IN THEATERS (SF) – “Staying Vertical”

rsz_staying-vertical-cannes-film-festivalStaying Vertical (2017; Dir.: Alain Guiraudie)

GRADE: B-

By Daniel Barnes

*Opens Friday, March 3, at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco.

Alain Guiraudie’s self-contained, cryptic, borderline pornographic, Hitchcock-goes-homoerotic Stranger by the Lake was a jaw-dropping breakthrough in 2013/2014, but it was actually the sixth feature film for the 52 year-old French writer-director.  Staying Vertical is his highly anticipated follow-up (it premiered last summer at Cannes), and anyone bothered by the elliptical nature of Stranger by the Lake will be driven mad by this strange and inscrutable squirm.  A fractured and scowling narrative that alternates pitiless darkness with the elements of a rollicking comedy, Staying Vertical follows Léo (Damien Bonnard), a drifting screenwriter dodging his obligations in the French countryside.  Léo shacks up with and impregnates a sheep-herding single mother, but when he can’t commit to a life together, she abandons him with the baby and her disturbed father.  Guiraudie frequently abandons the audience in the story – we drift in and out of the narrative just as Léo drifts in and out of people’s lives – but for all of the film’s self-infatuated drifting, it also offers no shortage of deeply disturbing show-stopper sequences, peaking with a scene in which Léo tenderly sodomizes an old man to death while prog rock blasts in the background.  That’s not something you simply watch and forget.

IN THEATERS (SF) – “My Life as a Zucchini”

rsz_courgette31My Life as a Zucchini (2017; Dir.: Claude Barras)

GRADE: B

By Daniel Barnes

*Opens Friday, March 3, at the Landmark Opera Plaza in San Francisco and the Landmark Shattuck in Berkeley.

Spoiler alert: this film is not about a little boy who transforms into a zucchini.  That goofball title and the Pop Art-meets-Cubist character designs do nothing to prepare you for this relatively realistic and fairly dark portrait of abused and abandoned children.  Director and co-writer Barras adapts a 2002 novel from French writer Gilles Paris into a stop-motion animated coming-of-age dramedy.  It’s an interesting choice of format for the adaptation, given the subject matter – a boy accidentally kills his alcoholic mother and gets sent to a rural orphanage, where he feuds and bonds with his damaged housemates, and is frequently visited by a kindly policeman – and the movie possesses a naturalistic tone, style, sound and pace quite unlike anything else in the current world of animated film.  But that sore thumb status doesn’t always work in the film’s favor – as much as My Life as a Zucchini is French-in-a-good-way (intelligent, searching, free from repression), it’s also pretty French-in-a-bad-way (formless, meandering, pitiless yet sentimental).  Animation aficionados need to ingest this thing post haste; all others, tread lightly.

Short Reviews of Short Movies – 2017 Edition – Oscar Nominated Shorts

PIPER*The Oscar Nominated Animated and Live-Action Short Film Programs are now playing throughout Northern California. Read my 2016 Oscar-nominated shorts coverage HERE.

ANIMATED SHORT NOMINEES (arranged from best to worst)

  1. Piper (Alan Barillaro; USA)

2.Pear Cider and Cigarettes (Robert Valley; Canada)

These are the only two films in either program that rise above the squishy middle, and they couldn’t be more different.  Pixar’s wordless, 6-minute Piper is a model of visual and narrative economy, while still tantalizing your eyeballs with a stunning level of sumptuous detail.  And it’s Pixar, so naturally they know how to wring a tear from this simple coming-of-age tale about a baby sandpiper without squeezing too hard. Canadian artist Robert Valley’s 35-minute Pear Cider and Cigarettes, on the other hand, is a full-blown graphic novel come to life, a jittery yet elastic story about the narrator’s childhood hero facing his end while waiting for a Chinese kidney.

3. Pearl (Patrick Osborne; USA)

Another wordless six minutes of smart visual storytelling, but goddamn if this decades-spanning tale that views a father-daughter relationship from the inside of their automobile doesn’t feel like a long-form domestic car commercial.  Although beautifully executed, it’s an ode to innocence that feels too cynical to succeed; in other words, it’s boomer porn, so obviously it has the best chance to upset Piper, especially if the never-Pixars get out the vote.

4. Borrowed Time (Andrew Coats and Lou Hamou-Lhadj; USA)

5. Blind Vaysha (Theodore Ushev; Canada)

Hard to know what to make of either of these; in the same way that some films feel created for the sole purpose of winning awards, these two and Pearl feel like miniature versions of the same strategy.  Borrowed Time has some impressively vivid visuals, but the story of a cowboy reliving a painful incident from his youth is filled with a dark, empty portent worthy of Villenueve at his worst.   Meanwhile, Blind Vaysha smooshes our noses into drippy allegory – the title character lives with one eye that sees only the past, and one eye that sees only the future, and the film ends by asking, “How many of us see the world like Blind Vaysha?”  Derp!rsz_pear_cider_and-_cigarettes07.jpg

LIVE-ACTION SHORT NOMINEES (arranged from best to worst)

  1. TIMECODE (Petra Lottje; Germany)

Hoo-boy, we’re in for a slog when this pleasant trifle is the belle of the ball.  Two parking lot security guards who never speak trade modern dance moves during the late shift, directing each other to the camera and timecode that captured their gyrations.  It builds to an entertaining finale where the now-fired workers perform for their bastard boss and his off-the-books new-hire, and it closes on the most obvious punchline.  Like I said, it’s not a great group.

2. Enemies Within (Selim Azzazi; France)

3. Sing (Kristóf Deák; Hungary)

A couple of decent and heartfelt films undermined by their anonymous aesthetics and annoying self-righteousness.  Enemies Within feels eerily ripped from the headlines, as an Algerian-born Muslim living in France applies for citizenship, and promptly finds himself slated for interrogation and possible deportation.  It’s a Stanley Kramer sort of short, if you know what I mean.  The Hungarian entry Sing also carries a certain topical relevance – it’s about bullying and peer pressure, to an extent, but it’s largely about children rejecting the ethical laxity of their elders, as a choir teacher pressures weak singers to pantomime.  Sing ends on a perfect albeit smug note of silent protest, but I wish there was more rhythm and soul to the piece.rsz_zz1bbf4214

4. Silent Nights (Aske Bang; Denmark)

5. The Railroad Lady (Timo von Gunten; Switzerland)

Ugh.  The process of winnowing down the world of 2016 short films into five nominees is long and filled with checks and balances…and you end up nominating these two stinkers?  Silent Nights is the Dardennes Brothers sellout movie of my nightmares, a nauseatingly pious and pseudo-inspirational love story between a huge-hearted Danish volunteer and an African-born homeless man.  Even if it lands in an icky place, at least Silent Nights feels somewhat edgy and relevant – starring Blow-Up blonde Jane Birkin as a cranky widow crushing on the train driver who whizzes by her window every day, The Railroad Lady is nothing more than  The Shortest Exotic Marigold Hotel.  It’s actually pretty appalling that this film is nominated…I wish I knew the short film scene well enough to suggest several dozen alternatives, but I’m fairly certain that they’re out there.  Obviously, The Railroad Lady is the best bet to win the Oscar.

THE BEST OF DANIEL BARNES 2016

imagesWhen you add up my weekly reviews in the Sacramento News & Review, my work here at E Street Film Society, and my contributions to other print and online publications, I penned nearly 200 published movie reviews in 2016.  Whatever the results, I worked hard on this stuff, so before it all gets swept into the dustbin of yesteryear, let’s take one last look back at the year in Barnesyard.  You can also revisit Best of Barnes 2014 HERE and Best of Barnes 2015 HERE.

10 BEST ESFS-ONLY REVIEWS (ordered by post date – click the title to read my full review)

*Safe in Hell/Three on a Match (posted on 2/28/16)
The mot juste: “Safe in Hell is one of the five films that William Wellman directed in 1931, along with The Public Enemy. Three on a Match is one of the six films that Mervyn LeRoy directed in 1932, along with I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang. They worked on breakneck schedules for relatively small salaries. The cameras were heavy and difficult to wield; the lamps were blazing hot; the sound equipment restricted movements. Contract employees were borderline indentured servants, and could get loaned out to other studios at any time. But I’m sorry, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, I interrupted your story…you were telling us about the time that you got cold and had to put on an extra sweater?”

rsz_safe-in-hell-20120213-162318-large*Francofonia (posted on 4/28/16)
The mot juste: “A docu-narrative discombobulation of historic footage, new footage, reenactments, photographs, pixellated Skype sessions and drone shots, Francofonia is just too punishingly cerebral and preciously meta-textual to fully embrace, but there’s also too much going on in Sokurov’s head to ignore his tenuously connected ravings.”

*Office (posted on 5/4/16)
The mot juste: “The entire film is dominated by gigantic, geometrically intricate sets that feel like IKEA showrooms arranged by Jacques Tati, or a Busby Berkeley version of the stage play from Clouds of Sils Maria.  Offices, board rooms, apartments, dive bars, fancy restaurants, hotel rooms, gymnasiums and 24-hour convenience stores are all rendered as a series of vertical lines, Mondrian prisons that dwarf and mock the petty manipulations of the characters.”

*High-Rise (posted on 5/12/16)
rsz_office-01The mot juste: “High-Rise slices forward fearlessly, relentless in its narrative thrust and yet overflowing with show-stopping setpieces.  The effect is dazzling, although I should be noted that I’m a sucker for this sort of heavily stylized decadence and decay.”

*A Monster with a Thousand Heads (posted on 5/25/16)
The mot juste: “You won’t find a stronger proponent for unconventional running times than this critic – in the world where I rule you like a god, the multiplexes play 50-minute movies right along with 500-minute movies, and everyone eats a flavorless mush I call “root-marm.”  Mexican director Rodrigo Plá’s crusty anti-HMO screed A Monster with a Thousand Heads clocks in at 74 minutes, conspicuously short by today’s standards but longer than some of William Wellman and Charlie Chaplin’s best films, so fuck you, today’s standards.  Unfortunately, Plá’s iron-fisted approach to the thriller genre wrings out any possibility of tension or mystery, leaving only an over-baked and undernourished gimmick movie.”

*Chevalier (posted on 6/9/16)
rsz_high-rise2The mot juste: “Tsangari seems less interested in satire than in digressive dawdling, and while she probably achieved exactly the sterile tone that she wanted, a lot of Chevalier plays like Kubrick on horse tranquilizers, empty and benumbed.  God help me, but I was longing for a revved-up American remake starring Seth Rogen and Ed Helms by the end of this thing.”

*Three (posted on 6/30/16)
The mot juste: “With his constantly moving camera, square-jawed themes, propensity for action and seamless movement between genres, To recalls muscular old-school greats like Howard Hawks and William Wellman, but he also possesses the ability to gracefully juggle an infinite number of narrative balls, even in the center of a chaotic shootout.”

*Little Men (posted on 8/12/16)
rsz_three-2The mot juste: “With this wistful number and 2014’s autumnal Love is Strange, the films of Ira Sachs are becoming the cinematic equivalent of rustling leaves.  I’m fairly sure that I don’t mean that as a compliment, and while Little Men is a delicately constructed and achingly restrained tour-de-force of emotional repression set in a rapidly changing New York, the filmmaking is probably just too tranquil and sedate to get a rise out of me.”

*Lo and Behold… (posted on 8/18/16)
The mot juste: “It’s hard not to get a little incredulous when Herzog waxes all end-of-days about soccer-playing trash cans, or when he lingers with horror on an extremely frail robot unscrewing an empty jar (“Soon it vill be unscrewing youuuuu,” he seems to whisper).”

*The Handmaiden (posted on 10/27/16)
The mot juste: “It would be a shame to spoil any of the silky curves of the story, or reveal any of the bizarre obsessions and talismans at the heart of the tale, but sufficed to say that silver bells aren’t just for Christmas time in the city anymore.  I haven’t been so mystified and tantalized by a film, so curious to understand the spell it cast over me, since Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice.”rsz_maxresdefault

10 BEST IN PRINT (ordered by publication date)

*The Revenant (published on 1/7/16)
The mot juste: “The film works as a visceral experience, yet on the whole The Revenant is a frustrating mess. There is a change jar of messages regarding the pitiless beauty of nature and the savagery of man, but Iñárritu only knows how to lay it on thick, so it amounts to a lot of puffed-up finger-wagging. More than anything, Iñárritu excels at hectoring and exhausting his audience, and The Revenant is no exception—he’s good at grinding you to a nub, and not much else.”

*Anomalisa (published on 1/21/16)
The mot juste: “From its gorgeous opening shot of a commercial airplane gliding through a birth-canal sky, the camera pulling back to reveal the inside of a different plane, the film captures the fluidity between the real and the surreal, and between insides and outsides.”

rsz_thumbnail_23485*I Saw the Light (published on 3/31/16)
The mot juste: “And here we go again, unfolding and assembling the timeworn critical arguments against bad biopics as though they formed some sort of ghastly memorial quilt. At this point, is there anything more tiresome than critics bemoaning the hoary conventions of musical biopics? Believe me, I return to this dry well without any enthusiasm, but as long as studios insist on recycling this inane movie mold like editions in some Godforsaken Franklin Mint collection, I will continue to meet their perfunctory with perfunctory.”

*A Hologram for the King (published on 4/28/16)
The mot juste: “Cracks in his facade begin to show almost immediately, but the entire film is obviously traveling on a monorail toward messages about embracing the real and letting go of your shit, so just relax.”

*The Man Who Knew Infinity (published on 5/12/16)
rsz_rev-247-embedThe mot juste: “Instead of focusing entirely on Ramanujan and his life and work, the narrative is inexplicably framed as a flashback-memoir of Jeremy Irons’ twinkly-eyed professor G.H. Hardy, effectively turning Ramanujan’s story into one of those simpering, pseudo-inspirational, I-tried-to-tame-the-savage-beast-but-really-I-was-the-beast-and-he-tamed-me-whaaaaa cinematic aspirin tablets. Brown clearly identifies with Hardy the rogue imperialist rather than with the meager and rigorous Ramanujan, which is a problem.”

*Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (published on 6/9/16)
The mot juste: “At this point, it’s hard to imagine a subject less deserving of affectionate satire than the egos and excesses of the entertainment industry. It takes a knife as serrated and vulgar as David Cronenberg’s underrated Maps to the Stars to slice through that bubble of absurd privilege. Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone’s likeable but limp music mockumentary, on the other hand, still has its comedic baby teeth, nibbling on subjects it should be ripping to shreds.”

rsz_1maxresdefault*Maggie’s Plan (published on 6/16/16)
The mot juste: “There are no real laughs in Maggie’s Plan, only chuckles of recognition at the rough cadence of comedy, acknowledgments of the empty spaces where we expect humor to reside. The twinkly acoustic guitar score from Michael Rohatyn feels programmed to accompany an open-air luxury mall stroll, just right for a film without any unexpected notes.”

*Snowden (published on 9/22/16)
The mot juste: “Stone, who co-wrote the film along with The Homesman screenwriter Kieran Fitzgerald, has had a lot of success in his career twisting and perverting the biopic form for his firebrand objectives. But if you had any hope that the hot-button recentness of the subject matter would rouse Stone out of a two-decade stupor, forget it—Snowden is one of Stone’s most numbingly prosaic films.”

*Jack Reacher: Never Go Back (published on 10/27/16)
rsz_jake-nocturnal-animalsThe mot juste: “On the one hand, Cruise deserves a lot of credit for staying in his lane and allowing these powerful women to take over his films, letting them flash the charisma and panache while he commits to steely-eyed terseness. But on the other hand, it only makes you wonder why these actresses aren’t headlining their own big-budget genre pictures instead of Cruise. I’m a lot more excited to see what Smulders does next than I am to see Cruise do the same thing again and again.”

*Nocturnal Animals (published on 11/24/16)
The mot juste: “Seven years later, Ford delivers his follow-up film, and it finally feels like he means business. The storytelling is both more refined and more brutishly personal, and the film strikes a balance between inscrutability and accessibility, between David Lynch-ian art horror and Deliverance or Death Wish-like exploitation. A Single Man was the work of a talented tourist; this is the work of a true filmmaker.”

2016 End-of-Year Cramfest Capsules, Part III

rsz_the-handmaiden-cannesA final awards season observation before we flush this turd of a year down the toilet:  Critics groups and other end-of-year awards-giving organizations don’t honor the best so much as they honor the most.  In other words, the award for best acting is really an award for the most acting (thus the sliding scale of difficulty that tends to reward physical transformations, physical hardships, accents, portrayals of diseases and public figures, etc.), the award for best writing awards the most writing, best picture the most picture, best editing the most editing, and so on.  Of course, there are also working critics who would argue that the best editing is the kind that you don’t even notice, to which I can only reply: What in the serious f?  Are you literally sleeping through these movies, you inveterate hacks?  Notice editing, goddammit!  Do it!  NOW!

And now on to the final chapter of my 2016 Cramfest. Check out Part I HERE and Part II HERE.

Saturday, November 26

The Handmaiden ***REWATCH*** (Dir.: Park Chan-Wook; GRADE: A-)

rsz_960No real change from my rapturous review of a couple months ago, although it was fun seeing how the plot pieces all clicked into place this time.  As I said back in October, the aesthetics here are flawless, but the important thing is that they all pour back into the story, characters and themes.  Nothing is wasted or gratuitous, not even the octopus.

American Honey ***REWATCH*** (Dir.: Andrea Arnold; GRADE: A-)

Another rewatch as my stack of screeners started thinning out, and once again no real change from my original review, just another affirmation that this film was designed to be compatible with my operating system.  Equal parts cultural anthropology, never-ending party, social critique and waking daydream.  The ensemble cast of the year.

Sunday, November 27

Toni Erdmann (Dir.: Maren Ade; GRADE: B+)

rsz_dontbreathetrio0Do not open until 2017.

Loving (Dir.: Jeff Nichols; GRADE: C)

Reviewed in the 12/1 issue of the SN&R.

Monday, November 28

Holy Hell (Dir.: Will Allen; GRADE: C+)

A documentary about a magnetically slimy cult leader made  by the person with perhaps the least critical distance – one of his most devoted followers. Fairly fascinating in a purely voyeuristic sense, but the utter lack of rational perspective is infuriating.

Wednesday, November 30

The BFG (Dir.: Steven Spielberg; GRADE: B)

A solid and unfairly dismissed children’s fantasy from Spielberg – it’s a messy and weird stargazer where most movies of its kind are blunt and safe, although even I could have done without the extended dinner sequence in the final stretch (we get it, we get it…the giant is comically large).rsz_1maxresdefault

Don’t Breathe (Dir.: Fede Alvarez; GRADE: B)

Effective and atmospheric horror, as a gang of callow Detroit thieves invade the house of the wrong sight-challenged sadist.  Keeps pushing forward and mutating when most films would nestle into their own unambitious concepts, although considering some of the second-half twists, you certainly wouldn’t call this a progressive portrayal of the blind.  Quite the opposite, in fact!

Thursday, December 1

Paterson (Dir.: Jim Jarmusch; GRADE: B)

Do not open until Xmas.  Check out my updated Jim Jarmusch Power Rankings HERE.

Friday, December 2

rsz_methode_2ftimes_2fprod_2fweb_2fbin_2f47b59b1a-7054-11e6-acba-85f5c900fc1aArrival (Dir.: Denis Villeneuve; GRADE: C+)

More sustained, thudding portent from Villeneuve, closer to the tongue-clucking, two-and-a-half hour skull contusion of Prisoners than the comparatively focused and electric Sicario, with an ending that roots the entire film in a Bill & Ted concept of space-time.  Note to makers of movies: please stop putting Jeremy Renner in things.  He is awful.

A Monster Calls (Dir.: J.A. Bayona; GRADE: C+)

Do not open until Xmas.

Saturday, December 3

La La Land (Dir.: Damien Chazelle; GRADE: C+)

rsz_3063128-poster-p-1-emma-stone-melts-our-heartsI get the feeling that Chazelle’s entire concept of classic cinema was gleaned from watching Chuck Workman montages, rather than the actual films.  This would-be throwback offers all the exuberance and bright colors of an Old Navy ad, without any of the substance.  Impossible to despise, and the leads have chemistry, but La La Land offers such a shallow, juvenile perspective on film musicals, on classic Hollywood, on Los Angeles, on artistic integrity, on dreams, on jazz, on love. I could go on, but why?  You’re either gonna eagerly mainline this human-emoji daftness into your bloodstream or you aren’t.

Hacksaw Ridge (Dir.: Mel Gibson; GRADE: C)

Fuck Mel Gibson.  That is all.

Sunday, December 4

Man Down (Dir.: Dito Montiel; GRADE: C+)

rsz_alwaysshine_web_2Reviewed in the 12/8 issue of the SN&R.

Monday, December 5

Hidden Figures (Dir.: Theodore Melfi; GRADE: B-)

Do not open until 2017.

Tuesday, December 6

Evolution (Dir.: Lucile Hadzihalilovic; GRADE: B-)

Reviewed for E Street Film Society on December 9.

Always Shine (Dir.: Sophia Takal; GRADE: B)

An uneven but extremely promising weird-out from Takal, a prolific indie actress directing only her second feature.  She also offers meaty roles to her lead actresses, although I was less enamored with Mackenzie Davis’ showy transformation than other critics.rsz_baden-baden

Baden Baden (Dir.: Rachel Lang; GRADE: B-)

An airless, nearly Sundance-ready story of a post-collegiate slacker (Salomé Richard) falling back into bad habits and bad relationships while doing piss-poor repair work on her grandmother’s bathroom.  Lang’s debut feature is the final chapter in a trilogy that started with two short films I haven’t seen, so it’s possible I’m missing some key context.  Either way, this is extremely minor, but Lang still shows an intriguing eye and ear.

Saturday, December 10

Fences (Dir.: Denzel Washington; GRADE: B)

Reviewed in the 12/22 issue of the SN&R.

rsz_389c0ddc00000578-3798362-image-a-2_1474378570794Moana (Dir.: Ron Clements, Don Hall, John Musker and Chris Williams; GRADE: B)

Utterly delightful, if you don’t mind the usual limp Disney spirituality and shameless cultural appropriations (not to mention Lin-Manuel Miranda’s shockingly insipid lyrics and melodies).  Funny and thrilling, not to mention self-aware in the mold of Hercules and The Emperor’s New Groove, and so much more satisfying than Disney’s more celebrated 2016 release Zootopia.

And that’s a wrap for the 2016 movie year!  As of December 21, I watched 354 movies in the calendar year of 2016, and 205 of them were list/ballot-eligible releases.  That’s a lot, but there were still many well-reviewed and/or intriguing films that I failed to watch before deadline, including:

Silence; Allied; Miss Sloane; The Founder; Gold; Patriots Day; (GRADE: B) Rules Don’t Apply; Bleed for This; Live by Night; Passengers; The Light Between Oceans; Newtown; Voyage of Time; The Age of Shadows; The Alchemist Cookbook; Closet Monster; Creepy; The Eyes of My Mother; Florence Foster Jenkins; The Hollars; The Innocents; Happy Hour; London Road; One More Time with Feeling; Operation Avalanche; Under the Shadow; and many more.

Still, I did as thorough a job as possible catching up with 2016 releases, and even though I felt like it was a down year at the movies overall, I’m happy with my top 10 list.  And yet it’s still quite possible that an even better top 10 could have been pulled just from that above list of unseen titles.  It’s really quite humbling, and an important reminder that no matter how much we think we know, there is always so much left to learn.  Onward to 2017!

IN THEATERS – “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story”

rsz_160401406_7888dbRogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016; Dir.: Gareth Edwards)

GRADE: B-

By Daniel Barnes

*Opens everywhere December 16.

After the joyless vapidity of the prequels, J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens rebooted the franchise back to its original settings, honoring the past while also building infrastructure for innumerable future additions.  It was a throwback and a step forward at the same time, almost pathologically rehashing visuals and story beats from the original Star Wars trilogy, but also righting past wrongs by expanding the racial makeup of the ensemble and making the female characters more active.

But it was not a great film.  Abrams tried to serve so many masters that A Force Awakens ultimately became a little faceless and overstuffed, and in the end it succeeded more as an exercise in Star Wars-isn’t-lame-anymore optics than as a fully rounded movie experience.  At best, it made the Star Wars universe feel tactile and human again, refocusing on the characters while remaining vague and anonymous enough to allow future franchise directors to make some corner of the galaxy their own.

Gareth Edwards’ Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is the first of what will no doubt be literally tens of thousands of Star Wars extended universe movies, a sort of Episode III and a Half one-off designed to fill space between Episode VII and next year’s Episode VIII.  And although Rogue One thankfully continues the trend of character-based stories, tactile visuals, active female characters and diverse ensembles, while also taking the franchise to some new and fascinating places, it definitely feels like filler.rsz_4maxresdefault

The first of several key diversions from the classic Star Wars form comes right away, when instead of a story crawl we get a shock cut, followed by a series of eerily beautiful shots tracking a single spacecraft across a lonely planet.  These early scenes establish the backstory of Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones, capable but unmemorable, especially following Daisy Ridley’s breakthrough role in The Force Awakens), a prisoner and outcast haunted by her past.  Years later, Jyn joins with a shifty Rebel spy (Diego Luna) and his sarcastic droid (Alan Tudyk) to learn more about the Empire’s newly built Death Star.

Rogue One takes place after the fall of the Republic in Revenge of the Sith and before the destruction of the Death Star in A New Hope, but it only associates itself with the latter film, even offering creepily spot-on recreations of beloved characters from that 1977 classic.  Maybe it latches on too tight – there are a number of striking and singular shots in Rogue One, and it’s less busy than The Force Awakens, but beyond adding some interesting visual texture and moral dimensions to the Star Wars universe, it’s hard to get over the fact that the story is a foregone conclusion, with the one-note characters to match.

Ultimately, this is a film about stealing plans, which is almost as lame as the trade embargoes and Galactic Senate resolutions of the prequels.  At this rate, how long before we get an entire film built around the origin story of Chewbacca’s bandolier?