Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (d. Gunn, 2017) – Familiar Tunes Aren’t A Bad Thing

Guardians of the Galaxy was a surprise. Not that it was a hit that was surprising, but that it was colossal hit across the world for what it was; a relatively, little known Marvel comic is now the third most popular property in the Marvel cinematic arsenal after The Avengers and Iron Man. As such, when you have something as successful as the previous film, a case of sequelitis is even bigger. While you might be asking for more of same, but more of it, it could make you feel disappointed by the outcome that nothing has changed. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 may play the same tune as the first, riding the same coattails, but this film decides to root down on everything that made it successful the first time. It might have the same elements, but they looked inward retrospection rather than outward ambition.

Good times, good tunes, and good ol’ fun is promised, but doing the similar again is risky. People can bore easily, and certainly fatigue can make people not want to come back for more.  However, unlike other sequels, this familial tv show-esque sojourn of familial troubles and explosive effects stands on its own merits, with none of the charm missing. It certainly misses that special spark the first film has, as well its focused and crisp plotting, there is enough invention and humour to cover the more drawn out and played out elements in this latest film on the Marvel assembly line.

The film, deciding to follow the direct approach by settling its biggest mystery; uncovering the mystery behind Peter ‘Star-Lord’ Quill’s (Chris Pratt) parentage. It goes back into the main theme of the first film, the emotional conflicts of being in a family of misfits, and the complications thereof. Emotions, more interesting than dry point A to B plotting (Captain America: Civil War being a victim of this boring curse) does make the film incredibly messy, leaving some of the jokes messy and making you aware of the highs points and low points more apparent in the film. We have Quill, former space pirate being caught by surprise by the materialisation of his alien father Ego (Kurt Russell, the name being on-the-nose symbolic), assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana) is still having sister trouble with the psychotic Nebula (Karen Gillen), Groot (Vin Diesel), a big tree-like creature who died (sort of) in the last one, has been reborn as Baby Groot, and is dealing with being a child in a violent confusing world, and Rocket (Bradley Cooper/Sean Gunn), a genetically re-engineered raccoon loner, is now facing issues with being a part of a galactic family… Oh, I forgot Drax (Dave Bautista), a self-serious warrior by appearances, who seems to be along with the ride as the comic relief of all things, either his vengeance is sedated or put on hold for this adventure, where he shares in emotionally stunted banter with Mantis (Pom Klementieff), an alien with strong empathetic abilities but none of the social ones.

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These stories, with less focus than the plot for the first film, loses a bit of the thematic depth that ties it into a perfect blockbuster, and has also sacrificed surprising strangeness of the first film by virtue of being a sequel. Is it to say this film has fell short of its mark? Not likely, while probably wasn’t inspiring to be anything different or purely groundbreaking, but rather, it finds worth spending time going deeper into the characters that we know and probably love (I’m personally not a fan of Baby Groot, as his dynamic is played too strongly to edict laughs). At times feeling a bit belabored in its character journey (the second act is strangely stagnant) and some of its jokes don’t hit that hard, but its lows aren’t very low and its highs are very, very high, with Yondu (Michael Rooker), space pirate extraordinaire benefiting from some revisionism in this film compared to the last film.

The best way to view this film is to use a Tarantino coined term, ‘the hang-out movie’. The ‘hang-out movie’ is where the focus, whilst still having a plot, is more relaxed and fun when it is focused on the characters, showing off the weird quirks of the planets and civilizations they visit, and its winning soundtrack (Fleetwood Mac, Electric Light Orchestra being highlights). Jack Kirby-esque imagery, some hilarious one-liners, and the genteel cast is where the strength of the film lies. That is what people will talk about and remember, whilst they put it on TV on a lazy Sunday to enjoy.

It doesn’t feel as innovative is that we know, the galaxy knows who they are already. They’re winners. It might miss out on becoming a classic of the space opera genre (or superhero if you’re inclined), but for sheer entertainment you’d be wrong to not give this installment a shot. It does not reinvent the wheel, but this strange wheel deserves another spin.

Rating: THREE AND A HALF STARS.

 

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La La Land (d. Chazelle, 2016) – Stars in their eyes

A Dreamer Dreams A Dream, They Dreamt.

It is too rare to find a film so genuinely sincere yet modern, that is so joyous and fun yet self-aware, that cynicism can’t take it down. When you come out of the cinema, it’s hard not to be taken up with this concoction of romantic nostalgia and 2016 neo-stardom, that you will leave the cinema with such an euphoric high (with a touch of melancholy) that will hang onto you longer than most other films. This might be overpraise. The film is by no means perfect, but what does perfection got to do with it? A dream project of Damien Chazelle, the director/writer of the phenomenal jazz-drummer-thriller Whiplash, has simply outdone himself and then some.

La La Land, the affection term for Los Angeles and its starry-eyed citizens, who have drunk the kool-aid of possible stardom, is a jazz-infused musical about a struggling actress/barista Mia (Emma Stone), who is a long term veteran of the Hollywood game, already bored by the Hollywood parties and crushed dreams. After her latest rejection, she starts to randomly encounter jazz pianist Seb (Ryan Gosling), a native Angeleno who is struggling to pay the rent, and realise his dream of bringing the back by owning his own Jazz music joint and putting the classics back on. What follows is a romance where they start fall head over heels, with a bit of tap dancing, for each other, but what happens when their ambitions and life circumstances get in the way of their special duet?

The music is the key understanding this film, which is a redundant statement because it is a musical, but let’s continue.  There are many people who are critical of the script (this needs to be pointed out, La La Land is as much about modern jazz as An American in Paris is about 1950s post-WW2 French Art Scene), that its remarkableness isn’t in the narrative but how the film is so totally inspired by music.  There is a real skill in a screenplay to not just callback and revise musicals from the past, but that it is an effective emotional springboard for magnificent sequences of music, colour, dance and acting. The music sets the tune, and Justin Hurwtiz (and the lyrics from Benj Pasek and Justin Paul) brings an inventive, memorable score that takes from classic musicals of the 40s/50s, to the French New Wave musicals of Jacques Demy in the 1960s.* The score isn’t afraid to reuse and revise themes, use and discard its homages to the past, to hit a particular moments with a flexibility of emotion, from regret to joy, whether the song is sung or danced to. It might not be jazz, but it feels like it, with a playfulness moving in sync with orchestral heights, and some really inspired jazzy sojourns.

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It is a product of supreme craftsmanship, and the score works in tandem with Damien Chazelle’s direction and vision, making it hard to separate how well all talents behind the scenes and how their contributions (with choreographer ‘Not that’ Mandy Moore and costume designers Mary Zophres) work together to make this world come alive, especially in their song, music and dance sequences. From ‘Mia and Sebastian’s Theme’ underscoring the tenderness of the love story throughout, reappearing as romantic, lovely and haunting all at the same time, to the unbridled joy of ‘Another Day of Sun’ (though not unaware of disappointment from dreams, still continuing on as it is a sunny day) where multi-coloured dancers block traffic to open up the show, and make sure that you know this a musical and not ashamed. From the emotional thump of ‘Audition (The Fools Who Dream)’, where Emma Stone gives a deep, impactful solo by way of manifesto to LA’s ‘fools’, and finally, to the keynote track ‘City of Stars’, where the films optimism is rooted in the delicate time between finding love and maybe losing it. The film’s central concerns are very modern, a fairy tale that knows it is one, and therefore doesn’t lose sight of the arrogance and heartache associated with making dreams come into reality. What is truly at risk when you give the La La Land dream all your soul, and what regrets can you live with? Chazelle answers with one of the best finales committed to film in the 21st Century, an accomplishment that still lives in memory with his own spin on Gene Kelly’s dreamscapes.

Damien Chazelle supplies his vision with a virtuoso technical prowess of form, and a fine skill for blocking the actors in the frame, which he uses many, pulsating long-takes to make extravagant sequences… for lack of a better term, sing. If the film lives to music, why can’t the camera and the editing do as well? Working with cinematographer, Linus Sandgren, they make the modern, day-to-day into a grounded dream, the film never breaks its spell on you. Tom Cross (also coming back from Chazelle’s Whiplash, which he won the Best Editing Oscar for) also lends his hand to help craft the journeys of the characters, that in as much singing cuts to the heart of it all, he cuts at the right moments to get the actors maintain the illusion of romance the film puts on you.

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Emma Stone (with very much Oscar worthy performance) and Ryan Gosling, a pairing from remarkably entertaining Crazy. Stupid. Love. and lesser effort Gangster Squad, are not the stars of yesteryear as all-round singing, dancing entertainers, but they’ve got joie de vivre and chemistry. If you want to feel love, this film will meet you halfway. They bring out the characters differing sensitivities, desires,  make them individuals first so that the love they share is more vivid. It also refreshing to see a relationship that can exist both in song and in normal dialogue, both within magic hour dance-sequences of purple or conversing under red or green lights of Seb’s apartment is at once normal and magical. It is never hard to feel joy when they feel joy, to feel sad when they feel sad, that they are living humans within a genre that is done badly often, is something to celebrate.

There is so much more to say, but so much that can’t be said. It’s an experiential journey, a feast for the eyes and for the ears as you yearn to be a part of this tough, but candy coloured land.  The story of La La Land seems simple, some would say predictable, but it is more complex than you think. It’s caring but not sentimental, it’s lovely but not insufferable, that we believe in all the dreams that the characters follow. You have to be optimistic, take life on the chin when it lets you down, and let the music play on. ‘Another Day of Sun’.

RATING: FIVE STARS.

*On a personal note, I was already going to love La La Land as The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, my joint favourite film of all time with Once Upon A Time In The West, was a significant influence on the film. From Lionsgate’s press release: “Demy’s probably the single biggest influence not just on this movie but on everything I’ve done or wanted to do,” Chazelle admits. “There’s no more formative movie for me than Umbrellas Of Cherbourg. That’s a profound love that I’ve had.”

Silence (d. Scorsese, 2016) – Alone in the Mist

Preaching to the cine-literate.

Religion and Hollywood rarely mix, partly because each has its different sense of morality, that religion is a private thing to many, and hence it’s rarely a money-maker when people want to be entertained and not to be challenged too much, to not proselytise or provoke complex existential questions. They used to be terrified about what happens when it all goes wrong: Martin Scorsese’s first attempt at a religious epic, The Last Temptation of Christ met the ire of many Christian communities, many countries banned it, and even a terror attack in France was committed in opposition, due to its narrative/character experimentation. Things have changed (slightly), even looking past the mega success of the blood-soaked The Passion of the Christ, producers are seeing the potential revenue coming from Christian audiences in the United States and around the world. In one corner, God’s Not Dead and PureFlix’s other, right-leaning Christian films take in audience’s cash whilst working with their audience’s political leanings. Hollywood, instead of treading into the murky political waters that PureFlix works with, decided to be Hallmark-card aspirational within their own Christian bubble, with Sony’s Heaven is for Real and The War Room (Sony’s production company is literally called Affirm Pictures), and Lionsgate’s upcoming The Shack joining the fray, where people can feel spiritual within a safe set of perimeters of experience. However, it must be said that many of these films are catering towards the faithful, and struggle to connect to wider, secular audiences.

Silence, an adaption of Shūsaku Endō’s acclaimed novel, is not one of these films. It will be a struggle to both faithful believer and pragmatic unbeliever, as it is more art-house, and more personal to Scorsese than much of his other work. It aims to challenge anyone who sees it, especially when the subject matter is about Jesuit priests and their experiences of Japanese persecution in the 17th Century. More akin to the European religious film-making tradition of Robert Bresson and Carl Th. Dreyer, with nods and homages to classic Japanese cinema of Akira Kurosawa and Kenji Mizoguchi, the film is contemplative, slow and action wise, very quiet. Set in the late 1630s, this historical drama’s truest act of endurance is not seeing the martyrdom of the Japanese Christians, tied to crosses in a lagoon and left to be drowned by the high tide, that Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garupe (Adam Driver) witness from a high mountain perch, but its two-hour and forty minutes run-time. What Silence is seeking, is to show doubt in action, the cost of belief for both society and the individual. While the film’s premise based on a ‘two man army’, sent to find their mentor Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who has reportedly forsaken the faith and become ‘Japanese’, lost in a secretive land hostile to outsiders (particularly Catholic priests), the film isn’t about trying to save Ferreira’s soul, it is about the search through darkness in our own souls. It is the difference between devotion to a creed and the love of the mystery beyond.

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The whole film participates in the act of destroying preconceived notions of faith, so presents huge questions: where is God, when in the silence we find no answers, and face unending loneliness? Is the conviction of our beliefs that important, when they could be the cause of the pain to others? This dread, this pregnant silence could only be created by Andrew Garfield’s complex and involving performance. We can feel the arrogant walls that he has built around himself being destroyed, as Rodrigues’ trials lead him to the edge of madness. The progress of the film feels like a refining fire, where his Jesuit armour (mental armour and his Western identity) is changed, destroyed and rebuilt continually, also reflected by the elegant costume design by Dante Ferretti. The film does use narration as a crutch, maybe too much at times from Rodrigues’ perspective, Scorsese just needed to focus on Garfield’s face to tell a story, that we know he is searching for God. Some would wish this film to be a simple, a tale of persecution leading to redemption, a tug at the heartstrings, to feel that everything works out at the end. At times you will want to feel that, a transformative experience, that you’ve gone through the pain of seeing very likeable, honourable Japanese peasants like Mokichi (Shinya Tsukamoto) singing a hymn as he slowly dies to absolute silence. We want to have answers. The film shows that there is no beauty in the pain, and a sort of black comedy too, but a transformative experience? This film is doesn’t want to, because to give that to you would be a lie, the film wants to pull you away from vestments, to pull you away from tradition.

In the first act, Rodrigues and Garupe seem to be masters of the universe, who seem bemused and shocked by the absolute attention that the Japanese Christians give them. They give them back their religious sacraments, their mass and confession, which for non-Catholic audiences may seem alien, laughable even as the question of fumie, the act of apostatising your faith by putting your foot on a metal image of Christ, seems like the easiest thing to do to get out of sheer death in today’s world. The film even allows you to have an alternative reading of Garfield’s character ‘going insane.’ However, when Rodrigues gives them pieces of his regalia (breaking his rosary to give people single beads from it), he highlights his concern that they worship the objects instead of God, a concern shared by the film. So, as the run-time continues, their Catholic faith becomes more understandable, more relatable, and when the priests are separated (Adam Driver’s performance is good for a character that seems to not change that much), the trial makes Rodrigues’ faith feel more real, the film more engaging in its simmering slowness, as the desperation becomes a terrible fever pitch in Garfield’s eyes.

The film also works to make Rodrigues’ captors more humane and understanding as the film goes on. This isn’t a simple black and white tale. They’re more reluctant torturers, who chide Rodrigues with their own philosophies, with which some audience members may be able to sympathise. Issey Ogata’s Inquisitor is darkly hilarious, all-knowing but also incredibly petty in his power, that hints at the contemporary socio-political situation, while Tadanobu Asano’s Interpreter almost acts, in Christian terminology, as the accuser, who brings very well-reasoned points against Rodrigues’ beliefs, and seeks to make him accept his point-of-view. This alien country is both understandable, and more and more perplexing to Rodrigues, which is even reflected by the naturalistic photography, blended with chiaroscuro and vertigo zooms. Some of Scorsese’s techniques can be very surprising in the midst of slow-moving scenes, for example, the sound of nature can be overwhelming as it seems to even blur out dialogue, and when Rodrigues is in prison the frame is made to look as restricted as Rodrigues is, that we can’t exactly tell what is coming next. Peaceful scenes of beautiful photography by Rodrigo Prieto, almost contrasts the violence of Christians being burned, drowned and hung in anazuri (people bled upside down and head buried underground). It also demonstrates the two sides of the contrasting philosophies, as the film acts as a strange form of didactic process, showing truest faith or compromise depending on how you view it.

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Scorsese is still a master filmmaker, and with this new film goes further to establish this fact. It isn’t a typical film from him, as the extent of his abilities seem to still be unpredictable and evolving, as he forsakes the flashiness of The Wolf of Wall Street for seemingly the exact opposite: meditativeness. Elliptical to the point it feels like a repeating meditation, we feel that it is slowly growing and growing in its argument, as the truth of Liam Neeson’s character’s fate is revealed and the tension mounts (he threatens to tip-over the film with his star-power, but holds back enough to be crucial to the film). It finally culminates at the finale, with the ultimate moral contrary that will make you think for much longer than the length of the film. These thoughts may be more enjoyable to explore than to view, as it feels more like a cerebral experience than an emotive one.

Silence is best illustrated by the journey the priests have with Kichijiro (Yōsuke Kubozuka), a tragic-comic figure described as a Judas figure in many other reviews, we can also see him as having elements of Peter-esque figure; one that continually comes back and leaves the Lord in spite of his protestations of apology. He tests Rodrigues’ patience as a confessor, from passive superiority and annoyance, but then Silence is about seeing about how a man could love God who doesn’t stop pain, but living the pain with the believer, and who in spite of the silence, to love. To err is human, to love, divine.

RATING: FOUR STARS.

Top Films of The Year 2016 (According to UK Release Date)

UK Release because I don’t play by the rules… but then I do play by some rules…

2016. I could leave that as an introduction of the year, but then that could be a bit too short and arbitrary. It is not a round-up of a politically diversity year nor is it going to talk about celebrities who have died, and trying to tie this up in a nice bow to make a narrative about what film meant this year to me. This is a film list, a personal one that covers what I have viewed this year, and not what I sadly missed out on.

Film is a place to think, a place to dream and a place to experiment. It is a place of experience, of innocence, of nightmares and of dreams. It is the possibility of the future and a look into the past. Film is now.

To copy from myself from my statement last year, this list will never be settled, films will change their places and fall, while others will undoubtedly rise from the Honourable Mentions.

Worst Film: Independence Day: Resurgence. 

Ten Honourable Mentions, in alphabetical order: Dheepan, The End of the Tour,  Embrace of the Serpent, Hail Caesar, Hunt For The Wilderpeople, The Nice Guys, Nocturnal Animals, 10 Cloverfield Lane, The 13th, Zootropolis/Zootopia.

10. Creed

Available on: Netflix UK

creedA marvellous boxing tour-de-force with great performances by Sylvester Stallone and Michael B Jordan, it takes the traditional boxing film and creates a living, breathing, lived-in universe in this quasi-Rocky sequel. Ryan Coogler’s direction is virtuoso as his editing team not just to make the punches hit, but build emotional crescendos from the quiet moments as Adonis Creed (Jordan) takes the tentative steps towards glory, with his trainer Rocky Balboa (Stallone), to become a boxer in spite of the shadow of his deceased champion father gave him. It’s a first-rate traditional underdog story, but it is also delightful remix for a new generation.

9. The Shallows

shallows.jpgWould you have thought a shark movie would be in my top ten this year? Neither did I. It doesn’t mistake itself as pretentious, it is great b-movie schlock that has been made to near perfection. Blake Lively does a career best performance as a wavering medical student on a secluded beach getaway, targeted by a shark possessed by pure evil. Jaume Collet-Serra creates a methodical, tight-gripping thriller as a simple metaphor about how grief can destroy us if we will it to, whether it be by shark, coral bay, or lack of belief. Well-executed popcorn is something we all deserve from time to time, so we can forgive it for not breaking new ground, as it gets more ridiculous as it goes along. Bonus, it has a supporting seagull named Stephen (Stephen Seagull).

8. The Big Short

(Previously written for another piece) Available on: Netflix UK.

THE BIG SHORTA brilliant and successful diatribe, that succeeds in explaining complex economic concepts by throwing every film trick in the books (not limited to breaking the fourth wall, flashback, imagination and celebrity cameos), and making for an exhilarating experience with some richly composed editing, directing and some great performances by Steve Carell and Ryan Gosling. The film has a playful blend of anger, laughter and unremitting horror as we come face to face with the system that has destroyed lives (and continuing to do so), and the film is not afraid to make sure you knew that. And then some.

7. Mustang

mustangA powerful Franco-Turkish fable of feminine and youthful exuberance that perfectly balances a light touch with heavy issues, as a group of sisters are put into lockdown in their house, after youthful fun is misinterpreted as deviancy. As these girls collide with the destructive effect of fear and of patriarchal systems, each sister encounters their own journey of discovery and destruction under these harsh rules. Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s debut doesn’t hold the hard punches, but makes sure to remember the tenderness of sisterhood and the exhilaration of freedom.

6. The Measure of a Man

measureofamanWhile I have not seen I, Daniel Blake, it would have to work hard to beat this great French film, as we follow former factory worker Thierry (Vincent Lindon) struggle through at first unemployment, with its tricky ups and downs with his family as he tries to maintain normalcy. in front of belittlement and bureaucracy, and then moral duplicity when he finally gets a job as a security guard in the local supermarket. We follow him like an invisible eye, as the director surrounds the majestic Lindon with real amateurs and pale indoor lights. The film enhances his silent pain of being evaluated for his position and the way he looks, but not for being a loving caring husband and father. It doesn’t try to be polemic, but an honest, heartfelt take on a compromised society .  It doesn’t seek to make an argument, but invites us to be compassionate.

5. Weiner

weinererOne of the most perplexingly candid and startling true tales of the year, it is a Greek comic-tragedy of hubris and deceit, as we witness political car-crash Anthony Weiner try to run for New York Mayor in 2013, coming from controversy when he posted sexually explicit photos on Twitter erroneously. While in the age of Trump it seems small fry, the chaos that Weiner compulsively attracts for Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg’s extraordinarily intimate account of a man in crisis, and the weaponization of the media, shows how the actions of one man can affect the man, his family, his colleagues and even an entire city.

4. Room

(Previously written for another piece) Available on: Amazon Prime UK.

roomHeartbreakingly brilliant. Lenny Abrahamson creates both a world that is big and small, using the film camera to create a space that has history both physical as well as mental, creating energy even related to the objects around them. With precise editing and camera movements, the filmmakers use the small space to their advantage in the first half of the film, to create a mini-universe, and then in the second half of the film, the isolation within vast space and the alien nature of the world as we know it. This would be for naught if it weren’t for the mighty talents of Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay, bringing a complex human emotional energy to the screenplay, even when the difficulty of changing the emotional states of the character from one moment to the other.

3. The Assassin

Available on: Amazon Prime UK.

assassin2I must warn you that this film is not for everyone and in spite of the title, there is not a whole lot of action. It is very difficult to explain how the film works or why it works, as it uses visuals to create a mood of mystery, hurt and melancholy in 8th Century China, which will only attract a few (including yours truly). It uses the intricate staging and decors to explore the moods of an assassin (Shu Qi), sent to kill her former betrothed (Chang Chen), a powerful ruler, who he has to deal with his lot as well as the other women in his life. While it’s plot is near incomprehensible, it’s uniquely powerful visual feast as it doesn’t dress up the film with distraction, but uses subtlety to make its point.  The power of a well-placed breeze or multiple candles being distorted by moving silk curtains can build emotions and destroy universes, as women seem to exist in this beautiful world as power players, and trapped in (and outside) of the traditions of others.

2.  Hell or High Water

hellorhigh.jpgWithin the terse, violent but near-comedic Texas milieu, the story of bank robbing brothers (Chris Pine, Ben Foster) and the lawmen tasked to stop them (Jeff Bridges, Gil Birmingham) is not just a great cat and mouse action thriller, it is effective myth-making, with real grit. A modern epic of America struggling to come to terms with itself in the face of economic struggle, it takes micro concerns and turns it into the macro problem that everyone can relate to. The film sows disquiet in silence, powerful contemplation happens in small eye movements, and humour to reveal home truths, helped by Taylor Sheridan’s script’s expert voice and David McKenzie’s British outsider direction.

1. Arrival

arrivalThoughtful science fiction that knows how to be intelligent whilst being emotionally intelligent as well. It is about not just the power of language to communicate to each other, but rather the connections that we all have to each other throughout all time and different walks of life. With a quintessentially innovative score from Johann Johnnsson (and a key piece by Max Richter), the film journeys into a mind of a linguist (Amy Adams) trying to maintain world security when she is tasked to try to understand if the alien visitors who’ve landed have good intentions. A journey how love and connection to bridge divides, but there can be a beauty within tragedy, and the journeys we face. Amy Adams deserves an Oscar.

Film Most Sad To Have Missed: Paterson.

So long 2016, 2017 here we come.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (d. Edwards, 2016) – War Costs

Not every film can be ‘The Battle of Algiers’…

Every Star Wars film is an event. Every Star Wars film promises action, adventure, the spirit of 1930s serial with a touch of age old mysticism. Star Wars has become so influential that we can have a debate as to whether Jediism can be a true religion. Star Wars has a lot going for it, both in the past and now with Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, which last year became one of the biggest films of all time. This new Star Wars film is different (or different enough): Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is the first in a series of Star Wars films that will tell stories away from the Skywalker Soap Opera and tell the story of the wider Star Wars universe. Disney (via Lucasfilm) has decided to connect to the fans in a different way in this new Marvel landscape: one of invention and one of play. It is the world that we’ve imagined before and after each Episode, a world of pure imagination. This film can play around with concepts created by George Lucas et al, opening up this universe to different tangents.

That’s what we would hope for anyway.

Acting as a direct prequel to Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, Rogue One tells the story of the Rebel Alliance, and how they got the key piece of information to start taking the Empire (a group of intergalactic fascists); the plans for the Death Star, a weapon of such immense power that it can destroy entire planets, envisioned by Director Orson Krennic (Ben Mendlesohn), but created by head engineer Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen). However, Galen, in his plan to subvert the empire, placed a particular flaw in the Death Star in the blueprints. For the alliance to get them, they’ll have to use Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), a rough intelligence officer not afraid to kill, to convince Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), estranged daughter of Galen and to the rebel cause to find them, not helped by her extremist rebel foster father Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) standing in the way. They’re soon joined by blind warrior monk Îmwe (Donnie Yen), Îmwe’s machine-gun toting buddy Malbus (Jiang Wen. An aside: the film he directed that I’ve seen, Let the Bullets Fly, still confounds me), a turn-coat Imperial cargo pilot Rook (Riz Ahmed), and K-2SO, a sassy reprogrammed Imperial battle droid (Alan Tudyk). They’re grey characters, fighting evil for the good of us all.

For the many fans of Star Wars, there is a lot to enjoy, like comfortable familiar references, characters you’ve long loved/hated returning, abundance of adventure and action, and for progressive audiences, a nicely diverse cast of characters within this universe (albeit mostly male). And for some fans, it is been the film have been long waiting for, not just to plug a planet shaped plot hole in A New Hope, but a Star Wars film with a difference. It can tell the story of the people on the ground, the people who have been fighting the battle before the name Skywalker appeared. However, what it seems like in director Gareth Edwards’ view (or its myriad of writers and producers who may have played a bigger role than publicly stated), it means to rehash similar tropes from Star Wars and other sci-fi properties. Star Wars always had its hand within classic film genre, and it is the same Rogue One, as it has the key parts for it to be a successful war film (a la the 50s/60s), but it is really the sum of its parts when the feel of the film is more or less insubstantial and more simulated fun/dread. It has a particular great note here and there, but it certainly doesn’t make a substantial emotional image, with its morally dubious characters being undermined by the narrative, their challenges are undercut by circumstances that make them good, or their emotional journeys feeling like meaningless gestures.

For example, Cassian is shown to be an effective operative, bending the rules to complete the mission, but we can never believe he is truly a rough dealer, whether he feels remorse or remains motionless as he can kill friend/comrade or the enemy. We’re never challenged to find the good, when he’s seems just good and not prone to mistakes. Jyn is shown to be rebellious towards authority,but  we never really engage with why she feels that way (we are told though, many times) except through very, very few turgid speeches. Jones’ good performance is used onto a character without a developing arc from rebellious to rebel, so it feels more like a mechanic temper tantrum. While the examples can continue in spoiler-like detail, Forest Whitaker’s character the best symbol of the film’s weakness: his character feels abruptly cut down, we see the scars but not the impact of them, and his relationship to Jyn is not explored deeply. His character (and many others) seem to exist because the creative team wanted them to, not because they should. If we can’t feel the cost or rely on Episode VI then they’re just using up our time, because that’s why we’ve come to see it.

Don’t get me wrong, there is many plus points on paper: it has many jokes that land well, the character of K-2SO feels heartfelt and funny (in spite of it being a cliche, see also: Blind Warrior Monk), the action is well done and dynamic (though X-Wing dogfights never do it for me), and the cinematography is just perfectly beautiful, with the right amount of grit and dirt. Really the film’s main problem is in making us care for the characters, and I mean deeply care for them. We should be feeling the moral ramifications of their decisions, of how important the journey is to them. Much of the original trilogy (and The Force Awakens) is based on the balance of good and evil, that characters act conflicted, making tough decisions and seeing their choices play out, but we never see/feel that. We see gloriously, detailed sets (and locations, the Maldives and Iceland look stunning), of distant and distinct worlds with their own narrative identities, but we see characters rush to and fro without a clear sense of why they’re doing things, outside of hating the Empire. The real kicker is seeing Ben Mendelsohn’s character being undercut at almost every turn by superiors, as it makes makes the film’s central battle feel a bit pointless when we don’t feel a tangible force to be reckoned with. When the narrative is this blurry, it makes A New Hope‘s simplistic narrative almost like the perfect recipe, and its iconography stands as a long shadow over this one (almost literally). Maybe one could be asking too much of something that is mainstream entertainment, but the film presents itself as a fresh take on Star Wars, it doesn’t feel like that.

Rogue One does not feel like a cash in, there is far too much creativity in the set design, filming and direction, as well as some admirable acting for it to be so. Rather, it is a film that struggles to find a point in of itself, it is a war film that still wants to be fun, but avoiding questions isn’t the right answer. The war film genre has had many struggle balancing the need to entertain as well as say ‘war is hell’, but it seems that this film doesn’t want us to judge too closely. We can love the idea of the film, but an idea can only get you this far.

RATING: TWO AND A HALF STARS.

The Daughter (d. Stone, 2015) – To Tell The Truth

 

The day after the London Film Festival screening of The Daughter last October, I met my friends Tim and Natalie for breakfast and I was discussing the films I have seen this festival so far (The Measure of a Man, out in June, and The Program). He told me that performed a small role in the original stage play which makes the basis of The DaughterThe Wild Duck by Henrik Ibsen. As I described the film and tried to interrogate him about the original play, Tim stated, from his perspective, that Henrik Ibsen is to Sweden as Tennessee Williams is to America. Simon Stone, acclaimed theatre director in Australia who has been making inroads in the international scene, decides to adapt his own adaptation to the screen, changing the names (aside from Hedvig), turning the principal character Christian (Paul Schneider) into a more emotional provocateur, leading to an even more melodramatic telling, maybe overly so…

Geoffrey Rush plays Henry Neilson, a rich timber-mill owner, who decides after financial considerations to close the mill, which threatens a mass exodus from the town that needed it for jobs. Meanwhile, he prepares for his wedding to his former housekeeper (Anna Torv), a woman who is many years his junior, and this brings his wayward, half-American son Christian (Paul Schneider) back to witness the wedding, who uses it as a way to escape problems with his marriage with a bottle. As the wedding approaches, Christian is reintroduced to his childhood best friend, Oliver (Ewen Leslie) and his substitute teacher wife Charlotte (Miranda Otto), Oliver’s absent-minded former white collar criminal father Walter (Sam Neill), who has made a hobby of taking care of animals injured by men, and their daughter Hedvig (Odessa Young). When Christian finds out a secret that Henry has been trying to hide, Christian decides misery loves company and decides to share the secret with Oliver, leading to complex moral destruction, roping in everyone around them.

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Simon Stone does make his mark from the beginning, with well-shot landscapes of New South Wales, allowing a life in Australia that is not rarely seen in films released outside of Australasia. Aged, rusted buildings, and deep Alpine-style forests, it becomes effective at building a world where this melodrama can take place, and helps to keep the more extravagant drama more low-key and nailed down for most of the run-time. The simple nature of Oliver and Charlotte’s lives, that while modern, seems simple and lovely, that the relationship is strong enough to deal with the loss of his job at the timber-mill and even their community, as they leave the town one by one. Combined with the opulence of Neilson’s estate, much of the film drifts in and out of close-ups, focusing on its characters, accenting their thoughts (though trending too close to Malickian dreamscapes, and some of the editing touches border the line of pretentiousness) and how each of their situations are changing for better and definitely for worse.

It starts to affect Hedvig’s tentative love-life and her friendships, as much as the world of adults seems to want to destroy, change and mould their children, to the point that Stone gets a bit over the top with his imagery and relating the lives of animals to children, which dampens the interest as the film goes along. While Odessa Young is an interesting presence, the screenplays later drama seems to take her emotionally intelligent performance into simplistic Greek drama. The character of Christian is also affected by this drama as well as Schneider struggles to control the power of his character, sometimes being overly emotional or overly callous at times, that they seem to act as tools for the story than breathing characters. The question remains that if you were to tell a secret to someone that is deeply personal, does the truth really set free or does a comfortable lie better to deal with? This film does not try to answer the this question too much, but then it isn’t about that per say, but rather the world we create for ourselves that dictate what we get from this world. Rush and Neill, as the veteran performers in the cast, bring a class and a pathos, seeing their regrets and trying to make do, ultimately being the audience and the harbingers of their mistakes, both as victims, perpetrators and witnesses, realising but not being able to impart the simple knowledge that love and acceptance is better than self-aggrandisement and having the world on your platter.

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The couple’s relationship is a view into a simple humanity, and it is probably the most pleasant thing and the worst thing to experience in a film, because it is the thing that can be damaged the most. Human live is small, fragile and can be gone in the moment, so Stone concentrates between one family that is strong and natural, and the other seen as decadent and corrupting. Ewen Leslie is a revelation, and his contrasting relationship with Paul Schneider’s character powers most of the brewing tension of the secret, the releasing of hell that will be irrevocable, meanwhile Miranda Otto brings an emotional intelligence to her role as she looks into the abyss and in full knowledge of how bad everything can be. If there is one thing the film does very well, is to make you think about your life, how we conduct ourselves and what damage can be done to our relationships in the face of unspoken words… and if it is worth the time to speak about them.

Simon Stone’s debut falls for the usual problems that come with a début, that of trying to be showy and melodramatic, when being understated can be twice as effective, but it shows promise for his future films when he can anchor a film with great performances and a great use of atmosphere, and that his next film will prove that he might be comparable to Peter Weir.

RATING: THREE STARS.

Captain America: Civil War (d. Russo, Anthony and Joe) – Accountability

While this film does struggles with the weight of trying being everything to everyone (therefore leaving nothing for itself), it is a blockbuster ride that will definitely entertain with some great action and solid acting… in spite of it being way too long, only getting to grips with itself, both story-wise and film-wise, when it gets to the second half.

 

There is so much written on the internet in the past couple of weeks about Captain America: Civil War there is a hope this review says something marginally different. A sequel to Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Ant-Man and goodness knows what other properties that have come out of the house of Marvel since 2008, this films dons a lot of hats to many in the audience, let alone being the beginning of Black Panther and the newly rebooted Spider-Man: Homecoming. That’s a lot of story to get through to get to this thirteenth instalment of this mega franchise is a culmination of themes and character arcs that have grown through the films, seeking to change characters destinies, and explore the limits of accountability and recrimination. While this film does struggles with the weight of trying being everything to everyone (therefore leaving nothing for itself), it is a blockbuster ride that will definitely entertain with some great action and solid acting… in spite of it being way too long, only getting to grips with itself, both story-wise and film-wise, when it gets to the second half.

After the disappointing Age of Ultron, we come back to the Avengers in the face of the latest disaster involving the death of aid workers. In reaction to this and Ultron, the U.N. have developed a document called Sokovia Accords, which establishes an UN panel to oversee the conduct of the Avengers Initiative, which has been self-governing with Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) leading the charge since the destruction of intelligence agency S.H.I.E.L.D. in Winter Soldier. Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr), knowing the cost of his actions in previous Iron Man films and Ultron, comes to support the accords as a means to clear his conscience, whilst Rodgers sees this as bureaucracy that will cost lives, and possibly make them puppets for government regimes. Meanwhile, James Buchanan ‘Bucky’ Barnes/Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) has returned on the international stage, with unclear intentions, and with personal and literal explosions.

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It is a good film, but when you leave it, you think of it as ‘eh, that was okay’ or ‘eh, that was good’. To illicit a strong reaction whether negative or positive is difficult as the film is a solid piece of film-making by the Russos, good entertainment. On the other hand, it feels like a sense of fatigue has taken over for a large part of the film, not seeking to surprise or shock, resting in a complacency to tick genre boxes. It’s not difficult to see that they had to be ticked off to ensure most of the audience gets their bang from their buck, seeing as the film had to juggle so many pieces that it is lucky they didn’t drop the ball that much (Paul Bettany’s and Elizabeth Olsen’s arc is quite honestly dreadful), but made the film functional and move smoothly without too much deep questioning. The introduction to Prince T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) was engaging and exciting to witness (in spite of him being over-powered and bland as he went along), whilst the new Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tom Holland) is fantastic and refreshing to see in this younger iteration, his purpose of the film comes off as clumsy, he makes a worthwhile impression. However, with all these characters vying for attention, it is hard to find enjoyment for some deeply rooted characterisation, but depending on crumbs.

When the film, after the rather spectacular group fight between the Iron Man and Captain America factions (Ant-Man, played by Paul Rudd, comes out the best and most human hero on screen), pairs down its exorbitant cast to the plot’s core characters, the film starts to become very interesting, that it becomes more emotive and personable with the best acting by Downey Jr and Evans in their roles since they’d been cast in them. And makes you wish that this had been the film all along, tying stakes to very personal issues. If the film had been from the airport onwards, this would be one of the best comic book films rather than just a distinctly average one, as most of this film (and any iteration of The Avengers films), it comes across as pleasant fan service, being a collection of moments between the characters than about their characters. never truly challenging when their main goal is to bring the collective dreams of geeks to the big screen.

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The film makes it hard to disagree that Marvel’s films are becoming like a television series, both in writing and in production, but then you realise that Marvel is doing what they do best, making comics. Something changes, but nothing changes, we are expected to infer to previous films, but also to deduce from the film itself, but nothing is ever whole or of itself. It’s a comic book issue film, with great snippets and cool touches, but really this film should be a graphic novel, beginning, middle and end. The focus in story and resolution in many Phase 2 films such as Iron Man 3, Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Ant-Man seems to be missing, and so is any distinctive visualisation, which makes sense when dealing with so many characters with contrasting tonality depressingly. Most of the action sequences are over-edited at the beginning, that it is a relief to find the main set-piece has personality, clear narrative flow and has great character dynamism, nearly overcoming the fact it at times looked pale and clinical whilst avoiding a Man of Steel-style blow-out. It has the Marvel nice blend of action, comedy and drama, but then there is a slight disappointment that they did not confront the meaning of the Accords head-on with both sides of the debate in action, or in other words, take a risk to anger/surprise your audience once in awhile Marvel.

It is great to watch a film that decides to engage in a prescient debate, and such a debate is not a binary white hat vs black hat, but that Stark and Rogers reside in the grey, both wrong and right. Much of this debate is about the sovereignty of borders in the face of threats that hold no allegiance, the lengths we should go to safeguard the populace from danger, and even the theoretical idea that with a great good, a great evil has to be there to be a ballast. It is a shame that for such an entertaining film, it lacks a finality in finding a conclusion (or fuelling #TeamCap and #TeamIronMan to continue the next couple of years), or at least go deeper between knife swings and light blasts, and consequently robs the debate of any sense of conclusion… except a litany of sequels that will undoubtedly continue the cycle. Long live Marvel?

It was alright I guess. Ant-Man was the best thing in it. I’m stoked for Ant-Man and the Wasp.

RATING: THREE STARS