Rogue One (2016)

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Jumping into hyperspace is this Star Wars story, slotting before ‘A New Hope’, it’s a fantastically expansive kick-start to the Lucasfilm and Disney anthology series, with the overall feel of this operatic space blockbuster being somewhat different to what has come before.

After being freed by Rebel Alliance officer Cassian (Diego Luna), Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) comes to realise her father Galen (Mads Mikkelsen) has been building a powerful weapon for the Imperial Army. Hoping to find some plans to destroy the Death Star, Jyn leads a troop of fighters to do just that and avoid the evil grasp of Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn).

A film such as this is obviously going to arrive with trumpets tooting and hype at an all time peak, so it’s always a task to live up to expectations. Mostly, this movie does succeed if not having a few minor weaknesses. The detail and visual splendour of every planet alone is enough to delight and even more so when seen on the IMAX screen. The new characters are engaging enough to take us on this rebel journey and they’re written with that classic Star Wars code of either bad or good to fit this standalone story snugly with the other movies.

What works so nicely and what I liked the most wasn’t just the impressive scale of the hero’s mission but the attempt at a different tone set up here. It’s not exactly darker but threat is certainly on the line and with everyone’s favourite masked baddie back again it’s clear that the good guys need to watch out. The narrative we receive is unique enough in not tripping fully down nostalgia lane and it has us thrown into a murkier spy-like sci-fi with lives very much on the line.

It’s a simple focused story which is why it’s easy to follow this film and immerse yourself amongst the new creatures, wonderful Michael Giacchino score and fan pleasing links to the Star Wars galaxy. Gareth Edwards directs confidently and with his team the structure of the movie is sound, it all works well, maybe too well because there’s times when the movie feels safe even when it’s treading down an unexplored road of danger and rebellion.

For me at least, the ending is orchestrated greatly, sky fights and ground battles combine in harmony but there comes a time when casualties of war become commonplace and drastically lose impact. Also a near end deus ex machina is totally cliched and felt lazy. Everything just comes to a head, it’s like they tried set up but it didn’t quite work and thinking on it the simple story is non-daring and tightropes the line of being not Star Wars but yet a thoroughly Star Wars picture.

Felicity Jones is brilliant in this, she portrays a gritty determination and hopeful look for a better Empire. The wavering teary eyes give great character emotion and then she can do steely Lara Croft action or engaging empathising smiles to round Jyn Erso as a cool addition to the Wars World. Ben Mendelsohn does a fine job in almost stealing the show, snarls and calm villainous stares make him a marvellous antagonist. Forest Whitaker is a believable guardian yet with a shaky moral core being good yet having a mean streak for intruders. Diego Luna pairs nicely with Jones, the writing of an affection is lame but he’s a rough and ready soldier and a capable male lead. It’s great to hear James Earl Jones voicing Vader once more and trust me, Darth does force choke his way to bad-assery during the film.

Mostly, Rogue One is an entertaining change to the galaxy we know, as it tries to conjure up something a bit different which is almost 100% successful and aside from a couple of near-end niggles, this is a movie to excite all ages and comfort you whilst blasting you with new faces and new worlds.

7.5/10

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Moana (2016)

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It’s the 53rd animated release from those Disney titans and this time we get a great new world and culture, a head-strong non princess type princess and that same old pleasurable House of Mouse fun for all the family.

On the island of Motunui, lives Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) who is the chief’s daughter. She dreams of what lies beyond the reef and wishes to explore the ocean. She finally gets her chance when a blight hits her home and a tale of ancestors and thievery drives her to find Maui (Dwayne Johnson), a demi-god and have him deliver a powerful stone back to its rightful place.

What is most enjoyable about this feature is the dimensions of character and the interesting Polynesian backdrop. The beautiful world we get to inhabit for an hour and 40 minutes is new and feels rich. It certainly helps that the creators make Moana a character with lots to do, say and she isn’t at all two-dimensional. The island villagers and the culture looks impressive and it’s this different setting and tone that gladly takes us away from the usual Disney saccharin vibes.

The music again is stepped up, like the Mickey Mouse maestros know to keep one step ahead when conjuring up the sound of their movies. Here they employ the help of Hamilton acclaimed Lin-Manuel Miranda who writes the songs with Opetaia Foa’i. There’s such a delicious texture to the songs, echoing with a sound that feels perfect for the setting. An Innocent Warrior raises hairs and sounds amazing in the cinema over the scenery. Where You Are is a jovial and tropical start to the introduction of the sunny island. How Far I’ll Go is the clear front-runner for Academy attention and is gorgeous to listen to. The less said about Shiny the better.

Ron Clements and John Musker are together again and this is their first CGI Disney film. They direct a stunning film about myth, mischief and might. They utilise a brilliant team of animators who have created a lush world to truly marvel at, not only is there the 3D styling, we get a fabric felt looking portion of animation during a song and the tattoo 2D moments featured on the torso of Maui.

I only have one big problem with the film and that is the story structure. The opening is exciting and the latter part is engaging, slightly dark and filled with eventual obvious hope and happiness. Annoyingly a large section of the middle is slow and drifts like Moana’s canoe into the land of boredom. As we settle in with Moana and Maui it’s like the plot sags into an attempt at a road-trip discovery without any of the perky coming of age drama. Also the chicken is not only the dumbest character in Disney history but the most pointless, the pig is severely underused and that makes me sad.

Overlooking the typical fairly tedious journey of ‘finding yourself’ that Disney love, this is a refreshing animated turn with a great soundtrack, a confident and interesting female protagonist and some stunning scenes that will delight many of varying ages.

7/10