Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

The push and pull between new directions and tones and nostalgic fan service make for a frustrating “Star Wars” spinoff.

Rogue One PosterThe paradox of “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” is that it’s somehow tonally and thematically separate from the original “Star Wars” films but pays even more homage to the original trilogy than even “The Force Awakens,” amazing, since that movie is essentially a remake of “A New Hope.”

Its hero is not a wistful young farm boy but a cynical girl named Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) who has been in exile and shuttled around Galactic Empire prisons and work sites for years. The film’s first scene recalls the cruiser soaring overhead at the beginning of “A New Hope,” but “Rogue One” forgoes even the iconic opening crawl.

There are moments at which the film even diverts from George Lucas’s ideologies of good and evil and of the power of faith and religion. One of the film’s standouts is Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen), an acrobatic yet blind protector who is not a Jedi but senses the Force in the world. When he chants relentlessly “I am one with the Force, the Force is with me,” it’s a noble yet bleak mantra as he marches into certain death and the unknown of the open battlefield. Continue reading “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story”

I, Daniel Blake

Ken Loach’s Palme D’Or winning film is a powerful tearjerker and scathing indictment of the State.

I Daniel Blake PosterIf Americans can’t respond to the politics of the Palme D’Or winning “I, Daniel Blake” as strongly as the Brits, they’ll still be able to appreciate its emotional wallop. Director Ken Loach has spent his life in film defending the poor, working class by championing human fortitude and decency. And by taking on the worst form of inane bureaucracy, something that Republican or Democrat, Green, Labor or Conservative have all found frustrating, he’s told a story that’s as funny as it is heart wrenching.

We first hear a frustrated Daniel Blake (Dave Johns) impatiently fielding invasive questions about his health to a faceless bureaucrat with a voice so blandly calm it sounds like a recording. His doctor says he’s not fit for work, but the government says he’s fine. Daniel’s caught in limbo: unable to work but also unable to receive benefits.

We hear stories like this in the US, and in Trump’s America it’s anyone’s guess as to whether someone could find empathy for this person. “I, Daniel Blake” however is very specific to Britain, exposing a convoluted system that should inspire as much debate as sentiment. Continue reading “I, Daniel Blake”

Toni Erdmann

Be patient with this slow-burning, yet hilariously unpredictable German comedy

toni-erdmann-posterYou need to be patient with “Toni Erdmann.”

This nearly three hour-long German film goes nearly an hour as just a modest family comedy with some awkward humor before finding its voice. It’s only with a complete and sudden surprise does the movie’s naturalistic, deadpan filmmaking get thrust into full on anarchy. It’s worth the wait.

Maren Ade’s film milks the absurd from the ordinary, a loving comedy between a father and daughter grown estranged. And yet “Toni Erdmann” overcomes its Hollywood log line by establishing a tone of suspense and uncertainty. The film is rarely manic, but the set pieces defy predictability. Continue reading “Toni Erdmann”

The Best Movies of 2016

Conventional wisdom would have it that 2016 was an awful year. Gene Wilder, David Bowie, Prince and many more stars all passed away. Shootings at night clubs and a fire at an Oakland venue sent shockwaves through communities and brought into question where we as Americans can feel safe. And of course the election results were not only the opposite of what I would’ve hoped for, but they polarized the nation so deeply that facts and freedom seem to hang in the balance.

Since the election results, I’ve been far more guarded about projecting what I believe. What’s the use when either no one wants to hear a word, or it will only echo around in a bubble of shared values?

The same could be said of movies. I’m sure for many culture writers it’s tempting to rank the most “relevant” movies and present them as “best.” It would be films that aren’t so much “good” as they are reflections of the writer’s worldview and what they say about 2016 today (somehow I feel “Sausage Party” wouldn’t do so great on that list). But when I think about the consequences of writing that sort of list in the wake of the election, I ultimately have very little interest. I’d rather present a list of the movies I would most recommend to anyone right now and leave the rest for the would-be pundits.

And yet these movies do reflect America and 2016 better than I would’ve imagined when I penciled each into a working list. You could place these films literally on a map of the US and find unique swaths and identities represented across the board. They’ve all come from a new class of elite directors and artists rather than the auteurist veterans who have been shaping the conversation for decades. And best of all, they’ve carried meaning and value for me both before and after the election. How we interpret them may evolve, but their texts and their emotional power remain unchanged. Continue reading “The Best Movies of 2016”

Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them

J.K. Rowling plays up the whimsy over the darkness in her first of five Harry Potter spinoffs.

fantasticbeastsposterYou may have forgotten how whimsical the original Harry Potter book and film once were. J.K. Rowling’s first novel was akin to a Roald Dahl classic, a magical story fit for children and only slowly developing the stakes and the real world connections across the entire series.

Now comes “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” a Harry Potter spinoff in which the story is not based on a book but is an original screenplay developed by Rowling. It carries the weight and expectations of the darker, later films, all of them directed by this film’s director David Yates. But the story’s charms are far lighter in nature, only hinting at the many directions this blossoming franchise can go.

For instance, the movie opens with the portent of the rise of Gellert Grindelwald, the evil wizard who believed in magical purity before Voldemort came around. But that prelude soon gives way to Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) chasing a fuzzy, teleporting platypus around Manhattan. Continue reading “Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them”

Oasis: Supersonic

Director Mat Whitecross captures Oasis at their best and most important in this fascinating rock doc

oasisdocposterI can envision two different Oasis documentaries. The first would be called “Wibbling Rivalry,” named for a 14-minute audio recording between a journalist and Noel and Liam Gallagher in which the two bicker incessantly and show their unique brotherly love and hatred for one another. It would focus on how the band broke up simply because these two tossers can’t find a way to get along. It would culminate in a moment a few months ago, when asked if the band would ever reunite, Liam tweeted “FUCK OASIS” and proceeded call Noel a “POTATO.” I would pay good money to see that movie.

The other is “Oasis: Supersonic.” This film takes Oasis at their absolute best and indulges the Gallagher brothers’ massive egos as though they really were the biggest rock band in the world. Director Mat Whitecross ignores the rest of the musical world around them and unironically refers to Oasis as the last pre-Internet phenomenon. That may not be true, but it works because the doc immerses us in the perspective of the Gallagher brothers and how they looked at themselves. It has the same treasure trove of archival and live concert footage as Ron Howard’s recent Beatles doc “Eight Days a Week,” but it is far better at examining what about these songs captured the attention of a generation. Continue reading “Oasis: Supersonic”

Things to Come

Isabelle Huppert shines in this intellectual character study from Mia Hansen-Love

thingstocomeposterMany movies can barely muster one thought provoking central question to guide their characters. Mia Hansen-Love’s “Things to Come” is full of them: “Can truth be debated?” “Can we put ourselves in the place of the other?” “A government so perfect is not suited to men.”

And yet “Things to Come” crosses over into being too academic once we’re introduced to the “anarchists” who commune in the mountains, talk about philosophy and do seemingly nothing. “Things to Come” may be touching and thoughtful as a character study, but it’s too talkative and introspective to be profoundly memorable.

At the very least though, Isabelle Huppert as philosophy teacher Nathalie grants “Things to Come” warmth and wisdom alike. Her character may hide behind her intellect, but it’s Huppert’s poise to withhold her emotions and make her authority known in front of her students that makes the performance great and Nathalie wonderful.

And she’s forced to soldier on through a lot. At first her book on philosophy will not be renewed for a new edition. Then it’s the death of her mother and a split from her husband that send her in pursuit of companionship and solace from a handsome former student.

While many will admire “Things to Come’s” intelligence, many more will appreciate it’s simpler charms, like a nuisance of a cat named Pandora, a name that simply invites trouble. Perhaps most profound of all is how that stupid animal, as much as it wanders and vanishes, will be the most consistent part of Nathalie’s life as she aims to reinvent herself.

In that way, “Things to Come” will make you ponder your own values and philosophies before reminding you there’s more to life than just those philosophy.

3 stars

The Comedian

Robert De Niro can’t get laughs with a thin premise and outdated view of the comedy scene

The ComedianIn the Post-“Louie” era of TV and film, people have become fascinated with the psychology of The Comedian. And it’s hardly Earth shattering to suggest that these people who make us laugh are not one-dimensional clowns but artists with personal struggles and complexities.

Taylor Hackford’s film “The Comedian” has been an idea percolating with Robert De Niro as long as eight years ago, but eight years later it now has the familiar premise of “Bojack Horseman,” barely the heart of even a mediocre “Louie” copycat and an antiquated view of Internet comedy and stardom. Continue reading “The Comedian”

The Best Albums of 2016

2016 was a rough year for deaths in music, and it begs the question whether rock and roll itself will survive.

Is Rock and Roll dead? In a podcast between Steven Hyden and Chuck Klostermann this year, the rock critics clarified what they mean when writers like themselves make such a bold statement. It’s not that guitar-centric rock music will disappear altogether (although maybe it could), or that great rock albums won’t come out year to year (they seem to be getting fewer and fewer). It’s just that as far as landmark albums go, the ones that sell massive amounts of units, that are widely critically acclaimed and that make a significant impact on the culture at large and the history of music, very few seem to be clear-cut, meat and potatoes rock records.

In a just world, or maybe in another time, an album like Car Seat Headrest’s would be as acclaimed as the early Weezer records. A band like DIIV would be as influential as Nirvana. An artist like Angel Olsen would be culturally important on par with Joan Baez or Carole King. Savages would be massive feminist icons. William Tyler would be as successful as Clapton. Wye Oak would be a band that people would’ve actually heard of. Radiohead would be, well, Radiohead. And David Bowie would still be alive.

All that shouldn’t diminish the greatness of Chance the Rapper or Blood Orange, who are making monumental waves in rap and R&B, spiritual and socially poignant albums that advance their respective genres. But I only wish half of these rock acts were taking over the world in the way Chance and Dev Hynes are. My list reflects those diverse tastes and hopes for the survival of good music. Continue reading “The Best Albums of 2016”

Hacksaw Ridge

Can Mel Gibson’s movie about faith justify its amount of gratuitous violence?

hacksaw_ridge_posterCan a movie about non-violence be violent? That’s the question that tormented me as I watched “Hacksaw Ridge,” a war film of immense power that’s inspiring and emotional but also endlessly brutal. How does director Mel Gibson square the film’s religious values with the film’s gratuitous bloodshed? What amount of gore crosses the line, or is the question moot?

Many war films before “Hacksaw Ridge” have depicted unspeakable horrors on screen, all with the conclusion that war is bad, but the context and the means are what separate the good films from the bad, the noble from the tasteless. In fact, Gibson faced similar questions with his film “The Passion of the Christ.”

But “Hacksaw Ridge” does justify the means. The film is one-dimensional in its value system: life can be disturbing and painful, but those who stay true to faith and belief can do real good in this world. There’s much that can be said about the nature of religion in this film, the absence of other forms of belief than a Christian god, the short sighted approach to the values of the Japanese soldiers, let alone the secular American soldiers as supporting characters. But Gibson so earnestly believes with old-fashioned charm and honest storytelling that such a message is worth sharing, no matter the bloodshed the story requires. Continue reading “Hacksaw Ridge”