Rogue One: A Star Wars Story review

From its opening moments, it’s clear that Rogue One is going to be a different kind of Star Wars movie than what we’ve seen before. It’s a risky move from Lucasfilm: create a non-numbered film in the beloved sci-fi universe (sans opening story scroll), a prequel of sorts that attempts to answer one of the biggest questions from the 1977 original. How did the Rebel Alliance obtain the plans to the Imperial Death Star, the ones that Princess Leia hands off to R2-D2 and which eventually prompt Luke Skywalker to initiate the most famous explosion in movie history?

It’s a question worth asking, and a story worth exploring. However, it’s still easy to believe that Rogue One may be more of a cynical cash grab from Disney, who now owns Lucasfilm— a desperate attempt to wring more money out of a famous franchise. I am very happy to report that such concerns can be safely put to bed, because Rogue One is a lovingly crafted and thrilling tale, and one that fans of the franchise will almost certainly dig.

The film opens with Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) as a young girl, watching her father, Galen (Mads Mikkelsen) get carted off by the Imperial Commander Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) to assist in building a super-weapon that will turn the tide in the war between the Imperial Army and the Rebel Alliance. Jyn, however, successfully hides, and is rescued and trained by resistance leader Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker).

When we next see Jyn, it is 15 years later, and she is “rescued” from an Imperial prison transport by resistance fighter Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and his re-programmed Imperial droid, K-2SO, voiced by a quip-filled Alan Tudyk. Why does the resistance want Jyn? Because her father has been the principal mastermind behind the construction of the Death Star, and she may be the only one who can convince Gererra to help track him down and extract the location of the Death Star plans. To complicate matters, Imperial pilot Bodhi (Riz Ahmed) has shown up, claiming to have a message straight from Galen regarding the Death Star plans.

Soon, Jyn is whisked away on a planet-spanning adventure to snatch the Death Star plans and save her father, if indeed he can be saved. Along the way, the resistance picks up some additional ragtag fighters, including the mysterious blind monk Chirrut (Donnie Yen) and his heat-packing protector, Baze (Wen Jiang). But time is running short: the Death Star has already tested its formidable destructive capabilities, and the shadowy presence of Darth Vader (voiced by James Earl Jones) looms. Can they successfully storm the Imperial stronghold, steal the plans and turn the tide of battle once again?

We already know the answer to that question, and therein lies the tricky balance of a tale like this one. Can a story whose conclusion is forgone still manage to surprise us? Perhaps the biggest success of the film is that director Gareth Edwards and screenwriters Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy so successfully make this story feel essential. This isn’t just a paint-by-numbers, fill-in-the-gaps mid-quel. It deepened my appreciation of the original, and even fills in a major plot hole and long-time complaint that could be leveled at it. Why the heck would the Imperial Army build the Death Star with such a small but fatal flaw? By films end, that head-scratcher is given a very satisfying answer.

Rogue One is a thrilling adventure, and a welcome addition to the Star Wars universe.

Story-wise, Rogue One is a success, but what about all these new characters? For the most part, they’re welcome additions. I felt more emotionally connected to the characters here than I did watching The Force Awakens. Jyn’s love for her father is a particularly strong motivator, and the camaraderie the resistance fighters share is palpable. The heart of Star Wars has always been its characters, and this one is beating and alive. I particularly liked K-2SO, who adds some much-needed humor to the proceedings, and Chirrut, who is just a straight-up bad-ass, and has a connection with the force unlike any we’ve seen in this universe so far.

But, when I start to dwell on particular characters, I begin to recognize my biggest complaint with the film. There are lots of new characters introduced here, and it’s understandable that not all of them would get fully satisfying arcs. But why did the best characters have to get the short end of the stick? I was glad to see the amazing Yen get such a major role, and his character’s relationship with Baze is affecting. But his motivations are vague and, although he’s meant to be mysterious, I felt like I didn’t get to know him well enough to have a major connection with him. He’s mostly there to look cool, and come along on the adventure because…he has nothing better to do? Or look at Saw Gerrera; a major role played by an A-list actor, and yet he’s sadly under-utilized. I wish some of these other characters had been given the same care and attention as the Ersos or Cassian.

The film also suffers from poor pacing in its first third. Characters are introduced haphazardly, and scenes cut back and forth chaotically. It’s a bit hard to follow at first. But man, does Rogue One ever get going once it hits its stride. Krennic is a great addition to Star Wars villainy, a sniveling ass-kisser with a lust for power and a persecution complex. He’s just unhinged enough to be menacing, but even he cowers in front of Darth Vader, which fans we be thrilled to see return to the screen. The legendary Sith Lord’s screen time is brief, but you feel every moment. His character is brilliantly utilized, with just enough fan service to satisfy without overdoing it.

Rogue One is often filmed closer to a gritty war film that a traditional Star Wars movie; the bright colors of The Force Awakens are almost nowhere to be found. We instead get lots of handheld footage, some shaky cam and lots of muted colors. This is the right design for the divergent tone of the film, and Greig Fraser’s cinematography, along with the stellar production design, go a long way towards selling the film. The action scenes are sensational, sure, but I’m more impressed with how much it looks like A New Hope. From the costumes, to the way the X-Wings and Star Destroyers fly to the design of the Death Star, every frame is crafted like a work of art. This is a gorgeous film, and one I highly recommend seeing in Imax 3-D.

There’s just something about the joy of being in the Star Wars universe that Rogue One gets, and that is perhaps its greatest triumph. We get to see tons of new planets during the film’s run time, and several interesting and original creatures. I’ve always loved the backgrounds of Star Wars films, filled with characters and stories we will probably never know. There’s so much mystery and creativity to it, the kind that spans hundreds of novels, video games and TV shows to attempt to fill in some of the gaps. It’s the most lived-in universe in all of cinema, and Rouge One invites us into that space and doesn’t let go.

Rogue One is not the most polished of Star Wars films. In fact, elements of it can be downright frustrating. But man, is this one cool movie, and during the sensational climax and pitch-perfect ending, I felt my complaints melting away. This is a must-see for franchise fans, and one I’ll be happy to include in my Star Wars marathon rotation for years to come.

Arrival review

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The best science fiction films are about so much more than their subject matter. They probe deeper, asking complex questions about what it means to be human, about what unites us and divides us, about the role (and limitations) of science in advancing humankind. Aliens, like zombies, are not really that interesting apart from their metaphorical trappings.

Smart sci-fi understands this. And Arrival is certainly that. In fact, it’s brilliant; a haunting and somber meditation on grief, love and the primal bonds that unite us. It’s also one of the most original sci-fi films in years.

Amy Adams stars as Dr. Louise Banks, a renowned linguist who is called in by Col. Webber (Forest Whitaker) to translate an alien language. The mysterious visitors have just arrived in a large, black oblong pod over a field in Montana, and 11 others have interspersed across the globe in places like Russia, Australia and China. This arrival predictably causes a global panic; mass looting and plummeting stocks soon follow. Could this be the end of the world?

Dr. Banks is teamed with theoretical physicist Ian Donnelley (Jeremy Renner) to enter the local pod, which opens every 18 hours, and attempt to communicate with the tentacled creatures inside. What follows are weeks of visits with the creatures, as the team attempts to decipher a visual language that can best be described as a series of inky circles. The hope is to eventually understand the answer to the question, “why are they here?”

But language is a subtle thing, and fear does not invite subtlety or compromise. It’s not long before the various nations collaborating on communicating with their pods begin to get anxious. Why take chances with these guys? Are we simply standing by for our own destruction? What are these visitors waiting for, and why won’t they leave?

In the vein of The Martian and other recent films in the genre, Arrival stands out by making the science more important than the fiction. Dr. Banks’ linguistic process is intensely systematic and exhaustive. Much of the film consists of characters poring over notes, drawing and having complex conversations about the nature of communication. It’s all a bit heavy, and in less deft hands could come off as a bit dull. But writer Eric Heisserer and director Denis Villeneuve (Sicario) turn the film into a complex jigsaw puzzle, with individual scenes that slowly piece together into a larger whole. It’s a slow but intoxicating burn.

Arrival is thought-provoking and intelligent sci-fi, and may go down as a genre classic.

Arrival is thought-provoking and intelligent sci-fi, and may go down as a genre classic.

The film might also fall apart if it didn’t give us cool creatures or environments. But the alien pod is a visual marvel, as are the creatures themselves (referred to as septapods). Separated from the humans by a barrier, they’re often cloaked in a mysterious mist, and the fact that we can’t quite make out their full forms leads to a constant sense of unease and suspense. They eventually become their own characters, with nicknames and highly intelligent ways of processing information. These are not just your average vague CGI space creatures. I also want to praise the sparse but effective sound design and Jóhann Jóhannsson’s chilling score; they give the film a great deal of punch it may have otherwise lacked.

Descriptions of Arrival may come off as cold, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. The film is incredibly emotional and achingly human, and that’s mostly thanks to Adams’ performance, the best of her career. She portrays Dr. Banks as both highly intelligent and a bit of an emotional wild card, someone who has an intimate connection with the septapods to the point where she can almost think like them. She feels deeply, and that can be both a strength and a weakness. As with Emily Blunt in Sicario, Villeneuve has a knack for drawing sensational performances from strong leading ladies, and that strength is used to grand effect here.

It’s tough to write about the film without giving away what makes it special. There is a twist, one that I was surprised I didn’t guess. Perhaps wiser film-goers will find in highly telegraphed, but I’m still thinking about the ramifications of it and what I would do if I was in a similar situation. It’s devastating and, at the same time, quite powerful.  It’s up to individuals to decide if the film does enough to solve its grand mystery in a satisfying fashion. There’s a fine line between leaving us guessing in a good way and simply not giving us enough information to be emotionally satisfied, but I think it strikes the perfect balance.

The ultimate question of all great art is, “what makes us human?” Sci-fi is uniquely positioned to meditate on that, because it often includes a non-human entity to contrast. Arrival is no different, but it goes about the question through a lens I haven’t quite seen before.

Arrival’s subtleties and minimalist design may not satisfy everyone, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it ultimately goes down as a genre classic. In the realm of alien invasion flicks, it should certainly be mentioned alongside the likes of Close Encounters of the Third Kind and The Day the Earth Stood Still.  It’s a film that will inspire conversation, and it’s one I will be thinking about for some time.

Doctor Strange review

Is this really happening? Am I really reviewing a Doctor Strange movie right now? Ten years ago, the idea of such a thing would have seemed a distant dream to comic book fans. But therein lies the insane genius of Marvel Studios. Everyone could have probably predicted an Avengers film at some point. But Guardians of the Galaxy? Ant Man? Doctor Strange? Fans of geek comic lore might bite, but your average filmgoer would raise an eyebrow and move on. Except that’s not what happened. Time and again, the comic giant has spun gold out of increasingly outlandish and obscure franchises. And Doctor Strange might be its wildest yet. Whatever the conditions that birthed the film, fans should be grateful: this is one of the trippiest and coolest Marvel films to date.

Benedict Cumberbatch plays Stephen Strange, a wildly successful (and wildly narcissistic) neurosurgeon who injures his hands in a car accident. After burning through his money seeking increasingly exotic treatments and alienating his it’s-complicated lover Christine (Rachel McAdams), Strange hears whispers of a mystical society called Kamar-Taj in Nepal. With nothing left to lose, he ventures afar in search of healing.

But Strange gets much more than he bargained for, and is quickly introduced to the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), a mystical being trained in the magic arts. He is taken under the tutelage of sorcerer Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who helps him discover realities far beyond any his highly scientific and rational mind has previously thought possible. The Astral Plane, multiple dimensions and the ability to travel through space and control time. Together, this secret society of mystics helps protect Earth from an ancient and all-consuming evil. Of course, a former disciple (who else?) of the Ancient One, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), thinks that this being is actually benevolent, and so he sets out to destroy the magic shield protecting the world and bring it into harmony with other already devoured universes.

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Doctor Strange is a visual stunner, and takes the Marvel universe to some trippy new places.

Clearly, there’s a lot going on here, and it would be very easy for a film like this to get bogged down in exposition or extraneous details. Thankfully, director Scott Derrickson and co-writers Jon Spaihts and C. Robert Cargill do a great job of keeping things moving smoothly. They also run with this material, really milking the creative potential of this downright, well…strange material. This comes across in the film’s humor (which, like other Marvel films, is gentle but still elicits belly laughs) and in its characters, which are memorable and creative. There wasn’t a major character I didn’t enjoy, or one who felt extraneous to the story or shoehorned in. Even the villain, who isn’t written particularly interesting, gets a pass thanks to the amazing Mikkelsen, who can do no wrong in my book. The film also seems to take lessons from past Marvel films in avoiding overt connections to the extended universe that often take us out of the story being told.

Of course, the main draw of the film is its visuals, and they are beyond spectacular. This is honestly one of the coolest looking films I’ve seen, and certainly the most visually engaging in the Marvel canon. The special effects work is simply second-to-none, and it gets my vote as the most creative since, probably, Inception. That is remarkably high praise, but when you see entire buildings torn apart and put back together, trippy 2001-esque voyages through space and action sequences that play with fast-forwarded, reversed and paused time, it may be hard to argue otherwise. Everyone who worked on the visual effects here deserve the highest praise (and an Oscar), and the film should be seen on the biggest screen possible.

In other ways, Doctor Strange is less creative. This is, in the end, another superhero origin story, and it doesn’t do anything particularly new with that arc. It very much feels like Iron Man, but with magic and sorcery instead of technology. Like Tony Stark, Strange goes through a redemptive character transformation, but it’s not on the same level emotionally as Stark’s was. Maybe we’ve seen this kind of story too much, or maybe Robert Downy Jr. is simply that good of an actor; he’s set the bar impossibly high even for a performer as all-around excellent as Cumberbatch. The film also fizzles a bit at the end, perhaps feeling a bit winded after throwing so much incredible stuff at us.

I’m certainly grateful that we’ve come to a place where a movie like Doctor Strange can not only actually get made, but earn a boatload of money and critical praise (yes, there was a Strange film in 1978; let us not speak of it again). The film takes the Marvel Cinematic Universe to some psychedelic and exciting new places. Now that we have heroes in heaven, outer space, the quantum realm and the astral plane, where do we have left to go? I don’t know, but if we keep getting films this creative and fun, I’m along for the very strange ride.

Hacksaw Ridge review

Hacksaw Ridge opens with a striking sequence. We hear the end of Isaiah chapter 40 recited over brutal images of war. We hear about God giving strength to the weary and allowing those who call on him to soar on wings like eagles. At the same time, we see charred and battered bodies flying through the air as they’re torn apart by the ruthlessly efficient weapons of war.

It’s a jarring juxtaposition, to be sure, but one director Mel Gibson knows well. The Passion of the Christ director has always been fascinated by religion and violence, and these motifs pushed to their limits in a film that bleeds passion from every pore. It has been 10 years since Gibson last directed a film, and by all accounts, Hacksaw Ridge was worth the wait.

The voice over we hear in the beginning belongs to that of Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield, giving the best performance of his career), a true-life WWII soldier who was the first conscientious objector to be awarded the Medal of Honor for courage on the battlefield (he saved more than 75 men as a combat medic). Those don’t seem like terms that naturally go together, but Doss’ life was a true example of living what you believe and sticking to your principles, no matter the cost.

We first see Doss’ aversion to violence as a child after he settles a scruff with his brother by whacking him in the head with a brick. Realizing his brother was nearly killed, Doss vows right then to honor God’s sixth commandment never to murder.

The film is essentially split into two halves, and the first deals with Doss’ relationship with his alcoholic father (Hugo Weaving), a veteran of WWI, and mother (Rachel Griffiths), as well as his courting of nurse Dorothy (Teresa Palmer). After the bombing of Pearl Harbor (and after learning his brother has signed up), Desmond decided he must enlist for his country. But there are two inviolable conditions: he will never touch a gun, and he will not serve on a Saturday (as a Seventh Day Adventist, Saturday is his Sabbath). He will instead save lives as a combat medic.

Hacksaw Ridge is a stirring testament to the power of faith and the hope that endures even in the midst of horror.

Hacksaw Ridge is a stirring testament to the power of faith and the hope that endures even in the midst of horror.

Doss’ unwavering commitment to his pacifist principles obviously don’t sit well with his fellow soldiers. He draws the particular ire of Smitty (Luke Bracey), who sees him as a coward. Captain Glover (Sam Worthington) and Sgt. Howell (Vince Vaughn) attempt to get Doss to leave voluntarily and, when that fails, Court Martial him (“You are aware quite a bit of killing goes on in war?” Glover asks Doss). But Doss does not back down from either his principles or commitment to serve honorably.

The film’s second half chronicles the battle of Okinawa and the U.S. military’s attempt to take it by securing Hacksaw Ridge. Here, we’re rather jarringly re-introduced to Gibson’s penchant for incredibly gory violence. Okinawa was true hell, one of the most violent conflicts of the war, and the depiction here pulls no punches. It is here we see the manifestation of a question Capt. Glover asks Doss earlier in the film: how can you stick to your principles when the only way to ensure your continued freedom to practice them is to kill those who are putting them under siege?

The battle sequences are truly horrifying, but they’re also some of the best ever put to screen. Gibson knows a thing or two about large-scale epic conflicts, and the chaos of battle is almost beautiful in its brutality. These sequences are bolstered by Simon Duggan’s crisp cinematography and Barry Robinson’s gritty production design. But make no mistake: the imagery here is particularly graphic; those with weak stomachs may want to sit it out.

Amid the insanity of war, it’s downright refreshing to see a man who “wants to put a little piece of [the world] back together again,” in Doss’s own words. His heroics are truly inspiring, but what raises the film to a higher level is the way it treats Doss’ commitment to his faith. Screenwriter Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkann do a bang up job of balancing the need to tell the full story of Doss’ devotion to God without getting preachy. But Gibson’s direction sometimes tips the film’s hand; he’s never been much for subtlety, and there are a few scenes that feel a bit overbearing in their religious imagery.

But, even in its most bombastic moments, Hacksaw Ridge is never anything less than riveting cinema. It’s a war film with a true conscience, made by a true craftsman. It’s inspirational without trying too hard. And, most importantly, it’s a passionate Christian work of art, the kind that we’ve been praying for. People don’t need a theatrical Sunday sermon; they need examples of men and women who served their God and their fellow man with unwavering devotion, humility and courage. This is about the finest example of that rare kind of life I can imagine.

The Birth of a Nation review

The Birth of a Nation is not a subtle film. That should be obvious from its title, which is cribbed directly from D.W. Griffith’s 1915 classic (and incredibly racist) epic, which helped revitalize the Klu Klux Klan by painting them as the heroes, saving vulnerable women from the nefarious and lecherous blacks. More than 100 years later, and a decade in the making, Nate Parker’s breakout hit is about as much a rebuke of that narrative as a film can be.

Parker himself plays Nat Turner, the real-life slave and preacher in Southampton County Virginia who, fed up with white cruelty and oppression, led a small but violent rebellion against white slaveholders in 1831. His posse killed more than 60 people, and in retaliation slaveholders killed hundreds of slaves and hanged Turner in a very public execution in the hopes of preventing further insurrection.

Nation will probably draw lots of comparisons to the recent Oscar winner 12 Years a Slave, but the films are actually quite different. Steve McQueen told his slave story through a detached, historical, almost cold lens, but Parker’s vision is filled with barely suppressed seething rage, rage which boils over by film’s end. It’s a slow, vicious, unnerving burn, closer at times in tone to Tarantino’s Django Unchained than McQueen’s somber, stoic masterwork.

The other major distinction here is that Parker is not the polished storyteller that McQueen or John Ridley (screenwriter on 12 Years) are. This is Parker’s directorial and writing debut, and in many ways it shows. The first half or so of the film contains awkward pacing and distracting visual flourishes. This segment features flashbacks to Parker’s childhood before running ahead to his adult life. He lives at a plantation under the gentle ownership of Samuel Turner (an almost unrecognizable Armie Hammer, who does great work here). Turner lives with his mother and grandmother, and seems to be eking out a respectable existence as a slave (as much as can be expected, anyways). But he soon sees that not all slave owners are as magnanimous when he sees the damaged Cherry (Aja Naomi King) being put up for auction to a crowd of lecherous whites. He convinces Samuel to buy her as a present to his newly married sister, and soon a romance blossoms and Cherry and Nat are married.

The Birth of a Nation is an important film that asks its audience to stare blankly at the horrors of slavery while wrestling with some uncomfortable questions.

The Birth of a Nation is an important film that asks its audience to stare blankly at the horrors of slavery while wrestling with some uncomfortable questions.

But it’s not long before Turner, a man of deep abiding Christian faith, begins to make waves as a biblically literate and passionate preacher. He is soon asked to travel with Samuel to preach at plantations across the county. He soon realizes, however, that it’s not God’s love the slave owners want preached, but obedience to their masters. Their slaves are lazy and weak, they say, and they need some “divine encouragement” to keep them in line. Turner dutifully follows the rules, but, as he begins to witness the horrors at these neighboring plantations, his preaching begins to change. He reads his Bible and sees that, for every verse used to condone slavery, there’s at least another crying for freedom for all men. So he begins to preach grace and freedom in Christ, and this is something many folks, least of all Samuel, don’t like one bit.

The film is an undeniably Christian work, the most explicit mainstream film about faith since, probably, The Passion of the Christ. The script is absolutely saturated in scripture as Turner preaches and explores the line between God’s mercy and his judgment. This lends the film a great deal of emotional sincerity, and reveals a hard and fast condemnation of any man who would use God’s word to oppress and demean. Parker’s passion shines through here, and there is a ton of great conversation material here for both believer and non-believer alike.

Of course, all this material is building to something, and the set piece moment is the revolt itself. This is a tough film to chew on, filled with brutality and murky moral messages, and that uncomfortable conflict is driven home in the bloody finale. By most standards, it’s hard to say that Turner did the right thing. He killed people. Did God really condone his violence, as he was so convinced? I don’t have an answer to that question, and admitting that is somewhat terrifying. I’d like to retort that the Lord says vengeance is his and his alone. But, then again, I’ve never been a slave. How long can one hold onto that promise, knowing that he’ll likely never be free and never see the men who treated him so cruelly punished? Never has a film confronted me with such uncomfortable, but essential, questions.

That, I believe, is the theme of the film as a whole. Uncomfortable, but essential. Despite its pacing problems and occasional bombast, this is a ferocious, overwhelming and unsettling experience. Its dizzying cinematography creates an unpredictable rhythm, and Henry Jackman’s extraordinary score wisely contrasts somber spirituals with relentless African drumbeats. Turner’s intent is to take the horrid violence of slavery and shove our faces in it, forcing us to look upon it in all its horror.

Is The Birth of a Nation ultimately a stirring work of art or an awful, insensitive racial tirade? Is its ultimate message inspirational or intensely problematic? Can a film perhaps occupy so many polarities at once and still come out as a successful product? I can’t answer these questions, but I strongly encourage you to check out this remarkable film and decide for yourself.

Deepwater Horizon review

Making a film about the worst oil spill in U.S. history is not exactly an enviable task, particularly when such an event killed 11 people and captured the national media attention for months. Thankfully, the film in question is helmed by Peter Berg, who has already proved himself adept at faithfully capturing harrowing true-life stories on screen (see Lone Survivor and the upcoming Patriots Day). Bolstered by an incredible cast and sensitive handling of the material, Deepwater Horizon proves a more-than-engaging watch.

The film spends its first chunk analyzing the conditions that led to the disaster, as Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg) and other crewmembers head out for a 21-day stint on the eponymous offshore drilling rig. But soon after landing on the rig, crew leader Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell) begins to question the authority of the British Petroleum big-wigs on board (headed by John Malkovich’s Vidrine). Why did the inspectors leave so soon? Did they have enough time to properly inspect the cement foundation? A pressure test produces mixed results, but it’s generally agreed upon that Jimmy’s fears are unfounded. Of course, we know that isn’t the case, and such a mistake would soon make history.

It is a credit to Matthew Michael Carnahan’s and Matthew Sand’s script that this portion of the film immerses the audience heavily in technical dialogue and terminology without losing us. Every step of the process is gripping, but we hang on every detail because we want to know exactly how this disaster came about. Of course, the film recognizes that the blame rests on the shoulders of BP, which skipped important safety checks due to playing catch-up on a rig that was already many days past schedule and millions of dollars over-budget. But it wisely shies away from politics; the BP execs are not painted as villains, and really, their decisions were the kind of banal, bottom-line, profit-first decisions companies make every day. But they happened to make these decisions on an oil rig, and the consequences have reverberated in history.

Deepwater Horizon is a harrowing portrayal of a true-life story anchored by understated performances.

Deepwater Horizon is a harrowing portrayal of a true-life story anchored by understated performances.

When the rig does blow, it does so spectacularly. Seeing a massive metal and concrete monstrosity become a warzone is a relentlessly intense experience. Men are caked in mud and oil, debris flies through the air like bullets, and even the water is on fire. Enrique Chediak’s steady cinematography allows us to see the action and chaos clearly; this is thankfully no queasy-came shake-fest. The crew’s scramble to reach the lifeboats and escape the hellfire in one piece is undeniably tense.

But what really grounds this film are the performances. Wahlberg does an always-admirable job, but it’s the supporting cast that provides the film’s heartbeat. Malkovich, Russell and Kate Hudson (as Mike’s concerned wife), in particular, practically disappear into their roles. They’ve never looked less like movies stars, and that’s a high compliment, especially when playing real-life characters that may not be particularly well-known.

Deepwater Horizon is ultimately a pretty straightforward survival story, although it is made with superb craftsmanship. It ends with some real-life footage of Mike Williams and others preparing to testify on their experiences. I’ve no doubt that, in the right hands, a film dealing with the rest of the story involving the fallout of the spill and the 87-day journey to contain it would be just as harrowing. If Deepwater Horizon occasionally feels like it’s only telling part of the story, it’s suitably gripping from beginning to end. Besides, that’s what’s sequels are for, and we all know how much Hollywood digs those.

Hillsong: Let Hope Rise and the intimacy of the “theatrical worship experience”

On the surface, Hillsong: Let Hope Rise appears to be your average behind-the-scenes music/concert documentary. And, in many ways, it is. We get the story behind the Australian worship band’s unexpected rise to global fame, the members’ relationships to one another and their families and intimate peeks into recording sessions and live shows.  We see the struggles of touring, the cost of artistic genius and the stresses of living life in the limelight.

But this documentary is much more than your average concert doc. It’s billed as something beyond that: a “theatrical worship experience.” The goal of the film is not just to inform and entertain, but to draw people into worship and intimacy with the God of the universe, without having to leave their theater seats. An ambitious goal, to be sure, not to mention a novel one. It’s a testament to the power and intimacy of Let Hope Rise, then, that it accomplishes everything it sets out to do, and more.

Impeccably directed by Michael John Warren (who made the Jay-Z documentary Fade to Black), the selling point of the film is the extended musical sequences, many of them shot at a concert at the Los Angeles Forum (though a concert in Manila gets some focus as well). Here we see the aching intimacy and raw power of the performers in their natural setting. But these folks aren’t in it for the applause or the fame: as all the band members make clear, they exist to make the name of Jesus famous. This is the glue that holds the group together, and we witness that throughout the film. In all their interactions with each other, with their families and with their fans, the members of Hillsong United are a mighty testament to how God’s love looks like lived out in the day-to-day. Not that they’re perfect: they doubt, they disagree, they regret things they’ve said and things they’ve left unsaid. But it’s truly inspiring to see the band, which started as a worship band at Hillsong church in Sydney, selling out arenas around the world and yet remaining so incredibly, almost supernaturally humble.

Better than most music documentaries (and certainly most Christian films), Let Hope Rise conveys the beautiful idea of calling, that we all have something in this life that God is calling us to do. Joel Houston never planned on touring with a hit band around the world; it kind of just happened. He simply saw a need and walked into it with humility. Many band members say they can’t exactly explain this idea of calling, because, in some ways, following God’s will for our lives goes beyond rationalization. When you’re answering God’s call and living out his will for your life, you just know.

Exploring this intimacy with the band members off the stage only adds to the power of their worship experiences on the stage. We’ve seen the struggles they’ve had in coming up with the perfect lyrics (which are designed to be sung, not just listened to, Houston says) and the perfect melodies to allow people to draw near to God at one of their shows. We know how achingly hard they’ve worked to bring this kind of intimate experience about.

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Let Hope Rise is billed as a “theatrical worship experience,” and is entirely successful in its ambitious goals.

Now, filming a concert doesn’t mean that an audience watching it on a screen is going to feel the impact of the show in the way that those attending it live might. But, in this case, I think every emotion resonates. This “theatrical worship experience” is something truly special; I felt an immediate connection to these songs I’ve sung in church and heard on the top of the charts for years. I felt the palpable presence of God in that dark theater, and that’s something very rare, particularly in the world of Christian films, which often settle for trite religious platitudes and sentimental spiritual pandering—rarely uplifting, and hardly ever inspiring. There’s not a hint of falsehood with Hillsong: when it comes to Christianity, these folks are the real deal, and a great example of what living a life sold out for Jesus can really look like. This authenticity, rather than the quality of the musicianship or the production values (though those are both stellar) is what makes the concert sequences so exhilarating (Taya Smith’s performance of “Oceans” is, naturally, a highlight, though seeing people around the world sing “Mighty to Save” in different languages was my favorite moment in the film). As one band members says, “Without Jesus, the band would be nowhere, because I honestly don’t think we’re that good.” This kind of authentic worship may have the power to sway those who have grown deeply cynical toward the church or worship music in general (Seth Hurd wrote for Relevant on how the film affected his attitude toward worship).

I chuckle, then groan (or maybe it’s both at once, a chuckle-groan, if you will) when I hear critics of bands like Hillsong United dismissing them because of the fact that (gasp!) they’re successful and make money and sell lots of records. It’s as if they’re expected to donate every cent of their success to charity and live in complete poverty (ironically, there’s no pressure for successful secular artists to do this, for reasons that probably warrant a separate blog post). But there should, I believe, be a healthy skepticism of fame and fortune when it comes under the banner of Christianity. Thankfully, the members of Hillsong avoid that trap by focusing entirely on their message and giving the praise and the glory back to Jesus: the band members discuss the tension of calling attention to themselves so they can direct it back to God, and I think that can be a potentially healthy (or potentially dangerous) space in which to wrestle. But Hillsong emerges from that battle triumphant. In all the ways that matter, they’re still that tiny little worship band from a tiny little church in Sydney. There may be more people listening and watching than ever before, but the invitation remains the same. “Come to the foot of the cross and worship with us, and you will leave changed.”

I, for one, didn’t want Let Hope Rise to end. As it turns out, the presence of God is a pretty awe-inspiring place to be.

Sully review

One of the traits Clint Eastwood has embodied over his lengthy career both in front of the camera and behind has been the rugged American spirit of steady faithfulness, of living life well in the day-to-day. That’s why the director’s sensibilities appear to be such a perfect match for a behind-the-scenes look at Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger and the “miracle on the Hudson” that enthralled the nation on January 15, 2009. Sully is Eastwood’s inspirational nod to the marvelous things that can happen when we champion the traits of perseverance and steadfast devotion in our own lives.

Tom Hanks portrays Sully in a perfect casting choice. So much of Sully’s story revolves around the fact that he doesn’t view himself as a hero, but simply a man doing his job. Despite Hanks’ worldwide fame, he somehow embodies the spirit of the “everyman” better than any actor working today (see: the recent Captain Phillips). Here, he plays a man whose commitment to his ideals and confidence in his own abilities allow himself to be anchored during the greatest challenge of his life.

The film wisely avoids opening with the infamous “forced water landing,” in which all 155 souls on board U.S. Airways flight 1549 were spared. Instead, we see the barrage of questions Sully and his co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) are forced to confront, both from the ravenous and fawning media and the decidedly less enthused National Transportation Safety Board. The NTSB is convinced that, despite the positive outcome, Sully endangered the lives of the passengers by not attempting to return to La Guardia airport after a flock of birds flew into the plane at the low altitude of 2800 feet, taking out both engines. In between the hearings, Sully grapples with the emotional impact the ordeal is having on his wife (Laura Linney) and daughters, and is plagued by vivid nightmares and doubts over whether or not he did the right thing. “I’ve flown thousands of flights and delivered millions of passengers safely,” Sully says. “But in the end, I’m going to be judged on 208 seconds.”

Sully is a subtle, beautiful tribute to the everyday heroism of a job well done.

Sully is a subtle, beautiful tribute to the everyday heroism of a job well done.

Watching a series of NTSB hearings doesn’t sound like riveting drama, which is what makes the skill with which Eastwood and screenwriter Todd Komarnicki tease out both the revelations and the smaller character moments all the more remarkable. Both the dialogue and camerawork are incredibly realistic, factors that really put the audience in the center of the story.

Of course, much like Robert Zemeckis’ Flight, the centerpiece of the film is the landing itself. And it’s absolutely breathtaking. The film smartly reveals the whole picture of the event in several flashbacks, which allows us to view it within the larger context of the emotions the characters are feeling at that particular moment. It’s a smart narrative device, and it gives the film much of its punch. We do get a couple of repeated scenes, but even then we get to see the same conversations and events from multiple perspectives.

And that is perhaps Sully’s greatest strength—it’s not really about Sully. Sure, he’s the center focus of the story, but I loved seeing the miraculous landing from the perspective of the air traffic controller who thinks he lost the plane (“no one survives a water landing,” he incorrectly believes), or the coast guard boat pilot who can scarcely believe his eyes, or the passengers of the plane themselves, who are in total and complete shock that they’re not dead.

Eastwood’s camera gives ample focus to many players both big and small, driving home the message that one of the biggest miracles we can experience in this life is not really much of a miracle at all. From Sully and Skiles to the stewardesses, passengers, firefighters, policeman and coast guard members, the reason everyone walked away from the Hudson that cold January day in one piece is because everyone performed their jobs to the very utmost of their ability. Everyone has a responsibility, and everyone has a role to play. It may not be a “miracle,” and it may not fit our Hollywood notions of heroism, but, in a time of crisis, it means everything. This engrossing drama enforces that important message with quiet, beautifully understated grace.

Suicide Squad review

Suicide Squad is an impressive film. Not because it’s particularly good or particularly memorable, because it isn’t. Rather, it’s impressive that a big-budget studio film, particularly one featuring well-known comic book characters, can be so utterly and completely average in every conceivable way. From performances to story to tone, every element here seems almost deliberately calculated to meet the bare minimum requirements required to pass muster as entertainment. Take it for what you will, but that’s actually a pretty special achievement.

Director David Ayer, who has made a career off of gritty, thrilling, anything-but-average films like End of Watch and Fury, seems like the perfect filmmaker for this kind of material. But even his considerable talents are squandered in a misshapen jumble of bravura auteurist flourishes and cynical studio pandering.

The Squad in question is formed in the shadow of Superman and what he has come to represent to planet earth. What if another super powered, unstoppable being comes along who isn’t so nice? Wouldn’t it be nice to have some insurance? So argues bureaucrat Amanda Waller (Viola Davis, whose performance is clearly the best part of the film), and she somehow convinces the U.S. government to assemble a cadre of violent, deranged criminals should the appropriate crisis arise.

These criminals, holed up in a maximum security penitentiary surrounded by Louisiana sludge, are a veritable who’s-who of psychos. There’s lethal sniper Deadshot (Will Smith), the increasingly unhinged Harley Quinn (Margo Robbie), pyrotechnic Diablo (Jay Hernandez), mercenary Slipknot (Adam Beach), master thief Boomerang (Jai Courtney) and deformed monster Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje).

They’re put under the care of Special Forces soldier Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), who calls them out after an ancient paranormal threat known as the Enchantress (Cara Delevingne), threatens to (say it with me) destroy the world, with the help of a zombie army. It may not come as a surprise that these folks aren’t too keen on being cooperative. But the promise of a shortened prison sentence, combined with the explosive charges implanted in the criminals’ necks, may hopefully keep them in line. Can these baddies find it in their hearts to put aside their self-interest and work together for the sake of each other and the world?

Even before a conflict is introduced, the film takes its (very long) time introducing us to each member of the Squad, not only their criminal backstories but also, in some cases, their ties to their past, perhaps the very things keeping them human. Deadshot, for example, desperately wants to be involved in the life of his young daughter. And Harley, of course has her doting Mr. J, aka the Joker (Jared Leto), scheming up a way to break her out. It’s great to get to know so much about the major characters early in the film, but it’s a slow burn as we wait for something to actually move the plot forward. There’s a balance somewhere between story and character, and Ayer’s script misses it.

Suicide Squad is a bland and derivative comic-based film that still contains some impressive performances.

Suicide Squad is a bland and derivative comic-based film that still contains some impressive performances.

Once the film gets going, it’s…fine. The banter between the Squad is pretty fun (if often cheesy), and I liked seeing the group’s camaraderie grow as the film goes on. One scene in particular, in which the group lounges in a bar, feels like it’s taken from a much better and more interesting film (though even this scene is marred by the film’s ridiculous over-use of flashbacks). But the central conflict, and the action sequences in general, feel completely derivative, and for a film with such talented performers and memorable characters, that’s disappointing.

Thankfully, the film does get a lot of mileage out of its performances. Davis does a fantastic job with Waller, an icy and ferocious snake who is every bit as vicious and unpredictable as the criminals she brings out to play. Robbie is a joy as Harley, feasting on each of her snarky lines and playing it over-the-top without feeling like a cartoon character. And Smith brings a lot of emotional weight to Deadshot; you feel the desire he has to be reunited with his daughter, but he still conveys the danger and power the character should have.

Unfortunately, the rest of the performances feel forgettable, and that’s most obvious with Leto’s Joker. For a character so iconic, it’s strange that the film relegates his best moments to flashback scenes. Although his character is crucial to Harley’s development, he plays no major role in the central plot. I think Leto does okay with the character, but I didn’t really get to see enough of the Joker to make a judgment on that. For big fans of the character like myself, that’s a shame.

Suicide Squad made the news when Warner Bros. decided to employ reshoots to “lighten” the humorous elements of the film after the relative box-office disappointment of Batman V. Superman. But the studio seems to have a short memory. Christopher Nolan’s lauded Dark Knight trilogy was grim and gritty, but people loved the films because they had considerable dramatic heft and, more importantly, a soul. It’s not about whether a film is “gritty” or not; it’s about whether the film is good. The only mark of quality is, well…quality.

With that in mind, I didn’t really feel the uncomfortable imbalance between the humorous and darker elements of the film some were expecting. It’s occasionally kind of funny, but never gets as bleak or self-serious as some of the stuff in Batman V. Superman. My problem is that there appears to be so little lack of effort surrounding the film in general. There are no terrible elements here; everything basically works. But why should we settle for “basically works” as a measure of quality? There’s nothing to really get mad about, but also nothing to stir much of a reaction beyond a shoulder shrug.

Suicide Squad is like the Arby’s of comic-based superhero flicks. It leaves the audience feeling like it has eaten a meal without giving it any particularly memorable flavors to enjoy. It’s bland and forgettable, but it still qualifies as food. At least there’s no danger of contracting salmonella.

Star Trek: Beyond review

For a franchise celebrating its 50th year, Star Trek is riding high. Following the red-hot reboot film directed by J.J. Abrams and its sequel, the latest film in the franchise, with Fast and Furious veteran Justin Lin at the helm, has the challenge of keeping that momentum going while satisfying longtime fans of the original television shows, some of whom were dissatisfied with the creative decisions of the last film to bear the Star Trek moniker, Into Darkness.

By title alone, it’s assume to see that Star Trek Beyond is aiming for something different. In style and tone, it resembles the original television series more closely than the Abrams films. This results in a surprisingly fun, enjoyable thrill ride, but one that thankfully doesn’t shrimp on the epic scope and dramatic action fans of the rebooted films have come to love.

Here, we find the crew of the Enterprise drifting through space as it seeks out another area of the galaxy to be explored. Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) is still wrestling with the legacy of his late father and figuring out his place in the universe.  Commander Spock (Zachary Quinto) is torn between his love for Lieutenant Uhura (Zoe Saldana) and his feelings of devotion to the dwindling race of Vulcans he considers family. Other returning cast members include ship engineer Scotty (Simon Pegg), pilot Sulu (John Cho), ship doctor McCoy (Karl Urban) and navigator Chekov (the late Anton Yelchin).

Compared to past entries, the story here is simple. The crew receives a distress call from an alien captain whose flight crew has crash landed on an abandoned planet in an uncharted system. The noble Kirk promptly launches a rescue mission, but quickly runs afoul of the villainous Krall (Idris Elba), who bombards the Enterprise in search of an alien artifact that is the key to a world-destroying weapon. Soon the crew members finds themselves spread out across a mysterious planet with only their wits and the bonds of friendship to guide them, though the assistance of the enigmatic Jaylah (Sofia Boutella) certainly helps too.

Star Trek: Beyond is a fast-paced, exciting adventure that should please fans of the franchise.

Star Trek: Beyond is a fast-paced, exciting adventure that should please fans of the franchise.

The great joy of Star Trek has always been the camaraderie and banter between the crew, and this entry doesn’t skimp on great character interactions and humorous dialogue. The script, written by Pegg and Doug Jung, crackles as it whirls an amazing variety of set piece action sequences at the audience, but the film never feels stuffed or overwhelming because it’s still so grounded in its characters. I love Pine’s young, inexperienced and self-doubting Kirk, a captain who still manages to be an inspiring leader despite his insecurities. His bromance with Spock continues to be an affecting one. I also love Pegg’s Scotty, whose thick Scottish brogue never fails to amuse, and Urban’s McCoy, whose cynical reactions to almost every situation get tons of laughs. The balance fells almost perfect, but other characters are given little attention. The much ballyhooed decision to make Sulu gay is a complete non-event, and it’s especially sad seeing Yelchin’s Chekov so underutilized given the actor’s untimely death. I felt these characters earned the attention the others got, but it’s always a tricky task balancing the development of so many well-known faces in the span of two hours.

As fine as the script and performances are, I really think the star of Beyond is the art direction. This is simply a jaw-droppingly gorgeous film, filled with bright colors and scenic locales. The planet that fills much of the film’s run time features everything from verdant green forests to dark caves and rocky mountains. This natural beauty is contrasted expertly with the grand floating city of York Town, itself a marvelous and sparkling creation. Thomas E. Sander’s production design is Oscar-worthy, and I doubt we’ll see a better looking film this year.

The story itself is the weakest aspect of Beyond. Its flaw is not in its simplicity; I actually rather enjoyed the lack of complex backstory and lightness of the plot. But, as the film progresses, the pacing does begin to drag, and this is especially true when the motivations of Krall are revealed. Although he could never live up to Khan, Krall is far from a bad villain, and he’s intriguing enough to help reverse the trend of stale, uninteresting baddies that populate the vast majority of summer popcorn flicks. But I felt his arc to be convoluted and his backstory confusing. I was left with lots of questions, and, unlike with Khan, I don’t think Krall was meant to be so mysterious. Although Elba does a fine job with the character, I felt the way he was written to be the sole confusing spot in an otherwise easy-to-follow tale.

Star Trek Beyond is a balanced and polished thrill ride from start to finish. Its numerous callbacks and tonal homage to the original series should satisfy longtime fans, while its breathtaking action, stellar performances and grand production design should pull in newer fans. It may not boldly go where no film has gone before, but it’s more than good enough to have me along for the ride.