Movie review: “Rogue One”

Note: this review contains some spoilers. 

I have a well-aired gripe about most war movies: there are too many happy endings. This is for obvious narrative reasons: an accurate depiction of war would involve dozens of abortive attempts at resolution; both pro- and antagonists cut down at random moments in undignified manner; exhausting stints of boredom punctuated by chaos; above all, no clearly discernable message. To market such a movie would be impossible; even movies famed for their “gritty” and “realistic” portrayals of war, such as “Saving Private Ryan” or “Black Hawk Down”, still obey basic laws of narrative—someone survives to “tell” the story to the viewer. Last weekend, I was pleased to watch this rule be broken. I was astonished to watch it be broken by a Star Wars movie.

In “Rogue One: A Star Wars story”, the survivor is not a who, but a what—a tiny strip of golden film containing blueprints for the massive, planet-destroying Death Star. Everyone involved in its creation, theft, and handoff dies. The movie is the story of their sacrifice—a sacrifice made in the shadow of a mounting threat from an aggressive fascist government willing to pawn civil liberty for security. In case the critique is not yet pointed enough, “Rogue One” sharpens the stick and pokes harder: the nascent Death Star makes its weapons debut by destroying a large desert city with the vaguely Arabic-sounding name of “Jeddah”. Unfortunately, the analogy breaks down when it comes to the good guys: a scrappy group of outgunned rebels is all well and good, but whom exactly on the current world stage are they supposed to represent? An obvious answer presents itself, but one would hope “Rogue One” isn’t endorsing any fanatically violent suicide cults, no matter how scrappy. The film leaves the uncomfortable question hanging, and it’s still bothering me a full week after seeing it—which is, perhaps, exactly the point.

Movie review: “Gimme Danger”

“Gimme Danger” suffers from an unusual problem: its subject matter is far too cool. If Iggy Pop and the Stooges were the type of band to have twenty-seven eight-by-ten color glossy pictures of their every evolutionary stage, they wouldn’t have been Iggy Pop and the Stooges, or worth making a documentary about. This is the bind Jim Jarmusch finds himself in—how do you make a movie about a band that found most of its success outside the notice of anyone with a camera?

“Gimme Danger” is a vigorous, but unsuccessful, attempt to get out of the bind: using family photographs and the still surprisingly sharp memory of Iggy Pop (James Osterberg), Jarmusch constructs a detailed scale model of 1960s Detroit, where Osterberg grew up in a tiny trailer with his parents, who may be eligible for sainthood on the basis of one detail alone: while living in a tiny trailer with their teenaged son, they allowed him to take up the drums. Jarmusch goes to great lengths to recreate the formative sounds Osterberg recalls from childhood, and gives ample time to his experience at the University of Michigan—unlike most rockumentaries, “Gimme Danger” is clearly interested in the music, more than the drugs or the lifestyle or the glamour of rock. Unfortunately, this leads to a laggy second half, because (as it turns out) when you subtract drugs and glamour from the rock scene of the 1970s, there is not a hell of a lot to discuss. The band tries, and fails, to make an impression commercially; personal matters are tactfully alluded to; members come and go with little acrimony. The nearest we come to heat is when Osterberg takes a gentle, almost mannerly swipe at CSNY—the remark passes with nary a ripple. Jim Jarmusch digs around for nearly two hours, and reveals exactly one surprise about the man who wrote “I Wanna Be Your Dog”: he is, at heart, a polite Midwestern boy.

Movie Review: “Doctor Strange”

Guys, it’s funny. Did you think it was going to be funny? Did you think Benedict Cumberbatch could even be funny? Neither did I! Considering that he is being funny while A) faking an American accent and B) wearing an outfit that Nosferatu would find tacky, the list of things Benedict Cumberbatch cannot do is now narrowed down to:

  1. Interact meaningfully with a voice recognition system that asks your name. “Cumberbatch!”





“I’m sorry, I didn’t understand that…”

  1. Play Khan.


(Sorry. I’m still not over it.) But “Doctor Strange” reveals a new and delightfully goofy layer to our favorite thespian onion, allowing Cumberbatch to boogie and wobble and (memorably) fight a particularly stubborn piece of clothing. His note-perfect imitation of an American surgeon includes all the tics those who must deal with surgeons will recognize—the fighter-pilot arrogance, the abysmal bedside manner, the statistics-keeping—but never strays too far into pompous windbag territory. Cumberbatch locates an appealing smartass streak and follows it through a familiar arc: the arrogant scientist brought low by an inexplicable spiritual experience. “Doctor Strange” is mining some extraordinarily impoverished narrative territory, and those who pointed out its usage of offensive tropes are correct: it’s tiresome to watch yet another white man travel to the “exotic Orient”, study at the feet of a mystic master, then leap to the head of the class of “other” students to become The Best Savior Ever. The choice of Tilda Swinton to play The Ancient One was baffling, drawing even more pointed (and warranted) criticism for whitewashing. “Doctor Strange”, as both a story and a movie, is flawed along racial lines: the story wasn’t written in a vacuum, the movie wasn’t made in a vacuum, and as my friend Billy Ockelmann Lee-Wagner astutely pointed out, a storyline based on “an arrogant white male proves things to his minority and female friends” is propping up some dangerous bullshit. But for all its deep internal flaws, the movie is neither soulless nor mean-spirited: its climax hinges upon a deeply selfless realization, one that’s all the more powerful for not being based in magic, but rather in logic and humanity. That’s the true strength of the “Marvel way” of storytelling—these are superhero stories, but they work first and foremost as stories about people, and their emotional beats hinge upon human realizations, faults, and triumphs. (I don’t know what DC movies are supposed to be about, but “people” aren’t it.) “Doctor Strange” uses CGI as liberally as any summer blockbuster, but it grasps that we can only be moved so much by pretty jets of light and kaleidoscopic arrays of color: while Strange deals in the magical manipulation of matter and time, the movie carefully defines the limitations and effects of the few spells he casts, never descending into the soulless red-light-versus-green-light battles that weakened “The Avengers: Age of Ultron” and sunk the Harry Potter franchise. And in the “death of the mentor” scene, an obligatory Station Of The Cross for every superhero story, CGI is hardly used at all—instead, the movie simply hands the scene off to Tilda Swinton and lets her talk about snow. Not a dry eye in the house.


So sure: get Benedict Cumberbatch for your comedy role. Cast Tilda Swinton as an ancient Asian dude. We are now through the looking glass in every way possible, and with two more months to go in this worst of all years, I’ll take my laughs where I can get them.

Movie review: “The Magnificent Seven”

Why? Why did we need this? Did anyone ask for this? Did anyone really want this? Who ordered this, and can we possibly return it to the kitchen? I would gladly trade back the two hours and thirteen minutes of my life which I spent watching this movie in favor of something more productive—say, a good scrub of my kitchen floor, or some light gum maintenance. But my dismay at having lost enough time to descale every kettle I own really can’t compare with the distress which countless caterers, riggers, setbuilders, and gaffers must be feeling at the loss of weeks of labor to “The Magnificant Seven”, a retread as uninspired as it is interminable. By casting Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Haley Bennett, Vincent D’Onofrio, and Ethan Hawke, the filmmakers have managed to bury just enough corn nuggets in the turd that, from a distance, it might resemble a Payday bar. Don’t be fooled. This movie’s a turd, a flat, insipid, formulaic slog through territory so well-trod it’s paved. Nothing exists to surprise or delight you here; for over two hours, only the weariest Western clichés are presented in mechanical, plodding order, from the arrival of the imposing out-of-towner (through swinging doors, the tavern’s piano clinking to a halt), to the final, climactic gunfight (the shot villains clutching at their bellies and falling in a variety of melodramatic poses). I’ve seen cuckoo clocks with more narrative suspense. And the presence of multiple fine actors doesn’t relieve the boredom—instead, it brings the dullness into even more agonizing relief, as we all contemplate the good times we’ve had with Washington, Pratt, D’Onofrio, and Hawke, in better movies than this. The movie further hamstrings itself by casting Peter Sarsgaard, the “Free” square on the Bingo card of cinematic mediocrity, as the villainous robber baron opposing Denzel Washington’s hired gunslinger—Washington brings his usual gravitas to the role, but without a comparable weight on the other end of the dramatic seesaw, he’s stuck trying to lift the narrative all by himself. Similarly, Chris Pratt tries his best to bring humor and fun into the building, only to be foiled at every turn by the lumbering script and ponderous score, and finally [spoiler alert] by a death scene so ludicrously prolonged it earned groans in the theater. Not content with the resolution of the conflict, the movie tacks on almost ten minutes of self-congratulatory epigraph, as townspeople stream back into their reclaimed village, hearty backpats and thanks are exchanged by all, and Haley Bennett solemnly intones a voiceover summarizing the movie’s message, ending with the straight-faced statement that “It was…. magnificent.”

No it wasn’t.

Movie review: “Sully”

It’s a general rule of storytelling that good tales aren’t created when things go right; they’re created when things go wrong, life goes sideways, and the suddenly scrambling protagonists must right themselves and struggle through. But what happens when your dramatic disaster is 288 seconds long and you need to fill a two-hour movie? You’d better hope you have a deeply flawed, complex hero—maybe even an antihero—to murk matters up and create a satisfying narrative. What if you don’t have that?

Welcome to “Sully”, Clint Eastwood’s second biopic focusing on a man who resembles an Eastwood character: Chelsea “Sully” Sullenberger, the pilot who successfully landed an Airbus A320 in the Hudson River following dual engine loss from birdstrike. The “Miracle on the Hudson” is about as close to a purely good event as can be imagined; there were no evildoers responsible for the disaster (just some unfortunately located geese), and the swift, brave, and timely reactions of the airline crew and water rescuers meant that the entire disaster was resolved with no loss of life in less than half an hour. Upon media scrutiny, the pilot and co-pilot were revealed to be stolid, upstanding professionals not given to grandstanding or colorful remarks—Captain Sullenberger (here played by Tom Hanks), upon whom most of the attention landed, was particularly modest about his achievement and seemed to want all the hubbub to die down so he could get back to work. As such, while the Miracle on the Hudson made for great, uplifting news, it makes for terrible story material—there isn’t any “there” there.

Not to be dissuaded, Eastwood and screenwriter Todd Komarnicki find their antagonists in the NTSB, the careful folks whose unenviable job it is to investigate plane crashes, with an eye towards avoiding future disasters and improving safety and security. What a bunch of soulless government stooges, right? What kind of blinkered bureaucratic lackey wants answers when a plane crashes? Barging forward, the film hammers home its blunt, unsophisticated message of instincts over computers, human judgement over flight simulators. We’re meant to cheer for good old-fashioned hand-on-stick flight, disregarding the obvious truth that without computers, every jet in the air would crash, and part of the reason Sullenberger was able to pull off the “Miracle” was his thousands of hours of practice logged… in flight simulators. It takes a certain resistance to the world, a moral calcification, to be inspired by this kind of obtuse rhetoric; at this rate, we can all look forward to Eastwood’s next great polemic, when he tackles pants and why the youth of America are wearing them all wrong. But I’ll go see that movie, too, because for all his limitations as a storyteller, Eastwood is a fantastic visual director, a virtuoso of tone and light and pacing and mood. He keeps the Airbus masterfully aloft for much of the movie, showing us different ways the plane could have landed—or not—in flashback and dream sequence and simulation, withholding our first glimpse at the true landing until the second act. I could have watched this movie with the sound off and been enthralled by the artful interplay of flat, reflected light, off skyscrapers and Hudson and opaque winter sky, that Eastwood uses to create a mirrored display case for the plane, a terrifying trap of cold, unforgiving surfaces. Hanks, too, deserves special commendation for working within the straight-jacket confines of Sullenberger’s character. A sort of acting Houdini, Hanks has learned to control his pupils and microexpressions so well that he can convey mortal terror and personal uncertainty even as he follows Sullenberger’s relentlessly competent decision tree, ruling out landings at LaGuardia and Teterboro until the only remaining option comes into horrifying focus. His barely banked panic until the number of survivors is revealed is humanizing, truly heroic—it’s unfortunate that the movie places so much weight on his vindication over a straw man antagonist, because Hanks doesn’t need that vindication to create a relatable, sympathetic character. More to the point, the real Captain Sullenberger didn’t need that vindication to be a hero. We all know what we saw.


Movie review: “Suicide Squad”

Someone at Warner Brothers—not everyone; not even everyone involved in the making of this movie—is listening. “Suicide Squad” is a wobbly, uneven, half-baked step in the right direction. It features a howlingly awful “Method” performance by Jared Leto; a script that exhaustingly, pedantically informs us what we’re seeing; characters that pop in and out of the script with as little reason as quarks.  It gives inexplicable acres of screen time to Scott Eastwood, the blandly handsome and be-cheekbone’d son of Clint, yet gives him nothing to say. It fails, again and again, to convincingly establish stakes, build tension, make us care. The ending is an anticlimax; deaths don’t mean anything; did I mention how much the Joker sucked ass?

Still better than Batman v Superman.

I take that back; that’s unfair. Many things are better than “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”, including basement flooding, doing your own taxes, and the semi-pleasant lightheadedness you get after three days of stomach flu. Which is a feeling you might recognize after long enough in David Ayer’s world—a colorful and not unpleasant collision of Tim Burton’s Wonderland and Zac Snyder’s Gotham. In tone and feel, “Suicide Squad” comes closest to “The Watchmen”, another messy movie half-redeemed by a bright soundtrack and committed performances from actors whose best efforts were buried under an avalanche of incoherent story fragments. There are glimmers of hope in “Suicide Squad”, just as there were in “The Watchmen”. Let’s enumerate a few:

First: Will Smith as Deadshot. One of the movie’s most glaring flaws is the feeling that it was stitched together, Frankenstein-style, out of multiple scripts—each character authored by a different writer. The upshot (heh) is that Smith drew one of the good scripts, and delivers an even-better, deeper, more multi-dimensional version of the wiseass character that he’d already honed to perfection twenty years ago.

Second: Viola Davis as Amanda Waller. Every moment Ms. Davis is on screen is like a moment spent in a refrigerator box with a cobra; while Leto swans and spits and swoons like a seventh-grade summerstock Iago, attempting to summon scariness and eliciting only snickers, Ms. Davis just exists, and rivets your attention with a life-or-death force. She approaches her character at a weary, workmanlike angle; but just when we are set to see Waller as a pragmatic functionary, she turns the corner and becomes something much more frightening. When another character admits that they didn’t see Waller coming, she responds, “No one else does, either.” The line lands, resonates, and chills. The idea that this woman, this genius, was stuck working on a movie set with the infantile and repugnant Leto (who mailed some of his costars dead animals and used condoms, using Method acting as an excuse for criminal harassment and sexual assault), is well beyond infuriating—it should be punishable by public stoning of every casting director, producer, lawyer, and handler involved. It is impossible to imagine a movie production treating Meryl Streep (the only living actress whose talent compares with Davis’s) with such cavalier disregard for her dignity or safety, and I invite you all to consider the reasons why that’s so.

Finally, Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn. I’m working hard to articulate precisely why I liked her so goddamn much, because I want to get this right; because it’s important; because this character, for me, redeemed the whole unholy mess of this movie. Here goes: Harley is the heroine I think a lot of us have been waiting for, a female character whose heroism is rooted, 100%, in the experience of having a bad boyfriend. Think hard before you push back. How many women do you know whose experience with a boyfriend has drastically derailed their lives? How many do you know who have had to flee—move—seek therapy—talk to their friends for hours—regain their career confidence and self-esteem for years—because of their boyfriends? How many do you know who are in that relationship right now?  I can think of a lot. I have friends who barely survived. I have friends whose entire personalities changed. I have friends I don’t speak to anymore, because they disappeared with those bad boyfriends and no one knows where they are. And Harley isn’t free or clear of her bad boyfriend yet, or even at all—she’s embroiled in him, entangled, still drowning, but miraculously, stubbornly, fiercely fucking alive. That’s the most real-world, relatable heroism I’ve seen all year. The fact that it’s delivered in candy-colored short shorts is for your benefit.

Let me be clear: this Harley is not a badass because she beats people up with a baseball bat. She is not a badass because she kills people. She is not a badass because she’s hot, or fuckable, or flexible, or a “crazy bitch”. Harley is all of those things, but those factors are camouflage. Put another way: a woman “kicking ass” is only considered kickass, in 2016 America, when she’s doing so violently—if she’s kicking ass in the boardroom, she’s a cold, robotic bitch who needs to be brought down a notch and “taught how to love”. If she’s kicking ass in space or the military, ditto. If she’s kicking ass in high school or a rock band, she’s cripplingly shy or awkward in her dating life and needs to loosen up and again, be “taught how to love”. And if she’s kicking ass at mothering a child, she’ll be regarded as a model not of feminism, but its opposite. Violence—done sexily—is still the only surefire avenue, for female characters in 2016, to the unqualified respect of male characters and a male audience. So violence, along with a fetchingly displayed ass, is Harley’s ticket onto the squad. But that’s not what makes her so cool. Surviving the emotional violence of a terrible, toxic love affair is Harley’s superpower, and if that’s a superpower you just don’t see the point of, look again. You may realize that you’ve been surrounded by heroines all along, and just didn’t realize it.

That’s alright. No one else does, either.




Movie review: “Star Trek: Beyond”

The newest installment in Star Trek’s canon rolls off the assembly line this weekend, christened with a focus-grouped and forgettable title (“Star Trek: Beyond”). Like most of what rolls off the assembly lines these days, the third installment in the rebooted “alternate original series” is serviceable enough, even pretty from certain angles; it offers a polished and effortless ride, depositing you outside the theater two hours later and ten dollars lighter, wreathed in a thin cloud of distraction. It does not, however, possess much of a soul, and if it seems churlish to complain about the lack of “soul” in a multimillion-dollar spectacle featuring the wholesale destruction of a USS Enterprise (complete with the startling phrase “Detach the saucer”), I can only plead affection for simpler fare. Isn’t the concept of hull breach terrifying enough, without seeing the Enterprise literally drawn and quartered in space, then dropped in several large chunks onto the planet below? In a quest to outdo the previous installments’ many and varied crash landings, “Beyond” goes, well, beyond, turning the beloved ship into a piñata and multiplying her attackers until they become a terrifying CGI swarm of… well, what were they, exactly? A character calls the evil army “bees” at one point, but bees have purpose—the antagonists’ motivation remains unclear until the very end, in which the chief baddie (Idris Elba, encased in mysteriously shifting prostheses) explains his Evil Philosophy, which nudges the audience from mere uncertainty into complete confusion. We never truly understand who he is, why he’s become a murderous fanatic, and why he has near-unlimited numbers of kamikaze-style followers willing to die for him. Say what you will about Eric Baña’s scenery-chewing Nero in the first installment, at least he had a motive (I lost my planet—let’s see how you like it).


Motive is sorely lacking on the protagonists’ side, too: in a too-neat voiceover at the beginning, Kirk expresses a desire for meaning in a life become rote. This would work better if the movie hadn’t opened with a “never a dull moment” scene from Kirk’s challenging life as a diplomat, or if the movie had meaning to offer besides “Keep the bad guy from getting the MacGuffin to the place before it’s too late to reverse the things.” Spock, too, is having doubts—his alternate-universe-counterpart, the sheared-off version of himself played by Leonard Nimoy, has died, causing him to once again question his relationship with Uhura: while the tributes to Nimoy are effective (and, in one scene, startlingly beautiful), the threat to Spock and Uhura’s relationship is less so, because we’ve seen these stakes before. We’ve also seen “bombardment from the skies/civilians in peril” quite a few times recently—this trope looked cool in “The Avengers”, tolerable in “Guardians of the Galaxy”, tired in “The Avengers: Age of Ultron”, and exhausted in “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”; now, the sight of a citywide evacuation reads as pure visual filler.


What the movie lacks in forward impetus, however, it makes up for in color: the characters are lovingly unpacked and given time to mingle, which is precisely as it should be—Star Trek at its best is a character drama, not an action franchise. McCoy and Spock are given an especially generous amount of development time, and even Scottie gets a bit of dimension beyond his comic relief role. Watching these classic characters interact is pleasure enough to balance out the dull bits, and the climax strikes the perfect note of giddy nostalgia: it’s common enough to note that actors “look like they’re having fun”, but how often do they visibly bounce with excitement? This is a summer blockbuster as indistinguishable from other blockbusters as one Honda from another, but there’s cheesy fun aplenty for those willing to turn up the music and put the pedal down.