Tuesday 20 August 2019

Film review - 'Rogue One': Welcome to the dark side

The mood gets grimmer for the 'Star Wars' brand in 'Rogue One'

Diego Luna as Cassian Andor and Felicity Jones as Jyn Erso with K-2SO, played by Alan Tudyk, in 'Rogue One'
Diego Luna as Cassian Andor and Felicity Jones as Jyn Erso with K-2SO, played by Alan Tudyk, in 'Rogue One'
Darth Vader makes an appearance in 'Rogue One'
John Boyega and Daisy Ridley starred in 'The Force Awakens'
Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill in 'A New Hope'
Refreshing: 'Ballerina' tells the story of an orphan girl who makes it as a dancer
Paul Whitington

Paul Whitington

It was always going to be tough to replicate the huge buzz that greeted 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens' this time last year, and Rogue One has crept into the multiplexes with comparatively little fuss. The 2015 franchise reboot had an awful lot going for it: the return of Harrison and Fisher, an assured director in JJ Abrams, an exciting new star in Daisy Ridley, and a chance for fans to erase the ugly memory of the awful second trilogy George Lucas inflicted on us in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

It succeeded in all respects, but Rogue One was always going to be a tougher sell. For a start it's not a sequel to 'The Force Awakens', but a prequel to the first ever 'Star Wars' film, 'A New Hope'. It features few Hollywood stars, hardly any identifiable characters, and tells a story that feels much darker than any of the other films. In fact, it feels more like a war movie than a space opera, and echoes the grim mood of our time.

English actress Felicity Jones stars as Jyn Erso, a tough young woman who lost her parents years back and is working in a penal colony when a rebel force stages a daring breakout and takes her to their leader. News has emerged of a terrifying new weapon the Empire has developed that devours entire planets: Jyn's estranged father (Mads Mikkelsen) helped make it, though perhaps against his will, and the Rebellion wants her to track him down and persuade him to give them detailed plans that might help destroy it.

These are the plans used by Luke Skywalker and co to attack the Death Star in 'A New Hope', and Jyn sets out to find them with a group of adventurers that includes a dashing rebel pilot (Diego Luna) and an imperial enforcer droid that's had its memory wiped and is now a world-weary cynic. Darth Vader makes an appearance, voiced of course by James Earl Jones, and the late Peter Cushing is eerily recreated by CGI, but these are the only familiar faces in a film that feels distinctly different from any other 'Star Wars' adventures.

Darth Vader makes an appearance in 'Rogue One'
Darth Vader makes an appearance in 'Rogue One'

It's hard to imagine any Lucas-directed movie sustaining as grim a mood as Rogue One, which is not afraid to kill off characters we've just gotten close to and stages gruesome battle scenes that feel frighteningly real. It puts the 'war' back in Star Wars, and has opened up a whole new front for the ever-expanding franchise.

This, by my count, is the ninth 'Star Wars' feature, and the first of a trio of so-called anthology films. It's situated after the 1999-2005 trilogy that informed us at great length exactly what Darth Vader's problem was, just before the original trilogy, and long before the new, Daisy Ridley trilogy, which will resume with a brand new instalment next year.

As will become clear when you watch it, Rogue One is a stand-alone movie telling a self-contained story, and will be followed in 2018 by a Han Solo origins film, and in 2020 by a last anthology film which is currently being written but may involve a new outing for the 'Empire Strikes Back' character, the bounty hunter Boba Fett. That's an awful lot of 'Star Wars', and one might wonder if Disney are in danger of flogging the old workhorse to death.

The mighty entertainment company bought Lucasfilm, and the rights to all future 'Star Wars' films, for $4billion back in 2012, and are understandably keen on making their money back. But they're already well on their way, and in fairness their attitude to the 'Star Wars' legacy has been pretty much impeccable to this point.

'The Force Awakens' and Rogue One are vastly superior to the second Lucas trilogy: lean, mean, witty space adventures shorn of the verbal flab and ponderousness that hamstrung even the original trilogy.

British director Gareth Edwards does a spectacular job of telling his own story while serving the demands of stories yet to come.

John Boyega and Daisy Ridley starred in 'The Force Awakens'
John Boyega and Daisy Ridley starred in 'The Force Awakens'

It would be an interesting and possibly slightly mind-bending exercise to watch this film and then the 1977 original, but I think it would all just about make sense. And on the evidence of Rogue One, we'll be revisiting the galaxy far, far away for many years to come. They're even planning a Star Wars theme park - I'm not joking, you know.

Rogue One

(12A, 133mins)

HHHHH

An intimate portrait of a special man

* Ballerina, (G, 89mins), 3 Stars

* The Black Hen, (No Cert, IFI, 90mins), 3 Stars

* Uncle Howard, (No Cert, IFI, 96mins), 4 Stars

There's an old-fashioned charm to Ballerina, a French-Canadian animation that might have been based on a story by Victor Hugo, or Dickens. In 1870s Brittany, a poor orphan girl called Félicie dreams of becoming a great ballet star. She's stuck in a tumbledown orphanage but escapes with the help of Victor, a fellow inmate who fancies himself a great inventor. They hitch a ride to Paris, and while Victor inveigles himself into the employ of Gustav Eiffel, Félicie is taken in by a kindly woman who cleans at the Opera Garnier, and manages to sneak into a ballet class.

We know where all this is headed, of course, but Ballerina is not without a certain retro charm. The dancing scenes are very nicely animated, and while the jokes don't come as slick or as quick as they would in an American animation, I found the film's sincerity and slower pace refreshing.

In 1996, Nepal was engulfed in a civil war started by Maoists out to overthrow the monarchy. They succeeded, 10 years and thousands of lives later, and this thoughtful and slow-moving drama The Black Hen explores the effect of the war on ordinary country folk. In 2001, two little boys from a country village are given a hen to mind, and hope to earn money from the eggs. And when the hen is sold, the lads undertake a bold rescue mission.

All of that might sound a little slight and so, in a way, it is, but director Min Bahadur Bham never lets us forget that violence, and competing ideologies, are close by. At one point a motley squad of Maoists perform an absurd communist dance routine; at another, the boys smear blood on their faces and play dead so these zealots won't kill them. It's an imperfect but interesting film.

Stalin's commissars were fond of dismissing art they didn't like as "absurdly personal" - they'd have had a field day with Uncle Howard. Aaron Brookner's documentary is indeed profoundly intimate on one level, being a kind of extended tribute to his late, lamented relative: but it's also a lot more than that, as Brookner's uncle happens to have been a remarkable film-maker himself.

Howard Brookner came of age in 1970s Manhattan, and became something of a player on the city's arts scene. While studying at New York University he began a thesis on William S Burroughs, and subsequently spent five years making a documentary about the legendary beat writer. Burrough's gaunt shadow haunts the edges of Uncle Howard, as Aaron Brookner devotes his energies to recovering the only surviving print of his uncle's documentary on the writer.

He finds it in the basement of 'the bunker', Burroughs' former apartment in the Bowery, now occupied by an elderly poet who would like everyone to leave him alone. We're treated to extensive clips of the documentary, in which a real bond emerges between Howard Brookner and the notoriously prickly Burroughs, a celebrated drug addict and a very tricky man.

Jim Jarmusch and Tom DiCillo both worked on that film, and tell amusing stories that attest to Brookner's skill, charm and quiet determination. His Burroughs documentary was well reviewed, and he followed it with a film about the great theatre director Robert Wilson. And Howard was about to start work on what would have been his Hollywood breakthrough when he got some very bad news.

Howard was gay, living in New York in the 1980s, and was not entirely shocked when told he was HIV-positive. His new film, 'Bloodhounds of Broadway', would star Madonna, Matt Dillon and Jennifer Grey: when he tried taking AZT, it made him dizzy and confused, so Howard decided his film would come first.

He died in April, 1989, at the age of 34, and in his nephew's film is recalled by a variety of witnesses as a very special man. He seems to have been.

- Paul Whitington

Films coming soon...

Passengers (Jennifer Lawrence, Chris Pratt, Michael Sheen, Andy Garcia); Collateral Beauty (Will Smith, Edward Norton, Keira Knightley, Kate WInslet); Why Him? (Bryan Cranston, James Franco); The Eagle Huntress (Daisy Ridley).

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