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!

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

After saving the world from an alien invasion, the Avengers crew are conducting the latest in a series of raids on Hydra, and finally reclaim Loki’s sceptre.  (How did Hydra get hold of that, btw?) But Tony has got a bright idea about saving the world, and they run into a couple of kids with ‘enhanced’ abilities.  The follow-up to Avengers Assemble is probably the most highly anticipated movie of the year (at least ‘til Star Wars come out), and it certainly doesn’t disappoint.

The action scenes are, of course, superb.  Iron Man smacking Hulk with an elevator was a particularly memorable moment, as was the obligatory single-swooping-shot-of-all-the-Avengers-fighting-together-and-looking-cool.  I also liked the genuine sense of danger around the fighting, and the way the team put concerted effort into reducing civilian casualties.  No collateral damage for the Avengers, thank you very much.

The competing elements of humour and drama are beautifully balanced – we’re constantly aware that the stakes are high without it all becoming too ponderous and sombre.  When Hulk goes nuts and starts destroying a city, Stark goes in to stop him; pummelling him in the face repeatedly, like something off Saturday morning cartoons.  But inside the mask he is desperately mumbling: go to sleep! Go to sleep!

Characterisation is also wonderful.  Whedon is always at his best here, showing peoples’ little rivalries and interactions.  A drunken round of ‘Try and Lift Mjolnir’ is particularly entertaining, with Thor’s face dropping when Cap almost gives it a wobble.  Natasha and Banner’s blossoming romance is warm and deftly handled: her tiny hand in Hulks; the heart-breaking confession that she has been sterilised.  It also plays nicely against Hawkeye’s newly revealed family.  He got fairly short shrift in the first film, so I was glad to find out a little bit more about him.

And we get to see Jarvis! Ok, not quite. It’s Jarvis’s programming in a metallic-organic body, combined with an infinity stone. Or something.  It’s Paul Bettany, anyway, which is all you need to know.  He’s called the Vision and he’s only in a few scenes, but he nails it every time – sad and full of unearthly wisdom, but also a bit of a softy.  The moment he casually hands Thor his hammer (thereby proving his good intentions) brought a smile to my face.  He also has an amazing cloak.

James Spader’s Ultron is, frankly, marvellous.  Trying to fill Loki’s boots as lead baddie is no easy thing, but he is truly frightening and just a teensy bit sympathetic.   In an odd, unnerving introduction, he destroys Jarvis and takes over Starks’ workshop, sending the creations to kill their creator.  It’s fresh and memorable, as well as a neat bit of foreshadowing.  Ultron is unpredictable and intimidating, but in a demented sort of way he is also compelling.  You never doubt that he needs to be stopped, but he is only a reflection of Stark’s (and by extension our own) desire for stability and control.  ‘You want to protect the world, but you don’t want it to change.’  It’s a powerful idea, gesturing towards the need for humanity to evolve its thinking if it is to survive.  Even Vision thinks we’ve had it.  ‘But a thing isn’t beautiful only because it lasts’, he ponders.  ‘You’re breathtakingly naïve.’ snaps back Ultron. ‘Well, I was born yesterday.’

Weaknesses? Well, despite the filmmakers’ best efforts, there are just too many characters.  While they are all dynamic and well rounded, proceedings do get bogged down with the sheer number of people we’re trying to follow.  Together with the initial six Avengers is the addition of Ultron, Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver and Doctor Cho; which on top of the supporting characters/cameos – Maria Hill, Nick Fury, Heimdall, Peggy Carter and Eric Selvig were just the ones I could put a name to – makes for a very over-stuffed cast list.  It’s very well handled, and in lesser hands could easily have collapsed under its own weight, but it does feel unwieldy.

Which could explain why Quicksilvers’ death didn’t really effect me.  For all the expectations of ‘blood on the floor’, it lacked the emotional heft the loss of one of the original six would have had (I honestly worried that Hawkeye would get it).  Nor did I really buy the twins motivation.  A Stark shell killed their parents and another lay next to them until they were dug out of the rubble.  ‘We waited for 2 days for Stark to kill us.’ Well, I’d be angry with the guy who made the shells too; but I think I would be rather more angry with the guy who fired them.  I realise they have been manipulated by Hydra, but it felt a bit contrived.  Did they really not hear about New York? Come on…

But for a supposedly low-brow movie, I was frequently reminded of that line from The Ballad of Reading Gaol: ‘For each man kills the thing he loves.’ Ultron points out that we are often the authors of our own demise.  Neither he nor Stark can tell the difference between saving the world and ending it.  Other writers have suggested that, as their heroes invariably work to prevent change, comic-book adaptations are inherently conservative. It’s noteworthy, then, that the moral of this particular story is that everything ends. Life is change, and fighting change will mean destroying the very thing you are trying to protect.  Chaos and calm aren’t opposites so much as counterpoints.  The Avengers themselves show a way forward; chaotic, disparate elements unified and galvanised by a common cause.  But only for a time.

It’s a pleasingly complex idea, complicating easy good/bad dichotomies. I like that it’s there if you want something to chew on.  If not, switch off your brain and enjoy the fights/quips.   Something for everyone, then – I loved it.  Only another 3 years until Avengers: Infinity War.  Can’t wait!

What did you think?  Was it worth the wait?  Did you struggle with the huge cast, or am I just lazy?  Does it adapt the source material well?  Let me know your thought below!