Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

rogueDirector: Gareth Edwards

Screenwriters: Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy

Cast: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Alan Tudyk, Ben Mendelsohn, Forest Whitaker, and Riz Ahmed

George Lucas must be laughing his way to the bank now. I mean, imagine you made a mess, I mean a serious, disastrous, offensive mess. Then someone offers you $4 billion to clean it up for you and still keep you on the payroll? Rogue One: A Star Wars Story represents more than just an extension of the Star Wars brand and cinematic scope. It frees the franchise up to allow more dynamic and complex voices to influence the future of the characters and stories.

Rogue One takes place just before the events of 1977’s Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope. The film opens with Director Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) along with a flank of Empire forces landing on a remote planet where Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) is hiding out with his wife and young daughter. Erso’s history as chief scientist for the Galactic Empire has made him indispensable in the Empire’s construction of a new weapon, and Krennic is not leaving without Erso. When things go bad, Erso is abducted by Krennic, but his daughter Jyn (later played by Felicity Jones) manages to hide and escape with the help of Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker).  Jyn ultimately comes of age with a chip on her shoulder against the imperial forces and after a host of actions including forging imperial documents, aggravated assault, and resisting arrest, she is tossed into an imperial prison. Fortunately for Jyn, the Rebels manage to break her out only to task her with helping them on a secret mission. Why her? I’ll leave it at that for now since the answer to that question is actually the answer to a question that has been bouncing around the galaxy since Star Wars debuted in 1977.

Rogue One is an enjoyable film for all levels of fans. One does not need even a passing understanding of the other films to enjoy this film. However, I would strongly recommend watching Episode IV before watching Rogue One if you want to catch all of the nuanced touches left in there for super-fans. Director Gareth Edwards designs and directs this film to feel connected but not tethered to the other films, and I think that is a delicate task to accomplish. From the first moment when the classic text, “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” we are introduced to something familiar but slightly different (no trademarked scrolling text accompanies this film). Also, Edwards allows his characters to interact, talk, and feel. The opening scene between Krennic and Erso feels more like a Tarantino scene than a Star Wars movie.

Not that the film doesn’t have its small share of missteps. First of all, in his defense, Forest Whitaker is having a great year starring in quite possibly two of the year’s best films: Rogue One and Arrival. Still, his performance is odd and a little annoying. Additionally, his character’s whole purpose seems arbitrary in that he acts as a shepherd and plot device that is then appropriately “put away” once those tasks are served. Furthermore, much will be discussed about the film’s use of CGI. In an effort to not spoil, I will say that this CGI is not the Jar-Jar Binks kind of CGI, so don’t worry. It’s more of a principled approach that will have its detractors and its supporters. I reluctantly dip my foot in the supporter pool for now, but with reservation. Nonetheless, a precedent has been set where things could get goofy, which would be problematic.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is a strong, balanced, and entertaining film that plays how we wish the original prequels could have played. There’s a hint of nostalgia along with new and fresh perspectives, which make us forget that we all know where this is going and “forces” us to care and root for these new characters. Rogue One also continues the recent track record of introducing another classic droid character that will be beloved in K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk); I imagine we haven’t seen the last of him. Jyn is also a strong dynamic lead. Parallels are destined to be drawn between Jyn and Rey (from last year’s The Force Awakens, but Jyn is starkly different and Jones plays her with an edge. Like the best Star Wars movies, there is plenty to interpret including some theoretical connections to The Force Awakens and the continuation of the latest trilogy. There are also some major bombshells and any misgivings you have about the film are wiped clean away with the final 20 minutes. If you have any level of appreciation for Star Wars, you will leave the theater in high spirits!  Easily immersed, we are, in this new/old environment, and knowing what is going on just over in Tatooine, Mos Eisley, and Dagobah only enriches the fabric of this film that much more. A-

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 15 minutes.

Office Christmas Party

officeDirector: Josh Gordon and Will Speck

Screenwriter: Justin Malen, Laura Solon, and Dan Mazer

Cast: Jason Bateman, Olivia Munn, T.J. Miller, Jennifer Aniston, Kate McKinnon, and Courtney B. Vance

I’m a sucker for a good holiday movie; I even devised a gimmick to perpetuate my ability to release an annual top ten list of my favorite holiday films. That means Hollywood always has $10 up for grabs from me this time of year, if they want it. Last year, The Night Before got it, and if not for the church scene, I’d say I was ripped off. This year, Office Christmas Party got my $10. As I mentioned, I am a sucker for a  good holiday movie, but it looks like I’ll have to settle for adequate.

Office Christmas Party is the clichéd story of a dull- named man, Josh (Jason Bateman) having a stereotypical divorce conveniently before entering the stereotypical flirtation zone with Tracey (Olivia Munn), who is stereotypically a tough gal who literally “locks people out” of her life. When dull-Josh and stereotypical Tracey can’t land a major client for their tech company, a formulaic conflict emerges about doing something crazy to keep the branch from being shut down.

Now I know what you’re saying, “Peoples Critic, didn’t you say this was an adequate holiday film? Where’s the adequacy?” Well thank your lucky stars that directors Josh Gordon and Will Speck prayed to the comedy gods and the gods delivered T.J. Miller, Kate McKinnon, and Jennifer Aniston.  They make the movie. Miller and Aniston play sibling branch manager and CEO, respectively, of their father’s tech company, and their dynamic and conflicting nature of how to run a business is quite entertaining. These two have buckets more on-screen chemistry than Bateman and Munn have, and they’re playing siblings! Aniston is at her snarky best playing the tightly wound Carol, who is fed up with her brother Clay’s disregard for bottom lines and irresponsible management. After reviewing Clay’s branch, she delivers the ultimatum that there will be no extraneous spending, and jobs will be cut in the new year. So what does Clay do? He works with Josh to throw the most extravagant office Christmas party possible and use it to try to woo the client (played by Courtney B. Vance) Josh and Tracey couldn’t land. There you go, plot-premise delivered. So is it funny?

The short answer is, occasionally. Kate McKinnon’s stressed out, high-strung HR manager, Mary certainly helps. The biggest revelation I had during this movie is that McKinnon is ready to break out. She needs a vehicle (other than her Kia minivan in this film) to star in right now! Other than that, Office Christmas Party is a string of gags that have about a 50% success rate. Is that a good rate of return for a comedy? Not really, but these days (especially 2016), it’s par for the course, I’m afraid. The marketing obviously wanted you to be hearkened back to the outstandingly funny film Horrible Bosses from 2011. It’s about bosses, it’s got Bateman and Anniston, but what it doesn’t have is director Seth Gordon or writers Michael Markowitz, John Francis Daley, and Jonathan Goldstein. So let’s be clear, it’s not Horrible Bosses. But it’s also not horrible. Miller channels his character, Erlich Bachman from Silicon Valley in all the right ways, and his line at the end about describing his pain to the doctor is still making me chuckle when I think about it. The premise makes way for plenty of bit players to swing in for a gag and back out again, but I wish more of the gags landed. Also, I don’t’ understand why the final act of these types of movies has to go so far off the rails. There is always an attempt to crowbar in a sudden sense of danger, but this is Office Christmas Party; leave the danger to Die Hard! And while I’m on the subject, *spoiler alert – go to the next paragraph if you don’t want to know about a minor plot point* there is a rule in screenwriting that if you’re going to show a bomb, it needs to blow up. There is a scene early in the film where Clay talks to Josh about how much velocity you’d need to jump the Franklin Street Bridge in Chicago when it’s opened up. Then, surprise, there’s a car chase at the end of the film, and where are they headed? You guessed it, but they don’t jump the bridge! Why set this up? You are already inventing a false sense of ridiculous danger; why not go for it? Totally annoying.

Ok, spoiler free from here on out. Office Christmas Party does exactly what its title suggests. There is an office Christmas Party. It is also full of funny people being mostly funny, which makes it worth my stupid $10 holiday donation to Hollywood. But if movies like La La Land, Moonlight, and Manchester by the Sea would quit with their dumb limited-release BS and just open like you know they will in a month or so, then I’d be far happier to give my donation to something more worthwhile. B-

Office Christmas Party is rated R and has a running time of 1 hour and 45 minutes.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

beastsDirector: David Yates

Screenwriter: J.K. Rowling

Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Colin Farrell, Dan Fogler, Samantha Morton, and Ezra Miller

There is little debate that the Harry Potter book and film franchise are the paradigm of pop culture success. Rarely does “lightening” strike twice, but if there were a wizard who could do it, it would be J.K. Rowling. The first film in her Potter spin-off series, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, pulses with the awe, beauty, and excitement of the original films and opens an entirely new chapter in the longevity and impact these characters will have on us for years to come.

Eddie Redmayne plays Newt Scamander, an English wizard fixated on magical and enchanted animals, and his efforts to study these creatures take him to America. Scamander is also writing a book detailing these animals. These “fantastic beasts” were not always as celebrated by the magical community as they were when a young boy named Harry Potter read about them in his Care of Magical Creatures class 70 years after the setting of this film. Yes, in 1926 these animals were villainized and terribly misunderstood; Scamander hopes to change that perception with his book. Scamander keeps his menagerie inside of an enchanted brief case that acts as a portal to an immense zoological park where he cares for and studies these animals. When this brief case is mixed up with that of a no-maj (the American word for muggle) named Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), things obviously get out of hand, and magical creatures are inadvertently set loose all over New York City. This draws the attention of Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), an officer of the Magical Congress of the United States of America, who desires to apprehend Scamander and bring him in. Meanwhile, a subversive extremist group of no-majs led by Mary-Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton) wants to rid the world of witchcraft, causing even more trouble for Scamander, his animals, and all of wizarding kind.

Summing up the plots to this film is actually a very tall order. There are many moving parts in the storyline, but Rowling does an outstanding job of weaving together an entirely new mythology that of course will give way to the Potter-era material. It also doesn’t hurt to basically have the crew responsible for the previous four Potter films including director, David Yates back for this film. There is a visual and immersive quality that we have come to expect when entering the Harry Potter universe, and Yates delivers once again. The characters are delightful, realized, and fun, and the environments (including the aforementioned “fantastic beasts”) are dazzling and eye-catching.

One of the most cited components to the Harry Potter series’s success is that the content grows with the characters (and the audience). It’s no longer any kind of secret that Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is the first in a planned five-film series, so it figures that the same progression of sensibilities will take effect. With only the first film to analyze, I think Yates and Rowling strike the perfect initial tone here. There is a childlike, Dr. Doolittle innocence to Scamander and his animals, but that it balanced well with an emerging sense of darkness and danger. The most important factor to this film’s success, however may be Fogler’s turn as the clownish, Kowalski, a no-maj who due to certain circumstances is brought along for the ride. Rowling crafts Kowalski to act as our “Dante” being guided by Scamander’s Virgil through a wizarding Inferno, and it works! His scenes steal the show and likely will cause you to reach for that hanky in the final act.

If there is one thing to pick at with this film, it is that the climax of the film, while effective does have one, shall we say, “component”  that completely took me out of the movie. It remains to be seen if that “component” will be worthwhile down the line, but I am worried about it. That “component” aside, Potter-philes can rest assured; Rowling has done it again, and I can’t wait to see where things go from here! A-

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 13 minutes.

Doctor Strange

dr_strangeDirector: Scott Derrickson

Screenwriters: Jon Spaihts, Scott Derrickson, and C. Robert Cargill

Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Tilda Swinton, Mads Mikkelsen, and Benedict Wong

If you’re like me, you watched 12 years a Slave in 2013 and during the scenes between Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup and Benedict Cumberbatch as plantation owner, William Ford, you thought – man these two guys would be great in a superhero film. Well, rejoice because just 3 years later, Doctor Strange is that film. But don’t rejoice too much because in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, this film ranks at the bottom of my list. It has also been 3 years since Thor: The Dark World, which is the last time I wrote a sub-par review of a Marvel film, coincidentally. I think it was Jimmy Stewart who said, “Every time a Cumberbatch/Ejiofor film opens, a Marvel film will suck.” Something like that. Well, now two worlds collide, creating a Cumberbatch-paradox the like of which has never been seen since Cumberbatch solved the enigma code!

Doctor Strange answers the question: What if Tony Stark was a surgeon? Stephen Strange (Cumberbatch) is a successful New York surgeon with an ego the size of Stark Tower. When distracted driving turns deadly, Strange is laid up in a hospital with irreparable damage to his hands essentially ending his medical career. Friend and fellow surgeon, Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) attempts to comfort him, but she’s about as successful as Pepper Potts was at convincing a dejected Tony Stark to stop making robots. When Strange catches wind that a previously untreatable paralytic patient of his is suddenly miraculously recovered, he investigates leading him on a journey to Kamar-Taj in Kathmandu to find The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), in the hopes that he can be healed and resume his surgical supremacy.  The Ancient One sees more in Strange than a surgeon however and agrees to teach him despite his arrogance. Under the teachings of the Ancient One and another sorcerer named Mordo (Ejiofor), Strange learns that the Earth is protected from other dimensions by three mystical sanctums in three separate global locations, and it is the job of the sorcerers to protect these sanctums.  He also learns the ancient spells that allow him to access various panes and dimensions of existence permitting him to bend space and time to open portals of access throughout the planet (and maybe beyond based on the post-credit scenes).

tilda
Opening interdimensional portals with Kate McKinnon as The Ancient One on SNL
A technique also taught by Kate McKinnon as Tilda Swinton on Saturday Night Live during Cumberbatch’s monologue on the November 5th, 2016 episode. Much of this ancient knowledge is under the protection of the Librarian, whose name is Wong (Benedict Wong).

What did the Librarian say when he was asked if it was fun playing Sherlock Holmes on TV?  

-You have the Wong Benedict!
 A previous apprentice named Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) has recently gone rogue, slaying the previous Librarian and stealing an ancient spell that could destroy the sanctums and unlock the power of the Dark Dimension. Now Strange must battle Kaecilius to protect the Earth from what lies in the Dark Dimension.

So, what’s wrong with Doctor Strange? Not everything. I’d like to take a moment in this review to say I still rather enjoyed Doctor Strange. I also did like parts of Thor: The Dark World; I gave it a B-, but Marvel has set the bar so high, that films that sink to the bottom still have merit. Visually, this is the most ambitious and dazzling film in all 14 Marvel films. Clearly inspired by Christopher Nolan’s Inception, the sequences of inter-dimensional shifting and battles are breathtaking and outstanding, so kudos director Scott Derrickson who leaves his horror comfort zone behind for sci-fi/fantasy blockbuster territory. Still, like Barack Obama said, “You can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig.” Oddly enough, many of the same problems I had with Thor: The Dark World are present in Doctor Strange. The film plays with so many already established archetypes and story devices, for the first time I experienced the feeling that some of this is getting old. I enjoyed Cumberbatch as the title character and I can easily picture some incredible opportunities for his character and powers in other films. Still as far as his stand-alone film, it suffers from too much, “been there, done that.” Another male, egotistical genius battling his arrogance for enlightenment. Another intergalactic time and space mess characteristic of Thor: The Dark World and Guardians of the Galaxy, both of which share the bottom ranking in the Marvel Cinematic Universe with Doctor Strange. Another recycled hero cycle story-line. It remains clear that the most attention was spent on the digital effects this time around, as opposed to punching up the dialogue, plot, and placement in terms of the other films in the franchise. The climax, however was quite clever. Still, I’d be far more excited to see Stephen Strange become a Bruce Banner-type who is an endearing and forceful player in the overall universe, but not in his own films. Of course, here we are going into the film’s second weekend and it’s projected to cross the $400 million mark at the global box office, so Doctor Strange 2 is an inevitability.

So what grade does the #14 out of 14 MCU films get from The People’s Critic? The clever climax and impressive effects are bogged down by the slow-paced second half, recycled content, and flat characters. Therefore, for the first time, I have to dig through the Basement and award a Marvel film a C+

Doctor Strange is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 1 hour and 45 minutes. There are two post-film scenes: one mid-way through the credits, and another after the credits, both of which are marginally important enough to endure the 10 minute credits to see.

The Birth of a Nation (2016)

nationDirector: Nate Parker

Screenwriter: Nate Parker

Cast: Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Penelope Ann Miller, Aja Naomi King, Gabrielle Union, and Jackie Earle Haley

The American slave narrative is perhaps the most important historical literary genre to ever emerge. These narratives did more to reverse the tide of the American slavery institution than any politician, public speaker, or legislation ever did. The first-hand accounts of the horrors of slavery introduced an increasingly ignorant American population to the indecent, inhuman, and insane practices that destroyed the lives of nearly 13 million Africans over a period of about 350 years. The importance of this genre certainly explains American cinema’s fascination. Thousands of movies exist that document various aspects of this tumultuous time in American history, and one such film that is also widely considered to mark the birth of modern American cinema was a 1915 film titled, The Birth of a Nation. This film was hugely successful in its day, but it was also moderately controversial. Over the years, its controversy has only risen due to the film’s inclusion of white men in blackface playing Black characters and the heroic depiction of the Ku Klux Klan. Nonetheless, the film was a technical achievement and sent director D.W. Griffith off to a successful career in Hollywood. Now, 100 years later, we have another film titled The Birth of a Nation, and it is by no means an accident. Writer/Director Nate Parker looks to not only give the cinematic treatment to the story of Nat Turner, but also use this story to symbolically update antiquated ideas by deliberately sharing its title with the 1915 film. Parker is more successful at one of these goals than the other.

The Birth of a Nation opens in the early 1800s where a young Nathaniel Turner (Tony Espinosa), born into slavery survives the day-to-day life on the Turner Plantation in Southampton County, Va. Nathaniel is mostly shielded from the real nastiness of slavery as he befriends young Samuel Turner (Griffin Freeman), son of plantation owners Benjamin (Danny Vinson) and Elizabeth (Penelope Ann Miller). Elizabeth even takes Nat in for reading lessons and introduces him to the Bible, which would eventually inspire him to preach. However, as Nat (now played by Nate Parker) and Sam (now played by Armie Hammer) grow up on the plantation, the divisions of White and Black lives becomes increasingly clear and by the time Sam inherits the plantation, the division is crystal. By the late 1820s, times are tougher on plantations. Plantation owners have become ruthless towards their slaves and the mistreatment and cruelty begins to take its toll on plantation productivity. Things are marginally better on the Turner plantation, but Sam can see the writing on the wall.  When a white preacher, Tom Proctor (E.T. Brantley) tells Sam he can make some extra cash by shepherding a Black preacher like Nat around to nearby plantations to preach submission and dutiful service to slaves, it might improve production and put more money in Sam’s pocket. These excursions provide starkly different revelations to Sam and Nat. Sam sees the responsibility of plantation owners to be hard and fierce, while Nat sees the disgusting and barbaric evil that is being experienced by so many slaves. This division quickly escalates the conflict between Nat and Sam. Sam begins to implement some of the practices he sees other owners using on their slaves all while developing a pretty strong relationship with the bottle. Meanwhile, Nat is disgusted and horrified by what he sees and is even more wrathful over his role in perpetuating it. This along with Nat’s desire to protect his family including his wife, Cherry (Aja Naomi King) and mother Esther (Gabrielle Union) from escalating danger prompts him to organize and plan the now historic and infamous Southampton Insurrection.

The Birth of a Nation is very successful at its portrait of Nat Turner. Other characters, on the other hand are left relatively flat and underdeveloped. Furthermore, Nate Parker is excellent in the role of Turner. It is clear that he has studied Turner and has taken his story to heart; the performance is drenched in passion and power. Parker’s off-the-screen controversy certainly does cast a shadow over the project, and it adds to the long complicated discussion about whether it’s important to separate the art from the artist. The subject matter does not necessarily relate to Parker’s rape accusations and subsequent suicide of the victim, but it can affect the way a viewer perceives Parker’s performance as a man searching for righteousness in an unjust society.

Controversy aside, the film is flashy, bold, and gut-wrenching. There are some questionable pacing choices in the film, and at the end while haunting, the film does feel less penetrating and substantial than others of its kind. Obvious comparisons will be drawn between The Birth of a Nation and 2013’s 12 Years a Slave. While each one has its merits, what makes 12 Years a Slave so much better is its rawness, lack of melodrama, and depth. The Birth of a Nation, while compelling is not quite at the level of allegory and complexity that Steve McQueen achieved with 12 Years. The best thing about The Birth of a Nation is easily Parker’s performance. It’s too early to talk Oscar, but he’d be a solid candidate in the early conversation for sure. B

The Birth of a Nation is rated R and has a running time of 2 hours.

Sully

sullyDirector: Clint Eastwood

Screenwriter: Todd Komarnicki

Cast: Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart, Mike O’Malley, Anna Gunn, and Laura Linney

When the FX series American Crime Story: The People vs. OJ Simpson and the subsequent ESPN documentary OJ: Made in America came out earlier this year, many wondered if anyone would watch them. The events detailed in these shows happened only 20 years ago and they were so overtly covered by the media that many wondered, “What’s left to tell?”  The same can be said about the announcement for the film Sully, a film based on the “Miracle on the Hudson” where Captain Chesley Sullenberger successfully landed a commercial aircraft on the Hudson River with no casualties. And the events of this film took place only 8 years ago!

What happened with the OJ Simpson programs was rather surprising. People watched. Lots of people. And awards upon awards were laden upon these projects. The reason being that creative measures and expert storytelling were combined with strong performances and new information to create an emotive project that stood for more than simply a retreading of public knowledge.  Fortunately, Clint Eastwood’s film detailing Sullenberger’s story follows suit by avoiding pointless exposition and crafting a deeply watchable and at times powerfully evocative depiction of American heroism in the face of insurmountable odds.

Tom Hanks plays Sullenberger, nicknamed Sully, a commercial pilot with over 40 years of experience in the air and over a million passengers safely delivered. The film opens post-event with a shaken Sullenberger preparing for a hearing with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) who believe Sullenberger may have been negligent in his decision to not return to LaGuardia Airport. Sullenberger and his co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) are holed up in a Marriott hotel in a surreal twist of fate where on one hand Americans are celebrating their heroism and on the other, they are being investigated for endangering 155 passengers aboard the plane.

Sully is not a biopic. It is based upon Chesley Sullenberger’s memoir Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters and focuses almost entirely on the events of January 15, 2009 and the subsequent investigation.  Bits of ‘Sully’s’ past are sprinkled throughout, but the film’s main objective is to feature the tremendous fortune that results from having the right people performing the right jobs. Time is a major motif in the film, making outstanding use of factual evidence to show us just how much can happen in a short amount of time – for better or for worse. Hanks plays Sullenberger with quiet confidence, and Eastwood crafts his story with intensity and enlightenment. The effects in the plane crash scenes are second to none, and at a svelte 96 minute running time, the film clips along at a swift pace. One criticism on the film would be its handling of Sullenberger’s wife Lorraine, played by Laura Linney.  The film holds her at arm’s length and only features her in reactionary mode on the phone with Sully or as a way to illustrate the invasiveness of the media on the Sullenbergers’ daily lives. Linney joins a long list of good actresses cast in good films as wives who are written as screenplay tools to manipulate emotion.  Think Helen Hunt in another Hanks film, Cast Away. This is becoming a rather sad state of things, and is only highlighted by a scene during the credits where the real Lorraine Sullenberger gives a tearful speech to the survivors of Flight 1549 about how these survivors continue to send Christmas and greeting cards to them every year. This little moment in the credits gives more depth, heart, and life to who she is than anything Laura Linney does in the film.

Sully is a solid film delivering its message and entertainment as effectively as Sullenberger’s miraculous water landing on the Hudson.  Like it’s protagonist, the film showcases a couple of the right men for the job (as well as the right woman for a job that wasn’t there). A testament to superlative acting and creative filmmaking that breathes freshness into a story so recently and so publicly told. B+

Sully is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 1 hour and 36 minutes.  

Nerve

nerveDirectors: Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman

Screenwriter: Jessica Sharzer

Cast: Emma Roberts, Dave Franco, Emily Meade, Miles Heizer, Samira Wiley, and Kimiko Glenn

The first thing Nerve wants you to think is, “This could so happen today.” The second thing Nerve wants you to think is, “Wait a minute…isn’t this happening today?” With the advent of mainstreamed augmented reality video games like Pokémon Go, Nerve strikes, well a nerve!

The film opens with Vee (Emma Roberts) demonstrating to the audience the immersive digital universe that engulfs the teenager. We adopt her perspective as she navigates her computer. We see her surf the Internet, post to her social networks, and carry on a FaceTime conversation with her friend Sydney (Emily Meade) all while trying to draft an email to an Arts School in California that has recently accepted her as a student. The conversation with Sydney introduces the online game called Nerve that encompasses the rest of the film. Sydney invites Vee to be a “Watcher” for her in a virtual game of truth or dare where “Players” all compete to gain Watchers who dictate dares that Players must complete. Players who successfully complete Watchers’ dares, gain money and fame all in a quest to come out on top for a huge pot of cash at the end. Nerve also plays by Fight Club rules in that this game exists in the shadows. All Players and Watchers are sworn not to reveal the game and its goings on to authorities.

Vee’s proclivity for being a wallflower and never taking risks makes her a perfect selection as a Watcher for Sydney, an outgoing and uninhibited foil to Vee. However, after an embarrassing incident at a diner, Vee decides to act rashly and become a Player to prove she’s not so passive. When she accepts a dare to “Kiss a Stranger” she selects a young man named Ian (Dave Franco) who unbeknownst to her is also playing Nerve. When the Watchers see Vee and Ian, they like what they see and start daring them to complete tasks together as a team. Vee is drawn to Ian but also to the attention and excitement, causing her to accept teaming up with Ian.

Of course, nothing is ever what it’s cracked up to be. Vee’s friend Tommy (Miles Heizer) warns Vee that Nerve is dangerous, but she throws caution to the wind as her Watchers begin to add up. What follows is an entertaining and at times fascinating little narrative about fame, technology, and youth culture. Roberts and Franco are actually quite good in the lead roles. They may be closer to 30 than 18, but they play these roles very well. The supporting cast including Heizer, Meade, and Orange is the New Back alums Samira Wiley and Kimiko Glenn are also great. The casting of Juliette Lewis as Vee’ s mother seems like an afterthought, but it’s good to see her take some time off from her band and show up in a movie again!

Directors and best friends, Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman make Nerve more vibrant and visually stunning than one would expect from traditional YA fare. The color scheme is laced with neon and feels energetic and vivacious.  Joost is maybe most famous for his installments in the Paranormal Activity franchise as well as the viral sensation Catfish and its subsequent television series.  I do not hesitate to say that Nerve is Joost’s best work by far.

On the other hand, I’ve never been more disappointed in an ending for a movie. Not because it was bad. It was fine. But if the ending was as principled and interesting as everything that came before it, we’d have a much better film.    Oddly, this is another element Nerve shares with Fight Club. Prepare yourself, I’m going to go on a little diatribe about the parallels between Nerve and David Fincher. In my opinion, Fight Club’s ending was so nonsensical, ridiculous, and over-the-top that it negatively impacted everything David Fincher had set up and built before it. Fincher’s film that preceded Fight Club was a film called The Game, coincidentally about an underground immersive game played by unassuming people in the real world. It too was a tense, exciting movie that completely fell apart at the end. Nerve fits right in with the David Fincher model. It is tense, it builds, it is creative, it has some great style, and then BOOM, it gets ridiculous.  Fincher would go on to botch the ending of Panic Room after Fight Club only to finally get an ending right with Zodiac in 2007.  That’s 20 years of bad endings. Joost is a newby, but if you’ve seen Paranormal Activity 3, Paranormal Activity 4, and the film Catfish, you’d see where I’m going with this. David Fincher is awesome; I love his films, but those few bad endings really leave a gash in his filmography for me. I’m not sure if Joost is the next Fincher, but he clearly is influenced by him and should maybe take note that he didn’t burst on the scene with a film like Se7en, so we’re unlikely to wait 20 years for him to make a solid film.

First two-thirds: A-
Last third: C-

Overall grade: B-

Nerve is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 1 hour and 36 minutes.

Pete’s Dragon (2016)

PeteDirector: David Lwery

Screenwriters: David Lowery and Toby Halbrooks

Cast: Bryce Dallas Howard, Robert Redford, Oakes Fegley, Oona Laurence, Wes Bentley, and Karl Urban

Disney’s gluttonous onslaught of reimagined live-action reboots hits a new milestone with Pete’s Dragon, a remake of the 1977 film of the same name. Just four months after the release of the monumentally successful Jungle Book, Pete’s Dragon represents the first time the studio has released two remakes of its classic films in one calendar year! Still, as easy as it is to view these remakes as a withered corpse of lost inspiration dressed up as a gift to a new generation, I must put my snarkiness aside and admit that Pete’s Dragon is another solid entry on the remake roster.

Pete’s Dragon tells the story of an orphaned boy named Pete (Oakes Fegley) who while lost in the forest discovers and befriends a mythical dragon whom Pete names Elliot. Pete and Elliot live and thrive in the forests of the Pacific Northwest for six years before Pete stumbles upon lumberjacks cutting deep into the woods near where he and Elliot live. When Pete is spotted by Natalie (Oona Laurence) the young daughter of one of the workers, she chases him into the forest and during the chase nearly falls from a tree and screams causing her father Jack (Wes Bentley) and his girlfriend Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) to arrive on the scene. Jack’s brother Gavin (Karl Urban) accidentally knocks Pete unconscious leading them to take him to the hospital and in turn, abandon Elliot in the woods alone. Now apart for the first time in years, Elliot an enormous, green, furry fire-breathing dragon leaves the woods in search of his lost friend. Meanwhile Pete is invited to stay with Jack and Grace and discovers that Grace’s father Meacham (Robert Redford) claims to have seen a dragon once long ago. Trouble brews as Elliot is spotted by Gavin who sees nothing but dollar signs if he can somehow capture himself a dragon!

Pete’s Dragon was directed by David Lowery, whose most notable film Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013) couldn’t be more thematically distant from this film. However, Disney has done well at attracting great directors and allowing them to make family films that are their own. Whether it’s David Lynch’s The Straight Story from 1999, Niki Caro’s McFarland USA from 2015, or more recently Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella and Jon Favreau’s Jungle Book. These films work because of the creative freedom allowed to their directors, and Lowery benefits from this, creating a beautiful film and a grounded fable with good performances. Also, the dragon is nicely realized here. In 1977 the limits of technology forced the dragon to be a hand-drawn cartoon inserted into a live-action film. Here the dragon is created with cutting edge CGI to make it feel more immersed allowing the narrative to not use the dragon as a distracting novelty, but a realistic presence resulting in a richer cinematic experience.

So given all of the classic films produced by Disney studios over the years, you have to wonder, why Pete’s Dragon? Is it the dated aspect of the original film? Could it be the popularity of Game of Thrones and its dragonesque motifs? Maybe it’s because it was a good candidate for Disney to show us another child victimized by the sudden and tragic death of parental figures after Cinderella (2015) and Jungle Book (2016)? Quite honestly, Pete’s Dragon may be the best candidate to benefit from a remake thus far. Lowery is the first to truly deviate from the source film’s major story points. Pete’s Dragon has more in common with King Kong or Free Willy than it does with the 1977 original, which was basically a goofy musical version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn…with a dragon. Lowery casts a deep, fantasy-laden tone here; the film is more a sum of its parts than the original film’s more segmented feel. Additionally, the 1977 film is more obscure than Cinderella or The Jungle Book, and it received far more polarizing reviews than either of these films, making it ripe for a makeover. Still, while Pete’s Dragon was perhaps most worthy of a remake treatment, it is still a pretty safe movie in any regard. Plot points come fast and predictably, emotional turning points are crowbarred in manipulatively, and Bryce Dallas Howard once again wears unflattering clothing while facing off with enormous presumably extinct reptilian creatures. Any way you look at it, the previous remakes have been based on older and/or obscure Disney films. Next up, we have Beauty and the Beast in early 2017, which is neither old nor obscure, so the pressure’s on. B

Pete’s Dragon is rated PG and has a running time of 1 hour and 43 minutes.

Café Society

CafeDirector: Woody Allen

Screenwriter: Woody Allen

Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristin Stewart, Steve Carell, Corey Stoll, and Blake Lively

So I preface this, as I do all of my Woody Allen reviews, with a statement of assured objectivity.  Yes, I am a self-proclaimed Woody Allen fan, but I am not above delivering a negative review to projects that are worthy of one.  It just so happens that there are few projects of Allen’s without redeeming quality. The trend continues with Café Society, Allen’s 41st film he has written, directed, and released within a year of his previous film.

In his 81st year of life, the director shows no sign of slowing down. His new deal with Amazon may be a catalyst, as Café Society is his first to be produced by the Internet giant, and it is his best film since 2013’s Blue Jasmine. It also arrives on the heels of his new Amazon produced television series, Crisis in Six Scenes, premiering this fall.  Who would think the hardest working man in show-business would be 80?

For Café Society, Allen (who also narrates the film) takes us back to 1930s Hollywood where an agent named Phil Stern (Steve Carell) is at the top of his game, representing all of the legendary talent of the time.  Stern’s success is as massive as the distance he puts between himself and his family. Stern’s sister Rose Dorfman (Jeannie Berlin) lives in Brooklyn with her husband Marty (Ken Stott).  When Rose contacts Phil with a favor that he give her youngest son Bobby (Jesse Einsenberg) a job in his firm, Phil reluctantly agrees to at least meet him, resulting in a familiar Woody Allen plot construct – “a tale of two coasts.”

Like every good Woody Allen movie, familiar plotting must be countered with memorable and well-designed characters.  The lavishness of the Stern life is beautifully contrasted with the working class Dorfmans. Rose’s daughter Evelyn (Sari Lennick) maintains a middle class life with her philosopher husband Leonard (Stephen Kunken), and her oldest son Ben (Corey Stoll) quietly runs a pretty active mob syndicate (Bullets Over Broadway-style) unbeknownst to the rest of his family; his scenes are outstanding.   That just leaves Bobby as the lost soul looking for his slice of happiness, and he quickly finds it in the form of Vonnie (Kirstin Stewart), his Uncle Phil’s beautiful assistant. Bobby falls for Vonnie at first sight and his advances towards her do not go unnoticed, although Bobby does have competition as Vonnie has a boyfriend. What follows is a more or less traditional exploration of whether all is truly fair in love and war but with some twists along the way. The predictability is nicely offset by the solid performances.  Look out for Blake Lively in a small role later in the film that channels Diane Keaton in Annie Hall. Performances aside, Allen has also made a visually gorgeous film with some beautiful scenery. Café Society marks Allen’s first digitally shot film, and he makes good use of the technology capturing some vintage Allenesque shots but with a new vibrant quality.

One criticism that is often laden on Woody Allen films is that his pace of production can throttle the work, preventing good films from being great due to time constraints.  That may factor in with Café Society, but certainly not to the degree that I’m willing to part with the annual Woody Allen film.  His cinematically nomadic spirit is something to appreciate, and it warms my heart to know that the moment Café Society premiered, his 2017 project was already announced, cast, and in pre-production.  B+

Café Society is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 1 hour and 36 minutes. 

The Legend of Tarzan

TarzanDirector: David Yates

Screenwriters: Adam Cozad, Craig Brewer

Cast: Alexander Skarsgård, Christoph Waltz, Samuel L. Jackson, and Margot Robbie

Ahhhh AhAhAhAhAhAh Ahhhhhhhh! Tarzan is swinging back into theaters for like the 60th time in the last 100 years.  In the scheme of things with James Bond and superheroes, that’s not such a frequent appearance! Still, the problem with most Tarzan appearances is that they are all basically a retelling of Edgar Rice Burrough’s first Tarzan novel:  Parents are marooned, child is orphaned, child is raised by gorillas, scientist discovers Tarzan, Tarzan rescues scientist’s daughter, and they fall in love. So is David Yates’s new film, The Legend of Tarzan a “different story?” The answer is yes…and no.

In this film, we are introduced to an already grown Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgård). Home in England during the mid 19th century, famous world-round, and married to his love, Jane (Margot Robbie).  Tarzan (AKA John Clayton) has adjusted to life as an heir to his parents’ fortune and lives a most civilized existence, far removed from the one he knew in the jungle. When he is summoned by the Prime Minister (Jim Broadbent) to sit in on a matter regarding King Leopold’s hold of a mining encampment in the African Congo, Tarzan is encouraged to use his celebrity and act as an ambassador. The Prime Minister’s hopes are that by traveling to the site, Clayton’s  presence will calm some rumors circling around Leopold’s interests and practices in the Congo.  American Historian George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) volunteers to accompany Clayton and Jane, but his true intention is to investigate his theory that indigenous Africans are being used as slaves to mine the Congo.  When that theory pans out, Williams easily persuades Clayton to join him in exposing Leopold’s private slave state, but they are thwarted by Léon Rom (Christoph Waltz), a Belgian soldier sent by King Leopold to act as administrator of one of the major stations in the Congo.  Rom is devious and maniacal, and when he captures Jane, Tarzan will stop at nothing to get her back and bring Rom down.

So like I said, is this film’s narrative a different story than we’re used to? Yes, we are not dragged through a 60-minute plotline about a boy growing up as an ape man.  But no, we are not treading much new ground as Tarzan still spends most of the movie trying to rescue Jane. Fortunately, director David Yates tips the scales in favor of freshness as the story unfolds.  The filmmaking is vibrant, alive, and exciting. Yates takes that smooth, “Peter Jacksony” style he honed with his four Harry Potter films and transfers it beautifully to The Legend of Tarzan.  The visuals are sweeping and the film benefits tremendously from Yates’s touch.

The actors are equally enjoyable. Margot Robbie gives Jane real dimension; she even has a line where she mocks even the idea of being a “damsel in distress.” Skarsgård does well as the stoic Tarzan.  He looks the part and shows that he may be able to carry a big-budget action film.  However, as is the case in many films, the supporting cast is where Legend of Tarzan shines.  Waltz and Jackson are together again for the first time since Django Unchained.  This time, however, the roles are reversed and Waltz is the unabashed, racist tyrant, while Jackson gets to play the charismatic hero!  Mostly though, Jackson steals the show, and if you’re looking for that one extra reason to persuade you go see this film, Jackson firing off countless rounds from a machine gun turret is that reason.

The Legend of Tarzan is fun, summer blockbuster fare, and it’s better than the average film in that category. It clips along at a nice pace, and it doesn’t pander or feel false or ironic.  If you’re looking for something to see this summer that is (mostly) not animated, The Legend of Tarzan is a worthy option. B

The Legend of Tarzan is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 1 hour and 49 minutes.

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