Friday, 30 June 2017

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)

The characters of Rogue One. I struggle to remember their Dingly-Dang sci-fi names.

Director: Gareth Edwards (Tony Gilroy)
Cast: Felicity Jones (Jyn Erso), Diego Luna (Cassian Andor), Ben Mendelsohn (Director Krennic), Donnie Yen (Chirrut Imwe), Mads Mikkelsen (Galen Erso), Alan Tudyk (K-2SO), Riz Ahmed (Bohdi Rook), Jiang Wen (Baze Malbus), Forest Whitaker (Saw Gerrera), Genevieve O’Reilly (Mon Mothma), Jimmy Smits (Bail Organa), Guy Henry (Grand Moff Tarkin), Alistair Petrie (General Draven)

When Disney got hold of the complete rights for Star Wars, they were motivated by one thing above all: making a shitload of cash. In that goal, they’ve been very, very successful. Rogue One fills out (pads out) the story of how the Rebels got hold of the Death Star plans, something the original film (correctly?) reckoned could be covered in a few lines of dialogue. Anyway, for complex, muddily explained reasons, the rebels needs Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), daughter of chief designer on the Death Star Galen (Mads Mikkelsen), to rescue a pilot from a rogue general to get a message from her father. Or something. Anyway, things eventually lead to a major space battle as our heroes try to steal the plans from a giant computer database.

Rogue One is hugely popular. You’ll go a long way before you meet someone willing to say a bad word about it. It’s been hailed as a far superior dip into the franchise ocean than JJ Abrams’ The Force Awakens. This is inexplicable to me. I genuinely can’t understand it. As far as I can tell, Rogue One is little more than a fair to middling action film, hugely reliant on ramming in as many references and easter eggs from previous films as it can, rather than actually doing anything new or unique with the franchise. 

For me it’s a sprawling, rather dull film with no depth or patience. The first hour is genuinely quite boring, with each over-designed location blending into the next. The whole film seems designed to require as little attention as possible: short scenes, planet to planet, each having little real impact on the next emotionally. The battles are designed and shot like things intended to be cut up into YouTube clips. No-one talks during the fights, we rarely learn anything about characters during the prolonged action – instead it’s a series of moments, straining at the leash to be cool, with personal sacrifices determined by plot requirements rather than by natural character growth. 

Watching parts of it you can enjoy the moments: a blind man taking out Stormtroopers, or Darth Vader cutting down rebels. But there is little to tie these moments together. Plot and characterisation are treated in the same chunked way – events grind to a halt so Mads Mikkelson can tell us what happens next, or Cassian can bluntly talk about how being a rebel is tough on the nerves. In the original Star Wars, plot, character and action were woven together so we learned about all three together. Here they are silos, with action the focus. It feels like a film made for YouTube, more interested in pop culture references with only the flimsiest story propping it up, designed to be spliced up online.

Darth Vader lets rip in a section that seems designed as a YouTube moment of the future

Now the lead character, Jyn Erso. I don’t understand this character. Who is she? What is it she actually wants? For the first hour or so of the film she makes no decisions at all, but does what a series of older male characters tell her to do. There is nothing in the film that allows us to get to know her. Her actions aren’t dictated by character, or even logic, she simply shuttles around the carousel of ever-changing planets whenever the plot needs her to, mouthing whatever sentiments the film needs in order to move on. The film needs her to be a disaffected criminal? She is. The film needs her to be a distraught daddy’s girl? There we go. The film needs her conversion into a rebel freedom fighter? Boom. What does she feel about this? What awakes her idealism, and converts her from criminal to self-sacrificing hero? Nobody knows, the film doesn’t care. It doesn’t help that Felicity Jones’ headgirlish primness is a total mismatch for a gritty, tough-as-nails fighter from the wrong-end-of-the-tracks.

There are many people in this film, but precious few characters. It’s quite damning that the person who makes the biggest impact isn’t a person at all but a robot – and K-2SO is basically a walking cynical punchline, a battle-ready C3PO. Diego Luna’s Cassian is so thinly sketched it’s hard to invest in him at all: the film has no interest in character development so we are bluntly told his characteristics in ham-fisted dialogue. He has a vague speech about how he’s Seen Bad Things, and that’s deemed sufficient to explain all his actions. The worst is Riz Ahmed’s pilot, whose motivations are so unaddressed he spits out some final words to supply his motivation just as he snuffs it. Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen are little more than a collection of cool sounding quirks – Blind One, and Blind One’s Friend. Can you even remember their names? 

On the plus side, Ben Mendelsohn is pretty good as an ambitious Imperial officer edging his way up the greasy pole – most of the more interesting dialogue scenes feature Death Star office politics. Mads Mikkelson mines every inch of humanity and compassion from his role. At the other end of the spectrum, an unrestrained Forest Whitaker lets rip as a plot mouthpiece, delivered in his most overripe manner. (There’s some kind of backstory to his relationship with Jyn, but the film never bothers to go into this, because that time is better spent with Whitaker spouting bland, faux-epic, lines like “Save the rebellion. Save the dream”, round mouthfuls of scenery.)

There has been a lot of discussion of the digital recreation of Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin – I’ve no real moral problem with it (lord knows, a glance at his CV tells you Cushing would probably have loved to have been in this film), and Guy Henry does a pretty good vocal recreation of Cushing. It looks a little odd the more you watch it – it’s probably going to date the film quite badly in ten years time – with more than a hint of the “uncanny valley” in Tarkin’s face. It makes sense, though, including the character in the film – and at least we get some characterisation and motivation.

Edward’s visual ability allows him to film his toy collection in a way that at least feels a bit fresh, but it’s a film made by a fanboy, more interested in getting as many references from the past in than creating something new. Edwards rams in everything from Blue Milk to AT-ATs. Now there is a certain pleasure in spotting this stuff, don’t get me wrong. But will it reward future viewing? The final space battle sequence might as well be a child filming smashing his toys together.

My point is, remove all the vast amount of Star Wars ephemera from this, and what do you have left? Once you’ve exhausted the pleasure of seeing that bloke Obi-Wan cuts the arm off in the bar in the first film, or you’re no longer excited by admiring the recreation of the Rebels’ base, what is there left in the film for you to enjoy? Imagine this was a stand-alone story – what would really make you come back? It’s so shrunken and dependent on Star Wars that it stops almost exactly 5 minutes before Star Wars starts – and, I would argue, means the start of that film makes much less sense.

That’s the final problem – for all the talk of Star Wars being a huge universe, this film only stresses how small it is, how reliant it is on events that have already happened or spinning its plotlines off from references in other films. No matter where we go, the same people keep popping up, the same beats keep getting hit. The film is daring, I suppose, in killing off nearly the entire cast over the course of the film – but these characters have been so poorly developed that their deaths lack any impact. It’s a film overwhelmingly fascinated by surface and fan-wanking over the old films, than showing anything new. 

Now I know you could level some of these charges against The Force Awakens – but that was a film with engaging characters and fresh, enjoyable dialogue that introduced a few new concepts for the films to go forward with. Within moments of their first appearances, you knew what kind of person Rey was (bold, determined, wistful, searching) or Finn (conscience-stricken, inventive, desperate) – hell the dinky robot had more character than the cardboard cutouts here. The internet obsession with shipping Finn & Po shows how much these characters came alive. Can you imagine anyone spinning out theories of backstory or subtext about any of the people here? No, because they’re not people, they’re plot devices. 

If a truly inventive director had got hold of this material, we could have ended up with something that felt really fresh. Instead we have something that is basically juvenile and dim: front row seats at a child’s game that jumps from set-piece to set-piece with no interest in weaving them together. Possibly only the 6th best Star Wars film.

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

12 Angry Men (1957)

Henry Fonda must win over 12 good men and true in 12 Angry Men

Director: Sidney Lumet
Cast: Henry Fonda (Juror #8), Lee J Cobb (Juror #3), Ed Begley (Juror #10), E.G. Marshall (Juror #4), Jack Warden (Juror #7), Martin Balsam (Juror #1), Jack Klugman (Juror #5), Joseph Sweeney (Juror #9), John Fiedler (Juror #2), Edward Binns (Juror #6), George Voskovec (Juror #11), Robert Webber (Juror #12)

A young man is on trial for murder. The jury retires to consider. On the first vote, only one man (Henry Fonda) questions his guilt. The other jurors are convinced they are right – can Fonda turn them around?

Who hasn’t done jury service and dreamed of being Henry Fonda? 12 Angry Men is perhaps the most compelling courtroom drama ever, for that very reason: hardly any of us are judges or lawyers, but we’ve all got a decent chance of doing jury service. What would we do in this situation? How thoughtful would we be about the evidence? And, of course, that little stab of ego – could we be charismatic and persuasive enough to sway a room of people? I think this is why this film sticks with people and has become such a persuasive part of our popular culture – we all wanna be Fonda.

12 Angry Men is a film that I feel touches perfection. I thought quite heavily about whether I could identify any flaws in it at all: the closest I got at was the shot Lumet throws in of the suspect (a sweet looking kid). I suspect this shot was required so that the 50s audience could be confident that Fonda was crusading for someone who at least looked innocent (although it always makes me think, since so many of the other jurors make snap decisions, why doesn’t at least one of them look at that cute kid and think “he ain’t no killer…”). Aside from that, I don’t think there is a single mis-step in the filming, acting or writing of the film – and how many times can you say that?

Lumet is a director who doesn’t get a lot of public recognition. He subordinates his skills to the requirements of the story, rather than an auteur who imposes his style. This works perfectly for this compelling slow-burn. Lumet’s expert filming quietly lets the actors and dialogue stand front-and-centre, while cleverly using his camera language and shot choices to amp up the tension. 

At first, Lumet uses wider and high angle shots, allowing us to get a sense of the room and the characters. But the real effect of this plays out over the rest of the film, as Lumet slowly moves to tighter angles at POV height, until the final sequences are played out over a series of close-ups cutting from juror to juror, at low angles. What this achieves brilliantly is to make the film feel tighter and more claustrophobic – the room feels like it’s actually shrinking in on the jurors as they argue. You can get a sense of it in the videos below, both early and later in the film.

The film also works so brilliantly because it offers a brilliant insight (and critique even?) of the legal system. The one legal professional we see is a bored judge. All references to the unseen lawyers mention either their showmanship or inadequacy. Even the jury system is subtly called into question: several of the jurors are motived more by prejudice and personal experience than by any analysis of the evidence. Others are flawed in other ways; #12 switches sides indecisively three times while #7 is so impatient and bored with the whole process, he follows the direction of the least resistance. Without #8, a decision would have been made with no discussion at all. Even the very process of taking the vote is shown to root many of the jurors down to “sides” and creates an atmosphere of competition that becomes as important as seeing justice done. And in a system of trial by your peers, only #4 in any way identifies himself as sharing the background of the man on trial. Is this a perfect system?

These ideas, though, are skilfully interwoven in the background of a gripping legal thriller. 12 Angry Men is completely objective. We never see the witnesses whose performance is the cause of such analysis. We never see the scene of the crime. We don’t have any confirmation at all that either side is right. It’s a film about the importance of reasonable doubt – and the need to be absolutely certain before sending someone to the chair. Fonda feels that doubt – and persuades the other jurors of it – but we never know if he was right or not. We never know if any of the suppositions in the jury room are true – the important thing is how high the possibility is that they might be true – and how much that affects our willingness to convict.

The film is one brilliant set-piece after another, as each piece of evidence is interrogated. I honestly can’t decide which one I like the most. What makes it work is the variation of how each case is presented. The film is as comfortable with the drama of #8 flinging a replica of the “unique” murder weapon onto the table, as it is with a careful dialogue-led dissection of the eyesight of a key witness. Who can resist Fonda limping around an approximation of the nextdoor neighbour’s flat to see if he can cover a certain distance within a certain time. It helps that the dialogue is incredibly rich – it has to convey a lot of information, but also manages to sketch out each of the characters so swiftly and carefully that each of them feels real.

And we’ve come all this way and not even mentioned the performances. Again, each viewing gives me a chance to appreciate a new performance: my eye was caught on this viewing by Robert Webber’s seemingly cool and collected advertising man, who has far less certainty than he projects. Needless to say each actor is brilliant. Fonda (who also produced) is the very image of moral authority – as well as a generous collaborator on the movie. Is this his best performance? It’s got to up there - #8 is a humanitarian, but he’s never smug or self-serving, just a man who feels a strong sense of his own obligation. 

If Fonda is the superego, Cobb’s #3 (the primary antagonist, if there is such a thing) is the ego – raging, elemental, decisive, unshaken in his beliefs. Cobb’s performance veers the closest to a little too stagy, but it’s a character that demands it. His bluster and swaggering are vital to the character in order to make his later emotional collapse work as well as it does – and #3’s final emotional disintegration really rings true. It’s a ferociously intense performance.

Each actor gets his chance to shine. Voskovec’s sensitive immigrant has a wonderful speech on the responsibility of passing judgement. The most barnstorming speech is Begley’s racist outburst late in the film. It’s beautifully done as this loud-mouthed bully explodes with frustration, then slowly and even rather sadly collapses as he talks on and on, each sentence making him weaker and weaker, more defensive and vulnerable. But it’s never a scene about just one man – the reactions are as well judged as everything else. And I can’t tell you how much I love #4’s “I have [listened to you]. Now sit down and don’t open your mouth again” one-line response which caps the scene.

In fact just mentioning #4 brings on my love of E.G. Marshall’s performance in this film. #4 should be one of the least engaging characters in the film – coldly analytical, professional, assured and clear minded. But he’s always human, never an antagonist, but a respected citizen – the only one of the jurors who is motivated by judgement rather than prejudice. I love his calmness, his cool lack of regard for #3 and #10’s loud-mouthed berating, his patient, studied explanation of his convictions. I adore his calm puncturing and counterview of each point Fonda puts forward, until he is finally won over – and its his winning over which makes the film work. If this thoughtful, intelligent man has doubts, shouldn’t we all?

But I repeat they are all great. Jack Warden’s #7 is totally convincing as (the film’s real villain?) a man indifferent to right and wrong when compared to his own needs. Balsam’s decent but ineffectual #1 is the perfect mediocrity in above his head. Sweeney’s wry, observant and shrewd #9 is a delight (Sweeney was the only member of the original TV play to be retained). Fiedler’s #2 grows in moral force throughout, belaying his quiet appearance. Klugman’s #5 is quietly defiant and conflicted. Binn’s #6 reveals himself as a mild, humble and honourable man.

I think I could watch 12 Angry Men every week of the year. It’s brilliantly filmed (how could I not mention the oppressive rain soundtrack that accompanies the latter part of the film) and wonderfully directed. The script is simply perfect, Reginald Rose expanding and enriching his original TV adaptation. The acting is nearly flawless from all concerned. It’s, quite simply, a great movie. I simply can’t imagine anyone not reflecting on this movie when heading into jury service. It subtly comments on the legal system, but never gets bogged down in this, telling a gripping and compelling story about things we never see. It’s pretty damn near close to perfection.