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Rogue One is a rousing and flawed entry into the Star Wars canon


It’s odd that the resurrected Star Wars franchise has spent so much time at its beginning. Force Awakens is a modern relitigation of A New Hope, a movie that relives its past to attempt to start its future. Rogue One is a cut from the same cloth, a deep dive into the middle paragraph of Star Wars’ opening crawl exploring exactly how “Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR, an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet.”

While I think mileage is certainly going to vary how much you necessarily appreciate a “new” franchise kicking around the same material over and over again, what’s undeniable is that both of these films are aware of how powerful this mythology is and how much weight even dancing around that initial story has.

Moreover, like the best mythology, there is nuance to be found and ways to evolve and morph around the stories we already know. Rogue One is a film of deep flaws, perhaps owing to a difficult production history or perhaps owing to a series of less than wise decisions, but also of great heights, with Edwards’ eye for striking visual at the center of all of this.

Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR, an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet” is all you really need to know going in. It’s Star Wars, you’re socially obligated to see it at this point.

But it helps knowing that the plot revolves around Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), criminal on the lam from the Empire and daughter of Death Star architect Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen). The Rebellion breaks her out of prison and enlists her to find her father, under the auspices of Rebel intelligence officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and his snarky ex-Imperial droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk).

They are joined on their journey by Imperial defector and pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), blind Force monk Chirruit (Donnie Yen) [if that’s not the coolest thing you’ve ever heard, I don’t want to know you], and Chrruit’s heavily armed life partner Baze (Jiang Wen) in their race against time as the Death Star reaches completion under the auspices of Director Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn).

That much summary makes this sound like a far more dense story than this really is, which is part of the first problem I have with Rogue One. Minus a brief detour into the sci-fi flick Buster Keaton never made, Force Awakens has a serious and almost unbroken stride forward. Rogue One is not so blessed, and it’s to its detriment.

After a strong opening scene, the film slows while it gets its plot underway and then gets capped at the knees for a solid 20-30 minutes. You see, Bodhi Rook is being held by Rebel extremist Saw Gerrera (Forrest Whitaker, who I believe now gets to choose his own accents). The excursion our team takes into Gerrera’s fortress is entirely too long and bizarre in its visuals and its tonality compared to the rest of this film, a moment from an Episode film rather than the darker war film this is. Even after that the film takes time to recover.

In other words, Rogue One is well into its second act before it starts really flying, which is a huge problem for a blockbuster. On the other hand, when it gets going, this thing is INCREDIBLE. The actual “stealing of the plans” is perhaps one of the best action sequences in the whole of this series, dazzling in its wizardry and tight construction. Breathtaking and emotional and manages to find the stakes when you know the outcome. It’s hard not to leave the film with a smile on your face. There are other moments too of impressive magic and much of that is thanks to Gareth Edwards.

Edwards’ Godzilla is an unsung classic of blockbuster cinema and while not as daring and impressive as that film, Rogue One keeps Edwards’ signature sense of scale and awe and adds a surprising penchant for on-the-ground action. For example, we get to see what it looks like from the planet’s view when the Death Star strikes. It’s a chilling, awe-inspiring sight and something really new.

If only all effects were so impressive. Because then we get into one Grand Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing).

No, you’re not reading that wrong.

Cushing is indeed digitally brought back from the dead to play the role that put the most eyeballs on one of our great gothic actors. Not as a cameo, but as a plot integral part of the film. Even excusing the technical issues here (Tarkin will now forever be the new example of the Uncanny Valley, erasing the last reason anyone thought of the movie Polar Express), I actually have deep moral issues with resurrecting an actor like a puppet to play in a new film.

While the effect should keep it at bay, the fact is that the man has died and we’re now parading his likeness around for the world to see. It’s removing the humanity and turning him into an effect, a play thing. I know this is the future to come, but as my companions learned from the air sucking in through my teeth at his first appearance and the groan I made every other time, this is something that deeply disquiets me. If this be the future, then leave me in the past.

It’s also just a poor screenwriting decision. The casting here is impeccable, every person is playing the hell out of their role. Jones’ Erso and Luna’s Andor are great, but Tudyk as K-2SO steals the show as does Yen as Chirruit, who gets a chance to kick ass unlike the wasted Iko Uwais and Yayan Ruhian in Force Awakens.

But let’s take Mendelsohn’s Krennic. Mendelsohn is really strong in the role and there are interesting shading there, Krennic is a bureaucrat and emasculated in a way we haven’t seen out of Star Wars villains, he’s complex. But Tarkin takes up so much time that could have been used to develop Krennic, to give him more power and more presence.

This is the film as a whole. It feels like none of the characters are particularly well-developed, that so much time had to be spent clipping through plot and multiple moving parts that no one character gets a deep dive, decisions got made to hold back parts of the characters and never really explore.

And I do think that is a decision. As a filmmaker, Edwards isn’t really so interested in the depth of the people but rather how those people are reacting to the situations they’re dealing with. His Godzilla was absolutely not about the people on the ground, but how much they were dwarfed by the Gods up above them.

His Rogue One is less about the Rebels than about the Rebellion they’re fighting. It’s about the dirty complex business (this is one of the few, maybe the only time, there’s reference to the Rebels engaging in darker deeds) that is fighting a war and about the people who get mixed up in it. It’s about the symbols of oppression, the dark enforcer figure and the all-consuming weapon of mass destruction.

I think that’s where a lot of Rogue One ended up conflicting during the production. I get the sense that Edwards was interested in a different film than ultimately ended up happening. Now the film that’s created is still well worth its while. There’s a lot of highs and soaring moments and this is a deeply entertaining film that justifies the ticket price. But I see the stitches this time, ones that were much less obvious with Force Awakens, and I’m curious what could have ultimately been.




Moana’s beautiful specificity wrestles with its generic instincts

Formula is not necessarily poison for a film. Look, we have to accept that studio filmmaking is its own mode and purpose, and the beats that we hit are hit for a reason. At the big-budget, the level of multi-million dollar marketing campaigns and the star-studded cast and crew, only one out of every 20 or 30 may have any interesting narrative twists or innovations.

All this is to say that yeah, Moana is hitting all of the recent Disney films’ plot points for narrative gain and for narrative loss. Accepting that means that evaluating these films becomes about the shading they bring, how they deal with and color the familiar. In that, Moana has much to admire.

Moana is the story of a young girl, Moana (Auli’i Cravallo), who is next in line to be Chieftan of Motunui Island. In her heart though, she wants to explore, the ocean calls her to sail, an instinct her father (Temeura Morrison) seeks to keep down for her own safety. But when an encroaching darkness threatens Moana’s home, she must sail out and find the boisterous demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson), so that she can enlist his help to save the world.

So, from about Ratatouille to Brave, Pixar had a bit of a problem. While one of their most famous runs of quality, the films were imbalanced, frontloaded with absolutely brilliant first acts and petering out somewhere around the second to go from great to good.

The Second Disney Renaissance has been marked by a similar problem. Disney’s recent run of incredible animation (Wreck-It Ralph through now) have shown a remarkable emotional maturity and visual cleverness. But they’ve all been cursed by second act problems out the ass, with the exception of Zootopia. These films have amazing first acts and emotionally resonant thirds that follow perfectly out of their first. But the second act seems to be a thin glue intended to hold the two together, usually wandering idly through a few setpieces of whatever it takes until the actual climax needs to start.

And so it goes with Moana. The first act is a remarkable and beautiful look at a culture and a character piece about a girl who struggles with it. The third act is a touching piece of empowerment that inspires awe time and time again. The second act is a collection of moments, a few cool ideas here and there strung together by slapstick and reference.

It seems weird to throw that at a children’s film, after all you gotta keep the kids entertained. But not only has Disney/Pixar animation proven consistently better than that, we should as a whole be asking for better from children’s filmmaking. Hell, Moana itself shows the better that can be asked for.

Artists like writer Taika Waititi (along with Musker/Clements, the directorial team, and John Bush),  Lin-Manuel Miranda, Mark Mancina and Opetaia Foa’i give this a remarkable sense of specificity and detail. This feels like a film immersed in culture, immersed in an understanding of who and what the place and the people they’re showing us are. It feels like an actual piece of Polynesian culture guided onto American screens. That specificity alone makes it more interesting.

It’s also that specificity that guides the remarkable visual acuity of the film. Moana is breathtaking animation, using the water and the weather of the area to produce a series of shimmering picturesque images with lush and bright colors. Plus a few bits of remarkable motion with Moana’s control of the ocean and the Fury Road-tribute sequence.

Seriously, there’s a tribute sequence to Mad Max: Fury Road and it is dope as hell.

That specificity also guides the music. While there’s no blockbuster standout (For better or worse, Moana does not have a “Let It Go”), this is probably one of Disney’s strongest batches of songs since the First Disney Renaissance. Perhaps my own bias shows through, but you can particularly hear Miranda’s guiding hand here. His brand of vocal melody shows through all over (not just because he sings track “We Know The Way” and longtime collaborator Christopher Jackson sings on “Where You Are.”) and it has his same tight and well-controlled songwritings. Between Miranda’s work and the brief joyful lapse into Britpop/Flight of the Conchords territory with “Shiny” (sung by Jemaine Clement), this was basically made for me. Kids probably won’t ask to have any of these on loop, but everyone will enjoy them in the movie and you may actually not mind having the CD play in the car a few times.

Really, I like so much of this film. I haven’t even gotten into Moana herself, played by the surprising newcomer Auli’i Cravallo. Cravallo gives the character a lot of strength and self-assurance, she’s written with complexity and not a love interest in sight, which is rare enough even outside of the “Princess” genre.

It’s just a shame this film has a big Maui-shaped hole in its center. Look, I like Dwayne Johnson a lot, he’s one of our few great action-comedy guys who can play both sides convincingly. And he does great work here. Maui is just emblematic of the problems in the middle of this film. A few good moments don’t make up for a lot of wheel-spinning and lot of far less specific material that Maui largely embodies. He’s a bit of a stock character who exists mostly as a plot vehicle for a few too many awkward references. It feels like they tried to figure something out for Johnson and just really couldn’t ultimately find anything but his standard character.

When it’s focused on him, Moana is every other story. When it’s on Moana and her people, it’s something unique. It’s a shame there is so much of him holding back what could have been a truly phenomenal movie.

Grade: B+

The deeply human wonder of Pete’s Dragon

I want to be real upfront with you, blindly loyal reader who hasn’t figured out I’m a fraud yet. This will not be the Pete’s Dragon review for those of you seeking an honest, clear-minded assessment of the latest in Disney’s mission to turn every older property they have into a new property, a mission of which I’m shockingly accepting.

The vast majority of Pete’s Dragon was spent with me either wide-eyed and in awe or on the verge of tears. This doesn’t necessarily mean that this is the next great work of cinematic art and that I can’t see someone finding this thing slow or boring or whatever silly thing. It also means that I’m just gonna go ahead and tell you upfront that this movie gets an A and that it’s a beautiful, lyrical poem of a film that’s just so wonderfully in awe of its world. I recommend it for anyone with a heart.

Now that we have that out of the way, I want to try to piece through exactly what it is that I love about Pete’s Dragon and perhaps what hit me so hard about it.

Continue reading The deeply human wonder of Pete’s Dragon

The BFG is a gentle wonder

Minor Spielberg is still total magic. A number of articles have cropped up in the days since the release of The BFG crowing his end. We’ll ignore the fact that the man is coming off two films in a row being nominated for an Best Picture and that each of those earned an acting Oscar, and address more that I think something as short-sighted as a single failure does not begin to earn something as foolish as writing off that man.

Spielberg is one of the few working American directors who speaks cinema as a fluent language and who is allowed to make the films that he wants to make with little compromise (at least none detectable on the surface). He makes films about the things that he loves and he helps us to understand why he loves them too. Manipulative? Maybe. I’d like to say persuasive.

With The BFG, he’s turned it to some degree on the thing he’s spent his life doing, crafting dreams for people. He’s chosen to tell the story of The BFG (Mark Rylance), the smallest of the giants of Giant Country, and by far the kindest. We see him through the eyes of Sophie (Ruby Barnhill), a precocious young orphan who’s snatched away to Giant Country when she sees the BFG traipsing through London one evening.

However, he is the Big Friendly Giant, and he has no designs on doing anything awful to the “human bean” (he speaks in a series of errant phrases). He spends his days catching and distributing dreams to the people of the world. Unfortunately, that occupation is not shared by his other giants, a gang of nine led by the Fleshlumpeater (Jemaine Clement). These mean giants are “maneating cannyables” who bully our poor, sweet BFG.

The BFG is in many ways a return for Spielberg, reuniting with his ET team to tell a story that runs along those same close-to-home fairytale lines, a story about aging and friendship told through an impossible best friend.

The BFG is however fortunate enough to have the imagination of Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake behind it, being based on their book of the same name. This basis gives the film its unique visual identity, feeling quite unlike any fairy tale I’ve seen since the days of the Henson 80s. There’s no attempted realism, rather something legitimately storybook and cartoonish about their look, something deliberately clashing against the real world that we get a few glimpses of.

It helps too that every actor in this film is dialed just to the perfect point, substantive without ever leaning too deep into the darkness. Mark Rylance is pure magic as the BFG, conveying an absolute kindness and innocence that makes him finally standing up to his bullies all the more satisfying. Ruby Barnhill too continues Spielberg’s supernatural power to direct children, playing Sophie as a bright girl who never feels out of her depth as a hero.

This is undeniably, even for Spielberg, one of the sweetest films of the summer and the gentlest of the director’s career. It can be to this film’s detriment. It’s almost too sweet, a confection that disappears on the tongue just a little too soon. The friction, the fear, the impact this would have had to have to become among Spielberg’s classics just isn’t there. It’s a little glancing. Spielberg doesn’t seem to want to get too deep into much of this film. Why is Sophie so quick to grow to trust the BFG? It’s never particularly clear, because it would detract from the gentleness.

And while it’s been awhile since I’ve read The BFG, I have to wonder if Spielberg may be playing Dahl’s work just a little too unabashedly sincere. There’s room to build on top of and tell more to the story, but Spielberg is playing it with adoration and faithfulness, which means it feels as though there’s no particular filmmaking personality to it, even if the story itself has plenty.

I think all of the above is because this is unabashedly a children’s film, which there’s absolutely nothing wrong with. It means that it’s going to have difficulty going deep, but on the contrary, it’s a way to introduce Spielberg to a new generation. As simple as it is, it’s full of the magic that Spielberg is so capable of. Moments of wonder and awe, I think specifically of the sequence where we see BFG capture the dreams from where they live. It’s a scene I saw twice due to a projector error, and both times it really struck me just how beautiful it is. How much awe Spielberg makes you feel, whether young or old.

The BFG isn’t a new revelation, it’s a particularly strong Saturday afternoon dream. But it’s Spielberg, and even in those minor films, Spielberg finds a magic few can touch.

Grade: B+

A Not-So-Definitive Ranking of Pixar Films

It occurred during my Finding Dory review that I made more than a few allusions to my opinions on Pixar that may need a little more context. So, in the interest of fulfilling the expectations of being internet content, I’ve decided to rank all the Pixar films. I’ll say just a sentence about each, because god knows I don’t want to write 17 paragraphs.

I would say this is all just my opinion, but I trust you have enough critical training to get that. This is also all with the understanding that only #17 is a film I don’t like. Everything else is good to perfection.

17) Cars 2


The only Pixar misfire.

16) Cars


Great for kids, fine for anyone else.

15) Monsters University


Good, but nowhere close to great.

14) Toy Story 2


The first sequel would allude to the future strengths and weaknesses of all Pixar sequels.

13) The Good Dinosaur


Beautiful Western, but the rough production history shows.

12) Finding Nemo


Emotional gold, but narrative bronze.

11) Brave


Better than its reputation suggests.

10) Finding Dory


As good as gets without any innovation in play.

9) A Bug’s Life


Proved that Pixar wasn’t a one-hit wonder and was wittier than its competition.

8) Up


10 minutes of all-time great Pixar, 90 minutes of pretty good Pixar.

7) Toy Story


The first effort still holds up after all these years.

6) Monsters, Inc.


Amazing casting in a world of imagination.

5) Ratatouille


Infinite charm and one of the more even-handed treatments of criticism.

4) Toy Story 3


Pixar grapples with age and momentarily figures out how to make a near-perfect sequel.

3) Wall-E


Loudly brilliant first act with a quietly brilliant second and third.

2) Inside Out


Beautiful, imaginative, and emotionally smarter than most other films for any age group.

1) The Incredibles


Narratively, emotionally, and visually stunning with a wit and intelligence far beyond its genre or its years.

Finding Dory is good enough for Pixar, and that’s not necessarily good enough

The Pixar stamp is one of those rare brands in film that is, at this point, so assured that anything less than excellence seems marked. Few films have ever actually failed to meet that stamp of quality in any appreciable way. In fact, I’d only name Cars 2 as a film that feels un-Pixar in its likeability, if not necessarily in its form.

But as I said, that strength means that a film that is less than excellent for Pixar does really stand out, and they’ve had a few of those. I’ve perhaps always been alone in this one, but I feel that the original Finding Nemo is in that category. It’s a sweet film with plenty to remember, but it’s based so much in what is done to the characters rather than storytelling based in who the characters are like Pixar at its best.

Which is why I can’t say I was remarkably enthused upon the announcement of Finding Dory, a sequel that would be following Dory (Ellen Degeneres), that film’s short-term memory loss afflicted young fish companion. It seems like a bad idea, chasing popularity without really understanding what’s necessary to tell a good cinematic story.

And while I’ll say that Finding Dory isn’t necessarily absolved of the sins of its father, it’s a heartwrenching damn sight better than the original.

Finding Dory is another journey across the ocean to find missing family. This voyage sparked by Dory’s slowly returning memories of her parents, located in the “Jewel of Moray Bay, California.” Accompanied by Marlin (Albert Brooks) and Nemo (Hayden Roylence), Dory and the gang find themselves in the Marine Life Institute, an aquarium and preservation center where the goal is rescue, rehabilitation, and release.

There they meet a cast of colorful sea life characters, including a grumpy septopus Hank (Ed O’Neill), a near-sighted whale shark Destiny (Kaitlin Olson), and two very territorial sea lions named Fluke (Idris Elba) and Rudder (Dominic West). This colorful cast helps bring the gang on a journey through the Marine Life Institute to find Dory’s parents.

Let’s get a few obvious things out of the way. You know the Pixar score at this point.

The animation in this film is absolutely gorgeous. Not just in the lively and expressive character designs or the colors that pop. This time in particular, Finding Dory finds a lot of beauty in solitude, a lot of graceful shots of loneliness and vastness in the ocean. I’m continually struck by the improvements Pixar keeps making in environments, making their environments impossibly realistic in ways that should create dissonance but don’t. It’s sort of taking the baton from The Good Dinosaur, but the clash between the realism and vastness and the cartoonish character designs feels far more successful here than with that film.

There are some amazing characters with amazing vocal performances accompanying them. Pretty much every new introduction is well-worth their addition. The sea lions voiced by tough British dudes Idris Elba and Dominic West had me laughing every scene they had. Ed O’Neill’s septopus Hank is not just a particularly impressive piece of animation, but a really great character speaking to the sort of sweetness that Finding Dory regards its characters with.

There is also, of course, Dory herself. I will express initial skepticism that she could have been the center of a film, but it’s hard to argue after Finding Dory. The film does what the best sequels do, which is expand on the original premise to add shading and depth to the characters they’ve established. Dory is now not just comic relief, but an actual character with motivations and movements and ideas. And much of that is thanks to the powerhouse performance from Ellen DeGeneres, who adds on to the ever-increasing pile of reasons that it’s criminal we don’t have an Oscar category to recognize voice and motion capture performances.

And Dory also speaks to the other obvious Pixar thing, which is that it addresses a positive message in an intelligent way. Finding Dory simply posits that maybe we don’t treat people with mental illnesses like shit, because they have their own ways of looking at the world that are just as valid and brilliant as the neurotypical. It’s a film about understanding those who just think differently, and it treats it with a sweet, delicate touch that I love.

Now that all that’s out of the way, let me explain why this one doesn’t quite break into the upper Pixar tier. Pixar good is still great, but I’m not evaluating it against every other animated film.

Finding Dory keeps one of the biggest sins of its predecessor, which is its reliance on incident-based storytelling. While alleviated by Dory’s storyline, there’s a whole lot of the film where it’s just characters reacting to stuff that happens to them. It leaves the film feeling less inspired than it should be, a lot more chugging forward than a Pixar story should have.

Especially because with incident-based storytelling, it’s whether or not the incidents work for you. If some particular happenstance doesn’t entertain you, you’re stuck waiting until the next one that does. It’s why this feels about 50% good Pixar and 50% great Pixar, and that ratio can never be “good enough.”
Most notably, the incident-based storytelling pops up with Marlin and Nemo. I’m not entirely sure why they’re in this film, besides being in the last one. Their presence doesn’t really add much thematically until the very end, and storytelling-wise they seem a distraction from what could have been a really strong and tight narrative around Dory.

That really just leads into the fact though that this is a sequel. As great as Pixar is, sequels have never been their forte like original films have been, Toy Story 3 being the exception that proves the rule. Finding Dory feels like it’s meeting too many sequel obligations, leaving little room for real narrative innovation or idea expansion.

It’s expanding on the world, but not expanding on Pixar’s boundaries. It’s as good as they get with just straight-up narrative storytelling, but you can’t help but feel they could do better, because you know they can. There’s not much innovation, not much pulling deep.

What they have is strong and emotional and well-put together. I feel more connection to this film than the original sequel, I think they’ve actually topped it. But Pixar can do better and they have done better. Finding Dory hits the ceiling for the kind of film it is, and that film is wonderful. But since when should Pixar allow themselves to have a ceiling?


Standard Film Grade: A-
PIXAR Grade: B+