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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Doctor Strange (2016)

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A visual treat; this new instalment to the ever expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe looks absolutely fantastic, it’s just another expected formulaic tread in the well established world of comic book heroes and origin stories.

After a humongous car crash, top neurosurgeon Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) hopes to find a cure to his nerve damaged hands. He travels to Kamar-Taj in Nepal seeking help from the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) who helps Strange learn powers and manipulation of worlds. Strange must learn fast as former pupil Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) who wants to know more about the rituals of the Ancient One and bring a ruler of a dark dimension to Earth.

Scott Derrickson certainly stays in keeping with the rest of the Marvel features, in that they all feel warm and welcoming, that sense of knowing what to expect when you sit down for an MCU film is both good and slightly weakening. On the plus side he ensures there’s a fluid feel to this outing but perhaps doesn’t dare to present the non-CGI moments in a different manner, one we’d not expect from a Marvel movie.

The only big problem sitting with this film is the story and that typical formula that most of these comic-book pictures have. The hero is one that quips and more than ever feels like a Tony Stark re-do. There is a villain in this movie, kind of two to be honest but both are nowhere near fleshed out or seen enough to feel any trepidation about them or their devious planning. If DC has one good thing over Marvel it’s their baddies. Also, the love interest like Pepper and Jane, is sort of tepid, doing little to push themselves out of the mould that they’re there as the romantic figure.

It may be felt that the story is strong and clever because of the timey-wimey stuff, big words and grandeur of spiritual enlightenment but in fact it’s a simple plot to follow that basically boils down to Strange discovering his inner powers and helping save the world from three different sanctums. Again, like Marvel adores aliens coming from the sky, this movie features just that which is little more than purple-y special effects.

Crediting the film and the effects team though, this movie looks so damn good. The ‘Inception’-esque warping of the world as we know it is taken to overdrive and gloriously so. There are moments that feel like we’re zooming into a kaleidoscope and times when lands shift and buildings twist that certainly do enough to give this movie a mind-melting appearance. I loved every scene where the CGI came to full power and it’s not normal for me to say that so they did everything perfectly right when it came to highlighting the surreal powers of Strange’s journey.

Cumberbatch may have got the shaping of hand gestures right and tugged nicely with a magical cloak but he’s still delivering that usual Benedict routine just with an American accent. Swinton felt right for me in her part, I know there was controversy but she gives the character a balanced knowledge and hidden power in a calm and believable way. Chiwetel Ejiofor was a great addition, trying to stick to the mantra of what he knows and teaching the arrogant Stephen what he once was taught. Mads Mikkelsen looked the part with superb make-up and has that usual menacing posture and stare but it’s the writing that let him down, not his performance. Rachel McAdams too, is let down by a mildly dull character.

Though this doesn’t stray too far from the formula that Marvel seem scared of breaking, it’s entertaining nonetheless packed to the rafters with hair-raising spectacles of CGI and a neat air of fun that keeps everything ticking over as the MCU conjure up so well.

7/10

 

Charlie Countryman (2013)

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I only had the opportunity to see this yesterday, it being released nearly a year after the States received it. Maybe there was a reason for the huge wait because it will certainly not appeal to all tastes. It’s so clear this is a festival kind of movie, it premiered at Sundance and since then hasn’t had great reviews, which I agree with to a point. It’s a nonsense hollow script but I did love the art direction of the film and it’s well acted.

In Chicago lives Charlie Countryman (Shia LeBeouf), the film opens with him seeing his mother Kate (Melissa Leo) pass away but she soon appears to him as a ghost and tells him to live an adventure in Bucharest. Thanks mum! On the flight he meets a man who gets Charlie wrapped up in another adventure concerning his cellist daughter Gabi (Evan Rachel Wood) and it isn’t long before Charlie falls for her even if she’s linked in with the murky Romanian underworld and a brutish husband with a silly common name like Nigel (Mads Mikkelsen).

The strongest element of this film, I believe, has to be found in the strengths of LeBeouf’s role. It’s clear he’s loving the character and the adventurous roller-coaster trip Charlie goes on. It kind of pains me to compliment the man considering what a jerk he seems and the whole paper bag debacle but he is fantastic in this film. The emotions that he journeys on are utterly believable and he can cry easily, have that smarmy grin and his drug induced night is very well acted. The bond between him and Wood is a strong one and however Romeo and Juliet like the script may be, you do feel that they desire one another.

There’s good amounts of slow motion used in the film, utilised to bring home the dramatic tension more, it never gets tedious, it perhaps feels arty pretentious to have it but in some cases it works well. The chase is masterfully performed and shot and the slow mo underground face off is a cheeky little use to show off Charlie’s outwitting move. It’s clear it’s an arty film, with music and shots blending together to make the entire film feel polished and different.

On this note, the movie is one that relishes in translating this Romanian crime scene as sometimes magical and sometimes nightmarish. It’s true to comment that the film does feel like a surreal dream sequence for the most part. It’s a lulling film that makes you feel sleepy watching it, I don’t know if that’s what they were aiming for but that’s how I felt now and then sitting in that cinema screen by myself. I think the writing lets it down just because it’s so romantic cliched and there’s no real outstanding drama or twist to entice you.

There are gripping moments to be fair but it feels like Matt Drake, the writer was trying too hard to be arty farty, it’s a pretentious feeling film and sometimes weird is good but the beginning death talks and the bad use of CGI spirit wafting doesn’t help. It’s annoying too at times, the inclusion of Rupert Grint and James Buckley didn’t do anything for me. It felt indulgent trying to have some British lads on tour humour in there, it didn’t fit with the film and there subplot made no difference.

A sometimes good mix of drama, adventure and romance but it loses track in a careering maddening hazy trip down Surrealville. Shia is very good at angst and emoting hard to gain love, but apart from that and a somewhat effective arty backdrop this film can feel hipster-ish and messy. Watchable though.

6/10