29 December 2016

Goodbye 2016: Top Movies of the Year

In many ways, this is the only thing copycat Internet Sites like this work towards all year. What is the Top 10? Which ten films rise above the rest and are thus immortalized on the Internet forever? Well, here at Norwegian Morning Wood we fully acknowledge that this is a fluid process. At a certain level, films aren't really any better than any other - it's more informed by taste, context, and timing than anything. Considering our Top Films from 2015, it's amazing how much they've shifted around. In fact, only six remain intact from last year's bizarre total of eleven that I couldn't decide between. This will change year after year, and you can be damn sure that I'll also be updating our Top 10 History come January including 2013-15 films. You can of course get a sneak peak of 2015 updated right here:

2015 Update:

#10: Straight Outta Compton
#9: Inside Out
#8: The Martian
#7: Bone Tomahawk
#6: The End of the Tour
#5: Sicario
#4: Dope
#3: The Duke of Burgundy
#2: Ex Machina
#1: Mad Max: Fury Road

Alright, so let's dive into this:

#10: High-Rise

Dragonslayer...avid dancer....pool partier
The first of many on this list that's sort of ducked and dodged its way out of real contention, High-Rise should have been part of Tom Hiddleston's great suave year between this and The Nigh Manager, but that didn't really take off culturally the way it could have, either. I suppose he had to make up for it by falling in love with Taylor Swift. Anyway, this film is nuts, categorizing the fall of society within a single apartment structure while cannily skipping the actual brink of destruction. It's more fascinating the more you watch it and realize that every stupid action the characters take doesn't make a lick of difference as the politics in the eponymous high-rise inevitably shift regardless of any one's motivation. Hiddleston, our ostensible hero, actually takes a backseat to the mania of Luke Evans, always kind of a bleh actor who takes charge here.

#9: The Neon Demon

Models are always hungry for models.

There's a lot of weird movies on this list, which ought to give away my personal taste in films, but The Neon Demon owns weirdness in 2016. It starts innocently enough. With a way too young wannabe model posing as if her throat is slit. If there's one knock, it's that Nick Winding Refn could surely use an editor to speed up the first half, but as we get through it and continue exploring the depths of everyone's insanity that's when this flick really gets going. I forgot to add the Jena Malone molesting a dead girl's corpse bit to my scenes of the year, but beyond mere shock value, this film does magical things with its lighting, symbolism, and thematic ruminations of the nature and value of beauty itself. It's a trip, man.

#8: The Love Witch

"Put a sawbuck on Captain Nemo in the fifth at Belmont."
This assuredly isn't getting any easier. It's amazing that 2016 is an age where you can essentially replicate a film from any time period. This is usually done horribly, but writer/director Anna Biller owns it here, melding a horror/romance, if you can even call it that, story with technicolor 60s aesthetics and both 2016 thematic sensibilities and technology. I dare say it's Archer-esque in its playing with nebulous time periods, which only heightens what it's trying to say about woman's power in this world.

#7: La La Land

But can it beat Gangster Squad (2013)?!
Your presumable Oscar frontrunner, unless Moonlight (2016) gains a lot of traction, La La Land is the best antidote to 2016 - cheery, bright, hopeful, and special in all the right ways. It's weird if 2016 will be remembered for this cinematically considering all the other insane shit that went down this year. Gosling and Stone hook up on screen for the third time in five years, and have never been better. Original movie musicals are actually rare as hell, and this is a fun one to route for. It's a love letter to Los Angeles, musicals, and dreams with everything sold in crisp efficient fashion by wunderkind director Damien Chazelle.

#6: Silence

Some would call Catholicism the "Godzilla" of religions.
It felt like this movie took forever to come out, and it was worth the wait. Scorsese is in full-on serious filmmaking mode here, not comical insane Wolf of Wall Street (2013) mode or serious but insane Departed (2006) mode. This is an at times epically slow meditation on faith, our relationship with God, and dangerous clashes of culture. It could very well be the most beautiful film Marty has ever shot, and although we're weary to miss some of the wit and panache of his recent work (is it weird how Scorsese has gotten more irreverent and modern in his twilight years as a filmmaker?), this retains all of his expert precision of the craft, which is still tops for any working director.

#5: Arrival

Watch out for that giant kidney bean!
I just ranted at great length about this one, so for a more in-depth look, check that out, but suffice it to say that despite my personal objections with a lot of Villeneuve's directorial choices, just from an irritant's point of view, it's also a phenomenally locked-in story with excellent character and thematic growth. It's a great parable for our current age where there's a plethora of communication but no one really talking with or understanding each other. Also that shot. Right there. Best of the year. It also spins alien arrival tropes in new and fun ways - Contact (1997) be damned! For real, fuck Contact. This was totally and honestly different.

#4: The VVitch

Waaaaahhh! How is this is the scariest image
of 2016! The eyes! THE EYES!!
My mid-year #1 pick has been reasonably supplanted, but not really by any film released in the back half of the year. My one complaint remains that I had to crank the volume way up and eventually turn on subtitles to understand Daddy McMumble, but dialogue is really second to visuals and tone here, which aren't flashy, but eternally depressing, which truly engrosses us int he plight of these hapless farmers. It all clicks towards the end as the eponymous Witch almost takes a backseat to Beelzebub himself. Kids shouldn't play with evil black demonic goats. Just sayin. I also love how this list includes The Witch AND The Love Witch. Witches are big in 2016 I suppose - despite Hillary not being elected! Ohhhh I feel so dirty. I love you, Mrs. Clinton.

#3: Swiss Army Man

Someone really ought to discuss why 2016 was filled with such weird ass movies. We're not really even at the weirdest, although I did say that was The Neon Demon. Demon was probably the most fucked up, Swiss Army Man probably played with reality the most and our #1 pick played its bizarre reality straight. But sticking with our #3 pick, Swiss Army Man gets points not for its boffo premise, which I found easy to get passed (the farting Harry Potter corpse) and the fact that it's remarkably glib about what parts are real, symbolic, happening within Paul Dano's mind, or completely fictional. There's a sense that it plays with time and space with remarkable abandon, capturing the rationalizations of his hopeless stalker's mind who really just longs for some friendship and company. The corpse probably isn't the way to go. Or maybe Manny is real. Maybe he did go on a journey. Or, what's more likely, he just camped out creeping in Mary Elizabeth Winstead's backyard for a few weeks. Not great, Paul. Brilliant, weird, and totally comfortable and proud of itself, there's a lot to unpack here, from the subtle fact that they are supposedly miles from civilization but still feeding on discarded Cheesy Poofs, to the impossibility of his desert island escape without a farting corpse - everything clicks.

#2: Green Room

You know, the Nazis in Green Room got the candidate they voted for.
So I'm already changing my mind, after having named Green Room the highest 2016-made film I saw in the Calendar Year 2016, even if I actually ranked The Lobster higher, since at the time I was going by its true 2015 release rather than its 2016 US theatrical release. I need to stop digging these insane indie festival films. High-Rise presents the same issue. But since then I changed my mind - let's go by pure US release, which puts The Lobster ahead. Got it?

I still think that Green Room suffers from an anti-climactic ending, but that's also due to the first four-fifths of the film pouring on a steady breakneck tension. Anton Yelchin's farewell tour pairs him with Imogen Poots in a Fright Night (2011) reunion way better than Crazy, Stupid, Love (2011). Patrick Stewart is unrecognizable as a supremely evil yet tempered villain, and the whole Punk Rockers vs. Neo-Nazis in a confined space in the Pacific Northwest is a premise any 80s movie would have gone crazy with. The best moments are when that tension pops, though, and it's quick and merciless with its deaths, always accidental, sudden, and quick to move on since the characters don't really have a choice to sit and cry about it. Assuredly left off many Top 10's for the year, my love of genre flicks like this knows no bounds. Yelchin RIP.

#1: The Lobster

“You ever bully or hurt anybody again, I’ll come back and buttfuck your
father with your mom’s headless corpse on this goddamn lawn.”
As I was watching this insane exercise in cultural exaggeration I instantly knew it was the film I'd be rambling about at the end of the year. Somehow it's still Yorgos Lanthimos' most accessible film, as he swiftly introduces us to a simple premise - in whatever version of earth this is, and it's never quite clear whether this is just an insular city culture or the norm across the whole planet. If you are looking for love and haven't found it on the outside, you may check into this resort (it seems optional, right?), and either find someone in 40 days or be turned into an animal of your choice. You can obviously buy some time by pegging off deserters who choose to be single in some rebel camps that have rules to singlehood as stringent, if not more so, then those who believe you should be couples.

The whole film has a bone-dry sense of humour that works best when all the principal characters take their completely bonkers situation with the highest sincerity. There are some brutal moments, though. Colin Farrell plays a vulnerable love hack who fails at conning his way through and out of the system, and finally finds love in a place where it's forbidden. Rachel Weisz is equally as good as his near-sighted match, which in itself is a weird commentary on who we're supposed to hook up with. This is the kind of film you can talk forever about, but for me, hits on some big interests, namely cultural differences and restrictions, not so much the nature of love, but the nature of societal pressures to find (or not find) love, and a tone and premise that begs you to laugh then dares you not to. Everything clicks through a slow reveal of how the world works, which simultaneous simple yet drastically different than our own. The characters, most importantly, take all this world-building for granted, without winking at the audience or pausing to let us catch up. It's the kind of audience respect, another movie that knows and revels in what it is to wondrous results.

The Rest:

Again, I hate adding some honourable mentions. It's such a cop-out. But here are some other good films from this year, mostly bigger genre films that I really dug, but didn't stick with me as much. Except maybe Deadpool. Deadpool will stick with me forever. In no particular order:

Captain America: CIVIL WAR
The Nice Guys
10 Cloverfield Lane
London Has Fallen
Hell or High Water

28 December 2016

Goodbye 2016: Music - Sing Song All Long!

And then we came to the musical part of the show. Like television, I will freely self-admit to not having listened to every song there is this year. For some reason even though I'm usually well in tune to the audial world, I actually think that music was lacking a bit this year. Nothing really stood out, which made it easy for David Bowie and Radiohead to dominate where they probably wouldn't have any other year. It's also been such a Beyonce year, although I'm not convinced that all her work was the best of the year. I know, the Beygency is coming for me soon. So what was good to hit the ears in 2016? Keep reading, my young ward and find out:

Songs of 2016:

"Sorry" by Justin Bieber
"Same Old Love" by Selena Gomez
"Stressed Out" by twenty one pilots
"Formation" by Beyonce
"Roses" by The Chainsmokers
"My House" by Flo Rida
"Hands to Myself" by Selena Gomez
"Work" by Rihanna ft. Drake
"Me, Myself, & I" by G-Eazy ft. Bebe Rexha
"Cake by the Ocean" by DNCE
"Love Yourself" by Justin Bieber
"Dark Necessities" by Red Hot Chili Peppers
"7 Years" by Lukas Graham
"I Took a Pill in Ibiza" by Mike Posner
"Dangerous Woman" by Ariana Grande
"Work from Home" by Fifth Harmony
"Panda" by Desiigner
"Don't Let Me Down" by The Chainsmokers ft. Daya
"One Dance" by Drake
"Ophelia" by the Lumineers
"Can't Stop the Feeling" by Justin Timberlake
"Cheap Thrills" by Sia
"Send My Love (To Your New Lover)" by Adele
"Closer" by The Chainsmokers ft. Halsey
"Heathens" by twenty one pilots
"Gold" by Kiiara
"Broccoli" by D.R.A.M. ft. Lil' Yachty
"I Hate U, I Love U" by Gnash
"24K Magic" by Bruno Mars
"Starboy" by The Weeknd ft. Daft Punk
"Side to Side" by Ariana Grande ft. Nicki Minaj
"Juju on that Beat" by Zay Hilifigerrr
"Black Beatles" by Rae Sremmund
"Bad Things" by Camila Cabello ft. Machine Gun Kelly

Here is a Summer Jam refresher.

Artist of the Year

It's really hard to zero in on one artist since so many had such spectacular years. The Chainsmokers are now the face of horrible EDM, although they produced some legitimate great jams this year. Twenty one pilots is now the face of rock, even if most of their non-"Heathens" tracks are garbage, but that one's the best thing to come out of Suicide Squad (2016). Sia cemented herself atop the pantheon of pop greats, and Fifth Harmony proved that they have more staying power than other terrible girl pop bands of late such as Little Mix. Rihanna produced a slew of hits and an incredible album, but none seemed to have traction. So who are we left with?

Shit - is it Beyonce? Even though her sister, Solange produced a likely equally as great album, Beyonce, if she didn't get the most sales or #1 hits, it sure felt like that. That's the power of the Beyonce brand. She wasn't actually as successful as any of the above artists, but it totally feels that way. 2016 will more often be remembered for the power of Beyonce, even if "Hold Up" was listened to the same amount as "Purple Rain" was this year. And I'm still sticking to my introductory note that Beyonce wasn't the best artist of 2016, but she was probably the greatest.

Song of the Year:

"Cheap Thrills" by Sia

I stuck the Sean Paul version in the Summer Jam Countdown all summer, but let's throw up the Maddie Zeigler version here. This video is probably better, but I think I actually like Sean Paul's mindless treacle cutting in the remix. Anyway, robbed of Summer Queen status, "Cheap Thrills" dominated this year, and somehow I can still get pumped up to listen to it. That's a rare feat these days, especially considering this was the first great song I noticed on This is Acting when it dropped in January. Yep. Listen to this track for a year straight and love it more each time you hear it. That, for me, was 2016 in a nutshell, and no song was better with near equal commercial pedigree.

Other Singles of the Year:

For whatever reason this year was extremely rap-heavy. There's just a lot of great samples going on right now, with artists following Fetty Wap's deconstruction and casualization of the genre, which actually makes the whole enterprise more listenable and lovable, while preserving common tropes. There were some good rock songs that snuck their way in, but here we go:

"No Problem" by Chance the Rapper ft. Lil Wayne & 2 Chainz the hook is a dream and it's impressive to see Lil Wayne finally on a song that doesn't suck. This isn't the best song from Coloring Book, but certainly the catchiest
"We the People..." by A Tribe Called Quest says everything we want to in a Trump's America in a 90s package that never flinches from the statement they try to make. Also that beat will cut you up.
"Black Beatles" by Rae Sremmund ft. Gucci Mane may have become popular during mannequin challenges, but this floaty song embodies everything about modern rap. It's a party anthem, chill anthem, think piece anthem - everything at once. I called out Rae Sremmund for SremmLife last year, and he may yet prove to be legit.
"Kiss it Better" by Rihanna it was tough to pick one of Rihanna's singles, but this already one of the tracks from ANTI that stood out to me when I listened to it twelve times this summer. This is the showiest non-"Work" track on the album that offers a more abstract look at the complicated emotions of love and regret than anything else this year
"On the Way" by TWENTY88 I feel like no one cared about the best collabo of the year - Jhene Aiko and Big Sean's Twenty88, but this is the sexiest song of the year. No eating the booty like groceries, but I couldn't get enough of this.
"Fade" by Kanye West is my favourite single off The Life of Pablo, and that's not just because I get to watch Teyana Taylor every time it pops up. That growing thumping "Mysteries of Love" bass line (exaggerated to where it should be here) is exquisite and it vocally disguises the fact that it's even a Kanye song, even if the sampling gives it away.
"Way Down We Go" by Keleo listen, I did dig a few rock songs this year. Keleo's probably the best new rock group to emerge this year, badass enough to play inside Volcanos. Fuck yeah.
"Sound of Silence" by Disturbed cover of the year.
"Million Reasons" by Lady GaGa, whose album also seemed to be passed over this year, but was full of great genre-crossing country twinged tracks like this one. There's a lot more passion and emotion in this than any other pop or rock track this year, and it walks that beautiful line between up tempo thrillmaker and downtrodden tearmaker. GaGa always finds a way on to this re-cap, and even though it feels like she's past the point in her career where she cares about making big pop anthems,

Best Albums of the Year:


I generally enjoy splitting up this category between the three mega-genres of Pop, Rock, and Hip-Hop, which I suppose is weird. We don't split films up between Action, Comedy, and Drama. Although perhaps we should...anyway, the popular pick here is Lemonade, which I'll say again, didn't really do anything for me. The runner-up is Sia's This is Acting, but I totally dug Rihanna's ANTI non-stop this year, which is also my general pick for ALBUM OF THE YEAR.

Everything about this is knocked out of the park. It's truly an album that seeks to buck the trend of a lot of pop stars, and even Rihanna's own career. Songs start and stop without much care or pretension of dropping singles ("Work" is the only custom-made hit, which is unarguably awesome), no one cares about hooks or marketability, but the melodies are still catchy and engrossing as hell. It's about the splinters of love and the craziness of falling in and out of relationships more consistently than Lemonade without the added baggage of Jay-Z or Blue Ivy Carter getting in the way. Even the album cover forgoes containing either the album's or Rihanna's name. It was the first double-platinum album of 2016, and another block in the impossible fact that Rihanna DESTROYS every other contemporary pop artist.

Best Tracks: "Kiss It Better," "Same Old Mistakes", "Love on the Brain"


I alluded to this earlier, but it seemed like a real down year for Rock and Roll. David Bowie's Blackstar which dropped last January immediately prior to his death served as an elegant swan song to one of the greatest legends of rock, but doesn't really compare to Pin Ups or Diamond Dogs. That's perhaps unfair, but it's kind of crazy that the most universally acclaimed 2016 Rock Album isn't even that artist's greatest Rock Album. Then again, who am I to judge, I'm here saying it's the top for me, too. Bowie milks the age of his voice rather than tries to do anything he's done before, which is also a very Ziggy thing to do. It pounds away and gives glimpses of a man accepting and cradling death, which we enjoyed ironically for two days, then in an entirely new light from January 10th on. Out of everyone lost in 2016, that one still hurts pretty bad.

Best Tracks: "Lazarus", "Girl Loves Me", "Dollar Days"


Jeez, Hip-Hop, how did you drop so many great albums this year? I dig The Life of Pablo the more I listen to it, but it feels too much like the kind of 2016 Kanye West had - frazzled, rushed, insane, and exotic. I cited "Fade" earlier, and do want to mention the strength of "Ultralight Beam" - but this is the stuff he mastered in "All of the Lights" off of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy that kind of falls apart here.

We already mentioned the strength of Coloring Book, but that album just doesn't stand out enough to me. That's a collection of really good tracks with one or two great ones that never pushes itself over the edge. I was also close to awarding this to Frank Ocean's Blonde which I love for "Nikes" that starts to explore this quantum state of cultural dissonance that's probaly the most beautiful album thematically of the year, but the beats just aren't there. And this is Hip-Hop. You need beats.

Hence The Impossible Kid. Aesop Rock's masterpiece, realized in a 48-minute long tribute to The Shining (1980), it stands out as an epic strain of thought by one of our greatest underrated rappers. The beats combine a lot of modern funk with Aesop's brutal flow to create a musical trip full of ups and downs but with awesome a plenty. The lyrics and rhymes crush it more than anything else this year, which seems like a lost art in modern hip-hop. This is what the game is all about.

Best Tracks: "Rings", "Dorks", "Supercell", "Shrunk"

Top Videos of the Year:

OK, it's Lemonade. Just...all of Lemonade. Go find it on Tidal. Or HBO. There's no one else revolutionizing the video format, or hell, even the release format that Queen Bey is doing right now. There's so much wrapped up in this. Obviously, there's a weird renegade cheating thing, but without much other context or commentary we're left to postulate where exactly lies the intersection between art and reality. There's a lot to unpack here, perhaps no place better than in "Formation" where Beyonce proudly reminds every that she's black, proud of it, and owns a culture she would have appeared to left behind. Bey in that black hat may also be the best music image of the year.

There were some other good bits this year, although none quite spectacular. I really dig DJ Shadows ft. Run the Jewels "Nobody Speak," which riffs on the "old white people rapping" trope better than it's ever been done, where words and action are so inexorably linked, with passionate focus and demonstrated motivation from these anonymous diplomats. Not only is it suddenly an apt parable for our current political system, but an epic sync of an old gimmick.

Finally, it feels like we made it another year with another gimmick-y but astutely difficult OK GO video that I totally tried to resist listing here, but when those anti-grav paint balloons pop it's still a cool moment. Fine. Here you go.

In the end I suppose I paid more attention to music in 2016 than I thought. That was a lot to go through. What did you listen to, and what will you always remember from the Year 2016?

First Impressions: Passengers

A year ago I was really looking forward to Passengers (2016). It promised the two hottest leads of our era, an original and intriguing high concept, and a plumb mystery box of what secrets could lie inside. As we approached the release date my intrigue peaked and then fell and fell as it was savaged by reviews, including the now requisite claims of sexism and racism, along with a marketing campaign that seemed more into trading off the two stars' cheeky romance than anything of substance here.
At least no one ran in heels this time.

I didn't even quite want to see Passengers when I got to theater. I was gearing up for La La Land (2016) or a second showing of Rogue One (2016). In my Fandango-free sold-out local theater I kind of got the impression that everyone else in the audience felt the same way. This was everyone's second choice. Passengers ended up bombing pretty hard, even with an audience driven by their second and third movie choice, and in hindsight, launching an original sci-fi against the greatest sci-fi franchise of all time probably wasn't a great idea. I'm not sure this could have done well at any other month, though. It seems like it just got lost amidst the slew of franchises and Oscar bait this time of year.

But I'll be the first one to say that this flick isn't nearly as bad as every one thinks. It's not especially great, but not quite the monumental train wreck that most of the Internet wants it to be. In terms of outrage, and I suppose now's as good a time as any to say SPOILER ALERT from here on out (as if the previews didn't spoil it already), but the basic idea of the film is that all these colonists are travelling to another planet suspended in frozen animation when a meteor causes Chris Pratt to wake up 90 years early. He decides to wake up a girl to bang, and thus Jennifer Lawrence enters the picture. His decision to wake up Jennifer Lawrence is pretty awful, but that's how the movie treats it.

It's important to note that he spends a year in loneliness slowly going insane, which they could have pushed to be a little more explicit. The core of the film is an intense ethical quandary, which has been lost on many reviewers. A lifetime alone on a spaceship surrounded by 4999 other people that you can never talk to is a daunting prospect. You could call it a weakness of character that he caves and stalks J-Law, but is it, really? He grapples with his guilt until it normalizes, which is of course the moment she finds out and cannot forgive him.

Pratt is of course a total creepster, but the film addresses the pain caused by his selfishness. The problematic point at the end is that J-Law ends up saving his life, then when he finds a way to put her back in the tank, she (probably) decides to live out her days with him instead. It may be love and forgiveness for someone who's done an unspeakable wrong, but really it's another quandary. Would you rather spend a lifetime alone or a lifetime with this cute guy who you really like except for the circumstances of your meeting? She even rejects his corny selfish pleas and explanations for his decision to wake her up. It's not great, but there's a line between sexism and general douchiness here that's straddled, addressed, and denounced by the film.

There's also this weird racism bit floating around about Laurence Fishburne. Sure he's the only black guy in the film and he dies right away after giving a bunch of exposition, but that's a weird criticism for a film that only has four human speaking roles, and that's including the Michael Sheen android. Would a non-black character be better? I can't deal with Internet criticism anymore, movies are doomed any way they're made. It may have been sloppy writing, but for the narrative to leave Chris and Jen alone as the perfect space couple he definitely had to die. Of course, the whole reason he wakes up, Chris wakes up, and everything else goes nuts is where the film really descends into crap territory.

See, the initial meteor shower lodged into the ship's computer, which is bad news bears for anyone who likes cereal in the morning or for dead robots to not fall on their head. Pratt and J-Law have to fix it by throwing more manual levers than anyone in movie history. This is seriously the ending for every sci-fi and action movie ever, from Deep Blue Sea (1999) to I, Robot (2004) to Pacific Rim (2013). I actually thought a lot about I, Robot here, which similarly flirts with interesting philosophical and ethical dilemmas before giving up and becoming a dumb action movie for the last twenty minutes.

There's also no way in hell Pratt would have survived the fusion reactor engines venting on his suit. Even if that's a lead suit! I suppose it must have some kind of cosmic ray guard to just float around freely in space, but it's a ridiculous idea that he just stands there fine as he's blasted with a nuclear explosion. Same with J-Law in the pool - she definitely drowned. Like, passed out drowned. One by fire, one by water, both these idiots should be dead.

To focus on these actors more for a bit, since they're the only people we have, the chemistry is definitely here and it's strong. It's a damn sexy film, too, with lots of Pratt butt and Law side boob to satisfy everyone in the audience. Their characters are moderately interesting, even if we get a clearer idea of personality and traits from Pratt and a clearer idea of interests and goals from Lawrence. They both do a fine job for needing to carry most of the script in a confined yet expansive location.

Fishburne is also just dandy even if he's mostly just talking about broken ship parts and then coughing blood into his hand. And at the last minute - Andy Garcia! OK! Great. What the hell is a wordless Andy Garcia doing as Captain Norris at the very last moment of this wacky movie? It ultimately comes down to a pretty simple reason - just edits and scene trimming, but it still feels weird.

In the end, this film just doesn't have any sort of panache that makes it stand out. It doesn't work that well as a romantic film or as a science fiction film. Who knew that hiring the director of The Imitation Game (2014) for a space opera would end up so bleh. Apparently from interviews and the whole ten year process it took to get this thing made, though, director Morten Tyldum and writer Jon Spaihts put a whole ton of effort into this, though. I love how much this actually resembled Prometheus in set design, and at times plot devices, such as the medpod, which is exactly the same. Oh, Jon Spaihts. You're not great.

Most of this is Wall-E (2008) featuring Star-Lord - there's even a frozen Pratt face floating around space! Somehow it lacks any of the pithy social commentary of Wall-E, though. Indeed, when most sci-fi films feature some kind of societal parallel, it's hard to parse anything out of Passengers. There's a little bit about the commercialism of...exploring other planets I guess - or at least corporate expansion by way of exploiting consumer dreams, but nothing is really developed or integral to the plot. There seems to be a bit about overcrowding on Earth, but it's clear that the Earth isn't doomed or anything, just kind of modern in the way that Chris Pratt wants to escape from. That's neither treated as wrong or right in the world of Passengers, and this neutered take on every big idea really brings the film down. It has more fun being a thought experiment that becomes a romance, then a devastating revelation of betrayal, and then just an adventure film. There's not a lot of compelling stuff here.
"But you've always been the caretaker, Mr. Pratt."

I was also trying to decode all the references to The Shining (1980), particularly in the bar. Michael Sheen is the spitting image of Lloyd the otherwordly bartender that speaks to Jack Torrance in his lonely madness. The bar also strikingly resembles the Gold Room, the peak of early 20th-Century decadence. Passengers is strangely comfortable with its excess, from its suave clothing to slick fine dining. There's clearly a gap in passenger class, but this too is glossed over, the biggest difference seemingly is what breakfast they can eat. I actually don't think that Morten Tyldum even understands what homage is. He speaks of wanting the bar to have an unnerving element (About seven minutes in), which doesn't make any sense, since the bar in Passengers is the one common safe space for all three main characters here. Ugh.

If something had pushed Passengers a bit farther from the center - some conspiracy, technological threat, or fuck it, ghosts - even SPACE GHOSTS would have made this a whole lot more interesting. Instead it finds itself surprisingly grounded. Even the Homestead corporation doesn't seem to be particularly evil, despite hints of lots of shit in the storage hold and plenty of suspicious activity by way of the unhelpful computers and malfunctioning shit that shouldn't malfunction. But nope, meteor. Great.

Altogether I wouldn't call Passengers the awful sexist Stockholm Syndrome-driven madness more hyperbolic reviewers would think it is. It's part of that now age old conundrum where you suddenly sound tone deaf if you don't address its controversy, even if it's not really there. It's certainly not a good movie, really at all the more I digest it, and probably worth skipping unless Rogue OneLa La Land, and Why Him? (2016) are out. Probably better than SING (2016) and Assassin's Creed (2016).

What did you think?

27 December 2016

Goodbye 2016: Television

I have done the television recap many different ways here at Norwegian Morning Wood, but considering how little good TV I actually watch, last year's slop-o-rama method of rambling about my favorites tends to work for me. If you're into it, you probably should have watched Game of Thrones or Westworld, but I really just digest every comedy show available. Here's a smattering of what worked this year:

The Detour - TBS

This was a bit of a guilty pleasure that dropped this spring on TBS, didn't make too much of a splash, then quietly left without anyone talking about it - but damn if this show wasn't an inspired bit of condensed excellence. Jason Jones and Natalie Zea star based on Jason Jones and Samantha Bee's personal family road trip experience, which is altogether terrifying. I was never even that much of a fan of Jason Jones on The Daily Show, but he wins the exasperated dad trope here in spades with Zea existing as a perfect counter mom who's half burn out and half wannabe party girl. The kids are also perfect, learning about life in all the wrong ways.

Best Episode: "The Restaurant"

Broad City - Comedy Central

Broad City may not have hit the heights of Season Two, but is still one of the freshest comedies on television. In an age where we get more dramadies or dry subtle exercises in millennial life complaining, a show that goes completely nuts like Broad City is a revelation. There was actually some attempt at character and relationship growth this season, but the writing is playfully as reluctant as the two eponymous broads. At times it almost seemed like Abbi and Ilana switched personalities as they grow and become bigger or lesser assholes. It's all a dream.

Best Episode: "B&B-NYC"?

Last Week Tonight - HBO

I cited John Oliver last year briefly, but his stock only rose in this third year at the helm of his version of The Daily Show that goes for more righteous outrage at low level policy shit we never think of, but also really hit its stride while resisting Trump discussion, then going for it balls deep. It's a solid Monday morning routine to YouTube the hell out of his main story, which continually proves to be one of the most thoroughly researched pieces of media available, without pretension of ad pandering, even if it weighs hard on its bias. Putting comedy first allows Oliver to get away with a lot, and he works as a righteous Twitter Troll as much as he does a comedian.

American Horror Story: Roanoke - FX

I've already talked at length about how much I love this schlock, mostly because it's simply excellent trash TV. This season gets props, though, for spinning things into continuously surprising and meta-plot bending ways. It's not like the first half of the season is bad, but it's pretty standard horror stuff, even if the Roanoke twist is decent. At the midpoint, though, "Chapter 6" directed by the amazingly assured hand of Angela Basset of all people, the show upends itself, offering a revitalization in the middle of a show that tends to slog more than pushes forward. It's always take it or leave it with AHS, most often the latter, but Roanoke swung for the fences and made its commentary on television, celebrity, and every staple of modern horror TV along with its own scares.

Saturday Night Live - NBC

So this is quickly becoming just a recap of the most notable episodes of the year. That's fine. SNL started off typically rocky and then hit its stride in a big way with the Halloween Tom Hanks episode. Do I really need to link it? Fine. Linked. That was nothing, however, compared to the absolute brilliance a few weeks later when Dave Chappelle returned to television. It's not like Chappelle has a big SNL history or anything, but as one of the more unlikely now immortal names in sketch comedy, he brought an impassioned monologue, a tearful Kate McKinnon opening, and lots of laughs at both the white liberal elite who took Hillary's win for granted and a few nervous chuckles at the sheer horror of what Trumpland, USA will bring. A Tribe Called Quest was a perfect pairing with some tracks more insightful and political than anything SNL can really do lately. Complaints of how bad current SNL is has existed since Chevy left, but this one was truly special.

Stranger Things - Netflix

Game of Thrones and Westworld are popular, but no show seemed to be a force like Stranger Things was this summer. It's more a hodgepodge of old 80s tropes than its own thing, like a version of Super 8 (2011) that doesn't suck, but damn if this wasn't addicting television. Winona Ryder overacts more than she's been called out on, but everyone else, from the wiener D&D kids to David Harbour are spectacular. Barb is a cultural hero, even though she's actually only in two episodes. There was a lot of bits to love here, especially dreamboat douchebag Steve. The second season promises to explain more shit, but I'm not sure we need it.

Best Episode: "Chapter Two: The Weirdo on Maple Street"

You're the Worst - FXX

Here's another show that may not have reached the peaks of Season Two, but still had some damn good standout episodes. Ostensibly about two broken people trying to find meaning in damaged lives, but as a comedy, somehow this show found its best footing when it moved beyond its two leads and focused on its peripheral characters, who all probably had worse lives this year. The standout episode focuses on Iraq Vet Edgar's perspective of the previous episode's events, and it's a stunning empathetic look without ever becoming voyeuristic or exploitative. By the end of the season everyone's lives are somehow more melted and destroyed than the pitiful shambles they were in at the start, and although no one watches this show at all, it somehow keeps surging back for more misanthropy.

Best Episode: "Twenty-Two"

BoJack Horseman - Netflix

This is an easy pick for best episode of the year, and a strong contender for best show as well, but it comes in at a stronger number two here. Every character is subtly pushed away from each other to the point that the show's mix is nigh unrecognizable from the initial gang at the start. It's a show that's so counter to what Horsin' Around actually was that pours on irony and meta-commentaries on what it takes to actually make a good show. Somehow it finds ways to unearth yet unseen bits from these characters' pasts and even though it ends on an incredibly touching and sad note, the (mostly) dialogue-free "Fish Out of Water" is a wonder to behold - the kind of episode where you remember where you were when you watched it and was completely floored. Everything is executed to perfection. Not to mention how a continuous string of non sequitors and running jokes add up to the biggest eye-rolling payoff in television history. It's that worthy of hyperbole.

Best Episode: "Fish Out of Water"

Atlanta - FX

Ah the best show on television. Atlanta is the brain child of Donald Glover with a few collaborators, but mostly it's his chance to go nuts with whatever he wants to do. It was toughest to pick a single best episode, since all deal with such distinct themes unified by a rare look at lives led by people who aren't usually on television. Lovable rappers, drug dealers, and homeless, sometimes all at once, all analyzed under a hard lens of more cultural exploration than chastises of racism, and always giving the option to laugh if you want, or think hard about the implication. There are a lot of standout moments, and most would probably choose "Nobody Beats the Biebs" for its weird revelation that this universe is off, or "The Streisand Effect" for its excellence in writing, irony, and intersecting plots, but I dig "Streets on Lock" and "The Club." The latter wins for bending reality again, while providing simultaneous relatability with specific cultural assumptions rather than showy revelations. It's top to bottom the best show we got in an era of plenty of good shows. You can chill to it, become engrossed by it, laugh, cry, or all at once. Plus the soundtrack kicks everyone's ass.

"Streets on Lock" "Nobody Beats the Biebs" "The Streisand Effect" "The Club"


I watched some of these, passed on some, didn't get around to others, but in this era of Peak TV if the above doesn't wet your whistle, here's what else Time Capsule 2016 has to offer:

The Eric Andre Show
American Crime Story
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
Search Party
The Night Of
The Americans

What did you watch this year? Or what do you need to catch up on? Hell, what do I need to catch up on? Let me know below!

26 December 2016

Goodbye 2016: Top Movie Moments of the Year

Here we now exist in that most magical week of the year - the Final Week of 2016! A nebulous time between Christmas and 2017 where hopefully you aren't doing all that much. I for sure am not. Most web pundits and bloggers out there spend all of December going through their top picks for the year, but I'm of the opinion that you've got to wait until the last possible minute. After all - are we to capture the entirety of 2017 or what?! Our Official Top 10, which will be undermined to death in the years following what's hot right now and what has Legacy, will come shortly - but let's start off with the Top Movie Moments of the Year, along with other Superlatives. I always like this opportunity to highlight some great bits from otherwise sullied films, but this year a lot seem to be one in the same. Let's begin:

Airport Fight - Captain America: CIVIL WAR

CIVIL WAR won't ultimately make our cut, but damn if it didn't come close. There are a lot of great moments here, and the Cap vs. Stark one on one at the very end is surely the apex of their long-building personal conflict. Here is where almost all of our Superhero Movie wishes are granted though - the Battle Royale between an array of costumed weirdos. Everyone gets their little moment, with Spider-Man and Ant-Man the sure standouts, never better than when they turn against each other. It's pretty grimy but above all a hell of a lot of fun. Damn near perfect as an action sequence.

Baby Bath - The VVitch

So let's now go in the complete opposite direction. The VVitch has been left off many Best Of year lists for whatever reason, likely a combination of recency, unwatchability, and its genre-ness, but it wastes no time showing what kind of movie it is by undercutting all the main characters, immediately showing its hand that there is a real live Witch preying on this poor settlement, and thus setting the stage for everyone else to turn on each other in mystery, suspicion, and yeah, bewitchment. It's not the only scene of the year that shows up on this list for sheer brutality, but it's the kind of thing that will stick with you long after this film is done fucking your soul.

Reverse Gravity - Arrival

No clip available quite yet, but of all the well done scenes in Arrival, the most cinematic and visceral is the gravity change. The best shot for sure, likely for the year, is the initial approach seen above which is simply breathtaking. The best scene though, has got to be when Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner first board the giant black egg. It's a trip just to see that physics seem to work a bit different here, but you feel the unnerving experience all the way, along with the horrifying disorienting tension of turning around and seeing nothing but a plummet to your death so long as this mysterious anomaly holds. It's an excellent combination of acting, editing, and shot choice to combine for a really engrossing moment.

Orgy - Sausage Party

I still continuously debate whether or not Sausage Party was any good - the humour is extremely sophomoric, but conceptually it's brilliant. And I'm all about sophomoric humour, but even this was probably too far gone. It culminates by throwing off any shackles it may have purported and somehow finds a way to push things even farther. This scene is actually kind of sexy, but in a way that makes you feel exceptionally dirty and never really willing to look at tacos the same way again. It's a pansexual fiesta that you can watch over and over again without ever getting the answer to the most important question of all - how the hell is this a movie?

The Arm Cut - Green Room

Green Room is all-around amazing, at least until its flat ending, and it's tough to pick a singular scene, although this was one where I had to pause the movie and walk around a bit to shake it off. At first you only hear Anton Yelchin's yelps, and up to this moment you think that the bar's owners may not be so bad. Sure they're Nazis, but seem more shady than evil. Here's when everyone's intentions are laid bare without pretense of help or negotiation. Also super gross. It's a moment where no one can turn back from.

"SABOTAGE" - Star Trek Beyond

Years and years ago I posed about films that harness the Awesome Power of Rock to advance their plots. I actually only came up with two, but that was seven years ago when this site was pretty rough. Yeah. WAS rough. That post was in honour of Brutal Legend for fuck's sake. But here's #3, and as cliché as the song choice is (which every year unfortunately feels more dad-ish. What is wrong with us?), it's apt for Kirk and the marketing campaign. Who cares, the Beastie Boys destroys Aliens. Or mutated Humans or whatever the hell those assholes in Beyond were. It comes together sublimely.

Elephant - The Brothers Grimsby

Here's the first real curveball. I'm sure you didn't expect The Brothers Grimsby here. The scene where Harry Potter gets AIDS is tempting, but for a terrible bomb comedy, there's actually a lot of greatness here. It peaks with Sacha Baron Cohen hiding in an elephant vagina, which simultaneously feels like the obvious horrible animal to cum in your face along with a fresh comedy bit. Alright, maybe that's a stretch, but if your sense of humour is real twisted, this is gold. Again, squeamish readers ought to just keep scrolling.

"Would that it were so simple" - Hail, Caesar!

I don't know why this scene works so well in a film that's altogether kind of meh; striking for a Coen joint. Both Ralph Fiennes and Alden Ehrenreich had big years in their own right, and the chemistry here is fantastic in a scene that's plotwise fairly out of place (then again, everything is in Hail, Caesar!), but thematically sound. After a while you're not sure if you should laugh or continue sitting in amazement that all these characters exist, from the exasperated Fiennes just barely holding back his rage but maintaining true professionalism to poor Ehrenreich's Hobie Doyle who is hopelessly out of his element but just trying to do the best job he can. It's a subtle fantastic bit.

Hot Meat Lube - Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising

Another relatively forgotten yet competent comedy, everything comes together by use of Zach Efron's sexy distracting dancing. Ike Barinholtz's forever horribly misguided clown steals the show by popping up at the worst moments in a bravura madcap sequence through a tailgate in a film that never totally eclipses its predecessor.

Vader - Rogue One

Scene of the year picks should always be obvious, and this was an easy pick. No reliable clip up yet, but surely this will eventually be the most-watched Star Wars video on YouTube. Sneaking in with just a few weeks to go, the forty year cultural culmination that we didn't even realize we needed - Vader being Vader re-purposed but never lost is the most 2016-scene in a long year of franchise re-contextualization. He's re-earning the title as cinema's #1 bad guy and displays the kind of fearsome power we've always just merely imagined. There's an argument that his threat is scarier in A New Hope (1977), but I'd challenge any hater to watch this over and over.

Other Nominees:

Doctor Strange reverses time
Powers on full display in Midnight Special
Kevin describes his cat in Ghostbusters

Actors of the Year

This was a tough call. On the male side, Ryan Gosling made a damn good case for having the best 2016 out of anyone, although he just had The Nice Guys and La La Land, but with an incredible comedic performance against type (or at least angsty Drive [2011] type) in the former and the latter which could go on to big things come February, that's significant. The male actor of the year, though, has got to go to Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, which is horribly unlikely considering The Rundown (2003). Or maybe that was an early signal of his endless charisma. He only had two entries on the year as well, but Central Intelligence was the most popular live action straight comedy of the year (if you ignore Deadpool and Ghostbusters which kind of straddle genres), and Moana, even if it's just his voice, was huge and totally an animated version of the big lug. He's also the Sexiest Man Alive and with 2016 sandwiched between two Fast and Furious films, it feels like he's non-stop.

The woman's side was a bit tougher to figure out. Melissa McCarthy had two big films, but neither really made a lasting impact. I bet you even forgot the non-Ghostbusters one. Amy Adams makes a strong case for herself with Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, Arrival, and Nocturnal Animals, which presents a nice range of roles, genres, and exposure. I really want to lean towards Margot Robbie, though, whose three flicks include Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, The Legend of Tarzan, and Suicide Squad. While her role was minimal in the not-much-seen Foxtrot, and Tarzan didn't make too much of a splash, when Suicide Squad works at all it's largely due to her Harley Quinn, and with a slew of roles lined up, she's got 2016 in the bag.

Best Trailers of the Year

Lastly, let's go through the trailers. An art form in their own right, we got a lot of the same crap yet again this year - big Inception (2010) - level BRRRRMMPP's, fast cuts, rising editing, and a whole lot of footage that isn't in the final product. But a few stand out:

The LEGO Batman Movie (2017) - proving both that Will Arnett may indeed be the best Batman of our age and that there are endless interpretations of the Caped Crusader - including this one that seems to walk the line between camp and self-seriousness, at least in a self-aware way. It's complicated.
A Cure for Wellness (2017) - I like switching gears fast. This is the kind of film that needs a great trailer to draw interest, and it scores big here. Sure you've got the re-purposed pop song, but it works super creepy wonders here.
10 Cloverfield Lane (2016) - Dropping a first look three months ahead of a release is bold, but when the trailer is this good you're good to go. This sells everything about you need to know about the tone perfectly.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) - so none of this footage made the final film, which is kind of crazy. As a mini-movie this is brilliant, even if the tone and even implication of plot doesn't fit the still fine final film. This still gives me chills though.


C'mon - the top trailer of the year couldn't be anything else. This is damn near perfect for a character's ninth outing, not counting appearing as a cut-out on Ryan Reynolds' face in Deadpool (2016). You know, Deadpool is the most successful X-Film, maybe the problem this whole time has been Hugh Jackman. One part Old Man Logan, one part Reavers, hints of Mr. Sinister, and a busted out old Professor X in the mix sounds like a damn good time, and the hollowed out, mutant-less tone seems less like a superhero film and more like a superhero dropped into Unforgiven (1992). I'm down.

Stay tuned for much more coverage of 2016, including our fabled Top 10 film list along with our look backs at television, music, and more!

20 December 2016

First Impressions: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

For the foreseeable future this will become a Christmas tradition - an exhaustively long, soul-consuming post about a Star Wars movie. Last year we spent 3757 words on The Force Awakens (2015), so the challenge is on! I thoroughly enjoyed Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016), although it's received a decidedly chilly response from most of the Internet outlets that I usually respect and agree with. I'd consider the film to be one of the very best Star Wars movies ever, but there seems to be a whole ton of dissonance here, with simultaneous complains of excessive fan service while not even being a Star Wars movie. All of this is fertile ground for discussion, and I'll say this again - I have no intention of keeping this short, because the combination of seeing this film along with most of the original and prequel trilogy on TNT this weekend has reminded me of just how much I'm into Star Wars.
Not actually a still from the film.

It's nice to remember that Star Wars really does trounce all the lesser franchises scattered about these days. It's the monolith of movie filmmaking, a movie so big that it forever changed how we think about movies. The original Star Wars (1977) was in theaters from May 1977 to July 1978, and then had a November '78 re-release. Let that sink in a for a bit. Even in a post-VHS era that's crazy - no one is downloading and watching a movie every day like these Jimmy Carter people did. So much of the past forty years has been chasing that kind of success again, both from within and without Star Wars.

Largely Star Wars has been universally successful, even with tremendous fan disdain of the prequels, every Star Wars film ever released has become the number one film for their year domestically, except for Attack of the Clones (2002), which was sniped by Spider-Man (2002) and The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002). Revenge of the Sith (2005) also fell to Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005) worldwide, but still, we can say that a Star Was film has at least been in the top three worldwide every year of its release, and that includes three pretty rough films.

At the same time, re-watching The Phantom Menace (1999) this weekend I was sitting around with my friends naming every pod racer, from Gasgano to Ody Mandell (not to be confused with the planet, Ord Mantell!) and the Jedi Council members from Even Piell to Yarael Poof. This stuff is just in my mind forever, and one big reason why I just can't deal with sorting out Game of Thrones characters on any level. The point is the old adage that Star Wars is like pizza - even when it's cold and sitting in the fridge for days you'll still eat it. And to be sure, re-watching The Phantom Menace again made me remember just how inconceivably bad it really is. There's no defending it ever. Every line is terrible along with a reliance on slapstick and juvenile humour - which, and this has been rationalized to death, may be suitable for a mostly children-based audience, but seems awfully out of place for the centerpiece of Galactic Conflict. Then again, Ewoks. More on how Rogue One contrasts this in a bit.

I had this theory a few years ago that I'm really appreciative of when movies throw up their incredibly awful entry that ruins the franchise for decades to come. Rogue One or The Force Awakens can't ruin Star Wars because it's already been pretty ruined. I've also never been one to think that having a new Star Wars movie each year diminishes the brand because there has literally been thousands of years of Star Wars history developed through expanded universe, now under the Legends brand. This also seems to lead to weird canon issues, especially since the newer movies have overwritten a lot of what we all understood to be canon, but suffice it to say that I've always believed Star Wars to be able to be a lot of different things, with different characters in different locations, and I believe that one major reason why it's been so sustainable is because the rules of its universe is so specifically developed and understood so well. Only Harry Potter really comes close to equivalent (possibly superior) world-building, and because of that, audiences are free to spin their own stories and imaginations using whatever books, toys, or brains they have.

At some point this review should start focusing on Rogue One specifically, but suffice it to say that most of my enjoyment of the film came out of the above paragraph. There are some stumbles it faces, particularly in plot and character (more of the former than the latter, particularly in a messy first half), but Rogue One supremely succeeds in concepts. Chiefly this comes from throwing out the bread and butter of every other film in the franchise - the Skywalker family and Jedis.

It's a brilliant move and a strong step forward towards developing the idea that other shit exists in this huge Galaxy. Even The Force Awakens centered around finding Luke Skywalker, and presumably, he'll have lots of shit to do in Episode 8 (2017), which for some reason doesn't have a title yet. We're still hung up on this craziness. And even without Luke, the ongoing saga of Kylo Ren (or Rey...probably), demonstrates that this stupid family has really dominated the Galaxy for like 50 years. I love the idea of focusing on something else.

So much guy love
While we don't have explicit Jedis or Sith per se, we do have Chirrut Îmwe - more on specific characters and the horrible fact that every name is kind of forgettable and awful in a bit - who seems to be force sensitive but not necessarily a Jedi. It makes plenty of sense that especially in the time of the Empire, plenty of force-sensitive people were born that did not have access to Jedi training. Further than that, though, he seems to be part of the Guardians of the Whills, which is simultaneously a reference to Lucas' original Journal of the Whills treatment of Star Wars and a possible canon reference to the ancient alien beings to re-tell the story of the Galactic Civil War. I'm not one to put much stock in either of this besides a cheeky Easter Egg, but it makes the question of whether or not Chirrut is an actual force user more oblique, thus expanding the number of force interpretations in the Galaxy significantly.

All that is awesome to me - an expansion of the Star Wars sandbox in pretty fun ways. At this point it ought to be clear that I long ago lost the ability to look at Star Wars films with unbiased eyes. I do think that this flick mostly stands up on its own, though. Actually, I've also got to think that context has become integral to this particular franchise. There's less need to set-up background or what's happening here because the cultural force of Star Wars is so completely ubiquitous. There's not too much you need to actually know here besides the Death Star, at least until the final few minutes (we never dropped a SPOILER warning, but ought to at this point), but if you've never seen A New Hope, then why the hell are you even watching this anyway?

Let's stick with concepts some more. It's a great concept to depict another aspect of the Rebellion. It's a nice show that there's a lot of other stuff happening in this universe, including different rebel factions of various ideologies and methodologies. For most of the Original Trilogy, as great films as they are, it was always a little weird that even though this was a huge Galactic Conflict, we tended to focus on this group of eight or so people who kept running and hiding in asteroids and fighting giant Vaginal Dentata monsters instead of doing more rebel-y things. By all accounts Rogue One is the best film to feature an actual demonstration of the war, and for sure that final third is a bravura accomplishment of action filmmaking, a beach insurgency that looks like a space age Vietnam battle more than the flashy bright lit conflicts of the prequels, or the uh...log-based combat of Return of the Jedi (1983). The Empire Strikes Back (1980)'s Hoth battle is the only one that comes close, but this seems so much more visceral and focused, with actual tactical objectives along with a clean demonstration of the Rebellion's cut-throat personality.

See, the Rebels in this film fit the bill of being a scrappy brigade of assholes that sneak around, blow shit up, and steal and con their way to victory. The Alliance is actually at times a fairly contentious alliance that didn't seem to really pull together, ironically, until the construction of the Death Star, which was originally designed to wipe them out. Since this film seemed more focused on this adult version of the Galactic Civil War there was certainly freer reign to give everyone more realistic stakes and stronger conflicting personalities.

And we should talk about how there's this weird attempt to shoot what 1977 thought the future would look like, except with 2016 technology and film techniques. This essentially gives us lots of old computer images, blocky data discs, and a ton of moustaches. I always wonder about who was the most 70s of all the original Star Wars actors - definitely Cassio Tagge. Maybe Moradmin Bast. I'd love for continuity to forever trap future anthology installments of this era into wavy 70s hairdos, but I also feel like even by Empire, Lucas (to be more specific, Kershner) started using more timeless, neutral haircuts and outfits.

We also finally got some sweet planets. Let's go through this, since I was always attuned to how well the original trilogy defined itself by its incredibly simple two to three-planet structure. Star Wars had Tatooine, the desert planet; the Death Star; then Yavin 4, the jungle world that didn't really feature any trek through the jungle. Empire featured Hoth, the ice planet; then cut between Dagobah, the swamp world and the Asteroid belt; then all ended on the gas giant Bespin. Jedi simplified everything, starting on Tatooine again (the first sign that we were getting repetitive), then ended on the Forest moon of Endor.

The prequel trilogy seemed to falter a bit with this clear and consistent structure. Phantom bounces around like crazy, going from the underwater section of Naboo to the city planet of Coruscant (briefly), then Tatooine (AGAIN), then back to Naboo, but this time, Thebes-side. Clones gives us Coruscant again, then splits between the...rain? planet of Kamino and...Naboo again (with a brief stop at Tatooine of course), then ends on Geonosis, which is like Mars but filled with weird bugs. Revenge of the Sith gets super-blurry, bouncing around all over the place, starting with Coruscant again, then featuring pitstops at Utapau the Sinkhole Planet (yep), Kashyyyk the Wookie Planet, that we never spend much time exploring, then ending on Mustafar the Lava World along with Coruscant YET AGAIN because everything happens there. In between we see a bunch of worlds where the Jedi die. None of the prequels really had that structure, which actually makes them harder to remember and decipher.

The Force Awakens took us to Jakku, yet another desert world that's made kind of cool by all the downed Star Destroyers, then Takodana, which is a jungle-ish world although it could have been anything, finally ending on Starkiller Base, which is a snowy mountain forest planet. All this means we didn't actually really see any new kind of world in The Force Awakens, although I love the structure.

Rogue One bounces around a bit, especially at the beginning, which is fantastically disorienting. They do list the planets,which is cool, even if we don't spend much time in some places where it might have been cool. We get Jedha (DESERTTTTTT, although it's used mostly for its city, which feels like witnessing a Middle Eastern insurgency more than anything, made all the more gray since we're effectively meant to cheer for the wrong side), a brief stop at Wobani, which could have been the scene for an awesome dirty snow prison break-out, Yavin again, then a bit on Eadu, which is a purple rainy mountain planet? Wait...was that possibly a Prince reference? Has anyone put that together yet? C'mon, Internet! We finally end on Scarif, which is an impeccably rendered beach planet, I definitely got shades of Namek, but the whole thing is gorgeous. I like the idea of being assigned to guard the Imperial Data Center and you get to Scarif like "Damn! This beats the hell out of Coruscant! Or Mustafar! Or Byss!" All the Imperial planets seem so evil, Scarif should be like, the jewel of the Galaxy, the Fhloston Paradise of Star Wars - what happened here?

Speaking of Mustafar, why did Vader put his Tower of Barad-dur there? I suppose it's because that was Vader was born, his hometown, if you will. Even if it's also the site of insurmountable pain. At this point we should probably talk about Vader, because even though his costume looked kind of off, and that Mustafar scene was also superfluous, how did how did it take us 40 years and eight films to actually see some truly badass fearsome Vader fights? For a second imagine we had no idea Vader would be in this film, and in the final minute of the film we just see a dark smokey hallway and that red lightsaber light up...this was probably the most badass moment in all of Star Wars history - surely this wouldn't really work in a kid's film (although hell, Revenge of the Sith came close), but here where we see the entire brutality of war it's great to see the true power of Vader, and it's everything it could possibly be.

There's also these weird parallels to Vader in some of the new characters. Saw Guerrera seems an obvious analogy, with his mechanical body and oxygen need. I'm not sure about the symbolism there, though. Back in Sith, Grievous was obviously the worst case scenario of Vader's descent away from humanity into cybernetic technology. Guerrera seemed to be similar, perhaps an indication that Rebel leaders could also lose touch with their humanity and sacrifice their souls for their ideological crusade. It illustrates another prominent Rogue One theme that splits from a lot of previous Star Wars films - where there's no clear good and evil distinction, but a swath of grays, where Rebels seem downright Machiavellian in how hard they'll push against perceived tyranny, to the point where they're murderers and tyrants themselves.
"You've got my men driving all over town looking for strawberries!"

I was also struck by Orson Krennic, whose costume provided the inverse of Vader's. He seemed just as treacherous and cavalier with both ally and enemy lives as Vader, but it's clear that he's worked and wormed his way up through non-force political means rather than just being born powerful and getting cozy with Palpatine. Again, I'm not sure if the symbolism is on point or he's really a proper counter to Vader, but Ben Mendelsohn is outstanding here, and provides a damn sinister villain. He does choke on his aspirations, though. Part of my hope is that screenwriters Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy included that line as a callback to how terrible Anakin's dialogue was in the prequels - just a little internal consistency with how awful Vader speaks, even though he's a total menace.

So let's get to the other characters. Besides Ip Man himself Donnie Yen's Chirrut Îmwe, who is clever, wise, and a spiritual quasi-stereotype of mystical blind samurai, the other standout here is clearly K-2SO, voiced by Alan Tudyk. His hilarity is a side effect of his Rebel re-programmed Imperial-ness, which makes him come off like C-3PO by way of Drax the Destroyer, which is somehow even better than that sounds. The sarcastic goofy side character may be turning into a modern movie trope, but I don't mind at all if directors and screenwriters can pull it off as effectively as Tudyk does here.

Beyond that our core characters also include Bodhi Rook, who started off more interesting than he ended up, and was perhaps most engaging when his brain was drained (that'd be a fun challenge in itself! Wait, what the hell was the point of that weird monster anyway?) and Baze Malbus, who wields the best Star Wars gun ever, probably deserved a more badass death, and is totally gay with Chirrut Îmwe. By the way, I definitely had to look up all these names. I remembered "Bodhi" because Cassian Andor shouts it like forty times, but they either needed some more dedicated introductions or some more decipherable names. Han...Luke...Ben. These stick out more than Baze and Cassian.

Speaking of that jerk, Diego Luna does a fine job here, even if he's introduced as a rogue-ish badass and ends up kind of a puss. Why does Chirrut ask if he's a killer and then he doesn't snipe Galen Erso!? He killed the Rebel informant in his introduction scene in the coldest character intro since Han shot first! There's some inconsistent character work here that certainly comes up short.

Finally we have Jyn Erso, played by Felicity Jones, who is largely the anchor of the film. Jyn is a memorable name - it rolls off the tongue a lot easier than Chirrut Îmwe for fuck's sake. I do think there probably could have been a little more done for her background beyond the bland Star Wars staple of orphanizing - stuff that was actually included in the damn trailer. For the record, I actually think that that kind of stupid rap sheet list is an overdone method of establishing character, and I also don't totally care about when trailer footage doesn't show up in the final film, even if Rogue One seems like an egregious example, where virtually nothing in that first impeccable teaser (that still gives me chills) ended up in the final film. I'm totally into trailers existing to sell mood and to fit well into little hype stories rather than what works for a final product, but it is a shame to lose some really cool shots like Krennic wading through warzone puddles and Forest Whitaker's warning of Imperial capture.

The emotional core of this tale, though, is Jyn's relationship with her father, who is essentially a double agent for the Rebellion so secret that the Rebellion doesn't even know that's his intention. Some of this relationship is lost in a cluttered first half, which bounces around a bit much to really establish her motivations. It's only when she confronts Saw Guerrera (who is her adoptive father, I guess? That was about as weird as the Yondu - Peter Quill relationship in Guardians of the Galaxy[2014]) that we really see how she thought her father betrayed her, but he didn't, that the depth of their relationship is shown. This could have certainly been cleaned up, and I'd be curious to see the gaps from re-shoots, even though I'll say this again - every film ever has re-shoots, particularly big ones, and this was probably more successful because of it.

There's a lot of surrogate family stuff in Star Wars - the original trilogy is full of it. The prequel trilogy comes close, but everything is more like a work family rather than a real family, formalized and tepid, with a bit too many people coming in and out to really establish anything. Rogue One is probably somewhere in the middle, where this rag-tag gang of ne'er-do-wells gets lumped together through meeting in prison and then sticks it out. Like the Vader character parallels, though, there's never any real thematic resonance to this, though, and nothing really pushes over the edge.

We haven't much discussed the director, Gareth Edwards yet, but it's worth it, now. His other big feature film, Godzilla (2014) flirted with all these terrible, undeveloped human themes but really worked as a concept movie as well - letting monsters fight, Godzilla's triumph, and some spectacular trailer-worthy shots. Monsters (2010) also flirted with greatness, hurt by some weak dialogue while being more thematically sound, although marred by a subtly that may have pushed another film over the edge. All of that is readily present here. It's clear that Edwards has a keen eye for scale and spectacle, I dare say better than most working directors today. He's also extremely adept at crafting giant action pieces with a steady camera and competent CGI work. He does seem to miss the mark with his human characters, though, from Bryan Cranston's wasted work in Godzilla to strands in Rogue One that never seem to take off.

And speaking of CGI, we really should address Tarkin and Leia's appearance. It's definitely jarring, and while I'm not totally sure why Tarkin simply wasn't re-cast, Leia's face was probably completely unnecessarily. C'mon - just show the buns! We don't need the face! Ugh. The one good thing is that this is a good step towards future human CGI renders - the issue of course is deceased actor's rights (or...actors' existence in general), along with the fact that in ten years Rogue One will look as shitty as The Matrix Reloaded (2003) does now.
Also not in film. But somehow AT-ATs haven't been seen
since 1980.

Altogether I ended up being a big fan of this, although again, that's more for conceptual reasons along with the spectacular final third. I do think a lot of the character and plot work is really choppy in the first half, although it does end up coming together with some kind of glue. With the only other Anthology rumours being a Han Solo movie, a Yoda movie, and a Boba Fett movie, though, I'm a bit disappointed. Star Wars is truly the only franchise where you can say "Hey - this is a Star Wars movie! It features a force-sensitive wizard battling Dugs on Malastare!" and people will come out to watch it.

On that note - one last comment on concepts - even though Rogue One largely stands alone (up until the last few minutes leads directly into A New Hope), it works mostly by the words and shadows of the Death Star - a MacGuffin that works more from the audience's knowledge of its cultural weight and power within the universe than what the core players really understand. It's the same thing with Luke's lightsaber (actually Anakin's) in The Force Awakens (and eventually Luke himself) - these new films trade on their predecessor's iconography, using reverence for their most significant sources of power to create these integral moments of tension and stakes. For the record I side with this being a cool way to spin previous touchstones, although we do remain waiting for the next great Death Star. No, not Starkiller Base.

Stay tuned next year for my excessive thoughts on Episode VII: The Search for More Money (2017)!

What did you think of Rogue One?
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