Film Review: The Wolverine

January 17, 2017 Leave a comment

The Wolverine (2013; Directed by James Mangold)

The Wolverine is now a largely forgotten entry in the X-Men film franchise/extended universe octopus, and technically a retroactively erased one, if the timeline-altering machinations of Days of Future Past are considered strictly canonical. It’s a bit unfortunate, as James Mangold’s Japan-centric story of the reluctant return of Logan/Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) to active moral action-heroism after self-imposed exile is better than some of what came before and after it in this uneven but often rewarding superhero film series.

Jackman’s Logan begins the movie’s contemporary narrative living alone in the vast, chilly Canadian wilderness. He’s retreated into the lonesome wild to simmer in his grief and guilt over the death of fellow X-Person and subject of unrequited love, Jean Grey (Famke Janssen, appearing to him in gauzy bedroom visions). Her end came at his hand (or, rather, at his adamantium claws) in X-Men: The Last Stand, Brett Ratner’s best-forgotten, out-with-a-whimper conclusion to the original trilogy of X-films, and although it was a tragically necessary act to save the world from her uncontrolled Dark Phoenix telekinetic powers, he’s understandably not close to getting over it.

Logan is pulled back into the messy human world when his only furtive companion, an old bear whose proud, grizzled seclusion is a metaphorical mirror of his own, is killed by callow, dishonourable hunters. In the midst of a bar-fight confrontation over this, he’s aided by Japanese martial-artist and future-glimpsing fellow mutant Yukio (Rila Fukushima). Her appearance in the remote Canadian north is far from random: she’s been sent to solicit Logan’s presence in the Land of the Rising Sun by her boss, wealthy industrialist Yashida (Haruhiko Yamanouchi).

Yashida was seen in the film’s WWII flashback opening sequence (played as a young man by Ken Yamamura) being saved from the atomic blast of the Nagasaki bomb by POW Logan and his fantastic healing ability (I’ve said so before, but the X-Men films have never shaken their addiction to invoking the horrors of 20th Century history to make thematic points since Bryan Singer kicked off the franchise at the gates of a Nazi concentration camp). Now a dying old man at the end of a long, fruitful life that Logan’s choice gifted him, Yashida claims to want to thank the Wolverine personally before passing away. But the potential of the mutant’s healing capacity might be of more interest to the old man, and he offers Logan, with his increasing angst at his inability to age and eventually pass on himself, a chance to end his pain as well.

Yashida’s apparent death soon after launches an involved succession battle over his lucrative and influential business empire, drawing in his preferred heir and granddaughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto), his power-hungry samurai-wannabe son Shingen (Hiroyuki Sanada), her Justice Minister fiancée (Brian Tee), an athletic archer bodyguard in Yashida’s employ (Will Yun Lee), treacherous poison-breathed mutant femme fatale Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova), a horde of Yakuza thugs, and a towering robotic samurai. Logan, intermittently haunted by the past, hesitantly principled about the present, and gruffly ambivalent about the future, is of course stuck square in the middle.

Mangold’s film, written by Mark Bomback and Scott Frank, has an orientalist tinge to its setting and themes, relying on a postcard Japan of bustling cities, rolling rural hills, bullet trains (an amazing fight and pursuit sequence takes place in and on top of one of those), high technology, pagodas and zen gardens, shōji houses, and samurai fixations aplenty. Like many Hollywood blockbuster depictions of the country, Japan presents in The Wolverine as a contemporaneous floating world, infused with the exquisite romantic and/or sensationalist idealizations common to Edo-period Japanese painting. If you want quotidian Japanese reality on a cinema screen, I suppose you’d go to Ozu rather than a Marvel Comics actionfest, but such persistent stereotyping certainly grates nonetheless.

Still, The Wolverine is reasonably exciting when it needs to be and delves thoughtfully, if not too deeply, into its central character’s superheroic internal conflicts. Logan’s mind, heart, and soul is forever at irreconcilable odds with his body; the latter is indestructible and alienatingly foreign to his understanding, but the former are very much not. Placing this man at literal war with the implications of his own corporeal reality in a foreign setting, especially a land of mythic alterity and closed-system cultural inscrutability like Japan, is a canny way to throw Logan’s internal dilemmas into the sharpest possible relief. Mangold and Jackman are getting another swan-song shot this year at exploring this character’s unique agonies in the buzzed-about Logan, and it’s worth keeping the solid psychological and thematic consistency of The Wolverine in mind when thinking about what that new film hopes to accomplish with the character.

Categories: Film, Reviews

TV Quickshots #32

January 15, 2017 Leave a comment

Hannibal (NBC; 2013-2015)

Bryan Fuller’s ornately gory and boldly intriguing take on the world of Thomas Harris’ serial-killer novels is magnificently stylish and written with simultaneous obscuring sophistication and bloody-minded brutality, much like its titular genius psychologist and murderer-cannibal, played with coldly-controlled unpredictability by Mads Mikkelsen. Dr. Hannibal Lecter’s viscera-splattered psycho-dramatic pas à deux with FBI criminal profiler Will Graham (Hugh Dancy, an average-to-good actor who appears woefully inadequate next to Mikkelsen’s magisterial work) unfolded over three seasons on NBC, and the impressive feat of sliding quite so much artful gore (not to mention so much gory art) onto American network hannibaltvtelevision was tempered by the critically-favoured but insufficiently-watched show’s cancellation, which unfortunately truncates its narrative.

Though perhaps three servings was enough of this particularly rich dish. The flavours were suitably changed after each season: Season One took the fundamentally generic form of a murder-of-the-week procedural, Season Two batted that form around before moving into more baroque thriller-horror territory, and Season Three went in whole other directions entirely. Despite its variation, its fearlessness, its visual invention, its evolving symbology and slippery metaphorical implications, Hannibal is a dinner guest that wears out its welcome to some extent by the end of its second season, in my estimation.

But until then – and even mostly after that point, if we’re being honest – Hannibal is engrossing and frequently gorgeous television that genuinely draws blood. It can take itself too seriously by half, and the morbid gallows humour of its early episodes (mostly the domain of the crime scene lab rats played by Aaron Abrams and Scott Thompson) drains away as the psychological duel between Hannibal and Will gains in dimension and importance, pivoting ever more into the involved inner mythology of the show. It increasingly relies on recurring guest stars (most prominently Gillian Anderson, Eddie Izzard, Michael Pitt and Joe Anderson, and Raúl Esparza as various figures in the Lecter-verse) for new narrative direction and thematic impact, as well.

But the ingredients of the remarkable cinematography, acute writing, and Mikkelsen’s impeccable, dangerously unreadably Lecter are so consistently strong and uniformly constant that even a misguided episode or two can’t embitter the intoxicating brew. Hannibal may not be truly great, but it’s about as close as a show can get without grabbing that top rung, especially on network TV, with its peculiar artistic constraints.

Trapped (RÚV; 2015-2016)

Created and partially directed by Baltasar Kormákur (Everest), Trapped is a moody, darkling murder mystery drama set in a remote Icelandic town full of dark and deadly secrets. Seyðisfjörður (not going to help you pronounce that, sorry) might seem like a sleepy, isolated settlement at the end of a fjord on Iceland’s east coast that only springs trapped_icelandtvbriefly to mild life when a regular international ferry from Denmark via the Faroe Islands docks at its small port and disgorges a pack of passengers. The town doesn’t need much of a police force, subsisting on a mere three members of the national police (Lögreglan) to keep the order: the hefty, bearded Andri (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson), a former hotshot Reykjavík detective hiding out in the boonies after a failure on a past case and struggling through a divorce with Agnes (Nína Dögg Filippusdóttir), the mother of his two daughters, and his deputies Hinrika (Ilmur Kristjánsdóttir) and Ásgeir (Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson). Still, whispers of past traumas haunt Seyðisfjörður, namely a fire at the local fish factory seven years before the start of the series that claimed the life of Agnes’s younger sister and lead to the imprisonment and ostracizing of her boyfriend Hjörtur (Baltasar Breki Samper), who was blamed for the blaze.

Those ghosts of the town’s past and the demons of its present, which sees the town’s prominent citizens scheming with government figures to buy up fjord-fronting land in anticipation of a potential moonshot deal for a Chinese-funded shipping superport, surface uncomfortably along with a headless, limbless torso found floating in the water in conjunction with the arrival of the Smyril Line ferry. A simultaneous snowstorm closes the only mountain pass road into town, forcing Andri and his overburdened team to alone investigate the murder of the mutilated body and the increasingly sprawling web of crime around it.

Trapped controls its visuals and its keen sense of place with confidence, and fits snugly into the contemporary, internationally-recognized renaissance of Scandinavian television mysteries known as Nordic noir. It draws you in with its impressive scope and tantalizing unknowns, but the interest it earns withers disappointingly on the vine well before its final tenth episode. It’s at least two and maybe even three or four episodes too long, and fills the extra time with subplots (often pointless or perfunctorily resolved ones), misdirections, and half-related scenes of danger and peril: Andri gets stuck in a freezer, Andri gets stuck in an avalanche, Andri wrestles with the most dangerous man in the Faroe Islands (a character actually gives the guy that title, which sounds laughable but might actually be pretty impressive, if you consider what they do to pilot whales on that remote archipelago).

The dialogue, at least in English subtitled translation, also leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to expressiveness and subtlety. Perhaps some nuances are lost from the Icelandic, I can’t rightly say, but the cast of domestically-based Icelandic actors don’t exactly plumb the depths of the script’s possibilities either. Few of them stand out and demonstrate distinctive personalities, let alone constitute memorable performances, and with a cast of characters as large as this one, this can lead to confusion and uncertainty about their relationships to one another and therefore can muddy the wider plot.

Trapped isn’t great, and is often no better than passable. What it does provide is a resonant (if not precisely attractive or tourism-encouraging) portrait of its setting, though it could do with some greater depth of social context in this vein: for example, the clutch of deaths and law-breaking acts that afflict the town would equal several years’ worth of total criminal output for the whole of Iceland, a country with an incredibly low violent crime rate. As with so many mystery shows from international television, Trapped is best as a prismatic view into life in a different, unique place well apart from our own location and experience.

Categories: Reviews, Television

Television Review: Westworld – Season One

January 7, 2017 Leave a comment

Westworld – Season One (HBO; 2016)

Based on a cult 1970s film written and directed by Jurassic Park author Michael Crichton, Westworld imagines a theme park of the near-future that utilizes human-like androids to replicate America’s Wild West (at least in its Hollywood Western mythos iteration) for paying vacationers. While Crichton’s film was a pulp B-movie take on this intriguing premise, this HBO series version co-created and showrun by Lisa Joy and her husband Jonathan Nolan (brother of and frequent screenwriter for acclaimed director Christopher Nolan) delves into its thematic and intellectual possibilities.

Featuring the large ensemble cast and sprawling world-creation imperatives of many other HBO dramas, Westworld focuses on many characters and storylines in and around this theme park, inculcating its guests, robotic “hosts”, corporate overseers, creative directors, and low-level technicians into its processes and meanings. At the westworld2top of Westworld’s pyramid is Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins), co-founder of the park and, despite his advanced years and secretive practices, still an active if inscrutable presence in the crafting of the park’s immersive, interactive experiences and storylines, known as “narratives”.

Ford’s plans for a grand new narrative are treated with skepticism by operations manager Theresa Cullen (Sidse Babett Knudsen), and later by Charlotte Hale (Tessa Thompson), a savvy and ruthless envoy from the board of Delos, the corporate overlords of Westworld, whose interest in the park goes beyond simple tourist business. Below Ford is Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright), whose team, including the sharp-tongue Elsie (Shannon Woodward), monitors and tweaks the behavior of the hosts. Bernard is also involved sexually with Cullen and continues to the haunted by the death of his young son. There’s also an arrogant writer of narratives (Simon Quarterman), a square-jawed head of security (Luke Hemsworth), and a pair of bickering, host-repairing lab techs (Leonardo Nam and Ptolemy Slocum) onsite in the vast behind-the-scenes complex.

Inside the park is much more intriguing (and, outside of Hopkins and Wright, the location of most of the better performances). The hosts – the lifelike, Turing Test-passing robot denizens of Westworld – while away day after day in the park in endless repetitive loops, used by the guests however they see fit: killed, maimed, beaten, screwed, then reset, mended and returned to the start of their pre-set path without any memory of what was done to them. Although specific hosts may play a series of roles over the decades (or may indeed be retired to a spooky, light-flickering basement vault), those we meet at the opening of the series fill a series of Western archetypes. There’s Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), the virtuous farmer’s daughter romantically yearning for a fresh horizon; Teddy (James Marsden), the gunslinging man of action tending an unrequited (and unrequitable) flame for Dolores as well as a dark, violent secret in his past; Maeve (Thandie Newton), a hard-bitten saloon/brothel madam with a history of painful loss; and in the background, the usual coterie of ruthless, colourful outlaws and killers, lawmen and laymen, Mexican peasants and Indian raiders, Confederate Army guerrilla dead-enders and Union soldiers.

There are also three guests of particular note: uninhibited park vet and corporate investor Logan (Ben Barnes) and his more timid and morally conscious future-brother-in-law William (Jimmi Simpson), a park neophyte through whose eyes the depths of the place are revealed; and the mysterious, cruel, implacable Man in Black (Ed Harris), a guest of long standing who has wearied of even Westworld’s more involved entertainments and is searching doggedly for the secret meaning at the end of the park’s metaphorical “Maze”, supposedly planted there by Ford’s now-deceased co-founder, Arnold. Logan and William’s adventures coincide with what seems to be a scattershot awakening of sentient self-awareness for Dolores, while Maeve likewise begins to remember things and question her reality and the park’s patriarch Ford is increasingly threatened with removal by Delos’ reps.

Westworld‘s storytelling is of the puzzle-box variety, and like the most notable examples of that type (Lost comes particularly to mind), frequently employs subterfuge and delay and obscuring incident to kick the can containing its core mysteries down the road. This can be frustrating, but their revelation in later episodes (especially the finale) as the pieces come together cannot be said to be unsatisfying. There are some strong performances: Wood, Wright, and the ever-underrated Newton are all quite good, though the elite-level work of longtime veteran actor Hopkins – who can turn a simple dialogue scene into a thespianic masterclass – outshines the lot. The musical selections by Ramin Djawadi include contemporary pop-rock songs in re-orchestration (Maeve’s eye-opening tour of the backroom facilities is lovelily scored by Radiohead’s “Motion Picture Soundtrack”) and in arrangements on player-piano (which doubles as a recurring metaphor for the hosts’ invisible automation) which subtly comment on Westworld’s eeriely artificial nature. Indeed, the show’s entire premise presents an obvious opportunity to critique the American mythmaking project around westward expansion. But Joy and Nolan are less interesting in that artificial creation than the God-proxy intellectual implications of creating artificial intelligence and the invisible dance of freedom and control.

More than anything, Westworld is keenly aware of the milieu in which it is presented and signals that awareness in its thematic construction. As a showpiece prestige HBO drama, Westworld displays the hallmarks of that once-bulletproof, now-faded honorific: noted for its graphic violence, nudity and sex, and general adult content, but redeemed from mere cynical sensationalism by a self-serious core of anxiously questing meaning, a quasi-literary focus on the Big Questions about society, morality, and human nature. From Oz through The Sopranos and The Wire up to the network’s current juggernaut Game of Thrones, top-shelf Emmy-favoured drama series have shared this character and grappled with its baseline dichotomy.

Interestingly, Westworld enacts this fundamental framing of the HBO drama, which presupposes a critical view that inclines to the negative, within its very text. The elaborate Old West theme park is a romantic but detailed simulacrum of its historical setting, inhabited by intelligent robots painstakingly programmed to exhibit convincing – if simulated – human expression and emotion, its daily rhythms directed by constructed narratives rooted in base drives, governing passions, social conflicts, and moral choice. But despite all this focus on the skilled crafting of meaning, most of the guests at this intricate attraction are understood as only being crassly interested in fucking and killing, both of which they can (and do) engage in with the artificial hosts with impunity.

Of course, Westworld certainly is about the deeper questions. Its creators’ intent of representing not merely hedonistic excess but exploring philosophical quandaries about artificial intelligence, consciousness, memory, and the nature of sentient existence is carried out, just as the similar intent of Ford and Arnold endures through the visceral amusements favoured by the guests. Perhaps even the struggles and conflicts of the park’s creative element with their grasping corporate overlords are meant to reflect the not-dissimilar negotiation of artistic and capitalist interests that the show’s brain trust experienced at HBO, a network in dire need of the non-Westerosi drama division success that Westworld represented. For its steely meta-intelligence as well as its dogged watchability, Westworld is enough of a success to do the trick, for HBO and for discerning television audiences.

Categories: Reviews, Television

Film Review: Hunt for the Wilderpeople

January 2, 2017 Leave a comment

Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016; Directed by Taika Waititi)

It’s becoming evident, four titles into his directorial career, that much of the charm, appeal, and goofy brilliance of Taika Waititi’s films is difficult to encapsulate in brief, conventional descriptions of their subject matter and generic associations. It’s hugely unfair, though not entirely inaccurate, to describe Eagle vs. Shark as a sort of deadpan Kiwi Napoleon Dynamite; watch dubiousness creep into the features of interested parties when, in an attempt to sell them on What We Do in the Shadows, you summarize it as a mockumentary about vampires. Those films are those things but they are also much more (as, I imagine, Boy is more than a mere coming-of-age drama, though I confess that I haven’t seen it). They are, above all, inspired comedies, and Waititi’s disdain for categories and genres is part and parcel of his comic sensibility.

Waititi seeks out collaborators who vibrate on his comic wavelength, and his co-starring duo in the hugely enjoyable Hunt for the Wilderpeople buzz away nicely. The wildly mismatched pair of young Maori actor Julian Dennison (Waititi himself is half-Maori, half-Russian-Jewish) and New Zealand-rooted international thespian Sam Neill are at the centre of this quirky but entirely accessible and endearing unlikely-duo buddy comedy about a brash foster kid and his highly reluctant not-exactly-guardian who go evade the national authorities in the New Zealand bush for months. Both are brilliant. Dennison is a burst of verbose energy in hip-hop urban street gear who refers to Tupac Shakur as his “best friend” and names his dog after him, expresses his feelings through loopy haikus (“Kingi, you wanker / You arsehole, I hate you heaps / Please die soon, in pain”), and utters ridiculous aspirational-gangsta adolescent truisms like “I didn’t choose the skux life, the skux life chose me!”. Neill sells his character’s solitary cantakerousness as a reasonable response to a life of disappointment and pain, but lets Dennison’s likable chatty confidence break down his prickly resistance as their quest-of-sorts goes on.

This quest-of-sorts begins with the end of an abortive stab at family-unit normalcy. Dennison’s Ricky Baker is introduced as having passed through many foster homes, with a litany of troublemaking and petty crime related through one of Waititi’s wonderfully-composed montages. The narration of Ricky’s past is provided by Paula (Rachel House), a child welfare worker with an awkwardly oversized sense of no-nonsense, tough-love grandeur of purpose and a bumbling cop sidekick, Andy (Oscar Kightley). Paula drops off Ricky for his last-ditch attempt at sticking with a family before being thrown into juvenile prison, at the remote farm owned by the kooky but affectionate Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and her cranky husband Hector (Neill), whom she calls “Hec” (and which sounds, in her broad Kiwi accent, like a mild curse whenever she utters it).

Bella’s rough-hewn, unconventional country warmth finds the chinks in Ricky’s sullen teenaged armour. Even as she shocks and traumatizes him by bloodily dispatching a wild boar, she can summon a touchingly quirky 13th birthday party, with cake and candles, a hilariously odd birthday song, and the gangbusters gift of Tupac, the loyal canine companion. But tragedy intrudes, and Ricky is left alone with Hec with child welfare due to descend to take him away again. Ricky desperately retreats into the bush, where he is comically unsuited for enduring survival. Hec has a bit more experience at and inclination for life in the woods (he calls it “the knack”), but does not encourage Ricky’s scheme, at least until after his ankle injury strands them in the bush long enough to make them the targets of a national manhunt.

What unfolds is, in many ways, a classic quest-in-the-wilderness narrative (Waititi includes an overt, and openly noted, homage to Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings films, New Zealand cinema’s greatest success and grandest on- and off-screen odyssey). But Waititi keeps things fresh and unique, always. Ricky and Hec have run-ins with hostile but inept reward-focused hunters, wild beasts, a paranoid, anti-government, off-the-grid bushman called Psycho Sam (Rhys Darby, along with House a previous Waititi-verse player), and a desultory encounter with a Maori daughter-father duo (Tioreore Ngatai-Melbourne and Troy Kingi) whose remote residence may offer a chance at some approximation of home.

Quirky humour (of which there is much) is keenly balanced with pathos and feeling, as Waititi expertly slows down the comic pace to allow Ricky and Hec’s interludes of loss and sadness to land and to breathe. The excellent musical soundtrack, including cuts from Nina Simone and Leonard Cohen but mostly provided by NZ electro-pop band Moniker (whose members previously scored Eagle vs. Shark and Boy as the Phoenix Foundation), underscores and drives the film’s finely-tuned energy. The music is sometimes even allowed its own comic showcases. A Cadbury Flake jingle and angelic lighting combine to amusingly express Ricky’s crush on the Maori girl, Kahu. Most memorable is the scorched-earth final car chase (a nod to another Down Under film classic, George Miller’s Mad Max), when the 1980s synth burst of “Milestone 2 (Skux Life)” provides the surge of that sequence with delightfully destabilizing comic spikes in the form of repetition of the film’s memorably odd dialogue highlights: “Majestical / we are the Wilderpeople / skux life”.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople (pronounced with a short “I”, like “wildebeest”, a Ricky Baker-ism gleaned from a nature book they happen upon) is based on the 1980s national bestseller Wild Pork and Watercress by legendary NZ author Barry Crump, a hugely popular writer who, from what I can glean, bridged the gap between Ernest Hemingway, Jack London, and P.G. Wodehouse in a peculiarly Kiwi idiom. Waititi brings his own peculiarities to the material, even embedding sociological suggestions of the struggles and deprivations of the colonized Maori minority in Ricky’s past in the foster system. While generally a massive delight, Wilderpeople isn’t flawless. House’s Paula, whose militaristic authoritarian tendencies get out of hand as she spearheads the search for Ricky and Hec, is given far more screen time than her relatively limited comic construction can sustain, which only emphasizes suspension-of-belief issues with the actions of child services in general here. I wonder, too, if the Psycho Sam interlude is placed in quite the right place in the film’s arc, so close to the conclusion.

But these are minor quibbles, and Hunt for the Wilderpeople remains a considerable delight. We will see how resilient Taika Waititi’s trademarked quirky humour and tweaking of convention proves to be when faced with a Hollywood megabudget and a lucrative franchise property: his next directorial gig is Thor: Ragnarok in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I, for one, can’t wait to see what he does, in that film and in his other, likely stranger, future outings. If the strength of Hunt for the Wilderpeople is any indication, it should be quite enjoyable.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Decalogue: Top 10 Films of 2016

December 30, 2016 Leave a comment

2016 is in the process of closing at last, like the lid of a vampiric coffin. A calendar year that was being characterized in the discourse of progressive-leaning media and socio-cultural discourse as a nightmare march well before its now-imminent end, 2016 certainly had its share of tragedies, horrors, and collective agonies.

There has been a swelling tide of political darkness: Brexit, President-Elect Donald Trump, a rising tide of white nationalist authoritarianism on both sides of the Atlantic, the wrenching, destructive Syrian War and its attendant refugee crisis, which has been met with increasing, disheartening xenophobia in the West. As if a consequence of this rapid slide towards dangerous outcomes as well as a grim reminder of shared ephemeral fragility, a relentless litany of cultural icons has departed this mortal coil, many of whom were understood as representing symbolic or actual resistance to oppressive forces of rigidity and backwardness that appeared ascendant. Losses included David Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen, Muhammad Ali, Gene Wilder, George Martin, Alan Rickman, Gordie Howe, George Michael, and most recently Carrie Fisher (followed, heartbreakingly, a day later by her mother Debbie Reynolds). Death was not the only way to wound the world, either: Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer (although he decisively took that sad song and made it better) and Monty Python’s Terry Jones was revealed to be suffering from dementia.

Still, 2016 was a fine year for film. This year’s cinematic highlights sought bruised solace in simple, connective communication, plumbed the darkened depths of the American character, lightly riffed on religion, politics, and pop culture, considered loneliness and gendered pride, and challenged the arrogance of power and the injustice of prejudice. Above all, they left us with indelible moments and images, and alternately comforted and challenged us in fraught times. Here are ten highlights that rose above all others. Picks for last year’s top films can be found here.

1. Arrival (Directed by Denis Villeneuve)

Arrival is not only a resonant philosophical work but a keenly-felt tear-jerker, and it summons general political subtexts in the best provocative science fiction tradition. In a modern age of alienation and mass miscommunication, it employs aliens to emphasize the value of mass communication, of cooperation, of striving for understanding and empathy rather than settling for the easy escape hatches of inchoate resentment and hateful force. […] Arrival recognizes that language is both a tool and a weapon and fervently hopes that it can be used for good rather than ill. It also handsomely demonstrates that cinema as a language is both a tool and a weapon, and shows how it can serve the good in the human world.”

Review – 16 December 2016

2. The Witch (Directed by Robert Eggers)

” [The Witch] is both a practically flawless chamber horror film and a deep and true approximation of the scripture-fed superstitions and unstable social conditions that made the English colonies on the Eastern Seaboard such a hotbed for witch hysteria. If The Witch was only those things, it would be a genre film triumph. But Eggers’ film cuts deeper than that, functioning as both an excavation into the anthropological mists of the American nation and a compelling exploration of the conflict between the hedonistic pull of personal liberty and the fetters of dogmatic, accusatory religion.”

Review – 24 September 2016

3. Hail, Caesar! (Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen)

“The surprisingly wonderful new comedy from the Coen Brothers is a triumph of referential subtext over surface text, over rounded characters, over even narrative itself. A deceptively light but truthfully rich and thoughtful position-taking on the symbolic and spiritual function of Hollywood cinema, it compares and contrasts the sparkly bauble of Studio Era film product to the totalizing ideologies of Communism and Catholicism and, with a peculiar twist idiomatic of Joel and Ethan Coen, finds it much more analogous to the latter. The ideological angle is so overt as to nearly transcend the subtextual, but it doesn’t prevent Hail, Caesar! from indulging in masterful sequences of craft and entertainment that are homages to the skilled delights that Old Hollywood deployed with such regularity.”

Review – 23 February 2016

4. Rams (Directed by Grímur Hákonarson)

Rams is no mere critique of tenacious male drives, but an empathetic, affecting depiction of those egoistic but deeply-held tendencies being worn steadily away, leaving raw nerves and fundamental, tenuous human connections. […] Hákonarson’s beautiful and wry film might sometimes incline in the direction of a comedy so deadpan as to require life support, granted. But it feels its key movements with a poignancy as deep as the vistas of the Icelandic landscape are wide, and that steady sincerity is its saving grace.”

Review – 12 October 2016

5. Zootopia (Directed by Byron Howard and Rich Moore)

“For a lovable animated feature film about talking anthropomorphized animals and the human-like civilization they inhabit, Zootopia feels as urgent and politically timely as a year’s worth of Frontline documentaries. It’s a subtly forceful allegory of warning against the destructive consequences of prejudice and racial profiling […] that only gains resonance in the face of the election of a U.S. President who cynically utilized those forces for his benefit. […] When it’s said that popular discourse would ideally avow responsibility for past wrongs and work intelligently and openly to forge a better path, Zootopia is what that process looks like.”

Review – 9 December 2016

6. Midnight Special (Directed by Jeff Nichols)

“For all of the ways that Jeff Nichols’ Midnight Special is inherently Spielbergian – in its essentials, the film is E.T. except that the boy and the alien are one and the same – it manifests a vision all its own. It represents a speculative metaphor for multiple facets of the American condition, but presents its sci-fi premise with such clear-eyed conviction that it’s worth questioning if it’s a metaphor at all. What it is, unquestionably, is quietly, subtly indelible.”

Review – 11 August 2016

7. The Lobster (Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos)

The Lobster is a parched satire on the social pressures that buttress romantic love, even if the valences of its critique of such pressures are often missed in the (admittedly hilarious) deadpan tone of the whole piece. […] The Lobster is all a metaphor for the mechanisms of social control, but it’s also a pretty direct depiction of them in all of their stark absurdity. It’s an obvious dark fantasy that can, at times, feel all too awkwardly real. It shimmers with the patina of subtle brilliance; it suggests some form of spectrum-placed genius to sincerely curate and maintain such an exquisitely mannered tone that is, in and of itself, also the target for such biting satire.”

Review – 6 December 2016

8. Amanda Knox (Directed by Rod Blackhurst and Brian McGinn)

“A fascinating, absorbing documentary account of a sordid and troubling saga of murder, sex, and miscarried justice that captivating the tabloidized media for years, Amanda Knox is a series of bursts of outrage between sober details and thoughtful analysis of an odd episode in true crime. […] Amanda Knox develops into a kind of juxtaposed character study. It alternates Knox herself, pained by her ordeal but bitingly self-aware and trenchant about the flawed institutions and assumptions that hurt her, with the smug [Italian prosecutor Giuliano] Mignini, cocooned in his Catholic-derived certainty of righteousness and purpose and self-justifying his overwrought quasi-Holmesian deductions.”

Review – 2 October 2016

9. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (Directed by David Yates)

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, despite some awkward passages and pacing hiccups along the way, is a fairly pure joy[…]. Leapfrogging into an entirely distinct era and location in her wizarding world with only the most tenuous connection to her established characters […] in a lavish new franchise launch was a not-inconsiderable risk for J.K. Rowling, but she and Yates generally pull it off. This is a sophisticated and rich light entertainment with contemporary sociopolitical resonances that give it weight without dragging down its natural, good-humoured buoyancy and witty imagination.”

Review – 22 December 2016

10. Captain America: Civil War (Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo)

“Marvel has built to the central dialectical conflict of Civil War over twelve films, and has done so with patience and intelligence while adhering to an overriding house style that has discouraged some distinct film artists from playing in their creative sandbox […] but has allowed the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s interweaving series of films to maintain tonal and narrative consistency […]. It’s galvanizing proof of Marvel’s growing expertise that the film runs [a victory] lap at full speed and capability.”

Review – 17 May 2016

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

December 22, 2016 Leave a comment

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016; Directed by David Yates)

In our age of formerly niche geek culture gone massive mainstream, with genre subculture products raking in blockbuster profits on screens large and small, green shoots of new material in lucrative franchise properties can spring from the most ephemeral of sources and expand into huge productions and releases. For evidence, examine a few of the highest-grossing movies of the last quarter of the year alone. Doctor Strange is based on a second-tier psychedelic/orientalist Marvel comics title; the latest Star Wars installment Rogue One is a sequel-less “anthology” release based on a couple of lines of backstory dialogue in the series’ original film almost forty years ago. And our current case is a prequel of the hugely successful Harry Potter films spun off from one of the titular boy wizard’s textbooks.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, to its credit, doesn’t feel like a sideline to the Potter saga but a preliminary and tantalizing exploration of a separate corner of author J.K. Rowling’s potentially expansive wizarding world. With a screenplay penned by Rowling herself, narratively expanding her own creation with her particular mélange of delights, quirks, and flaws, there can certainly be no concern over deviations in tone or trangressions of faithfulness. Rowling’s screenwriting debut is aided immeasurably by the steady behind-the-camera hand of David Yates, who became Warner’s house director for the final four Potter saga films and balanced their mix of comic playfulness, whimsical wonder, and waxing adult themes with a high level of competence, if only with intermittent artistry. Having the rules of her wizarding world well-established by a series of films that nearly everyone who will see Fantastic Beasts has also seen doesn’t hurt; imagine if Rowling and Yates would have had to explain anew wands and Latinate spells or the magic world’s secretive nature and governing structure. What an expository slog that would be.

As it is, Fantastic Beasts expends most of its expository energies (and since this is straight from Rowling’s pen, those are ample almost beyond reason) detailing the unique sociopolitical circumstances of the wizard community in the United States in the film’s setting year of 1926. While a formidable dark wizard named Gellert Grindelwald (who appears at the film’s end in a Scooby Doo twist and with stunt casting I won’t divulge) wreaks havoc in Europe, America’s magical and non-magical citizens (the latter are dubbed “No-Maj” by the former, the Yank equivalent to the British term “Muggle”) struggle to coexist in a tense situation. The restrictive moral policing of Prohibition America is suspiciously extended to mostly-hidden wizards and witches by a harshly spartan religious temperance organization based in Manhattan called the New Salem Philanthropic Society, headed by the severe Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton) and supported by her brooding adopted son Creedence (Ezra Miller). Did you miss Rowling’s florid Dickensian naming practices and unsettling habit of associating sallow, angsty youths with dangerous darkness and violence? If so, Fantastic Beasts will be a godsend for you.

In response to such No-Maj distrust and hostility, the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA) led by President Seraphina Picquery (Carmen Ejogo) closely regulates and restricts all magical activity and interaction with No-Majs (marriage is outlawed, even) under the purview of Director of Magical Security Percival Graves (Colin Farrell, incongruously channeling Marlon Brando more than usual), believing their safety from all-out conflict with the non-wand-wielding world lies in total secrecy. Some magical civil servants chafe at this tendency to hide in the shadows, especially Auror Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), who is demoted out of an investigative position for assaulting Barebone in righteous frustration at her anti-witch fulminations. Yet the tendency persists, applied not only to human magical practitioners but to magical creatures as well, which are strictly regulated in the country and often destroyed.

This latter prohibition will find itself challenged quite strenuously when an awkward British wizard named Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) alights from a steamship in New York City. He carries a battered suitcase which is magically packed with the titular fantastic beasts on whose subject he fancies himself an outlaw expert and an awareness-raising guerrilla conservationist. The creatures begin to slip out and cause varying degrees of mayhem across the city. Aided by Tina, who is trying to get back in her bosses’ favour, Tina’s mind-reading flapper sister Queenie (Alison Sudol), and an aspiring No-Maj baker named Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) who witnesses much magic and whom Newt fails to efficiently mind-wipe (“obliviate” is the wizarding term), Scamander must recapture his loose creatures, the most mysterious of which is already causing plentiful death and destruction across the city.

This most dangerous “creature” is called an Obscurus, and is explained by Newt as an extremely dark and powerful accidental manifestation of a young magical person’s powers in cases when those powers are forcibly concealed due to fear, prejudice, or persecution. Visualized as a twisting, electrically-sparking shroud of a black fog uncontrollable by its youthful wielder (which becomes a noisy special effect in the film’s climax), the Obscurus is a classic Rowling magical metaphor, critiquing the negative consequences of abusive psychological repression of children who manifest any hint of difference. This unhealthy repression is implied to extend to (indeed, to be another facet of) MACUSA’s obsessive focus on security through restrictiveness, itself a clear social comment on contemporary security-state attitudes and policies in the U.S.

If this fantastic beast carries the burden of the film’s thematic dimension, then many of its entertaining sequences are organized around Scamander’s other escaped creatures. One of them is the Niffler, a chubby little platypus with a relentless yearning for gold and jewels. It’s the first creature to slip out of Newt’s case in the Big Apple, and its obsession with hoarding bling drives two delightful scenes of incremental comic disaster: it gets loose in a bank, snatching coins willy-nilly and bringing together Newt and Kowalski (who is there to obtain a loan for his bakery with delicious goods but no collateral), and later runs rampant in a jewelry store, with Newt’s bull-in-a-china-shop pursuit becoming steadily more comically calamitous.

Two of the film’s showpiece effects sequences are also focused on magical animal capture: Newt and Kowalski chase down (and avoid being chased down by) a bulbous, glowing-nosed female rhino-like creature in heat at Central Park Zoo, and with the aid of the Goldstein sisters, they attempt to corral a blue shrinking/expanding serpent called an occamy in the storerooms of Macy’s department store using only a cockroach and a teapot. It’s worth noting and praising just how whimsically odd both of these scenes in this major genre blockbuster really are. Yates and Rowling indulge in swellingly-scored scenes of wonderment in relation to the magical beasts as well, initially beguiling us through the neophyte Kowalski’s first view inside of Scamander’s magically-expanded suitcase, which contains temporary habitats for his many creatures, and then releasing a thunderbird named Frank above the city after the action climax.

The first Potterverse entry focused mainly on adult witches and wizards, Fantastic Beasts casts well enough but gets few performances of distinction. Farrell is glowering and suspicious as he ought to be, Morton and Miller both a bit too broad as the supporting villains, and Jon Voight shows up as a prominent newspaper publisher with a pair of sons who collectively represent the city’s No-Maj establishment at odds with its magical community (this whole subplot never really lands and would not be missed). Redmayne, an actor of cleverness, observance, and vulnerability, overdials Newt Scamander a bit, making him a muttering, eyes-averting loner who is clearly on the spectrum (though neither the wizarding or non-wizarding world of the 1920s would recognize such a classification) and who only really feels confident and happy in the company of magical creatures. Sudol is fun as Queenie, but I didn’t care as much for Waterston. Her entire bearing, appearance, and performing toolset positively shouts “model/actress” and Rowling loads Tina Goldstein down with too many inclinations, motivations, and concerns for her to sift through. Fogler, however, might be the film’s purest joy, a gloriously expressive humble shlub with equivalently wonderful gazes of awe and dumbfoundedness and a hilarious laugh, judiciously deployed.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, despite some awkward passages and pacing hiccups along the way, is a fairly pure joy as well. Leapfrogging into an entirely distinct era and location in her wizarding world with only the most tenuous connection to her established characters (a couple of familiar names crop up in dialogue, which dedicated Potterheads will catch with glee) in a lavish new franchise launch was a not-inconsiderable risk for J.K. Rowling, but she and Yates generally pull it off. This is a sophisticated and rich light entertainment with contemporary sociopolitical resonances that give it weight without dragging down its natural, good-humoured buoyancy and witty imagination. I didn’t expect to like it as much as I did, nor to look forward to further big-screen explorations of Rowling’s growing world with quite this level of eagerness.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review – Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

December 20, 2016 Leave a comment

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016; Directed by Gareth Edwards)

The much-anticipated Rogue One: A Star Wars Story kicks off Disney’s ambitious (or ambitious because it’s less ambitious) plan for the Star Wars anthology films, which will alternate with their main Skywalker Saga features over at least a six-year period. If Rogue One is any indication, the anthology films will vary the tone and thematic muscle (if not necessarily the general thematic direction) of the fictional universe. This is a grim, fatalistic war film whose only fleeting notes of hope are shuffled forward/backward to the Original Trilogy kick-off, Episode IV: A New Hope, translating the referential (and reverential) nostalgia impulse that characterized The Force Awakens into a weirdly potent sense of narrative closure and righteous sacrifice.

Rogue One has got some enormous, inescapable flaws, but this story of how the Rebel Alliance acquired the secret plans to the Death Star, the evil Empire’s planet-destroying superweapon to which Luke Skywalker deals a fatal blow at the climax of A New Hope, is beautifully shot, impressively scaled, and crackles with gritty energy and a peculiar punch. It returns for influence to the World War II films which George Lucas strip-mined for his first Star Wars film (thrilled by the climactic assault on the Death Star through the metallic canyon? Watch Dambusters some time). Its spectacular, exhausting 45-minutes climactic battle on a tropical planet invokes the slaughter in paradise of the war’s Pacific theatre. It also employs a pair of orientalist supporting characters serving as tributes to Lucas’ considerable debt to Akira Kurosawa.

Even Rogue One is at pains to present itself as a space-opera Sam Peckinpah conflict meat-grinder (The Dirty Half-Dozen?), it remains a Star Wars movie, and is therefore at its soul a family saga (spoilers, such as they are, to follow). That family is the Ersos, supposedly humble farmers introduced in the opening scene. Patriarch Galen (Mads Mikkelsen) meets tersely on the black volcanic rockscape outside his home with Director Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), a high-ranking weapons officer with the Galactic Empire who urges him to rejoin the major project they worked on together. The presence of an armed escort and Krennic’s reassurances-as-threats make Galen’s decision to send his daughter Jyn (played as a young girl by Dolly Gadsdon) into hiding before the confrontation look like a good one, especially when Krennic’s squad shoots down her defiant mother Lyra (Valene Kane) and whisks Galen away against his will.

Moving forward a clutch of years, the adult Jyn (now played by Felicity Jones, preserving the chipmunk-toothed, deceptively steely English lead actress template for the Disney/Lucasfilm reboots set down by Daisy Ridley in The Force Awakens) has fallen into a bandit’s existence amidst the wreckage of her familial unit, landing her in an Imperial prison camp. She’s sprung by a Rebel Alliance squad and hustled off to Alliance headquarters on Yavin 4, where the leadership of the rebellion – including Original Trilogy player Mon Mothma (Genevieve O’Reilly) – tasks her to seek out the grizzled extremist Clone War hero Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), a reclusive, uncompromising, barely-hinged, artificial-limbed, oxygen-huffing warlord who also happened to have been her tough-love guardian after Krennic effectively orphaned her.

Gerrera and his followers are holed up in a stone cave-fortress on the barren sand-and-rock planet of Jedha, which is occupied by the Empire. Its agents are extracting the Afghanistanesque world’s mineral wealth of khyber crystals. Once used as the power source for Jedi lightsabers, the potent crystals are now powering the Empire’s close-to-completion superweapon; the transition between political orders is thus marked in resource extraction and manufacture, a smart grace note about the imperatives of imperialist economics. Travelling to this tense outpost with Jyn are Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), a skilled intelligence officer, and his reprogrammed ex-Imperial droid sidekick K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), whose blunt assessments of the likelihood of their demise pass as droidly comic relief in this more bloody-minded Star Wars. Jyn is expected to provide a safe-ish introduction to the unpredictable Saw, whose forces hold captive an Imperial cargo pilot named Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) who has defected to the Rebels in order to deliver a secret message from Galen Erso about the rumoured Death Star.

Searching for Cassian’s contact in the Arabesque Jedha City, matters take a violent turn when he and Jyn are caught in the middle of a guerrilla ambush on an Imperial Stormtrooper patrol. They find unlooked-for battle allies in Chirrut (Donnie Yen), a Force-trusting blind warrior and former guardian of Jedha’s now-closed Jedi temple, and his friend Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen), a walking arsenal of a mercenary fighter. Captured by Saw’s men, Jyn views her father’s holographic message, which assures her that he is not collaborating willingly with the Empire and has indeed designed a hidden flaw into the Death Star which will allow it to be destroyed, if only the weapon platform’s digital schematics can be retrieved from the Imperial archives on the planet of Scarif.

Barely escaping an atrocity of a Death Star test on Jedha City, Jyn, Cassian, K-2SO, Bodhi, Chirrut, and Baze (Saw stares down the destructive abyss and is swallowed by it) debate and bicker over their next move. Cassian follows orders to Eadu, where Galen Erso and his team are located, with a covert assassination mission that he dares not divulge to his target’s daughter. This incursion also goes awry, with an appearance by Krennic and a Rebel bombing assault, leaving Galen dead (“I have so much to tell you,” he says to Jyn, then expires, one of many such resonantly unsatisfying, unglamorous deaths in the film) and launching this motley crew and a cadre of like-minded Rebel fighters (belatedly supported by the lion’s share of the might of the Rebel fleet) on a desperate, likely suicide mission to smash and grab the Death Star plans from Scarif.

The Scarif sequence sees director Gareth Edwards (Godzilla) bring together his ragged-edged but geographically clear battle scenes with his skill for executing perfectly-scaled wide-canvas cinematic images of aesthetic note. Just as Godzilla and his monstrous rivals left the dwarfed humans around them huddled and humbled at their magnitude, so the massive, destructive Death Star (which looms across one planet’s horizon before raining down death, like a facelessly sneering industrial sun) renders diminished mortals and their hopes insignificant and fearful. There’s also a tremendous amount of action, plot, and character work happening in Rogue One‘s final push, but Edwards, his cinematographer Greig Fraser, and his editing team of John Gilroy (Nightcrawler), Jabez Olssen (The Lord of the Rings) and Colin Goudie weave it together remarkably well without sacrificing a relentless, punishing pace. It wrings and punishes not only its audience but its characters as well: the Rogue One team is decimated in the course of their mission, which ends in a success they do not fully see and that does not save them. This closing note of heroic sacrifice, for all of the film’s notes of moral ambiguity and fractured allegiances, ultimately aligns Rogue One most closely with the World War II films of not only the post-war era but also more contemporary takes like Saving Private Ryan and Inglourious Basterds.

The potency of these thematic notes and the humbling scope of Edward’s composition gives Rogue One the feel of a film much more coherent, well-constructed, and internally consistent than what the onscreen product manages to rogueonebe. The script, by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy (editor John’s elder brother), is hardly so even and sensible, and the final released cut shows its warts and gaps too prominently, the well-publicized reshoots and recutting (evidently to make Jyn less spiky and more sympathetic) as visible as cracks in a foundation. Although Rogue One can, at its best, maintain a driving, enervating pace, it also seems eternally pressed for time, with never enough of a chance to pause, breathe, and tell us who are heroes really are and why we should care about them.

Jyn’s motivations begin as naked self-preservation, shift to a desire for familial reunion, and then transmute into idealistic dedication to the Rebel cause. The pieces are in place for this arc to complete itself but the key steps between them are fuzzy or missing altogether, and the final dodgy transition to belief in the cause is smoothed over with a series of rousing speeches prior to the final battle on Scarif. This is generally the case with the other characters as well: Cassian Andor is haunted by dirty deeds done for the Alliance but we never find out what they are, Bodhi undertakes his dangerous defection out of seeming loyalty to Galen, Saw Gerrera never gets the necessary backstory to explain his paranoia and extremist sectarian splitting (the Clone Wars cartoons in which he is a recurring player may provide that, however), and Chirrut and Baze simply tag along with their new, vague allies, willing to risk their lives for a lack of anything else to do with themselves. Perhaps as a result, none of the actors (even the putative star Jones, who has a good cry at her father’s holographic message) really stand out, although Luna summons some passionate readings of his functional dialogue and Ahmed could play these kind of nervy motormouth sidekick characters for the rest of his career without serious exertion.

Mendelsohn’s Krennic, too, seems split between three incentives for his villainous actions, which shift freely whenever the film requires one more than another: part general ideological authoritarianism, part personal animus against the betrayal of Galen Erso, part prideful self-interested careerism. The latter reason is most interesting, if only due to its relative distinctiveness in the Star Wars universe. It would prove a decent match to the dirt-under-the-fingernails practicality of Rogue One’s Rebel heroes to have an Imperial antagonist hell-bent on a promotion with little stomach for totalitarian power, like a Wehrmacht general more invested in adding a title than in achieving racial purity. But like many character elements in Rogue One, he is not consistent in any direction, and the usually captivating Mendelsohn (so good at projecting a looser sense of menace on a show like Bloodline) suffers some as a result.

If the human faces of Rogue One labour their way through the material, then the human-like faces do little better. I don’t mean the bitterly droll K-2SO, and I certainly don’t mean Darth Vader, who enjoys a frightening renaissance in his cameo appearance, toying with Krennic like he’s a minor gnat of an officer (which doesn’t help the Director’s villainous profile much) and viciously cutting through Rebel soldiers in pursuit of the coveted plans. No,I mean the way that Rogue One ghoulishly resurrects the late, great Peter Cushing (who has been dead for over 20 years) as Grand Moff Tarkin through the use of computer effects. It’s an unsettling and distracting choice (pioneered, to some extent, by Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow using technology to cast the late Sir Laurence Olivier as its villain a decade or so ago) and hardly seamless: miniscule but definitely visible jerks in Tarkin’s movements betray the often uncanny illusion. Even worse, technically speaking, is a late CG-ified cameo of a young Princess Leia, a brief but seemingly rushed and unconvincing effect that surely sparked a few caustic Carrie Fisher zingers at its expense that are unlikely to ever be allowed to see the light of day.

Such flaws aside, Rogue One accomplishes what it sets out to accomplish more than reasonably well. But it’s worth asking whether it genuinely needed to be accomplished in the first place. Rogue One is premised on answering a question from the Star Wars canon that arguably didn’t need answering, on parsing the origins of what is, in its original occurence, little more than a textbook McGuffin. Maybe this would be less piquing if Weitz and Gilroy didn’t take their program of background exposition a step further and address the generations of pedants who picked at the most nagging nit of the Death Star plot.

This practically unstoppable world-exploding battle station had a single catastrophic weakness, Rogue One informs us with the unearned confidence of a Reddit commenter, because one of its key designers was a man of conscience who placed this Achilles’ heel at the Death Star’s core to redeem his own weakness in collaborating with the masters of evil and allow his nefariously powerful creation to be destroyed. Jyn Erso redeems her father’s mistakes but also completes his master scheme in a tragic father-daughter cooperation in a manner reminiscent of Vader sacrificing himself to help Luke defeat the Emperor at a critical moment in Return of the Jedi, and these new Star Wars films do thrive on such thematic echoes (sometimes to their detriment, true).

But is it so difficult to buy into the idea that the Galactic Empire, drunk on its ruthless draught of tyranny, overlooked a vital detail with disastrous consequences? Like the Third Reich it’s based on, the Empire is felled at least partly by its own arrogant hubris, the Death Star an “unsinkable” Titanic of a superweapon with an exploitable flaw that seems obvious in retrospect but was easily overlooked by the space fascists whose heads were swimming with the barbiturates of raw power. I always read the Death Star’s keyhole of a fatal weakness as a stealth Tolkien borrowing by Lucas, the Empire’s totalitarian contempt for the plucky sharpshooting underdog mirroring how The Hobbit‘s dragon villain Smaug’s sneering sense of genocidal superiority was mortally punctured by a feathered informant and an archer whose aim is true.

Rogue One does not wholly undermine such a reading, but it does set down an official version of the Rebel Alliance’s acquisition of the Death Star plans. It eliminates the ellipses and places a period (an exclamation mark, even) at the end of the sentence. For all of its not-inconsiderable beauty and excitement, Rogue One, like all Star Wars films since the original trio 30-odd years ago, is closing off audience readings without opening up the potential for nearly enough (positive) new ones. For a fan community that sustained itself by spinning its own creative webs of interpretation and extrapolation for decades, these films provide lavish new fantasies while choking off previously-spun dreams, and are thus a decidedly mixed blessing.

Categories: Film, Reviews