Revisiting Superman (1978): The Perfect Superman Movie

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Superman is held in very high esteem amongst most comic book movie nerds. Snyderverse megafans aside, everyone seems to be able to respect that Richard Donner set up shop in a industry landscape that was a far cry from our modern one and made a film that perfectly presented the most iconic version of a beloved hero (speaking of our modern climate, what’s weirder: that Oscar nominee Josh Brolin just finished playing Thanos AND Cable in movies released a month apart from one another or that most people don’t even think of this as being strange?). Superman regularly turns up on “top five best comic book movie” lists, was recently the subject of a thorough examination on Moviebob’s popular Really That Good video essay series and is fondly remembered by everyone who hasn’t recently tweeted out #ReleaseTheSnyderCut. So, I am now left wondering why my recent revisitation of the film left me feeling disappointed.

For my relationship with this film, context matters a lot. I had put off watching it forever due to a then still sadly engrained bias against what I sometimes incorrectly perceived as “dated” special effects (honestly, Superman looks better than most of big budget movies made in the 90s) and partly because, as a younger person, I self consciously believed that I was somehow above an earnest, old movie about a big, blue boy scout. Flash forward to one neck snap later, when my then girlfriend and I were leaving Man of Steel. I vividly remember discussing the film for 3 hours afterwards, with interludes about what we even wanted from a Superman movie at all and what elements of the character we deemed fundamental. It was at this point that we viewed Superman and it arrived like Lois Lane, throwing away the kryptonite of gloom, bad editing and tornado induced suicide that was Man of Steel at the last second.

It was nice to watch a movie that didn’t seem as self conscious and embarrassed of its own source material as Man of Steel is. There are colours, smiles and many other staples of the funny books that Zack Snyder was all too happy to kick to the curb in his Nolan emulating, fun devoid reboot. Christopher Reeve’s Superman was (and is) the stuff of acting legend, with his performance being able to definitively answer the question of why nobody realizes Superman and Clark Kent are the same person. You could never believe that Reeve’s Clark was a superhero, even if you saw him lift a car with his own two hands. The way that he minimizes himself in crowd shots (a testament to the quality of the scene blocking as well as Reeve’s physical acting) has you almost forgetting he’s there in the same way that Lois always seems to. Incidentally, a brilliant choice by Margot Kidder and/or the filmmakers is to have Lois never really look directly at Clark. This inattention is a byproduct of Clark’s meekness as well as Lois’ ambition and tendency to multitask. All of this comes together really nicely in what is as perfect an early Lois/Clark dynamic as has ever been realized in any medium.

If you noticed that I was gushing in that paragraph, it is because there are certain elements of this movie you just can’t help but gush about. Donner’s perfect use of tone that distinguishes the various chapters of Superman’s life, the performances of literally every actor in the film, the unabashed commitment to the source material. It’s all so great. Why, then, was I left feeling so cold?

I guess it was because certain things just stick out in today’s political climate now in a way that they didn’t back in 2013. This is partly due to my increased political awareness and partly because institutions like the police, the presidency and the USA itself have had their flaws and failures exposed by the magnifying glass and microphone of social media. When Lois quips that Superman would have to put every elected official in America behind bars if he were truly committed to justice, Superman responds with “I’m sure you don’t believe that”. In 2013, this kind of claim was antidotal. It was a refreshing optimism that cured my disinfatuation with grim and gritty comic book movies. In 2018 however, it is just one frustrating way in which the conservatism inherent in so many superheroes manifests. Superman spends the movie catching criminals and gleefully handing them over to the Metropolis police department. He has faith – which he is never actually asked to justify – in the American political system as it currently functions (as distinguished by having faith in the principles that the system *should* be a product of, which would be far more permissible). He also manages to drop Lex Luthor off in prison at the end of the movie*. The problem with that ending of course being that using “gets dropped off at an American prison” as narrative shorthand for “justice is served” is naïve at best and propagandistic at worst. The police, the prison system and America as an institution are never examined, questioned or even paid that much attention to. Instead, these oppressive and deeply flawed systems functioning without any depicted flaws or any onscreen questioning is the baselines reality that Donner’s Superman lives in.

In a way, this does make Superman the definitive cinematic representation of the character of Superman. He, like many superheroes, fills us with happiness, optimism and hope when the world seems bleak. Superman is charming, funny and comforting in a way that conveys the warmth of his best stories. However, he, like many superheroes, is an adamant defender of the status quo who would rather unilaterally intervene in circumstances he doesn’t understand and offer a quick, easy “solution” that tempers any lingering worry that the world isn’t a simplistic fantasyland in which the right man punching the right guys often enough will fix anything or help anyone.

I still love Superman and I am happy to revisit it at new times in my life and have my reactions change as I do. The desire to hold on to the good feelings offered up by simple, uncritical pieces of art and media rarely have good consequences. The fact is that Richard Donner made the perfect Superman movie but, as I get older, the perfect Superman movie gets further and further away from my definition of the perfect movie full stop. I am just interested in continuing to see how my relationship with Superman and, well…Superman continues to grow and change in the coming years.

*This post assumes the truth of a number of controversial social positions for the sake of brevity. I would love to hammer out the details of why these systems shouldn’t be exalted and what exactly Superman should do instead but that is another post for another time

 

Saturday Streaming: Logan Lucky

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If you are a person who exists, chances are you haven’t seen Steven Soderbergh’s Logan Lucky. I can’t blame you, the marketing really didn’t do the film any favors and I waited until it came out on demand to check it out myself. Having said that, I am happy to report that it is an excellent heist movie that I can wholeheartedly recommend. I’m sacrilegiously unfamiliar with Soderbergh’s filmography but it seems to be that Lucky is as fine an introduction as any. The film is exciting, hilarious and filled with great actors giving great performances.

The Logan family, consisting of Jimmy (Channing Tatum), Clyde (Adam Driver) and Mellie (Riley Keough) lives a relatively simple life in West Virginia. After Jimmy is fired from his construction job due to an injury he received in the Iraq war, he decides to shake up his simple life and steal millions from right underneath the Charlotte Motor Speedway. His heist plan involves not only Clyde and Mellie but Joe Bang (Daniel Craig, who seems to be making the most of his opportunity to play anyone other than James Bond) and Bang’s brothers, Sam (Brian Gleeson) and Fish (Jack Quaid).

The heist itself is tense and involves a lot of clever twists and turns that should keep most audiences guessing and in suspense until it ends. What sets this movie apart is Soderbergh’s expertly established West Virginia setting. These are real characters living in a real place, with many contemporary state issues (as well as bigger issues with the whole country) being present on the sidelines of the film. Our characters are veterans who are completely lacking in opportunities because of their war injuries. Over the course of the film, we see that the water in the town is basically poisoned, the police department is working on a heavily restricted budget and even the flaws in the prison system. All of this is juxtaposed against the target of the heist, NASCAR. NASCAR is the perfect monument to American excess, with overpaid drivers being enabled by the Coca Cola corporation to race around in a circle and draw in spectators who have to pay $10 for a beer. Jimmy’s construction job being to fix sinkholes under the stadium is a perfect metaphor, as we see the foundations of a large part of American culture literally breaking down.

Soderbergh’s team ends up becoming a scrappy, likeable band of contemporary American Robin Hoods who are not only easy to root for but fun to spend time with. Channing Tatum engenders instant sympathy as Jimmy, while Driver gives another gem of a performance as the more deliberate, level headed Clyde. The two have wonderful chemistry but it is Driver in particular who proves that he is an actor we will be talking about for a long time. As previously mentioned, Daniel Craig brings a really unique energy to Joe Bang. It is easy to lean too hard on the weirdness and eccentricities of a character like Bang, who cooks up homemade explosives out of gummy bears. However, Craig knows just when to go big with certain moments, but he also knows which parts to underplay and Bang remains a believable, sympathetic character throughout the film.

I really liked this movie and I honestly thought I wouldn’t. It recently came out on many digital distribution services and, once again, I highly recommend that you check it out. Now, if you need me, I’ll be catching up on Steven Soderbergh movies.

Saturday Streaming: 7 Sisters

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Tommy Wirkola’s 7 Sisters is a dystopian movie that imagines a near future wherein the government restricts everyone to one child per household due to scarcity of resources. I say that the film imagines this future but that isn’t quite right. It would be more accurate to say that 7 Sisters builds its future out of a prepackaged, baby’s first dystopia kit. If you’ve seen any recent film in this genre, be prepared to find no unique contributions to the way we visualize the near future. Its always raining, the colour pallet is washed out and there are plenty of generic protesters that decorate every street corner. There is one novelty though, which is that Noomi Rapace plays every sibling in a family of septuplets that has to rebel against the evil government when one of the sisters goes missing.

The film sees Rapace playing sisters named Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Each sister’s name corresponds to the day of the week that they are allowed to go outside. To get around the government’s one child restriction, grandpa Willem Dafoe comes up with the brilliant (re: preposterous) plan of having each sibling pretend to be the same person, Karen Settman. Monday is the only one who goes outside as Karen on Monday, Tuesday on Tuesday, etc. One day, Monday does not come home from work and the other sisters have to go deep into a web of government corruption to find out what happened to Monday (incidentally, the film was released under the title What Happened to Monday in the United States).

The appeal in a film like this can often be found in watching an actor cut loose and have fun showing off a little bit. That being said, the worst kind of multi-character performances can collapse into a sort of one person pissing contest, where the actor sees just how much ticks, vocal inflections and extra traits they can give each character. Rapace doesn’t fall into that trap, though she may be trying too hard to avoid it. Most of the sisters read as the slight variations on the same person and (especially at the beginning) it can be hard to get a bead on exactly who everyone is and why the audience should care. Get ready to be asking yourself a lot of questions like “wait, which one was Sunday again?” and “was the blonde one named Saturday?”.

The film shines most during its action sequences, which stay grounded in tactile and believable stunt work. There is one sequence in particular that features almost all of the sisters in a big apartment brawl together and it is a lot of fun. It is just a drag that these sequences are not in service of a compelling story. If the film has anything meaningful to say beyond that manipulative, corrupt governments are bad than it was lost on me after the first viewing.

The problem is that my attention waned throughout the film because the combination of a rushed first act and the effort that was required to figure out who everyone was and what was important about them all made for a turbulent viewing experience that stifled my ability to engage with the narrative. There are some moments in the movie that feel like payoffs, but I was too busy trying to remember which Noomi Rapace said which thing at the beginning of the film to understand the dramatic context of the payoff in question. Maybe that is my failure as a viewer but my instincts tell me that Wirkola was not up to the admittedly daunting visual task of distinguishing seven unique characters, all of whom are played by the same restrained actress, from one another in a clear and concise way.

Bottom line, this might be up your alley if you want to a decent, woman led action movie and aren’t feeling picky. I found some things to enjoy but was ultimately put off by the dull, uninspired dystopia that connected a few admittedly compelling actions scenes.

The Contemporary Relevance of Thor: Ragnarok

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The main thing that many people will likely respond to coming out of Thor: Ragnarok is the film’s comedic tone. It represents a huge departure from the previous entries, particularly the overly serious Thor: The Dark World, and leans into a comedy heavy script and a “fun first” sensibility. This very sensibility will likely draw the ire of people who think that superheroes are serious business and that Marvel films are already nothing more than quip-laden diversions. However, it seems to me that Ragnarok is a film with a lot on its mind and it seems worthwhile to dive into some of that here.

Odin is a curious fixture in the Thor movies. In the first one, he is basically just an all seeing Christian God figure who happens to be dressed like a viking. However, the second movie pivots on his characterization and depicts him as a petty, shortsighted man who is motivated by fear and is more interested in winning a war than saving his people. Ragnarok opts to try and reconcile these characterizations to some extent by revealing that Odin has sanitized not only his own history but the history of all of Asgard. As it turns out, Odin and his (up until now secret) daughter Hela built up Asgard’s golden empire via an incredibly destructive path of violence and imperialism. The paintings in the halls of the throne room that at first seem to depict Asgard’s history are revealed to be lies. We see later in the movie that the real, violent history of Asgard is represented by different pictures that lie just underneath sanitized fiction.

It is hard not to read the film as a cautionary tale against sanitizing a nation’s history. The fact that Odin removed all mention of Hela from Asgard’s history and locked her away meant that nobody knew she was coming or how to stop her. We also see Odin’s sanitization of history come back to haunt Asgard in the form of Hela’s army, which she literally acquires by reviving the corpses of the soldiers that Asgard previously used as its imperialist armed forces. She acquires these soldiers from a secret tomb that is hidden under Odin’s treasure room (which we also learn is filled with lies of its own). In today’s world, where Neo-Nazisim is on the rise and god awful media outlets like The Daily Wire still run pieces about how Christopher Columbus was a great man, the film’s message is an important one.

What the film does not do, however, is given credence to people who want to keep statues of confederate generals up because they view the statue as part of their history. Not only is this a nonsense argument, ignoring that fact that statutes serve the function of memorializing and do not act as historical record, it is the one the film engages with. When Loki is ruling Asgard in Odin’s place, he takes a stab at historical revisionism of his own. He puts on plays that recount the events of The Dark World from a pro-Loki perspective. Guess what else Loki uses at a tool of revisionist history and manipulation? That’s right, a giant gold statue of himself. The film is clearly arguing in this scene that statutes serve the agenda of history revisers, not history preservers.

The film’s second main thematic through line is embracing change. Not only is the film a total stylistic and tonal departure from what came before but Thor also loses his iconic hair style, cape and hammer. Similarly, Bruce’s dynamic has inverted, so that Hulk is the dominant persona rather than himself (this is symbolized beautifully in a sequence that plays out the usual hulk transformation in reverse, with Hulk trying to stay angry to avoid becoming Bruce). Both Thor and Bruce have to learn to embrace these changes throughout the film in order to come together and save Asgard. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Thor tricks Loki (yet another clever reversal) and, before leaving him behind, tells him about the importance of embracing change.

So, we have a film that is arguing for the embrace of change and the honest confrontation of history that seems especially relevant in a time where people seem fear change and confronting history. There is a common narrative around the Marvel films and their aversion of stakes and meaning. Sometimes these criticisms are fair but that doesn’t mean that the film isn’t engaging in a thematic discussion that’s worth having. Thor: Ragnarok is one of the best times that I have had in a movie theater in years but nothing about being fun, energetic and full of spectacle precludes being intelligent and having plenty to say.

The 2016 Golden J Awards

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I think that the idea of film awards is strange and misguided. Not only do the established award shows (Oscars, Golden Globes etc) consistently fail to pick out the vital, complex films of any given year but it is often a self fulfilling prophecy, given that withstanding the test of time is a key signifier of a film’s worthwhileness. However, it is important to consider that these award shows nevertheless spark a large scale film discussion that would not be had otherwise. On top of that, they get people to watch plenty of movies that wouldn’t normally be given the time of day. As such, my top ten list ends up being less about calling a movie “the definitive best picture of the year” and more about recognizing merit in movies that I wish everyone could see and discuss. So, without further ado:

10. The Neon Demon

The first time you watch a Nicholas Winding-Refn film is always a memorable experience and The Neon Demon is no exception. The film is consistently vexing and shocking while also being frequently beautiful. Indeed, The Neon Demon plays like some strange, acid trip combination of a Stanley Kubrick and David Argento movie as it satirizes the fashion industry in a way that only Refn could have. In addition, the film’s score is a high point in Cliff Martinez’s already impressive body of work. Similar to his massively underrated Only God Forgives, The Neon Demon will have you saying both “what the hell did I just watch” and “when can I see it again”.

9. Hush

This movie has a killer premise that it would have been easy to screw up. A deaf, mute woman lives alone and finds herself smack in the middle of a home invasion thriller. The movie could have felt cheap and exploitative but instead ends up being a taut, character focused thriller that clocks in at a lean one hour and twenty-minute run time. Director Mike Flanagan creates an incredibly parsimonious film that uses every minute wisely and doesn’t overstay its welcome. The movie mines a lot of tension out of the fact that our protagonist can’t hear her attacker or call for help but, crucially, it succeeds in making said protagonist a nuanced, three dimensional character.

8. Nocturnal Animals

I find the idea that one element of a film can be perceived as “more real” than another to be fascinating. For a quick example of what I am talking about, think of the audience reaction every time some element of a narrative is revealed to be a dream or figment of a character’s imagination. The ascription of degrees of reality to films is strange and merits exploration in a way that I hadn’t seen until Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals. This film explores the relationship between audience, artist and art using an multilayered structure that sounds like it shouldn’t work – roughly half the film consists of a dramatized version of a novel that the protagonist is reading- and yet totally does. Jake Gyllenhaal and Amy Adams are both great in this movie but Michael Shannon and a barely recognizable Aaron Taylor Johnson steal all of the scenes that they are in. I don’t think a lot of people saw this one, which is a shame because I expect that we’ll be talking about it for a while.

7. The Invitation

If you were to approach The Invitation without looking at its thematic subtext, you would likely come away happy from the incredibly gripping thriller that you just watched. It just so happens that the film is also a unique look at the way that socialization affects grief in modern society. The best movies are the ones that grab you on the first watch but that get better and better the more that you think about them. The Invitation is just such a film and I can only hope that it gets director Karen Kusama the attention that she has deserved since the underrated Jennifer’s Body was released in 2009.

6. The Witch

The Witch does something that many horror movies fail to do. Namely, it relies entirely on the craft of the filmmakers for its horror. There isn’t a single “jump scare” in the film, which is pretty remarkable. Anyone can scare you by unexpectedly shouting in your ear really loudly. It takes a true mastery of the form to frighten an audience with only atmosphere and ambience. There are more reasons to love The Witch than just its palpable atmosphere: it has great child actors, it strives for authenticity in its depiction of witch hysteria and it contains one of the most awesome cinematic depictions of the devil that I have ever had the good fortune to witness. The Witch is director Robert Eggers’ debut feature and I can’t wait to see what he does next.

5. Fences

I just published a fairly lengthy essay about Denzel Washington’s superb adaptation of August Wilson’s Fences. So, it should come as no surprise that the film is easily one of my favorites of the year. The quality of Denzel Washington and Viola Davis performances could not possibly be overstated. On top of that, Fences offers a poignant story about accepting everything that made you who you are, even the ugly things. In a market saturated with movies in which the world is constantly going to be destroyed by some supervillain or another, Fences proves that there is no substitute for good drama when it comes to making involving, meaningful works of art.

4. Moonlight

I usually try to avoid statements like “X is the Y of this generation” because they can be reductive. However, I have no problem saying that Moonlight is a worthy companion of Ang Lee’s nearly perfect film Brokeback Mountain. Moonlight does what Brokeback did so well and puts a magnifying glass on a very specific kind of experience. In this film’s case, it is the experience of a gay, black man and his struggle to accept and understand his own identity. Obviously, I am not the person to verify whether or not the film is authentic in this depiction but I can say that it is profoundly moving and it reads to me as insightful. This might not have been my favorite movie of the year but it definitely merits the most attention.

3. Amanda Knox

How come I heard about Making a Murderer for months after its release but nobody is talking about this incredible true crime documentary? Amanda Knox cogently argues for the innocence of its subject, going through the evidence piece by piece and revealing the dubious police work involved in her investigation. Beyond that, the film also takes a hard look at the misogyny that informed the public’s bias against Knox and holds the media accountable for its pandering to a public that wanted to see a woman in prison for no compelling reason. I loved this movie but more than anything, its willingness to look at Amanda Knox as a woman rather than a character in a misogynistic media narrative really won me over.

2. Manchester by the Sea

Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester By the Sea is a film that tactically avoids catharsis. The film explores grief in a mature, understated way that eschews many movie cliches in its depiction of a man grieving his brother and forming a relationship with his estranged nephew. As such, I feel a lot of people will be disappointing by the film because they want Lee (Casey Affleck) and Patrick (Lucas Hedges) to become surrogate father and son, fixing all of each other’s flaws in the process. Manchester By the Sea is simply not that film. What it is instead is a powerful look at how memories and grief pervade over a man who is dealing with unimaginable trauma.

1. Arrival

I thought of a poignant scene from Arrival months after I saw it, while I was doing some shopping at the mall, and I nearly came to tears. Nothing could have prepared me for how much I love Arrival. The film is at once a tear jerking piece of human drama, a high-minded science fiction film that deals with my favorite subject matter (death and how we should feel about it) and the home of one of the greatest plot twists since The Sixth Sense. I had only ever seen Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners before this film (which is excellent) but Arrival was the movie that pushed me to seek out his entire filmography.

So, these are some of the films that I loved this year. I would happily spend more time talking about my top 15, 20 or 50 movies of 2016 but the internet seems to have arbitrarily decided that 10 movies are enough to read about at one time. So, let’s hope I get to do another one of these before the United States’ lunatic clown President brings about the downfall of western society.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story Review

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I get the sense that Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (directed by Gareth Edwards) is a movie a lot of people are going to bend over backwards to like. I don’t mean that to sound condescending, as I count myself among the people who did their very best to like this movie. After all, Rogue One is a film about a multicultural rebellion standing up to the Galactic Empire, which is essentially an organization of Space Nazis. In the age of Donald Trump and his myriad of alt-right (Neo-Nazi) followers, how could you not try your hardest to like a movie that seems to have its heart, and its politics, in exactly the right place at exactly the right time? Nevertheless, I am sad to report that Rogue One is a failure on almost every level. The characters are paper thin and sport confusing, often contradictory motivations. The plot relies heavily on boring exposition and it suffers from every major symptom of the dreaded disease know as prequelitis.

The film’s protagonist is Jyn Erso (played by Felicity Jones), an apathetic and isolated woman who gets caught up in the rebellion against the empire. Jones delivers an adequate performance but I find myself at a loss for specific parts of it that I can praise. This might not be her fault however, since there is almost nothing to the character. I do not exaggerate when I say that every major character moment she has is directly attributable to her father. She wants to ditch the rebellion asap until her the prospect of seeing her father again gets her to hang around. After her dad tells her to steal the Death Star plans, that’s exactly what she does. It is so confounding because her journey from apathetic loner to inspiring rebel leader should so obviously be informed by her exposure to the rebels themselves and getting a closer look at their convictions. As far as I can see, that is simply not the case. Instead, Jyn’s journey happens between the scenes, while Jyn’s father provides all of the narrative thrust necessary for moving Jyn from place to place.

Jyn fairs better than her team however, all of whom fail to make a dent in the enormous Star Wars character roster. I feel bad for Diego Luna, whose Cassian Andor the filmmakers expect to be emblematic of both a simple rebellion of clear cut heroes and a complex rebellion where nobody is the good guy. This is a character who will shoot an ally in the back (for reasons that remain somewhat unclear) and then tell Jyn that “Rebellions are built on hope” ten minutes later. In trying to have their cake and eat it to, they completely kill the audience’s interest in Cassion. The rest of the team are barely even characters. There is a pilot who doubles as a tech guy, a guy whose entire character can be summarized by the words “he has a big gun sometimes” and Chirriut Imwe (Donnie Yen), whose depiction registered to me as kind of racist. Chirriut is both the fortune telling mystic and the martial artist of the group. Furthermore, them isn’t a whole lot to him beyond that. I’m sure this is a cast of characters that the fandom will project a lot of stuff onto (“look at the face he made when Jyn said that, he obviously as a compelling backstory”!) but, at least on a first viewing, tangible and interesting character elements failed to register.

There is one character who you will, in fact, fall in love with. Alan Tudyk’s K-2SO is a symbol of everything that Star Wars can be. A robot with more personality than most of his human compatriots, K-2SO is a character you will feel real emotion for over the course of the film. On top of that, he gets a number of organically hilarious lines that killed in the theater I watched the movie at. I should note that the reason I say “organically hilarious” is because the film is peppered with Marvel style jokes that feel as obligatory as they have in every Marvel movie sine The Avengers. At any rate, I loved spending time with K-2SO and I hope the producers over at Disney realize why he was the stand out of the film. He gets real development, he is visually interesting and there is real emotion behind him. You know, like the entire cast of the original trilogy.

The film has potentially interesting commentary on the nature of rebellion. We see both Jyn and Cassian have become somewhat jaded and disaffected in their own way. As they hold each other accountable for their faults, they each discover something worth fighting for. Cassian criticizes Jyn’s apathy while Jyn calls out Cassian for his dogmatic following of orders and willingness to cross moral lines. This is all theoretically compelling stuff that is hurt by the weak characters and their confusing motivations. I’m not sure if it is the writing, the performances, or both, but the characters constantly feel like they are flipping from one characterization to another instead of behaving as single, multifaceted individuals. At one point, after Cassian says “rebellions are built on hope” Jyn scoffs and retorts “hope?” as if it is a foreign concept. The problem is that nothing substantially changes for her to take her from her cynical worldview to the dyed in the wool rebel leader that she ends up becoming. The same goes for Cassian, who goes from disliking Jyn to being willing to follow her into battle after she gives a simple speech. As such, the thematic points that the film is making feel half hearted because we haven’t actually seen these characters become the rebels that the film wants to exemplify.

There is one more area where the film succeeds. The filmmakers do a wonderful job of building a grounded version of the Star Wars universe. The Star Wars films have thus far been set in a high fantasy world, where it is hard to imagine people live day to day lives between epic adventures. Rogue One is still set in that world but given to us by way of Game of Thrones. Cinematographer Greg Fraiser makes great use of handheld shots to help achieve this effect. In addition, Edwards’ decision to ditch the conventional Star Wars scene transitions go a long way to help make this world feel different without it feeling too different. I was impressed by the way that the Star Wars was able to be made tactile and grounded and it provides me with hope that these annual Star Wars films will be able to feel different from each other. It is just such a damn shame that nothing interesting happens in this world.

On top of the unengaging main story, the film is constantly dipping into asides that make it function as a more straightforward prequel to A New Hope. I’m sure fans will be divided on this but I think that every single one of these scenes serves to make the movie worse in some way. The Darth Vader stuff is awful, as Vader doesn’t actually interact with any of the film’s protagonists. He gets a brief scene where he chews out Orson Krennic (played with an almost bureaucratic menace by Ben Mendelsohn) and another action scene that has no bearing at all on the narrative proper. To add insult to injury, James Earl Jones’ return to the role is less than compelling (maybe we should just let Star Wars people retire at some point). Unfortunately, Vader isn’t the only character unnecessarily trotted out to establish a New Hope connection. CGI is used to make Guy Henry look like Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin and is it jaw droppingly awful. If you had a friend who knew nothing about Star Wars, you could convince her that these scenes were edited in by a fan that used footage from an old PlayStation 2 game that featured Tarkin as a character.

Overall, I find myself with very few positive things to say about Rogue One. Parts of it seem to indicate that there are better Star Wars Stories on the horizon. If they could truly bring a unique feel to these spin off films and allow filmmakers to tell interesting stories with the backing of the world’s biggest franchise, then Disney could truly have something special here. Unfortunately, the film does a lot better at being distinctive then it does being interesting. I have more complaints but they all bottom out into the same problem. Namely that the film feels like it is the result of the producers getting cold feet. They fill the story with gratuitous cameos, the climax goes too big and shoehorns in a space battle full of characters that we’ve never met before that moment and the complex world that story gestures at is constantly simplified. It seems like someone at Disney was noting the production to death, telling the filmmakers to make it “more Star Wars” than it was. I can’t speak to whether or not that is the case but it is certainly the impression that the movie leaves you with (the fact that there were reportedly substantial reshoots corroborate this theory to some extent). Still, one can’t help but hope that Disney eventually cracks the formula on these movies. If Rogue One is any indication, they still have a long way to go.

Moana Review: A Formulaic Yet Charming Disney Feature

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I want to say right out of the gate that Moana (directed by John Musker and Ron Clements) is a good movie. However, it seems likely that the film’s emphasis on its Polynesian cast and culture will cause it to resonate much more strongly with some people than it did with me. I am always happy to see non-European cultures represented in movies and this was no exception. Beyond that basic assessment, I will not be commenting on the film’s treatment of Polynesian culture in great detail because I am a white person with no special insight into the culture in question. If this element of the film interests you, I encourage you to find a reliable source that engages with the film’s treatment of Polynesian culture (preferably by a writer who actually has some connection to the culture). Now, onto the elements of Moana that I am equipped to discuss.

The plot concerns young Princess Moana (Auli’i Cravalho), the daughter of Island Chief Tui (Temuera Morrison). Moana is being groomed to take over as her island’s chief but her heart yearns for adventure beyond the confines of her remote home. Moana soon finds out that her people’s food supply is starting to dry up because shape-shifting demigod Maui (The Rock) stole the heart of the island goddess Te Fiti. It is with this knowledge Moana sets out to replace the goddess’ heart and save her people. She ends up taking Maui on as a reluctant ally and, since this is a Disney production, she is paired with a comically stupid chicken that is readily merchandisable.

My first impression is that, while the film’s songs are satisfactory across the board, they do leave something to be desired. Maui’s “You’re Welcome” is absolutely great and a number of Moana’s songs do a fine job of stoking excitement and emotion in the audience but the set list is really lacking a show stopper in the vein of “Let it Go” to bring the whole thing home. Perhaps this is good, as I am not fully prepared to have another Disney song reach the level of pop culture ubiquity that Let it Go reached. There is also “Shiny”, which is the worst song of the bunch and acts as a blemish on an otherwise consistently agreeable catalogue of songs.

The film’s structure is another area in which it is likely to be found wanting when compared to Frozen. It feels like we spend a little too long on the island in Act 1. The film spends a good amount of time setting up a conflict between the ever adventurous Moana and the stern, protective Chief Tui. This father and daughter relationship is compelling stuff early on but it unfortunately Musker and Clements lose sight of this conflict once Moana leaves the island. Chief Tui exits the film at the end of Act 1 and doesn’t return until the very end. I understand that it is tempting to stay on the island for a number of reasons. By settling in to the island as a defined physical space, the filmmakers want Moana’s eventual liberation from the island to make a greater impact on the viewer. Once again, I am tempted to make a comparison to Frozen, which proved that you don’t have to spend a lot of time in a location before a character’s dramatic exit to have a profound emotional response from the audience. All of this time spent on the island makes Acts 2 and 3 feel somewhat compressed. It is hard to discuss without spoilers but there are a couple moments that feel like they could have benefited from some breathing room later on in the film.

What does make the liberation work is just how great of a character Moana turns out to be. Ostensibly, she is incredibly similar to Frozen’s Ana. She’s plucky and headstrong but dreams of a world beyond the one that she has known all her life. The two main differences are Moana’s self consciousness and physical ability. Ana has the gusto to attempt to climb a mountain only to find out she’s completely incapable of such a feat whereas Moana will climb a mountain with speed and vigour. Its nice to see a heroine who is not only unafraid to get her hands dirty but also shows noticeable competence when doing so.

Moana’s self consciousness ties into the film’s larger themes of authenticity. Part of what makes the drama of whether or not Moana will leave the island compelling is that she actually has a really good thing going there. The people love her, she’s good at her job and nobody is questioning that she will lead her people effectively. In addition, she fails the first time she attempts to leave the island. This contributes to Moana questioning whether or not it is worth it to leave the island even though it is important to her. It should be no surprise that the film’s conclusion is resoundingly pro authenticity (which they even manage to work into the finale in a very interesting way). Admittedly, I almost wish Moana did not have the impetus of saving her people causing her to leave and that the film allowed the stakes to be entirely emotional and character driven.

The film’s other protagonist fairs just as well in the compelling character department. Dwayne Johnson is in fine form as Maui, an arrogant demigod who really just wants people to love him. Granted, I assume that making an arrogant, muscle bound hero into a sympathetic and likeable character is something that Johnson could do in his sleep. Still, Maui is a joy to spend time with over the course of the movie and as I already mentioned, his stand alone song “You’re Welcome” is the closest thing the film has to a show stopper.

There are some other mild problems but none of them get in the way of enjoying the film all that much. For example, it robs the action scenes of some much needed tension when you realize that the ocean is helping Moana and will likely just rescue her if she or the item she is transporting get knocked off the boat (which almost happens a lot in the film’s action scenes). Also, it’s hard not to be distracted by the adorable coconut pirates that turn up in act 2 just to make sure Disney sells more plushies than any other company on Earth. These are nitpicks though. Moana is a great new character from an interesting new world that I would ultimately be happy to see Disney return to again. If you’re a huge Frozen fan (as I am, if that is unclear) adjust your expectations slightly and have a great time.