Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Director: Gareth Edwards (2016) BBFC: 12A

This spin off of Disney’s Star Wars sci-fi franchise will please hardcore fans far more than the average audience member.

In terms of chronology and entertainment, Rogue One sits between the swashbuckling first Star Wars (1977) film and the ponderous bloat of the Phantom Menace (1999) prequels. 

It has all the virtues and flaws of director Gareth Edwards previous effort, Godzilla (2014). That monster box office success was visually stunning but dramatically inert, revealing Edwards tremendous ability for conjuring up beautiful images but a fatal lack of aptitude for character, dialogue or drama.

The strength of JJ Abrams billion dollar success The Force Awakens (2015) was to capture the joyous spirit of the 1977 original film, while paying service to the fans with the inclusion of favourite characters, scenarios and design. Lacking Abrams gift for zippy showmanship, self confessed super fan Edwards plays loudly to his fellow nerds in the gallery but forgets to bring the fun for everyone else. The attention to drama is perfunctory while cool looking space stuff is drooled over from too many angles.

This film isn’t short of ravishing vistas and gloriously detailed design and there’s no faulting Edwards attention to detail. Graphics, costumes, sets and uniforms are lovingly recreated in an appropriate style. The CGI is faultless, except when it’s deployed to bring back to life characters from the first film. At first shocking and intriguing, the longer we spend with these unconvincing creations the deeper we’re lost in an uncanny valley of dead eyed CGI.

The filmmakers are so proud of their technical cleverness they pause the film so the audience can gasp at the marvel of the inclusion of yet another minor character. This kills momentum and makes the galaxy seem a very small place indeed, undermining all the impressively epic world building.

Edwards seems to share a belief with Batman Vs Superman (2016) director Zack Snyder, that looking cool is more important than coherent cinematic storytelling. For example a moment of intended poignancy is undermined by the directors insistence we bask in the gloriously beautiful glow of laser powered mass destruction. We’re encouraged to passively admire a billowing cloud of annihilation as we would a particularly colourful sunset. This is at odds with our natural reaction which would be to recoil in horror.

It’s worth comparing how in Terminator 2 (1991) James Cameron treated a similar piece of large scale obliteration as angry and painful. In the hands of Edwards the tone suddenly shifts towards the romantic, because nothing says ‘I love you’ more than a mushroom cloud. Cameron did use a mushroom cloud to invoke passion, love and reconciliation in True Lies (1994), but did so in a cohesive manner which combined story and character in a succinct and tonally satisfying image. Edwards fails to do this, opting for ‘gee, doesn’t this look cool’, instead. We’re not looking at the characters which would us insight into their emotional state, the cameras eye is on the beautiful scenery. 

Similarly to Godzilla, we begin with a short scene which introduces the major characters while killing off a significant other. And again, all of this is immediately redundant as the story skips several years to find the child at the centre of the scene is now an adult. All the information we are given in this first segment is offered again at regular intervals. The dialogue is nothing if laboriously functional in providing us with what we need to know. 

With her face set to stern and her laser gun set to kill, Felicity Jones stars as Imperial prisoner Jyn Erso. She’s co-opted into the rebel alliance because her dad is the designer of the evil Empire’s new fangled super weapon, called the Death Star. A team of assassins, spies and saboteurs is gathered and off they pop to break into a highly secure imperial base to steal the technical plans, in order the Death Star can be destroyed. Far too much time is spent with Ben Mendelsohn’s career minded evil scientist, Orson Krennic.

Despite Jones being at the centre of the action, it’s a male dominated film, with all her key relationships being with men. She’s a daddy’s girl through and through. Her gang are racially diverse, but she is the token female smurf, err woman. There are as many robots on the team as there are women.

Alan Tudyk voices droid K-2SO and gives the comic sidekick a degree of warmth notably missing elsewhere. Though the heavy handed robot humour isn’t hugely funny, we should be grateful for these scraps. I suspect the widely reported weeks of costly reshoots involved crowbarring this character into as many scenes as possible, he’s a jack in the box of intrusive appearances.

For a leading proponent of sci-fi, George Lucas has never shown any interest in exploring the moral and dramatic possibilities inherent in Asimov’s three laws of robotics.

The rebel alliance is reliant upon deserters, traitors and fifth columnists. There are shifting allegiances and employments as people are variously press ganged, manipulated and sold down the river. In an attempt to add dramatic weight to acts of derring do, contemporary political signifiers such as militant splinter groups, friendly fire and the destruction of ancient religious artefacts are included. 

Ruling the galaxy with a tyrannical fist must be exhausting and we see how Darth Vader spends his down time. This removes another layer of mystique and menace from the most feared cyborg in the galaxy. Taking a cue form The Revenge of the Sith (2005), he also gets his own flying Yoda moment. The man has a million stormtoopers at his disposal, but honestly, you just can’t get the staff and he has to do it all himself. Still, it looks cool,and that’s Edwards primary interest.

Rogue One begins abruptly and ends in a similar fashion. It dispenses with the opening crawl and the  classic John Williams theme is mostly absent.

 Technically Rogue One is episode III and a 1/2, but that’s half a star too many.



Life, Animated

Director: Roger Ross Williams (2016) BBFC: PG

There are elements of artifice which sit uneasily with the uplifting message of this well meaning documentary.

At three years old Owen Suskind developed severe autism. This left him unable to process the world around him, so he withdrew into himself and spoke only gibberish.

However through watching classic Disney animated films such as The Lion King, he found a way to understand and reconnect with the world. Through adopting the voices of Disney characters, he became able to express himself.

Twenty years later we follow him as he prepares to leave home and find a job, sharing the same dreams and fears as his contemporaries.

There are interviews with his family and doctors, plus home videos and some beautiful specially commissioned animations illustrating Owen’s own stories.

A couple of Disney voice stars turning up to Owen’s film club is a cute stunt, presumably orchestrated by the filmmakers.

More damaging to their carefully constructed narrative is the brief and unexplained reference to Owen’s medication regime, suggesting there’s a lot more science involved in Owen’s miracle recovery than they want to let on.


Office Christmas Party

Directors: Josh Gordon, Will Speck (2016) BBFC:

Jennifer Aniston does what she can to be the life and soul of this tepid festive comedy but she only succeeds in putting everyone else to shame.

As Carol the boss from hell, in killer louboutins she strides into the under achieving Chicago branch of her data firm and threatens to sack everybody, as well as cancelling everyone’s bonus.

The goofy T. J. Miller plays her childish brother Clay. As the boss of the under fire office, he decides to save his employees by throwing an apocalyptic party to impress an important client and so hit his sales target.

Redundancy is an appropriate theme. There’s a nerdy IT guy, an angry customer relations bloke, and an escort selling party favours. A bloke dressed as Jesus is given the best line.

The more the booze flows, the quicker the plot runs dry. A weak script resorts to a car chase and the cast ad-lib to fill the gap where the jokes should be.

Sadly Aniston is soon ushered off stage and we’re left with Jason Bateman and Olivia Munn and their dull romantic subplot.

Kate McKinnon off-kilter delivery was the highlight of this year’s Ghostbusters reboot but she contributes little to the party spirit as a farting HR officer. There’s no need to RSVP.


The Birth Of A Nation

Director: Nate Parker (2016) BBFC cert: 15

This well staged period drama is based on the little known life of Nat Turner, a messianic Virginian slave who led a short lived rebellion in 1831.

He’s played with impassioned sincerity by Nate Parker, whose considerable ambition exceeds his determined grasp as he produces, writes and stars in his directorial debut.

Parker doesn’t shy away from the brutality of the slaves lives nor the bloody retribution they visit on their owners. But moments of soap opera mix uneasily with melodrama, the finale is undermined by the budget and the story template is familiar from Spartacus (1960) and Braveheart (1995).

Turner rightly points out the bible is employed to justify both sides of the conflict. As such the central struggle within The Birth Of A Nation could be interpreted as a religious war as much as a racial one. However no-one pauses to consider the good book may be part of the problem, not the solution.

The changing economic climate of the period is suggested as an exacerbating factor to the insurgency, but again Parker misses the opportunity to link the issue to contemporary politics.

The heavy handed use of Nina Simone’s Strange Fruit serves to denude the song of power rather than enrich the film as presumably intended. It’s a cheap exploitative move worthy of Zack Snyder, and hopefully one Parker will avoid in future.

An episode from the directors personal life has overshadowed the film which was once considered a contender for best picture at the Oscars. But I doubt it would have gone the distance anyway.



Director: Oliver Stone (2016) BBFC cert: 15

Oliver Stone’s ham-fisted biopic of a CIA whistleblower is a sprawling and disjointed essay on espionage. The veteran director explores the conflict between individual liberty and state control by dramatising the life of Edward Snowden, portrayed as a patriot who becomes a dissident martyr to the cause of freedom.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt has never been more anodyne than as the CIA employee who became global news when he revealed thousands of classified security documents to the world.

The computer programmer is shocked when he discovers the US spy agency regularly ignores the law and spies on anyone they choose to. It’s difficult to muster sympathy for him. What did he imagine the CIA does all day?

Even so, he’s not totally outraged until his politically liberal girlfriend becomes a target for surveillance by his employer. Shailene Woodley is wasted as Lindsay, and seems chosen as much for her ability to pole dance as for her acting talent. She’s represented as a radicalising influence on Snowden, unfairly shifting the blame for his act of treason from him to her.

Tom Wilkinson, Rhys Ifans and Nicolas Cage offer flamboyant energy, trying to out do each other and making up for the lead’s lacklustre presence. Meanwhile the script is thinly stretched over 10 years and a lot of ground, taking in Japan, Hawaii, Hong Kong, Switzerland and Russia.

Although visually restrained by his own standards, Stone enthusiastically employs a confusion of camera angles, colour filters and a fractured narrative. None of these tricks succeed in making a series of hotel room conversations interesting. There is a lot of staring at computer screens.

Stone is full of righteous angry at the treatment Snowden receives, but he fails to justify the actions of a very flaky individual.



Director: Spike Lee (2016) BBFC cert: 15

Anger is the defining emotion of Spike Lee’s films and there’s no denying the blistering power of his latest brash, sexy, and rap-filled essay on the state of the US.

Having produced, directed and co-written this satirical musical, he has updated a classical Greek comedy with an irresistible raucous energy.

As Lysistrata, Teyonah Parris is dynamite in an afro and high heels. Motivated by the shooting of a bystander, she persuades the women on both sides of the Chicago gang divide to withhold sex from their boyfriends as a means of preventing further violence.

Her charismatic criminal boyfriend Chi-Raq is one of the unhappy men. He shares his name with the gang-ridden south side of Chicago, an area more deadly to locals than Iraq to US soldiers.

Samuel L. Jackson has a ball a as zoot suited Greek chorus rapping straight to camera. Jennifer Hudson, Angela Bassett, Wesley Snipes and John Cusack form the backbone of a strong support cast.



Directors: Ron Clements, John Musker (2016) BBFC cert: PG

If you thought Zootropolis (2016) was this years high water mark of Disney animation, this awesome ocean going adventure leaves it in its wake.

The sturdy story is streamlined for efficiency, ferried along at pace by by toe-tapping songs and buoyed by a sea so gorgeous you’ll want to dive in.

Newcomer Auli’i Cravalho demonstrates powerful pipes and a sparky spirit as our heroine, Moana. It rhymes with Joanna. She’s the headstrong sixteen year old daughter of an overly protective Pacific island chief.

To save her island from disaster and find her own sense of identity, Moana must brave the open sea and combat storms, pirates, and a lava monster.

Moana is accompanied by a shapeshifting trickster Demi-god, Maui. Voiced by Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, the outsized physique of the former wrestling champ is strangely less ridiculous as a cartoon than it is in reality.

Nicole Scherzinger and Rachel House play Moana’s mother and grandmother, Jemaine Clement adds a touch of camp as a bling-tastic killer giant crab.

Moana is very much in charge of her own destiny as she runs, dances, jumps, climbs, sails and fights. There is a squabbling sibling rivalry with Maui but never a hint of romance. Moana is fighting for her independence, her tribe, the environment, and her future.

The messages of the importance of challenging personal and career boundaries are never laboured. They’re an integral part of the story, not something ungainly and bolted on. If arbitrarily appointed tests are your thing, Moana turns to her grandmother for advice meaning the Bechdel test is passed with flying colours.

Combining elements of classic films such as Aladdin (1992), and The Sword In The Stone (1963), this musical mystical folktale is a joyous tidal wave of fun which will leave you with absolutely nothing to Moana about.