Saturday, December 24, 2016

Review: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)

Fan poster by Phil Noto
Movie: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
Starring: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Donnie Yen, Mads Mikkelsen, Alan Tudyk, Riz Ahmed, Jiang Wen, and Forrest Whitaker
Release Date: December 16, 2016

The most disappointing part of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story was Michael Giacchino’s score, not that the audience is likely to notice. It feels like a cheap knock-off of the classic John Williams themes that everyone has come to know and love; something that belongs in a parody film. Then again, given the iconic status of Williams’ original music, maybe the audience will notice. Regardless…

Gareth Edwards’ Rogue One is enjoyable enough. There is no overarching issue, and nothing is particularly wrong with the film per se. The script is crafted well enough, the new characters introduced throughout the film are likable enough, the special effects are top notch. All of the pieces were in place for what should be a blockbuster movie event, and yet, at the end of the film, what struck me most was how utterly lackluster the whole thing felt. I couldn’t help leaving the theatre just a bit unsatisfied, surprising given the overwhelmingly positive response the picture has received from others.

The story begins with a young Jyn Erso (portrayed by child-actress Beau Gadsdon here; Felicity Jones later) and her family hiding from the Empire on a remote farm planet. After her father, scientist Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) is taken by the Empire’s Director Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) and forced to construct Episode IV’s Death Star weapon, Jyn is found and raised by Forrest Whitaker’s Rebel extremist Saw Gerrera. One might expect an actor of Whitaker’s caliber to be featured throughout the movie, yet he's unfortunately reduced to little more than a cameo. He does play an important role in the plot, however, providing crucial information to Jyn on her father’s whereabouts and the Death Star he’s constructed.

Meanwhile, a Rebellion has been brewing throughout the galaxy. In search of her father, Jyn joins rebel spy Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and his droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), who seek Bodhi Rock (Riz Ahmed), a defected Storm Trooper with additional information on the Death Star. While rescuing Rock, they stumble upon blind monk Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen), who is “One with the Force; and the Force is in [him],” and his skeptical protector Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen). The cast of Rogue One provide the film its brightest spot. Tudyk’s K-2SO is an especially welcome addition to the Star Wars mythology, offering plenty of witty, sarcastic banter for the others to play off. Chirrut Imwe is also rather compelling. A former guardian of an ancient Jedi religious site, Imwe serves as a reminder of the importance of faith and hope, and provides a nice contrast with the other, more cynical members of the squadron.

Ultimately Rogue One works best when it abandons typical Star Wars motifs and stands alone as its own film. It almost seems as though Edwards wanted to do something different with this picture, but didn’t fully commit to fleshing out exactly what that meant. Perhaps the issues stem from studio over-involvement, an unsurprising fact if true given how risk-averse The Walt Disney Company has become in recent years. Regardless, Rogue One had the potential to be something truly different and special; a spy thriller set in the Star Wars universe. It opts instead to be little more than a billboard for Disney’s future Star Wars endeavors, and seems to exist only to remind the audience that there’s plenty more where this came from. A bad movie? No. Just far from a great one.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Review: La La Land (2016)

"Here's to the ones who dream; foolish as they may seem. Here's to the hearts that ache; here's to the mess we make."

Movie: La La Land
Staring: Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone
Released: December 9, 2016

             "The World you have dedicated to Hollywood," former Walt Disney Company CEO Michael D. Eisner declared at the 1989 opening of the then-Disney MGM Studios. "Not a place on a map," he continued, "but a state of mind that exists wherever people dream and wonder and imagine." He concluded his remarks by welcoming all to "a Hollywood that never was—and always will be." Eisner very easily could have been describing the world created by Damien Chazelle in the new musical, La La Land. Not since Singin’ in the Rain, has the magic and essence of Hollywood been so effectively captured on film.
Simply stated, La La Land is a masterpiece; a stunning sensation for the senses, both visually and audibly. It’s a whimsical tale about two ordinary people with extraordinary dreams, achievable because of the effects that a series of chance encounters they share with one another has on each of them.
As the film opens, audiences are transported to a musical world in which drivers, stuck for hours in one of Los Angeles’ infamous traffic jams, abandon their vehicles for song and dance in the kind of ensemble performance that’s all too rare in today’s motion pictures. It’s on this LA freeway that Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a down-on-his luck jazz purist and pianist, and Mia (Emma Stone), an ever-auditioning, aspiring actress, first meet, as Mia flips an annoyed, horn-honking Sebastian the bird while he cuts her off. After a few more false starts and a little flirtatious banter, the chemistry between the two builds to the point of becoming almost tangible.
Eventually, against a sunset sky specially crafted for lovers, Mia and Sebastian sing and dance their way into each other’s hearts. Despite their initial belief that such “A Lovely Night” is wasted on two people who could not be more incompatible, through a tit for tat tap dance, they begin to recognize that when working together, the routine is stronger than when apart. Each recognizes the potential for greatness in the other, while doubting the potential residing within themselves.
While neither Gosling nor Stone have the vocal or rhythmic talent of Astaire or Rogers, that works to their advantage. Their performances provide the audience an opportunity to see themselves in their characters; we feel as though anyone could sing and tap dance in front of the Hollywood hills at sunset and be a star. That’s not to take away from either performer, however, as both were nothing short of mesmerizing. Still, there’s a sort of humility that they portray that, when coupled with the simplicity of the choreography and of the lyrics, provides Gosling and Stone a special kind of charm.
Equally as mesmerizing as the film’s co-stars is Justin Hurwitz’s score. In recent years, so often music seems to be nothing more than an afterthought in the filmmaking process. Not so in La La Land, where it often feels as though the film were constructed around Hurwitz’s melodies. In what may be the most memorable scene of the movie, the score quite literally soars through the star-filled skies of Hollywood along with a waltzing Stone and Gosling. There’s such an elegance and timeless quality to the scene; save for technology, it could very easily have been filmed during Hollywood’s golden years, and deserves to go down in history as one of the most memorable scenes of any movie musical. Hurwitz is definitely a composer to watch for in the future.
Hollywood itself also takes center-stage in La La Land. The City of Los Angeles has never looked so stunning. Chazelle fills the city with bold, vibrant colors, evoking imagery of Hollywood at her prime. This is the sort of backdrop that dreams are made of; it’s not at all hard to imagine Humphrey Bogart or Katharine Hepburn walking these streets. It’s fitting, considering the movie as a whole serves as a reminder that Hollywood is a city built on dreams.
Therein lies the brilliance of this picture. Just as Hollywood is a city of dreams, La La Land is a movie of dreams. In an era of cynicism, La La Land reminds us of the joy and beauty that can be found in everyday life. It reminds us of the power of friendship and love, and of the difference that one person can make in the life of another. And it does it all through beautiful imagery, song, and dance. In La La Land, every day is a dream come true, and despite the difficulties they face, Sebastian and Mia live life as though it is a dream. Perhaps here in the real-world, we should strive to live that way as well.