Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) (PG-13)

This review contains SPOILERS!
"Rogue One" should be un-spoilable (which isn't a word, I realize). This is the nature of prequels. We know what's going to happen and from just the trailer we know roughly what the movie is about: the reconnaissance mission that captured the plans for the Death Star prior to Episode IV. If this comes as news to you, you either didn't read the spoiler alert, didn't watch any of the trailers, or have no idea about any of the "Star Wars" movies, in which case you probably shouldn't watch "Rogue One". This is a movie filled with Easter eggs and wonderful side moments to placate the many "Star Wars" fans.
But as much as it fits into the cannon of "Star Wars",  "Rogue One" is most decidedly not a "Star Wars" movie in the modus operandi of the original Lucas films. This is because Lucas is, against all odds, an optimist and due to the structure of a simple narrative, we can expect certain outcomes. "Rogue One" defies this, and rightly so.
Although the Lucas optimism might make a safer film, the critical and popular reception to this movie thus far has proven that the writers made the right decision. All that being said, do not go into "Rogue One" thinking that it will be a perfect movie because—even though it adds so much complexity to the original trilogy without treading on the sanctity of the beloved franchise (no easy feat)—this is a movie with a lot of faults.
The first half of the film is clunky and slow. We jump between crucial figures who get no real introduction including Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), two characters whose important is soon explained by their proximity to the story's protagonist Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones). It feels like Roger Ebert's complaint of Nolan's closing "Dark Knight" film: there is too much going on in too short of a time. Sometimes the cue cards that tell us which planet we are whipping off to show of writer Tony Gilroy's "Bourne" franchise credentials. It should come as no surprise that Darth Vader makes an appearance but after all the hype, I almost wish that that scene was cut from the movie because it feels patronizing and cheap.
Yet the film slows down and introduces a few crucial characters like Chirrut Îmwe and Baze Malbus (played by Donnie Yen and Wen Jiang) and the robotic sassy character K-2SO voiced pretty perfectly by Alan Tudyk. What's almost amazing about all this is that we don't feel so lost when the movie gains its footing.
"Rogue One" asks complex questions about determination, ethics, and self-sacrifice. Although it does wrap up very nicely, the impact of the movie was very clearly felt in the theater I went to see it at. The reaction was very physical.
I think the reason "Rogue One's" second half is so splendid is because it decidedly moves away from the Lucas campy film making that we somewhat expect. This is a movie almost forty years later that is re-imagining the entire franchise and somehow this works really well. Although there seems to other alternative, it's nice to see a movie with this kind of budget committing to the only outcome that feels honest to the story it is telling. It does not coddle its viewer.
This also proves that Gareth Edwards is a force behind the camera. As only his third movie, "Rogue One" will likely not be the high point of the "Monsters" and "Godzilla" director. He handles the action sequences with such spectacle that it's almost breathtaking.
"Rogue One" feels like the very first "Star Wars" movie that actually lives up to its namesake. This movie is about a war; and we realize that immediately.
All my complaints aside, "Rogue One" is a testament to everyone who worked on the film. It's artistry meeting blockbuster and I feel hopeful (pun intended) that other action movies will take cues from this and follow in its footsteps.
"Rogue One" deserves all the praise it is getting. Go see it in the theaters.

Score: ★★★½

Arrival (2016) (PG-13)

This review contains SPOILERS!
There's something familiar about the idea of aliens coming from the far corners of the universe to visit us. Maybe it's because we have an idea of our self-importance and place in the cosmos that makes Earth the central target for all these types of movies. And naturally, there are two possible outcomes for an extraterrestrial visit to earth: it is in peace and in the name of science, or it is in the name of war and conquest.
Hearing the setup for "Arrival" one would immediately assume that something like "Independence Day" would ensue. Twelve monolithic type ships descend from space and stop at various places across the globe. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) in voice-over narration makes note of the occurrence as not something that she views as a beginning or ending or anything; but simply a monumental visit that changed everything.
We expect, in the first five minutes, to be thrown into a government meeting with military experts who will then tell us that violence appears to be the only answer; but this isn't what we get. Instead, "Arrival" side-steps every single major convention of the genre that we have some sort of Pavlovian reaction to. We see an alien ship, we start to salivate.
Instead, we get a sense of unease a dread from a civilian perspective, and in all truth, it's this that grants understanding that "Arrival" might be the very first movie to treat this subject with any sense of severity, emotional integrity, and intellectual gravitas.
Louise Banks, a linguistics expert, is approached by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) who plays her a sampling of an interaction with the beings in the ships. This recording is incomprehensible but Louise still asks to be taken to the ship itself because the interactions with the aliens might be more helpful to her. After denying this request, Weber is back with a scientist in tow, Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner). It's very clear that these are the two ways of approaching something like this: the scientist who wants to know the how and the linguist who has the ask the question.
"Arrival" is a movie that thrives on its script more than anything else. It's a precise work that is almost shockingly perfect. There is not a dull moment in the middle section of the movie and most of this should be credited to both Eric Heisserer and Denis Villeneuve whose previous work has made him into a critic's darling, and rightfully so.
A simple UFO visitation turns into a poetic contemplation on time, language, the meaning of communication, the media's fear of the unknown, memories, and being able to chose your own destiny. Though some of that is almost eye-rolling cliche at this point in cinematic history, "Arrival" manages to present the issues and themes in entirely new ways with such pacing and immersion that you might forget there is anything else besides this movie.
The ending strains for a climax that it ultimately cannot deliver quite as well as the set-up but what we're left with when the dust settles is an evenly paced, magnificently scored, eerie commentary on a host of issues.
There is no loss of the sense of irony that I must rely on words to convey how much I liked "Arrival". Most of the movie allows to realize that a bad translation without connotation or intent is like taking a sentence out of context and ending civilization with it. Every word matters.
And with that weight we are given two incredibly understated and wonderful performances by Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner. Their chemistry is powerfully quiet and restrained.
"Arrival" is not just the best science fiction movie of the year, it's one of the best films of the year and it's one of the smartest science fiction movies in the last decade.

Score: ★★★★

Enter the Dragon (1973)

Bruce Lee is a large figure in cinematic history. Not because of his stature or his personality, but because he along with a few other people like Jackie Chan, popularized the martial arts movie genre in Hollywood. As perhaps the most well-known of his works, "Enter the Dragon" shows why he became such a superstar that his name is still a household feature even to those who have never seen his movies.
A decade after the first James Bond movie, "Enter the Dragon" feels very much in the vein of 007. Its premise is eye-rollingly simplistic and its execution is very standard and yet, this isn't an art house movie attempting to revolutionize the film industry. This is something that was made to entertain and it succeeds on most fronts.
The movie is acceptably short and never contains any unnecessary scenes, albeit the script might contains unnecessary characters.
In the film, the poetry of martial arts is not lost to Lee (Bruce Lee) who is being trained at one of the most illustrious academies in the world. A prior student has left the school and its altruistic manner of thinking and has decided to go rouge, as it were. Any suggestion of Sarah Palin aside, this is pretty much "Star Wars" before "Star Wars" and here martial arts is the Force and this school is the Jedis. But whatever...moving on.
This rouge ex-student is named Han (Kien Shih) (yes, Han like Han Solo) and he holds a tournament on the island he owns for masters of martial arts to come and compete for a prize. This kind of rough and tumble free for all method of fighting is not Lee's style, yet a few officials in some government agency approach Lee and ask him to be their spy. Lee also has emotional ties to this case, but I won't say anything on the matter.
Anyways, so there's the premise: assemble the best fighters in the world on one island where shady somethings are happening and ask Lee to figure it all out.
The aforementioned Bond franchise should not be forgotten because the music is so jazzy/rock-n-roll that it's impossible to ignore James Bond's impact on the action film before "Enter the Dragon". There's nothing in the movie that would be particularly rememberable and yet, it is very fun throughout. It moves quickly, it has a solid, if beaten down plot, and Bruce Lee is a very watchable lead.
The movie does break down in terms of the actions of the protagonist. We see him teaching a pupil early in the movie about what martial arts is and he tells the student to fight him with emotion...but not anger. Well, don't pay any attention to that because Lee does becomes somewhat of a rage monster towards the end of the movie and other films would take these moments to show how the protagonist is flawed and have them learn from it...but not this flick. It just barrels past these moments at a breakneck speed to the conclusion. And I suppose I can't blame them for that.
Spies, thrills, fights, etc. What more did you want?

Score: ★★★

Batman Returns (1992) (PG-13)

Tim Burton's second voyage into superhero territory is probably best known for its villains. Though "Batman" and its sequel were crafted with the goal of being blockbuster movies—the film's carnival approach to death and destruction a far cry from the quasi-'realism' of the Nolan movies—it feels like all the right pieces of an art house movie inside something Terry Gilliam only dreams about. The large sets, the overt acting—it all rings true of a less poignant "Brazil". Yet what escapes the almost incoherent revelry is a solid movie and a few iconic performances.
After the Joker was defeated in "Batman", a new super villain emerges, The Penguin. The movie opens with the birth scene of this deformed animal/man and his parents decision to throw him into the sewer on Christmas so they can be rid of the responsibility of raising him and also to save their own socialite public figure. This sets up the wrestling issues and themes of the rest of the movie: the privileged versus the tenacious; the stable versus the sane; and the politics of manipulating power.
A few important figures are introduced in the beginning moments of "Batman Returns", we see Shreck (Christopher Walken) a business man whose villainy is not so subtly hidden under his dealings. He wishes to control all the power of Gotham, both figuratively and literally. Then there's the sitting mayor (Michael Murphy) who seems to just be a pawn in the hands of those who wish to take his place. Shreck's shady dealings don't go unnoticed by his anxious secretary, Selina Kyle (Michelle Pfeiffer) but she is either too innocent or too naive to realize that she might have gotten in over her head until its too late.
"Batman Returns" doesn't follow any typical trajectory of a superhero movie. We're never really quite sure who the "big bad guy" is, because the power dynamics keep shifting throughout the film. Pretty much every characters besides Batman goes through ups and downs in their ability to adhere to the audience's sense of morality, which is to say, they switch from Batman's side to the other side and back again. The Penguin (Danny DeVito) is sometimes the mastermind of a plan and sometimes he falls into the hands of a more conniving Shreck and vice versa.
Although this view of shifting powers is true in the context of the movie, it's also possibly giving the film too much credit. After all, this is a movie that was designed to please crowds and it's very enjoyable to watch. The story arc of Selina Kyle turned Cat Woman is so deliciously fun that the movie is worth watching for that alone. Michelle Pfeiffer pulls out all the claws and scratches her way into a mentally disturbed, power savvy antihero who wants to exact revenge on her shady boss. There are some inconsistencies here with Cat Woman, mainly with the writing and how she seems to be able to get easy access to each other and is commonly united against either Shreck, the Penguin, or Batman at different times depending on where you are in the plot. Yet what the movie lacks in organization, it makes up for with sheer color.
The film's greatest success is that it never entirely loses its sense of tragedy and sorrow even underneath all the cooky costumes and robotic penguins. This, actually, is something Roger Ebert criticized about the movie; but I appreciate that, amidst all the crazy explosions and frankly bizarre plot turns, we see the back of Selina Kyle, looking into a glass store and saying "why are you doing this?" It's a small moment that gets lost in a larger performance but it reminds us that some of these characters are actually struggling and hurting inside their masks (a not so subtle theme the movie threads into the dialogue).
There is a lot to roll your eyes at, particularly some of the more comical dialogue provided by the Penguin. But maybe Nolan ruined the Adam West style of Batman, or maybe Tim Burton is just deftly standing in between madness and humor and nonchalantly shrugging, letting us love or hate the gray areas.

Score: ★★★