In Weary “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Take on the Death Star

[Note: This review also appeared on Film Festival Today.]

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Gareth Edwards, 2016)

Gradually, over the course of the 39 years since the release of the original Star Wars film (now redubbed “Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope“), the transmedia universe in which it lives has expanded to include books, video games and television series (animated and otherwise), among other spin-offs. Until now, however, the galaxy of narrative feature films has remained the province of the main through line of the Skywalker family, with three prequels and one sequel (so far), all flowing in one giant narrative arc. With Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, however, the masters of Lucasfilm have broken that tradition, spinning off a side yarn that serves as prequel to that first story. Yes, we had Episodes I-III, but this sets up the immediate given circumstances of the 1977 movie, ending exactly where that other story begins.

Rogue One also introduces an entirely new set of characters who exist solely, it appears, to prepare the way for the champions we already know and love. In other words, this particular movie focuses on supporting players of whose lives we were mostly ignorant until someone, somewhere, decided that their story had to be told. Playwright Tom Stoppard tried this (sort of) with Hamlet, and the resultant existential comedy Rosencrantz and Guldenstern Are Dead shed new light on both the source text and the cavalier way we treat the lives of the insignificant. That was a great experiment. Everyone is a hero in his/her own tale, after all, so why not give us this ancillary adventure, which ideally might broaden our understanding of this great fantasy of our time?

Indeed, why not? Or so I thought before watching it. Ably acted by every single participant – most notably Felicity Jones (The Invisible Woman) and Diego Luna (Blood Father), with especially fine assists from Donnie Yen (Kung Fu Killer), Wen Jiang (Gone with the Bullets), Ben Mendelssohn (Slow West) and Mads Mikkelsen (The Hunt) – Rogue One should be a lot better than it is. But right away it disappoints in a series of poorly-staged action sequences in which  Gareth Edwards shows he has learned nothing since the mess of his lumbering Godzilla, cutting his scenes for maximum confusion, mistaking noise for effectiveness. When the film slows down enough for the dialogue to sink in, we realize that the story, such as it is, has been cobbled together from all previous Star Wars films combined, as if a dictum from on high had come down forbidding a fresh perspective. We have an orphaned main character, a witty droid, and a ne’er-do-well cad who may end up doing well if only he could. In spite of itself, it sometimes entertains, but most of the time it begs us to wonder why it had to be made. 

The plot revolves around the building of the Death Star, and the Rebel Alliance’s attempts to find the schematics so they can plan its destruction. Our heroine is one Jyn Erso (Jones), daughter of Galen Erso (Mikkelsen), the engineer impressed into serving the Empire and designing the mega-weapon. We learn that he has created a weak spot that, if hit by a missile, will cause a chain-reaction explosion that will … well, we’ve seen that movie. And so the film becomes a race to find the hidden plans before the Empire can discover the Achilles heel in their new pride and joy. How do you think it ends?

To be fair, the filmmakers seem as aware of the inherent problem in the design of the movie as they are of that of the Death Star: how to make a story with a known conclusion still exciting? And there are occasional surprises – most of them depressing and gruesome – in store for those who choose to see the film (and two unwelcome surprise CG characters – one late actor resurrected and one older actor made young again – that put the uncanny in valley, and then some). But what is gained by the experience? Is it worth the 133 minutes of our time? More importantly, if the deities of the Lucasverse continue with these supporting stories, will it dim the luster of the remaining two episodes? More is usually not more, and though I enjoyed last year’s The Force Awakens (which came with its own problems with originality), I wasn’t exactly clamoring to know everyone’s backstory. With an upcoming roster of anthology films, however, it seems like we soon will. There goes the galaxy …

Ho, Ho, Ho: “Office Christmas Party” Delivers Just Enough Laughs to Mostly Justify Its Existence

[Note: This review also appeared on Film Festival Today.]

Office Christmas Party

Office Christmas Party (Josh Gordon/Will Speck, 2016)

There is something both comfortably and distressingly familiar about Office Christmas Party, a simultaneously laid-back and frenetic comedy about underdogs who triumph over adversity of their own making. Filled with talented-enough actors who have long since given up any and all ambition to rise above this kind of low-risk, lowbrow yuckfest, the movie offers some genuine laughs amid an otherwise forgettable by-the-numbers template. We know that lessons will be learned, the vicious corporate climber will see the light, and no one will be seriously hurt, though perhaps some blood will be shed on the way to a pat resolution. For what it is, it’s relatively entertaining; I’ve seen worse, though I’ve also seen a lot better.

Directors Josh Gordon and Will Speck know this territory well, with films like Blades of Glory and The Switch, the latter of which also stars Jennifer Aniston and Jason Bateman, who themselves have acted together in a number of other sometimes-funny films of similar stripe, such as Horrible Bosses and its sequel, Horrible Bosses 2. They and the rest of the multiracial cast – which includes Vanessa Bayer (Trainwreck), Kate McKinnon (Ghostbusters), T.J. Miller (Deadpool), Olivia Munn (X-Men: Apocalypse), Randall Park (The Interview, and Trainwreck, too), Karan Soni (Deadpool and Ghostbusters, as well) and Courtney B. Vance (Terminator Genisys), among a large ensemble – have a seemingly good time reveling in the messy mayhem of the plot, which concerns the attempt by a hapless boss (Miller) to prevent his sister (Aniston) from closing down the Chicago branch of their family’s IT company. To keep his office afloat, Miller decides to throw a no-holds-barred office party for Christmas (hence the title), and soon all hell breaks loose. The jokes come easy, and when they land the result is pleasant hilarity. When they don’t, it’s a harmless misfire.

I just wish the affair weren’t quite so lazy (best epitomized by the tired cliché of the not-very-funny outtakes over the end credits). Everyone here is capable of more than this (maybe not the directors, however), though I can’t imagine it hurts a lot to earn a paycheck this way, and maybe that’s the appeal. Still, if one keeps expectations low, then Office Christmas Party delivers just enough payoff (even if, at 105 minutes, it’s about 15 minutes too long) to justify its existence.

Rodricks, Reed and DeLibero on the 70th Anniversary of “The Best Years of Our Lives”

Best Years of Our Lives

Today, Linda DeLibero – Director, Film and Media Studies, Johns Hopkins University – and Christopher Llewellyn Reed (that’s me) – Chair and Professor, Department of Film & Moving Image, Stevenson University – joined Dan Rodricks on his Baltimore Sun podcast, “Roughly Speaking,” where we discussed the lovely and groundbreaking cinematic masterpiece The Best Years of Our Lives, released in 1946 to wide critical and box-office success, eventually winning 7 Academy Awards (plus one special Honorary Award), including Best Picture. Here is the link to the show. Enjoy!

2 Pieces @hammertonail: Review of “Woman on Fire” + Interview with Director Otto Bell of “The Eagle Huntress”

woman-on-fire-and-eagle-huntress

In the past few weeks, Hammer to Nail posted a couple of pieces of mine: a review of Woman on Fire, a documentary about the first openly trans firefighter in New York City; and my interview with director Otto Bell, who made The Eagle Huntress, about the first female eagle hunter in Mongolia. Here are the links to each post:

Enjoy!

“Manchester by the Sea” Is a Moving (and Messy) Meditation on Redemption

Manchester by the Sea

Manchester by the Sea (Kenneth Lonergan, 2016)

Manchester by the Sea is only the third feature film from writer/director Kenneth Lonergan, whose first, You Can Count on Me, released a full 16 years ago, was a near-perfect study of a dysfunctional family that helped launch the career of Mark Ruffalo (and featured a fine performance from Laura Linney, as well). Lonergan ran into serious post-production difficulties (i.e., studio interference) on his sophomore effort, Margaret, which took 8 years, start to finish, to make it to the screen (and with only a limited release, at that). Now, however, he is back with a movie that should, at the very least, regain him some lost momentum; it is certainly on many Oscar-buzz lists, a position that is mostly well-deserved (though allegations of sexual harassment against its star may derail these award chances). And though I may not find it flawless – befitting its profoundly human theme, it’s often messy, for better and for worse – it is nevertheless an extraordinarily moving treatment of an almost unbearable subject, tragic and funny in equal parts. For a film this sad to also offer up genuine laughs is a testament to both Lonergan’s powers as a storyteller and to his extremely talented cast.

Leading the ensemble is Casey Affleck (Out of the Furnace) as Lee Chandler, a man we first meet on a boat somewhere off the coast of Massachusetts, joking with his young nephew while the boy’s father (Lee’s brother, Joe), pilots the craft. It’s a happy, light-hearted moment, in sharp contrast to the Lee we see next, post-title sequence, who works as a handyman in an apartment complex in Quincy (a little over 10 miles south of Boston). Gone is the bluster, replaced by resignation, slumped shoulders and dead eyes. Still, something burns inside of him, as we discover when he goes out at night to a bar, gets drunk, and picks a fight. What has happened to torture him in this way? And what is the chronological relationship of the opening to the present, if present it is? One of the beauties of Lonergan’s presentation of the narrative is how fluidly we travel back and forth in time, gently gathering additional story details that improve our understanding of Lee’s condition, until the big reveal that explains all. Affleck is simply magnificent in the role, alternating between the cocky man he once was and the inchoate zombie he has become, impressive in his behavioral virtuosity.

Before we uncover the secret at the heart of the tragedy, however, there is an initial misfortune, almost as sad, that drives the plot. That brother from the boat, Joe (Kyle Chandler, The Spectacular Now), collapses from a bad heart, leaving his son, Patrick (now 16), in need of a guardian. His will stipulates that it be Lee (Patrick’s mother, an alcoholic, moved away years earlier), which comes as a surprise to the designee. No further plot spoilers here, but the rest of the film sees Lee struggle to overcome the very real demons of his past while balancing the new, unsought responsibilities of a parent. As his nephew, Lucas Hedges (Kill the Messenger) matches Affleck beat for beat, and it is in their sweet, sometimes antagonistic, rapport, that the movie offers the greatest hope for Lee’s healing. There’s a lot to overcome, however.

Affleck and Hedges are not alone, by far. Michelle Williams (Certain Women), as Lee’s estranged ex-wife, brings her usual deep commitment to the part. There is a scene towards the end of the film, between the former spouses, set on a windy street while Williams’ baby from her second marriage lies in the carriage she pushes, that will break your heart, if it hasn’t been broken already. Beyond specific movies, if one could nominate moments within movies for Oscars, I would choose that one. Chandler, in flashback, is also strong as Joe; both Gretchen Mol (Boardwalk Empire), as Joe’s ex-wife, and Matthew Broderick (The Producers), as her deeply religious new man, liven up their few on-screen bits, as well. Even more so, the film is populated by a rich cast of lesser-known talents who complement the leads in foreground and background, both.

If the film has a weakness, for me, it’s in the score, which features far too great a use of well-known classical music pieces, including Tomaso Albinoni’s Adagio in G minor (previously heard in films like GallipoliDragonslayer and Flashdance, among far too many others) and a few selections from Handel’s Messiah, as well. For those inclined to notice sound-synchronization issues, there are a few moments where the lips of a character in the front of an over-the-shoulder shot do not quite match the dialogue, since that sound is clearly taken from the close-up to which we subsequently cut. In addition, a few scenes feel oddly truncated and unmotivated, as if Lonergan were trimming away the fat and had inadvertently struck the bone. Still, these are, overall, small quibbles, since what remains is an overwhelmingly intense meditation on the power, and limitations, of redemption, beautiful even in (and maybe because of) its untidiness, a metaphor for our sometimes-vain attempts to make sense out of the chaos of living.

Mostly Entertaining “The Duelist” Is a Revenge Tale with a Russian Twist

Дуэлянт

The Duelist (“Дуэлянт”) (Aleksey Mizgirev, 2016)

A very silly, if often dramatically effective, confection of a 19th-century period thriller, the new Russian movie The Duelist gives us the violent action promised by its title embedded in a story of revenge that takes its cue from the adventures of the great French author Alexander Dumas (The Count of Monte Cristo). Best when it avoids excess sentimentality, the movie starts out especially well with a series of duels in which a mysterious nobleman, Yakovlev (Pyotr Fyodorov, Stalingrad) hires himself out to those who wish to avenge their honor without putting themselves at risk. A dead shot, he wins every time, carefully following the proper dueling code (the film even opens with a series of on-screen titles that explain parts of those guidelines) to avoid prosecution. As a mercenary, he is viewed with contempt by those whom he serves; as a man possessed, he doesn’t care. Something drives him to kill. Rest assured that the reason is revealed in the second act.

Mostly well acted – Fyodorov is compelling, as is Vladimir Mashkov (The Thief) as his eventual nemesis – and made with high production value, The Duelist only really falters in its final section, where the hero’s will is tested by his love for a noblewoman in peril. Their emoting feels out of place in the otherwise stark narrative, and their sex scene (bordering on rape) – in a carriage, in broad daylight, blinds not drawn, with gratuitous nudity, in the middle of St. Petersburg! – is possibly the most ridiculous thing in the film. Fortunately, romantic melodrama and all, the ending is still satisfying, even if derivative of most tales of revenge that have come before. Be forewarned that it is a very bloody affair, however, so be prepared to look away if the sight of red nauseates you.

It’s nice to see that such enjoyable frivolities can come out of a nation most cinematically associated with the weighty films of Sergei Eisenstein, Andrei Tarkovsky, and others. There are no grand metaphysics here, just a series of (sometimes overwrought) plot threads in service of a rollicking good time. Speaking of all the blood, one big difference from The Duelist‘s earlier Soviet cousins is its near obsession with the idea of nobility as defined by one’s DNA (which in this film they just call “blood”). Russia’s Revolution of 1917 may have led to the death of the Tsars and execution or expulsion of its aristocrats, but 100 years later, some folks seems to want to romanticize the lost past. Perhaps it’s all part of Vladimir Putin’s to make Russia great again. Whatever its larger cultural agenda, if any, The Duelist is a lot of fun, until it’s not (but then it’s fun again). See it as I did, with zero expectations, and you’ll enjoy it even more.