Movie Review – “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” (2016)


One of the first things I learned about being a director is the main role that one must serve – to lead the actors into giving the best possible performance they can. Whether that is providing proper motivation, being their best critic or their best friend, a directors’ first duty is to the actors. And while that role has expanded to encompassing nearly every aspect of filmmaking, the sign of a good director does ultimately come back to how well one can direct the actors.

Half of a great performance comes from the actor. The other half comes from the direction.

I bring this up because “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” has the same director as 2014’s “Godzilla,” Gareth Edwards. “Godzilla” is an great comparison piece to “Rogue One,” since many of the same strength and weaknesses are present in both movies, evident by the same filmmaker.

In my initial review of “Godzilla,” I talked about I adored the size and scope of the monsters and overall terror that Godzilla presents, but that the only notable performances were from Bryan Cranston and Ken Watanabe. Since then, my feelings have expanded to feeling that most of the human scenes were forgettable after Bryan Cranston’s character is killed, but that the monster scenes were handled fantastically even though there weren’t many of them.

After watching “Rogue One,” I am convinced that Gareth Edwards is a master of handling size and scope to provoke awe and wonder, but his ability to direct actors leaves a lot to be desired. Unlike “Godzilla,” which had many accomplished actors in it, “Rogue One” is lacking in that department (continuing the trend of Star Wars by hiring mostly unknown actors for their leads), and thus any good performances rely on the ability of the director. Unfortunately, we get some lackluster performances in “Rogue One” that involve a lot of staring off into nothing and lack of emotion.

Set after the events of “The Revenge of the Sith,” the Intergalatic Empire now rules over most of the known galaxy with an iron fist and lots of blasters. The Empire wants to make sure there is no hope of defeat, even from the small group of rebels attempting to thwart their plans, so they begin work a super weapon that’ll destroy an entire planet – the Death Star.

When the rebels stumble across the daughter of one in charge of constructing the Death Star, Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), they use all of their connections to find out exactly what the Empire is planning and to find Jyn’s father, Galen (Mads Mikkeleson). They construct a small team of rebels, including Captain Andor (Diego Luna), a former Imperial cargo pilot (Riz Ahmed), a converted Empire droid who has developed a sarcastic personality and a blind warrior who believes in the force (Donnie Yen).

Like in “Godzilla,” this film is impressive when it comes to size and scale of the monster, in this case the Empire. Other than Imperial flags flying everywhere and Stormtroopers lurking around every corner, the Star Destroyers and Death Star dwarf everything in else in the film. There’s a shot of a Star Destroyer hovering an entire city, casting everything in shadow. You really get the impression that the Empire is in control of every last corner of the universe and that makes the challenge of overcoming this threat seem all the more impossible for our heroes.

This is also the most beautifully shot Star Wars film so far, with a lot of the shots lingering on the backgrounds of these alien worlds. One of the opening shots is an orbital descent into this beach-like world with massive ring around the planet, and we spend what feels like three minutes watching the waves roll up and see the ring high in the sky. Or the aforementioned shot of the Star Destroyer lingering over the city. Some of the more memorable shots in “Rogue One” rely less on CGI and more of a natural beauty that I feel gets taken for granted.

So while the size of the Empire is on full display and the film takes full advantage of great backgrounds, the biggest complaints I have with “Rogue One” are the characters and the pacing. Outside of Jyn Erso, I don’t remember any of these characters names, which is not a good start for these people when you can’t even remember their names, let alone their personalities. These are the characters that are supposed to inspire hope in a task that seems impossible, and most of them can hardly show any emotion.

Part of this problem is the acting from our two leads, Felicity Jones and Diego Luna, who remain stoic and emotionless throughout most of the film, so focused on the task at hand that they don’t take any joy in anything. Contrast this with the first Star Wars film where Luke, Han and Leia are in a similar situation, yet Luke is constantly thrilled by this exploration of space, Han is using his charm and wit to outsmart everyone and Leia is less than thrilled by the escapades of her rescuers. Those three were having fun with their performances, despite constantly being on the run and having a gun pointed at you every second.

Like Aaron-Taylor Johnson’s performance in “Godzilla,” the lead roles in “Rogue One” do very little with their performances that it teeters on boring. Everything the Empire throws at them is mostly meet with a blank stare.

But there are some memorable characters in “Rogue One,” like their robot buddy K-2SO, who always says what’s on his mind and isn’t afraid to back sass the decisions of his superiors. He was the biggest source of comic relief, a nice change of pace from the other droids we’ve had in Star Wars. Also, Donnie Yen’s blind warrior was different enough from any Star Wars character I’ve seen yet still enriched with lore, since he is devoted to the ways of the Force and constantly chants his mantra. Yen is a skilled martial artist, having previously displayed his talents in the “Ip Man” film series, and he uses his talents here as well, giving a fun hand-to-hand combat sequence between him and a gaggle of Stormtroopers.

Outside of those two and a kick-ass scene involving Darth Vader, I don’t remember much about these group of rebels.

The other problem with “Rogue One” is its pacing and how long it takes before events are set into motion. The film spends the first third hopping from one planet to another, getting little bits of information that ultimately leads nowhere other than to get the whole gang together. It isn’t until the rebels become aware of Galen’s location that the film begins to move and get interesting, at which point the pacing picks up a bit. By the end, we’re left with an exciting climax on a tropical planet that becomes a last stand for the rebels in an attempt to save thousands of lives, but it took a long time before things started getting good.

As such, the pacing for “Rogue One” is all over the map, with the first third moving as slow as a snail, the second part moving at a normal speed, and the climax going at a ridiculous speed to keep up with every character. Honestly, the first half almost feels pointless since it was all there to establish the rebels are trying to get the plans for the Death Star, which we all know because of the first Star Wars movie.

Overall, “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” showcases the strengths and weaknesses of Gareth Edwards, both his ability to show how hopeless it is to oppose this threat, and his inability to give his leads proper direction. There are plenty of great moments, battles and characters in this movie, but the journey our heroes take wasn’t always captivating. This is certainly not a bad film, but it is not up to the quality of the original trilogy or “The Force Awakens.”

Final Grade: B-

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Movie Review – “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” (1964)

Here’s something you don’t see everyday – A French melodrama with every line of dialogue in song. I give “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” points for being creative and one-of-a-kind, since this is something you never see outside of some plays.

When I say every line of dialogue is in song, I mean every single word. From casual conversations on the street between strangers to deep life-changing conversations on who people should marrying.

The film follows Genevieve (Catherine Deneuve), a young girl who lives with her mother in their umbrella store in Cherbourg, as she falls in love with a slightly older man Guy (Nino Castelnuovo) even though her mother forbids her from seeing him. Genevieve only seems happy when she’s with Guy but that quickly turns when he gets drafted and will be away for the next two years. Afraid of being left alone, she must decide to wait for him or marry a wealthy jewel salesman.

 

The story starts out simple enough and turns tragic as it progresses, which makes the operatic music scenes feel far more grandiose. While I can’t appreciate the French music offered in this film due to my lack of music knowledge and hardly ever hearing French music before film, I did feel the film benefitted from being done in song.

Without the music, this would have been a run-of-the-mill drama about choosing love and loneliness or happiness and wealth. But Deneuve’s performance is enhanced by her singing as her decisions carry more weight when she’s pouring her emotions out in song.

Imagine if “The Graduate” was entirely a musical, and you get a pretty good idea what this film is about.

I respect “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” more than I enjoyed it. I won’t remember some of the finer points of the plot or even entire characters, like Guy’s aunt, but I will never forget the film that was a musical from start to finish.

Final Grade: B-

 

Movie Review – “The Jazz Singer” (1927)

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It is strange that two of the most important movies of all time are also uncomfortably controversial. 1915’s “The Birth of a Nation” is the first feature-length film, as it was the first “film” rather than just a short 20-minute picture, yet the film portrays the African American community as evil, soulless barbarians who must be stopped and the KKK are the heroes of the film. Similarly, 1927’s “The Jazz Singer” is the first movie to feature sound and active dialogue, yet its main character is a white-male in black-face for most of the film.

But I give “The Jazz Singer” far more leyway than “The Birth of a Nation.”

In the 1927 film, Jackie Rabinowitz (Al Jolson) is a struggling singer trying to make it make it big outside of being a Cantor. He makes it big when a young woman on Broadway hears him sing and tells him to perform for their latest jazz show, on the condition that sing in black-face and have his name changed to Jack Robin. Much to the dismay of his traditionally Jewish family, with his father believing that he shouldn’t sing outside of a Synagouge, Jack takes the job but is disowned by his father.

As I said, this the first “talkie,” to which every film between 1928 and now owes everything to. The only scenes that feature any audio though are when Al Jolson is singing, with the rest of the film remaining silent with title cards are exaggerated silent-era acting. While some might find this distracting, “The Jazz Singer” makes it work due to the dual nature of Jack’s character living in two different worlds – One filled with overbearing parents stuck in tradition that remains silent, and another that is loud, vibrant and full of life and sound.

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It is fitting that the only time we hear Jackie is when he is singing, because that seems to be the only time he feels alive. While this was probably done due to technical limitations and still learning how this whole “sound” thing worked, the choice to go back-and-forth between silence and singing works well for “The Jazz Singer.”

Still, there’s no denying this film hasn’t aged well. The black-face is always off-putting, but understandable for the times since that was a common practice among Broadway performers in the 1920s. I’d say only watch this one if you’re interested in film history and wish to witness the first talkie.

Final Grade: C+

 

Movie Review – “The Major and the Minor” (1942)

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Recently, I’ve done a bit of research on screwball comedies, in particular how to tell the difference between a screwball comedy and a romantic comedy and why screwballs died out. In films like “The Philadelphia Story” and “The Lady Eve,” it is the overbearing or controlling woman that dominates the weak and incompotent man, a reversal of the typical gender roles in the 1930s and 1940s.

Movies like “Some Like It Hot” and “Bringing Up Baby” are about mascunlinty being challenged through a comedic battle of the sexes. This thrived because women holding all the power in a relationship was new to Hollywood.

But what truly separates screwballs from rom-coms is this challenge is done almost entirely through heated verbal exchanges, always charged with sexual energy. Film critic Andrew Sarris once described the screwball comedy as “a sex comedy without the sex.” All these films came out at a time of strict censorship when filmmakers couldn’t show anything related to sex or hold a kiss for longer than three seconds, so they had to get creative by having sex through word play.

If a man and woman can’t kiss each other, they’ll sass each other.

By doing this, it allowed filmmakers to tell far more riske plots that wouldn’t have been picked up normally. Case in point, 1942’s “The Major and the Minor.” The story follows strong-willed Suzanne Applegate (Ginger Rogers) quitting the New York lifestyle, having tried over 30 jobs in two years and hating them all. She decides to head back to her home in Iowa, only to find out she doesn’t have enough train fare. So she dresses up as a 12-year old girl, Susu, to pay half fare and ends up falling into a cabin with Army Major Kirby (Ray Milland), who buys that she is a little girl, but she slowly falls in love with him.

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“The Major and the Minor” would not work in theaters nowadays, since it would be portrayed as a romantic comedy and it would be hard to avoid the pedophilia. But since this is a screwball comedy, of course the man is oblivious to the woman’s plan or her advances. He doesn’t see her as anything more than a child that he can help, the poor dolt.

Director Billy Wilder takes every advantage possible to show that not only Major Kirby is incompotent, but every single man in the movie. Despite trying to be a 12-year old girl, not a single male on the army training base buys the disguise, except for Major Kirby, who is too kind and honest for his own good. Every Private on the base wants a moment alone with Susu, even the ones in committed relationships, to remind her how the Germans conquered the Sudan if you catch my drift.

There are enough twists and turns in “The Major and the Minor” to keep the story from getting dull and more than enough charm in the writing to keep the laughs coming. Wilder co-wrote the screenplay and he gives every line just enough sass without being too obvious or overbearing. My favorite scene is when Major Kirby has to teach Susu about the birds and the bees, due to all the boys hitting on her, and describes her as a lightbulb attracting all the moths and that she needs to learn to turn that lightbulb down a bit, never aware that Susu has probably killed a few moths in her time.

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Is this the greatest screwball comedy? No, “Some Like It Hot” and “The Lady Eve” excel at turning the gender roles on their heads and spinning it around a few thousand times, but there is no denying “The Major and the Minor” is hysterical, if not a bit ludicrous, and is engaging because of Wilder’s script and the performances of Ginger Rogers and Ray Milland, who give two of the most genuine and honest performances I can think of.

Ultimately, the reason the screwball genre died out was because MPAA ratings system and the creation of R-rated films in the 1970s, as well as how modern sensbilities had changed over the years, especially the sexual revolution of the 1960s. Some elements of the screwball are still used in modern films, but the whole point of the screwball comedy is no longer valid with the strict rules of 1930s and 1940s filmmaking no longer in place. Even without those rules anymore, “The Major and the Minor” is certainly a film worth checking out.

Final Grade: A

 

Movie Review – “Fantastic Voyage” (1966)

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Sometimes a movie experience is heightened when you imagine yourself in the year the film was released, especially with films that came out forty or fifty years ago. The reason I praised “Arrival” as much as I did was because it came out the same week as the recent U.S. election and it instilled hope and communication amongst all of mankind in a time when that is what audiences needed to hear.

This film, “Fantastic Voyage” might seem kind of drab and ludicrous by today’s standards, especially with that title, but think of what movie-goers were dealing with in 1966. Science fiction had already explored the vast reaches of space, the Cold War was at its height, while also being in the middle of the Vietnam War, we were still reeling from the assassination of John F. Kennedy and fight for rights among African Americans was still underway.

Audiences still had “2001: A Space Odyssey” to look forward to, but there hadn’t been many sci-fi spectacles for some time. Perhaps the concept of aliens and space exploration had grown tiresome. So instead of going to another galaxy, we would look inside ourselves and see the wonders that our own bodies have to offer.

“Fantastic Voyage” takes place in the far-off future of 1999, when a secret government organization that can shrink anyone and anything to microscopic size for an hour is in danger. One of their leading scientists had recently discovered the key to make the shrinking process last longer than an hour and was attacked by Soviets and put into a coma. The attack caused a blood clot to develop in his brain and it is impossible to remove without killing him. The organizations’ solution is to shrink a submarine with a knowledgable crew of doctors, inject it into the scientists blood and travel up to his brain and destroy the clot from the inside with a powerful laser.

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This is one of those movies where you shouldn’t worry about the finer details, like why the shrinking process only lasts an hour, because there is a lot of fine work being done on what the human body looks like on the inside. The charm of “Fantastic Voyage” comes from imaginative landscapes of the blood stream, the heart, the lungs, ear drums and brain would operate on an active microscopic level and interacting with it. To see this vast black emptiness become populated with blood cells or the many cavities of the heart lay motionless as the submarine navigates its corridors is a colorful and personal journey that lives up to the title.

Imagine “The Forbidden Planet” except it all takes place inside the human body.

My only complaint with “Fantastic Voyage” is the mentality of certain crew members, in particular Dr. Michaels (Donald Pleasance), when if even the slightest thing goes awry he demands they leave and abandon the mission. Granted, Dr. Michaels may or may not have had alterior motives, but this happens at least three times during the journey. It makes you wonder why he was put in charge of the mission when he is so quick to give up on it so many times.

Overall, “Fantastic Voyage” is a delightfully charming piece of 1960s science fiction. Short on logic and a shallow story, the film easily makes up for it with a tour through the human body unlike anything before or since. There are also plenty of quiet moments where the characters contemplate the genius that goes into creating all life, so there’s something here for everyone.

Final Grade: A-

 

Movie Review – “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” (2016)

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I’m not an avid Harry Potter fan. I was about ten when Harry Potter-mania began in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and my mom read the first three books to me and my sisters. I additionally read the fourth book on my own time, then tried to read the fifth but quickly lost interest. When the movies came out, I was interested up to the point where I stopped reading the books, so I only made it through “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” which I felt was the best book and the worst movie.

As such, I haven’t been interested in anything Harry Potter-related for a long time. But, when I heard that a movie starring Eddie Redmayne set in 1920s America while still being in the Potter universe, I felt this was at least worth a look, since this movie was no longer bound the rules of being an adaptation and could freely explore this magical world.

In 1926, wizard Newt Scamander (Redmayne) travels from England to America with an interesting case full of magical creatures. While making his way through New York City, one of these animals escapes and runs amok in a bank, getting the attention of non-magic user Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) and the Magical Congress of the U.S. Through a strange case of mishaps and accidents, Newt’s case of mystical animals ends up in Jacob’s possession, who unknowingly opens up the briefcase and lets several creatures out and begin to cause mass panic among non-magic users and trouble for the Magical Congress. Now it’s up to Newt, Jacob and a pair of magical sisters, Tina and Queenie (Katherine Waterson and Alison Sudol) to catch the beasts before they cause too much trouble.

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Being someone who doesn’t know much about the wizarding world, I went in to “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” with low expectations and ended up having a blast with the film. Part of it was seeing this new area of the sorcery world in New York City, but it still being so foreign and fascinating, as it took place during the 1920s and was filled to brim with a working-class society of elves, goblins and magic, all while trying to hide themselves from the prying eyes of non-magics.

Above all else, this was an adventure-piece through the prohibition era, only now magic is prohibited instead of alcohol. Each of the beasts were unique, with some being beautiful, while others were creative and some were terrifying. Yet none of these beasts were the typical magical beings we all know, like dragons, pixies or centaurs, but instead were snakes that could grow to fit their accompanying space, meaning it could shrink to the size of a tea cup or as big as a house, or an invisible monkey that can see five seconds into the future. So our heroes must rely less on magic and more on their cunning wit.

Which brings up the best part of this film, the characters. Tina was a former agent for the Magical Congress, but performed some questionable actions that got her demoted. Now she’s looking for any opportunity to prove herself a worthy witch and uses every opportunity to throw the book in Newt’s face. Queenie has a keen ability to read people’s minds and flaunts it every opportunity she gets. Think of her as a flapper girl with psychic powers and loves what she does. Newt is a bit of an enigma, as someone who keeps to himself and sees humans as the most vicious and ruthless animals on the planet, finding it easier to socialize with his beasts. Unfortunately, this doesn’t give Eddie Redmayne much to work with, as he is mostly staring off into space for most of the film.

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But the best character in “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” was the non-magic Jacob. We get a man who is so confident in the ordinary world and then gets introduced to all these unbelievable and extraordinary people and animals, seeing a side of the world he never would have dreamed of. Yet Jacob takes all this in stride, unflinching at the glowing rhino staring him down and unapologetic about the wizarding world. He’s like Han Solo, the only ordinary character in a cast full of people with extraordinary abilities and powers. Jacob adds depth, charm and comedy to this film where it desperately needed it and there isn’t a wasted scene with him.

I will say that, for a sometimes quirky adventure through New York City as these people track down magical creatures, the film got disturbingly dark at times. There’s a subplot involving a non-magic family who spreads to word around town that wizards walk among them and they must be stopped, but then we’re told the mother beats all her children to the point of mental scarring. I would not┬árecommend taking children to see this one, since it gets unnecessarily dark at times.

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But overall, I really enjoyed “Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them” as a fantasy-adventure that never took itself too seriously. The animals were creative, the characters were always charming and it was whimsical to see how magic would have worked in 1920s New York. Going into this film with little knowledge on Harry Potter helped, especially since I always remembered more about the expansive magical world of Harry Potter and not Harry himself.

Final Grade: B

Movie Review – “Arrival” (2016)

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Out of all the movies in 2016, “Arrival” has been the most important one to come out. Amid the failed blockbusters, superheroes, sequels and animated films, “Arrival” reminds us that film can be more than just entertainment but a window into the human psyche, showing our flaws as well as our potential.

I went in to “Arrival” expecting a smart flick about what we’d do if aliens ever came to us and decided not to blow us up. Instead, what I got was smart piece about the importance of communication and how time shouldn’t stop us from enjoying life. This is less like “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and more like “Contact” or the original “The Day the Earth Stood Still.”

But what makes “Arrival” stand out among those is the timing. If this film had come out a month ago, I would have thought it was smart and thought-provoking. But this movie came out the same week where less than half of the American population voted for who would be leading our country, and we ended up electing a man who has no political experience and is already genuinely hated by the American public. A movie about communicating among people and opening up dialogue between nations, speaking of hope for the future, comes at a time when we need that the most.

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I saw “Arrival” less than a week after the presidential election ended, and I was terrified about what was coming next and where we would be going. This film helped me realize that we’re not alone in all this and that we are in charge of our own future.

This makes “Arrival” not necessarily about the aliens, but about how we treat one another. These aliens send down twelve ships, scattered throughout the planet but at least one near every major power in the world, including one in Montana and another near Shanghai. Each country has a different response to the aliens, with China threatening to bomb the space craft, while the Americans hire linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to communicate with the aliens.

At the base near the space craft, there is a strong military presence, who have large explosives ready to detonate, which more than a few soldiers want to pull off. There is a constant sense of unease about this whole venture, with the trigger-happy military taking charge and the lack of communicating between Earth’s nations. This is a logical reaction to unknown invaders, but shows that the governments of the world were not designed to handle alien encounters and so they scurry around like chickens with their heads cut off.

Without giving too much away, there is a drastic shift near the end of the film that changes the entire outlook of “Arrival.” I’m not sure I could fully explain the details, since the film is rather vague on what happened, leaving most of it up to interpretation, but I do know that our story of peaceful aliens switches the focus to us.

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“Arrival” recognizes that we are flawed frightened creatures who lash out and only think of ourselves, but that we have the potential to be kind and understanding. All we need is a little push in the right direction and shown a bit of compassion to get us moving, and that is exactly what these aliens are doing.

It matches with the films of Denis Villenueve, like “Prisoners” and “Sicario,” by taking the indie-vibe but making it feel big and important. His films are less about flashy effects and threats, and more about the danger of those threats and how these characters react to those threats. I don’t think “Arrival” would have worked as well if Villenueve wasn’t directing, because the human factor is the driving force behind it all.

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Overall, if you go see any movie this year, see “Arrival.” It may not be big or flashy, but it is important, smart and most of all, hopeful in a time where we need that.

Final Grade: A