Gareth Edwards’s Rogue One (B) is the Star Wars film that puts its titular wars front and center with a Dirty Dozen style assemblage of warriors embarking on a strategic mission. This first standalone film outside the typical trilogy format is graced with whiz-bang visuals and bursts of muscular action, some of it a little too self-conscious as if the special effects folks came up with too many of their own ideas. The actors don’t embarrass themselves as they did in the prequel trilogy (I suppose this counts as a prequel too, just really close to the action of the original Episode IV), but they sure don’t stand out much in this crowd. Felicity Jones is fairly one-note as the understated leader of a ragtag offshoot of the Rebel Alliance in search of the original Death Star plans and the built-in vulnerability in the planet-destroying space station. Diego Luna is so subtle, you might forget he’s normally a pretty charismatic screen presence. Other actors are wasted, with only Mads Mikkelsen getting a plum part as a conflicted Imperial engineer. It’s not a great sign when the new droid – an acerbic malcontent named K-2S0 voiced by Alan Tudyk – is the primary scene-stealer. Furthermore, resurrecting the late Peter Cushing through CGI as one of the primary villains gives a dead-eyed Polar Express character effect. The film is markedly better in the second of its two hours and introduces some pretty spectacular stunts and set-pieces. It feels like a lived-in universe but doesn’t give much of the character-based humor so emblematic in the original epics or even in last year’s Force Awakens. After three films now involving the Death Star (and Force‘s Starkiller Base), this franchise could benefit from a new charged object.
Ava DuVernay’s stirring documentary 13th (A) explores the history of racial inequality in the United States, focusing on post-slavery laws and media representation followed by an examination of the rise of a mass incarceration system which has shackled African-Americans both physically and metaphorically throughout the history of our culture. Interviews with eyewitnesses and experts such as Angela Davis and Van Jones are balanced with policymakers such as Newt Gingrich and Grover Norquist to paint a fairly bipartisan glimpse at the mistakes of generations of presidential administrations, regional legislators and corporations in poorly serving the interests of minority communities. Peppering the compelling history lesson is poignant music of recent decades (Public Enemy and Common, to name a few) and stark sequences of multimedia to demonstrate the way Black America has been boxed in despite a constitutional amendment granting freedom. Particularly illuminating and powerful, since DuVernay is also a narrative filmmaker, are her references to the 1915 film Birth of a Nation, which actually originated the use of burning crosses as a terrorist tool of the KKK. Her gripping film makes a clear-eyed and essential argument that African-Americans have lived a different and parallel lives to those of privilege, and its take-down of the prison industrial complex will be illuminating to viewers. This may indeed be DuVernay’s seminal work as she is in complete command of a myriad of complex issues and delivers a piercing thesis. This is must-see moviemaking.
The entire feature is now available to view for free in full on YouTube:
Comedians gathered in their cubicle lair, but hijinks and laughter were so rarely there in Will Speck and Josh Gordon’s amateurish lark Office Christmas Party (C-). Granted it’s hard to maintain an anarchic spirit for a full feature film even with talented actors (last year’s listless Sisters was similarly tedious), but this Party rarely gets the proper spike in its egg noggin. T.J. Miller and Jennifer Aniston play sibling opposites battling over the family business; Jason Bateman and Olivia Munn are technologists repairing botched client relationships and a misbegotten corporate social; and Courtney P. Vance is the straight-laced prospect sniffing out signs of lively office culture as the holiday shindig gets out of hand. Each member of this ensemble is phoning it in like a conference call. The reliable Kate McKinnon has some amusing moments as the HR lady, and Jillian Bell steals the show as a trigger-happy pimp who prompts some of the party fouls. Mostly it’s a wall to wall gag fest, with fewer of the pratfalls delivering the goods. Even the pranks involving sex, flatulence and drug-induced delirium – usually surefire bets in this kind of comedy – fail to land. As moviemakers, Speck and Gordon are babes in toyland squandering shiny objects all around them. Their potential watercooler wonderland becomes a bit more like entering your time-sheets.
The big draw for Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea (A) is a triumphant and buzzed-about performance by Casey Affleck, but the film is such a brilliantly realized and sustained study of grief that it should be hailed as a superb film overall buoyed by this superior lead. Let’s get to that performance first: The less-known Affleck is note-perfect fully inhabiting an indelible character, a man of few words but remarkable expression. As a loner with anger management issues, he captivates for the duration of the film. This is easily a Marlon Brando On the Waterfront or Streetcar Named Desire level role in the strong and silent type with swirls of rage mold. The film is a modern return-to-hometown tale with mysterious flashbacks that deepen character and traces the stories of fathers who overcome their demons to be strong figures for their families. Lonergan lovingly photographs an austere New England environment in which his drama unfolds. He finely observes his characters, including Michelle Williams and Gretchen Mol as frustrated mothers, Kyle Chandler in a noble portrait of brotherhood and Lucas Hedges in a natural performance as a teenager. It’s a great companion piece with another 2016 film about unlikely dads, Captain Fantastic. For wonderful acting and a moving story, Manchester is a master class.
Haunted characters inevitably return to the scene of the crime, and in Tom Ford’s stunningly realized neo-noir Nocturnal Animals (B+), its principals traverse a tragic, twisty journey to discover the inescapable character traits vexing them through adult life. Ford photographs both a posh Los Angeles modern day story and a Texas-set film-within-the-film with an almost dreamlike clarity. The actors radiate an arch intensity in flashbacks and flash-forwards over a blissfully dense old-Hollywood Abel Korzeniowski score. This amped-up storytelling style benefits shape-shifting Amy Adams as a wealthy but lonely art curator a bit more than intense-in-any-role Jake Gyllenhaal as a novelist and star of his own shattered American pastoral. Shining in more straightforward supporting performances are Michael Shannon as a plainspoken Texas detective, Aaron Tayor-Johnson as a wild-tempered roadside ruffian and a nearly unrecognizable Laura Linney as a headstrong matriarch. Packing a punch within a puzzle, Ford’s tone poem is part romance, part revenge thriller, part requiem for one’s soul; and it’s consistently absorbing and affecting. In the tradition of Mulholland Drive, In the Bedroom and Fargo, it’s a film for those who love the form. The curious finale is sure to spark conversations among cinephiles.
There are three reasons to see Kelly Fremon Craig’s The Edge of Seventeen (C+): the continually wondrous Hailee Steinfeld doing her darnedest with the film’s frustrating and frumpy front-woman role, Woody Harrelson in an understated supporting part as her high school teacher and part-time consigliere to her darkest impulses and newcomer Hayden Szeto as her awkward admirer. Much of the film’s content feels like a ho-hum homage to Sixteen Candles minus most of the comedy; in the pantheon of cinema, however, Edge does correct a blemish of Sixteen by casting Asian-American actor Szeto as an attractive and full-developed love interest. Steinfeld’s character’s central conflict involves her brother (Blake Jenner, playing his usual milquetoast Golden boy) starting to date her one best friend (an amenable Haley Lu Richardson). Most of the movie feels like a series of unfortunate first-world problems for a central character who purports to be an old soul. Her disdain for fellow millennials just seems like an excuse for the screenwriter to write wittier zingers for her character than her classmates. Compared to John Hughes classics or even turn-of-the-millennium high school comedies such as Clueless, Ghost World or Mean Girls, this entry just doesn’t deliver many revelations or comedy gems. Steinfeld gives it all’s she’s got, but she’s filling awkward shoes.
Co-directors John Clements and Ron Musker have animated quests with more Herculean tasks, drawn crooning crabs making a bigger undersea splash and created caves with greater wonders than the adventure afoot in Moana (C+), their mostly adrift Disney Polynesian epic wannabe. It’s quite enchanting to look at, at least for the first act; and newcomer Auli’i Cravalho brings lovely life to the brave and modern title character. Coupled with a goofy demigod convincingly acted and sung by Dwayne Johnson, the heroine embarks on an ill-conceived odyssey marked by listless villains, average banter and misbegotten mishaps. There’s one good song (of seven) played several times in the film, a propulsive anthem by Hamilton‘s Lin-Manuel Miranda called “How Far I’ll Go,” but alas its prescient title begs the answer “too far” or “not far enough.” The most inventive use of tattoos since Memento and a creative battalion of Mad Max style pirate ships cannot lift the story to the gravitas to which it sometimes aspires. Bogged down in bluster and with story conceits which fail to differentiate it in the Disney kingdom canon, the film is barely better than its makers’ Treasure Planet and The Great Mouse Detective. The co-directors have found unexpected box office success but might have been better off leaving this journey in the bottle.
Every couple of years, directors as diverse as Steven Spielberg, Ron Howard, John Sayles, John Carpenter, Robert Zemeckis and Christopher Nolan add to the pantheon of films addressing making contact with alien life. The notion of actually communicating with interstellar visitors, so memorably celebrated in five iconic music notes in the finale act of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, sets the stage for serious modern films tackling this task of translation, but Denis Villeneuve’s cerebral science fiction drama Arrival (A-) radically riffs on a familiar tune with a stunning viewpoint and sustained atmosphere that remixes a well-worn genre. The Canadian director follows successful crime thrillers Prisoners and Sicario with an all-out orchestra to the outsider, exploring what it means to be imbued with preternatural power to alter the course of human events or perhaps even bend time if only the universal ability to understand one another is possible. After twelve mysterious UFOs begin hovering over world cities, the U.S. military recruits a linguist masterfully played by Amy Adams to assist in making sense of alien communication. What follows is a deliberately paced, at times puzzling and consistently revealing opus on the phenomenon of language and science as bridge builders to deeper understanding and community. Adams thoroughly dominates the film and is engrossing and believable in showcasing her convictions and discoveries. Jeremy Renner is successful at playing her supporting scientist, the kind of role typically reserved for a love interest, but there’s scant time for romance when the world is at stake. The film’s effects – striking and unusual – buoy a thinking person’s meditation on big issues of international and cosmic collaboration. The kindest accolade of all is that the film inspires a desire for repeat viewing and discussion.
Benedict Cumberbatch casts one helluva spell as an intellectual, cerebral superhero with the ability to shape-shift his surroundings in Scott Derrickson’s Doctor Strange (B), a mostly engaging entry into the Marvel multiverse. The title character is an arrogant surgeon who gets his comeuppance in a crushing car accident and subsequently turns to mystical arts in an effort to heal. Cumberbatch is an unlikely protagonist, but he’s witty, literate and believable in a world in which the supernatural stakes mount mightily. Like Tony Stark/Ironman, his smarminess and smarts with science help his journey take flight. Derrickson cribs from Christopher Nolan a bit too much with secret societies of Asian warriors and Inception style city bending, but the overall vibe is cunning and imaginative. If anything the pace could have been picked up in Kundun style monastery sequences. The effects of hopping out of one’s body make for some giddy multitasking fight sequences, and the hero’s CGI cape should win best supporting costume. Tilda Swinton commands her every mesmerizing sequence as a trippy bald sorceress in a mustard-colored frock. Rachel McAdams and Chiwetel Ejiofor don’t get much to do as an ER doctor and fellow warrior, respectively; and Mads Mikkelsen is menacing as a baddie who looks like he just finished a bender at the discotheque. But it’s really the casting of the central role that’s the coup de grace of this time and space oddity.
An epic true tale of faith has met its match in a filmmaker for whom fire and brimstone are merely a prelude, and the power and singularity of his vision on screen cannot be denied. Director Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge (B) is a tough mudder of an action movie, hearkening to the actor-turned-director’s own roots in Peter Weir’s WWI classic Gallipoli and imprinted with a world-weary POV applied to WWII’s Battle of Okinawa. Funneled through Gibson’s prism of gore and glory, the film is far from subtle but nonetheless audaciously moving. At the center of the proceedings – and key to its believability – is Andrew Garfield’s knockout portrayal of real-life American hero Desmond Doss, whose Christian beliefs prompted him to become a conscientious objector to violence simultaneous to enlisting in the military as a medic without a gun. Opening sequences feel like a Whitman’s Sampler of giddy nostalgia that would give Forrest Gump a run for his money in treacly sweetness. But soon after dispensing with some basic training melodrama, the film quickly detours into a fog and slog of war and a series of difficult decisions and riffs on themes of sacrifice and redemption. The director is adroit at putting the viewer in the heart of the action, relating to the protagonist’s fear and faith of being disarmed in the face of encroaching force. Aside from casting Vince Vaughn against type as a droll drill sergeant, the filmmaker rounds out his ensemble with sterling British and Australian actors ranging from Sam Worthington to Hugo Weaving to a relative newcomer, the delightful Teresa Palmer. The images of war are among the most suspenseful and sensational committed to screen, with the titular ridge, flanked with a mountain-high netting leading infantry to setbacks and triumphs, among the splendid set pieces. The sheer duration of some of the sequences dull their impact, but the fight choreography is second to none. Many will love the film’s messages but be turned off by the graphic violence; others repelled by Gibson will miss out on a poignant story. The auteur has once again found the pulse of an incredible and inspiring brave heart.
Written and directed with poignancy and grace, Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight (A) is urgent in telling a three-chapter coming of age story of a young African-American man named Chiron and how his experiences growing up in America (largely in a surreal pastel drenched Miami) shape his identity. Rather than tackle only the physical violence associated with most inner-city dramas, the perceptive Jenkins traverses the emotional landscapes of self-worth, racial identity and sexuality and how Chiron learns to find traces of comfort in his own skin. The writer/director has fashioned a very dynamic narrative around a shy and withdrawn protagonist; as embodied by three supremely talented actors – Alex Hibbert (child), Ashton Sanders (teen) and Trevante Rhodes (young man), viewers will ache for him to come to answers. Naomie Harris is devastating as Chiron’s emotionally abusive addict mother, and Mahershala Ali is magnificent as a drug dealer who takes on a role as a near-spiritual guide. The film explores the games people play with each other and with themselves in their quest for acceptance. The clues aren’t easy to discover as the film employs an overall tone of heartache punctuated with bursts of uplift, but the journey is consistently gripping. Based on a play by Tarell Alvin McCraney, the film is splendid and assured cinema with an austere and stunning score by Nicholas Britell and a dreamlike color palette created by cinematographer James Laxton and colorist Alex Bickel (first chapter emulates Fuji film stock to emphasize skin tones followed by Afga film stock adding cyan and the final chapter in Kodak form). This is a must-see for cinephiles and is moving indeed as it pinpoints exactly why this black life matters, expanding consciousness and empathy, and how the people who come into our lives shape our evolving selves.
Mick Jackson’s Denial (C) doesn’t do cinematic justice to a true-life tale of an American professor who has to defend herself in British courts for defaming a Holocaust denier. Rachel Weisz isn’t quite compelling enough, a serpentine Timothy Spall isn’t given adequate on-screen time and the court proceedings seem rather perfunctory. A trip to Auschwitz death camps provides some powerful context about history, forensics and the nature of truth. The story is a bit of a less literary Inherit the Wind with few surprising flourishes. With topics of this much gravitas, it just didn’t feel like the filmmakers’ passions were fully ignited.