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

Arrival (2016)

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Gladly, this is not your typical ‘alien invasion’ flick, it’s a much smarter story that totally immerses you into a situation filled with dread yet hope, understanding yet confusion. I came out of the film feeling a little lost but it’s a grower because as you think on it the whole idea becomes more interesting.

As 12 shells arrive on Earth and hover above different locations, linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is called into help the military. Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) hopes that she can understand and translate the aliens’ talking and find out why they’re here. Together with scientist and maths man Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) they start uncovering a complex world-changing language.

Coming from ‘Prisoners’ and ‘Sicario’ director Denis Villeneuve, you can surely expect tension and smart movie story-telling and you’d be right to do so, as this sci-fi release is burning with clever ideas about language, time and humanity’s fight for survival and knowledge. Villeneuve doesn’t go for any last minute twist, he keeps his film going along and through shots or blurred flashbacks we begin building a picture of what’s to come. What he does well is ensure every scene has importance or emotion and gives moments with the aliens a nervous and affecting tone as we try to grip what may happen.

Eric Heisserer gives the story no cliches or over expositional content, aside from one line near the end of the film, everything we hear sounds plausible and brings you into this alien filled drama with ease. The way he adapts the short story and ensures the Heptapods’ speech is intellectual, so much so that it befuddled my mind but not enough to make me disengage from the movie. This language is a huge factor of the script, connecting to Louise and creating a rounded story that gives ‘Arrival’ fantastic depth.

Back to help Villeneuve is composer Johann Johannsson, who has a superb skill in building tension through music. The dread mounts and through deeper reverberations in the score we feel on edge as the characters go to encounter the Heptapods. A brilliant track comes in with some narration and is used again for the credits, it’s haunting and a chorus of voices makes it more impacting.

Amy Adams in her second November outing, is much more interesting to watch in this compared to ‘Nocturnal Animals’, that’s to say she has more to do and her character is excellent. The subtle flickers of tired emotion that fill her thanks to flashes of events or the way she gleefully acts when breaking ground with the aliens communication all make Louise a captivating role. Jeremy Renner is good also, his smart mathematician role bouncing off Louise very well. Whitaker is a great choice as the military superior, his calmness a good thing as he easily could have been the villain straining for violence. Michael Stuhlbarg is a fine actor, always doing good with what he’s given and here he grows as the film progresses.

It may still have me slightly puzzling over the whole grand scope of time but this is a science fiction that dazzles and if you like a movie to make you think then this is the perfect choice. Performances, writing, directing and music create something to blow your mind like not much before.

8/10

 

Good Morning, Vietnam (1987)

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Barry Levinson directs a good comedy here with a later style introducing the war movie theme that brings in the needed punch of conflict and consequences to clash nicely with the lighter affair of Robin Williams’ wisecracking humourous radio DJ character.

It’s 1965 and Adrian Cronauer (Robin Williams) arrives in Saigon to work as a DJ for the Armed Forces Radio Service. Cronauer’s zippy style and knack for sending up political figures in his sketches on air rub his superiors up the wrong way but his daily broadcasts soon make him a celebrity and other personnel such as Edward or ‘Garlic’ (Forest Whitaker) love the funny work he is doing. In the midst of this blossoming Vietnam DJ career Cronauer takes up teaching English to some Vietnamese and befriends a local lad called Tuan (Tung Thanh Tran). Though the sights and sounds of Saigon may start grating against his usually preppy radio hour.

It does take a while for anything of importance to happen and that can be deemed as a slow ride up until that point. There’s at least sixty minutes that pass before the first dramatic visual of war in Vietnam hits the screen and from that point you can feel the change in the movie and it’s a welcomed one. The first hour does well enough in setting up the style and charm of Williams’ Adrian but in that time he can now and then get annoying, sure he is funny and he can do impressions at the drop of a hat but even his well choreographed improvised routines on air lead you to start groaning at the severe energy this man has. At least once the huge boom and shock of what he sees happen so close to him in the centre of Saigon he becomes a more rounded grounded character, still with that spark but with humility and awareness attached.

The soundtrack throughout this movie is top rate material with poppy tunes lifting the spirit in the right places that coincide with montaged shots of army guys listening in and needing the songs of The Beach Boys, James Brown and Martha and the Vandellas to raise their spirits too. It’s a great set up in Adrian ignoring the in house rules of playing certain records as we understand more about his happy go lucky character from the choices of songs played. This in contrast to the frankly dire polka tunes green lit by Steven Hauk (Bruno Kirby) who fills in for Adrian at one point and becomes a hate mail target due to his incompetence at DJing and being totally unfunny.

The later parts of this 1987 film are much better in my opinion as they start opening up the eyes to the damages done around Vietnam by the Americans. At first it seems bad in Cronauer being all mighty US lord and teaching this school Americanisms and cursing but then his nature helps these locals have fun with the better side of America, in helping them understand language divides and playing baseball. There is still that problem of America treating themselves as the hero but at least when the Viet Cong are introduced there’s mention of why they’re doing it leading back to the threat of US soldiers ruining their lives. It’s not a truly one sided treatment though it could still do more to not be so white in letting American characters help try and save the day.

Robin Williams is in what feels like one man show mode during this film and you can completely understand why he was nominated for an Oscar as he steals the attention from pretty much everyone around him. The comedy radio speeches and his second half more serious portrayal of a man seeing the danger around him make for a three dimensional character with more than just funny bones but a heart too. Forest Whitaker does well to act opposite Williams and provides a fully likeable sidekick to the DJ as they go about and he gets a fine spotlight moment in helping Adrian Cronauer realise his vocals on the airwaves are providing helpful moral to the troops. Credit too must go to Tran, Sukapatana and the other actors who play Vietnamese locals. They give out a warmth and boost of Asian culture amongst the militarised world Cronauer comes from.

It’s not a perfect insight into the war that went on in Vietnam but it is a perfect demonstration of Robin Williams fine work as a comedic actor. There’s a good enough level of both humour and war like drama in this film and by the end you leave with a different feeling than you went in with which is a sign of a good movie to me.

7/10