Star Wars: Rogue One (2016)

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…

Adding to the most famous film series in history was always going to be a big ask.  And coming hot on the heels of the success of Episode VII, the pressure was really on for Rogue One to deliver.   Needing to stay faithful to the wider story while delivering something fresh and accessible, was it all just too much to ask for? Probably.  But improbable odds never stopped a rebel before…

Gareth Edward’s affection for the Star Wars saga quietly permeates the whole movie.  I’ve seen all of the Star War films (including Force Awakens, which I enjoyed), but I’m no die-hard fan.  Yet even I couldn’t help but smile at the little fan moments, those touches that only someone with real love for the story could come up with.  Particularly loved Vader boarding the rebel ship as it trys to flee with the plans, illuminated only by his lightsabre.  Though Leia’s late appearance came a close second.  Yet this sensation was brilliantly controlled, and only done when it served the story.  Things never got that fan-fiction feeling.  It was never self-indulgent or exclusive.  Quite the reverse, you could come to this film knowing nothing about Star Wars, and you’d still have a great time.  And it stands on its own merits.

It certainly looked convincing, with a lovely eye for details.  Although I struggled with the CG ‘resurrection’ of Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin.  While I respect the skill involved, the whole thing didn’t quite convince for me.  I think it’s the eyes- there’s a flatness, a stillness that’s really distracting, constantly reminding you that you’re looking an image, not a person.  It worked in small doses, but the extended Tarkin sequences showed the limitations of the tech.  Not that it was really bad, or took away from the film as a whole, I just don’t think it was as good as a real actor would have been.

And there’s so much great acting here – a real ensemble piece.  Felicity Jones is brilliant, but she’s only a part of a much bigger group.  The story really captures what it means to be part of something bigger than yourself.  Jyn was a focal point, a way to pull us into the story, but there are small acts of heroism everywhere.  History isn’t changed by just one person, but one person can make a difference.  A very tricky thing to pull off, and it’s done here with real style.

Every one of the characters makes their mark, as different facets and complexities of the rebellion came to the fore.   Chirrut and Baze were particularly brilliant as the obsolete Jedi, clinging without bitterness to their dying way of life.  Saw Gerrera showed the cost of giving everything to a cause; Galen how bravery takes different forms.  They all felt organic – I particularly loved the way Bodhi grew into his place in the rebellion – and every death had impact.  I’m not sure if I have a weakness for sarcastic robots, but I was genuinely affected by K2’s demise.

It was very low key, as endings go.  Most of the rebel fleet destroyed, and everyone we’ve spent the last two hours getting to know left dead.  I liked the quietness of Jyn and Cassian’s final moments – their closeness acknowledged without any shoehorned romantic involvement.   The losses brilliantly balanced how each individual death could be seen as a waste – dead just to buy someone else a few minutes, to plug into a transmitter, to throw a switch.  Yet, combined, these small actions manage to achieve something miraculous, snatching a possibility of victory from almost certain destruction.  It’s all brilliantly balanced.  Hope is alive, but such a fragile little thing. If you were in the rebels’ place, would you think it was worth it?

Even though most of us know the Death Star is eventually destroyed and the Empire overthrown, it feels a heavy price to pay.  And with the rise of the First Order, we also know there’s no such thing as victory.  Everything comes back around, and everyone will have to make the same choices.  This idea is only touched on- nothing too clunking – but when Cassian and his crew talk about having given too much, having done too much, to give up – you can’t help but wonder if you’d be the same.  We like to think we’d be brave if the need arose, but I’m not sure most of us would.  I’d probably be in the Cantina…

Speaking of which, there’s some lovely world-building done here.  Glimpses of a vast and bustling galazy – crowded streets of Jedha, a dank prison transport, bleak but beautiful  Lah’mu.  I got a distinctly Dubai feel from Scarif, with is perfectly formed white beach islands and towering structures.  The film feels epic but on a human scale, which is incredibly tricky to do.  It’s fantastically well constructed.  There is an astonishing amount of storytelling going on here, yet it never feels lumpen or slow.  And it’s all managed while creating something recognisably Star Wars, without feeling too recycled.  When the final credits rolled, I honestly felt like clapping.  It’s amazing!

What did you think?  Was the ending too dark for you?  Did you think a familiarity with Star Wars was needed? Did you want to give K2 a hug? Let me know!

 

 

 

 

 

Star Trek Beyond (2016)

The Enterprise gets pulled to bits! Bones and Spock do some actual bonding! And the Beastie Boys save the day!  It’s certainly not dull, but does Star Trek Beyond live up to the hype?

Well that was a blast!  And what a cracking plot twist! Nicely foreshadowed, but I didn’t see it coming.  I assumed that as Krall ‘consumed’ more human energy, he would end up imbibing our human perspective, and realise the error of his ways.  The way things actually played out was far more interesting.  Uhura figuring it out with the video log sent a shiver down my spine.  Most baddies become less engaging the more we learn about them, whereas Krall becomes more compelling as the story progresses.  Excellent writing, and a brilliant performance from Idris Elba.

I absolutely loved the design of Krall’s spaceships.  They looked menacing even when stood still, and had a really fresh approach to space warfare.  No elegant laser battles here – the whole ship is a weapon, literally fired into enemy vessels, tearing into the hull and disgorging soldiers into the belly of the ship.  It was pleasingly visceral and low tech, and very efficiently tells you a lot about the kind of people we’re dealing with.   The design also gave rise to some cracking visuals, with the ‘swarm’ attacks making an interesting inversion of the usual one massive-scary-ship idea.   It also, with a pleasing irony, suggests the idea of strength coming from unity.  Krall’s crew are destroyed, after all, when the link between them is interrupted.

The plot is very well managed, keeping things tight but not too manic.  There’s very little planet-hopping here, and the main thrust of the plot is very straightforward: get off the planet and protect Yorktown.  Splitting everyone up is a neat trick, preventing things becoming too focussed on one ‘hero’ who figures it all out and saves the day.  Instead, there is a nice momentum as each group learns something useful, working to regroup and then move forward – again, victory through teamwork.

That isn’t just a moral of the story, some practical lesson tacked onto the end.  It really shows throughout the film as the characters interact and relationships develop.  Spock and Kirk re-establish just how well they work together, but Spock and Uhura are also great team.  As are Kirk and Chekov.  And Scotty and Wee-man, obviously.   Even Jayla finds a place as part of the crew.  Family and belonging are themes the previous films have considered before, but Director Justin Lin really brings that to the fore, and with great success.

As some relationships develop over time, others are cut short.  The death of Leonard Nimoy is beautifully worked into the story, as our Spock struggled with the death of Ambassador Spock.  Does this mean his place is now on New Vulcan?  In a lovely tribute, we’re shown an image of Ambassador Spock back on the Enterprise with the rest of his crew, which inspires our Spock to stay where he is.  The death of Anton Yelchin, who was sadly killed after filming had completed, is also acknowledged with a toast ‘to absent friends’.  A simple, but very moving tribute, elegantly handled.

With all the weighty ideas, the tone of the film is never ponderous.  We get some brilliant laugh out loud moments, mostly from Bones, together with a pleasing sense of self-awareness:  Kirk says that the voyage is starting to feel ‘a little episodic’.  There’s also an infectious sense of optimism – Yorktown is no grim, industrial outpost, but a sophisticated, glistening, bustling metropolis.  There are rivers, and trees and skyscrapers!  Bones likens it to a snow globe, floating in space.  He means to suggest its isolation and vulnerability, but he inadvertently conveys how pretty it is.  A delicate space bauble, filled with light and life.  The future looks cool.

One of the best things about Beyond is that, the more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve enjoyed it.  Ideas play off against each other, and reinforce each other, all handled with real narrative and visual flair:  ‘We have to change, or we end up fighting the same wars.’  If our ancestors could see us now, how would they judge us?  Kirk’s renewed sense of purpose comes from realising just how important Starfleet is, how peace and progress require constant drive and work.  There was a lovely shot of Kirk in his escape pod, watching through the glass as the shattered Enterprise crash lands on the unknown world.  His home, his family, and his purpose – all taken from him in a single swoop.  Time to start fighting for what matters.

Any quibbles?  I couldn’t help but notice the absence of Carole Marcus from Into Darkness.  Did she not fancy the five year mission after all?  Most of the ‘bad’ aliens were ugly, and the ‘good’ aliens were pretty – bit of a cliché, though hardly a big deal.  And, while things mostly looked great, the CGI was a bit wobbly on occasion, most notably when we first see Kirk and Jayla on the motorbike.

But I was either moved, amused, or on the edge of my seat for the entire run-time.  2 hours flew by, and I was left hoping to see a lot more of Kirk and his crew.  Justin Lin is used to helming long-lasting franchises, so who knows?  I feel like we’re just getting started.

What did you think?  Is there anything I missed?  Did you enjoy ‘the beats and shouting’?  Which enemy would you like to see the Enterprise up against next?  Should the role of Chekov be recast, or should the character be written out?  Let me know!

The Jungle Book (2016)

In the heart of jungle, a skinny boy is running with a pack of wolves.  Mowgli (Neel Sethi) scampers along happily, dashing into the tree tops to catch up to his four legged brothers.  But as he grabs a branch, it breaks, sending him tumbling to the ground. You need to watch yourself here.  You need your people to protect you.  Only, the man cub doesn’t really have a people.

When they hear ‘The Jungle Book’, most people think of the 1967 Disney version (myself included).  It brilliantly corrals Kipling’s loose collection of tales into a streamlined narrative, combining vivacious animation with a classic soundtrack.   Nearly fifty years on, Disney has reimagined the story once again.   Can you improve on perfection?  Not quite.  But you can give it a damned good go.

It certainly looks fantastic.  Yeah, I know I say that a lot, but it genuinely is stunning.  You could freeze frame any moment of this film and be left with something you could happily put up on your wall.  The lighting in particular is gorgeous, and wonderfully atmospheric.  This film is certainly scarier than the Disney version, and that had its moments.  The CGI is staggering – the very jungle itself has moods, by turns nurturing and destructive. The animals really seemed to occupy space, they had weight.  Impressive and a little ragged, they moved and interacted with their environment – and with Mowgli –  in a way that felt convincing.   I never once thought that anything I could see was not real, which is an incredible technical achievement.

The vocal work is also a big part of the story’s success.   Idris Elba is standout brilliant as Shere Khan – angry and sly and terribly dangerous.  Brilliant scene where he tells Akila and Raksha’s pups about the fickle nature of cuckoos…  Ben Kingsley was perfect as Bagheera, authoritative and benign, and a little bit stuffy.  I also enjoyed Lupita Nyong’o as Raksha.  Very little screen time, but her force of will really lingers in the memory: ‘He is mine to me.’  Was heart-breaking when Mowgli said he had to leave, and even more so when she realised he was right.  Bill Murray was wonderful as Baloo.  A bit of casting that seems really obvious when you hear it, but is actually very clever.  Everything about him is so removed from the regimented life of the wolf pack, and its law of the jungle (‘That’s just propaganda.’)  When he taught Mowgli how to sing by launching into ‘The Bear Necessities’, I felt 6 years old again.  Truly joyous stuff.   Christopher Walken was also great fun as King Louie, the wily old gangster.

The dialogue was animated very well.  It’s a unnatural thing, to show animals speaking, but it was carefully connected with body language and movement, and it felt organic.  It was less a case of ‘oh, the animals can speak’ than ‘we can understand the language of the animals’.  Only a subtle thing, but it combines with the voice work and the visuals to create a wonderfully cohesive, absorbing whole.

For the most part, the film stays true to the unsentimental view of Kipling and the Hindu folk stories he was working from.  Life is violent and confusing; order can be painful, but must be maintained because the alternative is complete destruction.  There’s no real good and evil, merely what works and what doesn’t.  It’s shown time and again that Mowgli does not belong in the jungle.  He can’t keep up with the wolves, because he isn’t as fast or as strong.  He uses his human ‘tricks’ to get by, but these only mark him as an outsider.  His pack can no longer protect him: even a mother’s love can’t undo the settled order of things.

Shere Khan does have a point: soon the boy will become a man.  As the story progresses, Mowgli becomes an increasingly disturbing force.  He cuts down a single vine to reach some fruit, later he cuts down dozens of honeycombs.  In escaping King Louis, he brings a whole temple down, and his confrontation with Shere Khan destroys vast swathes of the jungle.  Most worryingly, he does all this by accident, completely unaware of the consequences of his actions.  Again, it’s not that man evil – he just needs to stay in his proper place.

So, I was a little disappointed by the ending, with Mowgli living happily ever after in the jungle.  I always enjoyed the bittersweet, complex resolution of the original stories – Mowgli has to accept his nature and return to live with his own kind.  But unlike the people of the village who learn to control fire, Mowgli throws it away – turning his back on his nature in order to live with the animals.  The cynic in me thinks this was done to leave the door open for potential sequels, rather than for the purposes of storytelling.  Hardly the worst thing in the world, but it did clash with the harsher tone of the rest of the film.

Still, that’s only a quibble, and it didn’t remove the smile from my face.  I saw this in a cinema full of parents and kids, and barely heard a peep – surely that’s the highest praise possible.

What did you think?  Did you enjoy the backstory of Mowgli and Shere Khan?  Were you convinced by the animation?  Did you have ‘Wanna Be Like You’ in your head for hours afterwards?  Let me know!

Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation (2015)

So.  Can you talk about Missions Impossible without discussing Tom Cruise? There has been a lot of talk recently about how his star is on the wane.  Fair to say that he’s a rather old fashioned movie star, a product of an age where replicability and polish were the order of the day.  He may not satisfy our current desire for immediacy and authenticity, but he can certainly get the job done.  And, a few mis-judgements aside, the franchise has always done decent box office.  Though, the first Mission Impossible movie was nearly 20 years ago, and was itself a remake of a 60s TV show.  The world has moved on – does the formula still work?   Of course it does.

There have been changes of course.   A move away from the star-focus of the early films gives a pleasingly ensemble feel to proceedings:  Benji (Simon Pegg) actually gets something to do, and Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) damn near steals the show.  Hunt is still the lead man, of course (taking centre stage for a genuinely heart-racing opening sequence), but he is also rather more human, actually needing his allies on more than one occasion.  There’s also a subtle but potent suggestion that life as a secret agent isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.  The tacked-on love interest of old has also been dispensed with, much to my delight.

Plot-wise, it’s very twisty-turny.  Seriously, do not go for a pee at any point during this movie, because you will miss something important:  In an age of increasing accountability, the US government decides that the IMF is too noisy and unwieldy to deal with modern threats to national security.  Despite the best efforts of Brandt (Jeremy Renner), the IMF is shut down and its responsibilities handed over to the CIA.  You can guess how that works out.  Hunt is out on a job, convinced a most dangerous plot is being hatched.  Ignoring orders to return to the US, he determines to bring down The Syndicate at any cost.  This is literally the first 10 minutes, and it only gets more complicated from here.  Basically no-one trusts anyone, and it all kicks off in spectacular fashion.

There is still an old-school charm at work, with a range of stunning exotic locations, the obligatory bike chase and a wonderful sense of bravado as the plot takes ever wilder turns.   Adam Baldwin pops up to sneer occasionally as heads of governments are assassinated and state secrets gambled with, as our motley crew of heroes takes on an enemy more elusive and lethal than ever.  Though, a couple of lighter moments raised a smile: an assassins’ shot concealed by the high note of ‘Nessum Dorma’ and our soon-to-be-tortured hero taking the time to compliment a lady’s shoes.

And while The Syndicate is dangerous and lead by a truly unpleasant man (brilliant turn by Sean Harris), the baddies’ final motive is simple and, well, rather old fashioned.  When real-world fanatics are burning prisoners alive, to be presented with a villain motivated by money is almost sweet.  (He isn’t even killed in the end). Yeah, yeah he’ll use the cash to fund the Syndicate (we’re told), but fundamentally, it felt like a heist movie in reverse.

The underwater sequence shows both sides – old school and new school.  An improbable break-in with slowly rising tension levels is nothing new.  But it felt claustrophobic, and – in a break with the franchise thus far – surprisingly grounded.  The task itself is difficult and Hunt looks genuinely vulnerable.   Not just that he might get caught, but that he could actually get killed.  It’s a brilliant balancing act that seems to work because the two elements reinforce each other: the mad tech and preposterous surroundings serve to remind us how fallible and up-against-it Hunt is, while the human drama supports the more fantastical, enjoyable elements.

Similarly, the neat bike-chase has pleasingly improbable bits – Hunt survives a high speed crash with only a snazzy red shirt for protection – but it all serves to show񗹤 that Hunt actually cares for Faust.  Is it love? Respect?  Friendship?  All that training and focus come to a crashing halt in the face of such things. Yeah, undeniably cheesy, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t work on me.

Similarly, I really loved the use of tech in the film.  Such things often feel shoe horned in, or just laughably impractical, but I would actually buy some of this stuff.  The auto-lock picker was a high point, as was the wearable blood oxygen metre.  Oh, and that book gadget Archie uses in the opera.  Plus the car that opens with your hand print.  And the ‘gait analysis’ thingy.  OK, I’m not great with the terminology, but it was all very cool and rather fun, with a pleasing groundedness.   It felt like some of these things might actually be on the market in a few years’ time.

Performances were all great.  Simon Pegg is always lovely to watch, and I would run away with Rebecca Ferguson right now if she asked me to … Kenya, I thought … we could open a Ladies Detective Agency …  Erm, genuinely delighted to see Tom Hollander as the British Prime Minister.  It was something of a shock, seeing our politicians portrayed as affable and *gasp* principled, but he did it very well.  And Sean Harris deserves special praise.  Lane was just horrible.  Low, harsh voice, jowly, cold, bespectacled, he was like an anti-George Smiley.  Brave of him to go for something so entirely unlikeable.  Superb.

Great action, engaging plot, fun and grounded in equal measure.  There’s still life in the old dog yet as many are calling this the best of the franchise.  I’d need a second viewing, but I think they might be right.  What did you think?  Is Tom Cruise still worth the price of a cinema ticket?  Did the action work for you?  Or was it all too ridiculous?  Let me know!

Inside Out (2015)

It’s a difficult business, growing up.

Eleven-year-old Riley is doing very well, thanks.  She has a loving family and enjoys playing ice hockey with her friends.  Her emotions – Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear and Disgust – control how she responds to the world around her, and Joy is very much in control.  But a family move to San Francisco prompts a massive emotional upheaval.  Joy and Sadness need to work together to get things back on track, or Riley may be left unable to feel anything at all …

It’s fair to say there’s no such thing as a bad Pixar movie.  But in the 5 years since Toy Story 3 was released, it’s felt like the team that gave us Up and Wall-E hasn’t quite been at its best.  Thankfully, Inside Out is a wonderful return to form, demonstrating everything we’ve come to love about Pixar.

It may seem obvious, but I think it’s worth noting that the film looks fantastic.  The workings of the mind in particular were brilliantly rendered; colourful and simple to understand, but also hinting at the complexity at work.  Really liked the way things seemed much bigger and less clear from the depths of the long term memory banks.

Things get even more complicated as Riley’s struggle progresses.  You have to break down before you can rebuild, and the process of growth is shown to be a pretty bloody business.  The mind is a beautiful place, but surprisingly fragile.  The connections between headquarters and the rest of the mind are elegant but delicate.  Great glowing, complex towers of personality turn lifeless and grey, before collapsing into a vast bottomless pit, forgotten.

The mind isn’t just home to the emotions- they govern proceedings, but there are other entities that manage Memory and Dream, drive the Train of Thought and police the Subconscious (scary place).  And there’s Bing Bong (Richard Kind), Riley’s imaginary friend.  Now abandoned and roaming the halls of memory, looking for snippets of happiness to borrow, he once took Riley for adventures in their song-powered rocket ship.  Distraught at Riley’s difficulties, he helps Joy (Amy Poehler) and Sadness (Phyllis Smith) return to headquarters, eventually sacrificing himself to do so.  His final request: ‘Take her to the moon for me, ok?’

For a film about anthropomorphised emotions, this is a very engaging and relatable story.  Even as we know Riley is making bad choices, we understand why.  And remember doing the same sort of things ourselves.  The voice-work is superb.  Sometimes with an animated movie, I find myself trying to work out who’s doing the voices, but here I just went with it.  Kaitlyn Dias does an especially fine job as Riley, but everyone acquits themselves admirably.

While the film is never too dark, there is nevertheless a genuine melancholy at work.  I honestly thought the film was going to be about depression, but it was more subtle than that.  Growing up is exciting and difficult and wonderful, but it’s also a loss.  The simplicity of childhood is gone forever.  Even the memory of how it felt, that purity of emotion, is something we can no longer comprehend.

When we’re babies it’s all very straightforward.  Yet, we need a more finessed understanding of things if we’re to make our way in the world.  Challenges lead us to a better understanding of the world and its complexities – prompting us to develop an ever more intricate, fully realised personality.  Bing Bong is sweet and kind and selfless, but it’s Sadness who actually has most of the answers.  Moreover, this process isn’t a one off- there are big moments of change, sure, but a healthy mind never stops growing.

Basically, the world is complicated, we are complicated and emotions are complicated.  So, classic Pixar!

An emotional film, then, but there are some brilliant comic moments as well.   Joy mixes up some facts and opinions because they look so similar – ‘Don’t worry, happens all the time!’ Dad talks to Riley and detects ‘high levels of sass’.  We get a lovely glimpse into the mind of cats (very chill) and dogs (very hungry).  And ever wondered why you sometimes get a random tune stuck in your head..?

In short, I don’t have a bad word to say about it.  I suppose younger children may have been a bit out of their depth, and I didn’t like the short before the main feature (too sappy), but that’s about it.

Gorgeous, funny and emotionally satisfying, Inside Out is everything we’ve come to expect from Pixar.  A future classic, it even got me thinking, which is my dominant emotion?  Actually, best not ponder that one too much…

What did you think?  Bit of an emotional work-out, or did it leave you cold? What did you like/dislike the most?  Have I missed anything out? Let me know!