Monday, December 19, 2016

Reviews: Rogue One, La La Land, Hacksaw Ridge

I feel that I can definitively declare that George Walton Lucas Jr. is the individual who has had both the most positive and negative influence on the Star Wars film franchise.  Yes, he did give birth to all the characters, planets and concepts of the universe that has dominated science fiction for the past 40 years.  BUT, he also single-handedly gave us the episodes 1-3 prequels that should have been WAY more entertaining and polished than what they turned out to be.  Director Gareth Edwards throws a middle finger directly at Lucas with his epic Star Wars stand-alone masterpiece Rogue One.  The story of the rebels' plight to retrieve secret Death Star plans is a rousingly entertaining and enjoyable experience that culminates in the best 45 minutes of CGI wizardry I've ever seen on screen.  Disney has responsibly and effectively taken the reigns from George Lucas and it's undoubtedly the best thing that's happened in Hollywood in quite some time.

The general plot of the film is well known by Star Wars fans, but early-on in this movie, we meet the key players in the mission to retrieve the plans.  Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones - whom I feel is just a gorgeous and talented actress) is the daughter of a weapons expert who helped construct the Death Star under the guidance of Director Krennic (Bloodline's every-man Ben Mendelsohn).  She ends up being stranded as a young girl and looked after by rebel activist Saw Guerrera (Forrest Whitaker).  Meeting up with rebel captain Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and a band of misfit mercenaries including an aging blind ninja-style assassin and his hefty warrior friend, the team steals a rebel ship they codename "Rogue One" and attempt to retrieve the plans left by Erso's father.  The movie starts a bit slow but picks up steam towards the end with the battle of Scarif.  All throughout we get a bit of comedy with K-2SO, a new robot in the vain of C-3PO that has a deadpan delivery and a clever sense of self-worth.  Like BB-8 with R2D2 in Episode VII, K-2SO is an improvement on it's original (and frankly out-dated) golden plated predecessor.

All of the acting is solid and Jones and Mendelsohn stand out in particular.  However, the real spectacle of this film lies within the battle sequences, carefully crafted by Edwards. This is no Transformers/Matrix hodgepodge of CGI clashes in the darkness.  Hell, even Edwards' Godzilla film featured mostly dark-lit combat sequences.  The battle of Scarif at the end of the movie is filmed gorgeously during the light of day on a beach-laden planet.  Stormtroopers and AT-ATs never looked better on screen.  There's something so satisfying as a life long Star Wars fan in seeing such a grand-scale all out war in this universe.  X-Wings and Tie Fighters darting around in a bright Earth-type atmosphere while giant rebels ships and star destroyers wage war against each other above in space.  Edwards simply paints the canvas with all out chaotic battles by using the camera as his brush.  It's truly amazing to witness on the big screen and if the Academy does not honor this technical achievement it will be a terrible omission.

What I experienced during the battle of Scarif was youthful joy pure and simple.  As a kid watching the original trilogy unfold, I kept thinking that these characters and vehicles of this world could be used again to entertain and engage me in future stories.  When the prequels were announced I got my hopes up that episodes 1-3 would be just that, bad-ass Star Wars films.  Unfortunately, Lucas disappointed but hope sprung up in me again with The Force Awakens.  Thankfully J.J. Abrams quenched my thirst with a very entertaining and well crafted follow-up last year.  Edwards has taken that progress and pushed it to 11 with Rogue One.  We FINALLY get a BAD ASS Star Wars film with rebels and imperial forces going all-out against each other.  The battle of Scarif makes the awesome aerial action at the end of ROTJ seem like child's play.  Huge Star Destroyers are crashing into each other.  Imperial walkers are attacking and crashing all over sandy beaches.  All of the epic mayhem is playing out on-screen with the same DNA of A New Hope (all of the ships and uniforms are spot-on in matching the design of the first Star Wars release in 1977 and the action looks "lived-in" like it really did occur right before Episode IV).  Add in the much-satisfying scenes with Darth Vader (including an amazing smack-down at the end of the film) and you get a movie-going experience that speaks DIRECTLY to the pre-teen Jordan Rose who was so enthralled with this universe during the original trilogy.  I especially enjoyed how the movie ends right where Episode IV begins.  You could almost classify this film as Episode 3.5.

This movie is not perfect, but it's damn near close to perfect and the second best Star Wars movie of all time after The Empire Strikes Back.  Yes, this is better than A New Hope and better than The Force Awakens.  5 out of 5 JRs for the most entertaining and satisfying motion picture of 2016.  Edwards has a bright future ahead of him.  He's only 18 days younger than me and he has probably earned the opportunity to be very choosy with his next project.  All I know is Rian Johnson has his work cut out for him in topping this one with Episode VIII next Christmas.  Thankfully, the future of Star Wars is so bright and definitely in the proper creative hands with The Mouse.

Damien Chazelle is Hollywood's new wunderkid Director.  At age 31 he already has a critically acclaimed gem under his belt with 2014's Whiplash.  With La La Land, he gives a throwback nod to the big budget Hollywood musical machine of the past and delivers a unique and enjoyable tale of love, jazz and life in modern-day Los Angeles.

This film is different right out of the gate with a carefully choreographed sequence in traffic on a Los Angeles highway where gridlocked motorists jump out of the cars and sing and dance with glee.  Chazelle gives us nearly a single take as the camera whips through traffic while we hear one of his original songs in a showcase of musical talent.  The choreography continues throughout the film as the plot centers on the relationship between two Hollywood dreamers in Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling).  Both are struggling to live up to their childhood dreams in Tinseltown. Sebastian as a Jazz pianist (Chazelle once again focusing on this genre of music after Whiplash) and Mia as an actress.  They meet, fall in love and are faced with challenges along the way as we go in and out of various musical numbers and settings.  Chazelle is always innovating with his camera, adding in classic movie fades and dissolves while mixing in some technical wizardry (including an effective method of dimming all lights in certain scenes to focus on his two talented leads).  The music is good, but not great, although it's supremely impressive that nearly ALL of what we see and hear is the brainchild of Chazelle himself (his friend and composer Justin Hurwitz composed the amazing score and songs **give him the Best Score Oscar right now**).

This movie doesn't work at all without Stone and Gosling in the leads.  Their chemistry is so solid and they're both individually multi-talented in many aspects (singing, dancing, humor, looking good, etc..).  Stone in particular carries a lot of weight throughout and the fact that she delivers such a quality performance in this type of a demanding role puts her in the driver's seat as the front-runner for Best Actress.  The set design is top-notch and everything just looks bright and vibrant.  LA is painted as a living, breathing character on its own and this film comes off as a love-letter to the city as a whole.  It was helpful to me that I had just visited there a few months earlier and saw the majestic Hollywood hills views that Chazelle tried to convey on screen.

After this accomplishment, it's clear that Chazelle is the biggest prodigy in Hollywood right now.  In fact he began 2016 with writing the screenplay for another top ten movie of the year in 10 Cloverfield Lane.  His vision is unique and he's able to do amazing things with the camera. I just wish he would try to branch out a bit and helm a movie that has nothing to do with music (in fact, his third - and debut - directorial credit in 2009 is about a jazz trumpeter).   I can only imagine what he'd do with a dark drama or science fiction film.  Regardless of what he does next, he can hang his hat on La La Land, a welcome musical throwback that showcases two actors at the top of their game.  4.5 out of 5 JRs for one of the best movies of the year.  I have a feeling this is going to win Best Picture, but I really wish that the Academy wouldn't gush so much over every really good movie about making movies in Hollywood (The Artist, Argo, Birdman, etc...).  Chazelle for Best Director is something I can get behind though.

Mel Gibson makes a triumphant return to the director's chair with another epic battle film that falls in line behind Braveheart and The Patriot as a gripping authentic war movie.  Hacksaw Ridge tells the true story of Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), a Southern pacifist that enlists in the Army to help battle Japanese forces during WWII.  The movie starts slow and progresses through Doss'efforts to make it through basic training without firing (or touching) a rifle.  Doss meets and marries the beautiful Dorothy Schutte (the always easy-to-look-at Theresa Palmer) shortly before enlisting.  Schutte sticks with her husband through his various legal issues with the Army and eventually Doss perseveres and is able to be deployed overseas in battle.  This is where the film really picks up as Gibson is able to showcase the brutality of war and the total selflessness of Doss' actions.  There are numerous scenes that feature Doss saving soldier after soldier, lowering each one down over the ridge.  This all happens amidst a slew of violence that Gibson has so much experience with conveying on-screen.  It's truly a remarkable look at a real American hero and one of the better war films I've seen.  I really hope people can look past the fact that Mel Gibson is BAT-SHIT-CRAZY and perhaps the Academy can honor this directorial achievement with a nomination.  Garfield is really good as a green-but-eager young soldier.  His career seems to be taking off and I wouldn't be surprised if he has a handful of Oscar nominations in the next 5-10 years.  This film may be out of theaters by now, but give it a watch on video when it comes out.  I was thoroughly entertained and engrossed by Gibson's vision and I have to give this film a 4.5 out of 5 JR rating.

These last three movies that I've seen are all solidly in my Top Ten of the year so-far.  I still have a handful of films I need to see before awards season kicks into high gear early next year.  Moonlight, Jackie and Fences are at the top of the list and I want to give Passengers (J Law, C Pratt) a look-see as well.  Stay tuned for more reviews over the holiday season!