Rogue One

Cast: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Donnie Yen, Mads Mikkelsen, Alan Tudyk, Jiang Wen, Forest Whitaker

Director: Gareth Edwards,

Writers: Chris Weitz, Tony Gilroy


The Star Wars prequels are more than bad movies, they are a profoundly disappointing missed opportunity. The idea was to expand on the story and the universe that we all loved and knew so well by turning the clock back and looking at where it all started. The tragedy of Anakin Skywalker’s descent into darkness, the truth of Obi-Wan’s greatest failure, the terrible war that led to the destruction of the Jedi Order, the fall of the Republic and the ascent of the Galactic Empire; these were stories that we couldn’t wait to see unfold. Instead we got three poorly written, emotionally hollow, excessively CG’d movies complete with midichlorians, sand flirting and Jar Jar. Rogue One succeeds where these films failed, not just because it’s actually a half-decent flick, but because it actually brought something new to Star Wars and made the franchise as a whole better than it was before.

Set immediately before the events of A New Hope the film follows Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) as she is pulled into the war between the Empire and the Rebel Alliance after being freed from prison by Cassian Andor (Diego Luna). He needs her help to find her father Galen (Mads Mikkelsen), the lead architect of the newly-completed Death Star, so that they might learn about the weapon he has created. Aiding them is a team of rebels including the sassy reprogrammed droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), the blind warrior Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen), the cynical mercenary Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen) and the turncoat Imperial soldier Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed). Overseeing the completion of the Death Star is Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), whose position is threatened when a security leak threatens to compromise all that he has worked for. From this leak Jyn learns of the existence of a design flaw hidden within the plans of the Death Star. What follows is a race against time as Jyn and her team try to uncover the nature of this weakness before the Empire can use their weapon to impose their will on the Galaxy.

There is a smaller story being told here than in any of the other Star Wars films which Edwards and Weitz try to make work by playing up the emotional stakes. The setup is not unlike The Magnificent Seven (or perhaps Seven Samurai, directed by one of George Lucas’ greatest influences, is the more appropriate comparison) where a team of ragtag individuals are driven by ideals of nobility, duty and morality to take on a perilous mission against impossible odds, along the way accepting that they will not all live to see it through. To this end the film works well for the most part. There is, for starters, a number of enjoyable, colourful characters to root for such as Chirrut, a man of faith whose actions (he believes) are driven by the Force, and K-2SO, who is basically C-3PO if he could also break Stormtroopers’ necks. Some of the motivations and personalities of these characters do leave something to be desired but there is just enough in there to make the film worthwhile. Jyn and Cassian are not exactly Leia and Han when it comes to likeability and memorability but I was happy to follow them for this one movie.

The first two thirds of the film do drag a bit as we jump from generic planet to generic planet waiting for our heroes to kick off the movie’s climax but, once they do, it is every bit worth the wait and is everything a Star Wars fan could possibly want from a climax. An epic space battle: check. The infiltration of an Imperial base: check. The greatest Darth Vader action scene in history: double check! That the film never quite found the time to truly define its characters the way A New Hope did does work against them as our emotional investment isn’t quite as strong as they probably wanted. While we do get to see their story-arcs fulfilled in some very good character moments, it is more affective than it is moving. You’ll be invested enough that the events will register with you, but they won’t really leave any sort of a lasting impact. Still, with that said, the spectacle of this climax is more than strong enough to be worthy of the Star Wars name.

As well as an astounding third act, Rogue One is also worth watching for the ways in which it ties in to A New Hope. By setting out to fix what is probably one of the most famous and often-debated plot holes in cinema, the story at large has become stronger for it. The Death Star’s Achilles Heel is no longer a deus ex machina, it is now an entirely justified plot device that adds a greater context and weight to Luke Skywalker’s fateful assault. Other tie-ins include the glorious return of Vader as well as Grand Moff Tarkin, recreated in the image of the late Peter Cushing. I’m ambivalent on his inclusion. While a part of me does feel uneasy about digitally manipulating a dead man’s image to make a movie, I can’t deny that another part of me was overjoyed to see him again as the marvellously sinister villain that he had played so well. Personally, I think that I can accept this choice as long as Disney and Lucasfilm agree not to make a habit out of it (especially in light of the tragic and untimely death of Carrie Fisher).

The strengths and weaknesses of Rogue One are interesting to look at when comparing it to The Force Awakens. While that film did have misgivings in terms of plot, it made up for those misgivings (for me at least) by virtue of its new, wonderfully engaging characters such as Rey, Finn, Kylo Ren and BB-8. Rogue One has a more individual, better-told story in its favour, but the emotional resonance is not as strong because the characters are not as compelling. They’re fine in that they serve their roles, have a few good moments and keep you invested for the duration of the story, but they don’t have that strong sense of identity or the enduring quality that has made the original characters or their successors as celebrated as they are. Rogue One is, all in all, a very decent film and a creditable addition to the Star Wars canon. By taking us away from the Skywalker story for a little bit, this film has more than any other Star Wars movie shown us how big this universe truly is and how much life there is in its history and civilisations. I look forward to learning more in their future spin-off instalments.

★★★★

Snowden

Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Melissa Leo, Zachary Quinto, Tom Wilkinson, Scott Eastwood, Logan Marshall-Green, Timothy Olyphant, Ben Schnetzer, LaKeith Lee Stanfield, Rhys Ifans, Nicolas Cage

Director: Oliver Stone

Writers: Kieran Fitzgerald, Oliver Stone


After depicting such controversial episodes in the USA’s recent history as Kennedy’s assassination, the Watergate Scandal and the Vietnam War, it makes perfect sense for Oliver Stone to tackle the story of Edward Snowden. Indeed, the story of the celebrated whistle-blower who exposed the true depths and scope of the government’s post-9/11 surveillance capabilities seems almost tailor-made to suit Stone’s taste. There is conspiracy and corruption, an idealist who loses faith in the institution he dedicated his life towards serving, and a complex social and political debate at its core about the conflict between privacy and security. The question is whether the Platoon and JFK director could revive the energy and inspiration that allowed him to make such remarkable films all those years ago and channel them into his latest project. The answer is somewhat. Although Snowden is not Stone at his best, there is certainly a drive to this film that has been lacking in his work in recent years.

The film opens in 2013 with the documentarian Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo) and journalist Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) going to Hong Kong in secret to meet with a government agent. There they are met by Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a former CIA employee in possession of stolen files detailing the NSA’s illegal mass surveillance programme. We’re then treated to a chronology of Snowden’s career in intelligence starting with his discharge from the army for health reasons and his recruitment into the CIA. After getting the attention of Deputy Director Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans) through his proficiency with computers, Snowden is taken to The Hill where he receives his first glimpse into the CIA’s surveillance operations. At this time he starts dating Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley), who subsequently follows him to Geneva, Japan and Hawaii. With each placement Snowden becomes more disillusioned with the unchecked disregard for privacy taking place in his own government until finally he resolves to let the truth be revealed to the world.

The story and its revelations are familiar to anyone who was watching the news at that time or who has seen the great Oscar-winning documentary Citizenfour. What this film sought to do was examine the human element of that story. Who is Edward Snowden and what drove him to do what he did? The film’s version of him, portrayed strongly by Gordon-Levitt, is shown to be very much conflicted throughout the film. On one hand he feels a strong sense of duty towards his country and wants to do his part to keep it safe. However he cannot abide the limitless, intrusive measures his government is able to take to ensure that security and their indiscriminative use of those measures. What’s worse, in his view, is the total lack of transparency and awareness. It’s one thing for the government to be able to access someone’s webcam even when their computer is switched off, but the people have no idea that such a method is even possible. There is a clear sense of Snowden’s inner turmoil being conveyed as he struggles with the moral dilemma between national security and personal freedom and it is gripping.

The parts where I felt the film struggled the most were during the more ‘human’ aspects of Snowden’s story. His relationship with Lindsay for instance did not feel like an organic part of the story. It felt more tacked on to me, as if the film decided to throw in some relationship drama because this is the kind of story that’s supposed to have some relationship drama. It feels too much like these scenes belonged to another film; whenever they appeared they interrupted the rhythm and stole away from whatever momentum the film had managed to build. I also felt that there was too much hero-worshipping on Stone’s part. The debate on whether Snowden is a criminal or a patriot is an important one and it is Stone’s prerogative as an artist to let the audience know which side he agrees with. However it felt too much like Stone was more interested in celebrating Snowden than he was in humanising him, which simply made for a less thought-provoking and compelling film.

This is a story that Stone was destined to tell and it is a crying shame that he couldn’t have made it back when he was at the peak of his ability and ambition. He does a great job of depicting the bigger story taking place; the disconcerting conspiracy that took place and its foreboding Orwellian implications, the betrayed values and corrupted ideals, and the vitally difficult and challenging debate that is still taking place today. In the middle of it all however Stone loses track of the human element that was so essential to his earlier work, even with the advantage of a highly capable actor delivering a formidable performance. The story definitely revitalised a part of Stone, allowing Snowden to display a level of passion that has been missing from his films for far too long, so it is possible that we may be seeing the beginning of a comeback for the director. I certainly hope that’s the case because we could really use an Oliver Stone right about now.

★★★

The Birth of a Nation

Cast: Nate Parker, Arnie Hammer, Colman Domingo, Aja Naomi King, Jackie Earle Haley, Penelope Ann Miller, Gabrielle Union

Director: Nate Parker

Writers: Nate Parker, Jean McGianni Celestin


To say that Nate Parker’s film has attracted some controversy would be a gross understatement. The last couple of years have seen a dramatic intensification of racial issues in the USA, from the augmented outcries of racial attitudes inspired by Trump’s campaign to the prevalent police brutalities that inspired the Black Lives Matter movement, so a movie about Nat Turner’s famous slave rebellion was certainly going to grab people’s attention. The title itself, the same used for D.W. Griffith’s technically magnificent but despicably racist silent epic, shows how intent Parker is on making a loud, provocative statement. Then there’s the negative publicity that Parker himself and his co-writer Jean McGianni Celestin have received with the resurfacing of a rape charge made against them both in 1999. When a film is engulfed by such a critical and emotional storm as this, it can be difficult to look past the controversy and see the film itself for what it is. When I tried, what I found was that the film, while having some very admirable qualities, was ultimately not worth defending.

The film tells the real-life story of Nat Turner (Nate Parker), the leader of the most famous slave rebellion in American history. As a child Nat was taught how to read using the Bible and grew to become a preacher. After displaying a natural charisma and an uncanny power of influence over his fellow slaves, Nat’s owner Samuel Turner (Arnie Hammer) agrees to lend Nat to the other plantations so that he might preach and spread a message of submission and compliance to their slaves. Nat however starts to question the virtue of the gospel he is ordered to spread as he witnesses countless atrocities at the hands of the white slave owners, including the beating and raping of his wife Cherry (Aja Naomi King). Instead Nat finds inspiration in the Christian teachings which foretell a day of divine justice for the enslaved against the masters and becomes a prophet for the slaves. This results in a revolt led by Nat against the white slave owners in an attempt to seize their freedom and salvation.

By portraying Nat Turner as a Christ-like figure it’s clear that Parker’s chosen approach is to mythologise his story, a fair approach that we’ve seen before in cinema (it’s the same approach that Parker’s friend and advisor Mel Gibson used in Braveheart). The trouble is that Parker idolises his hero to the extent that he fundamentally undermines the very cause he was fighting for. The film portrays Turner as an enigmatic figure, a man destined for greatness and whose own personal suffering, rather than that of his contemporaries, serves as the film’s dramatic crux. When the two major crimes which ultimately trigger the violent climax are perpetrated, that is the rapes of Cherry Turner and of Esther (Gabrielle Union), Parker places the emotional emphasis not on those two women or even their families but solely on Nat. His outrage is what sparks the rebellion. The individual thoughts, hopes and fears of his followers as well as the institutional offences of slavery and the national, political connotations of their mutiny are swept to the side; this rebellion is all about Nat. The other characters don’t exist except to reflect Nat’s greatness.

It’s clear that Parker identifies strongly with Nat Turner and he portrays him confidently and, at times, powerfully. When Nat is taken to the other plantations to deliver his sermons, he witnesses several atrocious crimes carried out by the slave owners and feels the silent judgement of those slaves who regard him as he stands in his position of favour with the whites, serving as a tool for suppression. Here Parker conveys a wonderful mixture of emotions: shame, guilt, empathy, compassion, betrayal, impotence. It is however difficult, and probably wrong, to separate the art from the artist when, like Parker, they have directed, produced, written the picture and cast themselves in the starring role. Thus, when Parker emphasises Turner’s torment and outrage even at the detriment of the story he’s trying to tell, it betrays a vanity on his part. There is a desire here to portray Nat as an almost superhuman figure in his campaign against slavery and it is this emphasis which creates a great disparity between his character’s motivation and the symbol he is supposed to represent.

There is a great story here that is trying to be told but the film ultimately falls victim to Parker’s ambitions. The film seems more concerned with glorifying Nat Turner (and, in turn, Nate Parker) than it is with understanding its subject. It is certainly directed with the conviction of an artist with a powerful story to tell and is hardly ever dull, nor is it without moments of brilliance. However, unlike such recent films as 12 Years a Slave, Parker got so caught up with his own vision and artistry that he ultimately lost sight of that story and the terrible tragedy surrounding it. When a film depicts such a notorious historical episode as slavery, signifying such vital themes as intolerance, prejudice, oppression, subjugation and hatred, there is often a sense that praise for the film is almost compulsory by virtue of it portraying such an important and powerful subject. The Birth of a Nation however is unworthy of its subject. It takes a story of indignation and bloody retribution set during a shameful chapter of history that still haunts people to this day, and reduces it to a vanity project.

★★

Top 10 Films of 2016

Now that January has ended and I’ve had a chance to see some of the USA’s awards contenders, I’m ready to publish my Top 10 list. The sad truth is that I haven’t had a chance to watch every film I wanted to see this year and there are some, like Moonlight, that haven’t even had a nation-wide release in the UK yet. Still, I’ve seen enough great films this year to make a list with which I’m happy. One trend I’ve noticed with these films is that many of them display an element of nostalgia, harkening back to lost eras and happier, simpler times. Many of these films also carry messages of hope and inspiration, entreating people to try harder and to dream bigger and to believe in greater possibilities. Still, there are some dark and brutal movies in there as well; the kind which remind us that life isn’t some fairy-tale musical. 2016 was a frightful and terrible year for many people and it’s just as important for art to reflect that as it is to counteract it. So, without further ado, here are my ten favourite (and five least favourite) films of 2016.

10. Paterson – Jim Jarmusch

paterson

Paterson is a film that feels both authentic and fantastic at once. Like the poetry that inspired it, Paterson isn’t trying to tell a story, it’s trying to capture a tone, a feeling. It is a subdued and contemplative film that finds beauty and profundity in the ordinary and mundane. Like poetry, Paterson is shaped less by its plot and characters than it is by its mood and structure. The film flows beautifully and there is a remarkable air of tranquillity that is seldom seen in movies. There is no obstacle that must be overcome, no foe to be defeated and no arc that must be fulfilled. It’s just a glimpse of life in a small town with a rich history and culture and an observation of the everyday things that become the subjects of Paterson’s poems. The poems are simple, plainspoken and honest, and so is this film. Review here.

9. Hell or High Water – David Mackenzie

hell-or-high-water

Like No Country for Old Men and FX’s Justified, Hell or High Water is a Western set a long, long time after the Western era came to an end. It has the usual tropes of the classic cowboy films, the bank robberies, the shootouts, the men with badges, but none of the romance or mythos. The age of the cowboy is long gone and the old Texan way of life is either dead or dying. What we have here is just a couple of brothers trying to steal just enough to pay off their late-mother’s mortgage and a grizzled ranger getting one last job done before settling down to a dull, aimless life of retirement. Each character, from the main roles to the background players, is memorable. The rustic landscape is shot beautifully. The screenplay brings a wealth of life and colour to an otherwise familiar concept and amounts to a thoroughly enjoyable and invigorating film. Review here.

8. Jackie – Pablo Lerraín

jackie

This film is both a compelling character study of a brave, remarkable woman going through an unimaginable crisis and a moving portrait of grief, loneliness and loss. The First Lady must confront the sorrow, anguish and pain she feels over the trauma that has been inflicted upon her and must reconcile her own private feelings towards her husband with that of the nation. After dedicating her entire life towards her husband’s work and calling, Jackie has no idea who she is supposed to be now that he’s gone. Even without him in her life, she cannot be her own person. She has a duty to perform, a promise to keep and a legacy to define and preserve. This complicated mixture of sorrow, anger, ambivalence, shock, uncertainty, isolation and endurance is captured by Portman in an exceptionally heartbreaking performance. After a life of being defined by her husband, Jackie is a film that seeks to view Jacqueline Kennedy on her own terms and it does an excellent job of doing so. Review here.

7. La La Land – Damien Chazelle

la-la-land

Made in the vein of the classic Hollywood musicals, La La Land is a film that captures that same sensation previously encapsulated by the likes of Gene Kelly and Astaire & Rogers. The look of the film is gorgeous, the style is irresistible and the musical numbers are spectacular. The movie is a fantasy set in a whimsical city of dreamers where two romantic idealists find love. There is so much charm, glamour and bravado to this film that it isn’t hard to understand why it has become the smash hit that it is. Much of this is creditable to Chazelle whose inventive and dynamic direction gave the film its fervent energy and masterful command over different styles and genres. Also essential were Gosling and Stone who, despite not being particularly great singers, brought so much heart to their performances that their voices didn’t really matter all that much. It isn’t my favourite film (or even musical) of the year but, if it does sweep the Oscars like it almost certainly will, it won’t be unearned. Review here.

6. Kubo and the Two Strings – Travis Knight

kubo-and-the-two-strings

2016 was a strong year for animation but, for me, Kubo and the Two Strings was easily the best of them. The animation is stupendous (as confirmed by a well-deserved Oscar nomination for visual effects), the characters are wonderful and the story is both exciting and affective. Like all the best children’s films, Kubo takes it audience seriously and seeks to both challenge and astound them. The movie is dark, scary and complex, but it is also silly, moving and thrilling. At its heart is the most classic of all stories, the hero’s journey, that unfolds into an epic tale of love, loss, melancholy, courage, resilience and salvation. It is a film that believes in the power of stories to move, commemorate and redeem and ends on a staggeringly profound note. This film is a landmark achievement not just for Laika but for animation as a genre. Review here.

5. Nocturnal Animals – Tom Ford

nocturnal-animals

No other film this year has confounded me the way Nocturnal Animals has. It is sinister, yet beautiful. It is unbearable, yet captivating. It is a difficult film to categorise because it has no clear resolution and is constantly jumping between different stories and genres. At times it is a melancholic tale of misery and regret. Sometimes it is twisted fable of vengeance with elements of the Western mixed in. At other times it is a melodramatic story of an idealistic but doomed romance. The film is meticulously crafted and exquisitely shot, making expert use of its colours, staging and music. The film also makes excellent use of its ensemble, featuring particularly great performances from Adams, Gyllenhaal, Shannon and an unrecognisable Taylor-Johnson. Nocturnal Animals is a gut-wrenching and at times downright unpleasant film to watch, but not once does it cease to be fascinating. Review here.

4. Sing Street – John Carney

sing-street

Sing Street does not have the incredible production value, the gorgeous style or the frantic energy of La La Land, and yet it is still my favourite movie musical of the year. This is because, for me at least, Sing Street had more heart to it. It shares similar ideas of love, dreams and fantasy, but it also has a layer of kitchen-sink realism that I feel lends it more authenticity. This coming-of-age story about an Irish lad starting his own band to win the heart of a pretty, young model is just teeming with tenderness, sorrow and humour. The moments of sadness hit hard, which means that the moments of joy and triumph are all the more elated and earned. The film also boasts of a marvellous soundtrack and that it wasn’t even nominated in the Oscar category for Best Song is a crime. Review here.

3. Silence – Martin Scorsese

silence

Few directors, especially living directors, can claim to have crafted a body of work as consistent, as influential and as brilliant as Martin Scorsese and Silence is one of his finest. Decades in the making and quite clearly a passion project for him; the film underscores many of the themes featured throughout Scorsese’s filmography such as sin, perdition and deliverance. Two Jesuit priests come to feudal Japan in search of their lost mentor and are subjected to unendurable forms of pain, anguish and despair. One could suspect that Scorsese did some soul-searching in the making of this film as he raises challenging questions that cannot possibly be answered. How much suffering can a man endure for his faith and how much should he have to endure? Is it more moral to maintain one’s faith while others suffer or to renounce it to save them? However cruel and brutal their methods, are the Japanese right to view Christianity as corruptive to their culture? Silence is an utterly gut-wrenching yet profoundly enigmatic work of cinema crafted by one of the great masters of our time. Review here.

2. I, Daniel Blake – Ken Loach

i-daniel-blake

Ken Loach has demonstrated better than any other British filmmaker film’s power as a political and social vehicle. With I, Daniel Blake he has continued his crusade for the downtrodden and forgotten underdogs of the UK by highlighting a system of “conscious cruelty” in action. Daniel Blake, a man who has been deemed physically unfit to work, is forced to meet a series of inane, superfluous regulations in order to qualify for a benefit, only to be confounded at every turn by a pitiless system that cares only for the bottom line. Whether or not you agree with Loach’s politics or whether the benefits system really is as cruel as it portrayed is inconsequential. This is a great film because it succeeds brilliantly in conveying the desperation and frustration of Daniel’s dilemma, as well as the misery and helplessness of Katie’s situation, to the extent that it feels gut-wrenchingly authentic. Review here.

1. Arrival – Denis Villeneuve

arrival

For me, this was the most stimulating, fulfilling and moving film of the year. The characters of Arrival are faced with an ambiguous and potentially foreboding situation that could spell doom if handled negligently or indelicately. And yet, with the threat of global war hanging in the balance, it is thought, empathy and cooperation that triumph. It is a masterfully crafted film with an astounding, thought-provoking story that raises compelling questions about time, language and humanity. Villeneuve’s wonderfully skilled and subtle direction is matched only by Adams’ stunning performance as a linguist seeking to form a connection with an alien people and finding that her very perception of reality has been altered. No other film this year has captivated, astounded and inspired me the way this one has. I hope to see more films in the future that can match Arrival in its sophistication, depth and optimism. Review here.

Now here are my five least favourite films of the year.

5. Mother’s Day – Another entry in the series of holiday films characterised by weak jokes, cheap morals and wasted talent. The movie is bland, forgettable and has absolutely nothing of value to offer on the subject of motherhood. Review here.

4. Independence Day: Resurgence – There is no reason for this film to exist. It had no momentum, no pull and no purpose. Just another stale attempt to cash in on an old favourite. Review here.

3. The Huntsman: Winter’s War – This film has even less reason to exist because its predecessor wasn’t even that popular to begin with. This was a film without appeal or focus; it had absolutely nothing to offer whatsoever. Review here.

2. Alice Through the Looking Glass – The continuation of a butchering of a classic. This film, just like the one before it, misses everything that was strange and wonderful about the Lewis Carroll books and instead turned in something banal and dull. Review here.

1. Dirty Grandpa – It wasn’t even close. This is one of the vilest, most hateful films I’ve ever had the displeasure to see. The mere thought of its despicable humour, vile characters and debasement of a cinematic legend still leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Review here.