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

The Book of Life (2014)

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An extravaganza of loud colours and fun festivities, this film certainly lives well in showing a story of the dead. Three worlds, three lead characters and a host of many other treats work together with humour, folklore and music to produce a glorious moving canvas for the audience.

Upon arriving at a museum, a group of school kids under detention meet and hear a story from the tour guide Mary Beth (Christina Applegate). The story is found in the Book of Life and the tale she recounts concerns a Mexican town called San Angel and the importance of three people on this dwelling. A feisty and adored Maria (Zoe Saldana) comes back after time away in Europe and lands back in the midst of her squabbling friends and admirers, Manolo (Diego Luna) and Joaquin (Channing Tatum). This causes larger attention from outside presences. Two gods who reside over The Land of the Remembered – La Muerte, and of the Forgotten – Xibalba make a wager on the guy they believe will marry Maria, if Xibalba wins he’ll finally rule the Land of the Remembered, if not then he’ll cease interfering with the mortals.

It’s a fascinating backdrop that has a lot going on but not at the same time. There’s plenty included by screenwriters, Doug Langdale and Jorge Gutierrez to keep adults engaged and keep children wide eyed. The whole film being about the Mexican Day of the Dead festival is an interesting plot and thankfully or hopefully it will shed light on cultural aspects of another country for younger people watching. The ghosts being remembered by tombstones and the realms of different states of being are very poetic and perfect for an animation film such as this.

Speaking of the animation, I have to say it’s gorgeous. I love the different approach to the style of characters, settings and more. Reel FX Creative Studios and the team behind the animated world have created a triumph of something new and exciting. The cardboard faces or wooden puppet hands attached with bars of metal all make it feel like a pop up book coming to splendid life. This truly makes the narrative feel as if we’re being gifted the story along with the kids in the museum.

The more emotional sides of the story are there as well, maybe not done as well as the lighter side of things or as greatly as the sparkling animation but the passing of characters and the quest of Manolo to become the person he wants to be and not what he’s expected to be, are neat fine character touches that do enough to tick the plot over. It’s a rival story that comes good of course but the journey to get to the town being saved is a giddy ride to entertain you past the pretty simple and less than inspiring plot points.

The music is a treat for the ears with pop songs being blended in with more Mexican flavoured tunes. It’s wonderfully done and performed when you hear things like Mumford and Sons or Elvis Presley benefiting the story and being sung with a unique voice. There’s so much heart in the other songs too, for example, ‘I Love You Too Much’ is so beautiful and Manolo’s music loving bullfighter character brings that needed taste of magical sound.

There’s actually a solid amount of comedy involved in this plot too, it works better than the pretty concrete slab of dramatic plot they have cut out. The singing nuns, the many Sanchez’s, the Mariachi band, the medal for medals joke. There’s a lot of humour that both kids and grown ups can and will enjoy. It’s a very snappily moving film that kind of resembles the pacy zip of ‘Cloud with a Chance of Meatballs’ and that’s no bad comparison. The three worlds all have their moments of magic, fun and intrigue and that’s what makes this entire film shoot along very nicely.

Ron Perlman is gruff and mischievous enough to be dark but not overly scary as Xibalba, it’s certainly played in a way story and character wise that reminded me of Hades from Disney ‘Hercules’. Luna is very good as the leading man, he has a great soft approach to the less than traditional heroic strong man and his songs are great. Tatum is of course right for the ballsy large action guy role and his confidence is evident in the swagger of his voice but it’s a role that could have gone to a Mexican unknown, making it seem less Hollywood striving for big name acting talent attention. Saldana seems to possess a no nonsense yet soothing velvety quality in her performance and Maria is a cool character to like.

Very bright and luxurious in design of character and sumptuous rainbow filled splendour of the Day of the Dead, but it does lack quite a bit in riveting storytelling to match the magical nature of the animation. It does more than enough to entice people in with folklore and make young people start early in understanding morality and memory.

7/10