Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Memories of Princess Leia

I had just come out of a screening of La La Land (full review coming January 2) when I got the news that Carrie Fisher had passed away at the age of 60. It was like a kick in the guts, which unclenched when I realized it was the headline we’d been dreading for days after reading she had taken ill.

There was never any doubt in my mind that we’d see her at press junkets and red carpet events for the as-yet-untitled Episode VIII, laughing about what had happened with some wry morsel of self-deprecation and bracing honesty. Moreover, she’d be back because we needed her to be, because Star Wars seems unfathomable without our Princess Leia; lest we forget, she’s on screen a full twenty minutes before the ostensible hero Luke Skywalker. And honestly, after seeing the heist of the Death Star plans in Rogue One, it’s a little impossible to watch the original Star Wars without thinking of Leia as the heir to Jyn Erso’s mantle; who’s the real “new hope” here, the whiny farmboy whose chores stand in the way of his power couplings, or the regal politician turned rebel icon who stares down Darth Vader and lies to his face without breaking a sweat?

In a way, La La Land was a fitting bracer for the latest bit of bad news to come out of 2016. It’s a film that’s very concerned with memory, particularly visual/cinematic memory, and the ways that our filmic minds may be more powerful than reality, more romantically potent, even above and against the objective truth of reality. For most of us, all we have left of Carrie Fisher are her images, and as much of a force (no pun intended) as she was in Hollywood, I suspect that for very many of us she’ll always be Princess – or General – Leia. We might remember her as the M16-toting fiancé of Jake Blues in The Blues Brothers, the flower-child group therapist from Austin Powers, or as her own larger-than-life self as seen in Wishful Drinking.

However, even Carrie Fisher embraced the role that some said typecast her for life. “I got to be the only girl in an all-boy fantasy, and it’s a great role for women,” she told CBC in September. "She’s a very proactive character and gets the job done. So if you’re going to get typecast as something, that might as well be it for me.” To that end, with our filmic memories waxing nostalgic, we present five definitive Princess Leia moments. You might be expecting a Top 10 (and perhaps someday you’ll see it), but for now the occasion demands something special, a little bit unique. So put on the John Williams score and let’s remember the Princess as best we know how.

1. “Only you could be so bold.” I mentioned this moment at the top because it’s a hell of an introduction to Leia, and it tells us everything we need to know about the character. She’s fiercely loyal to her people (both those of Alderaan and those of the Rebel Alliance), and she’s far from cowed by the looming presence of Darth Vader, the scariest force of evil in the galaxy. But Leia, coded as vulnerable by her height and her all-white gown, refuses to bow; instead, she rips off one-liners of her own, later jeering at Grand Moff Tarkin’s “foul stench,” and she refuses to break, even under literal torture.

2. “This is some rescue!” The second act of Star Wars revolves around the effort to rescue Leia from the bowels of the Death Star, but it’s a beautiful treat that the rescue mission completely falls apart until Leia takes charge. Luke, Han, and Chewbacca storm the prison block, but it all goes awry, to which Leia’s reaction is the sly and often-quoted “Aren’t you a little short for a stormtrooper?” She’s facing execution – Tarkin has said as much – but she refuses to be so much as impressed. Then, as the prison break collapses into a firefight, it’s Leia who rescues the rescue, sending them into the garbage chute and toward the Millennium Falcon.

3. “I love you.” “I know.” Leia spends much of The Empire Strikes Back on the run, but she’s always in control of the situation. She rightly assesses the moment to evacuate, she senses something is wrong about the asteroid “cave” in which they land, and she detects Lando’s misdeeds before Han has reason to doubt his old friend. But the one thing Leia misses is her own emotional range; throughout the movie, she’s telling Han Solo one thing while the audience realizes something else altogether – these two crazy kids are in love. Finally, just before it’s too late, she opens up, and while Han gets the iconic rebuttal, Leia flips the script in Return of the Jedi. This time, she’s caught up. She knows.

4. Huttslayer. I suspect a generation or two of Star Wars fans remember this moment for a different reason altogether. Carrie Fisher probably sent scores of moviegoers into puberty by donning the metal bikini, but a princess has to have an extensive wardrobe, right? What’s fascinating to me here is that it’s another way Leia flips the script. She steadfastly refuses to be a damsel in distress – recall that it’s all part of the plan – and her looks of disgust and occasional boredom prevent her from serving as eye candy. As ever, Carrie Fisher had the perfect response to the outfit: “Tell them that a giant slug captured me and forced me to wear that stupid outfit, and then I killed him because I didn’t like it. And then I took it off. Backstage.” The Expanded Universe materials have made much of Leia’s reputation as “the Huttslayer” – apparently, it’s a big deal to strangle a reptilian crime slug with the leash with which he would subjugate you. Now that’s a royally badass moment.

5. “Same jacket.” The original script for The Force Awakens called for us to see General Leia fairly early on and throughout the first act of the film. Wisely, though, J.J. Abrams kept her in reserve until we can see her through Han’s eyes for the first time. And boy, does it pack a wallop when she arrives; it’s a moment that always leaves me a little misty-eyed, but as ever Leia deflates the moment by skeptically remarking of Han’s attire, “Same jacket.” Thirty years may have passed, but she’s still the same Leia we left in 1983. The fact that she’s been promoted to general tells us only that the rest of the galaxy has finally caught up with her.

For now, she’s one with the Force, and the Force is with us. We’ll see her again in Episode VIII next December, and the Expanded Universe guarantees Princess Leia will never be too far away; she’s already appeared on Rebels, and she’s the star of the monthly Marvel comic Star Wars (to say nothing of her own miniseries, penned by Mark Waid). What’s your favorite Princess Leia moment? Sound off below.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Fences (2016)

When I saw the trailer for Fences, I immediately thought three things – “I’ve got to read that play,” “I’ve got to see that movie,” and “Denzel ought to win an Oscar just for the trailer alone.” Now that I’ve seen Fences in its entirety, all three were – if I may say so – sage proclamations: August Wilson reminds us why he’s a compelling playwright, the film is worth the price of admission, and it’s going to be a tight race this year as Denzel Washington gives Andrew Garfield a run for his money.

Pulling directorial and performing duty, Denzel Washington stars as Troy Maxson, a Pittsburgh trash collector who missed his shot as a professional baseball player and who fills his Friday afternoons with gab, both self-effacing and self-aware. From the kitchen window overlooking their backyard, Troy’s wife Rose (Viola Davis) watches her larger-than-life husband and tries to make room for herself in the life they have built together.

I have a very short list of actors and directors who are guaranteed winners, always worth the price of admission even if the rest of the film isn’t very good. But Fences is very good, and it’s due almost universally to the powerful lead performances from Washington and Davis. I wouldn’t be surprised or disappointed to see both up for their fair share of awards come Oscar season, and if they take home the trophies, so much the better. It comes as no surprise that Denzel Washington is the very picture of commanding; he’s one of a select few actors who can swing the pendulum from exuberantly gregarious to crushingly emotional without feeling anything but natural, and Troy Maxson is a perfect vehicle for Denzel to show us what he can do. Prone to long monologues, Troy is the consummate stage lead, and a less capable performer could have easily mishandled the complexities with which his character forces us to wrestle. Instead, Denzel is a master craftsman, and his discreet directorial style reminds one of a filmed stage play.

On the subject of the filmed stage play, this is Denzel’s third directorial outing (following Antwone Fisher and The Great Debaters), and here’s the thing – it’s not all that cinematic. If you’re looking for a Denzel movie with visual flair, you might be better suited to something like John Q or American Gangster. It’s a slightly unusual moviegoing experience, watching something that feels very much like a Broadway drama on film, though it’s not unprecedented. For example, I’m a huge fan of the twin productions of Hamlet starring David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch, which currently only exist for a wide audience in a filmed-stage-play edition. For an audience primed for that – and for an audience who can’t go see the real thing in person (Denzel’s Fences was staged in 2010, while the Hamlets were overseas), it’s the next best thing. And if the only casualty of a filmed Denzel stage play is that it’s a little uncinematic, it’s a sacrifice I’m content to make, because the performances and the characters are so large and powerful that it escapes notice after a few minutes.

About halfway through the film, Rose tells Troy, “I’ve been standing here with you!” reminding him – and us – that this is her life, too, and in the same way Davis pivots the screen’s attention to her. In a film where Denzel Washington is playing such an unreserved character like Troy Maxson, it might be easy to fade into the backdrop, but Davis holds her own and gives a formidable performance, exuding emotion with a fierce glance of the eye or a despairing runny nose. So much of her performance is predicated on silences and pauses, and Davis (who was, in a word, definitive earlier this year in Suicide Squad) very nearly steals the show as the film pivots into its second half with a game-changing revelation about their marriage.

Theatrical in the stage sense of the word, Fences is nevertheless a must-see as 2016 wraps itself up and bends again toward award season. Featuring two lead performances from thespians at the pinnacle of their craft, and with an unexpected range of emotions on display, Fences is a tour de force that does every bit of justice imaginable to the August Wilson playtext.

Fences is rated PG-13 for “thematic elements, language and some suggestive references.” Directed by Denzel Washington. Screenplay by August Wilson from his stage play. Starring Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen Henderson, Jovan Adepo, Russell Hornsby, Mykelti Williamson, and Saniyya Sidney.

That’s going to bring a close to 2016, folks. Over the past twelve months, The Cinema King has brought you 40 movie reviews (with eight installments of “Monday at the Movies,” a series that began in 2012), seven Top 10 lists, one Grand Marvel Rewatch (with a baker's dozen installments), and one Personal Canon (consisting of 65 essential films). What does the future hold? 2017 will see the same great content coming your way, as well as a number of exciting new features. Starting in 2017, you’ll see one of the greatest television shows of all time recapped and reviewed, episode by episode, week by week. You’ll also see the debut of “Ten at a Time,” a series which treads methodically through particularly dense films ten minutes at a time; at that rate, the first such feature should take about four months to get through. You’ll see a number of other surprises coming your way, but we don’t want to pull back the curtain all at once... If you haven’t subscribed, make sure to put your email in the box at the top of the page to guarantee your weekly dose of movie magic. See you next year!

Monday, December 19, 2016

Rogue One (2016)

It’s Disney’s galaxy, folks; we just live in it. But as I’ve said over and over, now is the best time to be alive. We’ve got comic book superheroes on film and television, engaging as ever, and we’ve got a new Star Wars film coming out every year. And if they continue to be as good as Rogue One is, that’s reason enough to hold onto the planet for another rotation around the sun.

As the Empire nears completion of its mammoth Death Star weapon just before the events of the original Star Wars film, a band of Rebels led by Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and his droid co-pilot K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk) seeks out Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), the daughter of the weapon’s chief engineer. While the Death Star’s military director Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) grapples for power by proving the strength of his facility, Jyn bristles at the notion of joining the Rebellion but finds herself drawn into the struggle as she searches for her father.

If you’ve been around this long, you know I’m something of a shill when it comes to the genres I love. It’s not that these movies can do no wrong – I took Suicide Squad to task for biting off more than it could chew and for being “more than a little strangely crafted” – but maybe I’m a little more forgiving just because these are “my” genres, movies that feel made for me. But Rogue One is, I think, a great Star Wars movie that does everything a Star Wars movie ought to do. Since buying Lucasfilm lock, stock, and Greedo-shot-first barrel, Disney has been quite enamored of the Original Trilogy era, setting its television shows, comic books, novels, and now spin-off films in that period. But they’ve been equally keen on butting up against our sense of what Star Wars can be – that is, led by someone who isn’t a whiny blond dude, with next-to-no lightsaber combat.

Rogue One is both of those things, and more, depicting the run-up to A New Hope in a way that will forever color the way we look at the original film (answering in the process a question fans have had for about forty years in the process). But it does so in a way that deepens our understanding of the Star Wars mythos – at least, the post-Disney purge canon. Rogue One unites disparate elements from the Prequels, the Original Trilogy, Clone Wars and Rebels, from tie-in books like James Luceno’s Catalyst to what I’m pretty sure are a few weapons from the Lego Star Wars video games. We even, finally, get references to the mysterious Whills, referenced in early drafts of the screenplay and novelization to Star Wars. All of this, thankfully, is never beholden to an audience’s preexisting knowledge, serving instead like bonus frequencies on the electromagnetic spectrum for those of us who have eyes trained to see them.

Because at its core, Rogue One is a film about a girl, her father, and the galaxy that finds itself depending quite unexpectedly on them. If you always thought the galaxy revolved around the Skywalkers, Rogue One asks you to look again; there’s only one Skywalker here, but as I predicted last week he’s treated like an ominous specter at the periphery of this story, the armor-plated embodiment of fury waiting for an excuse to unleash his hate. By and large, though, Rogue One is more interested in its scrappy band of Rebels, new characters all, some of whom are bound to become new fan favorites. K-2SO’s deadpan cynicism recalls a kind of killer Baymax, while the warrior duo of Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen, my personal fave) and Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen) shed light on the Force from the vantage point of someone who isn’t a Jedi.

Amid all the fresh new characters who I’d gladly follow into spin-offs of their own, though, Rogue One is thoroughly Felicity Jones’s show. Although some have drawn superficial lines between Jyn Erso and Daisy Ridley’s Rey, Jones does a fabulous job differentiating her character from the one found in The Force Awakens. There’s an unexpected emotional depth to Jyn, which Jones lets us see Jyn has repressed for so very long. She lets it burble over every so often, to great effect, and we never have a hard time believing that the tough persona she puts on in front of the other Rebels is just a defensive mechanism.

On the subject of the film’s villains, I will say that my first impression of Orson Krennic is that he’s a little undercooked. I have the disadvantage of having read the prequel novel before the film, so I know him a little better than most filmgoers, but his motivations and rank in the Empire might have been made clearer. Mendelsohn does a good job turning Krennic into a snarling power-hungry Imperial middleman, but as it is, Krennic takes a backseat to the Empire at large. Here the Empire is a giant and well-oiled machine, whose hold over the galaxy is more intimidating than any one figure could be. Then again, how daunting can an Imperial be in a film with Darth Vader? As the trailers have hinted, Krennic has a very memorable scene with Vader which puts Krennic in perspective relative to the Imperial machine he serves. Still, there’s a more personal story to be told, considering Krennic’s long history with the Erso family.

It wouldn’t be a Cinema King review without a wild comparison or two, and so I offer that Rogue One is very much akin to Captain America: The First Avenger. We knew where both films would end up – Darth Vader tells us as much in Star Wars, while we knew Cap was going to end up on ice, only to be thawed out in time for The Avengers. But just because the ending is a foregone conclusion, an accidental spoiler forty years in the making, that doesn’t mean we can’t have fun along the way, in a movie that feels more heartfelt than you might expect, given that at least a few of our heroes might have a tragic fate bearing down on them. There’s room for a few surprises along the way, but more importantly Rogue One clicks up with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice in its personification of the quintessentially human emotion of hope. Both films, even as things look quite grim, find room for optimism, for persistence in the face of adversity because “men are still good” and “rebellions are built on hope.” It’s always darkest before the dawn, we recall from an earlier Batman film, but the dawn – or in this case, the new hope – is coming.

And for moviegoers, it isn’t all that essential to hope that the Star Wars franchise continues to thrive under the gloved thumb of the Mouse. Mickey’s two-for-two. The Force is truly with us.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is rated PG-13 for extended sequences of sci-fi violence and action. Directed by Gareth Edwards. Written by Chris Weitz & Tony Gilroy and John Knoll & Gary Whitta. Starring Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Alan Tudyk, Donnie Yen, Wen Jiang, Forest Whitaker, Riz Ahmed, Mads Mikkelsen, and James Earl Jones.

Monday, December 12, 2016

The Top 10 Things I’m Looking Forward to in Rogue One

2016 has been a pretty good year so far for us moviegoers, and it’s about to go out with a bang. We still have a few flicks that yours truly is looking forward to seeing: Martin Scorsese’s long-awaited Silence, classic Hollywood romance La La Land, Passengers, Assassins Creed, and Denzel Washington’s adaptation of Fences.

But Disney has seen to it that we won’t get to the end of the calendar year without talking about Star Wars. This Friday sees the release of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, a mid-pre-sequel situated some time after Revenge of the Sith but just before A New Hope, in which the construction of the Death Star nears completion as a band of Rebels seek to steal the plans and look for a vulnerability.

Episode VIII, it’s not, but as much as I’m dying to return to that hilltop to see what Rey and Luke will say to each other, there’s plenty about which to be excited for Rogue One. And so, in the tradition of last year’s post to a similar point, here’s my “Top 10 Things I’m Looking Forward to in Rogue One.”

10. Politics in a galaxy far, far away. As much as we’re all wearied by the proceedings of Election 2016 and any number of high-stakes electoral proceedings this year, Lucasfilm’s Creative Executive Pablo Hidalgo pointed to the above scene aboard the Death Star in A New Hope as key to Rogue One. As rich as the clip is in terms of Star Wars lore, one major plot point is that the Emperor has only just gotten around to disbanding the Senate, meaning it’s open season in Rogue One. Will this film’s events be the ones that push Palpatine to finally erase the last pretenses of democracy in his Empire?

9. And speaking of politicians... You won’t see Donald and Hillary in Rogue One (thank the maker), but you’ll see a few familiar faces from the Prequel Trilogy – Bail Organa (Jimmy Smits) and Mon Mothma (Genevieve O’Reilly). The Force Awakens largely steered clear of the still-radioactive prequels, but Rogue One seems to be embracing the parts that worked, namely the good casting in Revenge of the Sith. And with Bail Organa in tow, can a certain cinnamon-bunned princess or her prissy goldenrod protocol droid be far behind...?

8. Ground combat. The Force Awakens delivered on its aerial dogfights (and how) with hotshot pilot Poe Dameron leading Resistance forces, but we haven’t really seen sustained fighting on the ground in the Star Wars universe since The Empire Strikes Back – and we all remember how well that worked out for the Rebels. (And no, the Ewok ambushes don’t quite count.) With Rogue One said to inhabit a kind of WWII vibe, seeing ground assault troops and the AT-ATs glimpsed in the movie’s trailers, this could get ugly in a very beautiful kind of way.

7. Snarky droid. K-2SO looks to be a mean and sassy droid, comfortable with deadpan assertions of impending doom and honest appraisals of nihilistic futility. He’s voiced by Alan Tudyk, who (if you only know him as Wash from Firefly) has quietly become one of Disney’s premier voiceover artists with memorable turns in Wreck-it Ralph, Frozen, Zootopia, and even as the demented chicken Heihei in Moana. If all goes well, Tudyk could turn K-2SO into a wry reflection of C-3PO.

6. Inside baseball. Even though Rogue One is something of a standalone film, it’s almost a guarantee that the filmmakers will draw connections both forward and back. There’s the return of the Prequel faces (see #9) and at least one major character from the Original Trilogy (read on...), but with storytelling being a unified venture at Lucasfilm across film, television, and publishing, I wonder what other familiar faces we might see. Does the appearance of Saw Gerrera from The Clone Wars suggest we’ll touch base with something from Star Wars Rebels, which is set in roughly the same time period and also deals indirectly with the construction of the Death Star? Will we foreshadow some famous faces, the longest shot being Alden Ehrenreich’s young Han Solo? Or will Rogue One stake out its own territory, leaving these toys in the box for appearances in future comics, novels, and films?

5. Director Krennic. Now, I haven’t finished reading the prequel novel Catalyst just yet, but from what I’ve read Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) is going to be a compelling new kind of Imperial. Less a believer in the Emperor’s endgame and more a relentless opportunist with a disdain for his fellow Imperials, Krennic promises to be vastly different from the cold and calculating Tarkin (who’s rumored to appear, as well). How precisely he fits in – or doesn’t – with Imperial hierarchy ought to be fascinating stuff. And let’s face it, this is a guy who looks ready-made to be Force-choked for his failures. (Remember, he’s not at the table in A New Hope.)

4. I have a bad feeling about this... With the persistent refrain that this film ends about ten minutes before A New Hope, we can’t help but wonder how many of these characters are going to make it out alive. It’s a big galaxy, and there’s plenty of room for them to hide out to explain their absence in the Original Trilogy, but I can’t believe that the Imperials make it all the way to the Tantive IV without making sure that the plans could only be in Leia’s hands: all of which doesn’t bode well for our scrappy band of rebels.

3. One “Rogue” in particular. We’re getting a real motley crew for Rogue One, but the standout role looks to be that of protagonist Jyn Erso. She’s going to be a different breed of Star Wars heroine, more cynical a Rebel than Princess Leia, tougher than Rey, and with more family baggage than Padmé Amidala. Plus we have an Oscar nominee in Felicity Jones, so the character is in good hands, ready for a journey of galactic proportions.

2. Michael Giacchino’s score. The Clone Wars and The Holiday Special don’t count – this is the first Star Wars film not scored by the maestro himself, John Williams. But Michael Giacchino is just about the best possible successor I could imagine; his work relies on motifs and melodies in a very Star Wars-ian way, and he’s already followed in Williams’s footsteps on Jurassic World. Giacchino has proven himself versatile and gifted, and while I’m excited any time I see Giacchino’s name on a score, Rogue One compounds my interest. How much will he borrow from Williams’s operatic book of themes, and how much will he innovate? Will we see his trademark puns on the soundtrack titles?

1. Hcho-peh... hcho-peh... hcho-peh. You might not recognize it when I type it out, but you’ll know it when you hear it – Rogue One is bringing back the heavy-breathing, black-clad Dark Lord of the Sith himself, Darth Vader. While it remains to be seen whether he’ll be seeking the Rebel base, hunting down the stolen Death Star plans, or both, the original Man in Black is back. Here’s hoping director Gareth Edwards treats Vader like he depicted Godzilla – sparingly, obliquely, and terrifyingly powerful.

How about it, folks? What are you most excited to see in Rogue One? We’ll see you back here next week for a look at Rogue One. Until then, may the Force be with you.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Moana (2016)

While Disney is remaking and reinscribing their classic animated fare with varying degrees of success (from Maleficent to The Jungle Book, the results have been a mixed bag), they’re simultaneously churning out what can best be described as revisionist fairy tales in which Disney can be seen to rewrite its gender politics vis-à-vis the “happily-ever-after through true love” narrative. (Zootopia might even fit in here, though from here Big Hero 6 seems to fit better with the Marvel movies.) Moana certainly fits in the latter camp beside Tangled and Frozen, and while I wasn’t as bowled over by Moana as I was by Frozen, Moana is still a fine offering.

Fueled by a longing to take to the seas, young Moana (newcomer Aul’i Cravalho) bristles against her father’s insistence that she stick to her island roots and prepare to lead her people as their chief. But with the gentle encouragement of her grandmother, Moana discovers another destiny, one that leads her to the exiled demigod Maui (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) and his own begrudging quest for restitution.

Your mileage, as ever, may vary, but perhaps because the bar has been set so high of late by Disney, Moana did not knock me out. Last month I returned from a few days in Walt Disney World, so maybe it’s the fact that I’d very recently mainlined the magic of the mouse, or perhaps it was the burden of expectation (always a dangerous thing to carry into a movie theater) based on precedent and extant reviews. Heck, maybe I’d been jaded by the dispiriting array of trailers on tap before Moana. Or maybe it’s just that Moana is good but not great. Maybe, in the words of Captain McCluskey, “I’m getting too old for my job... too grouchy.”

I did like it, but the superlatives aren’t there for me to purge like so much ipecac. I enjoyed the soundtrack in the moment, though I didn’t leave the theater humming any of the tunes; I laughed at the jokes, but I can’t say that I could repeat any of them for you. What did impress me mostly began with the letter C – Cravalho, coconuts, the chicken, and a crustacean. And the tattoos.

Time will tell whether Cravalho becomes a major star or not (remember, the voice of Mulan now has a regular spot on Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD), but she acquits herself well in her debut feature in a part that feels written to play to her strengths – her determination, her singing prowess, and her ability to keep pace with the more seasoned voices in the cast. While I never fully dissociated Maui from the man I knew to be voicing him, Cravalho inhabits Moana with aplomb and breathes life into her.

The plot of the film can be loosely described as a Polynesian Odyssey, with a series of episodic adventures along a sea voyage on a mission from the gods. In these adventures, we meet a seafaring band of pirate coconuts (or is that coconut pirates?) who are equal parts adorable and terrifying, a fine feat of visual design and wordless storytelling. Then there’s the mad chicken Heihei (voiced, surprisingly, by the dulcet clucks of Alan Tudyk), who almost steals the show with his dimwitted struts and well-timed mishaps. Rounding out a kind of trinity of fascinating creatures (or, put another way, “fantastic beasts”), we have Jemaine Clement as the klepto crab Tamatoa, who gets a fun musical number in which to express his offbeat sensibility while serving as a kind of Joseph Campbell’s gatekeeper for a literal sword-in-the-stone moment.

Lastly, if I wasn’t knocked out by Maui himself, his tattoos are quite impressive, hand-animated amid the computer cartoonery that is the film’s milieu. Indeed, it’s little surprise that the film’s directors have had a hand in many of Disney’s last twenty years of animated films, especially because Maui’s tattoos recall the Grecian aesthetics of Hercules back in 1997, a film I remember fondly. These semi-sentient tattoos continue the coconuts’ good work of silent storytelling, drawing on the bulging biceps and swirling linework of Hercules to great effect. Maui seems irritated by their rebellious approach to his own self-mythmaking, but it’s an audience delight to see a hole poked in the demigod’s bluster

I have nothing bad to say about Moana, except to say that I have nothing tremendous to say about Moana, which feels a bit like the movie review equivalent of a “first world problem.” Moana is the very model of reliable entertainment, steady on course for Disney, even if the effect is more that of a pleasant dream – left with a good feeling but without the lasting memory that would accompany something a little more substantive.

Moana is rated PG for “peril, some scary images and brief thematic elements.” Directed by Ron Clements and John Musker. Written by Jared Bush, Ron Clements, John Musker, Chris Williams, Don Hall, Pamela Ribon, and Aaron & Jordan Kandell. Songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Opetaia Foa’i. Starring Auli’i Cravalho and Dwayne Johnson.

Bonus review! Moana is preceded by the short film “Inner Workings,” which is very much the half-remembered dream equivalent of the immaculate Inside Out. Here, a man’s internal organs react to the drudgery of office work, the temptations of the beach, and the overwhelming urge to micturate. It’s clever but ephemeral, perhaps hampered by the protagonist’s uncanny resemblance to Carl Fredrickson from Up, and it never arrives at the depth of concept or feeling that Inside Out did. But it’s cute and doesn’t overstay its welcome.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Arrival (2016)

You may have noticed that I have this tendency to compare compelling science fiction to Inception. In fact, in the case of Big Hero 6, Looper, and Transcendence, I usually draw a straight line back to 2010. This inclination, I admit, is somewhere between hagiography and tracking cultural influence, for few will deny that I am a disciple of Christopher Nolan and that the post-2010 science-fiction line-up does have a lot in common with Inception.

However, I’m not going to say that Arrival has much to do with Inception. (Nor am I going to spoil anything, promise.) Instead, I’m going to draw the connective tissue a little closer to the present, toward Nolan’s most recent film. Arrival is essentially a moody, Kubrickian Interstellar, without much in common with Inception beyond the same pleasant mental gymnastics as we follow along with the film’s very smart plot.

Amy Adams stars as Dr. Louise Banks, a linguistic professor whose loose affiliation with the United States government puts her at the top of the list when twelve alien spacecraft arrive on earth. Drafted to help translate an alien language in order to understand the spacecrafts’ purpose on our planet, Dr. Banks works with a theoretical physicist (Jeremy Renner) and a wary colonel (Forest Whitaker) to piece together the mystery of the arrival.

Not just because both films utilize Max Richter’s “On the Nature of Daylight” to great effect (and affect), there are parts of Arrival that feel very much like Martin Scorsese’s underrated Shutter Island (perhaps not coincidentally, also 2010, a real important year for me as a filmgoer). Somewhere between Arrival’s fog-bound aesthetic and its depiction of resilient optimism in the face of a crumbling world, a belief that ultimately things will make sense if we study them hard enough, I was reminded of Shutter Island and its similarly determined worldview. In both films, we have a “detective” of sorts, whose dogged pursuit of a graspable truth – in whose existence very few of the other characters actually believe – plays out amid dreary weather and mournful violin solos which suggest the intangibility of truth and the inherent sorrow therein. However, in Arrival as in Shutter Island, the truth is out there, if only we had eyes to see it.

In Arrival, those eyes belong to Louise Banks, and thank heavens we have Amy Adams to play the part. In a just world, Adams would be in the running for Best Actress, because her portrayal of the linguist is stunning and powerful, conveying much with a frown or a furrowed brow, and her earnest desire to understand the aliens is something that comes through even as we see just how scared she is of the possibilities presented by life beyond our little blue world. We have all these other dudes in the film – and yes, Adams is pretty much the only woman in the film, which can’t be accidental – but they take a backseat to Adams’s performance.

For as small and intimate as the film’s focus is on Louise Banks, the film has a simultaneous grandeur to it that recalls Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). The twelve alien ships, several stories high and hovering above the ground, recall Kubrick’s black monolith, suggesting perhaps shared common ground in both films’ treatment of mankind’s future and our place among the stars. There are moments in Arrival that feel a bit as though Stanley Kubrick is directing an adaptation of Wuthering Heights in which Heathcliff is an immense being at which we can only marvel, slack-jawed, while we attempt to comprehend. But where Brontë left Heathcliff somewhat inscrutable, where Kubrick might have left him to the dimension of the metaphorical, Arrival takes the occasion of immensity as a moment of contemplation. Louise begins in fear of the aliens, but track her evolution throughout the film.

Arrival isn’t a puzzle box like Inception, where we have to struggle mightily to keep up. Rather, it’s more akin to the scientific affect of Interstellar, in which mystery elements fit together thematically, not solely by virtue of their ability to clear up the plot. Rather than comprehend, we understand; we feel it. Arrival has a depth to it, a sense of truth and a very valuable point about geopolitics and the need for a utopian perspective. Louise Banks has that utopian vision, that belief that her work has purpose, direction, and possibility, where others see only futility and predetermination. It’s to the film’s credit that it convinces us to see things her way, and in a brilliant third-act reveal, teaches us how to do it, too.

Director Denis Villenueve – we at The Cinema King remember him fondly from Prisoners – is slated to direct the forthcoming Blade Runner 2049, and while I’ve never thought that film needed a sequel, seeing Villenueve at the helm of a compelling and grand science fiction film has me rethinking my tune.

Arrival is rated PG-13 for “brief strong language.” Directed by Denis Villenueve. Written by Eric Heisserer. Based on the short story “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang. Starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Tzi Ma.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Hacksaw Ridge (2016)

I’m not sure how much cache a ten-minute standing ovation at the Venice Film Festival has to the world at large, but to me it says that a film is worth a look. And while a ten-minute standing ovation is difficult to fathom for most anything (I put more stock in rewatches and DVD sales), Hacksaw Ridge is a compelling war film that seems primed for a place of prominence when the Oscar calendar closes in a few weeks.

Andrew Garfield stars in the true story of Desmond Doss, a conscientious objector who nevertheless enlists in World War II as a combat medic, refusing to carry a rifle and earning the ire of his commanding officers (Vince Vaughn and Sam Worthington). Throughout, Doss refuses to compromise his values, even amid the challenges of his Great War veteran father (Hugo Weaving) and new bride (Teresa Palmer).

What surprised me most about Hacksaw Ridge was the way that director Mel Gibson unites two very disparate tones in a way that’s surprisingly compelling and which makes the second half all the more effective. The film begins feelings very much at home in the 1940s, reminiscent of something like Sergeant York or The Best Years of Our Lives, with a very simple romantic plot arc that’s almost syrupy sweet. This nearly naïve worldview is thrown into stark contrast to the horrific fog of war in the film’s second half, in which Doss’s wide-eyed beliefs are tested in the most intense crucible imaginable. That the film doesn’t feel like two disparate halves is perhaps Gibson’s greatest achievement here.

When it comes to directing combat footage, Gibson’s no slouch, either. In this respect, the film has been compared to Saving Private Ryan (which, full confession, I still haven’t seen), and there’s a certain brutality to the war scenes that succeeds all the more because of the false sense of security into which the film’s first half lulls us. But even taken in isolation, Hacksaw Ridge has a grisly intensity in its war sequences that is both disconcerting for its gore and frightening in the number of jump moments Gibson manages to navigate. We truly feel, as Doss must have, that we are out of our element.

Garfield’s earnest portrayal of the peaceable country boy goes a long way toward selling the central conceit of the film, and I have to wonder if we’ll be looking at a Best Actor contender when the next Academy Awards roll around. (I also wonder if Gibson’s cactus-hugging days are behind him and if he’ll be up for Best Director, as well.) Garfield plays Doss as a man of conviction, a man for whom his decisions don’t come easily. When his father chastises him for wrestling with his conscience, it’s not a revelation for the character; we’ve already seen these conflicts play out on Garfield’s face and in the quaver of his voice. Even if he’ll always be a Spider-Man to me, Garfield proves himself capable of a range wider than my typecasting gives him credit.

It’s really a Gibson/Garfield show through and through, although the film wisely cedes the floor to the real Desmond Doss just before the credits roll, letting us see the real soldier on his own terms and revealing that the film doesn’t exaggerate much about his humility and his religious devotion. It’s these real-life clips which confirm the truth of the story that the film tells us, and in so doing it solidifies my belief that Hacksaw Ridge is one of the most powerful war films in recent memory. Uncompromising in both its wartime gore and its dedication to the true story of a remarkable hero, Hacksaw Ridge is a strong contender for early award buzz, and it’s entirely well-deserved.

Hacksaw Ridge is rated R for “intense prolonged realistically graphic sequences of war violence including grisly bloody images.” Directed by Mel Gibson. Written by Robert Schenkkan and Andrew Knight. Based on a true story. Starring Andrew Garfield, Vince Vaughn, Sam Worthington, Teresa Palmer, and Hugo Weaving.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Doctor Strange (2016)

Blend Iron Man with Guardians of the Galaxy, stir in a liberal portion of Inception, and season lightly with Grey’s Anatomy, then bake for two hours in the classic Marvel Cinematic Universe formula, and you can imagine something pretty close to Doctor Strange, Marvel’s fourteenth and latest film which introduces magic and interdimensionality into the narrative tapestry of the MCU. While some have used the word “formula” derisively, Doctor Strange is an excellent example of why we don’t fix that which is not broken.

Benedict Cumberbatch joins the MCU world as Stephen Strange, an arrogant and narcissistic surgeon whose fate changes after a grisly car accident ends his medical practice by shattering his hands. In search of answers, Strange travels to Kamar-Taj, where he learns from The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and her pupil Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) the magic of the mystic arts. As rogue sorcerer Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) breaches the boundaries of reality to invite discord, Strange must choose between his old life and the new responsibilities he learns in Kamar-Taj.

Director Scott Derrickson has to introduce a lot of new things to Marvel with Doctor Strange, and he does a deft job of taking the universe into a new direction. While some of the magical aspects of the film resonate with Thor: The Dark World’s convergences and Ant-Man’s microverse, Doctor Strange is the most overtly mystical Marvel film to date, but a thrilling opener in the Mirror Dimension convinces the audience that this is all of a piece with what’s come before. Derrickson certainly owes a debt to the extra-gravitational imagery of Christopher Nolan’s Inception, sharing with the 2010 film a fondness for bending cityscapes and rotating corridors.

Derrickson also has to shuffle Benedict Cumberbatch into the MCU, and it’s honestly a little shocking that a star this big had to wait eight years to break in. But boy, does he fit right at home. Cumberbatch plays Strange as startlingly unpleasant in the film’s first act (with a particularly brutal one-liner to McAdams, which might be the MCU’s meanest line to date), and his sincerity in scenes laden with special effects goes a long way to selling us on the inherent strangeness (no pun intended) of the film’s conceits.

While I might not have intended to make a joke just there, Doctor Strange intends several, with a brand of humor that is more akin to the quirks of Guardians of the Galaxy than the snappy one-liners of Captain America: Civil War. (The librarian Wong, in particular, reminds one of Dave Bautista’s Drax.) Indeed, for all the high-concept magic and interdimensional strife at play in Doctor Strange, the film is surprisingly funny, lighthearted in the way we’ve come to expect from the MCU. Even characters like The Ancient One have their wry jests, and in that sense Doctor Strange’s sense of humor is more unexpected and therefore more successful. (Humor, after all, relies on the collision of the expected with the unexpected.)

As fantastic as Civil War was, reminding us of all the things we’ve loved about the MCU, Doctor Strange has me excited for the future of the universe, showing what can be done when the film tries something a little offbeat, something new about which the audience might not already have a preconceived notion. With Black Panther and Captain Marvel on the horizon, Marvel is setting up for a few new tricks, but if Doctor Strange becomes a kind of Iron Man for the future (both in setting tone and in installing an iconic star as the figurehead), I’m on board for fourteen more.

PS - Be certain to check out a 3D screening. I can't imagine the film working halfway as well in two dimensions.

Doctor Strange is rated PG-13 for “sci-fi violence and action throughout, and an intense crash sequence.” Directed by Scott Derrickson. Written by Jon Spaihts, Scott Derrickson, and C. Robert Cargill. Based on the Marvel Comics by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, Mads Mikkelsen, and Tilda Swinton.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Monday at the Movies - October 31, 2016

Welcome to another installment of “Monday at the Movies.” Today’s Halloween, so we’ve got a very scary feature on tap for you.

10 Cloverfield Lane (2016) – For a film released back in March, there’s something suitable about me finally getting around to it in October. 10 Cloverfield Lane is a quiet creepy success, perfect for an after-midnight movie with all the lights out. Like its titular predecessor from 2008, 10 Cloverfield Lane is a bit of a mystery box, about whose plot the less said, the better. There’s a fine twist, though – where the original Cloverfield left no question about its monster movie affinity, 10 Cloverfield Lane invites us to wonder along with our protagonist Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) whether her captor (John Goodman) is telling the truth that the world has been unlivably ravaged by forces unknown. Director Dan Trachtenberg plays up the claustrophobic aspect of the bunker prison, which might actually be Michelle’s salvation. Winstead is suitable as the damsel in quasi-distress, an unsurprisingly competent hand at the panicked till. But it’s Goodman’s show through and through. I’m a big fan of movies like this, which give master craftsmen a chance to play a role that is truly terrifying, and Goodman plays it perfectly. At turns, he’s the true monster of the film, a horrifying abductor whose mouth-breathing portends a kind of supernatural terror; in other moments, though, he’s surprisingly sensitive and paternalistic, suggesting he might not be all bad – misguided, perhaps, but well-intentioned. Of course, the film never cops out and does address its central questions, and sooner than you’d expect, too, leading to a final act that is divinely unpredictable. With the recent news that there’s more to come from the Cloverfield brand, 10 Cloverfield Lane doesn’t need to take me captive.

That does it for this week’s edition of “Monday at the Movies.” We’ll see you next week!

Monday, October 24, 2016

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back (2016)

Back in 2012, I really enjoyed Jack Reacher as a surprising find amid the end-of-year fare that December. It didn’t do much in the department of the new, but it excelled in the field of competency and cleverness. Four years later, Jack Reacher: Never Go Back takes a clear and safe path down the middle of the middling road, erring on the side of generic without ever living up to its own promise.

Journeyman Jack Reacher (Tom Cruise) roams the country looking to right wrongs, but when he arrives in Washington, D.C., to liaise with Major Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders), he discovers that the major has been imprisoned for espionage. Suspecting that a game is afoot, Reacher strikes out on his own to pursue the truth about Major Turner and about the young girl (Danika Yarosh) who may be his daughter.

Four years ago, it seemed fairly obvious that Jack Reacher was the launching point for a new film franchise – although it seemed very much of a piece with Tom Cruise’s Mission: Impossible work, Jack Reacher was something of a scrappy American James Bond rather than the polished and unflappable Ethan Hunt. Equally good in a fight or a moment of deduction, there was much to like about Jack Reacher, even if the character wasn’t particularly distinctive in and of himself. But, as they say, he could have been a contender.

Instead, the sequel features Jack Reacher in a very generic plot, a half-hearted thriller in the espionage mystery subgenre, which doesn’t have much in common with the original film, nor does the protagonist actually drive the plot. Indeed, the film might better have been titled Jack Reacher: Ladies Night Out, because the three women – Smulders, Yarosh, and Madalyn Horcher, who plays a sergeant who assists Reacher – end up doing most of the heavy lifting as far as investigation and deduction go. (In fact, I suspect one might enjoy the film more if we think, as I tried to do, of Smulders as playing Maria Hill in a SHIELD-themed spinoff of The Winter Soldier. Henry Jackman’s score here certainly reminds one of such.)

When he’s in action mode, Jack Reacher is compelling enough, but it’s tough to hang a whole film on running/jumping/punching (just ask Pacific Rim), especially when it’s pretty much all that Reacher does of consequence in the film. And it’s a particular shame in this film when there’s an opening scene that introduces the character in pitch-perfect fashion – it’s the opener you’ve seen in trailers for months now, and it establishes the character in fairly succinct order. He’s a ferocious brawler with a sly sense of humor and a head for meticulous planning. Now that’s a character in charge of his own film, and a character who ought to enjoy a long and prosperous franchise.

We certainly get the former, plenty of action shots in which Tom Cruise punches someone so hard he leaves a bloodstain on the wall behind him. As action setpieces go, Never Go Back is probably worth going back, but it lacks the deductive ingenuity that made Jack Reacher such a surprise. Much of those investigative elements are given to other characters, leading one to wonder what Jack Reacher’s actually doing in this movie. Here, Reacher is reduced to following orders (something the character isn’t, I presume, known for doing) and roughing up ruffians who pursue him.

What he doesn’t do is command the screen in the way that he did four years ago. If we’re going to disregard the subtitle’s advice and come back for more in a third outing, let’s not give Reacher a sidekick or a love interest or even a commanding officer. Just turn him loose and let him do his thing. And let’s be smart about it, though “smart” is seldom the operating word in a sequel.

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back is rated PG-13 for “sequences of violence and action, some bloody images, language and thematic elements.” Directed by Edward Zwick. Written by Richard Wenk, Edward Zwick, and Marshall Herskovitz. Based on the novel by Lee Child. Starring Tom Cruise, Cobie Smulders, and Danika Yarosh.

Monday, October 17, 2016

The Accountant (2016)

The Accountant was something of a surprise to me. The trailers looked intriguing, but I had little sense of the plot and knew only that it carried a very strong cast attached to the project. There’s no accounting for taste, but there’s much about The Accountant that should compound your interest.

Put another way, if we’ve just been through the McConaissance, which saw Matthew McConaughey score big in a slew of major projects, does this mean we’re well and truly in the age of the Benaissance? Has Ben Affleck well and truly (and finally) redeemed himself after Gigli and Jersey Girl? Has the Dark Knight returned?

Ben Affleck stars as the eponymous accountant, Christian Wolff, whose unassuming demeanor conceals his dangerous work as a bookkeeper for the most dangerous illegal operations, cooking the books for drug lords, terrorists, and enemy states. While two Treasury agents (J.K. Simmons and Cynthia Addai-Robinson) pursue the mysterious accountant, Wolff is hired to investigate the books of a robotic prosthetic company after a low-level employee (Anna Kendrick) reports a revenue leak to her boss (John Lithgow).

Perhaps the key to enjoying The Accountant is not quite knowing what to expect, and the delight of it is that there’s a little bit of everything in this movie. We’ve got espionage, both corporate and political, organized crime and disorganized shootouts, nascent friendships and deep family connections. You might even think of The Accountant as a superhero origin story, showing how Wolff goes from a troubled boy on the autism spectrum to one of the world’s most capable – and surprisingly dangerous – financial analysts. Indeed, we might think of Christian Wolff as an autistic Jason Bourne, with a mathsy dose of Batman sprinkled in for good measure.

(Sidebar, and without going into too much spoilery detail, am I the only one who feels that J.K. Simmons was very much on a trial run for Commissioner Gordon here? I wouldn’t be surprised to see a little bit of this characterization carry over, and I think the hat would be a good fit too.)

I’ve had high praise for Ben Affleck over the last decade or so; he’s evolved into a fine director, and I stand by my statement from back in February that he’s “an excellent choice” for Batman, on whose capable shoulders DC seems to be resting their cinematic franchise. As Wolff, in a portrayal where it might have been easy to phone it in, Affleck does more than one might expect with monotone deadpans and escalating senses of panic brought on by moments where he’s unable to finish a task (his dominant trait, I’d say, is his single-minded devotion to completion). I’ve seen this movie touted as a thriller, and while I wouldn’t go quite that far – it seems to defy categorization in a way that I found refreshing (while others wanted more focus in genre) – I would say that there are thrills to be had when we see Wolff encounter a situation we know is going to trigger him, and we feel that same building tension within ourselves, as when a cleaning crew begins to erase his dry-erase marker work. Credit to Affleck for crafting a character whose reactions are consistent and easy to understand and to anticipate, and credit to director Gavin O’Connor for giving room for Affleck’s performance to shine.

Although there are other wonderful performers in the film – one senses, for example, that Anna Kendrick’s character could have been a downright sidekick in another version of this film, or that Jon Bernthal’s shadowy hitman could dominate a movie all his own – it is first and foremost Affleck’s show, and he handles it with grace. Points for creativity (hat-tip to writer Bill Dubuque for an original and fulfilling script) and points for the wow factor of surprise, but the bottom line is that it’s Affleck’s balance sheet and the rest of the cast are just numbers that add up to one heck of a film.

The Accountant is rated R for “strong violence and language throughout.” Directed by Gavin O’Connor. Written by Bill Dubuque. Starring Ben Affleck, Anna Kendrick, J.K. Simmons, Jon Bernthal, Jeffrey Tambor, Cynthia Addai-Robinson, and John Lithgow.

Monday, October 10, 2016

The Girl on the Train (2016)

It’s impossible not to compare The Girl on the Train to 2014’s Gone Girl (or, in the world of the not-cinematic, to compare the two source novels by Paula Hawkins and Gillian Flynn, respectively). Both are wildly successful novels by women novelists, texts about missing and presumed murdered women, told by unreliable narrators with the spotlight of suspicion cast on nearly every character. They’re page-turners, and they’re both told with a competence that one might not expect from a narrative which might otherwise be fare for a Lifetime Original Movie.

In any other context, Tate Taylor’s adaptation of The Girl on the Train would be a runaway hit. And perhaps it is unfair to compare The Girl on the Train to Gone Girl, but it is to my eyes unavoidable and Tate Taylor isn’t David Fincher, and so Train becomes a distant second. It doesn’t do anything wrong aside from not being Gone Girl, which – when the comparison is so strongly invited – ends up a bit of a dark shadow.

Emily Blunt stars as the eponymous girl, Rachel Watson, an unreliable narrator if ever we’ve seen one. Amid a fog of mass transportation, substance abuse, and her own internal brokenness, Rachel thinks she observes the key piece of evidence in the disappearance of Megan Hipwell (Haley Bennett). Complicating matters, though, Megan lives a few doors down from Rachel’s ex-husband and his new wife (Justin Theroux and Rebecca Ferguson), who suspect that Rachel’s escalating derangement poses a danger to their family and to Megan’s.

First of all, Emily Blunt gives a commanding performance as Rachel. Fans of the book will not be disappointed by her interpretation of the character, which is compelling in its unflinching precision in depicting her battle with alcoholism, her dispiriting recidivism, and those moments where book-readers will recall wanting to shake the poor woman by the shoulders and implore her to come to her senses. Indeed, I almost wonder if Blunt will end up filling out a lot of Best Actress lists come December. Ferguson and especially Bennett do good work too, the latter displaying a range I wouldn’t have expected after last month’s Magnificent Seven outing; as Megan’s psychology is unveiled in the film, Bennett keeps strong pace with the character, such that a pivotal water drop in the film’s third act becomes intensely significant and vividly understandable.

As I said above, though, Tate Taylor isn’t David Fincher, and so Girl on the Train simmers with these strong performances rather than Fincher’s film, which positively crackles with its kinetic energy. Setting aside the similarities in plot, both films use voiceover narration (which I usually deplore), Train doing so less effectively than Gone Girl, but I would give points to Train for finding ways to communicate visually the unreliability of Rachel as a point-of-view character which the novel expressed in its narration. Even Danny Elfman seems to be doing his best Trent Reznor impression on score duty.

There are moments, then, when I don’t feel the comparison to Gone Girl is unfair, because it does seem at times that Taylor is aspiring in the direction of David Fincher. Points in favor of Taylor (and Hawkins) – the film passes the Bechdel Test with far more grace than Gone Girl ever did. It’s surprisingly loyal to the book and very successful as a page-to-screen adaptation, but what Girl on the Train doesn’t do is transcend the Lifetime ethos with the fluidity of Gone Girl, nor do I expect Train to remain as rewatchable as Gone Girl. The Girl on the Train is very good at what it does, but what it doesn’t do is end up as essential as Gone Girl.

The Girl on the Train is rated R for “violence, sexual content, language and nudity.” Directed by Tate Taylor. Written by Erin Cressida Wilson. Based on the novel by Paula Hawkins. Starring Emily Blunt, Rebecca Ferguson, Haley Bennett, Justin Theroux, and Luke Evans.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Deepwater Horizon (2016)

Hands up if you’ve seen a film where Mark Wahlberg plays a middle-class Average Joe who becomes an American hero after being thrust into extraordinary life-threatening circumstances. Hands up if it was based on a true story? Hands up if it was directed by Peter Berg? While statistically we’re only talking about one other movie – Lone Survivor – it sure feels like we’ve seen this one before.

Wahlberg stars as Mike Williams, an engineer aboard the doomed (and retrospectively ominously dubbed) oil rig Deepwater Horizon. Against the advice of supervisor “Mister Jimmy” (Kurt Russell), BP execs (led by a seedy John Malkovich) press on with the drilling operation, sparking catastrophe when the rig ignites.

Deepwater Horizon is competently told, frightening when it needs to be and rousingly admiring of its real-life heroes in the obligatory epilogue in which we see photos of the real-life casualties. That’s the thing about Deepwater Horizon, though; it’s entirely inoffensive because it plays very much by the numbers of how you’d expect this film to bear out. Deepwater Horizon never truly transcends the genre it inhabits.

As a piece of narrative fiction, Deepwater Horizon isn’t particularly thick. Its characters are largely indistinguishable, set apart largely by the fact that they’re played by different recognizable performers who lean heavily on their reputations or, in the case of Malkovich, an accent bordering on the ludicrous. These are largely seasoned veterans, quite comfortable in their cinematic personas. Wahlberg is in top “say hi to your mother for me” mode and looks suitably beleaguered by the harrowing disaster he endures. And Russell is finely stalwart as Mister Jimmy, commanding the respect of his employees in a way that never beggars credulity. But it’s not as though there are any surprises in this one as far as acting goes. Ditto for the story, which ends up being a vehicle for big explosions and opportunities for individual heroism (usually shot against a billowing American flag, which is astonishingly flame-retardant).

When it comes to the spectacle, though, Deepwater Horizon is sufficiently compelling and doesn’t disappoint. Indeed, it calls to mind an oceanic Alien, claustrophobic with no shortage of renegade scenery ready to pop out without a moment’s notice. As with character, the film is unfulfillingly thin on plot, but its special-effects sequences are engaging and amply terrifying, though I’m not sure they have the staying power that make the film strongly memorable.

Trailers before Deepwater Horizon reveal that Berg and Wahlberg are reuniting for Patriots Day, a film about the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings. Whether this is the final installment of a thematic trilogy or the shape of things to come, there isn’t much to suggest that another film won’t be anything but more of the same. This “same” is fine enough, but it’s doubtful that the third time’s going to flip the script. If you’ve enjoyed it before, you’ll like it again, but unlike the depths which its protagonists plumb Deepwater Horizon proves to be a little shallower than filmgoers might appreciate.

Deepwater Horizon is rated PG-13 for “prolonged intense disaster sequences and related disturbing images, and brief strong language.” Directed by Peter Berg. Written by Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sand. Based on a true story. Starring Mark Wahlberg, Kurt Russell, and John Malkovich.

Monday, September 26, 2016

The Magnificent Seven (2016)

The very first thing that must be said about The Magnificent Seven is that any movie directed by Antoine Fuqua that stars Denzel Washington is automatically worth a look. Having said that, one can’t help but feel that The Magnificent Seven suffers a bit for being an ensemble piece because we don’t get as much Denzel time as we deserve. That’s not to say that The Magnificent Seven is ever boring or unwatchable, but it is underwhelming.

In a remake of the eponymous 1960 western (which was itself a remake of Seven Samurai), Denzel Washington stars as Sam Chisolm, a bounty hunter recruited by Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett) to save her village from a mustache-twirling robber baron (Peter Sarsgaard) who wants the exclusive mining rights to the valley. Chisolm assembles a posse comprised of the self-proclaimed “world’s greatest lover” (Chris Pratt), a mountain man (Vincent D’Onofrio), a traumatized Confederate and his Chinese comrade (Ethan Hawke and Byung-hun Lee), a Mexican outlaw (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), and a Comanche (Martin Sensmeier) on his own path.

Here’s a pretty good cast, and it’s really very evident that they’re all having a terrifically good time together. D’Onofrio is delightfully strange, as is his wont, and the rest of the cast seem to enjoy playing off that peculiarity. (Ten points to anyone who can identify that accent, incidentally.) Washington and Pratt are, essentially playing variations on the Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen, with an engaging chemistry between the two of them.

It is, however, a chemistry predicated on Pratt playing the clown and Denzel as the straight man, which is a tragic underutilization of the latter’s skill. It’s no surprise that Pratt is a success as a character that boils down to “Star Lord by way of John Wayne,” but it’s a wonder that Denzel loses to his costar so many opportunities for clever one-liners and sarcastic reactions. This isn’t to say that Denzel himself is a disappointment – in a sense playing both the leads of Django Unchained, Denzel is charismatic and heartbreaking, determined and haunted, and (we sense) withholding a part of himself from his exterior out of a sense of duty and propriety. But it is a bit of a letdown to come to expect a leading performance out of an actor who’s modest enough to embrace his role as 14% of an ensemble.

The Magnificent Seven is not, as its title promises, magnificent. It’s not a transcendent moviegoing experience, but then again in late September I don’t think it has to be. Because on the other hand, The Magnificent Seven is not a disappointment of heroic proportions. It’s fun and fluffy and diverting, and it doesn’t do anything egregiously wrong. It’s in that Baby Bear territory of “just right,” and perhaps it’s gluttonous of me to want the Papa Bear portion of a Denzel Washington western. Moreover, it’s different enough from its predecessors to justify its existence as a variation on a theme. At any rate, keep them coming, Denzel, because I’ll be in the front row every time.

The Magnificent Seven is rated PG-13. Directed by Antoine Fuqua. Written by Nic Pizzolatto and Richard Wenk. Starring Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D'Onofrio, Byung-hun Lee, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Martin Sensmeier, Haley Bennett and Peter Sarsgaard.

Monday, September 19, 2016

The Personal Canon - By the Numbers

Before we get started with a quick statistical analysis of the Personal Canon, a small update - The Personal Canon now holds 65 films. The updated list is as follows (films in blue have been added since 9/5/16):

Duck Soup (1933)
Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)
Citizen Kane (1941)
The Maltese Falcon (1941)
Casablanca (1942)
Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)
It's a Wonderful Life (1946)
Adam's Rib (1949)
Stalag 17 (1953)
12 Angry Men (1957)
Inherit the Wind (1960)
Psycho (1960)
Goldfinger (1964)
The Godfather (1972) / The Godfather, Part II (1974)
Annie Hall (1977)
Star Wars (1977)
Superman (1978) / Superman II (1980)
The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
Batman (1989)
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
Goodfellas (1990)
The Rocketeer (1991)
Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993)
Groundhog Day (1993)
The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
Pulp Fiction (1994)
Toy Story Trilogy (1995-2010)
The Usual Suspects (1995)
Hamlet (1996)
Air Force One (1997)
The Big Lebowski (1998)
The Mummy (1999)
American Psycho (2000)
Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003)
Pirates of the Caribbean Trilogy (2003-2008)
The Incredibles (2004)
The Dark Knight Trilogy (2005-2012)
The Departed (2006)
Stranger than Fiction (2006)
Charlie Bartlett (2007)
No Country for Old Men (2007)
Ratatouille (2007)
There Will Be Blood (2007)
Burn After Reading (2008)
Iron Man (2008)
Taken (2009)
Black Swan (2010)
Easy A (2010)
Inception (2012)
The Avengers (2010)
Skyfall (2012)
Man of Steel (2013)
Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)
Captain America: Civil War (2016)

Not too many updates to explain - just the addition of Burn After Reading, which had been excised during the old "limit 50" days, and the other two films in Gore Verbinski's Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, which were on cable the other day and likewise were considered "encompassed" by the 2003 film. With that out of the way, let's get on to crunching the numbers.