Thoughts on Star Wars: Rogue One

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Property of Disney.

Star Wars means many things to many people. For me, the franchise is an integral part of the foundation upon which all my interests have been built. I spent years watching the original trilogy at least once a week, playing with the toys and video games (Shadows of the Empire remains one of my favorites), constructing the Lego sets, and writing stories of my own (nearly all about Boba Fett). I was and am obsessed with Star Wars.

In 2012, when I heard that Disney had purchased Star Wars from creator George Lucas and was planning to make their own films, I was skeptical. Unlike many, I do not harbor an intense hatred for the Star Wars prequels. I don’t even dislike them. I find the underlying story of Palpatine’s sabotage of the Republic interesting and I always enjoyed the tragic friendship between Anakin and Obi-wan Kenobi. Also, Darth Maul is undeniably cool. However, I understand where those films failed to capture the spirit of the originals. Last year’s The Force Awakens, however, banished any doubt I had about the saga films’ quality; it paid homage to the original trilogy while also managing to reorient itself onto a new and exciting path. Though I love that film and the rebirth it provided for the franchise, I think Rogue One has given me something even better: hope. A new hope, one might say, that we as an audience will get to explore the vast and glorious beauty that the Star Wars universe has to offer. That being said, here is why.

Rogue One is unlike any Star Wars film before it; not only because it is the first in a series of standalone films (the untitled Young Han Solo project will come out next in 2018), but because of its distinct tone. There is no swashbuckling sense of adventure here. This is a film about war and the cost of freedom from tyranny. Set just before Star Wars: Episode IV, the story follows Jyn Erso, a delinquent and drifter whose childhood was stolen from her by the Empire. Her father, Galen Erso, is a brilliant scientist specializing in Kyber crystal research and technology. The crystals powered the lightsabers of the Jedi and, consequently, serve as the power source for the Death Star’s planet-killing laser cannon. After a tragedy sees Galen thrust into the custody of the Empire, a young Jyn is spirited away by Rebel soldier/extremist Saw Gerrera.

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The Death Star looms. Property of Disney.

Years later she is rescued from Imperial captivity by the Rebellion and given a task. Word has reached them that an Imperial pilot has defected and carries a message from her father. The only problem is that the pilot is currently in the custody of Saw Gerrera, who has since splintered from the Rebellion due to his extremist tendencies. The Rebels hope that Jyn and Saw’s former relationship will be enough to convince him to have an audience so that they may determine the validity of the pilot’s message. Faced with the possibility of seeing her father again and clearing his name – most of the Rebels think he is a genuine Imperial sympathizer – Jyn agrees to the task. Unfortunately, Orson Krennic, director of the Death Star program and the man who captured Galen in the first place, has also heard of the pilot’s defection and suspects Galen to be the cause. Events transpire, a team builds around Jyn, and the true stakes of Galen’s message are revealed: the newly operational Death Star has a weakness, one which is described in its plans. With time running out, Jyn and company form a last ditch effort to locate the plans for the Death Star before it’s too late.

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Felicity Jones as Jyn Erso. Property of Disney.

Though you may know the end of the story, the greatest success of Rogue One is that that doesn’t matter. It’s an intense ride full of war and destruction. The stakes are real and palpable for the duration of the film. This is mainly because of the characters. You care about every one of them. Sure they are developed in broad strokes, but those strokes are calculated and effective. Jyn Erso, as played by Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything, Like Crazy), is an incredible protagonist. She’s a person who’s been hurt deeply and repeatedly by life, but she’s a fighter, powered by her love for her father, and later, the idea at the heart of the Rebellion: hope. Seeing her transform from a grudging participant to a rebel with a real sense of agency is one of the best parts of the film. Felicity Jones’ exemplary acting elevates an already interesting character into someone who feels real and lived in; we’re only offered a glimpse of her life, but we care.

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Diego Luna as Cassian Andor. Property of Disney.

Jyn is assisted by Rebel intelligence officer Cassian Andor, played by Diego Luna (Milk, Y Tu Mamá También). A lifelong Rebel, Cassian offers the audience a glimpse of the lengths to which even “one of the good guys” must go in order to fight the suffocating evil of the Empire. Like Jyn, Cassian is damaged, but Luna goes a long way to instill within Cassian a sense of duty and determination. The development of his relationship with Jyn is easily one of the highlights of the film, as they both come to teach each other about what it truly means to be a rebel.

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Cassian and K-2SO (motion captured/voiced by Alan Tudyk). Property of Disney.

Cassian’s partner is K-2SO played by Alan Tudyk (Firefly, Dodgeball), a reprogrammed Imperial security droid with a droll sense of humor and a tendency for stating unfortunate odds. Though K-2SO could have easily been relegated to comic relief, he thankfully avoids that role, instead serving as a stalwart companion just as likely to draw chuckles as fist pumps. Tudyk’s perfect comedic timing as well as his ability to imbue even the most monotone characters with emotional depth (he played Sonny in I, Robot as well) make K-2SO a standout in a film full of stand outs.

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Riz Ahmed as Bodhi Rook. Property of Disney.

Rounding out the main cast are Riz Ahmed as Bodhi Rook, Wen Jiang as Baze Malbus, and Donnie Yen as Chirrut Imwe. Riz Ahmed, fresh off his Golden Globe nominated work in the HBO series The Night Before, plays the Imperial defector, Bodhi. A man with true knowledge of what it’s like to be a cog within the Imperial machine, Ahmed does a good job making Bodhi fearful, but not cowardly. He wants the galaxy to be a better place and it is upon his volition that this story begins. Perhaps the closest thing to an audience surrogate as this film gets, seeing Bodhi find his courage is a wonderful experience.

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Donnie Yen as Chirrut Imwe. Property of Disney.

Baze Malbus and Chirrut Imwe are a team; Chirrut a blind, monk-like figure that appears to be Force-sensitive; Baze his gun-wielding protector. Though their backstory remains a mystery, it is their camaraderie that makes a lasting impression.

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Wen Jiang as Baze Malbus. Property of Disney.

Chirrut’s spiritual encouragements are routinely negated by a gruff dose of reality from Baze, but it is clear that they care for one another. This is thanks to Donnie Yen and Wen Jiang’s tangible chemistry, which is a highlight of every scene they’re in together. Though more static in their arc than some of the other characters (and for good reason), Chirrut and Baze’s relationship with Jyn strikes its own tone and is just as compelling as the rest.

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Ben Mendelsohn as Director Orson Krennic. Property of Disney.

As you can see, I loved the main cast, and the supporting players are just as good. Ben Mendelsohn (Bloodline, Killing Them Softly) is appropriately loathsome as Director Orson Krennic. A ruthless man of great ambition, Krennic’s arc is interesting in that it parallels Jyn’s, but also explores the dog-eat-dog nature of the Imperial infrastructure. His interactions with another Imperial character, who I will not name here for the sake of the reader, are tense and antagonistic, each statement threaded with barbs and disdain.

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Mads Mikkelsen as Galen Erso. Property of Disney.

Mads Mikkelsen (Hannibal, Doctor Strange) plays Galen Erso, Jyn’s father. I have written at length about the wonders of Mads Mikkelsen’s acting. Put simply, he is one of the finest actors we have today. He makes the most of his limited screen time as Galen, portraying him as a man wracked with guilt, yet full of love for his daughter. His actions are a final attempt at making peace with what he’s done and giving the galaxy a chance for a future without the Empire. There is an urgency to Mikkelsen here, a sense of doom (both personal and galactic) that makes Galen a standout in a film full of standouts.

(On a side note: Galen and Orson have a long and intriguing relationship before the events of this film, elucidated in the book Catalyst, by James Luceno. It is a riveting Star Wars book and a necessity for anyone wishing to explore the characters of this film further.)

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Forest Whitaker as Saw Gerrera.

Forest Whitaker (Arrival, The Last King of Scotland) recreates himself in the wheezing, heavily augmented form of Saw Gerrera. Too extreme for even the Rebellion, Rogue One finds Saw on the world of Jedha, leading his own personal splinter group of insurgents. Saw has clearly suffered a lot in his life and there’s a bit of madness in his eyes, but overall he is a person completely dedicated to the idea of the Rebellion and the Empire’s end. He is willing to sacrifice everything to see that done. Whitaker chose a distinct voice for this character, a wheezing, breathless voice that speaks to the extensive damage done to Saw’s body. I enjoyed it and found Whitaker mesmerizing. His time with Jyn in particular is powerful and an important step on her path toward heroism.

Besides the incredible cast, Rogue One is a triumph of style and design. The costuming and production design are unparalleled, harkening back the Ralph McQuarrie-ness of the originals while also adding a new dimension and flavor to the universe. The cinematography by Greig Fraser (Foxcatcher, Zero Dark Thirty) is beautiful, yet retains a gritty, documentarian appeal which can also be credited to director Gareth Edwards. Known for the indie Monsters and his 2014 reboot of Godzilla, Edwards deftly makes the jump to mega blockbuster with Rogue One, creating an experience at once epic and intimate. It really is the “war film” that he spent so many months talking about. Kudos must also be given to composer Michael Giacchino (Lost, Star Trek: Beyond), who replaced Alexander Desplat at the last minute and reportedly completed the score in 4 ½ weeks (what?!). His work here is sumptuous and grand and, most importantly, original; it only just touches upon familiar themes, but in new and exciting ways.

Finally, we come to fan service. There are all manner of references in this film, but for the most part they appear in organic and pleasing ways. A pair of them surprised me so much I nearly jumped up in my seat. That’s the beauty of Star Wars. It is old and new. Sitting in a packed theatre tonight I saw hundreds of people of all sorts affected and moved by this film, joined together in joy at what they were witnessing, cheering just as hard for the familiar as they were for the new. That is the power of Star Wars and it is my supreme pleasure to say that Rogue One met and exceeded my expectations. I hope everyone goes out and supports this movie so that we may continue to explore the untold bounds this universe outside of the Skywalker saga; so that we’ll get that story about the Jedi Knights of the Old Republic, so that we can delve into the criminal underworld of Coruscant, and perhaps, just maybe, we’ll see the return of a certain Mandalorian bounty hunter with a T-shaped visor.

One can dream.

But Star Wars is the stuff of dreams; a far-ranging, science-fantasy epic that clearly has much more story to tell. Whatever that story is, I’ll be there.

Thoughts on Moonlight

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Film is an important, vital art form. So often it is neglected as an educational medium, but a good film not only affects us on an emotional level, it can allow us to experience the lives and cultures of others removed from ourselves. Moonlight is a perfect example of this incredible, sympathetic power.  A devastating triptych, it is a journey of self-discovery told over three acts in the life of Chiron, a gay black man.

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Alex R. Hibbert as “Little” Chiron. Property of A24.

The first follows Chiron as a child, navigating the difficulties of his home life with his drug-addict mother as well as his burgeoning friendship with a local drug dealer named Juan. Already cognizant of how he is different from the other boys he knows, the film deftly explores the loneliness of childhood and the cruelty of children.

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Ashton Sanders as Chiron. Property of A24.

The second act follows Chiron as a young man in high school, living in a world that’s all surface, filled with posturing and forced stoicism. His desire for friendship, for acceptance extends beyond his difficult days at school to his home life, where his mother’s drug addiction has wasted her into a needy husk of a woman. Despite his general isolation and confused feelings about being gay, another young man has taken an interest in him and the seeds of a potential friendship are sewn.

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Trevante Rhodes as “Black” Chiron. Property of A24.

The third act finds Chiron as a man in his twenties, having become something and someone else, obscuring his true self to fit into a mold crafted by society. Here, after a surprising phone call, he struggles to reconcile his troubled past with the possibilities presented by the future. However, he must come to terms with who he truly is if there’s any hope for happiness.

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Property of A24.

Irony is a grand player in Moonlight and something that director Barry Jenkins’ (Medicine for Melancholy) conversational, yet deeply heartfelt script manages to capture in a realistic, yet compelling way. Irony is what makes Juan and Chiron’s relationship so tragic: the one man who cares for him is also a peddler of the very thing that is destroying his mother. Later, in Chiron’s attempt to escape his otherness, he becomes the stoic, posturing bully he hated in high school. These are not grand twists and there are no winks at the camera. These are life’s ironies, tragic and wholly believable in their rawness. They invigorate character relationships and create palpable emotional baggage that carries through the films three distinct acts.

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Property of A24.

The emotional isolation that is a constant in the story is called into focus by Jenkins’ distinct directorial choices and James Laxton’s breathtakingly intimate cinematography. Chiron’s life is one of removal, both physical and emotional. When Chiron is himself, the camera remains tight, floating close, giving the audience a taste of the suffocating nature of others’ judgment as well as Chiron’s fear of the world around him. Yet there is an intimacy to this closeness as well, captured in the moments where the camera drifts back just enough to allow another person into the frame. When Chiron is comfortable with others, there’s a calmness to the picture, which remains free-floating, but mostly still. This is in distinct contrast to the Chiron of the third act, who is filmed in wide shots as if he were a different person entirely. Though that description was a bit technical, the manner in which this film was shot speaks to the immense care and consideration put into its construction. Chiron’s personal journey through isolation and exclusion in search of self-discovery is invigorated by these creative choices and further enlivened by the distinct lighting, which casts the world in intense whites, soft golds, and varying shades of blue, red, and purple.

However, despite the stylistic successes of this film, it would mean little without a strong group of central performances. Fortunately, all three Chirons – Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes – are wonderful. Hibbert possesses a naturalism often absent in child actors. Sanders does a great job of navigating Chiron’s confusion and struggles as a teen. Rhodes, perhaps given the meatiest part, has the task of taking a character we’ve come to know over the course of the film, obscuring his true self, and then slowly peeling away at that false exterior one scene at a time; a difficult job for any actor, but Rhodes makes it look easy.

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Mahershala Ali as Juan and Alex R. Hibbert as “Little” Chiron. Property of A24. 

Though there are other supporting actors in the film, the two standouts are definitely Mahershala Ali as Juan and Naomie Harris as Chiron’s mother, Paula. Though not in the film for long, Mahershala Ali makes the most of his time, playing Juan with a charm and charisma at odds with the darkness of his profession. A man of contradictions, Ali manages to capture Juan’s shame and disappointment with himself without being maudlin. His affection and paternal love for Chiron, likewise, is completely earnest and beautifully performed. I wouldn’t be surprised if Ali got a Best Supporting Actor nomination, if only for his incredible monologue which is one of the best and most important scenes in the film. Along with his fine performance in Luke Cage, Ali is having a great year and I can’t wait to see more of him in the future, hopefully as a leading man.

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Naomie Harris as Paula. Property of A24. 

Noamie Harris delivers a heartrending performance as Chiron’s mother, Paula. Harris, reliable in pretty much any role, avoids the potential one-note pitfall of portraying a drug addict, instead making Paula a tragic figure whose love for her son is hidden away and overpowered by her uncontrollable addiction. Over time she, like the adult Chiron, peels back the layers of herself, becoming three-dimensional through regret from her actions and a desire for connection, the same connection that Chiron yearned for and was denied in his youth. It’s a painful arc, but one that Harris plays to perfection.

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Property of A24.

All of this – the performances, the direction, the writing, the cinematography – add up to a beautiful, moving, and deeply personal film; one that shines a light on the seldom illuminated culture of gay black men in America. Chiron’s struggle with his otherness is heartbreaking, but his journey of self-discovery and self-acceptance is empowering, and ultimately, hopeful. And that is the beauty of the film. It offers a portal into the life of a marginalized person, showing the needless nature of that marginalization and the strength of that person to endure through adversity in an effort to become their truest self.

Overall, Moonlight is a beautiful, necessary story for today’s world and one that demands to be seen.

Thoughts on Arrival

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Science fiction is a genre rich with possibility. A story can take place anywhere and be about anything, exploring the human experience through a boundless lens that allows for interstellar travel, time travel, extraterrestrials and more. However, the true strength of science fiction as a genre rests in its ability to use the extreme, the impossible to plumb the depths of the human experience; through extremity, themes are explored in ways that a normal setting would not allow. For years literature has entertained and terrified with countless “hard” sci-fi stories. Unfortunately, given the time-sensitive format of film, cinema has lagged behind in creating an abundance of more cerebral fair. That is not to say that they do not exist; Ex Machina and Interstellar were recently released to wide acclaim, but films like these are in the minority when compared to the number of special-effects driven blockbusters that flood theatres every year. That is why Arrival is so refreshing. It’s a “First Contact” alien story without the space battles or explosions. Instead, its story is propelled by relationships and a powerful message.

The premise is simple: one day twelve enormous space-faring vessels land on Earth. A brilliant linguist named Louise Banks is recruited by the army to attempt to communicate with the beings aboard a ship that has settled in a field in Montana. Along with the help of theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly, Louise meets with the alien life forms and attempts to decipher their complex form of communication as national tensions mount.

To say any more would be an extreme disservice to the incredibly clever way the film is constructed: its characters’ emotional arcs rise in tandem with the intensifying conflict, allowing for a series of events that are at once epic and intimate. Furthermore, the film provides one of the finest protagonists in recent memory. No matter the dire stakes, at the heart of this tale is Louise. Amy Adams turns in one of the best performances of her career, imbuing within Louise a strong moral compass that seems to have been nurtured and developed through her love of language. Communication across the globe is so nuanced and varied that to take any communicative action or perceived communicative action at face value is a mistake; it’s a shallow, surface response that is often as much ego as it is fear and expectation. Louise knows what may be a respectful gesture in one culture may seem like an insult in another; given this unique viewpoint, she approaches communicating with the extraterrestrials as a person seeking to understand them as a species and as a culture, rather than specifically trying to discover what they want from Earth (much to her Army overlords’ displeasure). Adams artfully conveys Louise’s intense curiosity, wonder, and empathy, as well as her extreme frustration as events spiral out of her control. Perhaps the film’s greatest achievement is contrasting Louise’s extreme empathy and desire for communication with the ugly, fearful tribalism to which much of humanity seems to revert in times of extreme crisis. For Louise, communication is life, it is what brings people together and allows them to share in the vast possibilities of collected knowledge.

Jeremy Renner ably serves as Adams’ support in the form of Ian Donnelly. In a refreshing twist of gender norms (at least in film), his character is the one off which Louise bounces ideas as well as her frustrations. Though having a tangible effect on the events of the film, this is still very much Louise’s story; yet by making Donnelly the support, Renner is given the opportunity to turn in a performance full of warmth and compassion. Donnelly’s belief in Louise’s abilities and intellect develops alongside the audience’s and the way Renner conveys his growing support of Louise is subtle, yet moving and one of the best parts of an immaculate film.

It may sound like I’m being hyperbolic, but this film is truly excellent. An artful, contemplative science-fiction story that asks from the viewer as much as it gives. Much credit must be paid to director Denis Villeneuve’s nuanced, thoughtful approach to film – he directed Sicario, also a sizzling slow-burn and one of my favorite films from last year – but one would be remiss to forget the work of Eric Heisserer, who wrote the script based on Ted Chiang’s short, “Story of Your Life.” A passion project written on spec (with no assignment; no money up-front), Heisserer’s love for the source material and story is clear from the first moments of the film. The dialogue is sparse, yet realistic; all emotional beats are organic and earned. Heisserer’s written work is only strengthened by Villeneuve’s directing style, which tends more toward art-house than blockbuster. I must also commend Villeneuve on his dedication to silence; like one of my other favorite directors, Nicolas Winding Refn, Villeneuve lets his films breathe, lets characters look at one another and allows for the actors’ talent to shine through in those quiet moments. Given his incredible success with this film, I can’t wait to see what he does with his next project, the sequel to Blade Runner.

Lensed by Bradford Young (Selma, A Most Violent Year), Arrival is beautiful. Shots of nature and architecture are juxtaposed with the absolutely foreign appearance of the alien vessels and the extraterrestrials themselves. Memory flashes are interspersed throughout the film, shot in such a manner as to express the intimacy of remembered moments: beautiful, idyllic fragments that hit incredibly hard. All of these images are accompanied by a wondrous, sometimes quiet, sometimes pulsing score by Jóhann Jóhannsson, who has quickly become one of my favorite composers with his varied work in films like Sicario and The Theory of Everything. Also, the design of the alien language, developed by designer Patrice Vermette and artist Martine Bertrand, is beautifully intricate and completely convincing as a millennia-old form of communication.

All this being said, Arrival is a magnificent and oddly timely film. It urges the absolute necessity for communication across cultures and borders; a communication that is not merely surface-level, but born from a genuine desire to understand that which is different and “other.” The film’s plea for empathy is a powerful one, deftly delivered in one of the best film’s I’ve seen in recent memory. I cannot recommend it enough.

Thoughts on Hell or High Water

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Property of Lionsgate.

There is a certain mythic quality to the western genre, something that is timeless in its appeal. It might be because of the archetypal characters: the unpredictable outlaw, the quiet hero, the hard-as-nails lawman. Or maybe it’s the setting that somehow remains the same despite the passage of time. Dusty towns and plains serve as the stage for tales of revenge, family, and greed. The best of these stories are explorations of morality and violence. In Unforgiven, Clint Eastwood’s Will Munny struggles with the sins of his past as the era of the Wild West comes to a close. No Country for Old Men is a meditation on evil and the inexorable, relentless march of time. Director David Mackenzie’s latest film, Hell or High Water is an exploration of brotherhood and (in)justice in a time where villains aren’t people, but corporations.

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Ben Foster and Chris Pine as Tanner and Toby Howard. Property of Lionsgate.

Toby and Tanner Howard are bank robbers. They might not be stealing from the rich to give to the poor, but their plight is understandable; they seek to wrong those that wronged them. Yet, in a modern twist, the subject of their revenge is not a person, but a bank. The less one knows about the circumstances of their struggle at the onset, the better, but I will say that Hell or High Water has three of the most compelling characters in a drama this year and the bulk of the film deals with the Howard brothers’ relationship to one another. Toby is an intelligent, quiet man whose potential seems to have been hamstrung by the circumstances of his birth; his family has always been poor and in the barrens of West Texas, opportunities are scarce. His brother, Tanner, is an ex-con coming off of a long prison sentence. He is a man accustomed to violence and accepting of his role as an outcast, standing against everything and everyone. Yet, somehow, the film makes him a sympathetic character, a person with absolutely nothing save the love he has for his brother. Together, they bond as they hit bank after bank in an attempt to raise a specific sum of money so that Toby can finally look toward the future. However, one man stands in their way: Marcus Hamilton.

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Jeff Bridges as Marcus Hamilton and Gil Birmingham as Alberto Parker. Property of Lionsgate.

Marcus is an ageing ranger who fears that his impending retirement is more of a death sentence than a reward for his years of service. A man out of time, Marcus – affably sarcastic and always ready with a cutting remark – seems as if he was born in the wrong era. His heroes didn’t get to retire. Theirs was the way of the gun and in the Howard brothers he sees the opportunity for a grand exit. Along with his half-Mexican, half-Native American partner, Alberto, Marcus pursues the Howard brothers across West Texas, trying to piece together evidence to form a possible explanation for their drastic actions.

All of this drama is set against desolate plains and towns lost to time. Closed-down shops and dilapidated trailers line dusty streets, while cloudless skies exaggerate the immense emptiness of the countryside. Adding to the film’s grit is a subtle undercurrent of irony; a number of roadside signs are spot-lighted, claiming “Cheap Loans” and “Fast Cash.” Like 2012’s Brad Pitt hitman drama, Killing Them Softly, Hell or High Water has a lot to say about the evils of greed and corporate overreach, however, unlike that film (which I also think is brilliant) it manages to separate itself by its relative silence. Exposition is doled out in sparse tidbits, muttered without context, leaving the viewer to piece together the circumstances of the Howards’ crime spree as the movie progresses, ramping up to a breathless ending of nail-biting intensity. Marcus’ backstory is likewise one of mystery until the mystique exuded in earlier scenes gives way to the sobering reality of a man facing the next phase of his life with no clue as to how he should proceed.

Despite the extremity of the characters’ actions in the film, nothing ever feels disingenuous or heightened. Rather the Howards’ financial woes seem to be the very same that a large number of lower to middle class Americans are facing today. Marcus’ struggles point more toward the passage of time and the developing complexity of the modern world, a place controlled by faceless entities and esoteric laws, neither of which a bullet can harm. In pursuing the Howards, Marcus seems to chase an idyllic past, one that might never have existed anywhere but his mind, where lawmen fought outlaws and bullets flew; no red tape, no post-incident reports, no retirement.

Overall this is a character piece and every actor present is at the top of their game. Chris Pine finally finds a drama beyond Star Trek worthy of his talent. His Toby is a weary, reasonable man pushed to the edge by things far larger than himself. His desperation is palpable, but like all parts of his character, quiet. He doesn’t want to rob these banks, he doesn’t want anyone to get hurt. Meanwhile, the ever-reliable Ben Foster (The Messenger, Lone Survivor) finally gets a chance to shine as Tanner, the loose-cannon Howard that is at once violent and unpredictable, yet warm and brotherly. In every action, Foster imbues within Tanner a sense of foreboding; he’s a man that seems to have accepted that he is to burn bright, then be snuffed out by a world in which he is the “other,” an unsociable outcast that drives away good things. Without the pitch perfect chemistry between the Howard brothers, this film would have been a failure. Thankfully, Pine and Foster are great together, seeming like old friends that fight, joke, and share real moments of earnest emotion.

Meanwhile, Jeff Bridges turns in one of the finest performances of his career. Behind Marcus’ plain-speaking, jovial demeanor, the viewer can sense his growing anxiety as the end of his career looms; he’s searching madly for a reason to feel like it was all worth it, even as the world he spent decades protecting falls apart around him. In the Howards, he may have found his reason. Bridges, gruff, yet always charming, makes Marcus a character you root for despite you investment in the Howard’s plight.

In this way, director David Mackenzie (Starred Up) has succeeded in making an excellent film. He lets moments breathe, allows for silence, and lets tension build and build until you can’t take it anymore. The best part is that all of this is elevated by a trio of three-dimensional characters you actually care about. Aided by a tight script from Taylor Sheridan (who also penned Sicario, one of last year’s best) and the stylish, yet utilitarian work of cinematographer Giles Nuttgens (Perfect Sense, What Maisie Knew), Hell or High Water is easily one of the best films to come out this year and one that I hope receives at least some attention for its performances come Oscar season.

It may not revive the western genre, but Hell or High Water does prove that the modern western is still fertile ground for exploring potent themes about violence, family, and time.

Thoughts on Captain Fantastic

Depictions of familial love have long been a staple of the film medium. In these films – which depict everything from dysfunctional family dynamics (August Osage County, Rachel Getting Married) to explorations of grief (Ordinary People, Rabbit Hole) – most of the action takes place inside homes with characters that are at least relatable in their ordinariness. There may not be one that represents you specifically, but there is usually a character that is similar to someone you have met. It is because of this norm that Captain Fantastic feels so fresh; it challenges these familiar premises by presenting a cast of characters that have a very different background, who live in a manner that is anything but ordinary.

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Theatrical Poster for Captain Fantastic. Property of Bleecker Street Media.

The film centers on Ben Nash, a man who has dedicated his life to cultivating an environment in which his children can thrive. Living in the sprawling forests of the Pacific Northwest, Ben’s children endure a rigorous daily regimen of physical and mental activity. All of them – from the youngest who is barely more than a toddler, to the oldest who is already a young man – are entirely self-sufficient, able to hunt and forage as well as they can quote Kant, discuss historical politics, or speak different languages. At first, their solitary existence is depicted as a paradise, and in a way it is, existing outside time and the ugliness of the world; it is place where strength of character and intelligence reign above all things. However, something is clearly amiss.

When Ben goes into town to sell some wares he and his children have made, he learns that his wife, who was recently admitted into a psychiatric facility, has committed suicide. Furthermore, her businessman father tells Ben that he is not invited to her funeral, which will take place in a week’s time. Though Ben is tempted to honor his father-in-law’s wishes, his children have different ideas. Swayed by their desire to see their mother off in proper fashion, Ben reluctantly takes his children into the world that he and his wife fought to shield them from.

What follows is a culture-clash story that explores what it means to love your family, your spouse, your children, and how that love can sometimes be both empowering and detrimental to their development and well-being as people. Though Ben’s children are incredibly intelligent, they are socially-inept; some of them are incapable of even the simplest of interactions with other people. The social constructs that we navigate daily are alien to them, their values creating a gulf between them and “normal” people in a way that sometimes makes them come off as pretentious and condescending. Yet there is value in the lessons Ben seeks to teach his children. Intelligence is important; knowledge of history, of literature, of philosophy, are vital to developing one’s world view. To accept anti-intellectualism and to not question authority figures is to fail one’s duty as a well-rounded and dynamic human being.

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Ben and his children. Property of Bleecker Street Media.

Whether you agree with Ben’s treatment of his children or not, the true strength of Captain Fantastic is that it doesn’t take sides. It doesn’t say that Ben is either right or wrong, rather it shows how his choices, and likewise the choices of his wife and father-in-law affect his children. How each of the children react, with their own personalities and desires, showcases both the strengths and weaknesses of Ben’s way of life. Some of the kids wish to be normal so they don’t feel likes outcasts, while others rebel against society, thinking to be “normal” is to be simple. Through all of this, the definition of love is explored in an open-ended, realistic manner that neither judges nor defines. Ben loves his children unconditionally and has very specific desires for them. Though Ben’s father-in-law lives in a mansion off a golf course, in no way is his love for his grandchildren diminished. Neither he or Ben are depicted as caricatures, which is also refreshing given that so many films seek to make an antagonist of a character from the onset by having them act in unrealistic and clichéd ways, rather than taking the time to develop their worldview and let the audience judge for themselves.

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Viggo Mortensen as Ben. Property of Bleecker Street Media.

The obvious highlight of this film is Viggo Mortensen as Ben. Mortensen, in my opinion, is one of the greatest actors alive today. Though he first wowed me as Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings, his work in smaller roles has been equally impressive and varied in the years since (see A History of Violence, Eastern Promises, The Road, etc.). He has one of the most expressive faces of any actor, and whether Ben is experiencing grief or joy, Mortensen knows exactly what to do. His effortless, emotive performance is full of nuance and depth; he manages to make Ben hyper-intelligent, but never pretentious. Ben is a man of reason and though he may disapprove of other peoples’ lifestyles, he’s always willing to have discussions and open to changing his mind if presented with a compelling argument.

Likewise, the children in the cast are all impressive in their own ways, with the highlights being Samantha Isler and Annalise Basso as Ben’s two eldest daughters, who wish for nothing more than to attend their mother’s funeral, and George MacKay, who plays Ben’s eldest son who is struggling with how detached from the outside world he is due to his parent’s chosen lifestyle. Though these actors have more material than those that play their siblings, they all turn in great performances, regardless of age. Frank Langella is excellent as Jack, Ben’s father-in-law, ably depicting a man in immense pain seeking someone to blame. Though not in the film for long, the arc of Jack and Ben’s relationship has layers that some features don’t even achieve, and that is largely due to the prowess of the actors onscreen.

Directed and written by Matt Ross, Captain Fantastic is an experience that is beautiful in every respect. The dialogue is lively and intelligent, yet never seems forced or unrealistic. The cinematography by Stéphane Fontaine (Rust and Bone) is incredible, showcasing the beauty of nature and contrasting it with the manicured lawns of suburbia and the twisting freeways and sharp lines of America’s cities and towns. The score by Alex Somers (Aloha) is lovely in its subtlety; it assists emotional moments rather than overwhelming them and Somers uses already-existing music in compelling ways to make the film feel like a piece of our world, while never robbing it of its unique identity. Also, props for the best use of a Sigur Rós song in a film since 127 Hours.

In short, Captain Fantastic is an impeccable film, one that leaves you full of love and a desire to not only seek intelligence, but also connection with others. It is a nuanced depiction of familial love, alienation, grief and finally, acceptance; an exploration of what it means to be a part of the world and how one can do that while still retaining what makes them special.

In a word, fantastic.

Thoughts on Suicide Squad

It feels good to be bad.

Suicide Squad, based upon the DC comics line popularized by John Ostrander in the late 80s, has finally hit theatres. Centered on a group of ne’er-do-wells, sociopaths, and killers, the film’s function is two-fold: it continues to build and expand the DC Extended Universe of films while also serving as an art-punk response to the more straight-laced, level-headed heroes audiences are used to. Though critically maligned like its predecessor, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, Suicide Squad has steadily broken records since its release last Friday, once again showcasing a disconnect between general audiences and critics. Whether the film has the legs to be considered a massive success remains to be seen, however, like BvS, I must once again count myself among those pleased by the film. In fact, I’d go beyond saying I’m pleased; I loved it.

Why?

After two viewings I’ve come to the conclusion that at its (blackened, Enchantress) heart, this film is a character piece. By no means is its plot the most original, nor well-executed story in a modern cinema, but here are the basics: Amanda Waller, government operator and leader of the shadowy organization known as ARGUS, has assembled a team of supervillains to be sent on assignments that require their particular array of skills. Given incentive to succeed by miniature explosives implanted in their necks, Task Force X or the Suicide Squad allows the government to run covert ops with plausible deniability should anything go wrong. After a misstep by Waller jeopardizes Midway City (and perhaps the entire world), Waller activates Task Force X, ordering it to infiltrate the besieged city and extract a high value target before it is too late.

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SKWAD! Property of Warner Bros.

Though the plot sounds involved, it doesn’t have that many moving parts, but that is alright. It serves its purpose as the foundation upon which the strengths of the characters and their chemistry can be displayed. The performances (at least for me) all worked, with a few especially meaty roles that the actors fully inhabited.

Margot Robbie is the standout performance here, fully transforming herself into fan-favorite Harley Quinn, girlfriend and accomplice of the infamous Clown Prince of Crime himself, the Joker. Robbie goes for broke, chewing bubblegum and scenery with a thick New York accent and generally acting in the way fans have wanted to see since Harley’s introduction in a 1992 episode of Batman: The Animated Series. She’s funny, demented, and more than capable of handling herself in a fight, but Robbie also manages to instill within her intelligence (she does have a doctorate in psychology after all) and flashes of humanity; the moments are brief, but it becomes apparent that Harley’s manic glee is not always genuine, her crazed posturing an act as often as it is the real thing.

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Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn. Property of Warner Bros.

Much of this has to do with her relationship with Jared Leto’s Joker. Their history is illuminated through a series of flashbacks that show how Dr. Harleen Quinzel fell for the man she was supposed to be treating, in turn becoming his accomplice and lover. The bizarre codependency of Harley Quinn and the Joker is something I never thought I would see on the big screen, and thankfully (once again, for me) Suicide Squad nails their relationship. The Joker, for all his sociopathic tendencies, does share some connection with Harley, though the extent of his feelings at any given moment seem to be as unpredictable as the rest of his behavior. He’s just as likely to save her as to put her life in danger, just as likely to use her as he is to help her. In turn, Harley possess a mad sort of love for the Joker, something deep and illogical, but not all that unrealistic given the realities of abusive, manipulative relationships. Robbie and Leto are electric when onscreen together and I hope we get to see more of them in the future.

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Harley (Margot Robbie) and Joker (Jared Leto) go for a ride. Property of Warner Bros.

As for Leto’s Joker, I was incredibly impressed. Leto had the extremely unenviable task of following Heath Ledger’s classic take on the character from 2008’s The Dark Knight. Though not given half as much screen time as Ledger (Leto’s Joker is not Suicide Squad’s main antagonist), Leto makes the most of it, presenting what is perhaps the most unsettling Joker to date. There is a palpable sense of meanness to this iteration, something that was present in Ledger’s Joker, but not at the forefront of his character’s message-based mayhem. In contrast to Ledger’s more anarchic villain, Leto’s Joker is full gangster; a blinged-out, dead-eyed monster with a silver-grilled smile who preys on others’ discomfort and pain. His singular obsession in this story is Harley Quinn yet who knows what he would do as the primary antagonist of a Batman film. How would he and Harley interact with the looming threat of the Bat? How would Affleck’s Batman react to Leto’s Joker since we know Leto’s Joker killed Robin? I can’t help but be excited by such thoughts and I hope Leto gets the chance to reprise this role in a much larger capacity.

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Jared Leto as the Joker. Property of Warner Bros.

Continuing with the squad itself, one cannot avoid talking about Will Smith as Floyd Lawton, aka Deadshot. A marksman of uncanny ability, Deadshot is the world’s most wanted assassin; however, he has one glaring weakness which gives Waller control over him. Smith brings his effortless charm and charisma to the character and his interactions with the rest of the squad as well as their government handlers are some of the best scenes in the movie. Assuming the position of the leader of the squad itself, Smith does admirable work; his chemistry with the rest of the cast, especially Margot Robbie (who costarred with him in last year’s Focus), is stellar. On top of that, Deadshot’s abilities are wonderfully showcased in a number of scenes, making the seemingly mundane power of being “really, really good at shooting stuff” far cooler than you ever thought it could be. If Deadshot was not a popular character before, he’s about to be.

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Will Smith as Deadshot. Property of Warner Bros.

 

Despite being impressed by both Robbie and Smith, for me it was Jay Hernandez (Friday Night Lights, Hostel) that stole the film. He plays a former gang member and powerful pyrokinetic called El Diablo. Once a man of violence, now sworn to peace, El Diablo grudgingly goes along with the squad, reluctant to use his powers until the situation forces his hand.

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Jay Hernandez as El Diablo. Property of Warner Bros.

 

I won’t say anymore for fear of spoiling the film, but I will say that El Diablo has perhaps the most satisfying emotional arc of anyone in the squad and Hernandez’ soulful, somber performance takes what could have been a caricature and makes his character’s journey not only interesting, but moving as well.

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Viola Davis as Amanda Waller. Property of Warner Bros.

Rounding out the main players, Viola Davis brings it as Amanda Waller. In a film full of bad people, Amanda Waller is perhaps the worst. If there ever was an “ends, not means” person, she’s it. Fully committed to her purpose, Waller is a stone cold personification of everything a normal person fears about the government: her resources are unlimited, her reach vast; she’s ruthless, manipulative, and worst of all, self-righteous. Everything she does is to protect the United States of America and she believes that Task Force X is the first step in developing a program that will protect the US in the new metahuman wars to come. Viola Davis ably embodies Waller, filling her with a palpable tenacity and brusqueness that’s straight off the comic book page; even when she’s not in control, Davis conveys a sense of assuredness that makes Waller’s mistakes seem like they were part of her plan all along. As frustrating as she is fascinating, I can’t wait to see Davis’ Waller pop up in more of the DCEU.

As for the rest of the squad, they don’t necessarily get much development, but they do serve a purpose. Jai Courtney (Spartacus, Terminator: Genisys) is at a career best as the beer-swilling, unicorn-fetishizing Captain Boomerang, whose ability is just as ridiculous as his namesake suggests. Courtney showcases great comedic chops, serving as comic relief in a number of scenes, yet offering some real heart when necessary.

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Jai Courtney as Captain Boomerang. Property of Warner Bros.

Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje plays Killer Croc, a metahuman with mottled skin, immense strength, and cannibalistic tendencies. Though he rarely speaks, Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s physical performance is great and the practical effects used to bring his character to life are truly impressive. Here’s hoping that we’ll get to see Croc cross paths with Affleck’s Batman sometimes in the near future.

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Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje as Killer Croc. Property of Warner Bros.

Karen Fukuhara plays Katana, a government agent who wields a katana that steals the soul of whoever it kills. She doesn’t have much to say, but man does she look cool doing just about everything.

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Karen Fukuhara as Katana. Property of Warner Bros.

Rounding out the squad is Special Forces leader Rick Flagg as played by Joel Kinnaman (The Killing, House of Cards); Flagg is suitably authoritative and capable, yet perhaps not in as much control as he’d like people to believe. Kinnaman’s arc, though spoilerific, is a fun aside and one that makes his relationship with the squad and especially Deadshot that much more interesting by the end of the film.

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Joel Kinnaman as Rick Flagg. Property of Warner Bros.

Kinnaman is an interesting actor and one who I find charismatic in a way not unlike Tom Hardy, whom he replaced after The Revenant’s shoot had to be extended. I would love to see Kinnaman push this character into a different, more challenging direction should the opportunity arise.

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Cara Delevingne as Enchantress. Property of Warner Bros.

Lastly, Cara Delevingne portrays archeologist June Moone, and more importantly, her sorcerous alter-ego, The Enchantress. A lot of criticism has been levelled at Delevingne’s portrayal of the Enchantress, particularly in her movement choices for the character, but in this case as in many, I feel people are being a bit unfair. Acting, like writing, is a difficult, easy job in the sense that it’s not like working hard physical labor day-in and day-out, but it is an art form and there are interpretations and choices that must be made in any given project. For all that criticized her acting choices, I offer this scenario: You’ve just been cast as the Enchantress, a 6000+ year-old entity who is now once again walking the earth. Convey her otherness with your movements. Go.

It’s a difficult role to play, just like the Joker, but with even less direction and absolutely no other iterations from which to draw. For me personally, I enjoyed Delevingne’s performance and thought she conveyed the dichotomy between her characters well for the material she was given.

As far as the directing, it’s no secret that I really like David Ayer (you can read my glowing review of his WWII tank-drama Fury here). Though Suicide Squad is not plot heavy, Ayer excels with character drama, and just like in Fury, End of Watch, and Training Day, he has a clear written voice and style that bleeds into his work. Though the film’s editing may seem slightly off-kilter and disjointed at times, overall it worked for me and I hope Ayer gets the opportunity to continue to explore the world of the Suicide Squad, hopefully with a little more freedom and time to develop his ideas. With DC’s new Chief Creative Officer/writer Geoff Johns (who is a DC comics superstar if you didn’t know) now in charge of all DC Extended Universe films, I’m sure it would be an even wilder ride.

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Director David Ayer and Jared Leto discuss a scene. Property of Warner Bros.

In the music department the film is also a lot of fun, sprinkling original tracks with recognizable hits in a pleasing manner that never felt out of place or forced to me. The original score by Steven Price (Fury, The Hunt) is incredibly atmospheric and heroic while retaining the all the darkness of the premise; its climactic track, “One Bullet is All I Need” is sure to make it into my Epic Writing Music playlist.

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Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn. Property of Warner Bros.

In short, I disagree with the majority of critics on the merits of Suicide Squad. I think it is a wonderfully-acted ensemble piece that, though light on plot, delivered what I desired from the start: it touched on the Joker and Harley Quinn’s twisted relationship; it gave me a suitable taste of Leto’s unnerving and utterly bizarre take on the Joker; it had some stylish, fun sequences involving a group I never thought I’d see onscreen; and most importantly, it showed bad guys doing some good.

Whatever Task Force X’s next mission, count me in.

Thoughts on Hunt for the Wilderpeople

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I love comedy as a film genre, but I don’t see very many comedies. Having grown up with Monty Python, both the British and American versions of The Office, and most importantly, the films of Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, The World’s End, and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), my comedic sensibilities veer far more toward the dry and witty than the extended sketch improvisation of many hit American comedies today. This may be a reason why I loved Hunt for the Wilderpeople so much, but its quality far surpasses my bias toward this style of comedy. Like the best comedic storytelling, the laughs in Hunt for the Wilderpeople are organic, stemming from character conflict and clever situations rather than the outrageous or grotesque. Most importantly, the comedy is appropriate for the world that’s created within the film’s opening moments.

Twelve year-old Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) is a troubled child in the foster care system. After a string of failed relationships with host families, Ricky is given one last chance to make a match or he’ll be returned back into New Zealand’s juvenile detention system. He’s given over into the care of a kind woman named Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and her gruff bushman husband named Hector or “Hec” (Sam Neill). Though Hector doesn’t seem to care for Ricky, Bella loves him immediately, helping him to finally feel as if he’s found a true home.

However, after tragedy strikes, Ricky and Hector are left alone in a decidedly antagonistic relationship that will no doubt end in Ricky being returned to juvenile care. Determined to not be taken back into the system, Ricky runs into the bush. Hector pursues him, but after an injury strands them in the wild, Ricky’s child services officer assumes the worst. Due to this misunderstanding, the police soon mount a countrywide manhunt to find Ricky and Hec who, against their own wishes, must band together to evade their pursuers and maybe finally make it out of a world from which they both feel extremely disconnected.

As with the best comedies, Hunt for the Wilderpeople’s humor is built upon a solid foundation of drama and character. Ricky and Hec’s journey is hilarious, but also full of heart and warmth as both of them struggle to push past the emotional walls they’ve constructed to protect themselves from a society that shuns them. Julian Dennison as Ricky showcases an incredible talent for line delivery and is equally game for the more dramatic scenes in the film, holding his own against a stellar Sam Neill’s whose Hec begins as a gruff caricature and ends the film as a fully realized, three-dimensional man. Even the bit players are great. Rima Te Wiata makes the most of her brief screentime as Bella, imbuing her with an effortless warmth that makes it easy to see why Ricky takes to her so quickly; and Rachel House is hilarious as Ricky’s unhinged child services officer, Paula.

The great performance are supported by an even sharper script (based upon the book by Barry Crump) written by Taika Waititi, who also directed the film. Waititi, best known for the vampire comedy What We Do in the Shadows and the romantic comedy, Eagle vs Shark, brings his trademark wit and visual flare to Hunt for the Wilderpeople, making it not only one of the funniest films of the year, but also one of the most beautiful. Waititi and cinematographer Lachlan Milne use New Zealand’s sprawling, varied landscape to their advantage, creating a film made up of picturesque static shots, epic aerials, and hysterical crash zooms that will make any fan of Edgar Wright smile. All of this visual beauty is wonderfully supported by an off-kilter, almost John Carpenter-esque synth score by composers Lukasz Pawel Buda, Samuel Scott, and Conrad Wedde.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople is the funniest film I’ve seen this year. It is also one of the sweetest, using New Zealand’s unending natural beauty as the setting for a story about two people estranged from society coming to learn to trust and love again. From the script, to the editing, to the music and the performances, it’s a truly excellent film and one which I cannot wait to see again.

Waititi’s next project is Thor:Ragnarok. To say that I’m excited would be a vast understatement.

Thoughts on Warcraft

Much has been written about director Duncan Jones’ cinematic adaptation of Blizzard Entertainment’s video game franchise, Warcraft. Beyond all of the lazy comparisons to The Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones, many seem to dislike Warcraft simply because of its stalwart adherence to its source material. Contrary to that opinion, I believe Warcraft‘s unswerving loyalty to the extremity of its fantastical nature, and the earnest way in which it approaches its thematically complex story, is what makes the film so endearing. Beyond that, on a narrative level, it offers one of the most unorthodox and surprisingly challenging stories in a blockbuster in recent memory. Make no mistake, Warcraft is the most fantastical fantasy property we have seen for quite some time: the orcs are hulking monsters, wizards shoot blue bolts coruscating with energy, mystics’ eyes glow with otherworldly light, elves sport foot-long ears, and knights ride griffons into battle. However, beneath that extremity is a tragedy that explores the meeting of two very different cultures, both motivated by fear. This fear drives them to mistrust, betrayal, and violence. The heroes of Warcraft attempt to bridge this gap and push past desperation and xenophobia to find sanity and fellowship in a time of madness. The result, to Warcraft’s credit, is not what you’d expect.

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Toby Kebbell as Durotan. Propert of Legendary Pictures.

The story begins with an ending. The world of Draenor is dying. An influx of dark magic has destabilized the land, causing its inhabitants to seek a new home. In order to save their race, the orc tribes have united under the guidance of the warlock Gul’dan, whose life-powered magic, called “the Fel,” allows him to open a portal to Azeroth, a world populated by humans, dwarves, elves, and more. However, Gul’dan only has enough power to allow a relatively small war party to pass through the portal. This group shall serve as a ranging party whose purpose is two-fold: 1) to construct a great gate that will serve as the Dark Portal through which the rest of Gul’dan’s horde will pass and 2) collect prisoners from Azeroth’s native peoples so that Gul’dan can siphon their life-force to power the Dark Portal.

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Daniel Wu as Gul’dan. Property of Legendary Pictures.

Among this ranging orc war party is the Frostwolf Clan, led by their Chieftain, Durotan, and his lieutenant and old friend, Orgrim Doomhammer. After passing through the portal, the orcs begin to raid the countryside, collecting prisoners for Gul’dan’s portal. Despite Durotan and Orgrim’s desire for the orc race to continue, Gul’dan’s slash-and-burn crusade sits poorly with them. Durotan in particular is an adherent to the tenants laid down by his orcish ancestors: strength and honor. Pillaging villages full of unarmed innocents speaks to neither of those ideals. Durotan’s partner, Draka, has also recently given birth to a son, further adding to Durotan’s anxiety about the uncertain future of his race.

As Durotan’s already tenuous loyalty to Gul’dan begins to fray, in the human kingdom, Anduin Lothar, leader of Azeroth’s armies, faces his own challenges. He and his warriors have to contend with the new orc threat; physically overmatched and uncertain of their abilities, Lothar is commanded by his King Llane to find Medivh, a great sorcerer whose powers have saved Azeroth many times over. Along with the young mage, Khadgar, Lothar journeys to Medivh in hopes of enlisting him against this new orcish threat. After convincing Medivh to come help them, Lothar and co. return to confront Gul’dan and his horde.

Thrust into the center of this conflict is a half-orc, half-human called Garona. At first a slave to Gul’dan, she eventually escapes only to be taken prisoner by Lothar. Though Lothar is initially distrustful of her, Garona comes to serve as a bridge between cultures; she attempts to teach Lothar about the orcs and their ancestral dedication to war and honor, as well as the hope for the future that she sees embodied by Durotan. Softened by Garona’s counsel, Lothar begins to wonder if a lasting peace could ever be achieved.

As Gul’dan’s powers grow and the Dark Portal nears completion, both sides become desperate for a solution. Durotan, driven by shame at his race’s actions and anger at Gul’dan for his needless cruelty, attempts to meet with Lothar in hopes of forging an alliance that could put an end to the cataclysm that Gul’dan’s success would guarantee.

If that description seems very involved, it is. However, I don’t think this is indicative of poor writing on the part of the writers, Duncan Jones (Moon, Source Code) and Charles Leavitt (Blood Diamond, In the Heart of the Sea). It is simply a film that demands the audience’s undivided attention. Exposition is kept to a minimum; character relationships, past experiences, etc. are all alluded to or referenced contextually through conversation, just as they would be in real life. This is not to say that hearing certain fantasy lines doesn’t sometimes sound inorganic to our boring, reality-based ears/brains, but the breadth and depth of information presented is done so in a mature way that asks the audience for its trust and belief. If you don’t have enough of those to offer for two hours, I would not recommend seeing this film.

But if you do, then prepare yourself for one of the most narratively interesting experiences you’ll have in a theatre this year. However, before we move into spoiler territory, which really defines why I enjoyed this film so much, let’s talk about the performances. Toby Kebbell continues to prove himself to be one of the most capable actors of his generation. He’s come a long way from his mesmerizing role in Guy Ritchie’s Rock’n’Rolla, recently having been in one of the best episodes of the techno-horror/sci-fi show, Black Mirror, as well as embodying the erratic, unpredictable fury of Koba, the bonobo antagonist of 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. As Durotan, Kebbell continues to elevate his craft, giving a soulful performance that really serves as the moral center of the film. His Durotan is proud, yet not quick to judgment, willing to examine issues from all sides before resorting to violence. Yet there is an honor in violence and the art of warfare for the orcs (some might venture to call it war…craft), and the deeply important cultural value of conflict is what is put into question under the guidance of Gul’dan, whose cruelty undermines all notion of honor. Kebbell effortlessly embodies Durotan’s struggle to act honorably, to find reason and nuance in a situation others see as simply binary. Ultimately, it’s a compelling, powerful performance and one of my favorites this year.

Second in command to Durotan is his trusted lieutenant, Robert Kazinsky’s Orgrim Doomhammer. Though not given much screen time, self-professed Warcraft-lover Robert Kazinsky shows his passion for the source material by imbuing Orgrim with a palpable sense of inner conflict which plays out in a very different way than Kebbell’s Durotan. This is mainly due to Orgrim’s level of intelligence. Though by no means stupid, Orgrim is a being of action; violence and war are his great indulgences and he engages the orcs’ enemies with vigor, tearing through them with his ancestral weapon, the mighty Doomhammer. However, what makes him more than just a mindless brute is his loyalty to Durotan. Their friendship grounds him, opens him up to considering the humans as more than a mere enemy, and makes Orgrim reflect on just what exactly Gul’dan is attempting to do by ushering the Horde into Azeroth. Kazinsky makes the most of his limited screen time, and by the picture’s end, given his inner struggle, Orgrim has one of the most interesting arcs in the film.

Which brings us to Gul’dan, Warcraft’s main antagonist. Gul’dan is played by Daniel Wu (Into the Badlands) with all the sneering, snarling villainy one could hope for. Though Gul’dan is dedicated to bringing the full might of the Horde into Azeroth, it is clear that his loyalty lies with himself more than anyone else and he will do anything to become more powerful. Though perhaps not the most nuanced villain, Wu plays Gul’dan with such swaggering confidence that it’s hard to dislike him. His movements in particular are unique and feel very different than those of the other orc characters; Gul’dan hunches and sways as he moves, as if the Fel has twisted him in body as well as his mind. Furthermore, more than a war chief, Gul’dan is an extremist, trying to sway an entire people into a quasi-religious fervor over the Fel, a power which he preaches only he can control. Despite his cruelty, it is understandable why so many would follow Gul’dan; he is a peddler of promises and deceit, a being wholly committed to his own elevation through manipulation, using a message of hatred and exclusion as his platform (sound like anyone else we know?).

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Travis Fimmel as Anduin Lothar.

Of the other stands outs, I would cite Travis Fimmel as Lothar, Ben Foster as Medivh, and Paula Patton as Garona. Though I have not yet watched Fimmel in Vikings, his natural charisma and presence permeate his performance of Anduin Lothar. Even though he is perhaps more standard in terms of fantasy characters (bearded white male with a gruff voice), Fimmel plays Lothar with an almost indescribable casualness. Fimmel gives Lothar the laxity of a predator; outside of combat, he’s a soft-spoken, almost disinterested player in part of a larger game, but when it comes to fighting for king and country, there is no one better. Like Orgrim, Lothar’s loyalty lends depth to his convictions and the way in which he struggles to remain loyal to his King while events spiral out of control are incredibly compelling.

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Lothar (Travis Fimmel) and Garona (Paula Patton). Property of Legendary Pictures. 

Ben Foster, an actor I’ve always admired, brings his trademark off-kilter sensibilities to the role of the mage, Medivh. Whether it’s Charlie Prince of 3:10 to Yuma or The Stranger from 30 Days of Night, Foster is always different in a very palpable way and Medivh is, likewise, hard to categorize. A hermit of sorts and absent from the human kingdom of Azeroth for six years after his last act of heroism, Medivh is at once suspicious and sagely. His reasons for his withdrawal from humanity remain mysterious, but at the same time he always seems to act with the kingdom’s best interest at heart. He treats Garona with the same respect he’d pay to anyone else and even counsels King Llane to make an attempt at peace before turning to all-out war. Medivh’s motives remain clouded until the end of the film, but it is a testament to Ben Foster’s talent and acting ability that he makes Medivh so utterly confounding and interesting for the entirety of the film.

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Ben Foster as Medivh. Property of Legendary Pictures.

Lastly, I’ll spotlight Paula Patton. I was not initially impressed with Paula Patton’s Garona, who speaks a halting, broken sort of English for the first few of her scenes as she seeks to communicate with her human captors. Yet as the film went on, I found myself growing increasingly attached to her as a character. The reason, I think, is that Garona is what I would like more female fantasy heroines to be. She is strong and capable, but she is not an ice queen, nor is she simply a quick gender swap of a character with no defining qualities. Garona is strong and capable, yet also never loses a sense of vulnerability. She wants to belong to a tribe, to a people, but existing between both the humans and orcs leaves her an outsider from both. Her quest to reconcile this difference, with both the orcs and the humans, is truly affecting, and her arc, as with many in the film, takes a surprising turn by the last reel, further deepening an already layered character, bolstered by Patton’s committed performance.

 

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Paula Patton as Garona. Property of Legendary Pictures. 

On the more technical side, Duncan Jones is an incredible director and storyteller. Moon and Source Code, showed us that he could do hard sci-fi and succeed. Warcraft gives him the ability to branch out and showcase his more epic storytelling sensibilities. The choreography of his scenes is impressive and he, along with cinematographer Simon Duggan (The Great Gatsby), create a plethora of staggeringly beautiful images that contrast well with the kinetic brutality of the film’s many fight scenes. Beyond the incredible effects work done by ILM, the practical sets and props are beautiful; they make the world feel like a living, tangible place. The music, by Game of Thrones composer Ramin Djawadi, is propulsive and epic, weaving tribal drums with triumphant horns, and creating a number of memorable themes that are sure to accompany my writing for a long time to come.

All this being said, I loved Warcraft. It is a dazzling fantasy that mines heavy, relevant themes, focusing on the conflict between two peoples’ beliefs and cultures and the incredible violence that can result from misunderstandings and mistreatment. I’ll be brief with my spoilers, but below illuminates why this film is so successful in my eyes as a storytelling feat.

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Toby Kebbell as Durotan. Property of Legendary Pictures. 

SPOILERS! SPOILERS! SPOILERS!

This film, above all things, is a tragedy. It is inherently unsatisfying in a dramatic sense, a heart-wrenching anti-popcorn flick for the masses. Despite the action and adventure, when it comes down to it, the film is about a failed alliance between two different cultures and not a single relationship escapes the film unscathed.

Agents from each side attempt to bridge the culture gap, but ultimately they fail and fail hard. Durotan challenges Gul’dan to an honor duel and fails to beat him, losing his life in the process. Garona, about to be killed, is forced by King Llane to assassinate him so that she might live on to sabotage Gul’dan’s enterprise from the inside. Lothar, ignorant of this development, thinks Garona betrayed him and the humans, siding with the orcs. Angered by this perceived betrayal, he returns to the human kingdom of Azeroth to become its king, now hell bent on the destruction of the orc invaders.

Nothing is consummated and no friendships survive save perhaps that between the novice mage Khadgar and Lothar. Beyond them, any hope for love between Lothar and Garona died with the King; Orgrim lost his friend to Gul’dan, who now has complete control over the Horde, and both the humans and the orcs are now prepared to go to war for ownership of the world.

It’s heady stuff. Thematically challenging stuff that constantly wrestles with our expectations as viewers, and for that, I applaud Warcraft. It succeeded in keeping me guessing until the very end, and sadly, I don’t think that happens enough in modern films today, especially blockbusters. Think about the first time you saw Quint dragged into the sea by the shark in Jaws. That feeling permeates the end of this film and it is something I think we should strive for more. Unfortunately, this does not engender love from a wide audience, but I have a great amount of respect for Duncan Jones for approaching this material as earnestly as he did and staying true to the heart of the games. The orcs were not actors painted green. The magic was outlandish and showy. The elves had foot-long ears. The heroes lost, evil won, and only more war and bloodshed will follow.

I know many people don’t feel like I do about this film, and that’s alright, but I loved this film and I ardently hope we get another journey into the world of Warcraft.

Thoughts on Captain America: Civil War

WARNING: Minor spoilers to follow.

Marvel continues to rule the box office, this week passing the 10 billion dollar mark for the total gross of all its films. Beyond the spectacle, the reason this has happened is simple: Marvel Studios knows how to make a good film. Captain America: Civil War, like its two excellent predecessors, is not just a good superhero movie; it’s a compelling drama with real stakes and true heart.

We are now thirteen films into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The triumph of Civil War is that despite that number, character development still happens; people that we’ve known for three or four movies grow in this film, they change or take even more steadfast stances on what they believe is right. Credit must be given to writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (both of whom were responsible for the two previous Captain America films) for managing to accomplish this given the weight of history that comes with these characters as well as the sheer number that appear on screen; not only does Civil War manage to create a morally gray, complex conflict between established characters, but it also introduces the Wakandan king, Black Panther, and Queen’s very own, Spider-Man to the mix. That being said, Civil War is packed with content, the longest and easily the most emotionally wearying of any Marvel film to date.

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Team Cap. Property of Disney.

The conflict arises from an early tragedy involving the Avengers. Having been involved in a string of catastrophes (the most recent of which being the destruction of Sokovia in Age of Ultron) world leaders in the UN think it is time that the team be given oversight by a committee of elected officials. Steve Rogers, also known as Captain America, is against this idea. To him, ideologically, the Avengers’ function is to do good; people may get hurt along the way, but overall the world is a safer place because of their actions. It’s here that Cap’s roots as a soldier show; he knows there is always a cost and that seeking to eliminate that cost – as Tony Stark attempted to do with the Ultron project – often results in disaster.

Credit again must go to the writers for making Steve Rogers a consistent, nuanced character that is anything but a square; he may be a positive, hopeful force, but he is also colored by his experiences with the darkest parts of humanity, particularly with those that represent governmental authority. These figures failed he and his team in The Avengers as the World Security Council (they tried to nuke Manhattan) and as S.H.I.E.L.D. which was revealed to be infested with agents of the villainous organization HYDRA in The Winter Soldier. Cap’s unwillingness to accept oversight (detailed in a document entitled, “The Sokovia Accords”) is completely in line with the character we’ve come to know. The people in the oversight council would have agendas, individual desires that could not always be trusted; the people that Cap trusts are the members of the Avengers. Cap’s argument is best summated by his question to the team: “What if this panel sends us somewhere we don’t think we should go? What if there’s somewhere we need to go and they won’t let us?”

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Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man. Property of Disney.

In contrast, Tony Stark, aka Iron Man, seems to have developed an even more deeply buried, debilitating form of the PTSD we glimpsed in Iron Man 3. Despite his efforts to improve the world and move on (evidenced by the destruction of his suits in Iron Man 3 and his failed attempt at the Ultron Project in Age of Ultron), Tony has finally realized that he doesn’t want to stop being a hero, or rather that he can’t stop. The results of his recent actions caused the dissolution of his relationship with Pepper Potts and the deaths caused by his deeds weigh heavily on him; his guilt drives him to support the Accords, despite protests from Steve.

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Sebastian Stan as Bucky Barnes, the Winter Soldier. Property of Disney.

The catalyst for the “civil war” alluded to in the title comes from the reappearance of Cap’s old wartime buddy (and hetero life-mate) Bucky Barnes. After his supposed involvement in a terrorist act stirs up international controversy, Steve, Tony, and the rest of the Avengers are forced to choose sides in a conflict that will have no true victor. Loyalty is Steve’s greatest asset; his disbelief that Bucky would commit an act so brazen after spending more than a year in hiding leads him to clash with Tony who has already cast judgment. The conflict is further complicated by the involvement of T’Challa, the King of Wakanda, whose involvement in proceedings is extremely personal and tied directly into the apparent actions of Bucky.

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The Avengers discuss the Sokovia Accords. Property of Disney.

Though there is a lot of set up, what follows is two hours of glorious action, dramatic confrontation, and intensely personal stakes that lead to a reveal so painful and so well-done, the film’s ending is completely earned. The true success of the film is that there is no clear answer to the dilemma presented. Both Steve and Tony make compelling cases for their sides, backed by their experiences in the events of the previous films. The moral grayness of the situation and the way in which each of the characters play into it is very impressive; not a single scene or act by the characters rings false. This film only works because of the strength of its performances and everyone here is at the top of their game.

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Chris Evans as Steve Rogers. Property of Disney.

Once again, Chris Evans embodies the near impossible goodness of Steve Rogers with ease. Steve’s commitment to his ideals and, above all, his friend Bucky is beyond touching and you can’t help but be caught up in his moral quandary as the situation spirals out of control.

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Team Iron Man. Property of Disney.

Robert Downey Jr. turns in his best performance to date as Tony Stark. Just like Steve, Tony’s character has come a long way while remaining true to himself. Though the sharp-tongued, smartass still exists, more than ever before Tony’s quips come off as a defense mechanism and there’s a weariness to him now that wasn’t present before. This is definitely the most somber and dramatic the character has ever been and RDJ handles each and every scene with aplomb; he’ll break your heart with a glance by the end and even if you don’t agree with him, it’s difficult to not feel sympathetic to his pain.

Finally, Sebastian Stan is given more material to work with as Bucky Barnes, ably portraying a man attempting to rebuild himself, ashamed of his past and seeking to make amends. Steve’s relationship to Bucky was very one-sided in The Winter Soldier. Thankfully, here, we’re finally allowed to see more of the the enduring friendship we glimpsed between Steve and Bucky way back in The First Avenger. Bucky’s struggle to become himself once more is compelling and it is easy to understand just why Steve would fight so fiercely for his friend.

The rest of the cast shine in their respective roles, though some are given more material than others considering the difficult position Steve and Tony’s conflict puts them in. Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow struggles with herself, caught between her loyalty to Steve and the constancy and support she desires given her complicated past. Paul Bettany’s Vision must grapple with his developing humanity while also striving to prevent another disaster like Ultron to occur. Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch must contend with the fear she inspires as well as the fear she has of herself and the immense power of which she is capable. Everyone else, from Don Cheadle’s War Machine to Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye get their moments to shine, with Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man in particular having a movie-stealing scene.

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Chadwick Boseman as Black Panther. Property of Disney.

However, most of the buzz surrounding Civil War is because of two new characters: Black Panther and Spider-Man. Chadwick Boseman (42, Get On Up) is perfect as the king and protector of the fictional African nation of Wakanda. Black Panther is an intimidating, dynamic presence. Though he aligns with Tony, the reason for doing so is more circumstantial than anything, making him an unpredictable wildcard that lends energy to every scene that he’s in. As an actor, Boseman has such a huge presence; he’s regal and fierce, charismatic and intense in a way that few characters have been so far in the MCU. His appearance here only made me more excited for Ryan Coogler’s forthcoming Black Panther; news that 90% of the cast will be African or African-American only sweetens the deal.

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Tom Holland as Spider-Man. Property of Disney.

Finally, Tom Holland is Spider-Man. His Peter Parker is just a kid: pure-hearted and joyful in a way that we hadn’t yet seen in a cinematic Spider-Man until now. Beyond the levity lent by his youth, he jokes, quips, swings, and crawls on walls, performing everything you’ve wanted to see Spider-Man do; only this time with the characters you’ve come to love from other Marvel films. His innocence and well-meant heroism is as close to “with great power comes great responsibility” as you could get and I, for one, can’t wait to see him reprise his role in Spider-Man: Homecoming.

Which brings us to the villain of Civil War. Yes, there is a villain and another victory in this film (among a long list of victories) is that he doesn’t wear a costume nor does he need to fight our heroes directly. He’s a manipulator; a man with clear purpose and endless patience. His name is Helmut Zemo, played by Daniel Brühl of Inglorious Basterds and Rush. Though his motives come to be known in time, Zemo’s enigmatic presence pervades the entire film; his exact involvement and the particulars of his plan are not revealed until the climax, but when they are, it’s devastating. Once again, thanks to the strength of the writing, even Zemo’s motivations are understandable and, on the scale of a Marvel film, very small and intimate. Daniel Brühl’s performance goes a long way to make Zemo a layered, somber character rather than a cartoonish villain bent on destruction, and he’s all the more memorable for it. I think he sits comfortably just beneath Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, alongside the exceptional villains of Marvel’s Netflix shows.

Despite the excellent job the writers did wrangling this story into something coherent, Civil War wouldn’t be such a resounding success without outstanding direction. Thankfully, Joe and Anthony Russo (who co-directed The Winter Soldier) return to lend their considerable talent to the film. Their direction is imaginative, their framing (assisted by cinematographer, Trent Opaloch) is artful, and they nail the character drama as well as the action. Their choreography is incredible; the fifteen minute, super-powered airport brawl that takes place about 2/3rds through the movie is filled with so much geektastic joy that you’re unlikely to see a more memorable action sequence this year. Each character’s powers are utilized in a creative, organic way and each of the confrontations highlighted carry their own weight within the context of the world the Russos have helped construct. Black Widow vs Hawkeye means something. Scarlet Witch vs. Iron Man means something. Black Panther vs. Bucky means something. Everything builds, everything pays off. Truly, Civil War is a feat of filmmaking and probably my favorite superhero film since The Dark Knight.

There’s little more that could be said save for this: among one of the film’s greatest accomplishments is that it remains a Captain America movie. Though the Avengers and other heroes are present, this is not Avengers 2.5. This story orbits around Steve Rogers and his immense love for his friend. His struggle to remain true to his ideals in the face of adversity and well-meant opposition is presented in a compelling and mature manner, proving once again that superhero films can be more than just spectacle, but some of the most potent, affecting character dramas of our modern age.

Thirteen films in and Marvel Studios is still going strong. I can’t wait for the next thirteen and beyond.

Errant Thoughts – The Nonexistent Uncanny Valley and (Fantastical) Photorealism

This is the first post in a new segment on the blog which will mainly feature my opinions on various things, most likely entertainment related. Though I still plan to do an extensive defense of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy sometime in the near future, the subject of this post is tangentially related and has been simmering in the back of my mind for some time.
Having recently seen The Jungle Book, now seems as good a time as any to discuss the wonders of CGI (computer generated imagery also sometimes referred to as CG) and, perhaps more importantly, how audiences react to computer generated characters. Many times I feel that there is a distinct disconnect between me and the general populace when it comes to films that feature a lot of special effects. This is neither a good or bad thing, just a conclusion I’ve drawn from discussing feelings about recent films with people I know in real life, on the internet, and the aggregate “reaction” represented by sites like Rotten Tomatoes. Spectacle is about to become the name of the game once more as we move into the summer months, where the budgets of films expand along with the amount of fantastical, impossible special effects shots. I am not writing this in defense of straight eye-candy; explosions with no emotion don’t do anything for me. I do love when spectacle combines with character and offers something impossible and stimulating. However, it seems there exists an odd sort of double standard when it comes to computer generated characters and which ones critics and the general audience accept and champion.

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Baloo (Bill Murray) and Mowgli (Neel Sethi) from The Jungle Book. Property of Disney.

The most recent film I can site is Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book. Favreau is a wonderful director with a keen sense for character and well-paced storytelling – just look at Iron Man; that’s a ridiculously tight film. He used these skills to create a fun adventure film in The Jungle Book, one that sits comfortably among other recent profitable, nostalgia-inducing remakes such as Maleficent and Cinderella. Much of the film’s success can be contributed to Justin Marks’ imaginative script, which distilled the rambling fever dream of the original animated film into something resembling a coherent story. However, beyond the creative leadership of this project, it is the artistic team responsible for creating an entire digital world and cast of speaking animal characters that deserves the most credit for the film’s success. Aside from the main child actor, not a single character in the film is real, but rather a digital creation, painstakingly rendered using a number of impressive techniques.

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Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) and Mowgli (Neel Sethi). Property of Disney.

Many critics as well as members of the general audience have praised The Jungle Book for its “photorealistic” animal characters. The same sentiment was shared for the remarkable ape characters presented in 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Both of these films set a high bar for effects work and are artistic triumphs.

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Koba (Toby Kebbell) in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Property of 20th Century Fox.

And I agree, but there seems to be no such love (at least in the last five or so years) for creations that are not digital analogues of real world animals. What do I mean?

One of the main criticisms of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy was that it used too much CGI, abandoning the practical effects work that made The Lord of the Rings trilogy so aesthetically pleasing. I think this is an unfair comparison given that the breadth and scope of spectacle presented in LotR was only possible because of the amount of CGI used; however, I understand that the argument is presented mainly on the basis of the appearance of certain characters rather than the presentation of large armies of creatures, landscapes, etc. True, there is no reason they could not have used practical effects to render minor, minion characters such as the goblins in the Goblin Tunnels, etc., but it is the mixed-to-negative reaction to important CG characters that I do not understand.

It is here that we have reached my disconnect.

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Azog the Defiler (Manu Bennett) in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Property of Warner Bros.

Azog the Defiler, the main antagonist of The Hobbit trilogy is a triumph of both performance and technology. Motion-captured from the performance of actor, Manu Bennett (of Spartacus and Arrow fame), Azog – an eight-foot tall, white orc – is expressive, moves in a realistic, dynamic manner, and most importantly, possesses a startling amount of visual detail. Pores show on his face, muscles shift and move beneath his skin, sweat glistens upon him as he fights, and his eyes burn with emotion and realistic movement.

A similar quality was attained on the villain Doomsday in the recent superhero film, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. A sore spot for many, Doomsday was criticized from the day he first appeared in the second trailer released for the film.

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Doomsday in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. Property of Warner Bros.

Though he does not possess the most memorable character design (in this film or in the comics), he is still no doubt an impressive feat of digital sorcery. Like Azog, he is rendered with surprising clarity; veins stand against his skin, reflective spittle drools from his bared gums, and his eyes track as you would expect them to. As he takes damage, he tears away a semi-transparent outer layer of membranous skin as textured crystals spring from the flesh beneath to take their place.

Another recent example that springs to mind is Warcraft – a film that’s not even out yet – based upon the lore presented in the series of video games by Blizzard Entertainment. The CGI in the trailers is some of the best fantastical CGI I’ve ever seen; faithfully rendering a world in which I spent a ton of time in my years playing World of Warcraft. Yet looking at the comments, it doesn’t take long to see numerous posts complaining about the appearance of the characters belonging to the orcish race: seven-foot giants with tusks, ham hock fists, tree trunk legs, and skin tones that range from green and yellow to dark brown.

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Durotan (Toby Kebbell) in the upcoming Warcraft. Property of Universal Pictures.

Why do so many people dislike Azog and flat-out hate Doomsday? Why are so many already willing to dismiss Warcraft? It’s a strange phenomenon and I’m not here to say that anyone is wrong if they feel like CGI detracts from a film, I’m just curious why The Jungle Book has characters that are lauded, while equally impressive characters such as Azog the Defiler and Doomsday are met with an ambivalent shrug. I have pondered this ever since the release of The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. I think I have come to a possible reason and I believe it has to do with the “Uncanny Valley.”

Coined by Japanese Engineer, Dr. Masahiro Mori in 1970 in relation to the development of advanced robotics, the Uncanny Valley is the hypothesis in aesthetics that states, “as [a simulated form] became more human-like there would first be an increase in its acceptability and then as it approached a nearly human state there would be a dramatic decrease in acceptance,” (Pollick, 2).

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A graph explaining the Uncanny Valley by Matthew Trump.

If we remove that definition from robotics and apply it to the strides made in animation, specifically character animation, the effect is clear. An oft-used example of the Uncanny Valley is 2004’s The Polar Express. Though digital technology allowed for Tom Hanks to play multiple characters (including a child), the glassy-eyed, rubber-skinned nature of the characters unsettle many audience members.

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Hero Boy (Tom Hanks) and Conductor (Tom Hanks) in The Polar Express. Property of Warner Bros.

The feeling of revulsion or wrongness comes from the disconnect of seeing something that’s obviously fake masquerading as something real. However, I feel as if the disconnect with a lot of viewers when it comes to fantastical creatures like Azog or Doomsday exists for the exact opposite reason. It is not because they exist within the Uncanny Valley; for them there is no Uncanny Valley.

Azog and Doomsday are humanoid in shape, but they are not approximations of something for which we have real-world examples, unlike the animal characters depicted in The Jungle Book. Shere Khan is an incredibly impressive effect, but the audience knows and can approximate what a tiger would look and move like.

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Shere Khan (Idris Elba) in The Jungle Book. Property of Disney.

An eight-foot tall orc has no real world analogue to anchor expectation, leading to a quick judgment that “it looks fake” or “it’s unrealistic.” Both are valid points. Both could be said for the characters in The Jungle Book. I loved the character designs in that film, but at no point did I think that Bagheera and Shere Kahn were photorealistic. They were clearly not real and perhaps that’s where I diverge from many people.

None of it is real. It’s a film.

Escapism, for me, is formed by the entire experience. All film is artifice; CGI is simply a tool to help enhance the illusion of reality. Some effects are better than others, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film completely broken by poor or aging CGI. It’s the reason why we still like The Matrix and are willing to sit through Terminator 2: Judgment Day every time it’s on TV; why we ignore the odd, character jerkiness and transitions of the Sam Raimi Spider-Man; why many maintain that the podrace is one of the few good parts about The Phantom Menace.

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Durotan (Toby Kebbell) in the upcoming Warcraft. Property of Universal Pictures.

Do the orcs in Warcraft look real? Of course not, but they look like realistic versions of the orcs in World of Warcraft and that’s all I’ve ever wanted from them. The same can be said of Azog and Doomsday. They are skillful approximations of the impossible and the fact that they exist in any capacity, at the quality at which they do, is incredible and indicative of how far computer technology has come since the early 90s.

I believe the reason why this post even exists is because as an audience we’ve been spoiled by spectacle, especially in the last five years. There are so many films with so much CGI that people have become inured to the incredible and that’s sad given the ridiculous amount of resources and artistry poured into every one of these characters. It becomes a question of how can the fantastic be depicted without CGI and if that’s possible, would you even want it to? Marvel’s big bad Thanos should be exactly that: big, beyond any possible humanoid stature and able to move with a swiftness that belies his size.

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Thanos (Josh Brolin) in the post-credits teaser at the end of The Avengers: Age of Ultron. Property of Disney.

Returning to the character of Azog, many state that he should have been an actor in makeup and prosthetics (which he originally was) like the character of Lurtz in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring; but could an actor emote enough, express enough through the makeup to make you believe that it was real?

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Lurtz (Lawrence Makoare) in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. Property of New Line Cinema.

Lurtz only had to sneer and roar.

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Another shot of Lurtz (Lawrence Makoare) from the Extended Edition of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. Property of New Line Cinema.

Could he have smiled like Azog, looked confused, looked triumphant? I find that doubtful.

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A stern Azog (Manu Bennett) in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. Property of Warner Bros.

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A confused Azog (Manu Bennett) in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. Property of Warner Bros.

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A triumphant Azog (Manu Bennett) in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. Property of Warner Bros.

Are there exceptions to the examples I’ve stated above? Of course. People loved Gollum from The Lord of the Rings when those films were first released, but I suspect that the reason had much to do with the novelty of the first fully-realized CGI character and Andy Serkis’ career-defining performance. Avatar as well is an exception and a big one at that – it’s still the highest-grossing film ever. However, I think a lot of that has to do with the immersive nature of the spectacle presented. James Cameron and co. gave us an entire world that was aesthetically consistent save for the practical sets and human characters. Since the interaction between the humans and the Na’vi is so limited, it’s easier to maintain the illusion, though the majority of Avatar is basically a high-budget an animated film. Smaug the dragon, a large part of the latter two films in The Hobbit trilogy seems immune to criticism on his appearance mainly because dragons are so prevalent in popular culture, lending the real-world anchor necessary to put people at ease with how he looks and moves (the sultry baritone of Benedict Cumberbatch may have helped as well).

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Azog (Manu Bennett) in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Property of Warner Bros.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that orcs don’t look real because they aren’t real. The same can be said for Azog and Doomsday. I’ve tried to move beyond being overly critical about CGI and have tried to accept the experience presented by the filmmakers, tried to immerse myself in the story and characters presented and judge films based upon those merits rather than if the CGI characters meet some nonexistent standard. Do I still see some effects shots that bother me? Of course, but if the rest of the film is awesome, then it’s really not that important. Case in point: even though the animals in The Jungle Book didn’t look completely real to me, the story and the performances were enough to reel me in and keep me entertained. So I would urge everyone to try and walk into every film with a more open, less critical mindset when it comes to CGI characters. Try to believe in the impossible for two hours at a time.

Do this and you might just leave the theater a happier person.

Bibliography: Pollick, Frank E. “In Search of the Uncanny Valley.” (n.d.): n. pag. Web. 3 May 2016.