Category Archives: Rating: 4-4.75 stars

Hidden Figures (2016)

Of all the nine nominees for Best Picture at the Academy Awards this year, Hidden Figures could well be the pick for most general moviegoing audiences. Seriously, not everyone is up for delightful song and dance (La La Land), heartbreaking/hard-hitting drama (Manchester by the Sea, Lion, Fences, Moonlight), the horrors of war (Hacksaw Ridge), modern westerns (Hell or High Water), thought-provoking sci-fi (Arrival), or the greatest movie ever (War for the Planet of the Apes) — okay, so one of these movies isn’t a nominee or even out yet, but still.

Embarrassingly, I knew nothing about the three remarkable African-American women Hidden Figures is inspired by — Katherine G Johnson (played by Taraji P Henson), Dorothy Vaughn (played by Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (played by Janelle Monáe). These three mathematicians overcame incredible social obstacles in the 1960s to essentially change NASA and were integral to some of the most important space missions in history.

While the film focuses on all three women, the central lead is Johnson (Henson), who was brought onto the Space Task Group headed by Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) to play catch up to the Russians, the first country to launch a man into orbit. Vaughn (Spencer), who was unfairly held back from a supervisory role, and Jackson (Monáe), who sought to attend an all-white college so she could become an engineer, are more like important supporting characters with subplots that take place around the core story.

It’s easy to forget that the film was set in a time when blacks still had to sit at the back of the bus and use different bathrooms. Moreover, it was also still a deeply sexist era, where women’s ambitions in the workplace were frowned upon if not overtly discouraged. It really was a double-whammy for the heroes of this film, who took on the system with amazing courage and determination. Director Theodore Melfi (who passed up a Spider-Man film to do this) does a fantastic job of depicting this period with the right amount of awareness, subtlety and delicacy, never falling too deeply into self-pity or outrage. Instead, NASA is shown to be rather advanced for its time and as a place that values ability and contribution rather than the colour of one’s skin.

Thanks to Melfi’s direction, Hidden Figures has a fun, lively energy to it that is as entertaining as it is uplifting. There are serious scenes of drama but also plenty of comedic moments and tense, thrilling space sequences. It’s a sign of great storytelling when you can be completely engrossed in the story even though you know how things will turn out.

The three leads deliver wonderful performances, and to be honest I wouldn’t have had a problem had all three earned Oscar nominations. Spencer did have the more lively personality of the three and got more of a chance to strut her stuff, which is probably why she was the only one to get the nod in the end.

The rest of the supporting cast is also really good, in particular Kevin Costner as the likable Harrison. Jim Parsons, Kirsten Dunst, and Mahershala Ali (nominated for Moonlight) round off what is a fantastic cast that absolutely deserved the Outstanding Performance by a Cast at the Screen Actors Guild Awards.

To me, Hidden Figures is like last year’s Bridge of Spies or The Imitation Game from the year before — it’s  based on a very important, inspirational, little-known true story; it’s driven by wonderful performances; and the direction and storytelling are top-notch. While I don’t think it’s quite as good as the aforementioned two, I do think Hidden Figures is definitely one of the best films of the year and certainly one of the most enjoyable and crowd-pleasing.

4.5 stars out of 5

Hell or High Water (2016)

Even months before I even knew what it was about or who was in it, I had heard about some movie called Hell or High Water. I don’t think it even got a cinematic release where I’m based, but the praise was fairly universal.

And so, just a few days before it was named one of the 9 Best Picture nominees at the Oscars later this month, I finally got to watch it — and I absolutely concur: Hell or High Water a brilliant film, completely different to what I expected but an authentic, immersive experience fueled by high-octane performances, tense action and a surprising amount of depth and insight into today’s America.

I went into the film knowing virtually nothing about it except that it’s regarded as a “modern western”. Set in West Texas, the film tells the story of two brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) who turn to robbing banks. Jeff Bridges plays a Texas Ranger hot on their heels as he tries to piece together their patterns and the reasons behind their intense crime spree.

Hell or High Water is directed by David McKenzie (Young Adam, Perfect Sense) and written by Taylor Sheridan (Sicario), and if you’ve seen any of their past films you’ll be able to get a decent sense of the tone and pacing. Granted, westerns are not my favourite genre, and the rhythm of the film is more contemplative than frenetic, with long segments of pure dialogue.

However, there is just something magnetic about how the film has been executed. The cinematography is stunning and the depiction of the desolate landscapes and foreclosing ranches is sobering. The troubled characters come across as genuine and the sharp dialogue they get to spew out is some of the best of the year — insightful, humorous and cutting. Actually, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Hell or High Water probably explains Donald Trump’s election victory better than any other fictional film released in 2016.

The performances are wonderful. Chris Pine isn’t known for his acting, though his turn as the more level-headed of the two brothers is perhaps the best performance of his career to date. Jeff Bridges has been nominated for Best Supporting Actor, though for me, the guy most deserving of recognition is Ben Foster (either as Best Actor or Best Supporting Actor), who plays the crazy, unpredictable brother. His presence is so intense and managed to keep me at the edge of my seat because he’s just so unpredictable.

Hell or High Water is also a film that shows you don’t need a huge budget or special effects to crank out spectacular action sequences filled with tension and impact. Despite a budget of just US$12 million, McKenzie makes the most of the landscape and creative ideas to infuse the action scenes with gripping thrills. Some moments actually reminded me of the action in the final season of Breaking Bad. It’s that good.

Some viewers might find the pace a little on the slow slide, though my only complaint is that there’s too much mumbling in the dialogue. I thought it was just be Jeff Bridges because we’ve heard it before, but both Pine and Foster do their fair share of it too. Apart from that, Hell or High Water is a sublime cinematic experience that ticks all the right boxes — an intriguing plot, well-rounded characters, great dialogue, compelling action and thought-provoking drama. Definitely check it out.

4.5 stars out of 5

The Nice Guys (2016)

In all honesty, I was not particularly amped up to see The Nice Guys despite how good it looked on paper: Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling in a film by the awesome Shane Black (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Iron Man 3, and soon the Predator reboot) — the potential for awesomeness was absolutely there. But it was a buddy comedy set in the 70s, which reminded me of Starsky and Hutch (that’s not a good thing), and plus the film kinda bombed at the box office, so my expectations were dampened somewhat.

Seeing this film again confirms my idiocy, because it is freaking great! In terms of pure fun and laughs, I can’t think of a better comedy in 2016 than The Nice Guys. Crowe and Gosling are both great actors, but I never expected them to be great comedic actors with superb comedic timing, and certainly not for the two of them to have such wonderful chemistry.

Crowe plays Jackson Healy, a tough guy enforcer who basically gets paid to beat people up. Somehow, he ends up crossing paths with a pathetic private eye named Holland March (Gosling), and the duo team up to solve a mystery that involves a dead porn actress, high-ranking government officials and lots of goons with guns.

I loved the wacky vibe of the film from the get-go. It doesn’t take itself very seriously and has that old school charm with plenty of witty banter and crazy situations. The film makes great use of random happenings and coincidence, which reminded me of one of the greatest movies of all time, Pulp Fiction. I was also surprised by how much slapstick there was in the film and how effective it was, especially when blended in with wonderfully executed action sequences. It helped that too that there was actually a plot that was not too basic and kept up that air of mystery and intrigue, and yet it was also not too convoluted to make it hard to follow.

Crowe plays the straight man in this odd couple while Gosling plays against type the moronic, uncoordinated goofball. Audiences used to seeing the romantic (The Notebook), suave (Crazy Stupid Love) or cool (Drive) Gosling are in for a huge shock because he goes all out in making a fool of himself in this movie — and he’s fantastic at it. The against-type casting really works to the film’s advantage because it’s so unexpected. Gosling might have gotten the Oscar nomination for Best Actor for La La Land, but there’s an argument that he’s just as deserving for this role.

Special mention also goes to young Angourie Rice as Gosling’s daughter, Holly March, who provides the emotional center of the film and the catalyst for the character development of the two main leads. Despite being just 16 years old in real life, she holds her own against two of Hollywood’s heavyweights. And of course, she’s an Aussie. Can’t wait to see her next in Spider-Man: Homecoming.

All in all, The Nice Guys really exceeded my expectations and turned out to be one of the funniest movie experiences I’ve had in a while. It’s nice and refreshing to get a good comedy these days that’s not drenched in cheap laughs or laced with unnecessary sentimentality (like those damn Judd Apatow dramedies). It’s a shame that not a lot of people saw the movie notwithstanding the draw of the cast and the director and the positive reviews and word of mouth. Definitely worth checking out if you feel like a good laugh — it might be the best comedy of the year.

4.5 stars out of 5

Manchester by the Sea (2016)

We’re heading into Oscar season now, and everybody’s raving about Manchester by the Sea, written and directed by Gangs of New York screenwriter Kenneth Lonergan and starring Casey Affleck, apparently the current favourite to take home the gong for Best Actor next month (he already won at the Golden Globes).

I just watched it, and man, it’s quite an experience. Affleck plays Lee Chandler, a loner working as a handyman-slash-janitor in Boston who is one day forced to return to his hometown following the passing of his brother, Joseph (Kyle Chandler). And unbeknownst to Lee, he was named in the will as the guardian of his nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges, who is up for Best Supporting Actor), a regular but popular 16-year-old kid into sports and girls. They used to be close until Lee left, and must now find a way to get through this tragedy together.

The film features multiple flashbacks that come without warning — there are no captions or camera effects to let you know the time frame — but the storytelling is smart enough that it doesn’t take long to figure out what time period it is in. These flashbacks are important, because they help set up the characters and let you know who they are and who they used to be, and most importantly, reveal why Lee left his hometown and became the way he is. There’s also a surprising amount of subplots and minor characters played by recognizable names, including Michelle Williams (nominated for Best Supporting Actress), Gretchen Mol, Tate Donovan and Matthew Broderick.

Manchester by the Sea is not for everyone. Regular moviegoers might find the pacing a little slow, and damn does it have moments of incredible sadness will that threaten to rip your heart out. I have a heart of stone and I was very close to tears on numerous occasions. Yet, despite all the melancholy, there is a surprisingly amount of humour and tender moments, largely fleshed out by the amazing chemistry and performances of Casey Affleck and Lucas Hedges. The banter between the two feels authentic and heartfelt, even though they don’t always say what’s on their minds. Kudos also to Lonergan (up for Best Director and Best Screenplay) for being able to manage the tone of the film just right, especially by making the humour an organic part of the relationships and dialogue rather than something forced in to provide levity.

In fact, much of the film and Affleck’s masterful performance plays out in this very nuanced way. It’s a very controlled portrayal, one in which silence and facial expressions convey much more than words. It’s incredible how emotional the film is when there aren’t really any “Oscar-clip” scenes of people bawling and screaming and acting all hysterical. I haven’t seen all of the Best Actor performances yet, but Affleck definitely would be deserving — sexual harassment allegations controversy in real life notwithstanding — if he were to take home the award. Likewise for Hedges, who has come out of nowhere to snag just about every nomination there is for his performance in the film. Michelle Williams is also very good as always, but I honestly think she wasn’t in enough scenes to warrant a nomination this time around.

While acknowledging that some people would not like it (especially how it doesn’t tie things up neatly for the audience), I personally think Manchester by the Sea is a great film — about family, sorrow, regret, self-loathing and forgiveness. It’s heartbreaking but tinged with hope and littered with the small joys of life, and I love the depth and subtlety of not only the performances but also the dialogue, direction and storytelling. It’s easily one of the best dramas of the year.

4.5 stars out of 5

Deepwater Horizon (2016)

I finally got around to watching Deepwater Horizon, hailed by many as one of the biggest “pleasant surprises” of 2016. I intentionally avoided the trailer and the poster looked fairly generic, so I wasn’t really sure of what to expect. I had seen Mark Wahlberg and director Peter Berg collaborate on Lone Survivor, which was pretty decent, and I heard their next project, Patriots Day, is a real winner. Incidentally, all three movies are based on true stories.

Anyway, while I knew Deepwater Horizon was about the 2010 explosion and oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, I had expected the movie to be an action flick where Marky Mark springs into action to save the day. I couldn’t have been more wrong. What I got instead was a pure disaster movie with incredible tension and spectacular visuals, while at the same time remaining respectful to those who sadly lost their lives in the tragedy. There are heroic elements, but the characters are not painted as heroes, merely victims.

The film begins as you would expect a film of this kind to begin, introducing us to the key characters and their normal lives. There is a bit of a lead-up to the beginning of the disaster itself, though it never comes across as time filler. The ominous vibe is handled really well, and even though you know what’s about to happen there is still a sense of unease and dread.

And when it finally hits — wow. I have not been so afraid of fire since watching Backdraft as a kid — which incidentally also starred Kurt Russell. In fact, Deepwater Horizon actually reminds me a lot of Backdraft, from the sense of danger to the deft explanations of the technical aspects of the science. Not that you need to know how oil rigs work to enjoy the movie, but it certainly doesn’t hurt.

I’m sure Berg took a lot of liberties in the telling of the story, but it felt real, looked real, and sounded real. The visuals and sound are both very important because there are so many explosions and fires, and for the most part, the special effects are seamless. You feel the force of it all, without ever feeling like it’s just CGI.

Sure, there is not much time for character development. That said, you do get a sense of who each character is, though I’m not sure if that’s good writing/directing or just because there are so many recognisable faces. You’ve got Marky Mark and Kurt Russell, of course, as members of the rig team. Kate Hudson plays Marky Mark’s wife, while John Malkovich, as you would expect, plays a dickish BP executive. Gina Rodriguez plays a rig navigation office, and Dylan O’Brien (the lead from the Maze Runner franchise) is member of the drilling team.

In all, Deepwater Horizon is deserving of its “highly underrated” status. Accuracy aside, it’s a shame the film didn’t even make back its budget because it is definitely one of the more spectacular movies of 2016. It’s very hard to pull off a serious disaster movie that is not only gripping but has a bit of heart as well. Berg manages to do it without ever making the film feel exploitative. Definitely worth catching this one if you haven’t already.

4 stars out of 5

Green Room (2016)

As far as non-supernatural horror-thrillers go, Green Room is about as terrifying as you can get.

Written and directed by Jeremy Saulnier, the film is about members of a punk rock band who witness a crime while performing at a remote neo-Nazi bar and end up barricading themselves inside the titular green room (basically the waiting area/change room for performers), with a gang of vicious skinheads — led by Patrick Stewart, no less — out for their blood.

As he did with the acclaimed Blue Ruin, Saulnier takes this semi-original premise and turns it into a stripped-down, horrific, visceral experience. After a short build-up, the film gets insanely tense and claustrophobic. I don’t want to give away too much because the element of surprise works to the film’s (and your) advantage, though I must warn that you need a good stomach to sit through it, because there are some absolutely shocking images that will stick with you for a long time. It’s just a really brutal, uncompromising ordeal that forces you to place yourself in the shoes of the characters. What would you do in such a nightmarish situation?

This is the kind of film that proves that you don’t need a big budget or special effects to make a great horror flick. As long as you’ve got a director with the right vision and skills and well-cast, talented actors, you can create nail-biting tension and the thrills needed to keep audiences on the edge of their seats.

Speaking of the cast (sigh), the late Anton Yelchin is magnificent as Pat, the bassist, exuding just the right amount of fear, desperation and vulnerability for the role. Patrick Stewart doesn’t have a big role, but he really showed me a different side to Professor X. The dude is straight up malicious. Apart from Yelchin and Stewart, Alia Shawkat (from Arrested Development), Mark Webber and Imogen Poots are the other known commodities. They’re all really good, Poots especially.

Granted, Green Room doesn’t look pretty and can be a harrowing experience — and hence not for everyone. But if you enjoy being terrified and can appreciate stripped-down, low-budget films that are well-made and acted, you really can’t get much better than this. With a running time of just 95 minutes, there’s no excuse for not checking it out.

4.5 stars out of 5

A Monster Calls (2016)

I’m frankly a little stunned at how poorly A Monster Calls has performed at the box office. I remember the film getting a lot of buzz early on, and the trailer made it seem like the kind of emotionally-charged fantasy drama that critics adore . And the critical response was indeed kind (86% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and 76% on Metacritic). With a cast featuring Jynn Erso (ie, Felicity Jones), Sigourney Weaver and Aslan’s voice (ie, Liam Neeson) and directed by Spaniard JA Bayona (The Orphanage, The Impossible, and the upcoming Jurassic World sequel), you would think the film would draw in big numbers. Yet, the film has yet to make back its low budget of just US$43 million.

Personally, I liked A Monster Calls a lot. It’s perhaps not as amazing or enjoyable as I hoped it would be when I first encountered the initial buzz, but it’s nonetheless an unusual and original fantasy film with wonderful visual effects, powerful performances, and a good dose of heart.

Based on the eponymous novel by Patrick Ness, the film is essentially a coming-of-age story of a young boy (played magnificently by Lewis MacDougall from Pan) who conjures a giant tree monster (voiced by Liam Neeson) as a way of dealing with his single mother’s (Felicity Jones) struggle with cancer. Sigourney Weaver plays his traditional and strict grandmother, while Toby Kebbell plays his absent father.

As you can gather from that premise, A Monster Calls is a heavy film — dealing with death, bullying, and generation gaps — and I can understand if some people found it too emotionally draining to sit through. It also has a strange structure, in which the monster appears to tell fables rendered in stylish animation. Each fable has an underlying message, but it’s vague and subject to interpretation (think The Alchemist, if you’ve read that book), which could be frustrating or enlightening, depending on your perspective.

The colour palette is greyish and the tone of the film is dark — too dark for young children — and there are some scenes that could be described as scary or certainly unsettling. I wouldn’t say it’s anywhere near as creepy, but it does have a tinge of that Pan’s Labyrinth vibe. It’s got an odd feel to it, which I like  because it’s different and puts me on edge, though it could put a lot of audiences — both young and old — off the film. And I suppose that’s where it fails, as the film is too dark and heavy for kids and also potentially too confusing for adults expecting a more straightforward story.

That said, it’s hard for me to not appreciate the movie. The creature design is awesome, with the special effects capturing the weight and size of a moving, walking tree with all the fine details you would expect. The cast is fantastic, especially young MacDougall, who I believe is destined for stardom as he’s only 14. Felicity Jones is lovely as always, and the big surprise for me was Sigourney Weaver. It’s not just her ability to pull off the British accent either — the range of emotions and restraint she puts into the grandmother character is impressive. And of course, you can never go wrong with Liam Neeson’s powerful voice. You know the tree monster is a figment of the child’s imagination, and yet it’s done well enough that it makes you wonder — or is it?

So like I said, I recognise the weaknesses of A Monster Calls as a marketable film that appeals to audiences. It’s an emotional movie experience without a lot of laughs or joy, it’s too dark and it’s too strange. And yet, I found myself engrossed and hit by all the gut punches the film through at me. I like how it paints the cruel realities of the world and life through the eyes of a child and the ways we cope with stress and tragedy. Not for everyone, but if you are a fan of fantasy and like having your thoughts provoked and heartstrings tugged, definitely give A Monster Calls a try.

4 stars out of 5

Train to Busan (2016)

At some time during last year, everywhere I looked there were rave reviews about a South Korean zombie movie called Train to Busan. The poster looked relatively generic and the premise didn’t seem particularly original (zombies on a train), so I figured it must have been another overhyped Asian film bound to disappoint.

Holy shit was I wrong.

Train to Busan could be one of the best zombie movies of all time. I’m not just talking about Korean cinema or Asian cinema, but cinema in general. It certainly is one of the best I’ve seen, whether it is in terms of tension, excitement, scares, character development, and heart. South Koreans have already taken over the electronics industry with Samsung and the Asian music industry with Gangnam Style and those sultry girl groups where everyone looks exactly the same. Now they’ve shown that they’re a force to be reckoned with in film too.

Train to Busan shouldn’t have been this good. The story focuses around a divorced fund manager (Gong Yoo) who is catching a train from Seoul to Busan with his young daughter to see her mother. Naturally, a zombie outbreak erupts, and they find themselves trapped on a train with a bunch of different characters from all walks of life, including Sang-hwa, a barrel-chested working class man and his pregnant wife, elderly sisters,  homeless man, a bunch of kids from a high school baseball team, and a selfish businessman looking out only for himself. It sounds cliched, right?

Yet somehow, director Yeon Sang-ho manages to turn Train to Busan into a blistering thrill ride. The action is inventive and brutal — not entirely realistic but it’s admittedly stylish and cool to watch. The zombies are rabid and relentless, perhaps even more so than they are in World War Z. The train setting is great for creating a sense of claustrophobia and helplessness, but at the same time there is enough variety in the storytelling to not render the concept stale. It’s wave after wave of danger and difficult predicaments, and many situations where audiences will put themselves in the shoes of the characters.

Above all, the film makes you care for the characters. Some of them are indeed stereotypes, though there is sufficient believable interaction and development between them to create a connection with viewers. Themes such as family, social class, and sacrifice were handled extremely well. In the end, I was surprised how much a couple of sequences in the film impacted me from an emotional level. That alone makes Train to Busan the better train movie than 2013’s Snowpiercer.

Apart from a couple of scenes that were a little clumsy and CGI that’s not quite up to elite Hollywood standards (though generally good enough), there really isn’t much to complain about. From a purely entertainment perspective, Train to Busan is one of the highlights of the year — no matter what language you speak. Those who struggle to get into foreign-language films should definitely check it out.

4.5 stars out of 5

Hacksaw Ridge (2016)

Say what you want about Mel Gibson, but the alcoholic antisemite nutjob sure knows how to make awesome movies!

I was somewhat wary about his latest film, Hacksaw Ridge, the remarkable true story about a Christian conscientious objector who became a hero during World War II. Given Gibson’s religious leanings, I was concerned that he was going to push that aspect of the movie down my throat, but I guess I didn’t give him enough credit because Hacksaw Ridge is one of the most epic and inspiring war movies ever made. And it’s technically an Aussie film!

Former Spider-Man Andrew Garfield plays Desmond Doss, a young man who felt obligated like so many in his hometown to join the US military and fight the Japanese during WWII. The problem is, he’s a devout Christian who not only refuses to kill but even refuses to carry a weapon. Obviously, if he were simply sent home at this point, Hacksaw Ridge wouldn’t be much of a movie. So you can kind of guess what happens next. And yet, the battle sequences, when they finally hit, are so impactful and devastating that I became totally immersed in the film, such that it didn’t matter if I knew what the story was about or what the outcome would be.

We all know Mel loves violence, and Hacksaw Ridge doesn’t hold back one bit. Bullets shredding bodies, exploding heads, flying limbs — the carnage actually wasn’t too far off from the over-the-top massacres in Rambo (2008), except here it felt terrifyingly real. Well-developed characters you care about and good acting can make all the difference.

Garfield is really, really good as Doss, and I wouldn’t be upset if he snags one of the five Best Actor spots at the Oscars this year (he also could for Silence, though I haven’t seen it yet). It could have been easy for Doss to come across as too self-righteous and obtuse, but Garfield’s performance makes him a protagonist you want to root for. The rest of the cast is fantastic too, including Doss’s abuse, alcoholic father played by Hugo Weaving and mother played by Rachel Griffiths. Teresa Palmer puts in one of her better performances as the love interest, while Luke Bracey and Sam Worthington — two guys who haven’t been great leading men but have been solid supporting actors — are as good as they have ever been as soldiers in Doss’s unit. Vince Vaughn rounds off the stellar cast with also one of his best performances in years as their wise-cracking sergeant, providing the bulk of the film’s humour without at all coming across as jarring or out of place.

Hacksaw Ridge a brutal, harrowing film about the horrors of war, but also an uplifting one about faith and sticking to what you believe in and who you are. You really don’t have to be a Christian to enjoy this movie or be moved by it. You can actually even hate Christianity but love this movie because the themes are universal. Inspiring is inspiring, and a great movie is a great movie.

4.5 stars out of 5

PS: Apparently the film is pretty accurate too. Some timelines are shifted or stretched, but the core facts are verifiable.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)

I literally have 60 movie reviews in my backlog and probably won’t be able to get to any of them for at least another week, but I’m sure this queue-jumping exception is acceptable. I had been looking forward to the first Star Wars spinoff, Rogue One, since The Force Awakens made the whole world blow its collective load a year ago, and I’m happy to say it was well worth the wait.

For those who might still be confused, Rogue One is set before the start of the original Star Wars film from 1977, now known as A New Hope (Episode IV). Directed by Gareth Edwards (2014’s Godzilla), the film tells the untold story about a bunch of rebels who risk their lives to steal the plans to the Death Star. It was quite a risk and an experimentation of sorts for Disney and Lucasfilm, as this is the first film in the franchise outside of the main storyline. It is also quite different in tone to the other Star Wars films in that it is actually a war movie (as opposed to space opera).

Well, the experiment paid off. Rogue One has a great story, wonderful characters (both new and old), a cast filled with some of my favourite actors, beautiful visuals and action, a grand new music score that contains traces of the classic one, an appropriate dose of nostalgia, and ample surprises and Easter eggs for the geeks.

First of all, all the concerns about the film prior to its release turned out to be unfounded. Some were worried about Gareth Edwards not being a great storyteller (I was one of those people as I thought his debut film Monsters was far too slow, and while I really liked his version of Godzilla, storytelling was not one of its strengths). Others panicked when there was talk of extensive reshoots or lost their minds because the trailer or posters weren’t as good as they had hoped.

I don’t know about the process, but the finished product was a success. Admittedly, the film starts off a little slow, though it never loses sight of the narrative thread or the focus on the characters. It builds things up throughout the course of the first hour or so, and by the second hour I found myself immersed in the story, the action, and the emotions. Yes, it’s darker in tone than what we’re used to and there is far less humour, but that’s how it was meant to be. Perhaps it wasn’t this way before, and the ordered reshoots rectified the problems. In any case, it was impossible to tell what was reshot because it all blended together seamlessly in the end.

The other interesting thing is that I don’t recall the majority of the scenes or dialogue from the trailers being in the actual film, which is extremely rare — but I love it. I’m always complaining about trailers giving away too much, and in this case it was turned out to be a pleasant surprise. If only they could do that for all trailers — give you a hint of what the movie is about using footage and dialogue that’s not actually in the movie!

 

Visuals is one of Edwards’ strengths, so I knew I would not be disappointed. Rogue One is visually stunning but different in feel to the other Star Wars films. It’s grittier and utilises a darker palette with a narrower colour range, one that really suits the tone of the film. The space battle sequences are some of the best I’ve ever seen in a Star Wars film, though I do wish there could have been more close-range combat.

The other thing that stood out for me about the film was the superb cast and outstanding performances. It has by far the best cast ever assembled for a Star Wars flick and contains some of my favourite actors: Oscar-nominee Felicity Jones, Y Tu Mamá También’s Diego Luna, the awesome Mads Mikkelson and Forest Whitaker, Aussie legend Ben Mendelsohn, rising star Riz Ahmed from The Night Of, ass-kicking martial arts star Donnie Yen, and the vocal talents of Alan Tudyk as bot K-2SO. All of them have real meat to their roles, and it’s hard to pick a standout from this list. I will say though that Mikkelson and Mendelsohn elevated their characters far above what they otherwise would have been had “average” actors been cast in their roles instead. The only disappointment is that the film did not have enough screen time to go around between all of them.

There are also a lot of links and connections to the Star Wars universe — I got all the major references but I’m sure I missed a lot of the Easter eggs. Oh, and there are plenty of appearances and cameos that will make the geeks spray their shorts.  I won’t give anything away except to say that movies these days can feature actors who are no longer alive or don’t look the same anymore. The technology is not quite 100%, but it’s better than what we’ve seen in most other films that have tried it.

I had many hopes for Rogue One in terms of what and who I wanted to see before I watched it. I would say they were pretty much all fulfilled, though I could not help but want more of certain characters and sequences. It’s like I got a taste of several cakes I wanted to try without being able to eat any whole slice. And as I result, while I was pleased, I was not pleased as thoroughly as I would have liked. I understand at 133 minutes the film was already pushing its running time too far, so maybe the extended version will show us what ended up on the cutting room floor.

On the whole, I give Rogue One a big thumbs up. The Force Awakens is fun family entertainment driven by nostalgia and perhaps a little too much rehashing for some, but it is light and simple enough that even non-fans of the Star Wars universe could enjoy. Rogue One is original, gritty, intense, and made more for the hardcore fans (which I don’t consider myself part of). Two very different films I enjoyed in very different ways. I wouldn’t say it’s quite as good as some of the early buzz from the premiere suggests it is (ie as good as A New Hope or The Empire Strikes Back), though it’s definitely good enough that I want to watch it again soon — and possibly again after that.

4 stars out of 5