Saturday, December 31, 2016

Star Wars: Rogue One

(Gareth Edwards, USA, 2016)

After finally seeing it, I was surprised at how harshly some critics have responded; it's a bit wan and mechanical, sure, but otherwise unobjectionable.  It appeared to me to be pretty much exactly as advertised: a brisk, sensational adventure story, told in the vernacular of the OG Star Wars world (effectively, an exact simulacrum of Lucas's original combination of throwback kitsch and '70s grit), but with a suitably "darker" tone.   At this point, there should be no kvetching about the rampant nostalgia-mongering that is the franchise's stock-in-trade.  That's at least half of what viewers are showing up for, myself included, although I will say that my own case is one of mild curiosity rather than devotional zeal; different strokes, etc.  The other half is a passably diverting, engrossing - pick your adjective of lukewarm enthusiasm - tale of derring-do.

And on both counts, Rogue One delivers.  It's all a bit processed, yes, and the near-constant winking at the fans, from the casual to the ultra-hardcore (I can only imagine the volume of tics and references that I didn't pick up on, and I'm someone who put some serious wear on my A New Hope VHS as a youngster) can get a bit wearying, but it moves - it has the giddy momentum that its rather thin story requires, with just enough human drama to save it from inconsequence.  There's nothing particularly notable about the film's visuals, but they are effective enough - moody when they need to be, and even exhilarating at other moments (particularly in space, during the final battle, which conjures fantastic scale and motion with aplomb, and the arrival of Darth Vader on the Rebel ship, a brief but thrilling sequence of furious destruction.  It's better than anything Lucas choreographed in his goofy prequels, and even better than the light-saber battles in The Force Awakens.)

As for the stories of extensive re-writes and re-shoots, calling at least some of Edwards' authorship into question - we're talking, again, about a highly processed, rigorously committee'd, enormously expensive work of corporate entertainment.  I'm willing, in cases such as these, to enjoy the sausage, which would seem to require a certain indifference to how it's made, and of what.  What's strange is the cavils that this film has prompted, when so many other Kraft-cheese extravaganzas of recent vintage are done with far less wit and verve.  For all of its shortcomings, Rogue One manages to be effective without the mind-numbing overkill that tends to mar so many contemporary megabucks spectacles.  And the cast is uniformly great - confined, but excellent, with special mention going to Forest Whittaker and Ben Mendelsson, two giants who radiate intensity that can match, and even surpass, the CGI explosions.

PS - there are, I think, ethical questions that ought to be addressed about the digital reanimation of Peter Cushing and Carrie Fisher.  I found it creepy and distracting, a point at which the pull of nostalgia and the embrace of kitsch went alarmingly full-blown.  But that's a matter for another day.

Monday, December 12, 2016


(Ryan Coogler, USA, 2015)

A gloriously inventive re-interpretation of the Rocky story, both a loving tribute and a daring break in new directions.  Coogler makes no attempt to hide his exaltation of the original film, but does justice to his own imaginative impulses.  It's a tender work and an exhilarating one, with an astonishing breadth of experience and maturity.  We feel Rocky's broken down and faded glory, his exhaustion and regret, and his increasing proximity to mortality.  Stallone, an excellent actor who has often been underserved by the industry and his own choices, has rarely been better.  We also feel the exuberance and the anger of young Adonis Creed, played with incandescent energy and wit by Michael B. Jordan, as he struggles against the burden of legacy and the precariousness of ambition.

The film gets off to a tentative start, with some slightly clunky gestures, but it quickly finds its footing and momentum.  By the time we've reached the end, we've seen the delights of Coogler's mercurial imagination, both as a storyteller and as a creator of images.  Rarely have the pitfalls of franchise-making and the familiar territory of personal triumph been so brilliantly and refreshingly navigated. 

Sunday, December 11, 2016


(Clint Eastwood, USA, 2016)

While I remain unconvinced that Eastwood's body of work as a filmmaker constitutes a truly exceptional artistic vision, I find myself increasingly inclined to give him more credit, particularly after seeing Sully.  It's a nearly perfect film, transcending Eastwood's expected proficiency and presenting a striking moral vision, a depiction of heroism as humanism, and vice-versa.  The film is compact, streamlined, and yet it never feels rushed or reduced.  The details feel uniformly correct; the performances are nuanced and un-showy.  Sully succeeds as a work of organic unity, a finely tuned orchestration of emotions, moving the insistent beat of an idea.  From Eastwood on down - including Hanks, at the absolute top of his game, exuding decency and harrowing strain - everyone is doing their part to honor the miraculous events, without undue fuss or embellishment.  The wholeness of the work, its focus and its awed calm, creates an almost ecstatic effect; for me the experience was unaccountably moving.

But not entirely unaccountably so.  To account, then: Eastwood deliberately depicts Sully as the real man apparently wishes to be perceived; as a consummate professional, heroic only by circumstances, and if so, only one hero of many.  His flight crew becomes, in a moment of potentially terrible fate, a crack team of life-savers.  Ditto the passengers, who help each other through the ordeal in relative calm and orderliness.  Ditto also all of those who rushed to assist, from the ferry captains to the first responders.  The film at its finest is a tale of people at their finest; not as paragons but as human beings, moral agents in a chaotic and unfathomable universe, where the mundane can very quickly transform into the horrific, or the miraculous.  It also pays tribute to the universal need for narratives, to the very human requirement for a valuation of the human, particularly in an age of fantastically complex and powerful machines.  Sully is a hero because he needed to be one - first to land the plane, and then to serve as the receptacle of people's highest aspirations.  And to weather both the real events and the subsequent lionization with something like grace.

The one flaw, and a sign of Eastwood's own political baggage, has to do with the depiction of the federal committee that is convened to determine whether the "miraculous" landing was in fact caused by a pilot error, and that he would've been better off taking the plane back to La Guardia or Teterboro airport in New Jersey.  The committee is shown from the outset as being hostile, arrogant bureaucrats, only slightly restrained in their condescension to Sully and in their preference for computer simulation over actual events.  In the climatic final scene, it's even suggested that they were guilty of a kind of deck-stacking, concealing vital details from Sully and the proceedings, in order to bolster their version of events.  In a film that goes out of its way to respect everyone involved, this is an unfortunate lapse into caricature. What would it have cost the narrative to show the committee members as similarly professional, rather than craven and scheming?  In fact, it would have strengthened an already formidable film, further harmonizing with the overall theme.

But the film is predominantly magnanimous, and it's to Eastwood's credit that he consistently favors subtlety over simplification.  On a metafilmic note, it was also immensely satisfying to experience the delicious thrill of suspense without a resort to the kind of ludicrous bombast that has come to pass for "action."  Even knowing, as we all do, of the safe delivery of every soul on board, it was a heartening reaffirmation of the power of visual storytelling in building dramatic tension - and with such deceptively simple means.  Here again, my hat is off to Eastwood.  That the film was so popular only belies the usual nonsense about the death of cinema, or the general dullness of the audience.  People do want to see, and to experience, and they'll consume quality if it's delivered.

How can we compare this, then, to 2014's American Sniper?  What can account for Sully's steely excellence and Sniper's gauzy imprecision?  A director's main job is the creation of a world, and Eastwood's career has been marked, especially lately, with a preference for real-world stories.  He's a filmmaker of immense moral seriousness, and for someone so inclined, moralism becomes an occupational hazard.  Sniper's flaw was in its inability to grapple with the actual cirtumstances of Chris Kyle's life and death, which included the criminality of the Iraq War.  His depiction of Kyle was nuanced, but it was hemmed in by the tale of heroism that Eastwood's own sensibility seemed to require.  There's a limit to the heroic ideal that Eastwood so admires; a certain flattening of vision, a willingness to see the world in binaries of strength and weakness, virtue and vice.  At his best, as in Sully, the ideal is given contour and depth through the diffusion of heroism into a collective enterprise, and a moment of serendipity that becomes re-interpreted as brilliance.  At his worst, it becomes a prerogative for narrowness.  In American Sniper, the victims are absent, and the cost of war is internalized as a test of manhood.  In Sully, we are moved by the fact that we are all potential victims, by the human frailty is that is ever-present, even in Sully at his finest. 

Monday, December 5, 2016

The Magnificent Ambersons

(Orson Welles, USA, 1942)

Welles' second filmed masterpiece, of the several he would make throughout his life, is as absorbing as it is expressionistically lush.  Ambersons is surprisingly affecting, especially considering its focus is the downfall of a not-especially sympathetic American family.  It was Welles' precocious genius that recognized The Ambersons as avatars of a peculiarly American brand of folly, based around aristocratic pretensions that were swallowed by the great American cult of Progress.  As a culture with a profound and dangerous allergy to historical perspective, we seem immune from tragedy.  The tragic requires an adequate reckoning with what is lost over time, and we tend not to count our losses or notice time passing.  But our best artists have always told us (not that we listen) that there are tragedies everywhere, and the greatest of all, as chronicled in Ambersons, is our blindness to them.

Welles was a radically omnivorous artist.  Every film was a fork in his creative path, promising new heights that remained unrealized until years or decades later.  He was ahead of his time (and still is, in many ways), but he was also often ahead of himself.  What was gleefully heterogeneous - the famous toy train set - in Kane is compressed and refined in Ambersons.  The film plays like an expressionistic dream of a chamber drama, full of cavernous spaces and stark shadow.  Like all of Welles' work, it also bubbles with life; boisterous humor, cutting satire, intimations of mortal terror. 

What was he after, when all is said and done?  His famously eclectic appetite, which ran the gamut from high to low, won't give us much of a hint.  There was something haunted about Welles, something fractured.  He seemed to have seen the world as a trap, and to have spent his life devising escape mechanisms, the most powerful of which required the apparatus of cinema.  His appraisal of worldly beauty and possibility - and he was notoriously indulgent of these properties - is everywhere tinged with a skepticism, almost a repulsion.  Even as an old man, creaky and overblown, he seemed to be the scared, clever boy, running from nightmares.

Ambersons is affecting because we can recognize our own sentimentality in that of the Amberson family, and in that of Welles.  We too have precious hopes and memories, and imagine that there exists some way of protecting them from time.  Welles knows better, but he also knows that time is its own kind of illusion.  He was quite a bit like Houdini, the magician who knows that his tricks are all fake, but who yearns for some real magic, some undiscovered reality behind the illusion.  In The Magnificent Ambersons, we're liable to yearn along with him, and perhaps believe.