Dec 312016
 
four reels

An Imperial pilot (Riz Ahmed) has defected with news of a new super weapon called The Death Star — good name. The rebellion needs the information the pilot has as well as to stop the lead weapons-maker (Mads Mikkelsen), so they free Jyn (Felicity Jones), the weapons-maker’s daughter, from imperial custody and send her with an assassin (Diego Luna) and a cynical, reprogrammed Imperial Droid (voiced by Alan Tudyk) to get the pilot and deal with her father. This leads to the three of them, along with the pilot, a force monk (Donnie Yen) and his gun-totting friend (Wen Jiang), and a band of reprobates, to make their own plans to steal The Death Star blueprints.

Star Wars was a Western (or Samurai epic) in space. This is war. Gone are black and white, and simple heroes. In comes hard choices, violence, pain, and real sacrifice, and it makes for the most satisfying Star Wars film since 1977. Rogue One’s direct kin are The Dirty Dozen, Where Eagles Dare, and The Guns of Navarone, with behind-enemy-lines skirmishes and a few actions that would keep our protagonists out of polite society. We know from the start that the ensemble will succeed in their mission. The question is the cost.

The narrative stumbles in the first half, with time wasted on needless travel logs and meeting characters of no importance, while we are distracted by obvious call-backs to earlier films. It takes a while for Rogue One to figure out what kind of film it is, even giving us a rousing “Independence Day” speech from Jyn which would have fit in The Force Awakens but feels fake and shoehorned in here, but once our rogues set out on their mission, it all hums. The action is everything I could ask for and each of the main characters is given a moment without it ever becoming absurd or sentimental. Sure we get one overly coincidental meeting (the main bad guy just happens to decide it is a good time to stop by the base and figures personal confrontation is better then being the commander that he is…oh well) but it is a little flaw in a truly exciting sequence. Far too often in modern action films there are no stakes in the battles. Not here. It had me emotionally and I cared far more in the end about these non-Jedi soldiers, doing what the best soldiers must do, then I have for any of the numerous super-people of the last decade. The conclusion does not disappoint.

It is also worth noting that this is the most diverse cast in any genre film, ever, with East Asians, a South Asian, a Latino, and…well, a robot, working under a woman. And what do you know—having everyone not be White guys hasn’t seemed to hurt ticket sales. Hmmm. Wonder if there is a lesson there.

There are a few returning characters but they don’t take center stage and generally the cameos are good. Darth Vader is once again someone to fear and I suspect that alone will win over any doubting Star Wars fans. There are two clear cases when some CG effects are not quite what they should be, but they are close enough.

This isn’t the film to bring the magic back to the Star Wars franchise, but it is the one to bring back meaning and emotion, and that’s better.

Dec 252016
 
three reels

An accident on a colonization ship causes one man (Chris Pratt) to wake from suspended animation ninety years too early. Alone on a luxury liner, with no one to talk to, no hope of returning to stasis, no future, and in a state of suicidal despair, he begins to obsess about one of the sleeping passengers, an exquisite women (Jennifer Lawrence).

Passengers is a beautiful picture, with a space ship that looks both familiar and like something new, and shot after shot elicited my attention. It presents us with a real character and a twisting moral issue packed with enough philosophical levels for a Russian novel. And it is happy to take its time, focusing on emotion. It does what fantasy and science fiction do best, takes a question or idea out of reality and lets us examine it under circumstances that frees us from the preconceptions of the world. It has everything to be brilliant.

But Passengers isn’t that type of picture. It isn’t trying to be brilliant. It doesn’t want to delve too deeply into the morass it has created. It doesn’t want to be Crime and Punishment. It wants to be a middle-of-the-road, pleasant Hollywood picture. And I suppose it succeeds with that, although with such modest goals, it should have had a far more modest first third. You don’t rip into emotional need and loss and ethical conundrums if you want to make fluff. It comes out just a bit awkward.

It all flows along nicely and kept me engaged. Chris Pratt is perfect in the role of the imperfect man and this is the best I’ve ever seen Jennifer Lawrence. They’ve got chemistry together, and apart (really, that makes sense) and I was with them all the way. Well, all the way until the filmmakers took the easy way out and let plot nudge aside all that pesky character and theme. I sympathize with the studio, wanting something to happen in their film. There’d been close to nothing happening for an hour and a half. I understand their desire to stick something in, and something that also saves them from dealing with what they’d created. But it is a shame. Plot was unnecessary. If they’d taken the film in any of several places they could have—should have—I’d be talking about Passengers as the best film of the year. I’d be speaking of the daring. But instead the whole thing weighs in like a feather. One could (and quite a few have) take offense, but that is giving the film more credit than it deserves. Passengers could have been truly offensive, and that would have been interesting. But we don’t get interesting. We get thoughtful science fiction until the filmmakers yell out, “Enough of that; let’s just stop right where we are and blow something up.” From there it is predictable sci-fi action (very predictable—you know exactly what is going to happen at each beat).

Which isn’t to say it’s a bad time. There’s enough in the first two-thirds for me to fork over my dollars for a ticket. However, not only should it have been more, it absolutely needed to be more.

Dec 242016
  December 24, 2016

I tried to avoid Christmas again, but am failing, so oh well, I’ll dive into this: Xmas songs. Let’s face it, most rock Christmas songs are horrible. The covers of carols are universally rotten. No Bruce Springsteen cannot put it off. Traditional carols just don’t lend themselves to a rock makeover. A few artists have done great jobs, but they tend not to be playing rock: Welcome Christmas by Love Spirals Downwards is breathtaking while God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman by Loreena McKennitt is for my money the finest Christmas song ever recorded. But if we are talking rock, well, it only works when they write something new, and then it usually fails. But there’s been some successes, and I’ve got them, even if some are barely rock. There is a lot more anger and sadness in these songs than celebration, but then I guess anger and sadness is why we need celebrations. Here are the top ten original rock Xmas tunes.

Honorable mention to Merry Christmas (I Don’t Wanna Fight) just because it is a Xmas song by The Ramones, and another to Ring Out, Solstice Bells by Jethro Tull which isn’t technically a Christmas song.

 

#10 The Season’s Upon Us (Dropkick Murphys)

Feeling cynical? Here’s your song. Hate being with your relatives, and have good reason for that? Here you go.

 
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Dec 192016
 
two reels

The arrival of twelve spaceships causes worldwide panic. Linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) are brought into a military team tasked with determining what the aliens want. Each day they can enter a ship and confront the mutli-tentacled aliens behind a glass wall and try and work out some form of communication. Time becomes an issue when China declares war on the ship within their boarders. And during all of this, Louise is recalling the tragic death of her daughter.

Let me approach Arrival on a tangential road and discuss the indie, drama film-look, which can also be considered the film festival drama-look. Developed in the last twenty years, the look includes a loose camera, often including shaky cam. Closeups are the norm, but even on medium shots a single individual is dominate. Angles may shift wildly, keeping only part of the body in view: an elbow, the right side of the face, a hip and leg. Focus will drift in and out. It uses natural lighting with a subdued color pallet and a high amount of grain. Editing is “slow,” with long lingering shots, hanging on seconds longer than you’d expect in a big budget film. Yet cuts can be sudden, with intermediate steps missing; that is, we spend a protracted moment with a character when he is starting to walk, and then suddenly jump to him arriving at his destination. Sound tends to edge toward natural, but slightly more muffled and chaotic.

The main reason the indie drama-look developed was because it is cheap. But there are cheaper ways to go. This particular low-cost style caught on because it has an artistic use. How a film is shot says something (just as it matters what words you use in a story). And this look conveys things directly to the audience so they do not have to be explained. It declares that the scenes we are seeing are close to reality. There’s no magic here. It conveys the struggle of everyday life. It is distancing, which is useful if you want your audience to think more than feel. But while it tones down joy, excitement, and wonder, it is perfect for expressing melancholy. A typical indie drama might be about a single mother, stuck in a dead-end, low paying job, her dreams long gone, and now the father who abandoned her has returned because he is dying. There is not a lot of story, but rather just a few sad days in this woman’s life. And the indie film-look is exactly what you want for that story.

That’s enough independent film lecture. What’s my point? This style is appropriate to tell certain types of stories, say, ones about the bleak life of a drug addict or the dissolution of a marriage. It is not appropriate for extraterrestrial invaders, international intrigue, deep mysteries, and traitorous soldiers, even with a child dying of a cancer-like disease. All of those things, all except the child, call for excitement, wonder, sudden fear (instead of never-ending dread), hope, and even occasional humor. Arrival was made with all the wrong tools. It’s as if I asked for a realistic portrait but supplied only pastels or commissioned a heavy metal epic but would let the musicians use only unamplified accordions.

So a story that should have evoked a sea of emotions instead settles into mournful dread. That fits with the dying child, but everything has the same emotional resonance as that dying child. There’s a strong theme of accepting and enjoying what one can of life as everything ends, but while that comes across intellectually, the feeling I get from the film is, “Why bother?”

If you can ignore the style, the film has an engaging story, but only part of the time. For the first half we are gifted with stupid people who have never heard of foreign languages or seen a science fiction film. They hail it as brilliant when Louise does the old “Me Tarzan, you Jane” bit. You don’t need a linguist to have worked that out. Her idea to use written words and pictures for communication instead of just sounds is shocking to the rest of the team (I guess they never texted). To create inappropriate and unnecessary tension, the most basic concepts are fought by the military. Why do you want to try and figure out the basics of communication instead of just asking “What is your purpose on Earth?” I’d hate to see that guy on the first day of French class. “I’m sick of ‘I’ and ‘you.’ Why aren’t we reading Les Misérables?”

When Louise is just allowed to do her job, the story flows much better, even if everything is in a pool of ennui. The linguistic tricks and the tie-in with her daughter are clever and dramatic enough without the need for faux antagonisms and saber rattling. It feels like they started with a good script, but then didn’t trust it. Still, I think they had the correct writers, just the wrong director.

Arrival has been described as “smart science fiction,” and I suppose compared to Star Wars or Iron Man, it is. But that only makes it stand out more when it is dumb, and it is never that smart anyway. Iron Man can distract you from the silly science with razzle-dazzle action. Arrival has nothing but a semi-smart idea and a lot of gloom. This is a science fiction film as created by Sartre who had to express it with interpretive dance.

 Aliens, Reviews Tagged with:
Dec 162016
 
three reels

In 1926—in the pre-Harry, Harry Potter world—Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) comes to a terribly quaint New York with his suitcase full of magical creatures. That probably wasn’t a good move on his part as magical creatures are illegal there. An accidental run-in with Kowalski (Dan Fogler) a “no-mag” allows several of his beasts to escape. He’s soon captured by Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) of the American Congress of Magic, but she has such a poor reputation that no one pays her any attention and Newt and Kowalski end up back at her apartment where she lives with her mind reading sister, Queenie (Alison Sudol).

Elsewhere in the city, things aren’t going well. The senator and son of newspaper tycoon Henry Shaw (Jon Voight) is killed very publicly by magic. Something sinister is going on within a group of religious zealots that claims witches are all around. And Percival Graves (Colin Farrell), a bigwig in the Magic Congress, has some evil plans.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a colorful, fanciful, beautiful, meandering, bloated semi-movie that’s far more interested in starting a new Harry Potter franchise than telling a story or developing characters. The other eight movies set in this universe were based on books, so their occasionally being over-stuffed and at other times letting plots or characters dangle is not surprising. It’s what happens with a less-than-perfect novel-to-screen transfer. But there was no novel here. The title comes from a playful encyclopedia of creatures first mentioned in a Harry Potter novel. It had no characters and no story. Everything was created for the screen and somewhere director David Yates and screenwriter J.K. Rowling got lost in the setting.

Partly the issue is the number of characters. Some, like Voight’s newspaper owner don’t belong in the film. They serve no purpose. He and his sons could have been written out with a single line: “And now no-mags are being killed by the invisible force.” Done. These characters take up time, but not enough time for them to mean anything or for them to have personalities.

Then there are the leads. The film needed to settle on a lead. It couldn’t find one. So we have Newt, of whom we know nothing more at the end of the film than we did at the beginning. He’s not so much a character as the words “To be filled-in later” in the script. Is he the protagonist? No. He and his animals have nothing to do with what I loosely call the main plot (magical events threaten to expose the witches and wizards and an evil wizard who wants to start a war is somehow connected). He is a side story.

What about Tina? Well, if they’d read screen writing 101, then yes, she should have been the lead as she is connected to the Magic Congress, the zealots, and the evil wizard. But she is no protagonist as she simply reacts to situations. Worse, she isn’t even a non-protagonist lead because she has only a bit more personality than the empty Newt, and what she has is dull. She meekly goes along with whatever comes up and looks apologetic a lot. We learn she is emotional in a vague, general way (that is her one character trait), but otherwise, there’s nothing to her.

Things look up with the sidekicks. Both Kowalski and Queenie are delightful. Both are given some depth. They have concerns, motivations, and are the romantic duo of the film. Yes they’d be great, except they aren’t the leads. Kowalski could be written out with ease. And Queenie is fully a sidekick. They are not a part of the plot enough to be our protagonists. But they are given twice the time normally allotted to sidekicks, time desperately needed to flesh out Newt and Tina.

Which leaves us with no protagonists and no direction. Half the runtime is spent catching or looking after the animals. It’s cute, but also irrelevant, and starts to drag when it is clear it doesn’t matter, particularly when we get to an embarrassing scene in central park.

For the plot(s) to move at all, everyone has to act stupidly. The Harry Potter franchise had already established that governing organizations (or maybe just adults) all function on a combination of ignorance and incompetence. That’s back again as no one in authority ever makes a smart move. But now add in that our villains take actions that are not to their own advantage. Why? So that the story can progress. And then there is Newt, the expert with magical animals, who gives bold new expression to the word “irresponsible.” This man isn’t capable of taking care of a goldfish. He’d have lost every critter long ago, and probably gotten most of them killed. That could have worked in a zany, slapstick comedy, which Fantastic Beasts approaches on several occasions, but not for a family-friendly fantasy epic.

The theme is as murky as the plot strands and characters. Is this about child abuse? Kinda. Is it about institutionalized bigotry? Sorta. Is it about religious foolishness? A bit. Is it about political failure and corruption? Maybe. Is it about animals rights? Partly. All of these pop up but none of it goes anywhere.

Which should give rise to the question: Why’d you give such a mess 3 Reels? It is a mess, but as mentioned in my first line, it is a beautiful and fanciful one. It is as dumb as they come, but the creatures do have a bit of magic about them. And the sidekicks are worthy of their own film. Plus, it is a very low 3 Reels.

My Harry Potter reviews Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

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 Fantasy, Reviews Tagged with:
Dec 122016
 
2.5 reels

In this fifth film in the Underworld series, Selene (Kate Beckinsale), last of the Death Dealers, is hunted by both vampires and lycans. Some want her dead. Some want her special blood. And some want information on the location of her child, who has even more special blood. The lycans, empowered by their new blood-addicted leader (Tobias Menzies), have been wiping out the vampire covens around the world. The remaining southern coven invites Selene and her sidekick David (Theo James) to return to train new Death Dealers, but really there are multiple levels of treachery afoot.

Remember the vampire and lycan purges of Underworld: Awakening? No? That’s OK, neither do the filmmakers. The vamps are back in gothic mansions as if nothing ever happened. Humanity’s knowledge of non-humans? Don’t worry about that either as humans just don’t seem to be around in this film. Remember Michael? Well, forget about him. And Selene’s daughter? She’s just a MacGuffin now.

So, forget continuity. That’s not a terrible thing as Awakening (the forth film in the series) had taken things down an unwanted path. We are back in familiar territory, which is good or bad depending on what you are looking for. Blood Wars is about overly grumpy werewolves facing asshole vamps, with lots of shooting, sword swinging, biting, and clawing. If that’s what you came for, you should be happy, though I found the battles a step down from previous installments. If, on the other hand, you’re watching to see Beckinsale in leather and vinyl, and the general vampire fashion show, you are definitely in luck. She looks lovely and this is the most clothing modeling we’ve gotten since the first film. And this time we get a bonus with new northern vampires who dress in white Viking chic. In films where style is everything, it’s nice to get a new style.

The plot, beyond combat, does less well than the look. It is both empty and overly packed. There’s too many goals from too many different characters, most of whom we don’t know, and it is all rushed. Selene is an outcast. Then she isn’t. Then she is. Then she’s at another coven. David discovers something supposedly important and emotional about himself, but I didn’t care. First one character betrays her people, and I didn’t care, then another does, and I didn’t care, and then yet a third, and I still didn’t care. Nothing anyone does matters and it all comes to nothing. It’s a shame as the first few Underworld films supplied a passable story and engaging characters as well as delivering style and action.

While character is wanting, casting is not. When the parts are lacking, sometimes shear charisma can carry the day. Beckinsale is sensual, expressive, and a joy to behold. Theo James is solid as the co-star and Daisy Head, James Faulkner, and Bradley James bring a little extra to their supporting roles. Charles Dance is only around for an extended cameo but a little bit of him is worth a great deal. And then there is Lara Pulver as one of the two main villains, who vies with Beckinsale in the game of who cane be the sexiest. She excelled as Irene Adler in Sherlock, and brings that same charm to Blood Wars. Tobias Menzies is the only main cast member who fares poorly, but he’s given such a lackluster, underwritten villain that there was nothing he could do.

The Underworld series started strong in 2003, as something different, exciting, and fun, with just enough meaning to get by. Things have fallen off since then. Blood Wars is in a lesser league, but if you don’t ask too much of it, there’s enough fun to be had to be worth your time.

 

Blood Wars follows Underworld (2003), Underworld: Evolution (2006), Underworld: Rise of the Lycans (2009), Underworld: Awakening (2012).

Kate Beckinsale also starred in the action-horror romp, Van Helsing (2004), the ghost story Haunted (1995) and in one of the best films of 2016, the Jane Austin inspired Love and Friendship.  She had supporting roles in the Shakespearian features Much Ado About Nothing (1993) and Prince of Jutland (1994).