Dunkirk

Copyright: © 2017 WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

TOM HARDY as Farrier in the Warner Bros. Pictures action thriller “DUNKIRK,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo Credit: Melinda Sue Gordon

There’s a scene in Christopher Nolan’s INTERSTELLAR where a distant wave on an exoplanet crests hundreds of feet above sea level.  The tension of this moment builds and builds until the crewed shuttle makes their narrow escape.   DUNKIRK begins at that crest, followed by another, and another, and another, each more terrifying than the last.  It plays like a visual translation of Holst’s “Mars: The Bringer of War”.

Brusque in my dismissals of Nolan’s past work, I see a director evolving.  With MEMENTO (2000) I had yet to be convinced that the backward chronology was more than a gimmick to conceal an otherwise mundane narrative.  In THE DARK KNIGHT (2008) and INCEPTION (2010), Nolan’s successes gave way to excesses of action and incoherent editing to further conceal an apparent distaste for cogent narratives.  Credit where credit is due, the man knew how to shoot a scene.  He just didn’t know how to connect them together properly.

Two films, THE PRESTIGE (2006) and INTERSTELLAR (2014), are exceptions in his oeuvre.  In the former, Nolan created a compelling, Dickensian noir about two rival illusionists, each grasping at immortality–metaphorical and literal.  In the latter, Nolan scored a massive international success with a drama of familial bonds disguised as science fiction paradox.

The same man who spun his grandiose ideas out of control just four years earlier told a relatable yet philosophical father-daughter story about the cosmic permanence of love.  I could even forgive the soppy dialogues, irrational female scientist, and Matt Damon, as my own beloved Ophelia¹ sat, rapt, for the last twenty-five minutes as Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) conquered space and time to return to his daughter, Murph (Mackenzie Foy).

Enter Nolan’s tenth feature.  In 1940 at the Battle of Dunkirk, 68,000 British and 48,000 French lives were lost.  Another 330,000 survived because of a plan enabled by the Wehrmacht’s so-called Halt Order, giving Allied forces three days to stage Operation Dynamo—a massive evacuation.

Reportedly, Nolan and his wife, producer Emma Thomas, started writing the story after traversing the English channel by boat, learning about the historic defeat on the shores of France.  He spent the last twenty-five years polishing and paring down that script to just seventy-five pages of slug lines and sparse, almost nonexistent dialogue.

DUNKIRK, shot in a combination of IMAX and Panavision 65mm, dramatizes the battle in a triptych on land, sea, and in the air.  The film opens on five soldiers, including Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), barely surviving a shelling in the city.  Their commanding officer dead, they scramble aimlessly across the Maginot line until one reaches the shore where thousands of troops are being evacuated on destroyers and medical frigates, many carried out on stretchers.

From here, the three perspectives are intercut:  1. Tommy attempts to board a doomed frigate.  2. Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) and his son join other affluent civilians on yachts, enroute to aid in the massive evacuation.  3. RAF Pilot Farrier³ (Tom Hardy) and his wingmen give air cover to the evacuees.

If Hoyte van Hoytema’s visual story interprets Holst, apropos that Hans Zimmer’s score steers clear of the kind of cacophonous bombast that Spielberg might commission from John Williams.  Instead, his amorphous swell rises sparingly, precisely when it must.  The effect is like the atonal, orchestral crescendos in The Beatles “A Day in the Life”.  Then, he rests us gently back down, like Farrier’s plane coming ashore, in the arms of a new derivative of Elgar’s “Nimrod” from the Enigma Variations.

And it’s just like that.  Amidst the crests and troughs of the battle sequences, the images tell us of the Dawson’s war-hardened shrewdness and personal tragedies; of Farrier’s unflinching trust in his wingmen as he takes down five², perhaps six, Messerschmitt Me-109’s in his Supermarine Spitfire with its roaring, Rolls Royce Merlin engine; and Tommy’s epiphany as an elderly man hands him a blanket.  His shipmate, Alex (Harry Styles) remarks snidely, “All we did was survive.”

The man, a veteran likely blinded during the Great War, replies, “That’s enough.”

There’ll be endless editorials about the 70mm film shoots, in-camera/practical fx, the live extras, the real planes and ships, but DUNKIRK’s triumph owes to the simplicity of the finished product, not the complexity of the technical inputs.  That masterful distillation is the piece that Nolan has finally brought under his command.

Footnote: The AMC IMAX where they screened the film made an absolute mess of the sound, which I expected.  I suspect that the 70mm presentation I’m seeing this weekend at LOOK Cinemas Prestonwood will be much more tightly managed.


  1. Ophelia is a dog.  She loves watching science fiction with daddy.
  2. This is perhaps based on the feat of 605th RAF Squadron Leader Archibald “Archie” McKellar, who shot down five Bf-109’s in a day during the Battle of Britain.
  3. The British surname Farrier is of French origin vis-à-vis the Norman conquest of 1066.  While it means “blacksmith”, its root is the French word for iron.  Either an “iron-haired” (silver-haired) ancestor or, more likely in this case, iron will.

War For The Planet Of The Apes

© 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES.  Twentieth Century Fox-TM & © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

“With gorilla gone, will there be hope for man?”

In Ishmael, a novel by Daniel Quinn, a dialogue takes place between an ape and human who hash out the self-destructive history of intensive agriculture.  The gorilla, named Ishmael, questions the uniquely human, mythological conceit that we are the apex of evolutionary biology.

This is the bookend that seems to drive Matt Reeves’ final chapter in the current PLANET OF THE APES trilogy.  In the rebooted 2011 and 2014 installments of the franchise,  humans are infected by a virus engineered originally as a drug treatment to combat Alzheimer’s.  The primate test subjects of the program, however, flourished physically and mentally.  With most of humanity eradicated by the Simian Flu, the third film opens in the heat of a territorial battle between Caesar (Andy Serkis), the de facto leader of the apes, and troops under the command of his unhinged opposite, the Colonel (Woody Harrelson).

Caesar and his closest advisers conclude that they must relocate to the desert on the other side of the Sierra Nevada mountain range.  Harrelson’s Kurtz/Ahab archetype is obsessed with avenging the inevitable extinction of his species.  In parallel, Caesar harbors anger at humans though not to the degree his rival, Koba, did in the two films prior.  A large orangutan, Maurice (named likely for Maurice Evans, a.k.a. Dr. Zaius, in the 1968 original) reflects that they failed to understand just how much darkness Koba still carried within him.  The third chapter reminds me of the triumph of Spike Lee’s DO THE RIGHT THING, of which Roger Ebert observed, “a movie about race in America that empathized with all the participants.”  Replace “race” with “species” and there you have it.

Occasionally the imagery and the score rise above the limits of cinematographer Michael Seresin’s and composer Michael Giacchino’s repertoire, e.g. when Caesar leads a small group across a beach to a military fortification as the sun glistens off the water–the music, the imagery and the story forming a contrapuntal scene composition.  However, the real feat of Reeves’ APES is in its character arcs.  We’ve been trained to think Caesar is noble, Koba is flawed, and the Colonel is evil.  The truth is that Caesar is flawed, Koba is a victim, and the Colonel is weak.

Reeves’ film muses over a self-evident truth about protagonists and antagonists: we all begin with intentions we believe to be right.  If you know where PLANET OF THE APES (1968) begins, then you know where the Simian Flu takes the story.  If you don’t: A mute child, whom the apes later name Nova (Amiah Miller), bridges the gap of understanding between the Colonel and Caesar.  How she does so, I will not reveal.

In the middle chapter, Caesar’s prejudices blinded him to the betrayals by his own kind.  We see both men haunted by their mistakes:  Caesar has nightmares of Koba, darker than I would have imagined.  We probably overlook the Colonel’s anguish, both because of the way he caricaturizes himself to create a fearsome image, and because of how recreational and self-medicating use of alcohol permeates our own culture.  There all the time, we may not immediately recognize that the Colonel is, in fact, an alcoholic drowning in the sorrow of his own personal tragedy.

WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES closes metaphorically where Quinn’s Ishmael begins, “With man gone, will there be hope for gorilla?”

Wonder Woman

© 2017 WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC. AND RATPAC ENTERTAINMENT, LLC

GAL GADOT as Diana in WONDER WOMAN, a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo: Clay Enos/ TM & © DC Comics

The best thing about WONDER WOMAN will be all the little girls emulating their heroine the way I and my friends emulated Indiana Jones when we were kids.  The worst thing about WONDER WOMAN is that it’s a D.C. film.  The in-between isn’t great but it isn’t entirely bad, either.

Director Patty Jenkins enters into a beleaguered franchise, opposite industry giant Marvel and rather late to the game.  The hope, perhaps, was that they might rush a product out ahead of CAPTAIN MARVEL and have bragging rights to being magnanimous toward women.

On the isle of Themiscira (based on the region, Themiscyra, of Greek myth) the Amazon women live, learn and train in armed combat like men of Sparta under the tutelage of Antiope (an under-utilized Robin Wright).  The world of men, they believe, is corrupted by the god, Ares.  Queen Hippolyta’s (Connie Nielsen) daughter, Princess Diana (Gal Gadot, also played by Lilly Aspell and Emily Carey), is born and bred for war, but raised with the Amazonian values of maintaining peace.  This cannot last, as World War I falls on their doorstep, literally, when Steve Trevor’s (Chris Pine) plane crashes at their shores, followed by German battleships.

WONDER WOMAN has the temperament of Joe Johnston’s CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER.  Aside from shifting the Trevor timeline to World War I, there are benefactors (David Thewlis) and there are rogues (Saeed Taghmaoui, Ewen Bremner, Eugene Brave Rock) in a race to stop the destructive Danny Huston—err, Ludendorff, who feels too much like a Nazi caricature (Weimar Republic be damned).  Destined to play villains, Huston and his congenital scowl just can’t catch a break.

Written by Allan Heinberg, Jason Fuchs, and Zack Snyder, the anemic story exsanguinates after the facile introduction to Diana’s home, the Great War, and the vaguely evil plot—to deploy a kind of mustard gas which, as far you see on screen, makes people sleepy—facilitated by a scientist, Dr. Maru (Elena Anaya), grotesquely twisted inside and out.

In spite of these challenges, uneven pacing and the weak third act (typical of Snyder), Patty Jenkins and Gal Gadot prove that Wonder Woman herself, contrary to studio excuses, is not and never was the problem.  And while Chris Pine’s levity establishes a usefulness beyond what his phallic gags imply, Gadot shines in a light entirely of her own making.

She cinches Wonder Woman with the same combination of awkwardness and sincerity that made Christopher Reeve the golden standard of superheroes in Richard Donner’s SUPERMAN (1978)—note the alleyway stickup nod to to the latter.

Central to D.C.’s failures with Batman and Superman reboots is this notion that the protagonist must be miserable in equal proportion to the world around him.  Marvel, then, did the obverse with Chris Evans and Captain America, first in Johnston’s love letter to American optimism, and again with a darker poignancy in the Russo brothers’ WINTER SOLDIER, testing a hero’s resolve in the darkest hour with deliberate callbacks to 3 DAYS OF THE CONDOR and THE PARALLAX VIEW.  The key, as the School of Donner taught us, is that the world is a mad, cynical place, and what defines a superhero is how they never lose their nerve.

Somewhere betwixt profligate abuse of slow-motion shots of cartwheeling daredevilry, Diana Prince scolds a roomful of stodgy Brits of the War Council.  As if to point a finger back at the studio executives who rationalized why audiences won’t buy into a female lead, Diana looks these men square in the eye and declares that leaders don’t make excuses and hide behind desks while sending poor, young men to die in war.  Leaders, she argues, charge into battle with their troops.

To wit, it only took two women to right a ship that dozens of male D.C. executives, writers and directors, have tried their damnedest to sink.

Through every generation of the human race there has been a constant war, a war with fear. Those who have the courage to conquer it are made free and those who are conquered by it are made to suffer until they have the courage to defeat it, or death takes them.

–  Alexander III of Macedon

Alien: Covenant

M & © 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

Katherine Waterston as Daniels in Ridley Scott’s ALIEN: COVENANT.  Photo Credit: Mark Rogers. TM & © 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

Fifteen years after archaeologist Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) encountered a parasitic species while attempting to chase down the alien origins of humanity, a colonization mission to Origae-6 goes awry when a radiation burst cripples the ship.

Like the previous expedition, funded by the eccentric Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce), the human crew is accompanied by an android, Walter (Michael Fassbender). Unlike his predecessor, David (so named for Weyland’s fondness for wearisome metaphor vis-a-vis Michelangelo), Walter’s intelligence is curbed. This seems peculiar, as it was Weyland’s intent to crew an android as a sort of HAL-9000 with an ulterior motive.

ALIEN: COVENANT is the second part of Ridley Scott’s prequel series to the 1979 horror film starring Sigourney Weaver as the protagonist, Ripley. While science fiction cinema has had elements of horror in its mid-century roots, ALIEN emphasized claustrophobia and terror as the primary elements, pushing the science fiction to the backdrop. Ridley Scott, however, hasn’t seemed to successfully move away from the tropes he helped popularize–namely, the Final Girl. Instead, he works backwards from them stuck in a kind of causal loop of intense mediocrity.

The surviving members of the crew are systematically picked off by the “neomorph”—like “xenomorph” but, you know, new… except this is a sequel, so shouldn’t they be protomorphs? Never mind. Scott’s modern Ripley, Daniels (Katherine Waterston), a terraforming engineer aboard the Covenant, happens upon another android who leads them (unsurprisingly) to a trap.

THE SPOILER: Yes, the villain is David… In spite of escaping a completely unrelated star system, in all the vast universe, somehow the cosmic radiation accident led the Covenant to the exact place where David and Elizabeth landed. And yes, David is going to double-cross them. And yes, he uses a trick that would make Hayley Mills proud (or nauseated). To his credit, Fassbender invokes the same creepy ethical vacancy of Ash in the original ALIEN.  And maybe there’s something to reintroducing that 1970’s-era distrust of technology into cinema at a time when our own fears about the surveillance state are coming to fruition.  In a back room, H.R. Giger’s early concept designs strewn across a table, we discover that David is a eugenics hobbyist, synthesizing and curating the “perfect” being in an attempt to recast himself from servant of one species to god of another.

Sidenote: Fassbender also supplies a hint of homoeroticism or, perhaps, auto-eroticism… but it’s merely titillation, eclipsing that hint of Sgt. Lope’s (Demián Bichir) marriage to Sgt. Hallett (Nathaniel Dean).

A prequel could conceivably take any number of routes to get you to where you’ve been, but Scott seems to be repeating the same storyline again and again only peppering us with bits of mythology like the interesting clues that lead nowhere in the television series, LOST. In the end, they’re all dead anyway.

GET OUT of my Country

Daniel Kaluuya as Chris in Jordan Peele's GET OUT.

Daniel Kaluuya as Chris in Jordan Peele’s GET OUT.

Racism is so deeply embedded in this country not because of the racist right-wing radicals who practice it openly, it exists because of the silence and hurt feelings of liberal America.

In 2016, writer John Metta published a sobering op-ed, originally given as a sermon, about the insidious nature of systemic racism titled I, Racist.  In it, he examines the difficulty, the fruitlessness, of having dialogues about racism with white people.   He wasn’t calling whites evil.  On the contrary, Metta’s piece examines the challenge of trying to get even the most progressive of whites to acknowledge the deeply embedded systemic privilege of which they are the primary beneficiaries.

In the era of Trumpism, the likelihood of liberal whites reconciling their own role in racism is even dimmer.  Headlines pepper the news cycle weekly, like the Olathe, KS, man who killed an Indian American and injured another, shouting, “Get out of my country.”

EDIT: Since starting this piece, a Sikh was shot in Kent, WA, by another white gunman.

We can’t examine where we are as a society if one half thinks the other half is the problem while the other half is idiotically preoccupied not so much with figuring out what to do with absolute power now that they have it, but perversely obsessed with figuratively and literally spitting in the face of immigrants, minorities, and anyone else that dares to challenge the privilege that both halves of white America enjoy.

Srinivas Kuchibhotla wasn’t challenging anyone.  He was having a beer with his coworker from Garmin, a GPS device manufacturer, at a bar in suburban Olathe, KS, when Adam Purinton shot and killed him.  As a Dallas resident, a United States citizen who immigrated from India and grew up in North Dakota, I’m no stranger to racial confrontation.  But this comes after an authoritarian President, who pandered openly to bigotry on the campaign trail, passed Executive Order 13769 which was used to deny re-entry to immigrant visa holders, lawful Permanent Residents, and even U.S. Citizens such as my fellow Indian American, NASA/JPL employee Sidd Bikkanavar, on no other basis than being from predominately Muslim countries.

The administration, having the lowest recorded approval ratings for an incoming U.S. President, lacked the courage of its convictions to admit the true purpose of what many have called the Muslim Ban (including Trump himself).  Instead, they hemmed and hawed until the Solicitors General of Washington and Minnesota appealed to the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court.

That’s what I want to say, but really, I can’t. I can’t say that because I’ve spent my life not talking about race to White people. In a big way, it’s my fault. Racism exists because I, as a Black person, don’t challenge you to look at it.

Racism exists because I, not you, am silent.

But I’m caught in the perfect Catch 22, because when I start pointing out racism, I become the Angry Black Person, and the discussion shuts down again. So I’m stuck.

Enter comedian and social commentator Jordan Peele.  Any time we have, as a society, found it difficult to break through and confront one another with inconvenient truths, comedians and satirists have taken pen to paper to show us how its done.

Peele’s debut film, GET OUT, opened two weeks ago, just as White House advisor Stephen Bannon was being decimated in the media for his blithely ignorant masturbation to Jean Raspail’s The Camp of the Saints, which Kirkus Reviews described upon its publication in 1975, “as a major event, and it probably is, in much the same sense that Mein Kampf was a major event.”

In GET OUT, Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) is invited to his girlfriend’s family estate, a liberal enclave.  The Armitages, Missy and Dean’s (Catherine Keener and Bradley Whitford cast in roles fitted neatly to each’s trope-ridden C.V.) facile embrace of multiculturalism immediately recalls the perverse, paternalistic slavery apologetics of Rudyard Kipling and Henry Morris.

GET OUT plays like a stylized, exaggerated tale in the vein of occult horror, yet its root is the horror that people of color live in reality: Viewed as objects of hatred or perverse obsession, rather than human beings with agency.  Here, Peele explores the concept of loss of agency literally, with callbacks to pre-Trump, coded allegory in INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, ROBOCOP and the upcoming, tone-deaf remake of GHOST IN THE SHELL in which the reverse happens: an Asian is trapped in a white android for the sake of Hollywood grosses.

Kaluuya’s perfection of dissociation in the face of clear and present danger plays as well here as it did in his breakout television appearance in BLACK MIRROR (“Fifteen Million Merits”).  As minorities, we’re mostly inured by the larger shared illusion of freedom within the surveillance state.  But when our individual liberties are so directly attacked, and worse, by the current Presidential administration, it serves as a reminder that in the eyes of white America, we are not human.  We are a statistic, a talking point, for both white liberals and conservatives to volley back and forth as they fight over privileges we don’t even imagine are within reach.

Logan

© 2017 Marvel. TM and © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved.

Hugh Jackman and Dafne Keen in Marvel/Twentieth Century Fox’s LOGAN.

Immediately evident in LOGAN’s dense backdrop of social commentary is the influence of Alfonso Cuarón’s CHILDREN OF MEN, a bleak future in which the fate of the species rests in the hand of one girl—in this case, a mutant of Marvel Comics lore.  Set a little over thirty years into the future, the titular superhero (Hugh Jackman) finds himself in the Clive Owen role, reluctantly guaranteeing a refugee child safe passage to Eden—a fabled sanctuary established for the the victims of multinational biomedical corporation Transigen’s eugenics experiments.

For the first two acts, LOGAN entrenches our emotions on three fronts:  1. The plight of Transigen’s child test subjects, each of whom the peculiar mutant Laura (Dafne Keen) recalls by name.  2. Logan, a.k.a. Wolverine’s struggle with extreme age… The deceleration of his inhuman healing; he ages far slower than the average person—given his involvement in the Civil War, he’s approaching 200 years, at least.  3. Professor Charles Xavier’s (Patrick Stewart) neurological degeneration; now entering his 90’s, the loss of control over his Omega-class psychic powers causes what can politely be described as mindquakes with devastating consequence.

In each case, director James Mangold’s treatment grounds us in familiar terrors: U.S. exploitation of third world child labor; coping with the ravages of age; watching our loved ones disappear before our eyes as their minds break down, layer by layer, and their loneliness, their misplaced guilt of feeling burdensome on their families in their last stages of consciousness.

Hiding out at an abandoned industrial site in Mexico, Logan brings medications from America to help Charles control his destructive seizures, but cannot quell his loneliness.

Their exile is disrupted by Laura, whose rescuer leaves video of the inner workings of Transigen in the hopes that the last adult mutants will protect the children. Resembling a tiny Lukas Haas, Keen’s furrowed brow steals every scene from Stewart and Jackman. She doesn’t trust humans, and for good reason. Under the guise of a cancer cure, Transigen’s chief scientist, Dr. Rice (Richard E. Grant), attempts to create mutants from scratch. It is exactly the allegory you think it is.

Amidst the action-heavy plot, Logan, Xavier and Laura hide out on a farm. While the scene infuses some relatable humanity into the franchise, we meet the farmer Will Munson (Eriq La Salle, long removed from his Soul Glo days) roadside on a freeway dominated by self-driving rigs. Here Mangold and screenwriter Scott Frank (MINORITY REPORT, THE INTERPRETER) pepper the dialogue with commentary on industrial farming and high fructose corn syrup which, in a nod to Monsanto and Cargill, turns out to be a delivery system for Transigen’s experimental, rage-inducing, mutant soldier serum.

Weakened somewhat by the dependency on third-act violence, LOGAN overall is a timely vision of what superheroes might be in a world as unsteady as the one we presently inhabit.  Mikhail Gorbachev, the architect of Perestroika, recently said in a TIME Magazine editorial, “It all looks as if the world is preparing for war.”

LOGAN show us the aftermath: the Earth we will depart, and the children who inherit the tragedy we are steadfastly determined to leave them.

Stan Lee: A Marvelous Legacy

©2016, Rubin Safaya and Cirqus Media.

The Man of the Hour at THE ROAST OF STAN LEE. Image ©2016, Rubin Safaya & Cirqus Media

Since Shel Dorf and others founded the San Diego Comic Con in 1970, the popularity of science fiction, comic book, and special interest conventions (commonly “Cons”) has grown immensely.  This past weekend, the Sheraton Dallas became host to the MARVELOUS NERD YEAR’S EVE convention.  Included among the myriad discussion panels, photo ops and meet & greets was  the celebration of Marvel Comics’ founder Stan Lee’s 94th birthday and several New Year’s Eve parties.

At a press conference on Dec. 29th, Lee opened, “What can I tell you that you don’t already know?”

The son of Romanian Jewish immigrants, Stanley Martin Lieber was born in New York City in 1922.   Not by coincidence, some of his beloved characters, ranging from Spider-Man to Captain America, call New York home.   Among his personal heroes, Lee counts Errol Flynn, who rose to stardom with Warner Bros. 1938 picture, THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD.  Apropos, Warners’ Robin Hood was perhaps the first cinematic franchise.  The following year, Lee toiled as an assistant at Timely Comics which would by 1960 become Marvel Comics.  In addition to rejecting the Comics Code Authority, Lee took a page from Campbell and, in stark contrast to Action/DC’s Superman, introduced us to relatable characters with a flawed humanity.

Whereas Lee and his creative partners at Marvel once held sway at the bleeding edge of the counterculture revolution in a manner not unlike the works of Melville, Godard, Truffaut, Cocteau and others of the French New Wave, the evolution of the Marvel Cinematic Universe today, wholly owned by Walt Disney Studios, seems to have succumbed to what Kael called “The Numbers”.   In terms of box office alone, Marvel Cinematic Universe has pulled in $10.7 billion in a decade, compared to the $35 billion STAR WARS franchise that now spans 40 years.  One can feel the pressure… none of which is heaped upon Lee who casually dismisses the Cinematic Universe as a responsibility/property from which he is far removed.

Fandom in the twenty-first century has moved beyond examining the struggles of the white, Jewish immigrant in Protestant America.  As Washington Post contributor Michael Cavna noted in 2015, social media has shifted the dynamics of fandom to a point of gender parity, partly because nerd culture is pop culture.  Whatever the reason or catalyst, here we are and yet I find myself loathing the fifteen minutes or so of CLERKS star Brian O’Halloran’s misogynistic jokes at Stan Lee’s Birthday Roast.  Did he look out into the crowd to see the diverse audience to whom he’s playing?

Full disclosure: I’m the kind of nerd who had the Star Fleet Technical Manual schematics of every starship designed for the original series.  However, I never understood the individuals who failed to see the forest through the trees.  Gene Roddenberry’s STAR TREK was always about the human story.   Science fiction and comics, especially Marvel comics, were always a vehicle for getting social commentary past media and government censors in times of social oppression.

The ongoing backslide of social discourse has led us to this moment:  A narcissistic egomaniac whose own biographer deems a sociopath is now our President Elect.  He wants to roll back every bit of progress women and minorities have made.  Not so much out of any long-term vision for this country as bullet points to boast to his already-captive audience of intellectually bankrupt devotees.  As I chatted casually with STAR TREK screenwriter David Gerrold, I wondered, what role will conventions play in the twilight of the Republic and the dawn of new fascism?

When asked what his greatest wish at 94 was, Stan Lee replied, “To have a 95th!”  That’s something to fight for.  So is inclusiveness.  So are the values that elevated Marvel to prominence.  The arts and entertainment have always been vessels of social commentary, and to abrogate that responsibility is to resign ourselves to the belief that we, as humans, as fans of fiction, cannot live up to the ideals of our heroes… be they Captain America or Errol Flynn.

 

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

@2016, Lucasfilm/Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.

(L-R) Riz Ahmed as Bodhi Rook, Diego Luna as Cassian Andor, Felicity Jones as Jyn Erso, Wen Jiang as Baze Malbus, and Donnie Yen as Chirrut Îmwe in Lucasfilm/Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures’ ROGUE ONE.

When embarking upon a dangerous mission, blind Martial arts master Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen) repeats his mantra, “The Force is with me, I am one with the Force.”  In a nutshell, this is how we feel as fans of the 39 year old STAR WARS franchise, plodding through this inspired yet lopsided jaunt through Lucasian lore.  After the eighth go around, it’s a difficult task to isolate the accumulated knowledge and think objectively about how a newcomer would receive Gareth Edwards’ ROGUE ONE.

Disney’s first attempt at expanding the sci-fantasy saga’s cinematic universe a-la Marvel proffers the story of the group of rebel spies/combatants who steal schematics of the super-weapon in George Lucas’ 1977 feature film.  Instead of a discrete prequel, this film’s appeal and its handicaps stem from writing prologue backwards from the familiar harrowing chase which effectively updated Kubrick’s USS Discovery sequence with lasers and explosions.

On the lush planet Lah’Mu, Imperial architect Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) takes refuge to protect his wife and daughter, Jyn (Felicity Jones), whose care he entrusts to rebel leader Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker).  Galen contributed to the design of the super-weapon, dubbed the Death Star, under the supervision of Director Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelssohn).  Jyn’s father, it turns out, betrayed the Galactic Empire by sending a messenger to reveal a structural weakness for the Rebellion to exploit.  Like a Biblical parable, we jump past the intervening years to the moment of Jyn’s liberation.

Edwards’ approach introducing locales and characters is refreshing; establishing shots have a moment or two to breathe.  Our fondness grows for the acerbic wit of a reprogrammed robot, K2sO (Alan Tudyk) and the bond between Chirrut and his protector, Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang).  The first act is well-conceived and well-executed if a little rushed.  But to set the bar at J.J. Abrams’ STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS is an exercise in self-deprecation.  To not admit to one’s self, fan or not, that the second and third act aren’t exercises in circuitousness, is self-flagellation.

I debated showing my cards.  As a critic, you’re generally damned if you do, damned if you don’t.  So here goes: I know who Nien Nunb is.  I’m aware that gold medalist fencer Bob Anderson stood in for Dave Prowse for the better part of RETURN OF THE JEDI.  I know Salacious Crumb’s middle initial (“B”).  I know that Crix Madine’s hairpiece is a subject of much discussion.  My ears perk up when the dissolute Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) mentions the Whills, the mythical race of historians/chroniclers in George Lucas’ rough outlines for The Adventures of Deak Starkiller out of which STAR WARS was adapted.  I understand what the inscription on Darth Vader’s chest plate means.

If all that were required to make a movie meaningful were the coattails of a multi-billion dollar franchise, then this film handily delivers all the beats and gags (look for the disfigured fellow who’s got the death sentence on twelve systems) to amuse even the most learned of STAR WARS fans.  That too, is where inconsistencies begin to infuriate both the dedicated and the uninitiated.

When Darth Vader (voiced once again for the screen by James Earl Jones) makes his appearance, we finally see him at his most vulnerable.  But it’s a visual tease.  Nothing more is made of it, unlike our first glimpse at his scarred cranium in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK prefacing the conflicted character within, whose forthcoming redemption lay squarely in the hands of his son, Luke Skywalker.  Seeing Vader abandon his usual economy of words feels so off-balance it disrupts the feel of the second act.  What was set up to be an endearing struggle against tyranny suddenly becomes a hodgepodge of in-jokes occasionally offset by well-staged action scenes.

ROGUE ONE succeeds in many places that other STAR WARS outings failed.  Space battles follow action logically in contrast to the cacophonous “more is more” philosophy embraced in the STAR WARS prequels.  Also, the film serves as testament to the diversity of ideas:  Asians, Hispanics, Brits (including Riz Ahmed of Pakistani descent) lend uniqueness to the character performances.

Conceived by Lucasfilm/ILM visual effects supervisor John Knoll, shot by Greig Fraser (ZERO DARK THIRTY, FOXCATCHER), produced by Kathleen Kennedy, the film is a kind of collaborative effort previously impossible to execute under the weight of George Lucas’ money/status.  You can sense the input of experienced actors like Yen, Luna and Mendelssohn, conducive toward natural line deliveries:  Mendelssohn’s Krennic suggests an eroded friendship with Galen; Yen’s Chirrut and Jiang’s Baze, a huggable bear of a fellow, may be more than friends.

But just as these virtues whet our appetites, appendicitis sets in.  The story becomes circuitous.  We miss the formative years of Jyn’s life—one moment Saw Gerrera abandons, then rescues her.  The Death Star plans are transmitted to Group One of the rebel fleet who departed from Base HQ at Yavin 4 only to send them on a ship back to… Yavin 4.   The film establishes faster-than-light communication; why didn’t they just radio HQ?   Learn to hate this word: retcon.

Then, the nods become the point, culminating in four or five cameos that go a few beats past whimsy toward groan-inducing.  Disney/Lucasfilm strongly emphasized the standalone nature of these anthology films, noting especially the departure from the Skywalker family saga and the absence of Jedi from ROGUE ONE.  It may have begun with an earnest desire to tell a unique story that departs from formula (you already know it’s a suicide mission, more or less), hobbled by built-in expectations of something STAR WARS.

The split-personality disorder is multiplied by Michael Giacchino’s (characteristically) anemic score, standing in for the superlative Alexandre Desplat who bowed out due to scheduling conflicts.  While John Williams is no Nino Rota, indiscriminately stealing from Holst, he does understand the importance of strong themes.  James Newton Howard and John Ottman easily crafted scores immediately identifiable with their key protagonists in UNBREAKABLE and THE USUAL SUSPECTS, following Rota’s and Elmer Bernstein’s emphasis on leitmotif.

Fraser’s cinematography is functional where it needs to be, yet falls apart where visual style is paramount.  While battles are choreographed with care, there’s no visual storytelling.  The coordination between production artist Ralph McQuarrie and DP Gilbert Taylor on A NEW HOPE produced callbacks to Westerns, sci-fi serials and jidaigeki just as Williams’ score cleverly referenced Elgar in the Throne Room ceremony.

In ROGUE ONE, the filmmakers’ consciously summon Darth Vader, ranked on AFI’s 100 Years list as the third greatest cinematic villain of all time, from a demonic lair more angular and a good eighty stories taller than Barad-Dûr.   Then, sucking all the wind out of that scene, they use wide shots.

Many great cinematographers hail from Poland, and EMPIRE STRIKES BACK’s Peter Suschitzky is no exception.  The difference between the hero shot and, let’s call it, the villain shot, is that the hero looks down his nose at his opposition.  The villain, and especially Darth Vader, stares directly down into his enemy’s soul.  ROGUE ONE begins as an inspired concept, only to conclude with a soulless stare.

From the Editor: A Letter to Senator John Cornyn

Dear Senator Cornyn,

 

Your recent comments trivializing the potential interference in our democratic process by a foreign nation concern me deeply because you seem to be more preoccupied with party than country.  Why, if Benghazi was a priority for you, are you not pushing for all the facts to come to light?   Why do the American people not deserve to know whether or not our democracy is threatened by outside influence.  Senate Majority Leader McConnell has joined the call to continue a bipartisan investigation of the matter, and your social media people have tweeted as such.

 

You were the one who called for a special prosecutor to investigate Clinton’s emails.  But you characterize this as “not news”.  How do you think that builds confidence in your constituents that you are in fact looking out for America? You are the Chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on the Constitution.  As it stands, there are numerous questions arising about Donald Trump’s allegiance to the United States and his ability to carry out the Oath he will be administered on January 20th unless Electors deem he is unfit for office.  And they may. Two days after the election, I spoke with my elector Chris Suprun who I’m sure you know has decided not to cast a vote for Trump due to grave concerns about his fitness for office. That was before the CIA report. Mr. Suprun, like myself and other constituents of yours has in fact stated that he supports a deeper investigation.  Today, at least ten electors want to be briefed by the Director of National Intelligence prior to their vote on the 19th.

 

As Chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on the Constitution, you have no more important task than preserving the integrity of our election. Abortions can wait.  Obamacare can wait.  If you do not put this matter forward first, then what does that tell us about you? What legacy does that leave?  As I told Mr. Suprun before he made his choice: You have a choice.  You choose how you want to be remembered.

 

Thank you.