All posts by Ben Cahlamer

Review: Gray’s ‘Lost City of Z’ is a visual feast for the ages.

First featured on The Movie Revue, contributing critic Brian Wallinger and editor Ben Cahlamer sit down to discuss James Gray’s astounding The Lost City of Z.

BEN CAHLAMER:  Brian, thanks for joining me today.

BRIAN WALLINGER:  It’s my pleasure, Ben.

BC:  Is it safe for me to say that you enjoyed Gray’s effort overall?

BW:  Yes.  This 2016 release, based on the 2009 novel is a taught and tense adventure set in the jungles of Brazil.  All throughout the film lays an undiscovered land where danger lurks around every corner.

BC:  I too found the story telling to be riveting and adventuresome, filled with stunning locations and brilliant technical achievements.  I especially liked the acting in the film.

BW:  Both Charlie Hunnam and Robert Patinson are the true stars of the film, executing clear and sharp performances.

BC:  Hunnam as Percey Fawcett, British officer-turned-explorer and Patinson as Henry Costin were stunning, especially Patinson, who just completely immersed himself in his role.  Hunnam has a commanding presence about him, but Gray kept him in check.  Both performances are extremely strong.  They are complimented by several smaller roles featuring Ian McDiarmid of Star Wars fame, Franco Nero, Angus Macfayden, who has been nothing short of brilliant in both John Wick films, Sienna Miller who plays Nina Fawcett, Percey’s faithful wife,  and Tom Holland as Jack Fawcett. What did you think of Gray’s directorial efforts?

BW:  The direction proves that Gray is not yet a truly masterful film maker, but he surely is on the path to greatness.  The film has an uneven balance in its run time and with the overall script.

BC:  I confess to not having seeing his previous directorial efforts, but I found his direction here to be top notch, especially for something that is so reflective of glorious epic adventure films and characters of the past, such as The Bridge on the River Kwai or even, Raiders of the Lost Ark.  I didn’t have an issue with the run time, and as a matter of fact, I found it to be necessary to tell the full story.  John Axelrod’s editing kept the film’s pacing even. I felt as if I was watching a younger version of Indiana Jones thanks to Hunnam’s acting, Gray’s direction and his screenplay, based on David Grann’s novel of the same name….

BW: …The story is based on actual events depicting several attempts at an expedition ultimately leading to an unsolved mystery.

BC:  Yes, indeed.  It was David Grann’s debut novel, based on his 2005 visit to the Kalapalo Tribe that set the stage for his novel and this film effort.  The level of detail in all of the characters is a combination of the entire production’s efforts.

BW:  You have hit the nail on the head, Ben.  There is a unique style and theme that pays homage to classic adventure films you mentioned: a form that has since gone unnoticed, yet through this film, finds a breath of new life.  I found the cinematography to be visually stunning, providing a sincere essence of the peril the characters faced.

BC:  YES!  Academy Award-winning Darius Khondji’s work here is astounding, and is a hallmark of this film.  His use of shadows and light are simply stunning.  I recently watched Fincher’s Se7en on a cinema screen and fell in love with Khondji’s work there too.  He is just a magician with light in any setting and I’m looking forward to seeing his work on the upcoming Okja.

BC:  Any other thoughts, Brian?

BW:  The film has several minor technical flaws but is so much fun and sincere to its convictions that I can forgive them.  I’m Recommending The Lost City of Z.

BC:  This film was stuck in development hell for a very long time at Paramount.  I’m really glad that it got picked up by Amazon and Bleecker Street.  Although its box office was not very strong, word-of-mouth should propel this film into the minds of many moviegoers.  I also am Recommending this film. Thank you for joining me today, Brian.

BW:  Thank you, Ben.


Review: Tom McGrath’s “The Boss Baby” is a clever, familiar mess

When I was a kid, I had grand adventures on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, battling the Klingons.  Sometimes, I would become general manager Ben, setting up a ‘front desk’ in my parent’s basement pretending to check people in to my ‘hotel’, or even being the debonair James Bond.  At the same time, I had an insatiable desire to rule the world.  At least that’s what my inside voice told me.  Of course, when I open my mouth, something completely different than what I thought comes out.  It’s never a good combination.  Just like Tom McGrath’s animated comedy, The Boss Baby.

Narrated by an adult Tim Templeton (Tobey Maguire), he is as carefree as any seven-year-old only-child (Miles Bakshi) ever has been; something his parents (Jimmy Kimmel, Lisa Kudrow) reinforce in him.  From swashbuckling adventures on the open sea to fantastic moon landings, young Tim’s mind can take him to any place or any time.  When his parents announce that they’re about to have another child, his overactive imagination goes into overdrive trying to win back their affection from the Boss Baby (Alec Baldwin).

McGrath’s Baby gets its inspiration from many sources.  If you’ve seen the teaser trailer, you immediately recall oft repeated bits from James Foley’s Glengarry Glen Ross.  The featured sequence in the trailer was not greatly expanded on in the actual movie; combined with the lead-in sequence, the huddled meeting between Baldwin’s Boss Baby and other neighborhood kids and the ensuing chase is a hoot.

Themes of family, friendship, trust, love and sharing are all inherent in Michael McCullers’s script.  The threadbare plot fumbled because it is strung together by a series of vignettes leading to an in effective climax.  This is coupled with an ineffective villain, voiced by Steve Buscemi.  The problem wasn’t with Buscemi’s voice acting, but a character with a familiar exposition that has been seen many times before.

All of this made for a rather frustrating experience.  Some of the sequences will seem familiar; others were filled with the requisite poop jokes.  After all, we’re talking about a baby.  Like Amy Heckerling’s Look Who’s Talking, there should be something smart and funny about a talking baby.  Boss should have been even funnier with talking baby who craves sushi and a macchiato while carrying around a briefcase.  It just doesn’t pan out.

What does pan out is the stunning animation; something that DWA is extremely proficient at.  And, that’s truly the strength of this film.  McGrath understands his framework, allowing the characters and the voice talent to shine.  Hans Zimmer and Steve Mazzaro deliver the goods with the score.

If anything, Tom McGrath’s familiar The Boss Baby reinforces the fact that I am indeed not nuts.  I’m crazy for listening to my inner Alec Baldwin.

Opening this Friday in theatres, The Boss Baby is reluctantly Recommended.

Review: McLean’s ‘Belko Experiment’ is wickedly, indulgently familiar

Imagine being locked in a building with 79 of your other co-workers, ordered by a voice on a PA system to kill your co-workers.  Much like deer hunting season, the employee with the most kills, wins.  “Survival of the fittest” doesn’t even begin to describe Greg McLean’s black comedy/horror film, The Belko Experiment.

Filmed and set in Bogotá, Columbia, Belko Industries, an American company, has opened a corporate office on the outskirts of the city filled with a well-rounded mixture of corporate executives and worker-bees; staff members of all ages, races and stature.  James Gunn, who wrote and produced the movie makes effective use of his opening, establishing what’s to come with ‘Yo Vivre’ (I Will Survive) performed by Jose Prieto and sharp-witted dialogue. Cinematographer Luis David Sansans sets us up with short character moments, giving us enough time to get a glimpse in to each character so that we’ll remember them once the carnage starts.

Of course, once the rat race begins, each character tries to grandstand one another.  One tries to assert their authority (the brilliant Tony Goldwyn); another with their sexual prowess (the ever-indulgent John C. McGinley), while others try to maintain calm (James Earl) or their cool disdain (Michael Rooker).  Then, there’s the employee who does what’s expected of him (10 Cloverfield Lane’s John Gallagher Jr).   Much like the star-laden Disaster movies of the 1970’s, Belko has so many characters that it doesn’t matter who’s who. This is its underlying brilliance and its flaw:  it felt very familiar.

Coming in at a very lean 88 minutes, Gunn took advantage of the closed environment, building his tension, not only from the menacing voice overhead, but from each of the character’s fears.  Sansans is up to the challenge, finding angles and using colors to his advantage.  Much of the tension works because of his attention to detail.  The frenetic pace of the film could not have been achieved without the brilliant quick-cut work of Julia Wong (Red Riding Hood, Hercules).

“A fear of competition in a capitalist society” is a theme that runs throughout the narrative to demonstrate the superiority of a few, the result of which is a few well-timed and well-staged murders.  The stated grandstanding ultimately subverts the intended meaning of the film; gore is over-emphasized and our protagonist doesn’t firmly believe in it, it’s not in his nature.  I’ll freely admit that I related to the protagonist, but only to an extent: fear overrules our rationale decision making process, rendering our intelligence mute.  Even our protagonist displayed that ultimate trait, fumbling what could have been a strong horror narrative.

Following on the heels of Split and Get Out, Bloomhouse has locked on to a winning formula with low budget horror films, allowing for each to find their box office legs over the long haul.  Co-produced with MGM’s newly revived indie flag, Orion (complete with their 1980’s logo) and aimed at a very targeted audience, Belko has a reported budget of $5 million and it should continue to extend Bloomhouse’s winning streak.

Gunn’s story is timelier than ever:  it speaks a little too close to what our world is rapidly becoming.  Charles Darwin would probably find the familiar Belko frighteningly humorous.  It starts out very strongly, tightening its grip, gives us a little California Dreamin’ in the middle and is just loose enough to allow the audience to go along for the ride at the end.

Now in theaters, The Belko Experiment is Recommended.

Review: Condon’s ‘Beauty and the Beast’ is glorified eye candy

Before I delve into Bill Condon’s effervescent and joyous Beauty and the Beast, there’s a minor confession that needs to be laid bare:  I hadn’t watched the 1991 animated classic prior to seeing the live-action version.  As it turns out, this situation worked out perfectly for it allowed the story and the musical numbers to unfold naturally for me.  Condon’s live-action version is directly based on the 1991 story, itself a revival of the French classic fairy tale, La Belle et la Bête by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont.

Full of lively characters, Condon’s interpretation of this classic is part Moulin Rouge, part The Sound of Music where a flair for color and quick camera transitions to the tune of upbeat musical numbers melds with modern technical advancements showing depth and scale.  This version of Beast has a humanity and vividness about it where appearances are not everything they seem.

Despite the draw-dropping images, the story is relatively untouched from the 1991 version, which is a problem.  The one-dimensional story doesn’t truly convey the consequences of the Beast’s vanity or of Belle’s carefree attitudes.  Those choices are left to the interpretation of the actors.  Dan Stevens is the highlight while Emma Watson felt too proper for someone who should have been worldlier, though Stevens compliments her grace and style.

Dan Stevens had the unenviable task of acting twice; once for the cameras with Emma Watson and the other actors, and a second time for the motion capture systems to be computer animated as the actual Beast.  The results shine when you see the Beast on the screen, there is a much wider range of motion and emotion that was not present in the animated version.  The production went to great lengths to build real sets and what was a signature moment in the animated version, is once again so.  Cinematographer Tobias Schliessler manages to capture the epic stature that Condon intended, but the work also feels staged.

Screenwriters Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos do tap in to some elements which were only alluded to in 1991.  The most obvious difference is LeFou’s flamboyance, the first openly gay character in a Disney movie, and his adoration for Gaston, which has upset some audiences and theaters.  Of course, Josh Gad and Luke Evans play off the relationship very effectively, a compliment to Condon’s steady direction.  The dynamics of Belle and the Beast’s relationship has changed for the better giving Lumière (Ewan McGregor), Cogsworth (Ian McKellen), Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson) and Chip (newcomer Nathan Mack), Madame Garderobe (Audra McDonald), and Maestro Cadenza (Stanley Tucci) much more to do.  Each of the respective voice talents shines through and to see their human forms at the end was pure joy.  Maurice as a character has been slightly altered, giving Kevin Kline the opportunity to show his range, his child-like qualities well-suited to the character especially when he discovers that Belle has learned the truth about her mother; one of the few expanded story elements that works.

Alan Menkin returns to the work that he started in 1991 and succeeds brilliantly here, bringing on additional songs created for the Broadway musical.  Emma Thompson performs a beautiful rendition of ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ originally performed by Angela Lansbury.

Bill Condon brought Disney’s classic to life with characters who leap off the screen, with touches to please most modern audiences.  Despite the advancements in technology, the story didn’t quite follow the same path, remaining one-dimensional.

Beauty and the Beast is Recommended.


To say that the Logan/Wolverine and Professor X characters have been as important a part of my comic book superhero upbringing as Christopher Reeve’s Superman is an understatement.  The beauty of the ‘X-Men’ film franchise is that their stories have been nuanced in such a way that meanings are hidden within meanings, a strong suit of Bryan Singer. James Mangold takes it to the next level in “Logan”.

Set in the near-future, an aging Logan is scraping an existence, staying off the radar.  With his wit and intellect, he is as razor sharp as ever: in the opening scene, his futuristic looking Chrysler 300C limo is being jacked by a street gang when he warns them to stop, with violent consequences.  One doesn’t mind the violence, as it seems natural for the character.  It is not over the top.  Reminiscent of Martin Riggs, it was obvious that Hugh Jackman relished in his final opportunity to play the role; a gruff, aged version of the character.

A now-senile Charles Xavier, played with stunning brilliance by Patrick Stewart, is tended to by Caliban, one of the last mutants.  Stephen Merchant plays Caliban with a twinkle in the eye, giving a sense of humility, grounding both Logan and Xavier.

The screenplay by Scott Frank (“The Wolverine”), Mangold, based on his screen story and Michael Green  (“Green Lantern”) is well-paced, stopping for a breath every once in a while.  The introduction of Elizabeth Rodriguez as Gabriela is a welcomed bit of mystery as she tries to get Logan to help her with her daughter, Laura, offering to pay him to take her to safety. Although there is a sense of urgency in her actions, Gabriela’s motivations are not immediately raised, increasing the tension.  When an encounter with Gabriela goes wrong, Logan is forced to take Laura in and back to the compound, drawing the attention of Boyd Holbrook’s tatted-up Pierce.  Reminiscent of Robert Patrick’s T-1000, Pierce is a simple character:  relentless.  Here there is more emotion in his interaction with all of our heroes.  Yet, like Logan, Pierce is a pawn in a game.

Making her feature film debut, Dafne Keen is a more than capable actress, conveying a sense of emotion through her eye movements.  Her interactions with Pierce’s goons at the compound are fluid and deadly.  Mangold captures the essence of a child-adult relationship between Logan, who isn’t fully grown up and Laura, who has had to grow up much sooner than most realize.  Throughout all of this, Xavier is still a key figure trying to make sense of his decaying world, a triumph for Stewart

All throughout the film, references are made to classic westerns, including Mangold’s own “3:10 to Yuma” remake from a few years back.  Each of the characters is a desperado in their own way.  And, much like Cameron’s “T:2,” “Logan” is equally as violent.  A key to the references is in John Mathieson’s stunning cinematography.  A glowing example of this is the shelter we find Xavier living in.  Round, metallic and rusting, Mathieson is able to capture glimpses of dusty light from the rusted-out holes, while still maintaining the depth of the rotund ceiling.  His nighttime work is equally as impressive.  Aided by the rapid fire editing team of Michael McCusker and Dirk Westervelt, an ambush on a farm home and the ensuing chase through a corn field are all deftly handled, loganimaxposternever muddling the characters or the action.  McCusker and Westervelt make mince-meat out of the 137-minute running time, giving us time to catch up with the characters, but never losing sight of each of their importance.

“Logan” is every bit as operatic as last year’s “Deadpool”.  There are some minor quibbles, not enough to dissuade or detract from the narrative.

James Mangold’s “Logan” is stunning in its violence and breathtaking in its depth; it
holds no punches.  Yet, it remains introspective and retrospective and is as well-nuanced as the likes of Singer’s narratives from 17-years ago.  If this is Jackman’s last turn as the character, he is going out on a very high note.

See this Highly Recommended on as big a screen with the loudest audio you possibly can.  You won’t regret it.

The Little Engine that would [win]

“Tonight is proof that art has no boundaries, no single language and does not belong to a single faith.  The power of art is that it transcends all these things.” – President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Science Cheryl Boone Isaacs.

Did you hear about the one time Jimmy Kimmel hosted the Oscars?oscars-jimmy-kimmel-to-host-2017-academy-awards_jw6a

By now, everyone has.  As a matter of fact, it would not surprise me if Sunday night’s gaffe wasn’t louder than the “shot heard round the world” where social media amplifies every sound bite known to man.

But, that’s not why I’m writing this; there is plenty to celebrate.

No, the celebration does not start with the fact that the Academy redeemed itself from the #OscarSoWhite debacle of the past two years.  April Reign has even said as much in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, “My main takeaway was that when quality films are made that reflect the diversity of experiences in this country, people will go to see them.”

She’s right.  The Academy has absolutely no control over the slate of films that are released in a given year; they can only nominate and vote on what’s presented to them.  Of course, that’s of little consolation when 60% of the movie going public could not name a single Best Picture nominated film.  It also doesn’t help that the share of viewers has continued to drop year after year.  And, this celebration has been no exception.

la-la-land“La La Land” was expected to sweep all 14 of its nominations.  That was mathematically impossible with its two Best Original Song nominations.  History was made though:  Damien Chazelle finally broke the record for the youngest-ever Best Director winner, which was held for 85 years by Norman Taurog, director of the 1931 film “Skippy,” who was 32 years, 260 days old when he won.  In more modern times, Sam Mendes won for “American Beauty” at the age of 34.  Parents:  start them young!

Beside the mathematical impossibilities, a micro-budget independent film stood in its way.

Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight” was the “little engine that could” as it trucked along the BAFTAs, the Golden Globes, the Spirit Awards, of which I was happy to have been a voter of and finally, its seven nominations a tribute to the exceptional production values in place given its $1.5 million budget.  A24 must be, literally, over the moon.

None of this takes away from any of the other seven nominees.  I was fortunate to have seen all nine films; some before they received a general release, some because my local theater chain is exceptional at getting these films as early on as the studios will allow.  This is also the first year where I was able to see all but one of the Best Foreign Language films; I had a soft spot for “A Man Called Ove” and “Toni Erdmann”.  However, “The Salesman,” despite the obvious global-political stance its win represented, was one of the more richly layered films I saw last year.  Finally, this was also the first year that I was able to see all but one of Best Animated films.  I had a soft spot for “Kubo and the Two Strings”.  The winner, “Zootopia” was a compelling look at social messages married with solid animation.

While the ongoing feud between Mr. Kimmel and Matt Damon played out, another duel manchesterbythesea_trailermeandered on. Amazon Studios’ “Manchester by the Sea,” of which producer Mr. Damon was a Best Picture nominee was also nominated for Best Original Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress and Best Actor.  It won Screenplay and Best Actor.  Meanwhile, Netflix was nominated and won in the Best Live Action Short category for “The White Helmets”.  George Clooney is working on a feature-length film based on this award-winning work.   Although significant, Amazon’s win should be a signal to Netflix that their strategy may need to be broadened.  While I anticipate that Netflix won’t budge and Amazon will continue to pick up the bigger accolades, the feud between Messrs. Kimmel and Damon also remains unresolved.

Back to the ceremony, Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty presented the Best Picture award.  It was clear that Beatty was confused when reading the card on the inside of the envelope and tried to get assistance, but could not.  Dunaway called out “La La Land”.  With the entire cast and crew gathered on the stage, the producers started their acceptance speeches.  In the middle of one of the acceptance speeches, one of the telecasts’ producers came up on stage and corrected the record.

“La La Land” producer Jordan Horowitz would utter one of the better quotes of the night to address the situation:  “’Moonlight,’ you guys won best picture.  This is not a joke, come up here.  ‘Moonlight’ has won best picture.”

Jimmy Kimmel, Warren BeattyThe damage was done and the cast and crew of “Moonlight” came up on stage.  Despite the embarrassment for the Academy, for the recipients, for the presenters and for Mr.
Kimmel, everyone reacted with grace and elegance.

The Academy and PricewaterhouseCoopers, the accounting firm responsible for tabulating the votes and holding the winning envelopes securely have both issued statements citing the fact that the wrong envelope was handed out to Mr. Beatty and that protocol for correcting the oversight was not followed.  They have both publicly apologized.

I can’t help but think that the two best production units shared the stage last night.

Make no mistake:  “Moonlight’s” win is important.  Not for political reasons; because it demonstrated exactly what “La La Land” set out to do:  follow your dreams and your passions, stick with it and anything can and will

Mr. Chazelle, the cast and the crew should be exceptionally proud too.  He has an amazing career ahead of him, as does Mr. Jenkins, for amongst a “City of Stars,” the “Moonlight” shone.  I really hope Mr. Kimmel will host another ceremony.

Cliché as that last line sounds, M. Night Shaymalan has not vetted or ghost written a word of this editorial.

SING by Ben Cahlamer

Voice.  No, it is not the sounds uttered from your vocal cavity; it’s the inner courage to stand up for yourself; to be better than the “you” you were before a journey started.  Finding your voice is ultimately the catalyst for change and is one of the many key lessons in Garth Jennings’ vivid animated hit, “Sing”.  Christophe Lourdelet co-directs.

As a kid, Buster (Matthew McConaughey) was introduced to the theater, and fell instantly in love.  Following his heart into adulthood, he owns the Moon Theater, but can’t put a show on to save his life.  With the help of his friend Eddie (John C. Reilly), a doubtful Suffolk sheep and his trusty green iguana assistant, Karen (Garth Jennings), Buster sets up a singing competition, drawing every animal with a dream to Sing, including an overworked, but inventive piglet, Rosita (Reese Witherspoon), a streetwise mouse, Mike (Seth McFarlane), Ash (Scarlett Johansson), a young punk porcupine with big aspirations, Johnny (Taron Egerton), a mountain gorilla with a voice trying to find a path away from crime and Meena (Tori Kelly), a teenage Indian elephant with a desire to sing.  Gunter (Nick Kroll) is Rosita’s effervescent dance partner; Norman (Nick Offerman) is Rosita’s workaholic husband.  Jennifer Hudson, Rhea Pearlman, Leslie Jones and Larraine Newman round out the supporting voice cast.

Jennings’ script tries to establish each of the supporting character’s emotional states by interweaving their backstories with Buster’s struggles.  Some of the character’s stories work, certainly Johnny’s and especially Meena’s.  Unfortunately, these side stories overwhelmed the emotional impact of Buster’s story.  The songs chosen for each supporting character allows them their moment to shine during the third act, supporting their underlying emotion.

Similar story challenges arose in the inferior “The Secret Life of Pets” and “Minions”.  Hopefully, this is not a continuing trend for Illumination, which has a stellar track record in the 3D animation department; a strength in “Sing”.

Illumination Mac Guff delivered the 3D animation in spades, showing a range of motion and emotion.  Complex dance sequences with facial expressions, right down to the quivering lips carrying a note, thanks to the masters of animation, the entire experience is vibrant.  The movie was converted for 3D theaters in post-production.  The 2D image was stunning; one can only imagine what it looked like in 3D.

“Sing” is all about the audio.  And not just the music, but the ambient sounds, the voices; all of it conveys a sense of exuberance.  Then there’s the music!  Joby Talbot’s original score is breathtaking in its own right.  From Christopher Cross’s “Ride Like The Wind” to Van Halen’s “Jump”, Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors”, Queen’s “Under Pressure” to an heartfelt rendition of “Hallelujah”, every song throughout the movie hit all the right notes in terms of finding your inner self

Despite a challenged script, “Song” ends on a high note and is Recommended.

PASSENGERS by Ben Cahlamer

Homesteading.  Many years ago, when land was plenty, the government offered it to people who were willing to till the soil, grow some crops.  Perhaps raise a family.  It was not an easy life.  In fact, you could probably retire today and still be tilling soil.

What in the world does this have anything to do with Morten Tyldum’s (“The Imitation Game”) new sci-fi film, “Passengers”?

Very little or quite a bit; it really depends on your point of view.  The intent of the government was to get people to become productive because they had no other choice:  they were cornered into a unique way of life that not everyone is cut out for.

In Jon Spahits’ (“Doctor Strange”, “Prometheus”) script, the meaning of homesteading, “a lifestyle of agrarian self-sufficiency as practiced by a modern homesteader or urban homesteader,” equally applies to the 5000 corporately-sponsored passengers aboard the Starship Avalon, destined for the colony planet Homestead II.

The trick is that the journey is so long, everyone on board is in hibernation and the state-of-the-art starship is on auto-pilot.  An engineer, Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) is woken up alone with no explanation and no one to communicate with.  He is eventually joined by author Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence). As the only two souls awake on board the ship, they fall in love but not before disaster strikes.  Michael Sheen, Laurence Fishburne and Andy Garcia co-star.

Spahits’ script should have checked all the right boxes:  characters are well-fleshed out; the set-up was strong; social issues are at the forefront. The focus strayed from sci-fi-adventure to kitschy sci-fi-adventure-romance, where the romance just didn’t cut it. Preston’s reason for being woken up is clear; the emotional side of isolation became a focus instead of allowing his skills to move the character and the narrative forward, leading to the intended romantic angle; a wasted effort considering Jennifer Lawrence’s Lane tried too hard to remain in control, though her reasons for that become clear after a meltdown.  Had Fishburne phoned his performance from Earth, it would have been more convincing then what unfolded on the screen.  In homage to a Kubrick classic, Michael Sheen stole the show; but his role in a pivotal moment just fell flat.  Tight editing by Oscar-nominated editor Maryann Brandon (“Star Wars:  The Force Awakens”) keeps the pacing on track.

The script notwithstanding, there is one redeeming reason why this should be viewed on as big a screen as possible: the special effects.  In the tradition of Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” and Scott’s “Alien”, Tyldum executes a strong, detailed technical look.

From the symmetry of the Avalon to the look and feel of the interior corridors, the hibernation pods, the stars and space around the ship, everything has a very real or visceral feel about it and visual effects supervisor Erik Nordby rose to the challenge brilliantly.  The effects are supported by strong cinematography from the Oscar-nominated Rodrigo Prieto (“Brokeback Mountain”).  His attention to every detail, from lighting of cavernous interior spaces, to changing reflective lighting and exterior shots in space, Prieto’s work only enhances the visual impact.

Oscar-nominated film composer Thomas Newman (“Bridge of Spies”, “Skyfall”) resonates with the luxuriousness of the Aurora and the allure of space exploration.  Some of his dramatic riffs didn’t exactly jive with the onscreen action, but his music served the film well.

“Passengers” had all the right ingredients for a stellar show, its ambition steeped in “Titanic”.  Instead, its ‘Lost in Space’ meets ‘The Love Boat’ with all the drama that that entails.

For the intricately detailed technical effects work, “Passengers” is Recommended.  Aaron Spelling is probably rolling over in his grave.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story by Ben Cahlamer

War.  Over the course of our history, we justify war to obtain that which we might not have access to, but need to survive.  In the eyes of others, we use war to protect the few resources we have from others. In the end, the more motivated group will overcome the meek.  For those standing up because it is right, it doesn’t mean that we must always bow down to the pressures of the powerful.  Sometimes, we find enough courage and conviction within our own morals to rightfully take back that which has been usurped. This is the basis for Gareth Edwards’ newest, but flawed entry into the Star Wars universe, “Rogue One”.

Word has reached the Rebellion that a cargo pilot defected with a message indicating the presence of a planet-killing weapon being developed by Imperial forces.  Wanting to authenticate the message, Gyn Erso (Felicity Jones) is coaxed into helping the Rebellion.  Joined by Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), they ultimately undertake a risky mission to retrieve the plans for this weapon.

The story, written by John Knoll and Gary Whitta (“After Earth”, “The Book of Eli”); screenplay by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy (the “Bourne” series)  is fun, but ultimately flawed as it tries to develop new characters while remaining relate able to the existing universe.

It was evident that the intention was to create a dark, espionage-style thriller within two threads:  the first to assemble the team, while the second to actually commit the deed.  The challenge is that the story starts off so slowly and disjointedly that by the time we get to the second, more impressive hour, we simply shouldn’t care.  The story does tie up its own loose ends, but it also creates more problems than it actually solves.

The characters service the script effectively.  However, the majority of the character’s motives were demurred by the action-oriented narrative.  Felicity Jones’ Gyn clashed with Diego Luna’s Cassian Andor.  Although their backgrounds are not similar, they do ultimately share the same path.  It isn’t until the second hour that we see Gyn become a leader.  Mads Mikkelson’s Galen was sharp; his purpose clear and he was able to parlay with Ben Mendelsohn’s Orson Krennic:  their egos each got the better of them, but their paths and functions were also very clear.  Donnie Yen’s Chirrut Imwe is a fun character, his presence a welcome, if sometimes irritating diversion while Jiang Wen’s Bazel Malbus looked stellar on the screen, but his purpose was ill-defined.  Although he grew the most and had the most to lose, Riz Ahmed’s Bodhi Rook was the most essential of the supporting characters.  Forest Whitaker always looks great on screen, however here his character only serves as a bridge and ultimately, an ineffective bridge between the first and second acts, and while the levity was welcome, Alan Tudyk’s K2SO was a bit over the top becoming repetitive, even in the third act.

Fortunately, the wizards behind the camera truly work their wonders in most quarters.  Costume Designers David Crossman and Glyn Dillon effectively bring us back into the Star Wars universe as does Doug Chaing and Neil Lamont’s stellar production design.

From the stages of Pinewood Studios outside London to multiple locations spanning Iceland, Maldives and Jordan, cinematographer Greig Fraser (“Zero Dark Thirty”, “Foxcatcher”, “Lion”) really stood up to the challenges in front of him, giving the film the visual grittiness it needed while conveying the timeless sense of the space battles that have come to be a trademark of the Star Wars universe.  In a key scene, Fraser’s use of lighting serves to throw off the viewer just enough to allow the special effects technicians to do their magic making the scene that much more effective.

Continuing in the grand tradition of delivering a visual impact, Industrial Light & Magic’s work on “Rogue One” is, without exception, the highlight of the movie.  From traditional model effects work to CGI landscapes, John Knoll, who also served as one of the film’s executive producers, was up to the task.  Without going into too much detail, he and the talented folks at Scanline, Hybride, The Third Floor and Disney Research are to be commended in the look and feel of the movie.

Michael Giacchino provided a more militaristic score, using some of John Williams’ existing themes while largely creating new music for this adventure, which works effectively.

As brilliant as the technicians behind the scenes were, editorially, the pacing and tone of the movie fell flat.  It took no less than three credited editors, John Gilroy, Colin Goudie and Jabez Olssen to bring the full narrative into its final form.  In a slightly lesser role, Stuart Baird was brought in to massage it even further.  Where the script narratively fumbled, the editing could not recover it fully, washing out characters and moments.

“Rogue One” brings together two separate parts of the Star Wars universe in an interesting and diverse way.  Its darker tone is welcome however the jumbled narrative and editing bring it crashing down.  Despite it being fun, its flaws are too numerous.  It is Recommended.

Ben Cahlamer, an aspiring film critic, is a new contributor to podcasting them softly.  Although he spends his time helping hotels to price their rooms, he appreciates the finer nuances of films.  He has been an avid Star Wars fan since he was born, having seen Return of the Jedi on the big screen three times in 1983 and continues to look forward to the future.