Friday, December 30, 2016

Rogue One: An Excessively Star Wars Story, and the 2nd Biannual Trailer Update

Belated, Obligatory Thoughts on Disney’s Latest

In the interest of full disclosure, I saw the first 20 minutes of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story a couple days after I saw the final hour and 40 minutes.  If this blunder in any way compromised my ability to experience the emotional arc of the film to its fullest and likewise compromised the integrity of my critique, then I will humbly retract this post, but for now I’m going to go with my gut and not give Disney the benefit of the doubt for obvious reasons.  I should also disclose that because of my work arrangement I’ve seen parts of this film what feels like a dozen times, so I’m probably better equipped than anyone except the people who edited it to talk about its faults.

Rogue One’s demure and clunky title reads like a disclaimer, apologizing for its own inconsequentiality as the first of many one-offs in the series that won’t be centered upon the troubled Skywalker family. Although it occupies the same universe, this outing is not a proper Star Wars film as we’ve come to identify one, or so it shouldn’t feel pressured to be.  Disney does admittedly eschew the opening title crawl and use of Jedi powers as a major plot device, but otherwise Rogue One looks and sounds very conservative and kiddish for something advertised as a realistic, grounded war film.  Director Gareth Edward’s contribution is muddled amidst the noise, making one wonder why the studio would even bother enlisting him based on his past work.  This is a far cry from the 2014 Godzilla in terms of tone, and even farther from his no-budget underground extravaganza Monsters, which utilized seamless visual effects as a backdrop for a tale he apparently found more interesting, that of two young people falling in love under trying circumstances.

Rogue One retains his aptitude for adding colossal CG elements into live-action shots, but tosses all the romance, something Mr. Plinkett notices has been drained entirely from Disney’s awkward, desexualized reworking of George Lucas’ property.  At least two moments in Rogue One would have warranted a kiss in other writers’ heads, but in this post-Skywalker, post-binary galaxy, male and female characters are forbidden to express anything beyond platonic affection for one another.  A weapon fires, a world ends, and two doomed rebels quaintly consummate their relationship with an innocent, chummy hug.  This coyness about depicting people’s natural biological urges is a logical progression of the corporation’s dedication to promulgating cheesy, ham-fisted Girl Power at the expense of whatever story it’s trying to tell.  As we’ve learned sufficiently from Frozen, The Force Awakens, and the Avengers movies to a certain extent, women don’t need men to be happy anymore, and they certainly don’t need men to keep them safe from mortal physical harm.  In case prepubescent girls (consistently Star Wars’ most militant fan base) missed this message the first time, Rogue One sees fit to replicate a scene from Force Awakens in which Finn attempted to help Rey fend off some thugs only to realize that she was quite capable of defending herself, thank you very much.  It’s 2016, people!  Women can join the Army and get blown up by an IED in Afghanistan for their country just like men, and they don’t even need to do as many push-ups to qualify for the honor.

Rogue One supposedly takes place in a galaxy far, far away, but it might as well be another plane of reality, which is basically the opposite of the reality posited in years past by Ex Machina and Her.  The A.I. characters in both films harness their simulated sexuality to control and comfort their respective human masters.  “What imperative does a gray box have to interact with another gray box?” asks Ava’s inventor of his partner at one point.  Most of Rogue One’s characters take after a gray box, with the ironic exception of a re-programmed imperial droid who hoards almost all the personality in the film for himself. Everybody dies, but what imperative do audience members have to cry over a gray box, even six of them?

Just as The Force Awakens and its marketing campaign felt like formulated responses to the Plinkett reviews, playing up the practical effects and simplistic, magical adventure of the series, Rogue One seems to have derived from the most idiotic complaints directed at Episode 7 and even at similarly budgeted franchise films.  When someone, perhaps understandably, yelled at J.J. Abrams about the lack of likable, inoffensive Asian characters in Star Wars, Disney heard the public outcry and wrote two into the next film, but forgot to give them any memorable traits apart from their fighting styles.  Rogue One is brimming with racial diversity, distractingly so I’d say, but the only hero whose name I could recall at the end was the white one.  I’ve seen the movie enough times now that I can tell a Saw Gerrera from a Cassian Andor, but for a while the former was just Forrest Whitaker with Goofy Accent, the latter more regrettably The Mexican Guy.  Donnie Yen looks in fine form briefly beating up a squad of stormtroopers, but he’s still just Donnie Yen to me, and it doesn’t help that Edwards quickly trades away his best asset as a performer for a sci-fi bow and arrow.

Then there’s the pervasive jokey vibe that undercuts the film whenever it aims to be serious, probably forced in by Disney after the dreary Batman v. Superman underperformed on multiple levels and corporate bigwigs realized they could reap more money and acclaim if they just did away with any dark atmospherics and copied The Avengers.  Vader cracks a pun that had my preview audience dumbstruck, the rebels cut K2-SO off in the middle of a recurring Star Wars quote, and Yen’s habit of “praying” to the Force only serves to highlight one of the silliest aspects of George Lucas’ universe.  Lucas got a lot of flack in 1999 when he decided to scientifically expound the Force as “a microscopic life form that resides in all living cells”, a qualifier that fans saw as contradictory to both the spirit of Star Wars and the quasi-Buddhist ideas infused throughout the series.  Of course, it’s a whole lot easier to make fun of midi-chlorians than it is to admit that the Force has been kind of stupid from its inception, especially when one is caught up in nostalgia and unwilling to judge the original films without reference to their cultural impact. Rogue One wants to be The Empire Strikes Back to its own predecessor, a darker and more grounded take on Star Wars where soldiers, not mages, drive the plot, but every 15 minutes Donnie Yen butts in to remind viewers that they’re watching a kid-friendly fantasy film.  “The Force is with me and I am one with the Force,” he recites to himself ad nauseum, even calling upon the Force at times to shield him magically from enemy fire.

Speaking of which, stormtroopers still have terrible aim, the most competent actors still get all the villain parts, and everybody still has to read lame or forgettable lines.  Compelling dialogue has never been a strong suit of Star Wars – fanboys or the very young may quote, “I have a bad feeling about this,” or, “Luke, I am your father,” to each other to prove their nerd cred – and Rogue One isn’t breaking any new ground in the mundanity of its talking scenes.  Its peculiar problem is that there are so damn many of them.  As hilarious as the denouement of Revenge of the Sith is, the cast of that movie had it better than any poor, bored soul in Rogue One, which is jam-packed with imperial officers squabbling over something or another, Felicity Jones snapping at Diego Luna, and people explaining where they’re going and what they’re going to do before they do it.

Some other points:
* Star Wars’ scores under Disney’s domain have been bland and dated and need to evolve to counteract the staleness of new Star Wars products.  John Williams in the prequels did an excellent job retaining and revamping familiar themes while introducing completely new earworms that complemented the maturing tones of the films (Duel of the Fates, Anakin and Padme’s love theme, and the multiple eerie songs reflecting corruption and darkness in Episode 3).  There is no reason why composers on the new films can’t do the same, but Disney so far has been shackling itself to an “epic” and indistinctive sound as if in fear that veering too far off a path well-trodden in the 80s will cause their project to implode.  The last couple years have seen an incredible outpouring of inspired and fitting scores – Sicario, It Follows, Interstellar, Ex Machina, Under the SkinTurbo Kid, and Dredd to name a few –, and doling out the Star Wars franchise to a diverse range of directors seems like the perfect excuse to let a similarly diverse group of composers offer up their ideas.  Instead, everyone Disney’s hired thus far, including John Williams, has been cruising on aping Vintage Williams.
* Early on Mads Mikkelsen’s character says something like, “You say you want to create an empire of peace, but all I see is terror,” to which Krennick says, “Well, you have to start somewhere.”  What does that even mean?
* When Krennick runs into Jyn on the bridge to the communications satellite thing and asks, “Who are you?” she answers, “You know who I am; I’m Jyn Erso, daughter of…”  This line doesn’t make any sense because it’s the first time Krennick has seen her in the movie and because we have no indication that he was ever concerned about Galen Erso having a child.  It’s almost as if the writer just shoved, “You know who I am!” into the script because he thought it sounded like a cool, plucky thing to say and wasn’t concerned about the logical basis for it.
* Characters in the movie are generally endowed with more knowledge of what’s going on than they should realistically have.  For example, when the Middle Eastern-looking guy gets killed by a grenade, the Asian gun mercenary looks up at the distant explosion, frowns solemnly, and seems to undergo a renewal of purpose because his friend just died. However, things are blowing up all around him, radio chatter is chaotic, and there’s really no way of knowing who all died in that explosion, so why does he act as if he knows?
* The camera-man obviously thinks that audiences are stupid and need important lines to be singled out by movement for their comprehension.  Example: when the rebels are being captured by the stormtroopers and Jyn stupidly throws out her family heritage and the camera zooms in on her to make you go, “WHOA!  She’s the daughter of Galen Erso!  This changes everything!”
* I don’t get why Tarkin is in the movie, and neither does anyone else as far as I can tell. Knowing the actor is dead was a constant distraction.
* I watched this a couple days after seeing Hacksaw Ridge, which is by all measures a better-made film, and the action in Hacksaw Ridge makes the most violent scene in Rogue One look like a leisurely stroll through a video-game Wonderland.  Hence, whenever I hear anyone trying to characterize this as a darker, grittier, or harder-hitting Star Wars movie, I can only scoff.  This is what doing Disney’s marketing for them looks like in practice.
Like every other blockbuster in 2016 except for that Tarzan movie, Independence Day 2, and any DC Comics movies, Rogue One has excellent CG effects, and its greatest asset as a film may be its transience, which optimists may call replay value.  Because of my job I’ve walked in on certain scenes from this over and over again, and even though my brain says I’ve already seen Rogue One, I always feel like I’m experiencing something new.  That’s the magic of Disney for you.


The Author’s 2nd Biannual Trailer Round-up (only for those seen in the theater, hence Kong: Skull Island, Dunkirk, and Alien: Covenant didn’t make the cut)

Ben-Hur – There was a remake of Ben-Hur earlier this summer.  It was about as big a failure as you could expect.

The Edge of Seventeen – This trailer didn’t do anything for me and made the film look like John Green junk, but the movie itself was OK.  I may comment more on it in an end-of-year movie roundup I may or may not write for the Files.

King Arthur: The Legend of Whatever – This is a well-edited trailer in that it takes all the coolest special effects shots from the movie and cuts them to a throbbing, chain-mail-clinking song, but I predict this is going to go the same way as Snow White and the Huntsman.  Guy Ritchie makes entertaining albeit forgettable films and this will be a fine, 5/10 addition to his filmography.

Deepwater Horizon – Another true-story disaster movie in which I have literally no interest.  Hollywood will always keep making these, and people will always keep watching them.  Mike Stoklasa sums up my feelings on these movies perfectly in less than two minutes.

The Great Wall – I want to see this movie for the pretty colors and Zhang Yimou’s direction and the action.  I don’t want to see this movie because of Matt Damon, whom some dumb producer is banking on to sell a $150-million production.  Newsflash, Hollywood: The Martian would have made a lot of money regardless of who was cast in it.

The Magnificent Seven, again – If this isn’t the fakest, most contrived-looking western I ever seen… holy on the range, Batman, it’s this year’s Lone Ranger!

Dunkirk teaser – Well, there’s not that much to go off of, is there?

Valerian – I’m getting strong Jupiter Ascending flashbacks from this, only with the awful hula dancing actress from Suicide Squad.  Hopefully Luc Besson has the good sense to recognize how goofy this movie looks and run with it.

Moana – I wasn’t all that pumped up for this based on the brief ad I saw before Arrival, but I’ll talk more about Moana in good time.

Manchester by the Sea – This was a very accurate and honest condensation of a very prototypical, lackluster indie drama.

Pirates of the Caribbean clip that’s posing as a trailer – Ugh. Note to Disney: stop casting the boring guy from the Giver movie in things, and stop making Pirates movies unless you let George Miller direct it and go full R-rating.

Split – M. Night Shyamalan, James McAvoy, the girl from The Witch, and the D.P. of It Follows all in one freaking movie?  I am so watching this opening night so no one can possibly spoil it for me.

Phoenix  It’s a found-footage movie with a purposefully mysterious ad campaign designed to provoke curiosity, except it didn’t for me.

Collateral Beauty – This is destined to be another classic mainstay in ABC Family’s Christmas programming rotation.

A Cure For Wellness – I was really impressed by this the first time I saw it, sucked in by the creepy, somewhat Kubrickian visuals and nebulous premise.  On repeated viewings its effect has started to wane on me, but it’s still a fine tease for a February horror movie that’ll probably end up being blah.

A Cure For Wellness trailer 2 – This is a really bad trailer, but on the bright side I no longer have any interest in paying for this blah.

Office Christmas Party – This movie has Abbey Lee from Mad Max: Fury Road, one funny scene where Jennifer Aniston bullies a little girl by pretending to call Santa, and no redeeming qualities apart from those.  More like The People’s Party of SNL.

Allied – The first half of this trailer was way too much déjà vu with a too young-looking Brad Pitt shoved into yet another World War II movie, but when the twist came up along with the tone shift from romance to thriller, I was hooked.  It’s too bad the movie itself turned out just OK.

The Bye Bye Man – Calling an 11% on Rotten Tomatoes for this teen girl-oriented scary picture.

A Dog’s Purpose – This looks like one of these 90’s live-action Shaggy Dog-type movies brought back from the grave.  In other words, it’s a movie for nobody.

Passengers – I wouldn’t have remembered seeing this if I hadn’t recorded that I had.  More on the movie later in the potential end-of-year roundup.

A United Kingdom – A terrible, cloyingly awards-baiting advertisement for what may be a good movie.

Going In Style – This kind of reminds me of that Robert De Niro, Morgan Freeman movie about the old-timers going to Las Vegas to party, crossed with the Ocean’s Eleven movies or what I imagine them to be.  It doesn’t look so good.

The Shack – Oh boy.  Here comes this year’s low-budget, evangelical-pandering sensation that’s going to win the hearts of all my undiscriminating friends and further entrench the woeful stereotype that Christians don’t know how to make good movies.  At least Sam Worthington is getting work again after Avatar, which means he won’t have to beg for housing or food.

Patriots Day – I do wish Lionsgate was doing more to push the soundtrack by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.  There’s no way to tell as of now, but based on The Social Network and Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, it’s probably the best thing Patriots Day has going for it.

Wonder Woman – This is going to be a clustercuss of a storytelling and contain a lot of unnecessary, unfunny humor just like Suicide Squad, but at least the Amazon action looks kind of cool, if heavy on the green screen and slow-motion.

Spider-Man: Homecoming – Not being attached to Spider-man or enamored of either previous screen versions, I can’t say I was all that psyched to see Take 3 on the character, but this doesn’t look that bad. Incorporating Tony Stark as a mentor figure could be an interesting departure from his now irritating personality, given they don’t force him in too much, and it was extremely refreshing to see a superhero trailer cut to a fun MGMT song instead of stock Hans Zimmer drum beats and booming sound effects.  I also like that they got someone just out of high-school to play Peter Parker instead of a more famous guy in his late-20s.  If Marvel keeps this story small and focused on Spidey’s teen issues instead of some mutated villain-of-the-week who wants to destroy New York City for some reason, then I can probably get behind this.

Logan – This trailer is already a classic, having usurped Inception as the go-to template for fan edits on Youtube.  At first I wondered if Old Man Logan would be better paired with the Nine Inch Nails version of Hurt, but revisiting it over and over has convinced me that the Johnny Cash cover is the only way to go.  What an amazing and emotional use of one of the last songs recorded by an amazing artist.

Cars 3 – This 50-second snippet features the most immaculate and detailed animation I’ve ever seen from Pixar, such that I doubt it’ll even be in the final cut.  Let’s hope that they prove my doubts wrong, not that I give a crap about a movie called “Cars 3”.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 – I laughed a solid three times over two minutes.  If the movie makes me laugh five times that and the characters grow somehow (literally and figuratively in Baby Groot’s case) over the course of it, consider me a satisfied nerd.

War for the Planet of the Apes – Are they playing it kind of safe selling this as the biggest and darkest Apes film yet?  Yes.  Does it bug me that Caesar now speaks English just as articulately as the humans?  Yes.  Did this get me excited to see a war for a planet of apes?  Also yes.

Transformers: The Last Knight – I know well how foolish it is to get optimistic about the prospects of any new Transformers movies, but I see several promising signs here.  For one the lead girl doesn’t appear to be depicted as a sexpot, which would be a huge advancement for Michael Bay if it holds true.  Having Optimus Prime trade blows with Bumblebee for whatever reason also makes for a positive change of pace after four movies straight of killing Megatron, Decepticons, and whoever the bad guy in Transformers 4 was.  On a more concrete level, the blending of in-camera explosions and CGI looks fantastic as usual, which is one of the few things Bay consistently does right contrary to his critics.  In the last two movies, unfortunately, it was about the only thing he and his writers did right, and he did it right for an hour and a half at a time, which made it wrong.  On a side note, playing super slowed-down, distorted versions of The Flaming Lips or any other recognizable band doesn’t make a trailer sound more epic, only silly.

The Fate of the Furious – I will watch this on DVD just to hear Dwayne Johnson say, “I will beat you like a Cherokee drum,” and more lines of that ilk.

xXx: Return of Xander Cage – Who in the world is Xander Cage, and why are we getting two Fast and Furious movies in the same year?

Smurfs 5 – This was a pre-Moana trailer and I wasn’t really paying attention.

The Lego Batman Movie – My main worry with this is that the makers are trying so hard to replicate the insanely high joke rate of The Lego Movie that they’ve neglected both the social commentary which made the original great and, more importantly, a plot.  Still, I had no expectations whatsoever of The Lego Movie, so hopefully this will surprise me in the same way.

Hidden Figures – This is gonna suck.

Beauty and the Beast – The bad news is that it’s starring U.N. Ambassador Emma Watson, which means there’s no way in heck I am paying to see this even if the makeup/effects and set design look good.  The good news is that pretty much every scene is in the trailer and I already know the beast turns into a man, so I don’t have to see it.

Fist Fight – Stuff I learned from this trailer: 1) Meth isn’t a gateway drug, it’s the finish line. 2) Ice Cube from N.W.A. can be a high-school teacher. 3) Possums are a pussy animal. 4) This is going to be a fun time-waster when it eventually comes to FX with all the swearing awkwardly dubbed out.

Get Out – I can’t tell if this is supposed to be a serious horror film or a black people comedy for Tyler Perry fans, but I can tell that it’s going to stink.  This is seriously one of the most annoying and abrasive previews I’ve seen in the theater, and that it has the gall to reference Evil Dead 2 makes it all the more deplorable.

John Wick Chapter 2 – I didn’t even like John Wick, but I will definitely be patronizing this film unless it gets less than 50% from critics and zero recommendations from Red Letter Media.

Live By Night – Much though it pains me to say any movie written, directed, produced, and acted by multicultural beta male Ben Affleck actually looks good, let alone a gangster one that’s been done to death, I do think this looks pretty good.  Then again, any fool can stitch together some overhead nature shots, vague tough guy dialogue, and rapidly edited fighting to make something look more exciting than it really is.

Gifted – Octavia Spencer + know-it-all kid + talking down to audiences about kid being super smart + indie dialogue + custody battles = SUCK.  Also, trailer editors need to stop cutting off characters in the middle of saying, “Holy shit,” which has become something of a cliché by this point and has the effect of annoying both people who are offended and people who are not offended by swearing.

Fifty Shades Darker – Mock me if I end up being wrong, but I think most of the first movie’s financial success can be traced to misleading media hype, a.k.a. #FakeNews, and the sequel is going to bomb hard.  Millennials will skip it and watch porn at home, film students will settle for a much more scandalous Lars Von Trier movie, and the studio will barely recoup its expenses on a risqué music video-movie they should have made for a quarter of the cost.

Ghost in the Shell – It’s a dumbed-down, action-heavy, PG-13 remake of a highly philosophical, dialogue-heavy, R-rated anime.  That doesn’t mean it has to fail as a 21st century Matrix-clone in Hong Kong, but my prediction is it will have next to no appeal for those, like me, who admire the original.  I predict this a) because of the “You’re special” lines in the trailer, which has no grounding in GITS and is a very mainstream trope, b) because of Scarlett Johansson, who is clearly supposed to draw Avengers and Lucy fanboys, and c) because there’s literally no mention of the anime in the trailer.

Life – Generic outer-space movie looks generic.

Blade Runner 2049 – This isn’t much of a trailer, but I still got chills when I heard Vangelis.  Based solely on the people involved I don’t have to see any more of it before next October.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Save Dewey, Build The Wall (Pepperdine Service Announcement)

The following is a digital transcription of an urgent message ineffectively distributed across Beatissima University the week before finals so that nobody would notice it or pay it any heed.  Dewey Hall is a stately and beloved middleclass dormitory situated on the far side of Greek Row that’s set to be demolished in spring of 2017 in order to be rebuilt from the ground up as a larger living area accommodating larger, more diverse class bodies that will incidentally be paying even more tuition to acquire less applicable knowledge from less intelligent professors.  What the Housing and Residence Life office of Beatissima does not know or refuses to acknowledge is that Dewey is currently resting on “sacred ground” and any construction efforts advanced upon it will not only prove catastrophic to the coastal environment but, more pressingly, cause irrevocable harm to the feelings and comfort of the students living there, who will be forced back into the shadows they’ve fought their entire adult lives to escape.  As it stands, people who call Dewey their home are Beas in every way except on paper, and the time has long since passed for the school’s Christian administration to recognize their dignity, which brings us to the text of this poster.

Most of this will not make sense to those who haven’t studied recently at Beatissima.  Most of this will not make sense to those who are currently studying at Beatissima, as reading comprehension is frankly not Beas’ strongest suit, any more than is staying informed on food and housing arrangements affecting where they live, any more than is remembering the statements of those running for president pertaining to Americans’ gun rights and freedom of speech.


First they came for the fountain, and I did nothing, because I was a broke-ass college student and did my laundry at my parents’ house, not in the fountain.
Then they came for the La Brea and Peet’s, and I did nothing, because I did not eat baked goods and already had Starbucks, which is better, at the cafeteria and HAWC and verily every corner.
Then they came for the cable, and I did nothing, because I did not watch anything that was not on Putlocker or Netflix and because I could not get cable on my iPhone.
Then they came for the library, and I did nothing, because I knew better than to waste my time reading anything more complex than a 100-word Facebook “rant” or a nihilistic Salon article.
Then they came for the mural, and I did nothing, because I was not one of the unacceptably few not-white people here and was not aware of any such mural or the affront it caused.
Then they came for Dewey, and no one did a thing for me, because they had never called Dewey “Home” and did not even know that it existed.


It’s time to send The Powers That B a message:
   That they cannot take whatever they want.
      That this is our land.
         That we stand in #insolidarity and unity for
            
A WALL HIGH AND IMPREGNABLE to be built
               Immediately around
DEWEY as a SANCTUARY DORM.


BUILD THE WALL*



* Miller will pay for it.
** Some of the people in HRL, I assume, are good people.