Sunday, December 18, 2016


          One of the best Star Wars movies yet.
          Basically, this one's Episode 3.5, because it's about Jyn Erso (Jones), the daughter of the creator of the Death Star, and how she needs to help the Rebellion by passing along the secret information of the Death Star's built-in flaw.
          Most of the characters aren't as engaging as most of the ones from the original movies. That said, at least there aren't any Ewoks or Jar Jars. It's not a cutesy movie at all. Far from it. In fact, at times Rogue One is actually kinda Oscar-y. And what the film lacks in terms of characters--Donnie Yen as Chirrut, the blind master swordsman is the coolest--it makes up for in spectacular locales and the overall feel.
          What J.J. Abrams did for Star Trek, Gareth Edwards does for Star Wars. He's a fan of the franchise and it shows.
          Remaining, as ever, purposefully vague to preserve the experience, suffice to say Rogue One does invite discussion on the merits of including the computer-generated version of an actor who died years ago. On the one hand, there's a moral issue. Is it in bad taste to use an artist's likeness when in fact that artist did not perform the role, and doesn't even have a say? To have to ask the question is not a good sign. Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow uses Laurence Olivier's giant head in a way reminiscent of The Wizard of Oz, but the instance here in question goes a good bit further. What's next? Clark Gable in porno? Where does it stop? Moral issues aside, the result simply isn't sufficiently lifelike. It's a good trick, but still stiff and strangely off.
          Episode 7, The Force Awakens, the most recent Star Wars movie before this one, is probably the third best in the series, right after Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back. However, even without the regular gang--Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Chewbacca and pals--and even with too many people speaking in prestige British dialect (Gareth Edwards is from England, but that doesn't mean everybody else has to be), Rogue One ranks about tied with Episode 7. Yep, it's that good.
          May the--ah, you know the rest.

Starring Felicity Jones,
Diego Luna,
Alan Tudyk,
Donnie Yen,
Wen Jiang,
Forest Whitaker,
Mads Mikkelsen
Directed by Gareth Edwards
Written by Chris Weitz, Tony Gilroy, John Knoll, Gary Whitta
Based on characters created by George Lucas
Runtime 134 minutes
Rated PG-13

Sunday, December 11, 2016


          Would make an interesting double-feature with Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
          To the good, Arrival is a movie featuring contact with aliens. To the bad, it's largely depressing and mostly boring.
          To say what makes it depressing would give too much away. Remaining deliberately vague, suffice to say there is no enjoyment to be taken from the depressing aspect which girds the entire film. It's just a downer.
          Before the boring, let's hit the upshot:
          When alien ships reach Earth, the US military recruits a professor of linguistics (Adams) to communicate with them.
          Problem number one is the premise itself. A species advanced enough for interstellar or interdimensional travel would not require a linguistics professor. End of story. So when she holds up a sign with her name, points to the word, then points to herself and says, "Louise" for awhile, it's a lot to endure.
          Then there's the way the aliens look. Sometimes difference just for the sake of difference doesn't really work. Maybe, possibly, beings from other worlds look like pink giraffes with umbrellas on their backs. Let's hope not, because it's better when aliens look cool. And part of what makes an alien look cool is having a form compatible with operating advanced technology. The visuals have to pass the smell test, so to speak. And it doesn't happen here.
          In a sense the film seems most indebted to Christopher Nolan's non-linear Memento. Like that one and 2001: A Space Odyssey, Arrival probably improves with multiple viewings. Also to the good, Amy Adams, always watchable, carries every scene. Neither always depressing nor always boring, much of the film, which turns spaceships literally on end, innovates and entertains.
          The worst part of Arrival, however, is how it seems to subtly prepare audiences for a false flag incident. When the ships arrive, so does martial law and the fascist state. Which no one questions. Suddenly, there's a mandatory curfew. Overnight militarization replaces culture. Effectively enslaved masses, terrorized, stare at televisions for further programming. Even more than regular. This is a dumb thing to do with a movie and it's a major turnoff.
          Close Encounters of the Third Kind presents an infinitely better vision largely because the communication between the advanced species and humanity completely circumvents all the petty little power structures. Forty years ago, questioning authority was normal. The Richard Dreyfuss character, with his prophet-like experiences, will not be denied. Louise, too, shows similar strength. Which is good. But the overall presentation speaks to audiences less prepared for actively questioning our role in the universe and more conditioned to passively receive the arrival of authoritarian control.

Starring Amy Adams,
Jeremy Renner,
Forest Whitaker,
Michael Stuhlberg,
Mark O'Brien,
Tzi Ma
Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Written by Eric Heisserer
Based on a story by Ted Chiang
Runtime 116 minutes
Rated PG-13

Sunday, December 4, 2016


          Art isn't something that passes by on a conveyor belt, then moves away to be forever forgotten. The good stuff lasts independent of market forces. Buying theater tickets used to be the way to see movies. And for maximum presentation, the theater is still the best forum. But the theater experience is generally pricey, and access to theaters in no way compares to access online.

          Pluck we therefore from the vast garden of time a masterpiece from 1946, Jean Cocteau's cinematic rose Beauty and the Beast. Filmed in glorious black and white on nitrate stock that exudes a contrast-popping gleam unavailable in the digital age, it is the story of a man on the brink of ruin who stumbles one night during a storm on a magic castle in the forest. When the master of the castle, a powerful Beast (Marais), angrily appears, the man is required to choose between losing his life, or allowing one of his three daughters to take his place instead.

          Two of the daughters are greedy and spoiled. But the third, Belle (Day), shows her worth: "I'd rather be eaten alive by that monster, than die of grief at your loss."

          Simple but effective special effects showcase filmmaking at its purest. Just by using slow motion when Belle enters the shadowy castle, white curtains waving along the hall as she advances toward the camera without walking, to the low moans of an otherworldly chorus, tell us everything we need to know.

          Because it's a French film, non-French-speaking audiences can enjoy a sense of verisimilitude. (Norse gods in Marvel movies speaking prestige British dialects undermine the atmosphere.) And perhaps best of all, it's not a musical.
          Anthony Hopkins said of Hannibal, one of the movie sequels to The Silence of the Lambs, that the popularity of the franchise was basically due to being Beauty and the Beast. Maybe so. The TV show starring Linda Hamilton and Ron Perlman had a cult following for years. Upon reflection, Terminator 2 may arguably contain some Beauty and the Beast-like aspects. In 2017, Disney is releasing a live-action re-make of the cartoon musical, starring this time Emma Watson as Belle.

          More important than the mere facts of the story, however, wherein a beautiful woman falls in love with a rich guy even though he's fuzzy and has fangs, is the sheer look and sound of the 70 year-old classic. It speaks to us in the language of dream. Watching La Belle et la Bete is a lesson in the art of film, and a potent reminder that movies don't need computer-generated effects, huge explosions, giant budgets, pre-existing merchandising tie-ins, or sequels to resonate effectively and inspire viewers with movie magic.

          To watch the best copy freely available online, Google the title of the film and the year followed by Veoh.

Starring Jean Marais,
Joesette Day,
Mila Parely,
Nane Gernon,
Michel Auclair,
Marcel Andre
Written and directed by Jean Cocteau
Runtime 93 minutes