Saturday, 28 January 2017

Lion




Lion tells two true stories. The first takes place in India, where a young boy named Saroo (played by Sunny Pawar) wakes up in a deserted train station to find that his older brother, Guddu (Abhishek Bharate), has not returned as promised. Saroo goes out in search of Guddu and falls asleep on a decommissioned train. Two days later, he is over a thousand kilometres away, with no knowledge of how to get back. Saroo doesn’t even know the name of his mother, and when he tells people where he is from, they can find no such place on the map. (The rest of my description carries a spoiler alert) Eventually Saroo finds himself in a scary orphanage. But a social worker offers him the chance to be adopted by Sue and John Brierley (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham), a couple in Australia, where he is joined by another Indian boy. 

The second story takes place twenty years later, most of it in Australia. Saroo, now played by Dev Patel, has just started a course on hotel management and falls in love with a fellow student (Rooney Mara). His ‘brother’, Mantosh (Divian Ladwa) is struggling with mental health issues, putting a lot of stress on their mother. But when Saroo’s classmates ask him about his real family, he becomes obsessed with finding his real mother and brother in India. 

Lion, which has been nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Supporting roles for Patel and Kidman, is a beautiful film, has an excellent score and does indeed have fine acting by all concerned, most notably by the young Pawar. 

The first story’s details are critical for giving us an insight into what Saroo remembers of his early years in India, but they take up so much time that there is no opportunity to see what happens to Saroo during those intervening twenty years. This jump of so many years, without providing much context for what happened, makes it much harder to fully appreciate the older Saroo’s story. There seems to be no solution to this problem, as the second story has few superfluous scenes, but it must nevertheless be seen as a flaw because of the way it cuts down on character development and emotional engagement.

Directed by Garth Davis and written by Saroo Brierley himself, Lion is an inspiring and entertaining film that gets ***+. My mug is up and I again recommend this film to everyone.


Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Walter's Top Ten for 2016

Apart from the reminder that I make no attempt to aim for objective quality, I’ll dive right in. 

But deciding that I didn't like ending on a bad note, I'll start this year with my “spilled coffee list” – the worst or most disappointing films I wasted my time on this past year. Spooks: The Greater Good was just like extended, poor quality, TV.  I wanted to like Deadpool because of its wit, but it was wrapped up in so much thorough tastelessness, I couldn’t handle it and shut it off. It seems to me there comes a point when bad taste is dehumanizing. Finally, Hologram for a King wasn’t a terrible movie, but it was so disappointing that I wished I hadn’t bothered. 

The honourable mentions for this year are: The Lady in the Van, Eye in the Sky, Louder than Bombs, Sing Street, and Passion of Augustine (coincidentally all European films in English, except the last, which is a Canadian film in French).

Then before starting my top ten proper, I will point out that I haven’t seen the following that I suspect may all have had a good chance of making my list: Manchester by the Sea, Paterson, Silence and Loving.

Here we go:

10. Stanford Prison Experiment – This is not a pleasant watch, but I’ve been waiting for an accurate classroom version of one of the world’s most intriguing (and unethical) psychological experiments. In spite of my familiarity with the experiment, watching it drove home how potent (and potentially evil) institutional or social definitions of roles are. Considered accurate by Zimbardo, the experimenter, in spite of its unflattering depiction, this is an important film.

9. Snowden – This is another important film. This one is more fun to watch, though the anger and paranoia it can arouse may not be pleasant. This is a great companion to Citizenfour (documentary version); the pros and cons of each complement each other well.

8. A Perfect Day – A unique film that somehow manages to provide a comedic, while somehow realistic, “day in the life,” feel to NGO work in the sort-of-postwar Balkans.


7. I, Daniel Blake – It is all that Vic says it is, but I could only rate it at 7th because of its slowness and the pain of the frustration in watching it. Thank goodness for Ann, the warmhearted bureaucrat to help ease the pain. In fact, the inclusion of several key sources of goodness in what would otherwise be a lifeless world is incredibly important to the film. It makes you ache for those who are crushed by workers who feel like following policy without empathy is their only option. Lord help us - flexibility should be considered a spiritual gift.

6. Arrival – I had hoped that this one would be higher on my list. I loved parts of the film that were done with unique excellence, but there was too much time wasted on the “flashbacks” when that time could have served better making the flow of the last half hour work. Great addition to and development of the genre though.

5. Room – This was a fascinating watch. Never have I seen a room full of viewers so engaged as they were during the pivotal scene in the middle of the movie. Everyone at our movie night was engaged with their body and their heart. Add to that some excellent insight into parenting and child development and you have a strong and unique film.

4. Hunt for the Wilderpeople – A fun romp the way only New Zealand’s Taika Waititi can do it. This is the kind of comedy to share with groups of friends. It’s quirky, warmhearted, quotable and a great example of what a “feel-good” movie should be.

3. Brooklyn – This one was borderline in terms of belonging to last year’s list. Excellently made and acted, it has the feel of an old-fashioned classic. The themes and conflicts are also classic and universal. Just solid.


2. A Man Called Ove – First a complaint: since when is the old curmudgeon in a film only four years older than myself? Then a warning: there are suicide attempts which though treated lightly, in keeping with the film’s comedy genre, are realistic enough that they could really bother some viewers. After that it is all good. And what makes it deserving of a place near the top of the list is that it provided just a little healing after watching the depressing election south of the border. I will overstate the point: the movie depicts what is necessary to respond to the reality of what’s going on down there (and apparently to some extent in Canada, if Conservative candidates like O’Leary and Leitch actually have real followers). And I saw it in what might be the best little independent theatre I’ve seen, just a few hours away in Brunswick, ME.


 1. Captain Fantastic – When a movie can entertain and inspire you, something is going right. As Vic says, this film may not always confine itself to the entirely credible, but what it does is provide something of a parable of what honest (and a little crazy) parenting could look like. The title’s role does not seem obvious when watching. I don’t think the two words are ever said together. There is, however, something fantastic about the character of Ben beyond Viggo Mortensen’s fantastic acting. He is nowhere near perfect; he’s way too intense for my taste. But how often do you see that kind of intensity combined with an honesty and an openness to criticism. And admit it: aren’t there lots of days when you want to run out into the woods and stay there?

I might just point out that a higher percentage of my films than normal are comedies this year. It's possible that I needed this. 

Finally, there were two great films that should have made my list last year but didn’t because I saw them too late: Spotlight and The Salt of the Earth are both excellent and should not be missed.


Monday, 23 January 2017

Hidden Figures



Hidden Figures, directed by Theodore Melfi and written by Melfi and Allison Schroeder, tells the story of three African-American women (friends) who worked as mathematicians for NASA’s space program in the 1960’s and had more than a little to do with the success of that program. 

Taraji P. Henson plays Katherine Goble, a mathematical genius who was instrumental in calculating the numbers for the launch and re-entry of the NASA spacecraft. Octavia Spencer plays Dorothy Vaughan, who learned how to use NASA’a new IBM computers faster than anyone else and supervised a group of programmers (mostly African-American women who, along with Goble and Vaughan, had been working at NASA as human “computers”) whom she refused to work without. Janelle Monáe plays Mary Jackson, who fought against segregation and a variety of challenges to become NASA’a first black female aerospace engineer. 

The stories of how these three women won the respect of NASA’s mostly white male power structure (especially Al Harrison, played by Kevin Costner) are told in a mostly by-the-numbers way, though the overall writing is very good. The acting by the three women mentioned above is outstanding, and even Costner was quite good (I’m not generally a fan). Kirsten Dunst is also fine as Vivian Mitchell, Vaughan’s supervisor. And I should also mention the presence of the very busy and very talented Mahershala Ali as Jim Johnson, Goble’s boyfriend and future husband. 

Hidden Figures is a very well-made entertaining film, but it would nevertheless have received only *** from me if it wasn’t for the importance of the story it tells. For me, the heart of that story is the fact that, in 1960’s U.S., these three African-American women were not among the smartest women in the U.S. or among the smartest African-Americans in the U.S., but among the handful of smartest people in the U.S. Even so, because of the handicap of their race and gender, they would not have risen far without the incredible courage and tenacity they displayed. This story is critical for people to know. Since it’s well-told here, Hidden Figures gets ***+. My mug is up and I recommend it to all readers. 

Thursday, 19 January 2017

Silence



Why is God so silent? Why doesn’t God hear the prayers and stop the endless suffering of believers? These are the questions that lie behind the title of Martin Scorsese’s epic film about Jesuit priests in Japan in 1640.

Silence stars Andrew Garfield as Father Rodrigues, a Portuguese Jesuit who comes to Japan in 1640 in search of his former mentor, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson). Ferreira is rumoured to have renounced his faith and married a Japanese woman, something Rodrigues refuses to believe. Accompanying Rodrigues on his search is Father Garrpe (Adam Driver), a passionate priest who always seems to be living on the edge, which is particularly challenging when you arrive in a country whose an isolationist government is killing off all Christians who refuse to recant. 

In the decades prior to 1640, over 300,000 Japanese had been converted to Christianity by Jesuit missionaries. By the time Rodrigues and Garrpe arrive on the shores of Japan, only a few pockets of Christians remain, tucked away in remote communities, though these are also threatened by the infamous Inquisitor (Issey Ogata). In the weeks and months ahead, Rodrigues and Garrpe will experience incredible highs (as they encounter groups of believers who are thrilled by their arrival) and incredible lows (as they watch believers tortured and executed for their beliefs and feel powerless to stop it). The lows will challenge their own beliefs. Rodrigues, in particular, begins to struggle with his doubts and with God’s unending silence, placing him in a vulnerable position when he finally meets the Inquisitor and the Inquisitor’s interpreter (Tadanobu Asano). 

The interpreter, in particular, presents the voice of calm reason, suggesting to Rodrigues that Buddhism is much better suited to the needs of the Japanese people (or any people) than Christianity. Indeed, the Buddhists in Silence come across as much wiser than the Jesuits, allowing for the possibility that Scorsese (and the 1966 novel, by Shusaku Endo, that Silence is based on) is exposing some of the inadequacies and hypocrisies of Christianity. However, to me, the Buddhists came across as cruel and often hypocritical themselves. In fact, I found few sympathetic characters in Silence.

One of the failures of the film, in my opinion, is this ambiguous depiction of faith/belief. There is no convincing case made for any faith and yet faith seems to be particularly lifted up in Silence. For example, the question of why Jesuit missionaries are desperate to bring Jesus to Japan is never adequately addressed. Is it just the misguided obsession with saving people’s souls from an eternity in hell?

Silence is dedicated to Japanese Christians and their pastors. I found that dedication (which appears at the end of the film) almost as confusing as the film itself. What is Scorsese trying to say with that dedication? That he admires the Jesuit priests who sacrificed so much to try to bring Jesus to Japan; that he thinks they were doing a great thing and that the small number of Christians who remain in Japan are a testament to their courage and commitment? If so (and I know Scorsese is a devout Catholic), then it colours how I understand this epic and its message, and not in a helpful way.

There are many things which make Silence a superior film. The cinematography is sublime and helps to create the film’s many breathtaking scenes. The acting is generally quite strong, especially in the case of some of the Japanese actors, like Asano, and Yôsuke Kubozuka, who plays Kichijiro, a comedic Judas figure who is a constant thorn in Rodrigues’s side. But there were, for me, a number of acting and character flaws. For one thing, while Garfield’s performance may be his best ever, he doesn’t strike me as the best choice for his role, and his character’s actions did not always feel convincing. And while the Japanese actors may have performed well, I frequently questioned the choice of words and actions for their characters. 

If it sounds like I have mixed feelings about Silence, that is correct. Insofar as the film is about Rodrigues’s spiritual doubts in light of the Japanese context he is facing, Silence is a haunting profound film that works for me. However, insofar as Silence is supposed to convey any kind of message about faith and about what is really driving the characters, I am left confused and unconvinced, with endless questions, like:

How does the Catholic Inquisition of the Middle Ages relate to the Japanese Inquisitor? 
Why is the recanting of faith so often depicted in a positive light (i.e. what is that trying to tell us)?
Why is the work of the Jesuit missionaries shown to be both so positive and so useless (did the converts worship the ‘sun’ instead of the ‘son’)?
Why are the references to colonialism so subtle?
Are all the Jesuits in the film to be viewed as heroes?
Is it supposed to be viewed as positive that Christianity survived in such an inhospitable environment? 

In the end, I must award Scorsese’s beautiful haunting film ***+, but overall I was disappointed and confused, and hoping for something more spiritually insightful (like Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, which changed my life). 

Sunday, 15 January 2017

Vic's Top Fifteen Films of 2016







While 2016 may not have been as good a year as the previous two, it nevertheless had more than its share of magical films. Magic and mystery are two key elements of this year’s films, which include a surprising number of Hollywood productions, though a solid majority are indie films. Here are some other observations to note:
  1. Missing from the list are two of the most critically-acclaimed films of the year: Moonlight and Manchester by the Sea, both of which I watched at the Edmonton International Film Festival. These are excellent films, deserving most of their acclaim, but their flaws were of the kind that prevented me from being as engaged with the story as I should have been. While Moonlight is missing, two other African-American films are in my top seven.
  2. Two of my favourite filmmakers, Denis Villeneuve and Jeff Nichols, have their third straight films in my top ten.
  3. Three of my top fifteen films took place in the 1950’s and two were set in 1951. 
  4. As noted below, two of my top six films reminded me (a lot!) of Close Encounters of the Third Kind
  5. Films that just missed my list include A Monster Calls, Miss Sloane and Tom Tykwer’s A Hologram for the King.
  6. I have not had the opportunity to watch Jim Jarmusch’s new film, Paterson, which may very well have made my list. 
  7. Three of my four favourite films of the year feature a female protagonist. While I saw a number of films in 2016 directed by women, none of them made my list. Men still direct over 93% of all films made and the overwhelming majority of films still have male protagonists (Star Wars is doing its best to change this, but not, in my opinion, in the most helpful way).
As I continue to watch more than 90 new films a year, I will continue to include fifteen films in my list (besides, each of these films received four stars from me). Here’s the list, counting down from fifteen:

15. A Man Called Ove - Hannes Holm’s sad tragic film about a cantankerous 59-year-old widower who tries repeatedly to take his own life so he can join his recently-deceased wife, is the funniest film I watched this year. Rolf Lassgård is perfect as Ove and this moving Swedish gem has a lot to say about love, friendship and community. 

14. Creative Control - Benjamin Dickinson’s low-budget indie sci-fi flick (and quirky cautionary tale), filmed gorgeously in B&W, is full of flaws, but its insightful commentary on our drug-filled, work-obsessed, smartphone/Facebook culture and the dangers presented by our technological advances is so timely and so compellingly-told that I forgive its many flaws.

13. Snowden - Oliver Stone’s biopic about Edward Snowden and Snowden’s decision to blow the whistle on the NSA (and the CIA) is the most underrated film of the year (in my opinion). This is no doubt connected to the fact that Stone had to find financing in Germany (and had to film in Germany). Joseph-Gordon Levitt is outstanding as Snowden, one of the great heroes of our time, and I have little respect for critics who complain about Snowden’s one-sided presentation of the facts (there is NO other side to present).

12. Anomalisa - Charlie Kaufman makes some of the most quirky, unique and melancholy films ever made and this brilliant animated film is no exception. David Thewlis provides the voice for Michael Stone, the film’s protagonist, a personal-communication expert who has flown from L.A. to Cincinnati to give a talk and experiences a major existential crisis instead. There’s enough thought-provoking material in Anomalisa to fill five hours of discussion! Great stuff.

11. Indignation - This old-fashioned slow-moving period film from James Schamus, about a college student in Ohio in 1951, is simply my kind of film, full of intelligent, thought-provoking dialogue, terrific understated performances (Logan Lerman stars) and quiet humour. Indignation had my second-favourite scene of the year and it deserved more attention.

10. Captain Fantastic - Captain Fantastic struggles with some major credibility issues, but Matt Ross’s irresistible tale of a man (Viggo Mortensen) trying to raise his children in the woods is so deliciously counter-cultural, has such wonderfully-drawn characters, and has such a funny, thoughtful and humane screenplay, that I enjoyed every minute of it. 

9. Hail, Caesar! - Joel and Ethan Coen have created another winner. This time, it’s a whacky wonderful satire about the golden days of the Hollywood studio system (1951), featuring an incredible array of delightful performances in a somewhat chaotic collection of scenes. I had a grin on my face from beginning to end. Great fun!

8. Pete’s Dragon - Who would have thought a live-action remake of a mediocre Disney animated film from the 70’s could become one of the most moving and inspiring films of the year? Not me, but Pete’s Dragon (written and directed by David Lowery) is pure movie magic, a slow, poetic family film with my favourite scene of the year (featuring Robert Redford). 

7. Fences - Based on August Wilson’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning play from 1983, Denzel Washington’s Fences tells the poignant story of an African-American man in 1950’s Pittsburgh who’s trying to make sense of his life. Fences had the best ensemble acting of the year, with standout performances from Washington, Viola Davis, Mykelti Williamson, Jovan Adepo and Stephen McKinley Henderson. 

6. Midnight Special - An underrated sci-fi flick inspired by one of my all-time favourite films (Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind), Jeff Nichols’ Midnight Special is a tense, slow-moving mystery (as in ‘mysterious’, not a ‘whodunit’). Michael Shannon is brilliant as a father full of doubts and anxieties who is trying to protect his extraordinary son. 

5. Embrace of the Serpent - Easily the ‘best’ film I saw in 2016, only its obscure ending prevents me from placing it even higher on my list. Cio Guerra’s film about an Amazonian shaman’s encounter with two white men in 1909 and 1940 is an old-fashioned masterpiece full of wonder, mystery and magic, with stunning B&W cinematography and phenomenal performances by its indigenous non-actors.

4. Arrival - With one of the strongest, wisest and most compassionate female protagonists in the history of film (played brilliantly by Amy Adams), Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival is an elegant, insightful and poetic alien-encounter film, the second film on this list to remind me of Close Encounters. Complex yet simple, Arrival is about how we communicate with each other, how we make decisions and the profound love of a mother for her child. 

3. La La Land - Strangely enough, given its position on my list, I believe Damien Chazelle’s La La Land is an overrated film. But I’m a sucker for old-fashioned musicals (an almost forgotten genre) and I loved every minute of this magical film, so I’m overrating it as well. Emma Stone is terrific as an aspiring actress who falls in love with a jazz pianist (Ryan Gosling). Together, they must face a fundamental question about the meaning of life: is their relationship more, or less, important than their vocational dreams?

2. Chi-Raq - Spike Lee’s quirky, outrageous, in-your-face satire about gang violence in south Chicago just blew me away. Chi-Raq is based on an ancient Greek play called Lysistrata (by Aristophanes) about what happens when women deny their partners sex until the violence stops. It also refers to the true story of a women’s peace movement in Liberia in 2003 (as seen in 2008’s Pray the Devil Back to Hell). This magical mess of a film features rhyming dialogue, a narrator (Greek chorus) played by Samuel L. Jackson, a magnificent sermon by John Cusack and stars Teyonah Parris as Lysistrata.

1. I, Daniel Blake - Winner of the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, Ken Loach’s latest film (written by Paul Laverty) is about the potential in each of us to challenge the powers-that-be and be a good neighbour to the poor and oppressed people in our communities. In this unsubtle yet unsentimental masterpiece, Dave Johns plays a 59-year-old widower who discovers that potential in the midst of his own struggles. I, Daniel Blake is one of the most humanizing films I have ever seen, which is high praise indeed.

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

A Monster Calls



Conor O’Malley (played by Lewis McDougall) is 12 years old, growing up in rural north England, near a hill with a lonely church, a lonely graveyard and a giant lonely yew tree. Every night, Conor has a nightmare in which that hill implodes and he is holding onto someone’s hand as they fall into the abyss. As the hand lets go and the person falls, Conor wakes up, to a real world which is also a nightmare. His young mother (Felicity Jones) is dying of cancer and already plans are being made for Conor to live with his grandmother (Sigourney Weaver), whom he fears and dislikes. Conor would rather live with his father (Toby Kebbell) in L.A., but his father doesn’t want that. Meanwhile, at school, Conor is bullied every day by older boys, and usually the victim of physical violence.

With all of this horror in his real life, Conor is not particularly frightened when the yew tree comes to life as a giant (and genuinely terrifying) monster (voice by Liam Neeson) and calls on Conor, telling Conor he will be returning each night to tell him a story. After three stories from the monster, it will be Conor’s turn to tell the monster about his nightmare. 

A Monster Calls is a simple tale beautifully told. Turning all that Conor (and the audience) have been taught about fairy tales, horror stories, redemptive violence, good guys and bad guys, and even superheroes, on its head, A Monster Calls, written by Patrick Ness and directed by J.A. Bayona, tells the story of a boy and his pain and grief in such a wonderfully original way that it becomes a grand fairy tale of its own, one with universal appeal and application, while remaining focused on its sorrowful subject. The family and school relationships which make up that subject should have been fleshed out more fully and presented more compellingly, but you can’t have everything. 

It’s true that if I hadn’t agreed with the direction of its ideas, A Monster Calls would not have been as strong a film for me, but those ideas are rare enough to find in popular films aimed at a younger (not too young) audience. They deserve to be singled out for special affirmation. With great performances all around, a strong score, a dreamy cinematography which is perfectly-suited to the plot and wise writing, A Monster Calls is almost a classic and gets ***+ verging on ****. It will be hard to keep this profound and moving film out of my list of top films of the year. My mug is up and I recommend it to all (though I fear many people, including the young, may find the film boring). 

Thursday, 5 January 2017

Fences



Wow!

I’m a huge fan of making films based on great plays. Fences, directed by, and starring, Denzel Washington (one of my all-time faves), is one of the best adaptations ever. The play, written by August Wilson in 1983, won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize and the 1987 Tony Award for Best Play. 

Fences is set in Pittsburgh in the 1950’s and virtually the entire film takes place in and around one particular house in a lower class (i.e. African-American) suburb, which is the home of the Maxson family: Troy (Washington), his wife, Rose (Viola Davis) and their seventeen-year-old son, Cory (Jovan Adepo). Troy, now well into his fifties, used to be a baseball player in the Negro Baseball League and still resents the fact that he was not allowed to play in the Major Leagues. Now he works as a waste collector for the city. This wouldn’t provide enough income to live in such a decent-sized house, but Troy’s brother, Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson) was wounded in WWII and Troy is being paid to look after him, which he does.

Troy actually has two sons. His older son, Lyons (Russell Hornsby), is a musician who wants nothing more than for his dad to watch him play someday. Cory is a star football player in high school, but Troy refuses to sign any paperwork that might help Cory get recruited by a college. Having had such a bad experience in sports himself, Troy wants something better for Cory. This, of course, results in deep resentments on Cory’s part. Meanwhile, Troy’s co-worker and best friend, Jim Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson) stands beside Troy no matter what. As does Rose, up to a point. It’s not easy to stand beside Troy because he’s got a lot of issues and knows how to hurt everyone around him (he also scares people by talking about his experiences with Death, with whom he talks regularly).

The acting of the above-named actors is nothing short of phenomenal - one of the best ensemble performances in the history of film. Washington and Davis are sublime and deserve Academy Awards. Washington’s direction is also perfect for a play like this. The cinematography, especially when you consider the limited space at play, is spectacular, and the score is fine. 

The best thing about Fences is the wonderful dialogue that comes fast and furious and always rings true, even when it sound almost like poetry. Fences is a sad and profound story about a man struggling with, and trying to make sense of, his past, his present and his future. Troy is not a very sympathetic character but it’s possible to identify with him nonetheless because of Washington’s great performance and the brilliant writing. 

I liked Fences much more than Moonlight (the other African-American film looking for awards this year and the favourite of critics) and it’s a guarantee that it will be in my top ten films of 2016 (coming next week). **** My mug is up. 

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story



My low expectations for Rogue One were nowhere near low enough. Sigh.

Leaving aside the ridiculous level of gun violence, a primary feature of Force Awakens which  would have made Obi-Wan Kenobi cringe in horror, there was - oh wait - there’s nothing left! Sigh.

Seriously, let’s forget about the endless violent action of these last two Star Wars films (after all, one has to assume some level of violence in the word “wars”) and talk about what bothers me most about these films, namely the utter lack of originality and imagination, resulting in an overwhelming sense of boredom. Force Awakens was just a poor remake of the original 1977 Star Wars, with a plot so unoriginal I almost gagged at points and lost much of my respect for J.J. Abrams. Gareth Edwards’ Rogue One is basically a remake of all the Star Wars films, with a little plot thrown in about how Princess Leia actually received the Death Star plans back in the first film. Sigh.

What makes all this same old same old (if I see another rebel fighter-pilot scream, I’m going to scream) so pathetic is that these last two films (especially Rogue One) have completely neglected the heart of the first six Star Wars films - the one thing that held those films together and made the original two films so magical - namely the creation of a universe governed by a spiritual power called the Force that “surrounds us, penetrates us and binds the galaxy together.” Yes, there is a blind man who represents the power of the Force in Rogue One, but that power is used almost entirely for violent action purposes, undermining the entire point behind the Force in the first six films. For this reason, I actually like the Star Wars prequels better than the last two films. Sigh. 

Oh yeah - the plot, such as it is: Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) sees a message from her father, Galen (Mads Mikkelsen), describing a flaw he built into the Death Star and the need to find the plans to the Death Star and put them in the hands of the Rebel Alliance. Jyn finds a group of rebellious rebels (including Cassian, played by Diego Luna, and his droid, K-2SO) and sets out to do just that. We all know she will succeed, because we know the beginning of the original film, but how she does it (other than with endless gun violence) does offer some surprises.

So let’s talk about what’s good about Rogue One: That surprising ending, which I can’t reveal, since it’s the only real surprise in the film, is intriguing to say the least. In some ways, I suppose it was inevitable, even necessary, but still. But bigger than this was the racial diversity of the cast. Not a single major character is played by an English-speaking white North American. And while there are still far too many male characters (and thus too few female characters), at least the protagonist, for the second film in a row, is a strong young woman (though of course, the writers failed to take my previous comments about violent women into account). I actually liked Jones’s performance better than Ridley’s and I found the character of Jyn more sympathetic than Rey. For that matter, I found most of the characters in Rogue One more sympathetic than the major characters in Force Awakens (original characters notwithstanding), and the acting was perhaps stronger than in any of the other Star Wars films.

Speaking of original characters, let’s talk about bringing Peter Cushing back from the dead to play Grand Moff Tarkin. Reminding me of the marvellous 2013 film, The Congress, the idea that we can digitize actors’ faces (like Cushing’s) could spell the end of the need for future actors (we’ll just recycle the greats!). But seriously, I found Cushing’s presence too diverting. K-2SO was more positively diverting, though no C-3PO.

The score and cinematography were good enough as well. So Disney has done a number of things right with their new entries in the Star Wars saga, creating a truly multicultural universe and strong female leads, but, in the end, all I could see was a lot of mindless violent action used as a stupid excuse to rake in countless millions of dollars (and they sure got that right!). Because of my love for the original Star Wars film, I will not award a rating of any kind to Rogue One, my least-favourite film in the series. My mug, likewise, is nowhere to be found.

BTW: Why on earth do stormtroopers wear that ridiculous white plastic armour? A single shot of any kind in their direction, and they’re down (probably dead), so obviously the armour is useless. Which means it is only there to make it look like the good guys are killing pieces of plastic instead of real people, making the violence more palatable for children. Pathetic. Sigh.