-tight by the army.

The aliens themselves, called “heptapods” for their seven limbs, are one of the film’s greatest achievements, visually and in terms of originality.  Absent are the expected bipedal war-monger aliens who either possess convenient translators or just want to rip into us instead of talking.  The heptapods, who are so alien I can barely describe them (maybe picture a benevolent, organic version of Mass Effect‘s “Reapers”) speak in some kind of starfish language, but actually communicate via their writing system, which is more or less a magical ink that hangs in the air for a moment, and then vanishes.  Louise, chosen for a reason, slowly begins to break down this system and learns to introduce herself to the aliens, then to ask them simple questions, deciding to hold off on the “big one,” which is of course “Why are you here?”

I call Louise the only character because the others, while competently performed, exist to provide assorted foils to her.  She’s the one whose thoughts matter, whose struggle is real, and whose painful memories we have access to.  Whitaker’s character just wants to get this job finished and go home, preferably without getting court-marshaled for letting Louise go too far (though it is a bit convenient that she ended up supervised by someone so understanding, rather than Petraeus or Major Paine or some shit).  Stuhlbarg’s character is there because there needs to be an asshole government employee who reaches his boiling point before anyone else (and if Boardwalk Empire taught us anything, it’s that Michael Stuhlbarg is good at being reserved for a long time and then exploding).  Jeremy Renner isn’t actually in the film too much, which isn’t a bad thing, as his character isn’t important (honestly, for all Donnelly is good for, he could have been played by an extra whose face you never see – he serves the same purpose as Topher Grace’s character in Interstellar, although that movie seems extraordinarily silly compared to this one).

The titular “arrival” really has nothing to do with aliens.  Consider the fact that the source material is a novella called “Story of Your Life.” As it turns out (spoilers ahead), the heptapods do not even experience time the same way we do.  Instead, they experience all time periods at once, knowing from the time they are born exactly how and when they will die.  They’ve come to Earth because they have foreseen an undisclosed cataclysm that will impact them in three thousand years, and already know that they will need the help of humans to deal with it (sidenote: I’m not sure they should bank on humans being around for that long).  Therefore, they’ve come to Earth to gain our trust now.  In order to communicate this to the rest of the world, however, Louise needs to absorb this ability from the heptapods, and essentially travel to the future to stop Shang from obliterating China’s heptapod shell.  The kicker: that’s what we’ve been experiencing the whole time.  The visions of Hannah haven’t happened yet.

While the film is saying something about free will, it isn’t just asking whether you’d take the same path if you knew what was going to happen to you in the future (although it asks Louise to make that choice).  In a film like Another Earth, where a mirror planet’s versions of all of us have followed the same narrative right up until becoming aware of one another (essentially saying that we were all slaves to our destiny until that moment) Arrival (and its source story) assert that free will means not changing the timeline when tempted to.  In the original story, these ideas are conveyed via tenses – future tense for the daughter visions, past tense for the heptapod interactions – but you don’t have to study Fermat’s Principle to get it: Louise’s choice to conceive Hannah despite knowing how the girl’s life will end confirms the existence of choice itself, and that such a thing can seem monumental in the face of an inevitable future space war is amazing. Would we call it a “pro-choice” film, then?

arrival2c_movie_posterArrival (2016); based on the story “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang; screenplay by Eric Heisserer; directed by Denis Villeneuve; starring Amy Adams.

 

 

The Butler

We have no tolerance for politics in the White House

Lee-Daniels-The-Butler-Robin-Williams-Forest-WhitakerLee Daniels takes a page out of John Carpenter’s book: attempting to force us to give a crap about who directed the movie by putting his own name in the title.  This always fails.  Why not include the DP, the key grip, and the editor in the title as well?  What about the makeup artists who made Forest Whitaker look like an old man?  Or what about, y’know, the writer?  I’m not against everyone involved getting proper credit, but a film not written by the director belongs to the director insofar as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World belongs to me just because I bought a copy and had my own reading of what it was all about.

Thankfully, the film itself does not fail.  The Butler features Forest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines, in part based upon Gene Allen, a black butler who served in the White House under several presidents.  Starring alongside Whitaker is Oprah Winfrey, who should really quit the talk show/phony philanthropy schtick and become a full-time actress, as Cecil’s patient wife, Gloria, who must deal with not only Cecil’s long hours at the White House (which he’s not allowed to talk much about anyway), but the absence of her son Louis (David Oyelowo), who embarks on a life of activism in spite of his father’s insistence that the family stay apolitical.  The film’s narrative runs through Cecil’s and David’s entire lives over several decades, showcasing the points at which they intersect.  Gloria’s home life is touched on to some degree as well: she battles her own alcoholism, the horror of not knowing what’s happening to her own family members while they’re away, the advances of her lecherous neighbor (Terrence Howard), and whatever Cecil himself happens to bring home from work (and she is left in the dark for so long that JFK’s assassination doesn’t seem like such a big deal to her).

The various presidents are played by a cornucopia’s worth of movie stars, including Robin Williams, who plays Eisenhower completely straight, John Cusack as the opportunistic Nixon, heartthrobby James Marsden as Kennedy, Alan Rickman as the characteristically befuddled Reagan, Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan, and Minka Kelly in a great (albeit tiny) performance as Jackie Kennedy.  Best of all is Liev Schreiber as Lyndon B. Johnson, whose hilarious vignettes could have carried an entire movie.  Each character fits into their sections well, but the star power becomes overwhelming sometimes – Vanessa Redgrave appears in a small role during Cecil’s childhood on a plantation, and Cecil’s coworkers (larger roles) are played by Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Lenny Kravitz.  The inevitability of another famous person showing up every ten minutes is not too distracting, but it’s a bit funny, giving the film a “meta” quality it probably doesn’t want.

Where the film falters is the use of thematic voiceover – something never necessary to a film’s movement; didn’t we learn that in Blade Runner?  Cecil’s rich voice sums up each section of film by restating exactly what we just watched and heard, while we see real archive footage of things that actually happened at that time.  This is not ancient history, however; this is historical information that everyone living today already knows about.  And when a film is already upwards of two hours, this stuff needs to be chopped.  There’s also some sloppy and obvious dramatic irony: Nixon tells Cecil, “I’m not going to resign, no matter what!” when the audience knows full well that he will.  Sentimentalism also nears full stride: piano music over melodramatic dialogue, and so on.  Much of the movie is genuinely emotional, but attempting to squeeze tears out of an audience using every device possible actually takes away from that.  We even get a Hollywood Mentor played by Clarence Williams III, who tells Cecil that the “N word” is “a white man’s word, filled with hate,” and after a lifetime of using the word, Cecil never speaks it again.  Is the character’s advice good?  Yes, of course it is.  But moments of epiphany are a sham, and scenes like this are designed for synthetic echoes later in the movie.

I’ll let you judge for yourself whether the film’s overt messages about racism are oversimplified (and whether the portrayal of the Black Panthers is as cartoony as what they showed us in school), but what cannot be denied is the genuine impact of seeing the Freedom Bus torched with Louis aboard (one of the historical events wisely dramatized and not shown entirely in archive footage); the cringe-inducing image of a segregated water fountain; our collective concealed rage at Cecil’s boss’s apathetic reactions to Cecil’s insistence year after year that the black staff be paid as much as the white staff.  In the showing I attended, there was plenty of cheering at triumphant moments (and, not surprisingly, in a theatre full of white people, an obnoxious amount of “What did he say?” in reaction to Cecil’s dialect [which, by the way, is spoken in an American accent!]  I consider myself adept at understanding dialect, but it sometimes seems like no one else is even trying).

In spite of its rigid narrative, The Butler manages genuine impact and a whole lot of true moments.

The_Butler_posterLee Daniels’ The Butler (2013); written by Danny Strong; directed by Lee Daniels; starring Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, and David Oyelowo)