FILM REVIEW: Rogue One – A Star Wars Story

Storm Troopers being bowled over, cannon-fodder style like skittles, an array of rather deformed characters from a variety of backgrounds and gene pools co-existing in arid lands, and a bewilderment of flying craft, weaving in and out of multi-coloured laser fire. This may well be a spin-off story slightly removed from the main franchise, but when it comes to all things Star Wars, some things never change.

Welcome to Rogue One, a tale of rebellion uprisings in the face of impending imperial iniquitousness, directed by Gareth Edwards – he of Godzilla and Monsters fame.

Felicity Jones plays wide-eyed Jyn Erso, the daughter of reluctant Imperial Death Star scientist and engineer, Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen). Amongst those joining her in her quest to usurp the Empire’s dastardly plans are Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) and blind, one-man martial art whirlwind and general force of nature, Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen).

It’s a film packed full of well crafted stunts and set pieces. It’s predictably visually impressive and as far as is possible within the tight constraints of all things Star Wars, it approaches this particular story – to some extent at least – from a slightly alternative point of view, which is to be applauded.

But then again, there are a certain number of ever-present, indispensable criteria which a Star Wars director would ignore at his own peril, and from that point of view, Gareth Edwards’ Rogue One chooses to remain firmly within its safety net.

Perhaps most notable of all, Rogue One feels cluttered, messy and overly busy. There’s loads going on and lots of characters competing for central billing. To be honest, I lost count of the number of times that I found myself disengaged from events on the screen, staring at the cinema wall contemplating more important issues.

I intend to finally run that marathon, in case you were wondering.

There are fleeting glimpses of historic Star Wars characters to keep the die-hard fan base happy, a John Williams-esque score from Michael Giacchino providing that authentic Star Wars sound, and without giving too much away, a welcome, surprisingly downbeat conclusion to the story, (if you ignore the rather convenient, tagged-on, forced epilogue).

All in all, it’s a reasonable outing for this age-old franchise which, despite never having truly produced a genuinely outstanding stand-alone film (and yes, I include The Empire Strikes Back in that assessment – speak to my lawyer), still has that hold upon people, managing to create a buzz of excitement, luring the masses to the big screen, something which continues to impress me, all these years on.

There’s nothing really new to see here. No doubt some will see this as proof positive that the franchise is not only alive and well, but totally re-born. Others will lament the fact that they don’t make ’em like they used to.

The truth is that Star Wars chapters come and go, and grave threat of oblivion emanating from the Death Star, or not, the world somehow keeps turning.

 

 

 

 

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FILM REVIEW: Fantastic beasts and where to find them

The modern fantasy film adventure has come a long way in many respects, and arguably regressed in others.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (FBAWTFT from hereon in), is a dazzling, effects-laden story of good, evil, magic and so on. Much the sort of caper we’ve come to expect from the ever popular wordsmith of wizardry, J.K.Rowling.
Not a Harry Potter aficionado myself, I’m ill equipped to discuss any possible links between – or relevance of – this particular outing and the whole Harry Potter phenomenon, but it’s been loosely marketed as some kind of prequel to the much loved magic and wizardry franchise.
Certainly there’s no shortage of sorcery and spells on display, and barely a moment goes by without something fantastical being flung at the screen with directorial gay abandon, much in the same fashion as we witnessed with another 2016 big budget extravaganza, Alice Through The Looking Glass.
Buried within this frenzied effects-fest is a fairly straightforward though slightly messy, not to mention unconvincing tale of good against evil, and intertwined within that is the ‘human’ element, in this instance represented through an unlikely blossoming romance between a ‘Non-maj’ factory worker, and a mind-reading member of the magic community.
Or something.
This is essentially a children’s film aimed squarely at the Harry Potter fan base, although admittedly that also seems to be comprised to some extent of a fair smattering of Peter Pan-esque adults, in no hurry to grow up.
And fair enough.
That said, David Yates’ big budget 1920s fantasy tale, when stripped of all of its expensive glitter and illusions, amounts to very little other than a rather unnecessarily convoluted plot line, although it should also be said that Eddie Redmayne adopting the role of Newt, a bashful, mumbling wizard from Britain, along with co-stars Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler and Colin Farell, all make the most of what fairly limited opportunities they have here to shine.
There’s a sense that this film may have benefited more from a director that could have stripped back the clutter a little and developed a clearer and more concise narrative.
Still, what’s done is done, and as it stands, FBAWTFT, does tick a number of boxes and should keep enough folk happy, providing as it does – if little else – a fantasy world and a sumptuous visual feast for the eyes. That in itself though is never going to guarantee longevity.
FBAWTFT may well kick-start a new franchise – you certainly wouldn’t bet against it. There is after all a tidal wave of goodwill that whisks the good ship J.K.Rowling along it’s merry, magical way, and good luck to the not inconsiderable team that clearly have put in enormous amounts of effort to ensure that this particular outing is as visually impressive as it undoubtedly is.
I remain unconvinced however that FBAWTFT would ever have had enough about it to  accomplish any such feat were it an unconnected, stand alone effort.

 

 

FILM REVIEW: Lo and behold – Reveries of the connected world

The first attempt to transmit a simple message via the Internet was made in October of 1969 when the words ‘Log in’ totally overwhelmed and crashed the transmitting computer – itself being bigger than some sort of mega-glutton’s jumbo fridge freezer – with only the letters L and O having successfully been transmitted in this most monumental of tasks.
L.O. and behold… the Internet was born, and unstoppable has been its relentless progress since, completely transforming our way of life.
Werner Herzog’s at times chucklesome documentary charts the internet’s life-span to date, along with all of its pros, cons and the colossal impact that it’s had upon the human race.
Divided into ten fun, fact-filled segments, with Werner’s own unintentionally comical, forthright Germanic narration for company, LO and Behold, Reveries of a connected world (LO and Behold from this point onwards), salutes the early Internet pioneers – one of whom sums up the essence of the ‘net by way of an insanely complicated looking mathematical equation which could just as easily have been a shopping list in Arabic, to this ignorant, untrained eye.
Werner also sees fit to commiserate with those whose own ideas have been overlooked. Those often superior contributions that for one unfathomable reason or another, just never made the cut. A case of what might have been, tinged by more than a little bitterness and regret, it should be said.
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Werner’s film is how human existence is not only enhanced by the benefits of the ‘net, but has become completely and utterly dependent upon it. Our entire functioning life system is now completely structured around computers and the Internet.
No great surprise there, but a sobering thought nonetheless, and it’s a set up whose collapse could genuinely end man-made ‘civilisation’ as we know it, in a heart beat – and how many of us today possess the requisite life skills and survival know-how to adapt back to the most simple basics of human existence?
On a similarly upbeat note, LO and behold investigates the very real phenomenon of Internet addiction, from those (predominantly male) that have become addicted to Internet pornography, to, in this instance, South Korean gamers who actually elect to don giant nappies (diapers) so as not to forfeit opportunities to attain high scores during marathon online gaming sessions.
Enduring image!
And then there are those for whom the Internet and the soup of wifi signals within which we all (have to?) exist these days, has become the centre of their own particular neuroses, and the cause of many a self-diagnosed ailment. Whole communities are being established in remote American outposts far away from the offending transmission masts. Here these people are able to convalesce in peace.
All of this in addition to the dark viral effects of the ‘net, and the unscrupulous deeds of hackers, and one could be excused for shutting down their own personal  ‘device(s)’ for good, reverting instead to a set up of abacus beads and carrier pigeons, but Werner’s film is nothing if not full of praise and admiration for the multitude of positives that computers and the ‘net have brought into our lives over the years, and the endless possibilities they offer for the future, capped perhaps only by our own imaginations – be that autonomous, self-driving vehicles, increasingly sophisticated robots and the ever expanding possibilities of Artificial Intelligence. Or perhaps the proposed flights of fancy, relating to establishing life on Mars, the possibility of ‘tweeting’ our thoughts to each other, or even the day arriving when the internet can actually dream about, and become master of, itself?
Quite a thought.
With the Internet of today increasingly  geared to be a more personalised internet of ‘me’ – it’s left to Werner to point out that as with everything that man has the hand of influence in creating, the biggest threat to the Internet and the way of life that it’s now firmly established for each and every one of us, is unsurprisingly, man himself.

FILM REVIEW: Paterson

Circles, brush strokes and squiggles. From curtains to cupboards, cupcakes to walls, even her own clothing – nothing is safe from Laura’s flamboyant black and white painting flourish.
Paterson (Adam Driver), lives with his girlfriend, Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), in a modest house on the outskirts of town, along with their pet bulldog, Marvin.
Laura’s warm, sightly eccentric personality and artistic expression seems to stem from deep within her. Perhaps it’s inherent from her Persian roots, but it’s certainly in contrast to Paterson’s quiet, unassuming nature that sees him quietly go about his daily business of driving the number 73 bus around – of all places – Paterson, New Jersey.
Paterson, like laura, is also a creative. A modern poet, inspired greatly by the works of fellow New Jersey poet, Willam Carlos Williams, and by the conversations of his passengers, he carefully captures his daily varied thoughts and musings in a ‘secret notebook’ that he brings with him to work each day.
Unlike Laura, who openly shares with Paterson her dreams of being the Cupcake Queen of Paterson, or of becoming a Country music star, Paterson’s poetry never sees the light of day despite Laura, his number one fan and support base, nagging him to share it with a wider audience.
Despite his writing often being dedicated to Laura, there is something innately private and personal about Paterson’s poetry, which in some ways seems to be more about the process and the moment of creation, than attaching any significant value to the end product.
Jim Jarmusch’s film is built upon a simple premise; a relatively unremarkable week in the couple’s life, based, as so many are, around the familiarity of routine, and notable only for the subtle, minor variants that occur within it.
At approximately 6.15 every morning Paterson awakens without recourse to an alarm clock, clips on his wrist watch, shares a brief intimate moment with Laura, eats an unremarkable breakfast, and walks to his job at the bus terminal.
Then follows a working shift, followed by an evening walk back to the house, which invariably will have taken on some new black and white-themed embellishment during the course of the day thanks to Laura and her relentless paintbrush. This is followed as always by a rather one-sided, enthusiastic conversation, with Laura regaling Paterson of whatever today’s creative progress has been and whatever constitutes the latest fad and focus of her dreams.
Paterson seems passive by nature. Happy? It’s actually hard to say. Perhaps a little emotionally detached, he is happy to allow Laura to take the lead in making the couple’s plans and to steer their overall direction.
Indeed, Paterson rarely takes the lead in much, unless we’re talking literally, when he takes ‘his’ sullen-faced pooch for an evening walk. Even then, more often than not it’s Marvin that ends up dictating both direction and pace. At least Paterson finally has the chance to redress some semblance of balance when he leaves the cantankerous canine outside and steps into the familiar low-key ambience of Shades bar for a solitary beer and maybe a chat with the owner and clientele.
It’s something that he’s ensured to implement into his nightly dog-walking routine, and really the only occasion in which Paterson seems to exert any sort of control over his daily life, or indeed seems truly at ease or happy with himself and his surroundings.
Jarmusch’s film is subtle. Very subtle.
A character-driven, observational piece in which occasional fluctuations in Paterson and Laura’s established routine are magnified somewhat, despite them amounting to very little in the grand scheme of things.
Even moments of actual drama, such as one of Shades Bar’s lovelorn regulars, Levitt, being driven to gun-wielding theatrics – are in many ways as much to do with routine and the every day, as any sort of contrived dramatic plot twist.
The ease with which Paterson disarms this potentially incendiary situation reminds us of a military past that is only hinted at, a past that may account for why he seems so disengaged from civilian life. Or is that to read too much into nothing?
The way in which Jarmusch’s film gently weaves its way through these apparently uninspiring days, helped along by a dreamlike almost meditative soundscape of synthesised pads and spoken poetry, allows us to fall deeper and deeper into Paterson, seduced by its somewhat bewitching spell.
A gently humorous slice-of-life drama and an ode to some of New Jersey’s favourite sons –  comedian Lou Costello and the aforementioned William Carlos Williams – it will not be to the taste of those who lack patience or the attention-deficit-afflicted, but for those who value subtle, thoughtful cinema, I’d be surprised if Paterson doesn’t softly work its considerable charms upon you.

FILM REVIEW: The Music of Strangers

“Cultures must continue to evolve, or they naturally become smaller…” or words to that effect.
And not my words Lynn, the words of legendary Chinese cellist, Yo-Yo Ma.
It’s hard to think of anything that this once child prodigy hasn’t accomplished in his extraordinairy musical career.
The Music of Strangers offers a whistle-stop recap of much of his career, but focuses mainly  on the interesting project that he embarked upon come the turn of the century.
Having spent so many years honing his classical cello technique to an enviable standard, Yo-Yo Ma felt compelled to discover more about music from far flung lands, initially spending some time in the company of the bushmen of the Kalihari desert: “getting some dirt in his bones” – as the wonderful Bobby McFerrin so concisely puts it.
There then followed an attempt to assemble a collective of top musicians within their fields, from all over the globe. Their aim? To create some kind of fusion of world musical styles.
The results of what would become The Silk Road Project, were, and indeed still are, startling.
Although this essentially ‘fusion’ project has come under some scrutiny from music purists ever since, far from diluting each culture, Yo-Yo Ma’s collective succeeds in drawing attention to them, and introduces the as yet uninitiated to the vibrancy and inspirational wonder of ‘world music’ – for want of a better term.
Morgan Neville’s film explores each member of the collective’s own style and story, some of which have been heavily touched by personal tragedy, and the xenophobic attitudes that so nearly de-railed their project in the aftermath of the events of 9/11.
Musicians from as far afield as Iran, China and Syria form the constituent parts of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project. It’s a remarkable array of cultures that have bonded through their shared knowledge of the language of music. New found brothers and sisters. A genuine musical ‘family’ if ever there was one, equally at home busking on city streets as they are performing in packed concert halls.
As suggested at the film’s end, Yo-Yo Ma knew he had to get away from his home and his roots in order to explore and find his place in this world, and it’s been a journey that ironically has brought him home again.
The Music of Strangers is as heart warming and inspirational a documentary as you’ll see this year. Genuine bonds of togetherness of musicians from such apparently disparate cultures demonstrates perfectly the oneness and genuine warmth of the human spirit.
Yo-Yo Ma has reached many milestones in a remarkable career, but in creating a work of such goodwill and togetherness, it’s probably fair to say that his Silk Road Project will be, many years from now, his enduring epitaph. And rightly so.
Inspirational and uplifting.

 

FILM REVIEW: Indignation

Book-ended by two interpretations of the same scene of conflict from the Korean War, Indignation is James Schamus’s film adaptation of Phillip Roth’s novel.

Marcus (Logan Lerman) – a sort of modern day Fred Savage-a-like – is a sensible young lad living in a small Jewish community in 1950s America. He has gained entry into a fictitious, ultra-conservative college in Ohio where he intends to keep his head down and study hard. Despite such noble aspirations and such a sensible demeanour for a young man, it does nothing to allay the fears of his elders. Whilst some concern themselves with how he’ll ever be able to remain kosher in Ohio, it’s his smothering, over protective father, Max (Danny Burstein), in particular that seems most peturbed by his son’s imminent departure, troubled as he is by the trend of so many young men leaving home to join the military only to return in body bags. These same set of somewhat unrelated criteria, Max somehow seems to believe apply to his son’s educational predicament and has convinced himself that it’ll all end in tears.

Such mollycoddling has driven Marcus to distraction and he is only too pleased to flee the nest.

Allocated a room share with two others – supposedly to help him settle in better – Marcus sets about pursuing a deliberately restrained college existence. His commitment to study and self-betterment being perhaps some sort of subconscious need to not end up being a butcher, like his father?

But he’s not factored in distractions – considerable distractions.

His room mates have little consideration for his scholarly pursuits, piping out classical music at great volume, or reciting plays as he attempts to study. Add to this a campus Jewish fellowship is seeking to recruit ‘one of their own’ into their fold. Marcus is anything but interested, a prevailing attitude that is met with considerable confusion.

The waves of relentless angst and pressure that emanate from his father only add to Marcus’ troubles, but perhaps most distracting of all are the seductive charms of the slightly unhinged, but impossibly beautiful, Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon), who works her way into Marcus’ life, quickly leading him into as yet unchartered, and rather uncomfortable territory.

Marcus’ college life is not panning out the way in which he had envisaged it, and with this being stifled 1950s America, and with Marcus’ tendency towards outward displays of strong-willed, intellectual atheism in a fervently religious place of further education, it’s not going to take much for him to land himself in hot water.

Which he duly does.

It’s hard to know what to make of Indignation. On the one hand, there’s certainly intrigue generated from Marcus’ problematic relationship with Olivia, and from the friction generated between Marcus and his room mates, his father, and most importantly, between himself and his college Dean, Caudwell (Tracy Letts), as Marcus’ rather anarchic (within the bounds of his college, at least) attitude to the ‘system’ renders his place at the college  increasingly untenable. It’s also fascinating to see how the prevailing views and prudish small town attitudes of the 1950s impact greatly upon Marcus’ ultimate destiny, potentially jeopardising his future thanks in the main to his own stubborn intellectual pride.

That’s all very well and good, but there’s no hiding the fact that Indignation comes across as being rather slow and ponderous. One scene in particular – a sort of battle of the intellectual and academic minds between Marcus and Caudwell – has actually been hailed as the defining scene of the film by many; a scene in which religion, politics and the writings of Bertrand Russell are banded about with intended dramatic affect. But it’s so frustratingly drawn out that I could feel indignation rising within me at having paid money to sit through such self-indulgent tedium.

And I’m not sure that that was the director’s intentions.

Be it the indignation of the college Priest at the unruly behaviour of some of the students, the indignation of Olivia having been considered something of a slut merely for being ‘demonstrably’ fond of Marcus in the back seat of a car, the indignation on the part of Marcus’ roommate, whose car it was, or of course indignation on Marcus’ part having stayed true to his academic, intellectual, atheistic and love choices, only to be rounded upon from all corners – it’s fair to say that within Schamus’s piece, indignation abounds.

It’s a film not without its merits, particularly concerning scenes of burgeoning sexual tension between Marcus and Olivia, and the tough, conservative consequences that ‘societal pressures’ demand as a result, but the lasting impression is of a film experience that can best be described, unfortunately, as rather ‘arduous’ – not to mention more than just a little self-satisfied.