Monday, December 19, 2016

Rogue One, La La Land, Miss Sloane, The Brand New Testament Reviews

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
Dir. Gareth Edwards
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Among my biggest problems with The Force Awakens were its over-use of winking nostalgia and its slavish relationship to the original trilogy. In fact, the entire film pretty much exactly mirrors A New Hope in its characters, locations, and plot structure. But I feel for J.J. - he had a ridiculous amount of elements to juggle in bringing back the Star Wars franchise, and he accomplished what he set out to do: setting the stage for future adventures that can live and breathe on their own. Rogue One, the first live action Star Wars movie not set in the "main" Skywalker timeline, had the opportunity to be something completely new and fresh for a change. Unfortunately, this film not only pulls the same veil of throat-cramming nostalgia over our eyes, but it does so with dull characters and the drabness of an actual war film.

Taking place between the events of Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope, Rogue One bridges the gap between the two Lucas trilogies, showing how the rebels stole the Death Star plans that eventually we see Princess Leia hide inside R2D2 at the beginning of Episode 4. Among the rag-tag team of space heroes enlisted in the cause is Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), who you might do a double take and mistake for Rey from Force Awakens (apparently someone in Disney's casting department has a thing for young white British women). Jyn has a personal stake in the ensuing battle because her father (Mads Mikkelsen) was one of the scientists who helped build the Death Star in the first place. Other than that, we don't learn much more about her character, other than she's yet another determined girl on a mission.

The other characters are likewise underdeveloped. There's the righteous, but cold-blooded spy Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), an ex-Imperial cargo pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), a blind warrior (Donnie Yen) and his heavily-armed sidekick (Jiang Wen), and finally the obligatory wise-cracking droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk). The actors are all really good in their roles, but they are very one-dimensional. Ben Mendelsohn plays the stockiest of stock villains this side of Dr. Evil; he could have put his pinky up to his lip, muttered a "mwa ha ha," and it would've fit the scene. While I might have looked past this issue on The Force Awakens with the knowledge that those broadly painted characters would be able to return in future films, the characters of Rogue One only have this ONE chance to make their mark on the Star Wars universe. Coming out of this movie, I don't think I could've named a single character's name and I doubt general audiences could have either - other than in broad terms like "that robot dude" or "the main girl".

On top of that, this film continues an alarming trend with the Disney Star Wars movies of doubling down on callbacks and references to older films, only it's even worse this time around because the references are more obscure and not as fun. Who cares that Mon Mothma is returning other than the most hardcore of hardcore nerds? There's one character that makes a return - I won't spoil who - but the CGI digital recreation of him not only approaches the uncanny valley, but also brings up very questionable filmmaking practices by putting an actor's digital likeness in a film without their consent. While it's cool to think maybe this technology could bring back Humphrey Bogart or Cary Grant in new movies - it's scary to think that technology could be used to reduce actors to pixels who can then be bought or sold. It's a small part of the movie, but this type of capitalist, number-crunching, nostalgia-pandering thinking has been too much at the forefront of the first two Star Wars adventures from Disney. I think having one of these a year is going to be rough.

That being said, I didn't hate the movie outright. While the story feels chopped up and messy due to last-minute reshoots and rewrites (even the musical score composer was changed), I do think director Gareth Edwards has a fantastic eye for visuals, as is evident from his work on Monsters and Godzilla (he started his career as a VFX artist). To me, Rogue One is the best looking Star Wars movie to date, and Edwards brings a nice sense of scale to the film, especially during the battle sequences. Seeing AT-ATs tromping down palm trees during the film's beachfront action set piece was like some kind of weird intergalactic Vietnam War movie. Rogue One: It's like Black Hawk Down with robots. And Donnie Yen fans can rejoice because he's given a couple badass moments with a stick he hits people with (he's basically Daredevil).

While it's competently produced, looks great, and has a fantastic international cast, Rogue One squanders its runtime on "safe" storytelling and little in the way of developing interesting characters. This movie is so thick with dry plot - plot that we know where it ends, this being a prequel - I wish the journey itself could have been more interesting, or explored more of the Star Wars universe in unique ways, without having those tiresome "I know that reference!" moments.

Rating: C

La La Land
Dir. Damien Chazelle
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Like the dwindling Western genre, movie musicals just aren't that popular anymore. Unless there's animated characters running around, modern cynical audiences just can't handle the confectionary Hollywood delights that spontaneously breaking into song and dance affords. But Damien Chazelle apparently didn't get the memo, and went ahead making a straight up, classic showbiz musical for the millennial generation. La La Land tells the all-too-familiar story of an aspiring actress, Mia (Emma Stone), and a struggling jazz musician, Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), who are both trying to live out their dreams in the simultaneously romantic and cutthroat world of Los Angeles. The formula of them at first fighting, then falling in love, then dancing with each other is pretty much what you'd find in any given musical of the 1930s through the 50s, but none of which could implement such intricate choreographed long takes as La La Land.

La La Land looks and sounds great, and in terms of light and fluffy entertainment, it's a refreshing blast to the past that utilizes modern filmmaking techniques. But as much as there is to love here, because Chazelle repeatedly pays homage to the movies of musical past, I couldn't help but think that Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, as charming performers as they are, simply can't hold a candle to the greats like Gene Kelly or Astaire and Rogers. While the songwriting is amazing, their vocal performances feel more like "real" people trying their best than a polished act that would blow you away. In many ways, that single "wowing" performer is Chazelle himself, and his sheer audacity of making this movie at all.

While the story is very typical and the dancing may just make you wish Gene Kelly was still alive, Chazelle's craftsmanship, the colorful and beautifully rendered LA locales, the songwriting, the jazzy music score, and a satisfying ending reminiscent of Jacques Demy's The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (reportedly Chazelle's favorite film) all add up to make La La Land a special movie that dares to be old fashioned.

Rating: B+

Miss Sloane
Dir. John Madden
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In Miss Sloane, Jessica Chastain plays a Washington lobbyist who more or less is able to ruthlessly manipulate her way through the many older white dudes on Capital Hill through any means necessary. It sounds almost quaint in the wake of the 2016 election, doesn't it? The story follows Miss Sloan, an unmarried workaholic whose only level of intimacy comes from a male escort, as she leaves a Washington firm headed by George Dupont (Sam Waterston). She leaves following a conflict over a gun law, which the stereotypically "old white guys" want to get more female votes in opposition for. When Sloane leaves to defect to the other side, she takes a huge chunk of young trainees with her because she's badass. All except for one that is - Jane Molloy (Allison Pill) - who to everyone's shock stays behind. This is all set up for a bitter game of political chess that's at times riveting and other times a little too over the top for its own good.

Miss Sloane definitely has shades of Netflix's House of Cards, and Chastain plays just as formidably juicy a character as Kevin Spacey's Frank Underwood. Sloane is always two steps ahead of her opponents, and it's fun to watch her walk around and use pretty much every single person around her for her own ends. It's not even about what she's fighting for, she just wants to win, which makes her darkly fascinating. It's also frightening to think that that's the type of person the position of "lobbyist" would probably attract in real life. While I enjoyed the film, it's somewhat forgettable and feels like your standard Aaron Sorkin-esque political drama, only much more pulpy and exaggerated from reality.

Rating: B-

The Brand New Testament
Dir. Jaco Van Dormael
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If I were to describe The Brand New Testament in one sentence, it would be: It's like if Final Destination were directed with the whimsical irreverence of Terry Gilliam. This film is a strange, hilariously blasphemous high-concept comedy where God actually exists - he lives in Brussels with his wife and daughter, and he's kind of a jerk. He spends all day in front of a computer, delighting in creating new "laws" to torment humanity (such as "the other line always moves faster than yours"). One day, his ten year old daughter Ea (Pili Groyne) grows tired of her father's abuse; she takes matters into her own hands by hacking into his computer and telling everyone on Earth (via text message) the exact time and date they're going to die. She then leaves their high rise with her dad, God (Benoît Poelvoorde), in pursuit, hoping to write a "brand new testament" and gathering her own group of eclectic apostles.

There are a number of genuinely funny absurdist moments here that reminded me of Monty Python's Life of Brian and The Meaning of Life. Belgian director Jaco Van Dormael creates a very fresh and original vision here that sometimes feels a little unfocused and all over the place, but the way he explores our concepts of religion and how humans find happiness added a deeper level to the film than a string of cheap laughs. But that's not to say there aren't cheap laughs here too - one of the most striking, funny images I've seen in a movie this year involves icon of French cinema Catherine Deneuve in bed with a gorilla.

Rating: B

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