they remain

 

they remain
Is this really happening?

They Remain is an unusual horror movie in that it is not actually horrific. Instead it is creepy, and quiet, and very, very weird. Considering it’s source material is Laird Barron’s short story “–30–”, I’d be disappointed if it weren’t.  This is a slow, meandering movie that seems to exist outside of time. Rather than a story of otherworldly monsters and rites, They Remain gives us barely any story at all. What we witness instead is the slow decay of two people left alone for too long.

The Plot Thickens

Two scientists have been assigned to search for…something…in an area deep in woodlands where a murderous cult was once active. Rebecca Henderson as Jessica is a cool and methodical biologist, while William Jackson Harper as Keith is a more wary and guarded field researcher . They have been sent into the wilds by their unnamed company on a three month-long mission. What they are hoping to find is never made clear, although it is tied to the cult’s decades-old activities.

The cult’s murders were investigated decades earlier, but Jessica hints that much of what they did is still unknown. Their limited outside contact taunts them with rumors of other terrible things that have happened in these woods more recently. They find evidence that terrible things may have been going on here for centuries. Nothing is definite. All their tests and data cannot confirm anything. They run experiments, but their findings lead nowhere.

they remain
Bad choices

As the days drag on the scientists’ sense of isolation becomes suggestive and overpowering. Keith and Jessica begin to feed each other’s suspicions and fears. They see things, hear, things, dream things that cannot be rationally explained. They come to believe what they see, hear, and dream–but are their perceptions flashbacks or hallucinations?

Finally, after watching the characters degrade under the weight of uncertainty, They Remain explodes in violence and a terrible sense of having made the wrong choices. It is a disturbing note to end on–there are no explanations, let alone answers. We, and the characters, are as lost as when we started.

How? What? Why?
they remain
The nature of things

They Remain is beautiful to look at. Much of the running time is filled with close shots of the sky and trees and mossy, fallen trunks, and of Keith staring into the distance as he sits alone in the forest. The events take place from September to November, so we get to watch the leaves turn.

The connected white geodomes Keith and Jessica live and work in  stand in sterile contrast to the otherwise natural setting. But bits of the natural world also turn up out of place, from wasps and swarming ants to flowers suddenly blooming. The sense of vague but growing unease is deepened with dreamy, slightly discordant background music and clipped, brittle, sometimes overly formal dialogue. The effect is one of distance. Everything is presented at a remove. We are not allowed to connect with the characters or their experiences. If they reach any conclusions, we are not privy to them.

What Remains

They Remain is undeniably offbeat, and off putting. The bleak mood it produces reminds me very much of Event Horizon, but without the grandeur or horror elements. Slowly growing madness and obscure cosmic influences are not easy to portray on film,  but I think writer/director Philip Gelatt’s decision to keep the plot, cast, and effects to a minimum for the most part succeeds. In the end I enjoyed it, and am still thinking about it, but I can’t say I liked it. They Remain is not a great movie, but a good enough one–the kind you watch simply to be weirded out.

cargo

 

cargo
Into the unknown

Cargo begins with so much potential. A zombie plague. A family struggling to survive. The wilds of rural Australia. A top-notch cast to bring it to life. It packs a real emotional punch inside a small story. And then…it loses momentum and falls back on several common stereotypes and sentiment to fill in the gaps. Cargo is a good movie, but it should have been better.

Some small spoilers ahead

Set in an Australia ravaged by a zombie-creating virus, Andy, Kay, and their infant daughter Rosie, are struggling to find a safe haven from the end of the world. When Kay is attacked and infected they must change their plans to get her help. But she turns, attacks, and infects Andy before they find any, and he is left alone to save Rosie before he also turns into the undead.

cargo
Family is where you find it

Martin Freeman is his sincere, exceptional self as Andy, a man out of his element and trying to keep his family alive. Suzie Porter is a great match as his wife Kay, strong and determined and brave in the face of inevitable disaster. And newcomer Simone Landers is completely convincing as Thoomi, the young Aboriginal girl trying desperately to save her own father before she joins up with Andy and Rosie.

The small cast is filled out by Bruce R. Carter and Natasha Wanganeen as Thoomi’s parents, and David Gulpilil as the tribal elder Daku–the Clever Man. Kris McQuade, Anthony Hayes and Caren Pistorius are other struggling survivors.

Cargo is all about family

Cargo is not actually scary–the effect it produces is more unsettling and sad, with some very striking monster reveals. But as an addition to the already-loaded zombie genre it works, and works pretty well.

Some of the strongest scenes in the movie are the early ones between Andy and his wife, as they struggle to make increasingly urgent life and death decisions, first as healthy humans and then as infected pre-zombies. The later development of a family bond between Andy and Thoomi is also surprisingly touching and believable, if at times throwing a heartbreaking amount of emotional weight onto the child.

cargo
Other monsters

Cargo also chooses to touch on major social issues like racism, funding cuts to resources in aboriginal areas, and environmental concerns about fracking. Given the characters involved, it makes sense to be aware of the issues even if they are not dealt with in depth. There is, after all, a zombie apocalypse going on.

However, the other side of acknowledging the issues is turning them into cliched plot devices. The racist, survivalist gas-line worker and the Aborigines shown as noble savages are reduced to stereotypes, and cheapen an otherwise compelling plot.

And another thing…

Unfortunately, with such a small cast and limited focus, Cargo’s 105 minutes prove too long to spend on telling the story. In between genuine character development and forward plot motion, the pacing lags. There are too many long shots of Andy trudging through the outback with his daughter strapped to his back and slow-motion scenes of Aboriginal warriors destroying the undead. While the scenery is beautiful, less of would have been enough.

But there are also some wonderful details.

The government-issue medical kits are a great, grim touch, with their basic fact sheet, wristband timer, mouthguard, cuffs, and spring-loaded spike for ending it all. The variations on the old zombie theme are bizarre and intriguing, with the copious, sticky pus and the need to hibernate in the dark. And the carrot and stick trick is brilliant, if a bit overwrought at the end.

Carrying on

The real strength of Cargo is the intimate drama of it, and the 2013 short Cargo was based on was as tightly put together as anyone could wish. Stretching it to feature length required some padding and diluted the raw power of a man’s determination to save his child. In the end Cargo is a movie that, while beautifully made and touchingly acted, ends up being less than it should be because it thought it needed to be more.

Solo: A Star Wars Story
Solo: A Star Wars Story
Solo: A Star Wars Story

Solo: A Star Wars Story is polished and sleek, a fine demonstration of the well-oiled machine that is Disney. The cast is talented, the effects bright and shiny, the story exciting enough if a little too long. But I think Solo would have been so much better if it weren’t about Han Solo at all.

No new hope, here (just a few spoilers)

Solo is amusing, but it doesn’t offer any substance. It’s just lightweight summer fare–superficial and forgettable. This is no sin for a summer movie, but as an addition to the Star Wars franchise it should offer something more. Solo: A Star Wars Story has nothing to emotionally invest in–and that is the fatal flaw. The core saga gives us characters we can care about–passionately. This second outing into A Star Wars Story-land can put on the trappings but lacks the foundations.

It’s too determined to show us all the references from the original trilogy. While it’s fun to see Han meet Chewie and Lando, the familiar scenes can’t carry the whole movie.

The dialogue is often simplistic and obvious. And yet despite all the exposition, there is no insight into how Han Solo developed into the reluctant hero we know and love. We have only the overemphasized statement that he is a good guy. This shortcut reduces him to a cartoon cowboy and not much else.

This is not the scruffy nerf-herder we’re looking for

Solo largely suffers from the same problems that bothered me in Rogue One–good actors with far too little to work with.  While entertaining in the moment, this is not a movie I will go back to. There is no emotional growth here–Solo’s Han is, was, and always has been. Why should we care about his backstory?

Solo: A Star Wars Story
A new Han

Alden Ehrenreich is the younger Han, and he is genuinely likeable in the role. But he seems to be doing nothing more than a broad imitation of Harrison Ford’s smirk and swagger–and I know Ehrenreich is capable of better. And while young Solo should resemble the older character, it’s really hard to watch Solo: A Star Wars Story and not wish they had just CGI’d in Harrison Ford.

Emilia Clarke is also likeable as Qi’ra, but she fails to convey any heat with Solo or any cold calculation with Dryden Voss. She’s sweet, and we are told she is dangerous. Her threat just doesn’t come through.

Lando Calrissian is a wasted character, for all Donald Glover’s suave moves. But Glover gets points for showing more emotional connection to Lando’s droid, L3, than Han does to Q’ira.

Woody Harrelson’s good-natured performance as Beckett can’t save his character from being a straight-up plot device. It’s particularly galling when Beckett’s death is milked mercilessly to show that Han really is a good person, even when he shoots first.

Paul Bettany as Dryden Voss is probably the most believable actor in the film. Bettany brings a certain convincingly dangerous psychopathy to his crime lord, and is lucky enough to simply be killed in combat. And Thandie Newton’s Val is a brief, pleasant surprise who is also allowed to die with her dignity intact.

So, what’s left?

Solo: A Star Wars Story is ultimately, for me, an empty suit of a film that puts well-known characters through predictable paces with no payoff for either them or a nostalgic audience. Which is a shame.

A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi created many, many lifelong fans. Sixteen years later, the next trilogy introduced another generation of fans to the Star Wars universe. And now we have Episodes VII and VIII, with IX on the horizon, and maybe we should let the current generation become enamored of their trilogy in peace.

So perhaps that’s the deeper meaning of Solo hidden in the gravity well: it’s time to finally let Luke, Leia, Han, and Obi Wan rest, and let the saga continue without constantly looking backward for slick, flashy, and forgettable content fill up space. 

Deadpool 2
What a feelin’
***A Few Spoilers Ahead***

Deadpool 2 is everything the first one was, and more. The violence is even more ridiculously over the top, the profanity so ramped up that even Colossus drops an f-bomb, and the emotional core of the story remains as believable as ever. I laughed. I cried. I laughed and cried at the same time. And I didn’t even have a spike through my head.

The Plot Thickens

Of course Ryan Reynolds is back as our loveable hero, as is Morena Baccarin as his one true love, Vanessa. Brianna Hildebrand returns as Negasonic Teenage Warhead, Stefan Kapacic as Colossus, Leslie Uggams as Blind Al, Karan Soni as Dopinder, and T.J. Miller as Weasel. Joining the party are Josh Brolin (fresh off killing half the universe) as the responsible, world-weary Cable, Zazie Beetz as the super-confident Domino (who’s mutant power is handled with great, casual good cheer), and Julian Dennison as the damaged and dangerous Russell. And in a stroke of inspired hiring, David Leitch (of John Wick and Atomic Blonde) is onboard to direct the mayhem.

Deadpool 2 begins not long after the first film ends, with Wade getting in touch with his maternal side. But that is only the set up. After a horrible personal tragedy sets things in motion, Deadpool embarks on a heartwarming journey to protect Russell, a dangerous fourteen-year-old mutant. But it’s complicated, because Cable shows up to prevent his own horrible personal tragedy by killing the kid before things go too far.

And because that’s not complicated enough, protecting Russell soon involves Deadpool and Weasel assembling a crack team of mutants, dubbed X-Force, so Deadpool can develop as a human being and show his warm, nurturing side. And also kill large numbers of bad guys and blow up lots of cars, trucks, and buildings. Bill Skarsgård shows up as Zeitgeist, Terry Crews as Bedlam, Lewis Tan as Shatterstar, Brad Pitt as Vanisher, and Rob Delaney as Peter. They briefly round out the X-Force before the team becomes more…streamlined.

Some of the Fun Bits
  • There are already three decapitations before the opening titles roll.
  • Shatterstar has green blood. Lots of it.
  • Dopinder aspires to be Kirsten Dunst to Deadpool’s Tom Cruise in the worst Interview With the Vampire analogy possible.
  • Now we all know what a “prison wallet” is, whether we wanted to or not.
  • As Wade promised Blind Al in the first Deadpool, the cure for blindness is indeed next to the stash of cocaine.
  • I think the “when does this happen” question gets answered pretty clearly in the X-Mansion.
  • Deadpool 2 references too many other Marvel superheroes to keep track of, takes more than a few swipes at DC, turns Yentl’s ballad “Papa” into a recurring theme, and in a scene so disturbingly funny I will refer to it only as “the legs”, resurrects Basic Instinct in the most disgusting way imaginable.
So Go See It!

Deadpool 2Deadpool 2 repeats a couple of tricks from the first film with enough of a twist to keep them from being simply trite. It is familiar without being a retread, and while it doesn’t really break any new ground (after the first, how could it without scratching at NC-17?), it manages to be just as remarkable. And in true Marvel fashion, it proclaims loudly that zealotry is bad, family is where you find it, death is temporary, and time travel fixes everything.

Let’s face it: Deadpool 2 is the hero we deserve.

 

Hammer Films
Hammer Films

Hammer Films: An Exhaustive Filmography by Tom Johnson and Deborah Del Vecchio delivers what it promises. First published in 1996, this compendium details every film put out by Hammer studios–165 full length films over forty three years, as well as shorts and television shows. While there are a slew of related titles out there, Hammer Films: An Exhaustive Filmography stands out. The writing is workmanlike and occasionally repetitive as the authors strive to provide a thorough description of each film. But this is a labor of love, honest and earnest and more fun for it.

The House that Hammer Films Built

Following a foreword by the late, great Peter Cushing, and a brief overview of the studio’s history, the authors delve into the real story of Hammer Films. Hammer began turning out movies in 1935, and, except for a pause for World War II, did not stop until the studio folded in 1978. Over the decades they made comedies, dramas, war dramas, and thrillers. But in the fifties and sixties Hammer decided to focus its energies on monsters, space creatures, and supernatural threats to the point where, to this day, Hammer is synonymous with horror.

Hammer is probably best known for reviving the Universal monsters–Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy, and the Wolfman–and turning Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing into international stars. These films cemented the studio’s reputation for solid, well-made horror–which, unfortunately, Hammer took too far. Hammer also churned out an interminable number of questionable sequels to their blockbuster monster movies, losing quality and audience interest.

Along with its horror mainstays, Hammer produced a number of iconic entries in the science fiction field. The Quartermass Xperiment, X–The Unknown, and Five Million Years to Earth all stand as classics of fifties alien-invasion movies. Hammer also branched out with a few monsters of their own invention, like The Gorgon, and  Doctor Jekyll and Sister Hyde. They dabbled in the occult with chillers like The Devil Rides Out, and To the Devil…a Daughter. And they went for jungle adventure and stop motion dinosaurs with She, and One Million Years BC (which is legendary for Raquel Welch’s fur bikini, not the special effects).

The Devil is in the Details

The authors present the films in chronological order, and include any posters, stills, or promotional shots they could get. Each entry contains the release date, length, filming location, producer, director, screenplay author, editor, photography director, and U.K. certificate rating, cast list, any other titles the film may have been released under, and a complete synopsis of the plot. Additional details and anecdotes are sprinkled in, such as the career arc of an actor, quirks with sets or props, or what the country’s mood was when a film was released. The authors also note how well a film was received, and where it fit in Hammer’s general business plan. Although the entries are formulaic, taken as a whole they provide a fascinating glimpse into both the personal and business workings of Hammer studios.

The good, the bad, the groundbreaking, and the ill-conceived are all here, researched with a fan’s affection. There are far slicker, more polished books on Hammer out there, but Hammer Films: An Exhaustive Filmography has so much affection for its subject it should be a staple of any collection. I understand the fondness; Hammer films are what I think of when I hear “old-school horror”, and I’m not alone in that.

So keep your Freddy, Chucky, and Jason. I’ll take The Horror of Dracula any time.

Avengers: Infinity War
Avengers: Infinity War
Infinity War

Let’s face it: Avengers: Infinity War does not need a review. It’s been out for over a week, the fans (and the box office numbers) have spoken, and anyone who has yet to see this juggernaut should already have a pretty good idea of what to expect. So instead I present a few observations for your reading pleasure.

Spoilers ahead.

Disclaimer: I have no investment in canon. I’m not much of comic reader and I have only seen about half of the Marvel Comics Universe movies out there. My concern about Avengers:Infinity War is only that it be internally consistent and consistent with the rest of the MCU.

Oh, and entertaining in a huge, summer-movie way.

And, of course, it is. Mostly.

The Nice Touches

As grand mash-ups go, Avengers:Infinity War keeps things moving. I appreciate how it begins in medias res by assuming the audience already knows who the players are and how they all connect, skipping a too-long recap of everyone’s backstory (I’m looking at you, Justice League). At two and a half hours, pausing for exposition would derail the momentum entirely. The action rarely stops, but the mayhem is interspersed with enough flashes of character development to keep it from being just a CGI slugfest.

Speaking of action, my favorite part of the brutal opening battle is Loki’s scathing curse, “You will never be a god”.

Speaking of character development, I appreciate the completely believable fondness Tony Stark has for Peter Parker, built over time, which makes Spidey’s dissolution doubly awful.

I also appreciate that Thanos is written as a character in his own right, rather than being just a huge computer-generated monster. Josh Brolin does a terrific job of showing the layers to Thanos’s monomania.

The Missed Opportunities

I think the Guardians of the Galaxy are poorly used in Avengers: Infinity War. Not wasted–they are too integral to the plot–but at key points they are reduced from fully developed characters into plot devices.

For instance, I think Gamora’s caving in is out of character. I understand her pain at seeing Nebula being tortured, but her weak attempt to run away when Thanos is about to sacrifice her seems–off. I didn’t buy the big reveal that Thanos loves her as strong enough to override her decision to die to keep the stone out of his grasp.

In a similar fashion, I didn’t buy Nebula simply standing by as Quill wrecks the attempt to take Thanos’s gauntlet away. Yes, she had a very hard day, but the Nebula we have seen up to this point is so laser-focused on taking down Thanos she should have smacked Quill into submission before he could screw things up.

And let’s face it, it’s obvious that the heroes killed in Avengers: Infinity War will be back, since we know the sequel schedule. So while there is some shock value to seeing the good guys die and Thanos getting to watch his sunset, the ending leaves far less of an impact than it promised.

The Random Thoughts

Please, please, please let Pepper Potts be dead. Gwyneth Paltrow is so annoying.

I just have to assume that Doctor Strange decided to turn over the time stone to get to the one of the 14 million possible futures where everything turns out all right.

Why was the Hulk even here? Mark Ruffalo had to have had nothing better to do.

Thor and Rocket are a remarkably good pairing. I would totally watch a spin-off about them.

In the second installment of Avengers: Infinity War, Nebula deserves the kill shot. She has more than earned it.

This plotline may be the last best hope to bring Marvel Zombies to the big screen. Who’s with me?

Agree? Disagree? Think I missed the point entirely? Let me know in the comments.

Under the Shadow, an Iranian horror film released quietly in the U.S. in 2016, is low-key, creepy, and tantalizingly  unresolved. Set in 1980’s Tehran during the Iran-Iraq war, writer-director Babak Anvari’s story of an evil djinn’s grip on a family works largely through the power of suggestion, with a few jump scares thrown in for effective variety.

Under the Shasow
Things fall apart

In Under the Shadow, the tension of life during war-time plays out in the domestic sphere. The film’s primary focus is the rocky relationship between Shideh, portrayed by Narges Rashidi, and her young daughter Dorsa, played by Avin Manshadi. The djinn, if it exists, uses the sharp edges of their personalities to drive them ever further apart.

Neither Shideh nor Dorsa is particularly likeable, but they are thoroughly believable. Shideh is an educated, Westernized woman whose world is slowly sliding back into the dark ages. Already struggling with her mother’s recent death, her inability to return to medical school, and her conflicts with her daughter, she is faced with her husband being sent to the war zone even as the war is approaching their doorstep.

Shideh tries to ignore the seriousness of her deteriorating situation. She clings to the modern privileges of her Jane Fonda workouts and a VCR. She clings to the idea that her home is still safe. She is dismissive of her husband’s concerns, and is frequently annoyed with her daughter. And Dorsa is frequently an annoying child, stubborn, suspicious, and obviously more fond of her father than her mother. With him gone, there is no-one to ease the strain between the mother and daughter.

The idea of evil spirits worms its way into Shideh’s thinking when her daughter’s mute playmate gives the girl a charm to protect her from djinn, evil spirits who travel on the wind and steal away what you love. The thought is reinforced by their landlady’s gossip, prejudices, and superstitions, although Shideh scoffs at such primitive beliefs.

The bomb

But then the strangeness begins, with an unexploded bomb crashing through the roof of their small apartment building and triggering the death of the elderly man living on the top floor. Dorsa becomes convinced that her missing doll–a gift from her father– is in the ruined apartment. She develops a lingering fever that defies treatment. As the other families abandon the building to escape the ever-more-frequent bombings, Shideh uses the excuse of her daughter’s illness to remain behind, alone. She and her daughter rapidly descend into the grip of what may be a genuine haunting or a terrible folie à deux.

Much of Under the Shadow’s power is derived from the absence of anything solid to fear. Anvari is frugal with his depictions of the djinn. The spirit is all flapping fabric and half-seen figures, a gaping mouth and a panicked child’s voice. The growing threat to Shideh and Dorsa seems to come from within, as their interactions become increasingly ugly under the pressure of Dorsa’s inexplicable illness and Shideh’s maternal failings. At one point the tension drives Dorsa to physically attack her mother in a scene I found far more wrenching than the scenes of supernatural malice.

Under the Shadow
Dorsa’s doll

In the end, Under the Shadow is an intimate ghost story that reflects the oppression of beliefs, politics, and culture as much as the oppression of the supernatural. Anvari leaves many of the questions he introduces open-ended. He allows the film to keep its loose ends even as he offers a familiar-looking conclusion that in lesser hands would scream of a sequel–because in life, as in art, inescapable uncertainty can be the scariest part.

Isle of Dogs

Isle of Dogs is in so many ways a quintessential Wes Anderson movie. It is beautifully filmed, the characters–even though they are dogs–are believably quirky yet still slightly exaggerated, and playful, dreamlike storytelling mingles seamlessly with blunt and ugly truths. And yet despite all the charm and genuine sentiment Anderson imbues Isle of Dogs with, there is a flaw at its center which makes it a weaker film than it should be.

The story begins when Mayor Kobayashi, a scheming Japanese politician, has all the dogs in his city banned to an island used as a garbage dump–he intends to kill them after he steals an election. Kobayashi’s twelve-year-old nephew Atari flies a small plane to the island in search of his own dog, Spots, and becomes involved helping all the abandoned dogs manage their own rescue. A group of students lead the resistance against Kobayashi in the city.

Anderson as always assembles a familiar and stellar cast. Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Scarlett Johansson, Harvey Keitel, Tilda Swinton, F. Murray Abraham, Fisher Stevens, Anjelica Huston, and Liev Schreiber all lend their considerable talents to voicing the many dogs. The human characters are portrayed by Greta Gerwig, Frances McDormand, Courtney B. Vance, Frank Wood, Koyu Rankin, Kunichi Nomura, Akira Takayama, and Yojiro Noda. Yoko Ono and Ken Watanabe have small, almost stunt parts.

The movie has the flavor of the 1950’s vision of the near future, with a dash of postapocalypse thrown in. There is strong and pointed political commentary. There is a hint of Godzilla and James Bond in the bad guys and their over-the-top mechanical weapons. The artwork and puppetry are amazing, detailed and convincing and realistic. The dogs are beautifully rendered, from their eyes to their dirty fur to their scars. The backgrounds glow. The story is heartwarming without being sentimental, with authentic emotional development and honest consequences. Isle of Dogs has the potential to become a classic.

And yet.

There are missteps which I believe keep Isle of Dogs from being as fully wonderful as it should be. For one, I found the names distracting: Kobayashi, Atari, Major Domo, and Yoko Ono are all so obvious as to be dismissive. For another, the use of tired character clichés like the schoolboy hacker undercut the strength of the storytelling. But Anderson’s biggest mistake is that he inserts a transfer student from Cleveland, Ohio into the middle of his story’s Japanese political battle, and makes her the spokesman and heroine of the resistance. She is blonde, loud, and brash; if this was meant as a knowing wink toward the trope of the white savior, it missed its mark by a hemisphere. If the character was in earnest, the tone-deafness is uncomfortable to witness. While Anderson has been accused of cultural appropriation, what comes across to me is more a lazy attempt at cleverness that falls short of its intended effect.

As a long-time fan of Anderson’s work, I truly enjoyed all the familiar, oddball personalities and the reliable charm he brings to his storytelling. Despite its problems, Isle of Dogs is a lovely, touching movie. But I hesitate to call it one of his best.

So, now that the opening weekend excitement is out of the way, the reviews are in, and the arguments have started in earnest, I’d like to offer my humble assessment of the best and the worst of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

Spoilers ahead.

Was it entertaining? Oh, yes. Was it visually stunning? Oh, yes, again. Was it up to the overall quality of Star Wars: The Force Awakens? That’s debatable. And I have to say no. While there is much to praise about Rogue One, in many ways it fell into some lazy habits that undermined the potential of a story we all already knew the ending to.

The Good

Rogue One's Rebels
Rogue One’s Rebels

Darth Vader—Bringing back the sheer physical menace of the early Vader was a keen tactical move. The closing scene where he casually devastates the cornered Rebel forces with his lightsaber and the Force is breathtaking, reminding us all over again of why he is such an enduring villain.

Effects—The battle scenes were spectacular, as promised. In addition to the flashy guerrilla street fights and Death Star demos, the inclusion of the Episode IV sequences during the final space battle was an excellent connection to the original saga. But what most impressed me was the destruction of the shield around Scarif—seeing a couple of disabled Imperial Star Destroyers get shoved through the gate by a small rebel ship was pretty bold.

Secondary characters—They were the real treasures in Rogue One, managing to take stilted, stereotypical characters and really make them breathe. Alan Tudyk as the repurposed droid K-2SO, Donnie Wen as the blind Jedi Chirrut Imwe, Jiang Wen as his barbarian sidekick Baze Malbus, and Riz Ahmed as the former Imperial pilot Bohdi Rook, all brought tremendous sympathy to their roles and made me care about their fates in a way the leads didn’t.

The Bad

The Death Star is always bad
The Death Star is always bad

Grand Moff Tarkin—Peter Cushing has been dead long enough (he passed in 1994) for it to make sense to cast a new actor in the role. Alternatively, the script could have focused on the multitude of other characters and left Tarkin out of it. What they decided to do felt too much like grave-robbing to me, especially since the CGI was not quite good enough to climb out of the uncanny valley. Tarkin was creepy, alright, just not in the way it was intended.

Lead characters—Jyn and Cassian were far less engaging than the secondary characters. Felicity Jones looked uncomfortably like Jo from The Facts of Life throughout the action, with her face locked in a perpetual frown. There was no sense of connection between her and Diego Luna (or anyone else, really), who fared slightly better in the emoting department. I got the feeling of very good actors given thin, thin parts and not enough space to bring them fully to life.

Slipshod plotting—The reason for Rogue One’s existence is to get from point A to point A New Hope, but there are ways to tell a story with a foregone conclusion that keep it compelling (Argo comes to mind as a recent success). This missed the mark. In their attempt to recall the visual style of the original trilogy, the opening sequences came across as rushed and not especially well connected. Jyn’s backstory also seemed perfunctory, presented in info-dump dialogue to get it out of the way of the next big battle. And the final scenes of the Death Star plans reaching their destination suffered the same hurried fate with an abrupt resolution. It made it very hard for me to invest in the story.

The Other Bits

Look familiar?
Look familiar?

Speaking of connecting to the originals, Rogue One did a nice job namechecking the first trilogy with the looming AT-ATs, the Scarif bunkers, and the desert landscape of Jedah. The musical score also very reminiscent of John Williams’s epic work for A New Hope.

But why does the empire put all its controls in awkward and fully exposed locations? They achieved seamless and true AI, but they can’t put the Master Switch somewhere other than on an unprotected podium out in the open?

Why did Jyn’s mother tell her to trust the force? Did Jyn even have the force? I kept wondering when we’d get back to that, but it seems like the explanation for that emphasized line was left out in the rewrites.

All in all, I found the latest entry in the franchise to be a mixed bag of quality. What worked for me worked very well, but what was lacking became distractions too strong to overcome. I’m glad I saw it, because it was a visual feast with some highly interesting characters. But I’m not likely to go back and watch it the way I do with the rest of the saga.

And that’s my take-away from Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

And as always, please share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section!

The Changeling theatrical poster
The Changeling theatrical poster

The Changeling is a classic ghost story–heavy on atmosphere and suggestive chills, light on gore and graphic violence. That’s not really how I usually define a scary movie, but every so often I see The Changeling mentioned as one of those “must-see” films for horror buffs. Having finally watched it, I understand the recommendation–in many ways I found The Changeling much more frightening than its bloodier cousins. There are no flashy effects, just well-done, haunted house smoke, mirrors and misdirection leading us deep into the central mystery.

And with those simple tools, The Changeling creates a quiet, reliably creepy cinematic experience.

When The Changeling was released in March, 1979, the face of horror was already beginning to shift to the slasher-heavy pantheon of Jason, Michael, and Freddy. The low-key story instead revolves around the emotional toll of loss, greed, and betrayal–and with its ghosts and tragedy The Changeling shows that the old terrors still have plenty of power.

The film’s pacing is measured, driven by the characters’ interactions and underscored with the expected ghostly effects. And it shows a remarkable sensitivity to its characters’ emotional states. Men cry in this movie, because they love, and they get hurt. It is somewhat surprising to see, but brutally honest to watch.

George C. Scott, in a bad place
George C. Scott, in a bad place

George C. Scott is the star of the show. He plays John Russell, a grieving widower trying to move on with life after losing both his wife and daughter in a tragic accident. To escape his loss Russell leaves New York for Seattle, and ends up renting a sprawling old gothic mansion that has stood empty for the past dozen years.

Russell’s haunting begins almost immediately with small things–odd noises, doors closing, the feeling of another presence in the house. At times there is a loud metallic pounding that might be the pipes, or the furnace. Or not.

All the customary horror movie trappings appear in The Changeling (even the few trite ones that do nothing but move the plot along), yet they are so well done that their familiarity does not dull their impact. This movie is scary.

What's in the attic?
What’s in the attic?

There is classic ghost story foreshadowing–“That house is not fit to live in…It doesn’t want people”—and an assortment of familiar tropes. In addition to the noises, there is a hidden attic room, with everything shrouded in thick cobwebs and shadows. There are visions of murder, and a deep, dark secret involving sickly children and shrouded identities.

And there is of course a séance, because it wouldn’t be a proper haunted house story without one. It is one of the highlights of the film–underplayed, atmospheric, and terrifying for the restraint. There is no dramatic possession, no glowing ectoplasm or crashing furniture. The scene is calm, the medium asking questions in a dream-state, her wild automatic writing giving the answers: “help, help, help, John, help–”

There is a persistent wet greyness to the film, and in the cold, wet city scenes there is an attention given to the isolation of crowds. The overcast skies lend to the oppression, and encourage the underlying sadness of the story. The film relies heavily on watery imagery in its haunting, from the rainy Pacific Northwest setting to running faucets, sinks and tubs, a river and the ocean, a hidden well, and the persistent vision of a drowned child. There are also echoes from other films, with certain scenes reminding me of the empty apartment in Last Tango in Paris and of the sweeping Manderley mansion from Rebecca.

With all these fine details, The Changeling deserves its reputation as a top notch horror film. I could not keep from looking back over my shoulder as I watched it. Even though the effects are old-fashioned, without shock value or a single jump scare, the end result is chilling.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

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