Rogue One, unlike any other Star Wars, is just a movie

The release of a new Star Wars film is never just another movie. Through their relative rarity, a Star Wars movie is a major event, taking over the cultural conversation and, of course, the toys and adverts for the season. It worked last year, when the prospect of a new Star Wars lit the world on fire, aided by the fact that is decidedly didn’t suck. Disney’s decision to slot canon but non-saga films in between Episodes at first seemed promising, a chance to explore the universe in interesting ways. Instead of giving freedom to filmmakers to tell original stories, however, Disney has instead greenlit a young Han Solo movie and Rogue One, the story of the theft of the Death Star plans. While the former really seems like a shameless cash-in with no reason to exist other than an easy couple hundred million, Rogue One had a bit more potential, telling the story of the rebels who didn’t quite have a Chosen One status to protect them. While Rogue One mostly works as entertainment and does keep a lot of the necessary Star Wars feel, its indebtedness to its predecessors and lack of focus keep it from ever really popping. For the first time in the franchise, Rogue One really feels like just another movie, something that passes two hours effectively enough but doesn’t leave you wanting to explore more or spend more time in its world. Instead, it left me wishing for what it could have been.

There are at least three great ideas within Rogue One that could have been expanded to make their own movie, but instead get stuffed into a planet-jumping escapade. There’s a movie about Rebel spies gathering intelligence, and defections from the Empire. There’s a movie about extremist factions in the Rebellion, and how they interact with the more moderate yet still militant Alliance (and what extremism even means in these circumstances). And, most prominently in the last act, there’s a Star Wars version of Saving Private Ryan, of Rebel soldiers on a doomed mission. The hints towards this last idea make up the best act of the movie, and there does seem to be some juice in making more movies about The Star War itself. Instead, Rogue One tries to keep the bones of a normal Saga film by having the main characters move all over the galaxy, but continually loses focus in the process.

Having the main characters mobile works well for the Saga films, but the central crew of Rogue One isn’t developed or interesting enough to pull the same trick. For a movie with such a welcomely diverse cast (although still overwhelmingly male), the actual characters in a Rogue One are pretty bland and inseparable. Most pass without much impact, notably Diego Luna’s Rebel captain, while others try to make up for it with hammy performances, notably Forest Whitaker’s extremist leader Saw Guerrara. While Felicity Jones’ Jyn Erso isn’t quite a Chosen One in the vein of Luke, Anakin, and Rey, her familial tie to the Death Star plans makes her feel more like a plot device than a character. Although he does get some of the best lines of the film, droid K-2SO feels like a factory-approved fan favourite rather than an inspired creation, answering the question of what a more homicidal C-3P0 would look like. Riz Ahmed’s presence makes up for his character’s complete lack of definition, but there’s no comparison of this batch to Rey, Finn, and Poe in Episode VII. Poe similarly had little definition, but the little touches the script and Oscar Isaac’s performance gave him made him feel complete with relatively little screentime. Outside of K-2S0 and Donnie Yen’s force-sensitive preacher, I can’t say that any of the characters in Rogue One are half as memorable with twice the screen time.

The biggest issue I have with Rogue One, though, is how enslaved it is to A New Hope. As the Death Star is an obvious connection, certain characters make sense to bring back, such as Grand Moff Tarkin, Mon Mothma, and even Darth Vader. But Rogue One doesn’t stop there, and bringing back the likes of the two Mos Eisley bar thugs serves only to distract from the story at hand. In order to bring back Tarkin, a CGI Peter Cushing wanders around. This might have been convincing as a hologram but is directly at the nadir of uncanny valley among flesh-and-blood actors, robbing him of his authoritative presence. Rogue One‘s reverence does give it some strength, reinforcing to a more convincing degree than the original saga the connections between the Death Star and the nuclear nightmare. It also nails the run-down aesthetic in the same way that The Force Awakens did (an inner-city ambush is a highlight for this). But its a necessarily lesser picture because of its indebtedness.

The first shot of Rogue One mirrors the first shot of A New Hope almost exactly, but with a fantastic fake-out that announces itself as reverent, but different. Unfortunately, it overloads on the former and underperforms on the latter. Whether the infamous reshoots had anything to do with it or not, Rogue One is more concerned with comforting its audience than being its own thing. That’s not to say its without merit, though. Star Wars is a fantastic universe to be comforted in, and the final forty minutes of the film deliver on the promise of a story of forgotten heroes, of sacrifice and slim hope. The audience’s knowledge that said hope is fulfilled by a farmboy from Tatooine is the only thing that keeps it from being completely depressing, and I could have done without the constant winks toward that. The finale sequence still stands as both exciting entertainment and a promising launchpad for future side stories in this universe.

C+

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Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)
Directed by Gareth Edwards
Starring Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Riz Ahmed, and Ben Mendelsohn
Rotten Tomatoes (85%)

Obligatory Ranking: V>IV>>VI~VII>>RO>>II>III>I

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Rogue One, unlike any other Star Wars, is just a movie

The new Jungle Book is brighter than suggested

While, like any child since the 1970s, I have seen the 1967 Disney’s The Jungle Book, it has been a fair number of years, and all that really stuck is “The Bare Necessities” and some chatter from Cub Scouts. But even without a deep bond with the most famous adaptation, the live-action redux seemed unnecessary from the trailers for one reason: its grimness. Check out the original trailer again, and feast yourself on that smorgasbord of animal scowling. Notably, it ends with Baloo lazily swimming down the river, and while it certainly has some unnecessary action and scare elements to it, it still has the same feel-good spirit in its veins as the animated version, putting a just-fresh-enough spin on the material to justify double-dipping.

The decision to go half-and-half with CGI and live-action pays off rather well, immediately distinguishing it visually from it predecessor, and with high-quality animation that only rarely betrays its true computerized nature. It’s still a bit off-putting the first time a panther opens its realistically rendered mouth and speaks, but its easy enough to get over. The voice cast is mostly excellent and occasionally eclectic; Bill Murray as Baloo the bear and Christopher Walken as King Louie the monkey have no reason to really work, but Murray’s amicability and laid-back delivery suit Baloo perfectly, and Walken’s disjoint mafioso delivery saves what’s otherwise the least essential part of the film. Scarlett Joahnsson’s Kaa appears only briefly, but re-affirms her as a surprisingly stunning vocal character actor, an inviting yet otherworldly presence. Idris Elba is fierce as Shere Khan, although his accent breaks through distractingly at times. While the film wisely decided not to be a musical, “The Bare Necessities” does make an appearance. While its not the show-stopper it was in the original, Murray’s laid-back approach suits the film perfectly. Less perfect is the in-film brief interlude of King Louie singing “I Wanna Be Like You”, which distracts and clashes tonally. But some of songs are re-done with the movie cast for the credits, showing that the cast would have been more than up to the challenge had they gone for a straighter remake.

While it is less of an issue than the trailers made it out to be, the new Jungle Book is still aimed at an older audience than the original (maybe 10 year olds instead of 5 year olds). It makes scary characters out of not only Shere Khan, but King Louie and Kaa. The characterizations work, but often end up devolving into action sequences the pile up to make the back half slightly overstuffed. While I would not want to deprive the world of Walken as King Louie, the sequence really could have been excised, particularly its action denouement. But Favreau brings some art to it all, staging some great shots of the beasts at his disposal (I’m a big fan of the scene where Shere Khan confronts the wolf pack). And as overused as the action tropes are, the message that being able to tie a knot makes you a worthy adversary to something with the sharpest claws is certainly one worth sharing with your local Cub Scouts.

B

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The Jungle Book (2016)
Directed by Jon Favreau
Starring Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, and Neel Sethi
Rotten Tomatoes (94%)

Also, it should really be called The Jungle Movie, amirite?

The new Jungle Book is brighter than suggested

Christine is a compelling, empathetic, and mostly unnecessary depiction of a tragedy

NOTE: Technically, this review is full of spoilers, but given that it ends with the event that made its title character famous, they’re mostly impossible to avoid.

Budd Dwyer was an American politician convicted for corruption. His response was to, during a televised press conference, commit suicide by gunshot. The video of Budd Dwyer’s on-air suicide is on YouTube, free to see. Even without any hint of context, it’s a profoundly disturbing video, presenting images that are difficult to shake off. A similar incident in 1974, where reporter Christine Chubbuck killed herself on air, has also become enshrined in history, but no video of the incident remains available. Perhaps the mystery that surrounds the footage itself spurred the development of the film Christine, a biopic of sorts depicting the final weeks of Chubbuck’s life. But even though we’re seeing a fictionalized version of events, Christine is disturbing in the same way as the Dwyer footage, and while it’s well-made and well-acted, it’s hard to say whether it justifies its own existence beyond our morbid curiosity.

Christine opens with most of the wheels spinning towards the tragedy already in motion, seemingly waiting for another shoe to drop. Chubbuck, as played by Rebecca Hall, is living with her mother, infatuated with her co-worker (Michael C. Hall), and upset at her boss’ reaction to the ratings struggle of their news program. While he wants juicier stories, Chubbuck wants to focus on issues and character-based stories. While the film threatens, at times, to become a retread of Network and Nightcrawler, it ultimately isn’t about exposing the shallowness of the news, but rather exploring Chubbuck’s depression. While certainly the actions of others contribute to her malaise, the film never suggests any ill intent or Carrie-esque villainy. Most of the characters, from her freedom-seeking mother to her colleagues, are imperfect people trying to help Chubbuck in imperfect ways. The film’s portrayal of Chubbuck doesn’t let her off the hook for her own inflexibility and self-centered worldview, exposing the shallowness of her character-based news stories through her inability to see other people beyond the narrow roles they fill (mother, love interest, boss/enemy). It’s a delicate line to walk, as Chubbuck could easily come across as intolerable, but Hall’s performance lets us feel her struggle every step of the way. The fact that she’s struggling to be her best self and unwilling to change her expectations of what that means is tragic, but Hall makes her relatable rather than infuriating.

Does Christine offer enough to justify its own existence beyond the very blood-and-guts sensationalism that Chubbuck railed against? Is a powerful performance and non-trivialized depiction of depression worth exploiting a real-life, ultimately small-scale tragedy? It’s a compelling film, but does it offer a unique enough perspective? It comes closest in its final moments, focusing on how co-worker Jean (Maria Dizzia) deals with the aftermath. Hall’s Chubbuck was unable to relate to the struggles of others, even though they mirrored her own more than she knew. In exploring the coping mechanisms of others and providing some last-minute characterization to a scene-filler, Christine suggests that broad empathy may be the best healing salve.

B

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Christine (2016)
Directed by Antonio Campos
Starring Rebecca Hall, Michael C. Hall, Maria Dizzia, and J. Smith-Cameron
Rotten Tomatoes (85%)

Christine is a compelling, empathetic, and mostly unnecessary depiction of a tragedy

Nocturnal Animals is a cold, but human, puzzle box

In its opening credits, featuring nude overweight women dancing with sparklers apropos of nothing, Nocturnal Animals tries to announce itself as BOLD and ARTISTIC, but mostly haughty. The scene, which in-universe is an art exhibit held by Susan (Amy Adams), is sure to immediately turn off many, coming across as degrading people who can’t live up to the physical standards of its attractive and thin cast (including Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Armie Hammer, etc) and its fashion icon director, Tom Ford. Nocturnal Animals manages to turn this around over its two hour runtime, becoming more of a examination of (bordering on slam against) the sharks in the upper echelon of artists and fashionistas. It’s a bit of a trip to get to that conclusion, and it leaves enough open ends to allow multiple interpretations, but once it kicks into gear, the mysteries of the film are a treat to unravel.

Nocturnal Animals operates as a fiction-within-fiction story, which isn’t necessarily clear from the trailers. Susan is sent a manuscript of a novel dedicated to her from her ex-husband, Edward (Gyllenhaal), whom she hasn’t heard from in over a decade. We follow both Susan’s response to the novel and her memories of Edward, as well as the action of the novel itself, where husband and father Tony (also Gyllenhaal) whose family has a chance encounter on a lonely road in Texas with violent ends. The two stories seem disparate for a long stretch of the film, but eventually Susan finds that her relationship with Edward has informed the story in unflattering ways. While marketed as a psychological thriller with Susan as the target, Nocturnal Animals is more of a study of authorial intent, and how we carry the burden of how we mistreat and are mistreated by the ones we love. The story-within-the-story is a bit shallow on its own, but gains depth from the knowledge about its author that Susan provides.

There’s no denying, however, that the story-within-the-story is more fun to watch, mostly thanks to the performances of Michael Shannon as a shady detective and Aaron Taylor-Johnson as a terrifying sociopath. Ford’s vision of Susan’s life is closer to his comfort zone, but his portrayal of rural Texas is surprisingly rich visually. However, even though Susan’s coldness is an important part of her character, Adams plays Susan as if she’s constantly walking through a dream in a fugue state, which works half the time and feels incredibly stilted the other half. While I love where it ends up (although the ending itself is sure to be divisive), some of Susan’s scenes are a bit of a slog until the pieces from the fictional narrative start to click. The Susan narrative of Nocturnal Animals may benefit from a repeat viewing knowing what to expect, but its second half rewards patience with its first.

B+

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Nocturnal Animals (2016)
Directed by Tom Ford
Starring Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson
Rotten Tomatoes (72%)

SPOILERS and Stray Observations:

  • The opening sequence, which features an array of nude overweight women holding sparklers and seemingly celebrating America Itself, seems at first like a parody of elitist art, with Susan arrogantly calling it a mirror held up to society, but interviews with Ford suggest that it was meant genuinely (if not apologetically). However unnerving Ford’s original idea was (and however much his explanation makes it sound like he’s never met anyone with a waistline before), the fact that Susan would be the artist behind such an exhibit really informs her character in a not-too-flattering way. If Susan is the type to paint a group of people with such a broad brush, it fits that she’d also be able to paint a picture of Edward in broad strokes as well. Susan (and Ford) may have intended the exhibit to show the flaws in America, but it foreshadows the flaws and materialism in herself.
  • MAJOR SPOILERS (highlight to read): The casting of Isla Fisher as Tony’s wife is pretty sly, given her resemblance to Adams. It definitely feels like she is supposed to represent Adams at first, and her death represents the end of their marriage. But what I didn’t notice right away is that, were that the case, why is Tony still played by Jake Gyllenhaal? Tony’s wife is never supposed to be the ersatz Susan, but rather Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Ray is the Susan stand-in the whole time (as is made clear by his mirroring of Susan’s words calling Tony/Edward weak). While I liked that the ending was an appropriate vengeance on Susan, the fact that Tony ended up dying of a self-inflicted gunshot wound bodes poorly for what Edward was actually up to after sending the book to Susan.
  • Seriously, what was up with that jump scare on the baby monitor? Did that serve a purpose?
Nocturnal Animals is a cold, but human, puzzle box

Too Late is defined too strongly by its (sometimes skillful) gimmicks

Too Late is halfway decent noir story anchored by a more than decent lead, but it lets itself get swallowed by its gimmicks. The movie is presented as a series of five twenty-odd minute one-take shots, with mixed results. The opening segment has some neat tricks behind it, including getting star John Hawkes from one end of town to another while maintaining action at a fixed point, and the reveals in the last are effective. But not all of the actors are up to the task, and the reliance on the one-take structure don’t do them any favours; many of the scenes in the second section, in particular, have a student-play vibe to them, despite the presence of known names like Robert Forster and Jeff Fahey (Dichen Lachman, however, acquits herself well as a twist on the no-nonsense stripper trope). The nonlinear structure also feels like an afterthought to add some unnecessary extra novelty. The sidebars the movie somehow finds time for don’t always work, such as a pair of minor drug dealers with no real purpose other than to pad out the takes and the film’s annoying insistence on using film itself as a source of dialogue far too often. If it lost its gimmicks and shed a bit of fat, Too Late has the bones of a good gumshoe flick, albeit one a bit too reliant on stuffing women in refrigerators.

C

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Too Late (2016)
Dir. Dennis Hauck
Starring John Hawkes, Crystal Reed, Dichen Lachman, and Natalie Zea
Rotten Tomatoes (70%)

Too Late is defined too strongly by its (sometimes skillful) gimmicks

Loving is a subdued and unfortunately dry dramatization

There’s an old stereotype about awards bait that goes something like dramatize civil rights trailblazers, collect nominations. Loving seems to fit into this category, as its the story of Mildred and Richard Loving, an interracial couple whose legal battle for recognition in Virginia led to a national end to race-based marriage restrictions. It’s the kind of political victory that nearly everyone today agrees was a fantastic thing, and gains relevance with the recent analogous decision for same-sex marriage and renewed focus on race relations. It even has a convenient double meaning in the title, which would be hilariously over-the-top were it not true and all. But it’s important to recognize that the title is Loving, not Loving v. Virginia. Direct Jeff Nichols has decided to tell the story of the couple, with the court case happening mostly in the background. This decision avoids most of the sappy and melodramatic pitfalls of awards season drama, but it doesn’t often bother to replace them with something interesting to watch in the interim.

The fact that it works at all is a testament to the tender performances of Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga. Edgerton portrays Richard as something of a good-old-boy, handy and eager to provide for and protect his family, but full of genuine decency. The movie often returns to the image of Richard building houses for others as his job, contrasting with his frustration at not being able to build a house for his family. Mildred seems more passive at the start, although Negga’s performance never lets her seem unaware, but she shows more altruistic tendencies at the prospect of setting legal precedent. However, as the movie starts with Richard and Mildred getting married, there’s little done to sell the bond between these two people in the early going. While the performers make it work by the halfway mark, there’s nothing to invest us in the events of the early going aside from a historical sense of decency.

The movie portrays a marriage in a tender and subdued way, while not focusing much on the conflict. There is some spark of trouble in the second half, when Mildred welcomes media attention for the cause while Richard more wishes the world would vanish, but its understated to the point of subtext. Nichols standard Michael Shannon briefly shows up to inject some life as a photographer, but vanishes as quickly as he appears. The legal proceedings are secondary, which is likely a stealth blessing given that Nick Kroll shows up as the main attorney; Kroll bears a physical resemblance to the real Bernard Cohen, but doesn’t have range outside of “grinning jackass”. Despite the legal mountain to climb, Loving doesn’t present a human villain to personify the conflict, outside of Martin Csokas’ sheriff in the first half. His sheriff is an uninteresting condescending bloviating racist stock type, and essentially every other character with a speaking role in the film is sympathetic to the Lovings’ situation (although many, including Richard’s mother and Mildred’s sister, deem their devotion foolish), forcing us to frame the central conflict in terms of Lovings vs The World. Since we know going in that the Lovings are successful, there isn’t any urgency to the story. The moment that Mildred receives the news about the Supreme Court decision should be a major reason for cheer, but instead elicits are resounding meh.

Director Jeff Nichols has established himself as a rural storyteller with his previous films, such as Take Shelter, Mud, and Midnight Special. Each of those portrayed areas in the Southern USA with a distinct directorial voice, linking them together even though they had vastly different content, ranging from an examination of schizophrenia to a story about a super-powered preteen. Loving has some of Nichols’ eye, especially in its treatment of car culture, but at many times looks like the awards bait it desperately tries not to be (the cloying strings of the score don’t help). Its dedication to restraint and its lack of soapboxing is admirable, but there’s very little else to fill that space other than a time capsule of the way things was. His previous films have a knack for portraying people realistically, but the situations surrounding them made their plights more interesting. Putting realistic people in a realistic situation treated realistically turns out to be less interesting to watch than one might think.

C

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Loving (2016)
Dir. Jeff Nichols
Starring Joel Edgerton, Ruth Negga, Martin Csokas, and Nick Kroll
Rotten Tomatoes (89%)

Loving is a subdued and unfortunately dry dramatization

Moonlight is a gorgeous and compassionate study of self-identity

“Who is you” is the repeated refrain of Moonlight, the story of Miami-born Chiron told in three chapters corresponding to three ages (grade school, high school, and mid-20s). The answer is complicated. Chiron is shy. Chiron is black. Chiron is poor. Chiron is the son of an neglectful mother and absent father. Chiron is the target of bullies. Chiron is coming to grips with his homosexuality. Chiron seems to be a laundry list of melodrama and angst, but it’s to Moonlight’s great credit that it never loses sight of the fact that Chiron is Chiron. Moonlight is, more than anything else, a emotionally resonant and empathetic character study. The fact that is has beautiful cinematography, a tremendous score and soundtrack, and shines a light on a traditionally ignored segment of the population is all gravy.

Each chapter is titled for a moniker of the main character (Little, Chiron, and Black, respectively), and grapples with his self-identity. The three chapters can be roughly broken down into three epiphanies: understanding your world, understanding your self, and understanding how to accept and be honest about your self. Every side character is written solely in terms of their relation to Chiron (I can only think of one scene without the main character), including a drug dealer who becomes his de facto father figure and his friend Kevin, who greatly influences his fortitude and his sexuality. Despite Chiron being a person of few words, director Barry Jenkins’ camera and the performances of the three actors playing Chiron give us a complete, intimate picture, transcending the shallow stereotypes that appear on the surface, particularly in its third act. It seems ready to jump into yelling, violence, and melodrama at any point, but opts for restraint in nearly every case while still providing pathos and catharsis.

What pushes Moonlight from effective to extraordinary is its beautiful production. Jenkins’ frames are all a piece of art unto themselves, popping with slightly over-saturated colours (the full title of the original play is In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, and you better believe they get that shot). There’s a lot to dissect in each image, and they paint a vibrant and distinctive world in spite of the often depressing material. The soundtrack is loaded with the kind of old soul and R&B that Kanye West made a career out of sampling, contrasting with the strings of the stunning original score. And the performances are fantastic from top to bottom, with Naomie Harris and Mahershala Ali deserved locks for supporting Oscar nominations.

Moonlight is an utterly absorbing and beautiful film with unflailing empathy for its main character. It avoids the numerous awards-bait pitfalls, standing a singular and triumphant work. As a piece of visual art, Moonlight is worthy of study. As a gripping drama, Moonlight is entirely effective. As a time capsule of an era where identity has taken centre stage, Moonlight is maybe the most important and relevant film of the year.

A

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Moonlight (2016)
Dir. Barry Jenkins
Starring Trevante Rhodes, Ashton Sanders, Mahershala Ali, and Naomie Harris
Rotten Tomatoes (98%)

  • Obligatory burn: Moonlight is the movie Boyhood would have been if Richard Linklater was a more interesting human being.
Moonlight is a gorgeous and compassionate study of self-identity