Archive for December, 2016

Passengers (dir. Morten Tyldum)

Posted: December 28, 2016 in Uncategorized

“Passengers” has an interesting concept for a story. In the future, Earth has become overpopulated and too expensive to live on. A corporation has developed a new revenue stream out of colonizing distant planets, recruiting people to move there for free in exchange for paying 20% of their future earnings to that corporation for life, and sending cruise spaceships to and from those planets by putting people into “hypersleep”, where they can be preserved without aging for the duration of the journey. In this film, a ship moving at half the speed of light takes 120 years to get to the colony. The film begins with a malfunction causing one passenger aboard the ship to wake up out of hypersleep 90 years before the ship will reach the colony, meaning he’ll grow old and die alone on the ship before it reaches the destination since he’s somewhere in his 30s. That man is Jim (Chris Pratt), and the first act of the film involves him, alone, trying everything he can to fix the situation, realizing he can’t, then diving into the ships many entertaining diversions. As he spends more time on the ship and gets more bored, lonely, and depressed, he considers waking up a passenger in hypersleep that he finds attractive and whose personality he finds himself drawn to via what is available in the ship’s records about her. This is Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence), and his decision to wake her up, thus dooming her to same fate he faces, is understandable but also the most selfish and morally reprehensible thing I can remember a character doing in any film that wants us to believe it is a romance.

I had the pleasure of reading an early draft of this film’s screenplay by Jon Spaihts, which once made the annual “Black List” of the industry’s favorite unproduced screenplays. That script was from 2007, so 9 years have elapsed between when that draft was completed and when the finished film hit movie screens. The script’s first act solves some of the problems I have with the film’s first act, which moves too fast and doesn’t effectively convey the length of time and torturous loneliness Jim feels enough for us to be able to give him any sympathy, or at least empathy, when he makes the decision to wake Aurora up. In the script, we are given title cards telling us the passage of time, and Jim does many more things alone to help us feel the soul-crushing depression he must be having, such as becoming fluent in a new language (Russian) and having the android bartender (Michael Sheen) make him a new drink from the android’s programming every day until the bartender actually runs out of new drinks to make him. The film, instead, rushes from Jim being scared, to sad, to enjoying fancy dinners and video games, to being sad and unshaven and walking around with his bare ass hanging out all day. We are given no time to feel his plight, which capsizes the film because then the film cannot generate enough emotional punch behind Jim to make the audience even halfway okay with his decision to wake up Aurora. Instead, it comes across in the film like Jim was slightly bored and did it on a whim. Later, when the film tries to tell us they are in love, both during the lie that Aurora waking was an accident and post the revelation, it comes across like the kidnapper from “Room” enjoying a wish-fulfillment fantasy.

The second act of the film tries to be a different movie…perhaps the movie that was advertised in the trailers, which didn’t divulge the set up of Jim waking up alone and then Aurora being woken up on purpose by him. The second act is Aurora going through the same stages Jim went through, and then the two of them falling for each other because, well, they have no other option for mates and people sharing a traumatic experience are bound to bond with one another. Plus, he’s as handsome as Chris Pratt and she’s as pretty as Jennifer Lawrence so, yeah. This second act is watchable because the actors are likeable and all, but it’s like the movie wants to forget about the horrible reason Aurora is awake for this segment because it wants you to root for them to be together. The film also stresses that Jim is from a working class background and Aurora is a more affluent New York city writer (in the original script, Aurora is a reporter who wants to write an expose about the corporation behind the colonies, and the script has a more anti-Capitalist slant, however slight. In the film, she’s just a run-of-the-mill book writer who seems to just want to write a memoir), as if the film is trying to excuse Jim’s decision by saying “well, how ELSE would these two ever get together?” Class forces preventing soul mates from being with each other would make an excellent film for a Marxist such as myself, but “Passengers” is not that film.

Then the third act of the film is a standard disaster movie thing, where the problems with the ship are exacerbated and Jim and Aurora are forced to work together to solve the problem despite Aurora hating Jim for good reason. Somehow the trial of them saving the ship and the 5000 people still in hypersleep makes Aurora love Jim again and be okay with what he has done. The film even *SPOILER ALERT* gives Aurora the choice of going back to sleep, but she chooses to live out her life on the ship with Jim. Sure. At least in the original script the problems with the ship cause all of the occupied hibernation pods to be ejected from the ship, meaning Aurora would have died if she had not been woken up, which doesn’t excuse Jim’s behavior, but at least gives Aurora’s Stockholm Syndrome a tad more license. *SPOILERS END*

The film is mainly a missed opportunity. I have read a number of different places where this film could have gone from a number of different film critics, and any one of them would have made a better film. Personally, I’d be okay if the first act from the original script remained, and even the second act, but filmed with a different tone than a love story. The 3rd act is pretty fatal CGI and Hollywood nonsense, but the better 3rd act of the script was also flawed because of the very abrupt ending and for not adequately dealing with Jim’s decision. They changed the 3rd act for the film, but they took it in the completely wrong, opposite direction. The charismatic stars are not enough to save the film’s flaws. C.

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The “Assassin’s Creed” movie is a mess. It’s an ugly-looking film that contains occasional action sequences of stunning boringness while mostly spinning its wheels with yawn-inducing exposition. The video games weren’t exactly famous for having a great story, as the plot is pretty much a mish-mash of “Da Vinci Code”-esque historical and religious Illuminati-like conspiracies mixed some “Matrix” knock-off sci-fi elements, but that didn’t matter much when playing the games because they were largely fun. The enjoyment of the games came from doing missions in a semi-open-world historical environment as you jump from rooftop to rooftop assassinating baddies and talking to famous figures. For some reason, the makers of the film seemed to think that the games were liked because of their ridiculous mythology, involving two horrible secret organizations fighting for control of the world via obtaining pseudo-religious artifacts.

Rumors of the film taking place largely in the present were correct. While the bulk of the video games take place in a historical setting, with the present day action being relegated to a framing device, the filmmakers decided that staying in the present with occasional flashback sequences to the Spanish Inquisition would make for a better film. It certainly makes for a cheaper film, one assumes, despite those historical sequences being hidden in so much CGI dirt and fog that it looks like someone rode their dirt bike over each frame of the film. Our main character is Callum, played by the very talented Michael Fassbender. I have no idea why Fassbender chose to do this film, but since he also produced this film I assume he either really likes the source material or he simply was looking for a franchise he could star in and collect paychecks for between his indie and prestige film roles. If he likes the source material, I have no idea why he signed off on the script as it exists on film here. In any case, Callum is executed for the murder of a pimp. Why he got the death penalty for murdering a pimp, a sentence that indicates it was a premeditated murder and that Callum didn’t accept a plea deal to at least get life with no parole, is an issue the film doesn’t bother to explain to us.

Anyway, instead of dying he wakes up as a prisoner in a facility run by a corporation known as Abstergo. The corporation is really a front for an organization known as the Templars, whose objective seems to be to find a way to control the entire human race by eliminating their need/desire/ability to make their own decisions. This is called “free will” in the film, because I assume they have not read recent advances in neuroscience indicating “free will” isn’t exactly what we think it is. The film gives us a McGuffin in the form of an orb called the “Apple of Eden”, which is supposedly an ancient device that contains information that will allow the Templars to take the DNA for free will out of humans so that the Templars can control them. Why do the Templars want to control the human race when they already seem to be an organization of rich and powerful people who already control most of humanity through, the film tells us, religion and consumerism? The film never explains.

Callum is mainly watched over by a doctor named Sophia Rikken, played by Marion Cotillard, another actor way too good to be seen in dreck like this. Anyway, Sophia lies to Callum and tells him their work is actually to eliminate the genetic predisposition to violence, that Abstergo simply wants to end violence in the world with the Apple. Ending violence seems like a good idea, but I’m left wondering where that ends. Does that mean we no longer kill animals for food? Step on bugs? Harm blades of grass? What level of violence would be eliminated? I know Sophia is lying and all, but the blanket statement of ending violence by manipulating human DNA brings up more questions than this film can answer.

Abstergo has a Matrix-like device called the Animus. When Callum is hooked up to it, he can have a virtual reality experience of his ancestor’s memories. I wonder, if the ancestor is still alive, like Callum’s father, would Callum still be able to experience all of his dad’s memories, or just the ones that go up to the moment Callum was conceived? I mean, the idea that all of your ancestors’ memories are in your DNA is ludicrous as it is, but the questions this film brings up (admittedly, many from the games) immediately show how ridiculous this whole thing is.

So Abstergo makes Callum experience an ancestor who lived in the 1400s during the Inquisition, Aguilar. Aguilar was the last person in history known to possess the Apple, so Abstergo/the Templars want to use Callum to unlock the memory of where Aguilar left the Apple so they can go retrieve it and begin their evil scheme for even more world domination than they already have.

Aguilar, however, was the member of another super secret organization known as the Brotherhood of Assassins. The film wants us to believe this group are the good guys, but when their Creed contains nuggets like “nothing is true” and “everything is permitted”, it sounds more like the kind of crap you hear from 14-year-old Libertarians who post on 4chan. The Assassins seem to prize free will above all else, but when you don’t believe in an objective, material truth and have no morality to speak of beyond a single ideal, I can’t really see you as the good guys of anything. So, when a film is about a war between assholes and super-assholes, I’m left rooting that both groups will just wipe each other out and leave the world be. Indifference to which side wins does not make for a very fun movie-going experience.

When the film takes us to the Aguilar sequences, we see some dull, rudimentary hand-to-hand combat with wrist-knives that are barely visible under dirt-brown color effects and a constant dust storm. When we’re in the present, we see Callum in an ugly blue-tinted sterile prison with other prisoners worried he’ll turn to Abstergo’s side, and Abstergo staff looking evil and ready to do evil crap. When Callum is hooked up to the Animus, we have unnecessary cuts to him fighting holograms to disrupt the flow of scenes that take place in the past. Honestly, I spent most of the film fighting off the desire to fall asleep.

Jeremy Irons is also in this film, as Sophia’s father and the CEO of Abstergo, and not since the ill-fated “Dungeons & Dragons” movie has Irons had a reason to be this embarrassed by his career choices. Why and how did so many talented actors wind up in this mess? Why did director Justin Kurzel go out of his way to make this film look as ugly and displeasing to the eye as he could make it? Why did the THREE credited screenwriters think audiences wanted to see an “Assassin’s Creed” film that is at least 75% if not more set in the present day?

At least all of the characters actually speak Spanish in the scenes set in Spain. That’s something. I know live action video game adaptations are known for how much they suck (“Mortal Kombat”, “Resident Evil”, et. al.) but with the pedigree in front of the camera it seemed like maybe, just maybe, “Assassin’s Creed” could have been the first decent one. Instead, we have another video game film that doesn’t understand what people like about the games, is photographed in a manner that is downright ugly, has action sequences lacking in all areas, and a story that is just plain boring and abysmal. What the hell was everyone thinking? D

*SPOILERS FOLLOW*

“Rogue One” is a bland cookie with a few morsels of delicious chocolate within in. Those morsels may trick you into thinking the whole cookie is good, because those morsels are yummy, but overall the cookie is just bland as hell.

The film tells the story of how the plans for the original Death Star were stolen from the Empire and given to the Rebel Alliance so that Luke Skywalker could eventually blow it up in the original film. More importantly than that, though, the film exists to patch over George Lucas’s bad writing. Why would the Empire overlook such a massive flaw in their design? Granted, the Empire isn’t the smartest organization to have ever graced film (we’ve had THREE fucking Death Stars now…and this film has a major hero victory surrounding a switch, out in the open, being pulled…it’s called the “Master Switch”, and it is proof, yet again, that the Empire sucks at security), but this was at least an isolated flaw in the original film.  You know, before sequels, prequels, and cartoons weakened this fictional universe to a point that simply ripping off and pseudo-remaking that original film (“The Force Awakens”) felt like a breath of fresh air. In any case, now we know that the flaw was put into the Death Star on purpose by a disgruntled ex-Imperial scientist (Mads Mikkelson) for the purpose of hopefully allowing that weakness to be exploited be the Rebellion. Great. Much like the much maligned prequel trilogy, we’re getting unneeded answers to questions that are better left unanswered to be the conversation fodder of fans.

The main thrust of the plot involves that scientist’s daughter, Jyn (Felicity Jones). Jyn is a dull, boring, forgettable character whose only job in the movie is to be a generic hero that gives two speeches. There is nothing memorable, interesting, or exciting about this character. She’s a placeholder protagonist in search of personality. Anyway, after her dad was kidnapped by the Empire to work on the Death Star, she was raised by Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), whose name is too close to Che Guevara to be a coincidence. Gerrera, the film tells is, is some sort of radical guerilla fighter who broke away from the Rebellion because he takes more extreme tactics against the Empire. The film really only shows his people ambushing a squad of stormtroopers in a vaguely Middle Eastern-looking marketplace (the closest this film comes to being overtly political beyond a general pro-rebellion-against-fascism message) so I’m not sure why he’s considered to be so radical. This is war, no? Then again, the film shows the Rebellion leaders as being wishy-washy do-nothings in a scene where the leaders and some soldiers are all together in one room discussing their next course of action, so maybe the film is showcasing the inaction of Liberalism versus the revolutionary Praxis of Gerrera. Still, it’s odd that Luke Skywalker and the Rebel Fleet blow up the Death Star, killing thousands if not more, and Skywalker is unquestionably a hero. By what measure is Skywalker a hero and Gerrera a terrorist or a radical? I kind of wish Disney had given us a Saw Gerrera movie instead of this one, as it sounds more interesting. Does he spend his days waterboarding clone troopers? Drone bombing the families of Grand Moffs?

At some point Gerrera abandoned Jyn, and Jyn became a vagabond and criminal, until the Rebellion breaks her out of prison with a mission: find Gerrera and see if he has received plans for an Imperial weapon (the Death Star) from a defected Imperial pilot (Riz Ahmed), who in turn got them from Jyn’s dad. Accompanying Jyn on this mission are a Rebel soldier, Cassian (Diego Luna) and a comic relief android, K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), who is often legitimately funny. They head to a planet called Jedha, where Gerrera is located, but also where the Empire is mining lightsaber crystals for use in the Death Star’s laser. An occupying power raping a planet of its rare natural resources, but there’s no time for social commentary, I guess. Once there, they hook up with a blind Force-sensitive monk/wannabe-Jedi named Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen) and his partner (romantic?) Baze (Jiang Wen), who also act as comic relief. At least Chirrut gets to show off some Force-tinged martial arts. Having a Star wars film without Jedi at least takes some of the pro-religion ickiness out of this universe for me and grounds it more in political reality, and not of the trade blockade “Phantom Menace” type.

Through various plot machinations, the story goes from finding Gerrera, to convincing the Rebellion that the Death Star is real and to steal its schematics, to a full on space battle based around disabling a shield, ala “Return of the Jedi”. Honestly, this plot is pretty threadbare, the characters are often two-dimensional and forgettable, and many opportunities to make political commentary are inexcusably wasted. At the very least, the film is pretty to look at, mixing the color palette of a World War II movie post-“Saving Private Ryan” (lots of browns and greys) with little visual nods to Vietnam War films (palm trees with explosions rising above the tree tops). Director Gareth Edwards seemed to want to actually make a Star Wars film that brought out the WAR part of the title, and I wonder how much the publicized reshoots did to water down that part, as this film could have been, and deserved to be, grittier and darker than the final product. The tone so often switches from a serious action/drama about a revolution to quipping and wisecracks (even from Darth Vader, whose gravitas has been irreparably damaged from the prequels) that it’s hard for the film to really be successful because it’s trapped between being the fun and funny swashbuckling fantasy we know as Star Wars, and the new take on the franchise that the director clearly wanted this to be. After the lazy copy machine that was “The Force Awakens”, I think I’d have preferred the latter.

That’s not to say this film isn’t without its joys. The mix of CGI and practical to match the visual style of the original trilogy works even better here than it did in “The Force Awakens”, which is good since the appearance of Jimmy Smits makes this film have one foot in the prequel trilogy even as it lunges its body en masse into “A New Hope”. I enjoyed seeing the iconic production design of the Death Star’s interior and the classic costumes/uniforms. The final battle scene feels like a classic Star Wars space battle, but with nice new touches, like using space ships as battering rams against other ships. The two or three scenes with Vader, damage done to the character by the prequels aside, work reasonably well, even if James Earl Jones’s voice didn’t sound quite right this time. I liked seeing Vader with his helmet off in a tank of goo, surrounded by Imperial Guards (my favorite glossed-over characters from “Jedi”). His hallway massacre scene is a return to when we still viewed Vader as a badass and a menace, and not as Hayden Christensen. Of the new characters, I thought Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) was a decent villain, playing a mid-tier level fascist upset with his superior and trying to rise in the ranks of the organization. He’s a nice midway point between disposable storm troopers and Imperial personal and the Vaders and Tarkins of this universe. Gerrera was still my favorite new character, but he’s not given nearly enough to do in the film. His state of existence, in sort of a ghetto Vader cybernetic body due to a lifetime of battle damage, implies a very interesting back story that hasn’t been covered in the cartoon series from which the character originates. Shame we didn’t get that movie instead.

The worst sin of the CGI is the digital appearance of late actor Peter Cushing as Tarkin. Taking a dead actor and putting him in a film as a wholly digital creation that is so very creepily housed in the uncanny valley is distracting, disrespectful, and kind of morally repugnant (regardless of whether his estate actually gave permission or not). They do the same CGI trick to show a young Leia, which is less creepy but equally distracting. Other cameos in this film, like C-3PO and R2-D2, or the angry cantina aliens from “A New Hope” are more welcome and just brief enough to not be groan inducing.

“Rogue One” has some fun moments and little areas of fan service here and there, but it’s a weak film overall. Much like the prequels, it exists to answer questions we didn’t need answers to, and in the process probably adds even more questions about the Empire’s incompetence. It is so beholden to the films that came before and pleasing the fans of those films that it fails to strike its own path into new territory. This is the Member Berries from “South Park”, making you happy because you feel nostalgia, not because you’re actually getting a good experience in and of itself. The film would never stand on its own as a film without drawing on the good will and nostalgia of the previous films. The film has bland, forgettable characters, or if a character is memorable it’s because they have one or two cool scenes. The story lurches from plot point to plot point in a perfunctory manner, while being rather boring for the entire second act. Even when the finale features some good action moments, we get the heavy feeling of been-there-done-that. Perhaps fear of repeating the prequels has made Disney and these new film’s creators so afraid of doing anything too different from the original trilogy that we’re condemned to only have these lifeless nostalgia bubble films that are hollow products containing enough scattered moments of ingenuity and fun to make us feel better about them than they deserve.

I, for once, and getting burnt out on “Star Wars”. C+

Greetings everyone,

You may have noticed that I have not posted a film review in quite some time. While I have not stopped seeing films, the fact of the matter is that I have not had time to write full length reviews lately due to my work and school schedules. While it is not uncommon for me to catch up after 3-4 films have been viewed and write them all in a single day, I am now so far behind that films I would be reviewing have already long left theaters.

My plan going forward is to write mini-reviews (maybe 3-4 paragraphs each) for all of the films I have viewed but missed reviewing, and then come back with full length reviews starting with “Rogue One”. I’m hoping the first of these could be up as early as Tuesday of next week when my school semester ends.

Thanks for sticking with me. I’m hoping things will return to normal shortly.