I had planned on writing mini-reviews for all of the movies I saw that I missed reviewing in the months of October, November, and December. Unfortunately, things have taken a turn for the worse for me. I got kicked out of my home by my ex and am currently crashing with friends until I can find a place to live. Unfortunately, most of the apartments down here want your monthly income to be 3Xs the monthly rent, which I do not make working part time as a movie theater manager. So, I am stuck looking for a full time job to supplement my part-time theater income while also going to school. Yeah. Writing reviews is not the highest on my priority list. So, here are some VERY SHORT mini-reviews:
The Birth of a Nation
Film has weird message about religious violence being justified, but has an unintentional atheist message since the pro and anti-slavery sides think The Bible supports their cause, leading on to the conclusion that religion is bullshit that people pick and choose an interpretation of to justify their own attitudes anyway. The director’s rape allegations do hover over the film, since rape plays two plot points. The film is good, but flawed by the director’s lack of perspective on religion. B
The Accountant
A very good action/thriller/drama that attempts to make a sort-of Aspie superhero. The film eschews cliche in many ways (the climax, no simple love story) and contains a great lead performance by Affleck. One of my favorite films of 2016. A-
Dr. Strange

The story is your average Marvel movie. No more, no less. What it does, it does well, and I was entertained. But it does no more than is required, and has very little imagination, though the visuals are often quite good. B

Arrival
An incredibly intelligent sci-fi films (released from a major studio, no less) that isn’t about war and explosions, but rather about the attempts to communicate and bridge gaps along cultures. The film is about diplomacy and empathy, while also socking you with emotion when it comes to the characters. Amy Adams was robbed of an Oscar nod. Aside from my contention that her character ultimately makes a horrible selfish decision that the film wants us to think is profound and correct, the film was one of the best I saw in 2016. A-
The Edge of Seventeen
A pretty by-the-numbers coming of age film that starts out as comedy and moves into dramedy. The lead performance by Hailee Steinfeld is quite good, and I enjoyed the humor and the characters, but this film doesn’t do anything that hasn’t been done better in other films. It won’t stand out as a memorable teen film. B
Miss Sloane
A film political junkies will like. The twist ending is absurb and unrealistic, but the film largely works as a cynical indictment of the power lobbyists and media consultants have over Washington, and is something of a player’s guide to how people upset with the system can attempt to change it from within by adopting the opposing side’s playbook and not being afraid to get their hands dirty. B+
Allied
A shitty, sappy Hollywood ending capsizes what was otherwise a fun little throwback to Old Hollywood films (Casablanca being the obvious and overt influence). The film is a fun little mystery with pretensions of being more. B-
Bad Santa 2
Not nearly as good as the first film, but no one expected it to be. I laughed a decent amount of times, enjoyed seeing Christina Hendricks in a dirty little role, and just enjoyed some stupid, raunchy laughs. B-
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Aside from an unlikable main character who seems to be autistic (and does everything wrong for autistic characters, unlike The Accountant which felt right even though it skewed things for its narrative), this film was a worthy expansion of the Harry Potter franchise. Taking the world to the U.S. and creating a new magical government and bureaucracy and new, likeable supporting characters made this a fun little dip back into the world, even if it’s not as compelling or absorbing as the main franchise. B
Office Christmas Party
Mostly unfunny, wasting a talented cast (though Jason Bateman has been stagnating by playing pretty much the same role in all of his films, and Olivia Munn gets on my nerves). There are maybe 5 laughs in the hour and a half film, but most of the time I just sat bored, waiting for it to end. C-
The Founder
A surprisingly good film about how the original McDonald brothers created a small business and attempted to run it the way naive Conservatives view Capitalism to be. Then a guy named Ray Kroc comes in to franchise it, and he uses the way Capitalism ACTUALLY works to steal the business, become rich, and screw out the original creators. It’s about wealth by idea theft and legal/capital might over actual small business ingenuity. While the view of small business isn’t shared by my Marxist self, the film does a good job of showing how a pie-eyed concept of Capitalism is crushed by the harsh reality of it. B+
Split

Some part of the film are really good, and some parts are unintentionally hilarious, which is a flaw Shyamalan has suffered in many of his films. This is still probably his best film since Unbreakable, which was his last solidly good movie. James McAvoy gives a great performance (performances, really) in the lead role(s), and the ways that the film twists a real life disorder into something supernatural eventually makes sense when you find out this film shares a universe with another one of Shyamalan’s films. B-

That’s every movie I’ve seen in a theater that I haven’t had time to write a full review of. I don’t know when I’ll have time to write full reviews again. If you’d like, I’ve set up a GoFundMe to help with my financial expenses right now:
gofundme.com/daveandkarl

Moonlight (dir. Barry Jenkins)

Posted: January 17, 2017 in Uncategorized

“Moonlight” is the story of a boy, Chiron, shown at three different periods of his life. As a young child he is played by Alex Hibbert, as a teen by Ashton Sanders, and as an adult by Trevante Rhodes. The story is not much to write home about. Chiron is gay, though he doesn’t figure that out until he’s a teenager, even if everyone else knows it from the time he’s a child. Being gay is hard enough, even in 2016, but tack on being in poverty, and being Black, and having a mother addicted to crack (yeah, that’s a bit of cliché, no?), and you have the recipe for a really trying childhood. To its credit, “Moonlight” shies away from easy melodrama and focuses on character moments and has a tone of realism that allows the film to rise above its more clichéd narrative moments to be a film that is at times be heartbreaking.

When we first meet Chiron, he is running from some kids who are teasing him, and he takes refuge inside a boarded up crack den. He is rescued by Juan (Mahershala Ali), who happens to be the main drug dealer of the community. Juan is actually a good guy, save for the fact that he sells the drug that hurts his impoverished community, and is directly causing Chiron hardship by creating the environment in which Chiron’s mother (Naomie Harris) can lose her seemingly good job as a nurse to become a dope fiend (and possibly a  prostitute, though this is merely implied). We get the feeling that Juan doesn’t necessarily view himself as some gangsta crimelord or emulate Scarface, but is rather making the best living he can under his limited circumstances. We’re told he came from Cuba as a child, indicating his family probably came to United States with nothing and that Juan, therefore, didn’t have much of an opportunity to excel, especially being black, regardless of the “American Dream” many citizens of this country are deluded into believing actually exists. Juan takes a shine to the boy and becomes something of a father figure to him. He treats Chiron well, feeds him, and even his girlfriend Theresa (Janelle Monae) becomes something of a more responsible mother to the child. When Chiron is berated by his real mother, you see Juan’s remorse and inner turmoil with knowing he is responsible for Chiron’s life being irreparably worse due to Juan’s actions, and you know it kills him.

As a teen, Chiron is still teased by other kids. His mother is even more of an addict, and Juan has since died. The one bright spot may be Kevin (played by Jharrel Jerome in the teen segment, and later by Andre Holland), a boy who treats Chiron like a friend and gives him the nickname Black. Kevin seems to be straight, bragging about getting detention for having sex with a female peer, but then one night Chiron and Kevin share a sexual experience down by the beach, and we know Kevin is either bisexual or on the down-low.  In any event, Kevin does not experience the teasing that Chiron does, and is even liked by some of the very same kids who bully Chiron regularly.

Events transpire, and we then see Chiron as an adult, having followed in Juan’s footsteps and ended up a drug dealer in Atlanta. One day he gets a call from Kevin, who he hasn’t spoken to since an unpleasant event a decade earlier, and old unresolved feelings come flooding back, as does the realization that Chiron never became the person he was truly meant to be, or who he was inside, as he remained forever stuck in the circumstances life threw at him.

Each individual segment has moments of power. This is largely a movie about people interacting with people, and the things people leave unsaid between themselves. It’s about how we don’t have as much of a choice in life as to who we are as we think we do. It’s about struggles that are both universal and also very specific to sexual identity, economic status, and race. While I wish the story maybe didn’t hit as many clichéd story beats as we’ve seen from other films about Black poverty, or even gay teen coming of age films, the film does make up for this by having across the board phenomenal acting, and isolated moments of extreme power as we feel for the characters. While some characters, like Chiron’s mother, feel like a cliché, other characters like Juan and Kevin eschew clichés associated with their characters, revealing that behind archetypes of the ghetto drug dealer or the closeted gay Black man, are human beings with struggles and reasons that they have lived the lives they have lived, even if they are lives they don’t wish they had lived.

“Moonlight” is at time powerful, and the good moments far outweigh the more clichéd narrative issues. B+

 

“La La Land” is a film about many things. It is a film about nostalgia in general and classic jazz music and the silver age of Hollywood in particular. While a lot of Hollywood is driven by nostalgia in the modern era, as evidenced by the slew of reboots and the return of everything from “Full House” to 8-bit Ninentdo systems, “La La Land” specifically makes an argument that there is a difference between nostalgia driven by past art being of higher quality, and empty nostalgia based solely on remembrance. At a low point in his life, one of our two main characters, Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is reduced to playing keyboards in a lame 80s cover band. While I myself love 80s music, it’s clear that writer/director Damien Chazelle does not (sample line of dialogue: “You don’t ask a serious musician to play ‘I Ran’” [the Flock of Seagulls song]), and is making a differentiation between being nostalgic for the heyday of jazz as being legitimate and worthy nostalgia because it is something better than what is being produced today, and nostalgia for 80s New Wave music.

The film makes no such comparison between modern filmmaking and Silver Age films, though barbs against modern Hollywood run rampant in the film. There’s a sleazy screenwriter who hits on our other main character, Mia (Emma Stone), by talking about his gig writing a modern-day reimagining of “Goldilocks” from the bears’ perspective, which is only slightly exaggerated from some of the crap mainstream studios have in the pipeline right now. There’s also a scene where Mia is on a double date and her companions are complaining about the modern day experience of going to the theater, citing the temperature of theaters and the rudeness of other patrons, and claiming that watching movies at home on a big TV is better. Any lover of film will recognize that argument and immediately hate the characters making it. This is contrasted with Sebastian and Mia seeing a screening of a Silver Age Hollywood picture (“Rebel without a Cause”) at an old school movie theater, and the later sadness in a montage of seeing that theater closed down because, well, modern audiences neither appreciate the movie theater experience, nor appreciate old movies like they used to, perhaps thanks to streaming replacing video stores and many streaming services lacking in classic cinema choices.

So yes, a lot of “La La Land” is an ode to film and music that was popular in the 1950s, but the specific focus on quality differentiates it from a reactionary knee-jerk idea (now clichéd) that the 1950s were universally better than the modern era. No, that argument is reserved for reactionary White American Conservatives, and that false nostalgia gave us President Trump and his promise to restore America to some faux remembered greatness, which to them is usually that same idealized 1950s, when it isn’t the Reagan 80s. What’s interesting is that “La La Land” itself is not simply a film attempting to emulate the 1950s. It is set in the modern day, and the film makes no bones about that. In fact, a lot of the film centers around how the modern day material conditions of society often infringe on the things that make us happy, and the ability to follow our dreams. When a ringing cell phone brings a musical number to an abrupt end, or the film breaks when attempting to watch a classic movie, the film is making a point with those many moments of the real, modern world insisting on interrupting happiness and destroying dreams. That is really the other thing that this film is about, the difficulty in following one’s dreams in the face of the unavoidable challenges of the modern world.

The film itself is structured to showcase that theme. When the film begins we see people stuck in a traffic jam, the likes of which are infamous on L.A. highways. Then they break out into song, in a stark contrast to their surroundings and situation, giving a setpiece we would never actually see in a real 1950s music of the “Singin’ in the Rain” variety. The incongruity displayed in that number sets the stage for the themes of the film as a whole. As the film goes on, the musical numbers go from upbeat to sadder and more somber. They also become less frequent. The visual style of the film goes from having bright colors and costumes, reminiscent of the 50s musical, to a more muted and realistic color palette. The choreography becomes less elaborate, and the camera moves around a lot less fluidly. The visual style of this film is heavily tied to express the film’s themes and messages, and the writer/director deserves all of the accolades possible for pulling it off. Those early sequences, where the camera moves around in a dizzying, kinetic, hypnotizing fashion are almost breathtaking, especially considering how long some of the takes go without a cut and how elaborate the choreography taking place is.

The music itself ranges from excellent, to good, to forgettable. “La La Land” isn’t a great musical, even though it is a great film, and that’s okay. The rough and tumble nature of trying to turn real life into a Hollywood musical is expressed by the mixed quality of individual songs, and matches the struggle the characters go through to become their ideal selves. Sebastian wants to bring back classical jazz and open up a jazz club where he can play true, uncompromised jazz music. Mia wants to be a famous Hollywood actress, but is held back by the garbage Hollywood wants to produce and the powers that be not caring about artistic quality. They struggle to make ends meet, to not be viewed as objects of pity or derision by those who know them, and to maintain their dignity and purity in their quests to achieve their goals. Compromise is inevitable, and no one can truly make it in either art form of music or film without at some point selling out at least a little bit, and the struggle becomes what level of selling out is acceptable and necessary, and at what point does holding back from selling out just make you stubborn and pretentious. Mia can’t get any good roles, so she’s convinced by Sebastian to write her own play and thus a good role for herself. Sebastian, hearing half of a phone conversation between Mia and her mother, knows that he seems like a loser to any outsider for not having a good, steady job, so he compromises and joins a band that blends classical jazz with modern music. The band is successful, and the music sounds good (at least to my non-jazz-liking ears), but he’s miserable and feels the music he plays is an abomination. The film wants its audience to ask if it is right that dreams are unachievable without heavy compromise based on largely economic and partially social pressures, or if it is wrong to expect to be able to achieve your dreams because life isn’t fair and we shouldn’t expect it to be.

The film has maybe a mixed answer to this. There’s a little montage at the end of the film that shows an alternate version of events of this film if everything in our main characters’ lives went right after the first act. It’s a much different film, and a much happier alternate reality than the ones the characters actually inhabit. Does the film, and the audience, want that life for the characters? Of course. Was it ever reasonable to expect that for them, or anyone? No.

When Sebastian joins to band fronted by Keith (played by musician John Legend), Keith makes the argument that you can’t be a revolutionary if you’re a traditionalist. If you are too beholden to the past, you will never make anything new, never introduce the art form you love to new audiences, and what you love will die because you can’t accept change. The film, or at least Sebastian, originally treats Keith as practically the antichrist for holding this belief, but in the end “La La Land” is doing to the Silver Age Musical exactly what Keith’s band does to jazz in the film, and because of that audiences are accepting and loving “La La Land” even if they wouldn’t necessarily ever rent “Singin’ in the Rain” or “My Fair Lady”. So is Keith right, that art needs to change to survive, or is Sebastian right, that to change art into something it is not or is only partially what it used to be fatal to its quality and merely a slow death as opposed to an immediate one? I think the answer is that they are both right. Sebastian opens his club and it is a success, but Keith’s band is also a success. Perhaps the film thinks Keith compromised too much, and that “La La Land”, itself a compromise between and old film and a modern one (Prius jokes), threads the needle correctly, and that realistically, beyond arguments of right or wrong, there is no objectively possible way to create successful art and make enough money off of it to live without a degree of compromise for modern audiences’ tastes. My guess is that Chazelle accepts this reality, but finds it heartbreaking nonetheless. Also, while nostalgia for better art is understandable, especially when a lot of modern art (namely music and film) is abject swill, being strictly beholden to the past will only kill quality art. If quality art is to survive, it has to find where the acceptable level of compromise is. “La La Land” found it, so it is possible.

Beyond all this meaning and theme talk, it must be said that this film makes you care about its characters, who are well-performed by the actors even if their singing voices are merely better than average (don’t worry, there’s no Russell Crowe-level bad singing, it’s just not Broadway-caliber, which is fine). Sebastian and Mia aren’t the richest or most multi-layered characters, but you like them and enjoy seeing them on their journey and want them to be successful. I enjoyed the music, tapping my foot to many of the numbers, and I came close to crying at a couple of scenes, but ultimately did not do so. The film is funny and dramatic, and as much fun to watch as it was to analyze and think about. I loved it. A

 

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.

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.

“The Girl on the Train” is desperately trying to be “Gone Girl” sometimes, and a Brian DePalma film at others, but it can never quite get the tone right. As a mystery the film is fairly enjoyable and watchable, even if the film doesn’t play fair with the mystery in an attempt to get you to not see the obvious conclusion from a mile away, but it never quite digs beneath the surface to saying anything, even though this material obviously wants to say something (I haven’t read the novel, so perhaps the book makes its messages more clearly), and the tone of the film, while not falling into Lifetime movie melodrama like it could have, never quite has the darkness or sharp edges it needs to really hit you.

*THIS REVIEW WILL CONTAIN MASSIVE SPOILERS**

The film begins with Rachel Watson, played very well by Emily Blunt. Blunt’s performance is much better than the film around her deserves. Rachel is a broken woman, an alcoholic who rides the rain from Jersey to New York every day, twice a day. Partially this is to spy on the home she used to share with her ex-husband, Tom (Justin Theroux). Tom is now married to Anna (Rebecca Ferguson) and has a baby girl. The other reason is to look at the woman who lives two houses down from Tom. This woman is Megan (Haley Bennett), of whom Rachel imbues her own fantasy life upon, since she actually knows nothing about Megan. One day, while riding the train, she sees Megan kiss someone who is not Megan’s husband, and Rachel’s fantasy life comes crashing down. Rachel’s marriage ended when Tom cheated on her with Anna, so she takes the possibility of Megan cheating on her husband very personally. One day, Rachel actually gets off the train, thinks she sees Megan, and sort of stumbles after her. She passes out and wakes up in her apartment covered in blood. We soon find out Megan went missing and, well, since Rachel blacked out and has no memory of what happened, we’re left to wonder if Rachel had anything to do with Megan’s disappearance. Or, at least, we would wonder if we had never seen a movie or read a book before.  It’s pretty obvious that Rachel did not kill Megan, and at no time while watching the film did I even consider she would turn out to be the killer (it’s revealed sometime in the second act that Megan is, indeed, dead), so I’m not sure why the film even attempts, briefly and half-heartedly, to make us think Rachel might be responsible.

Rachel is still a little messed-up, though, so she takes it upon herself to try and solve the disappearance/murder by herself, while falling off and getting on the wagon repeatedly.  Among the suspects the film provides us are Megan’s husband, Scott (Luke Evans), who is maybe abusive (he is), and Megan’s therapist, Dr. Abdic (Edgar Ramirez), with whom Megan at least attempted to seduce. The film doesn’t make it exactly crystal clear whether or not Megan and Dr. Abdic actually ever slept with each other, but I’m judging from context that they did not but that the doc was tempted. In any case, both end up being red herrings.

Did I mention that Megan was the nanny for Tom and Anna? Now I know what you’re saying: the nanny for a man who has previously cheated on a wife goes missing. Clearly he did it. Well, of course he did. So why is such an obvious solution sometimes put into question when you watch the film?  It’s because the film doesn’t play fair in its use of flashbacks. You see, the film at different times uses multiple narrators, switching from Rachel (most of the time) to Megan (flashbacks) and briefly to Anna. There are times when the film shows us flashings of things we know we’re not supposed to take as literal, such as a fantasy sequence where Rachel imagines smashing Megan’s head into the kitchen floor. We know this is a fantasy because of the quick editing and shaky camera work combined with sharp cuts to the present. We are then, logically, to assume that flashbacks with camera work that matches the rest of the film proper, or match the flashbacks of Megan, who, unlike Rachel is not an alcoholic, and also not an unreliable narrator because she is dead and cannot lie to us, are truth. Film is a literal medium and if a film shows us something, as an audience we are meant to assume its truth within the film unless narratively or visually we are given reason not to. So, in some of Rachel’s flashbacks, we are shown Rachel acting crazy and abusive while drunk and Tom being as patient as he can with her until he finally starts cheating to escape her. Well, later in the film we find out those flashbacks are NOT objectively true and that Tom has actually been gaslighting Rachel for years when HE is the abusive one, and those flashbacks are just false memories Tom had placed into Rachel’s head. Those flashbacks are a big reason why the audience thinks twice about suspecting Tom, and I think the filmmakers, specifically director Tate Taylor, knows Tom is too obvious of a suspect and chose to film the fake flashbacks in an objective manner to throw the audience off, and it’s a cheating move to do so. I understand watching to try to patch up a shoddy mystery (perhaps the book does it better as it deals with text language and not the visual language of cinema) but doing it this way is cheap and a fucking cheat.

Also, Megan is dead. She has no reason to hide anything from the audience. Why, then, do her flashbacks not contain any hint or evidence of her obviously very important-to-her-life affair with Tom? There is no narrative reason why Megan’s flashbacks would obfuscate us from this life event, except for the fact that it casts more light on the already obvious suspect of Tom. Quite simply, those flashbacks are held from us by the outside filmmakers, not for any in-universe reason. It’s a crap move and shitty, unfair writing.  Compare this with “Gone Girl”, where the fake narration from the female lead is explained in-universe as a diary left behind as fake evidence to frame her husband. We are given a legitimate story reason for those lies to be presented to us, the audience (or reader). “The Girl on the Train” cheats because there is no other way to keep its obvious solution from us. That’s not clever, it’s just bad writing. I don’t know if the blame should go to director Taylor, screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson, or author Paula Hawkins, but since Hawkins hasn’t written any mysteries prior to this, Taylor’s only directed the bland “The Help” and the bland “Get On Up”, and Wilson has written scripts for good films like “Secretary” and “Chloe”, I’m inclined to blame the former two and not Wilson.

Another issue I had with the film is its almost perverse obsession with motherhood. Rachel sinks into alcoholism because she can’t have a kid (Tom and her try IVR and it doesn’t take, and they say they can’t afford it again even though they live in a very expensive house in a very posh neighborhood). Megan had a kid at 17 and fell asleep in the bathtub with the baby cradled to her chest, accidentally drowning it. After that, she never wants kids, leading her husband Scott to abuse her. When she becomes pregnant with Tom’s kid, he kills her to keep it secret. Oh, and Tom’s motives are basically that he’s horny and cheated Rachel because she was too drunk and sad to want sex, and cheats on Anna because she’s too tired taking care of the baby to want sex too. So, that’s four baby-related plot catalysts in one film. It’s almost bad enough, from a gender studies perspective, that our three main characters are all severely fucked up, damaged women and are all victims of abuse…but to make their motherhood or lack thereof defining characteristics of their lives and the reason abuse is dealt on them is…problematic to say the least. Top that with the film almost inviting us to judge Megan harshly for her promiscuity (women at yoga give her dirty looks, presumably just for being hot, and she tries really hard to seduce her therapist even though he rebuffs her…not to mention the whole sleeping with Tom while watching his kid thing) and tying her promiscuity to accidentally killing her child and…well…I would say this movie was misogynist, but the fact that of the film’s three main male characters we have a murdering, gaslighting abuser, an plain ol’ abusive husband, and a doctor who still crosses lines with a patient without actually having sex with her, means that the male gender doesn’t come off very well either. Maybe the film just hates all of humanity.

The last possibility is that the film is trying to saying something about class. The original novel takes place in England, where society is a lot more conscious of class than the United States is. Perhaps the setting of an idyllic, upper-class suburban neighborhood teaming with abuse and infidelity was meant as a social commentary, but that sure doesn’t come across in the film. If anything, the film’s view of a dark undercurrent in that type of locale is pretty generic and clichéd by now if that’s all you’re saying. You have to be sharper with satire or with message than that in an age where we’ve already had “Blue Velvet” and “American Beauty”, among countless other films.

“The Girl on the Train” is an entertaining film while you watch it, but when you stand up from your chair and begin walking out of the theater, all of the film’s flaws flood you immediately. You can’t have a good mystery if the story and the filmmaking are going to cheat the way this film does. The gender politics are really, really messed up. Any social commentary is so far under the surface that you can’t even see it. This film needed a better director to bring out the subtext, darkness, and a sharper edge. C+

“America has always equated Democracy with Capitalism. Capitalism with God.”

-Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard)

That is the only memorable line, and the only part of the film even attempting any modern social commentary, in the new “The Magnificent Seven” film, which is a remake of the 1960 original, which itself was an American remake of the classic Japanese film “The Seven Samurai”. While the new film has a diverse cast, and goes out of its way to have its main female character (Haley Bennett) wield a gun (when she’s not baring an excessive amount of cleavage for reasons not intrinsic to the story), it misses a huge opportunity to be a commentary on the modern American zeitgeist (or America has an experiment in general), and instead is simply the most generic of western films that can possibly be made, with one-dimensional characters spouting one-liners as the film devolves into an orgy of bloodless, PG-13 violence. If you like generic westerns, you’ll like the film, but to say it isn’t a disappointment with all of this talent in front of and behind the camera would be a lie.

The plot involves Bogue, a robber baron in the late 1800s who is terrorizing a small town as he extracts all of the natural resources from its mines. After a failed coup against Bogue, resulting in the robber baron’s men killing a number of the citizens, the wife of one of those murdered, Emma (Bennett) sets out to hire a warrant officer, Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington) to force the Bogue out of town, preferably by killing him. Since Bogue has an army of employed mercenaries at his disposal, Chisolm can’t do this alone, so he recruits as many people as he can to help him train the townspeople to fight back, and offer their guns for the cause. After a very long and occasionally humorous process of recruiting (it takes up almost all of the first act, as opposed to the montage these films usually employee) we have Faraday (Chris Pratt), a wannabe ladies’ man and gambler; Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), a Mexican outlaw; Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier), an exiled Comanche; Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio), a crazy mountain man who is very Christian and used to scalp Native Americans for government bounty; Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke), a former Confederate sniper who had a crisis of conscience and now tours the country with Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee), an Asian knife expert that engages in duels for money.  The most progressive thing this film does **SPOILER ALERT** is have only minorities survive of the seven.  It’s not much following a film devoid of any useful social commentary, but it’s a nice little bucking of convention. **SPOILER ENDS**

Despite the somewhat progressive attitude toward race, the film’s only roles for women are in prostitutes, schoolmarms, or wives. Granted, these are the only roles for women usually allotted by the Western genre, but for a film that seems to exist for the purposes of bringing progressiveness to an inherently reactionary genre, one would think they would try to do more for women than have Bennett shoot a gun a few times…like give more than two lines of dialogue to any other female character. Honestly, any progressiveness shown by the film is surface level and lacking any real heart, as the film really just wants to be an easy, down-the-middle western film. Considering how lately we’ve had Westerns like Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” and “The Hateful Eight” actually try to be original in some aspects, and films like the Coen Brothers’ “True Grit” remake put decent new spins on old favorites, it is more than a little disappointing to see this multicultural “Magnificent Seven” remake be so bland, unoriginal, and having no reason to exist. It’s not a horrifically disrespectful piece of shit like this year’s “Ghostbusters” reboot, but this film only exists as a cynical studio product taking the name of a reasonable well-respected film, loading it up with two of the most bankable stars today (Washington and Pratt) and trying to watch the dollars role in. In fact, I’d wager the only reason they even went with a multicultural cast was to make a Western film appeal to minority movie goers, since Westerns are a traditionally white-favorite genre. The fact that no in-movie discussion is made of Washington’s race (which seems peculiar for the year 1879, especially when racial mentions are made of the Mexican, Asian, and Native American characters) seems really ahistorical. I’m not saying I expect the film to dwell on it, but you can’t tell me white people in 1879 aren’t going to be hostile to a black man with a badge shooting white fugitives in their town.

The result is that I had fun with some of the one-liners and the action scenes are serviceable, but there’s no reason for this film to exist, and absolutely nothing memorable about it. Even a lame 3rd act twist connecting Washington’s character to the villain falls flat because you see it coming from a mile away. By the time the film tries to surprise you by *SPOILER AGAIN* having the lone female main character actually be the one to kill the villain *SPOILER ENDS*, it’s too little, too late.

This is the kind of film to rent and play in the background while you cook something in the kitchen or have an unrelated conversation on the couch with someone. C.