Category Archives: 2016

Rogue One (2016, Gareth Edwards)

Sadly, the Writers Guild of America does not publish their arbitrations for writing credits, because the one on Rogue One has got to be a doozy; I desperately want to know how they go to this script. Did it actually start as a video game or did director Edwards really have no idea how to do action scenes not out of a video game? Was there ever a satisfying conclusion to the various characters or was it always going to be amid the biggest Star Wars action sequence featuring the toys—sorry, spaceships–from the Original Trilogy ever mounted.

Because you know how they do all the rest. They do it with CGI. They even bring Peter Cushing back in CGI and credit some guy named Guy Henry who… stood in? Got CGI’ed over? Cushing doesn’t look real, he doesn’t even look alien (though the alien designs in Rogue One are like sixty percent good and forty percent perplexingly odd). He kind of looks like a video game character but maybe a little better… whenever he’s on, I wish I was just watching CGI further adventures of the Original Trilogy cast. I mean, probably not anymore because I wouldn’t want to see what the do with Carrie Fisher but still. There’s a novelty in it.

There’s no novelty in CGI Cushing in Rogue One because they still haven’t gotten the acting down. The face makes expressions but pointlessly. Kind of like the James Earl Jones cameo. His inflections make no sense. Partially because the exposition-full dialogue plays worse onscreen than George Lucas’s. Again, that Writers Guild arbitration has got to be some great reading. Like who wrote the Darth Vader cameo, which I’m not going to consider a spoiler because you should be able to get a “Rogue One Darth Vader” playset, complete with the bigger looking, Darth Helmet homage perhaps helmet.

The reason the dialogue is so bad is because they’re targeting a younger audience. There’s this really silly “Rosebud” running throughout the movie and it gets repeated time and again before it finally comes into play and then they even explain it. Because they’ve got to hit the eight year-olds, which is nice, right? It makes an eight year-old feel smart… which is kind of Star Wars in a nutshell.

Anyway.

The big space and land battle plays with all the good toys. There are ships from various movie periods fighting each other and whatnot, there’s AT-ATs, there’s… a samurai. There’s everything you could want. And lots of callbacks to the original movies, both in shots and dialogue.

As bland as the action direction, Edwards does pretty well with the pseudo-main plot, involving the creation of the Death Star (the first one, so pre-Star Wars; the movie assumes you’re very familiar, because otherwise why would you be watching Rogue One). Empire scientist Mads Mikkelsen tries running away but gets brought back by bad guy Ben Mendelsohn (who’s great but has to play second-fiddle to CGI Cushing, which is a choice); Mikkelsen’s wife dies and their daughter is rescued by Forest Whitaker. Jump ahead fifteen years and now the daughter is Felicity Jones and Whitaker’s an old man (so they can make prequels to this prequel, which would still be sequel to the prequels), and they’re estranged. Blah blah blah, needlessly complicated plot to get Jones and Whitaker reunited, bringing in Rebellion spy and secretly soulful assassin Diego Luna, who, with his trusty reprogrammed attack droid (voiced by an over-enthusiastic given the writing Alan Tudyk), will reunite father and daughter and hopefully save the universe.

Along the way Luna and Jones team up with Jedi Temple protectors but not Jedi Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen. They’re like Jedi groupies. Yen gives what’s probably the best performance… and there are good performances. Not just Mendelsohn. Luna’s a strong lead until Jones takes over for… ten minutes or so. She’s good. It’s a silly part, but she’s good. Riz Ahmed’s really good as the Imperial spy. Forest Whitaker’s good. Until they get to the direct prequel to Star Wars stuff, it certainly seems like it might add up to something for its cast. But once Threepio and Artoo show up… it’s just a countdown to their suicide mission overtaking them and clearing the board for the actual heroes to show up.

The ginned up martyrs all get their big exits but they play trite, mostly because the script, some Edwards. Michael Giacchino’s score almost, almost, almost finally makes it work but then he doesn’t because he never makes it work. Giacchino’s score is middling when it’s not aping or anti-aping John Williams and much worse when it does.

Rogue One is a successfully executed Star Wars prequel slash midquel, which says nothing about it as a good use of $200 million or two hours and ten minutes…. In those terms, it’s an abject, even desperate fail and a complete waste of its (human) actors’ time.

I assume CGI Peter Cushing has nothing better to do.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Gareth Edwards; screenplay by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy, based on a story by John Knoll and Gary Whitta, and characters created by George Lucas; director of photography, Greig Fraser; edited by John Gilroy, Colin Goudie, and Jabez Olssen; music by Michael Giacchino; production designers, Doug Chiang and Neil Lamont; costume designers, David Crossman and Glyn Dillon; produced by Leifur B. Dagfinnsson, Simon Emanuel, Kathleen Kennedy, and Allison Shearmur; released by Walt Disney Pictures.

Starring Felicity Jones (Jyn Erso), Diego Luna (Cassian Andor), Alan Tudyk (K-2SO), Donnie Yen (Chirrut Îmwe), Wen Jiang (Baze Malbus), Ben Mendelsohn (Orson Krennic), Guy Henry (Governor Tarkin), Forest Whitaker (Saw Gerrera), Riz Ahmed (Bodhi Rook), Mads Mikkelsen (Galen Erso), Jimmy Smits (Bail Organa), Alistair Petrie (General Draven), and Genevieve O’Reilly (Mon Mothma).


Train to Busan (2016, Yeon Sang-ho)

The middle of Train to Busan is excellent. The first act is iffy, the ending is forced, but the middle is where the film excels. It’s where director Yeon just gets to do action, not getting slowed down with the humanity of it all (which he’s uneven on), and just executes these breathtaking action suspense sequences. Not just Yeon, editor Yang Jin-mo, photographer Lee Hyung-deok, composer Jang Young-gyu—and of course the actors. During the action suspense stuff, everyone does really well. Even lead Gong Yoo is good during these sequences and doesn’t have the overwhelmed look he gets the rest of the movie. Gong’s the only character with a real character arc—he goes from being a selfish hedge fund manager and bad dad to a hero in the fight against a zombie horde; he even becomes a better dad and reals everything he’s been missing in daughter Kim Su-an’s life. It’s ought to be emotionally devastating.

But Gong can’t do it. Being fair, it’s not like he gets any help from Yeon on it either, who doesn’t do a good job with directing the character stuff. Outside the action sequences, Yeon’s best directing is all on Ma Dong-seok and Jung Yu-mi, who play an expecting married couple caught up in the afore implied zombie apocalypse. Worse, Yeon’s adequate directing on Kim—as she experiences having this bad dad—falls apart as the film progresses. It’s like Yeon can’t pretend Busan’s about Gong and Kim patching things up thanks to a crisis situation and just sleepwalks the film through the series where they act like it’s working. Maybe it’s just a bad combination; the way Yeon directs the actors, the script, Gong’s flimsy performance. Because a lot of things do come together just right in other ways during Busan. Ma and Jung are wonderful. They’re both excellent—he’s a loving tough guy and she’s, well, okay, she’s just the loving tough guy’s pregnant wife, but she’s really good. And Ma’s able to carry the film when Gong can’t and the film acknowledges it, Gong acknowledges it. Yeon just doesn’t use it to further anything along. Top-billed Gong goes into the third act a better person but a thinner character; everyone else has more depth than him, with the possible exception of daughter Kim, just because she’s a plot device to keep him moving through the picture. Not in a craven way, just a very pragmatic one. Gong and Kim might be the A plot in the film, but all the other plots are more interesting, which becomes real obvious in the third act.

First there’s teen paramours Sohee and Choi Woo-sik, who barely get introduced during the film’s rapid-free introduction of the disaster movie cast—I mean, it’s zombies on a bullet train—have a little do at the beginning of the second act, but then get this layered C plot leading up to a heart-wrenching, loving conclusion. Very nice work from Choi and Sohee and from Yeon. He takes their C plot seriously. He also takes the out of nowhere and completely awesome conductor turns action hero subplot seriously. Jeong Seok-yong is fantastic in that part. Total surprise, but great pay-offs.

The supporting characters’ arcs always pay off (save businessman worm villain Kim Eui-sung’s arc, which goes on too long and gets too important) and always a with a little more enthusiasm than Gong and Kim get. Their family drama is basically red herring and not particularly tasty red herring because Gong’s so wanting at the dad stuff.

When Yeon makes it work—like with Gong, Ma, and Choi unintentionally becoming three musketeers and having to save people and get past zombies on the train and figure out how not to get bit doing it… great stuff. Great chemistry between the actors. It’s not just smooth, it’s easy. It feels like Yeon’s found the film’s vibe and he couldn’t possibility screw it up. He burns through all that newfound goodwill slow then fast; when he hits the third act, it’s a bunch of wide swings. They’d be fine, if they could just hit anything.

Train to Busan probably ends on its lowest point. It’s not bad, it’s got some strong performances, some great special effects—the “choreography” on the running, scary but silly zombies, is breathtaking—but Busan’s got problems pulling into the proverbial station. The third act’s just way too pat.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Yeon Sang-ho; written by Park Joo-suk; director of photography, Lee Hyung-deok; edited by Yang Jin-mo; music by Jang Young-gyu; production designer, Lee Mok-won; costume designers, Gweon Yu-jin and Im Seung-hee; produced by Lee Dong-ha; released by Next World Entertainment.

Starring Gong Yoo (Seok-woo), Ma Dong-seok (Sang-hwa), Choi Woo-sik (Yong-guk), Kim Su-an (Soo-an), Jung Yu-mi (Seong-kyeong), Sohee (Jin-hee), Kim Eui-sung (Yon-suk), Ye Soo-jung (In-gil), Park Myung-shin (Jong-gil), Choi Gwi-hwa (Homeless Man), Jeong Seok-yong (Captain of KTX), and Lee Joo-sil (Seok-woo’s Mother).


Crystal Lake (2016, Jennifer Reeder)

Crystal Lake opens with lead Marcela Okeke packing a suitcase; based on some of what she packs–Aliens and Purple Rain on VHS, the LPs to Tea for the Tillerman and the Muppet Movie soundtrack—the short immediately establishes Okeke as one of the cooler people to ever exist. And then comes the final item—a broken skateboard. Okeke is going to live with relatives because, we soon find out, her father is dying. We also find out her mom died some years before—when Okeke’s character was seven (she’s a teenager now)—and Okeke’s married older sister booted her out. So not a great situation for Okeke.

And not a soft-landing spot either. Her older cousin, Sebastian Summers, is presented a little mysterious and does indeed seem to have some stuff going on but it’s just an insert. Same-ish aged, cool cousin Shea Vaughan-Gabor takes a while to size Okeke up and takes a tough (but real) love approach. But Vaughan-Gabor doesn’t get even the hint of a subplot. She’s got some personality (through wardrobe as well; both Okeke and Vaughan-Gabor wear hijab, but Vaughan-Gabor with a lot of bling). But no story. Other than the tough (but real) love personality trait. It’s not even clear why Vaughan-Gabor is living with Summers, who’s just another cousin.

Okeke’s got this insert subplot about intentional self-preservation, which is really cool but it’s just an insert. As a director, even with the inserts, Reeder has every good idea. Crystal Lake is phenomenally well-made. As a writer, Reeder’s got good intentions for her scenes, but they often sputter out once the exposition gets unnaturally heavy. It doesn’t help neither Okeke or Vaughan-Gabor can do the exposition. There are plenty of natural moments in Lake but zero hint of them—or even memory of them—when there’s exposition. And drama. Reeder, writing, has a problem with the dramatic turns. They’re peculiar disconnects because the filmmaking never wavers; it’s great during the exposition, it’s great during the drama, it’s great during the action, it’s great during the natural moments. Just the writing (and then the acting) go wobbly.

Vaughan-Gabor’s the most impressive performance in the film (she and Okeke are the only two contenders really; Summers’s insert doesn’t have him doing much acting), which is great—when it clicks, it clicks—but the short ends feeling lopsided. After the set up, Okeke becomes second (and even temporarily third) fiddle. It’s still her story, Reeder just doesn’t stick with her to tell it.

Even with wonky exposition dumps, lopsided pacing, and unexplored inserts, Crystal Lake is still more than worth a look. Reeder’s direction is outstanding, the plot is good, the cast is good (often better than good).

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Written and directed by Jennifer Reeder; director of photography, Christopher Rejano; edited by Mike Olenick; produced by Penelope Bartlett and Steven Hudosh for Forevering Films.

Starring Marcela Okeke (Ladan), Shea Vaughan-Gabor (Samiyah), Sebastian Summers (Samer), and Kristyn Zoe Wilkerson (Toni).


RECENTLY

Lights Out (2016, Savannah Bloch)

Lights Out gets obvious way too fast given it’s a five minute short. The film opens with Alixzandra Dove in a mostly dark house, folding clothes while she talks to a friend on the phone. There’s a little exposition from the phone call—Dove’s kid has outgrown some clothes, Dove’s partner has been away two weeks but is coming home that night—while Dove tries to find something to do. She turns out the kid’s light, heads into the bedroom to read a book (while still on the phone call), only for the kid to turn the light back on. He’s goofing off instead of going to bed, which frustrates Dove.

The short’s a morose affair, with Dove alternating between yelling at the kid and being exasperated with the phone call. Writer Kelly Peters carefully puts some clues throughout the short as to the eventual twist, but they’re all painfully obvious because they’re the only time there’s anything interesting in the conversation. Peters is way too obvious when she’s trying to misdirect. Or maybe Dove’s performance is too flat. Or not flat enough.

Because Dove’s not bad. There’s only so far to take Lights Out and Dove gets about as much mileage out of the five minutes as she can, especially since the phone call conversation isn’t anything special. Bloch’s direction is okay. Technically, with some great photography by Cooper Ulrich, Bloch does an excellent job. Her composition, how she directs Dove, how she and Bret Allen cut the thing together… eh.

That technical excellence, particularly how well Ulrich can light the mostly dark house, it sets a high bar for Lights Out. And the short doesn’t even begin to reach it.

It all starts to fall apart at the end—which is concerning as they only had to keep the momentum going for five minutes—but it does end before it gets too bad.

Out is kind of a disappointment, kind of a shrug.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Savannah Bloch; written by Kelly Peters; director of photography, Cooper Ulrich; edited by Bret Allen; music by Lars Hempel; production designer, Daniel S. James Jr.; produced by Alixzandra Dove and Linda Rothschild.

Starring Alixzandra Dove (Joanne).


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