“Rogue One: a Star Wars Story” movie review

rogueoneJust when all hope was lost, the force has awakened this time. After the disappointingly stale installment last year, I did not have high hopes for Rogue One. To my surprise, the first standalone Star Wars franchise film exceeded expectations. Although the public is accustomed to Star Wars films coming in threes, Lucasfilm and Walt Disney Studios took a risk in creating an original single story to successfully setup A New Hope. Unlike when the force tried to awaken last year, THIS feels like a new Star Wars film. With twenty-some-odd years to fill between Revenge of the Sith and the original movie, how was one film going to do it? Focus on what was ultimately important. Not that the development of the Empire would be uninteresting, but the white elephant in the room was “how did the rebels get the plans that setup the events at the beginning of A New Hope“? And that is precisely what director Gareth Edwards did, and it paid off! Rogue One is as exciting as the original film; and furthermore, is built upon a solid plot that is mostly new with a little nostalgia and Easter Eggs (visual references to A New Hope) in the form of locations, props, shots/frames, and familiar featured characters and a surprising cameo. One of the elements that plagued Episode VII was the simple fact that it was little more than a remix and mashup of everything that had been done before, including main plot points, subplots, and predictable behavior. Rogue One feels fresh and new. Yes, there are obviously appearances and references to characters and settings from A New Hope, but that is to be expected since this film ends where the original film begins. Thematically darker than the original film but not as dark as Empire Strikes Back, this installment strikes a balance in the force that makes it interesting to watch. We all know that the rebels get the plans in the end, but this film makes the adventure worth watching as it unfolds.

With the old republic in ruins and the senate all but disbanded, the Galactic Empire has  its eyes set on a feat of engineering never seen before. But they need to attach the right scientific talent in order to create that which would become known as the Death Star. Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) is a brilliant scientist and former Imperial officer, devoted husband, and loving father. Director Krennic, head of the secret Death Star project, arrives at Erso’s home to forcibly recruit him to head up the science and engineering divisions. When recruitment does not go as planned, Erso is separated from his family and taken away. Escaping to the caves, his daughter evades capture. Many years later, Jyn (Felicity Jones) finds herself a criminal and angry that her father never came back for her. When an Imperial pilot allegedly defects and claims to have a message from Galen for the Rebel Alliance, Jyn is recruited by the rebels to lead them to a former rebel turned rogue and ultimately to her father. With Captain Cassian Adnor (Diego Luna) at the helm and lead of the small band of rebels accompanying Jyn to her father, they uncover a secret that thousands will die for in order to attempt to make things right in the galaxy. All the while, they have no idea that this clandestine mission will spark events that they could have never imagined.

Already, this film seems to have sparked arguments among fans of the franchise and those who enjoy them but may not be fanboys. Even this morning, I noticed many comments on social media that commented on the film positively or negatively. Interestingly, at first glance, it seems as those who liked Episode VII: The Force Awakens did not like Rogue One, and those–like me and the friends I went with last night–who thought The Force Awakens was garbage but found Rogue One to be exciting, dynamic, and refreshing. Of course, there are plenty of people who like both films released under the Disney banner, either because the Big D can’t possibly do anything wrong or because they are true fans for better or worse of the nearly forty-year-old franchise and staple in the future fantasy genre (notice I did not say science-fiction–no real science here). At this point, I am unsure why those who liked last year’s film may not have liked this weekend’s installment; however, it appears to be clear from multiple comments and reviews that the reason why those who did not like Episode VII enjoyed Rogue One is the newness of a film that embodies the spirit of the original but provides audiences with a new adventure that connects well without redundancy. One of the reasons for the success of the original film–aside from a great cast–is the focus on the drama between characters and camps. There is the drama between Rebels and the Empire but also drama within the camps themselves. Rogue One borrows from A New Hope in that the focus is more on the drama than resting its laurels on the technical elements. Not that this film lacks in the technical category. Rogue One comes complete with great direction, color grading, cinematography, and impressive editing (especially with some rather surprising CGI that will definitely cause you to do a double take utter delight).

For all that this installment did well, the beginning of the film following the prologue was dreadfully ill-conceived and mostly unnecessary. Unlike all the other Star Wars films, this one did not open with the trademark scrolling written prologue offering exposition to setup the movie. Instead, after the “A long time ago, in a galaxy far far away” the film cuts to the opening scene of Krennic recruiting Galen. Following the prologue and rather PowerPoint-looking Rogue One title card, is a rapid, incoherent, and confusing sequence of montages. Honestly, I am still unsure why that whole sequence was necessary. Between the PowerPointy title card and this sequence of montages, I did not have hope for the film at all. Obviously, I ended up enjoying it immensely, but I look back and feel strongly that it could have been left out. The settings/planets that were depicted did not play into the plot at any level of significance. Felt like filler. Thankfully, the scenes following the prologue are but a small portion of the film and the film really begins to take off after Captain Cassian and his team rescue Jyn from a prison transport vehicle. After Jyn’s rescue covert operation, the rest of the film is nicely paced and developed. Other than knowing the ending, the majority of the film was unpredictable. Unpredictable in that you know the direction it’s going and ultimately what’s going to happen but you don’t know HOW it all happens and works together to setup A New Hope.

Just the right amount of nostalgia and Easter Eggs. For those who are fans of or simply familiar with the movies, there are cameos, references, and shots taken from the chronologically preceding films (mostly A New Hope). Just enough nods to and direct connections to provide the audience with a film that IS as much a part of the Star Wars saga as the official Star Wars cannon. It’s no surprise that the Death Star is a big part of Rogue One, Senator Mon Mothma is seen leading the rebels, Darth Vader (still voiced by James Earl Jones) makes several brief appearances, and a couple other nostalgic cameos; but there are some characters who are included in the diegesis of this film who will delight old and new fans alike–one in particular that will incite an eruption of cheers! Beyond the human characters, there are other appearances by iconic ships and war machines that aid in cementing this story in with the rest of the franchise. While the film contains some lighthearted, witty dialog between the core group of principle and supporting characters, the film also contains some dark moments. Personally, I think the film should have been a little darker since it sets up the installment all about hope reborn; but, the atrocities of war are definitely not hidden from the audience and events transpire that are atypical of future fantasy films between heroes and villains. In a manner of speaking, and as I mentioned in my opening paragraph, the film’s diegesis strikes a balance in the force in terms of the light and dark content.

Rogue One: a Star Wars Story is an exciting narrative that successfully sets up the film that started it all. If you’re a fan of the original trilogy but did not enjoy Episode VII, you will most likely enjoy this installment. If you are a fan of the original trilogy and liked Episode VII, then there is moderate chance that you may not like this story. It will be interesting to see how this film plays out amongst mild, moderate, and hard core Star Wars fans from both the Disney and Fox camps. I had my doubts of Disney taking the reigns of the franchise after last year; but this film gives me a new hope that Disney may be able to successfully navigate the rest of the franchise.

“A Monster Calls” movie review

monstercallsA breathtakingly beautiful and dynamic film that typifies the art of visual storytelling in the gothic style. Focus Features’ A Monster Calls directed by J.A. Bayona is nothing short of a Terms of Endearment, in theme anyway, for a new generation. You are certain to laugh and cry your way through the film. Based upon the novel by the same name, written by Patrick Ness and illustrated by Jim Kay and conceptualized Siobhan Dowd, Bayona’s adaptation of the novel plays out to be a deep, rich story that will touch the hearts and minds of each and everyone in the audience. For anyone going through the stages of grief, this film will especially ring true and perhaps bring about comfort. Although the protagonist Connor, played by Lewis MacDougal, is twelve years old, this dark melodrama with a plot revolving around terminal illness is not typically something that will appeal to kids of Connor’s age. Despite the fantasy elements and the young protagonist, A Monster Calls is more suited for older teens and adults; however, by the same token, the movie isn’t entirely going to initially appeal to adults since the protagonist is quite young. I screened the movie last night in an auditorium filled with patrons of all ages and there was not one dry eye in the audience. Looking at the film from the outside and analyzing the plot and cast, it would appear that it may not attract droves of people because of the gothic fantasy nature, typically aimed at kids and young teens, with content and theming best suited for older audiences; however, the film truly transcends age barriers and stereotypes to touch those who are young or young at heart.

While most twelve year old boys are busy with school and learning to develop socially or even romantically, or just simply playing video games and having Stephen King type adventures, Connor (MacDougal) is dealing with far more than a kid should every have to deal with. Connor’s mother (Felicity Jones) is very ill and Connor is forced to grow in many ways kids should not quite quickly to take care of her. Not entirely going through this terminal illness alone, Connor has a grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) who looks in on him and his mother–a grandmother with whom he shares little in common. With Connor’s father settling down in Los Angeles, Connor feels very much alone while dealing with his mother’s illness. Expressing his emotions and thoughts through water color and sketch artwork, Connor uses his penchant for beautiful art as a form of therapy. Just when all seems lost, an unexpected ally in the form of a rather gothic tree-like monster (Liam Neeson) appears in his window one night. Apprehensive at first, Connor befriends the monster who guides him on a journey of courage, truth, and faith that combine in a powerful fusion of imagination and reality.

This is certainly a year for fantastic monsters and fantasy, isn’t it? However, A Monster Calls is definitely not your typical fantasy. It deals with deep emotions, dark themes, and material usually better suited for adults. Why then choose such a young protagonist? Perhaps the author Patrick Ness wanted to reach those kids who are going through tough times and who are dealing with situation that most kids won’t face until they are much older. Some kids are just forced to grow up more quickly than others. It’s important that cinema and literature not forget them because words on pages or moving pictures may be the only source of comfort, escape, or allegory. Director J.A. Bayona appears to have successfully translated the novel to screen–from what I know. Interesting that the movie opens with the narrator describing Connor as being too old to be a kid but to young to be an adult. By extension, that is precisely where this movie fits in. It’s too “old” to be a kid’s movie but too “young” to be an adult movie. And that’s okay. Growing up is hard, and when faced with a family member or close friend with a terminal illness, life is exponentially more difficult emotionally and even psychically. Unconventional as it may seem, this film is powerful and transcends the age spectrum to provide a strong emotional journey that audiences can appreciate and from which people may receive comfort. If for no other reason, having a kid starring in a melodrama brings audiences of all ages together–many who may be going through something similar as the child, parent, spouse, or lover of someone who is terminally ill. It’s okay to grieve and let go.

From the opening credits alone, I was confident that this was going to be a visually stunning movie. The water color animation and brushstrokes are reminiscent of the story of the three brothers in Harry Potter. Absolutely beautiful. Much in the same way Kubo and the Two Strings was an innovative animated film, A Monster Calls also contains unconventional and innovative methods of telling its story. Similar to how the animated story of the three brothers in Harry Potter was integrated into the diegesis of a live action movie, so it is with this film. The more I thought about the technical and emotional elements of A Monster Calls, it is clear that it’s truly a dynamic means of cinematic art. Dynamic in that there are three different types of storytelling methods used diegetically each highlighting a different form of art: (1) motion pictures (2) visual art (3) oral storytelling. It’s been said that the novel is an extension of oral storytelling, the play an extension of the novel, and motion pictures an extension of the play. At the root of all those methods of communicating through art is the very concept of storytelling. And A Monster Calls has the art of storytelling in spades. There are so many levels to the diegesis in this film; much like an onion or matryoshka doll, this film has a message of how to deal with grief at its core but there are many different routes to get to that central theme. Each layer teaches Connor and the audience something different and valuable. The cinematic storytelling elements of direction, cinematography, editing, and score are all equally beautiful.

Structurally, A Monster Calls is an intimate story reinforced and surrounded by artistic German expressionism calling attention to its own artifice. From the exterior shots to interior rooms, the various sets appear to be meticulously constructed on a stage and the wardrobe much like perfect costumes. The art tells the story effectively with little exposition required. Fernando Velazquez’ score is so incredibly moving that you may find yourself listening to the score as it too truly assist in the overarching means of telling this story. The design of the monster is brilliant and ominous all at the same time. Almost animatronic in nature, the tree plays out like there is a puppeteer on the inside articulating the movements. The monster feels just as much like an actor as the actors playing the human characters. Liam Neeson was a perfect choice to cast as the tree’s voice. His deep bass is comforting, warm, and wise-sounding. But just who is the tree (in the story)? Although we are never told whose spirit inhabits the tree that has seen thousands of years go by, there are a couple of hints as to who it might be if you pay close enough attention to subtleties in the film. At the end of the day, whether it’s the spirit of someone or the personified life of the tree itself, it is of little consequence to the movie. Still, its definitely fun and interesting to talk about as my friend and I did after the film.

If you enjoy movies such as The Iron GiantThe Giving Tree, or Terms of Endearment, then you will immensely enjoy this film. Presently in advanced screenings and limited releases, you may need to wait a few weeks before it is at a theatre near you. Although slated for a January wide-release, it may make its way through many markets before then. Originally set for an October release, it makes since to have held it until Oscar season since this is one of those films that could grab the attention of the academy. Definitely bring your tissues.

“Inferno” movie review

infernoFamed symbologist Robert Langdon is back in a fiery installment in the franchise that bears his name. Sony Pictures and Imagine Entertainment’s Inferno is a non-stop rollercoaster of an adventure film that combines art, history, literature, bio-medical science, and weapons of mass destruction in a heart-pounding thriller that makes academia and public health look sexy. As expected, Tom Hanks delivers an outstanding performance as the Indiana Jones of symbols and puzzles and the visual storytelling is excellent. From the moment the film opens with incoherent subjective flashes through the eyes of Langdon suffering from amnesia, shaky camera movements, and glimpses of disturbing apocalyptic imagery to the final showdown beneath Instanbul’s Hagia Sophia, Inferno will command your attention for the two-hour runtime. Unlike the two previous installments in the Langdon franchise, there is a conspicuous lack of commentary on organized religion by deciphering puzzles and revealing coverups and more of a focus on art history and rhetoric. This focus provides a far more believable plot than found in The Da Vinci Code and lesser so in Angels and Demons. With bio-medical warfare being at the center of this film, the movie paints a realistic portrait of how a Dante-spouting sociopath might try to fix the world’s problems by wiping out half the population with a destructive plague.

Waking up in a state of incoherency and amnesia in an Italian hospital in Florence, Robert Langdon (Hanks) is thrust into running–or hobbling, rather–for his life. Under the guidance and protection of a beautiful ER doctor (Felicity Jones), Langdon barely escapes with his life. Dazed and confused, Langdon must concentrate on piecing together a puzzle–no surprise there–but this time, the puzzle begins with how he got to Italy and why he is carrying a bio-medical tube. From puzzle to mystery, Langdon and Dr. Brooks (Jones) are forced into an adventure that blind-sided them. After discovering a connection between a dead sociopathic billionaire madman and the Italian poet Dante (The Divine Comedy), Langdon and Brooks race across Europe to stop a devastating plague from killing off more than half of the world’s population. Between stopping the plague and constantly under siege by the WHO (World Health Organization) and a private security firm, Langdon is truly racing against the clock to piece together his own life while making the connections in the puzzle left by the deceased sociopath to save the world.

Although in previous installments in the Langdon franchise have the symbologist traversing across Europe and even the world, this film’s plot is mostly concentrated in Florence. Home to some of the most notable works of art in the world, Inferno might work as an unconventional travel guide for the tourism industry in Italy. Far less cerebral than The Da Vinci Code and to a lesser extent Angels and DemonsInferno is far more visceral, exciting, and thrilling. The lack of religious/historic irony will definitely stick out to those who either read the books and/or watch the movies (I am the latte); however, that does not hinder the film’s delivery of an action-adventure taking place within the worlds of the arts and medical science. With the previous installment Angels and Demons being released in 2009, the high-impact feeling of Inferno is incredibly important because there has been such a long gap between the films. Still, the plot of Inferno does not have the finesse that both previous films have. Although this installment is incredibly enjoyable and entertaining, it lacks the opportunity to question, think, and analyze the mystery at hand.

Another contrast between this present installment and the previous two is the character-heavy plot. Occasionally, the film felt overrun with characters. Albeit, most of the characters are interesting and also possess brilliant minds, at times the plot is overcrowded. Perhaps that was intentional since the billionaire madman claims that the population should be reduced because of overcrowding the earth; however, it’s more likely that writer David Koepp and director Ron Howard were attempting to get as much of the novel on screen as possible. Not having read the novel, I am unable to comment on the translation from page to screen beyond inference. Despite the character-heavy plot, the film is not without the trademark art, history, literature, and enigmas that are synonymous with the Langdon series of books/films. Beginning with a reimagined map of Hell based on the one described by Dante in The Divine Comedy and illustrated by Botticelli, the film’s plot does come back to the puzzles but most of the time is spent being chased by nearly everyone.

The best part about this film is just how exciting it is. If you are even remotely interested in it, you won’t be disappointed. As this is a franchise, and franchises tend to have intentional or unintentional patterns of behavior within the cast of characters or similarly functioning plot devices, there are definitely elements in this installment that are found in the previous two. There is one plot twist that bares a striking resemblance to one in The Da Vinci Code. The non-stop action will likely kindle an interest in pursuing a career as an academic or official with the WHO. Perhaps, the study of symbols, numbers, and taxonomy, will be of greater interest to current students. There are just enough loose ends and unanswered questions that keep the film from being too predictable.

Looking for an exciting cinematic adventure for the weekend? That is, when you are not either at or recovering from a Halloween party. Check out Inferno! Not Halloween-themed at all, but it is a fun adventure full of excitement and you’ll learn a thing or two about art, history, and literature.