One of my Christmas treats was seeing Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. I’m glad I had my chance because it was an excellent movie.
Now just a reminder to you all, this is not part of the nine-episode Star Wars saga we all know. This is part of the Anthology Films of the Star Wars franchise. Actually this is the very first Anthology film to be released. The film is a triumph for writers of ‘fan fiction’ or ‘fanfic’ as it’s commonly called on the internet. However bringing fanfic like this to wide release on the big screen was no easy task. We all know how Star Wars has become a cinematic phenomenon like no other. George Lucas knows about it. Lucas himself is comfortable with ‘standalone’ films based on the Star Wars stories but wanted to make very clear that any standalone stories could not carry characters between the Saga films.
Here we have a story that is to take place between Episode III: Revenge Of The Sith and the very verse Star Wars film that’s now referred to as Episode IV: A New Hope. It’s a pretty lengthy amount of time between when Anakin Skywalker becomes Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker seeks to become a Jedi. Nevertheless it does make for ample time for any Star Wars fan to create a story of what happens in between. Storywriters John Knoll and Gary Whitta aren’t just any Star Wars fans. Knoll has done camera operations and visual effects supervision for many science-fiction films including four Star Trek films and the three Star Wars prequels. Whitta is a scriptwriter for The Book Of Eli and After Earth.
The adaptation of the story to screenplay had to fall into the right hands as well. Scriptwriter Tony Gilroy may have had his biggest renown with 2007 Best Picture nominee Michael Clayton (for which he himself was nominated for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay) but his he’s also made his biggest impact in writing the scripts for all four Jason Bourne movies. Chris Weitz has an eclectic resume of writing and directing from Antz to American Pie to About A Boy to The Golden Compass to one of the Twilight films. Then there’s the film being directed properly. Gareth Edwards may have not had the most experience in directing but he has developed his reputation in recent years upon films like 2010’s Monsters and 2014’s Godzilla.
Then there’s the story itself. There are possibly loads of Star Wars-inspired stories. The story would have to be true to the Star Wars saga without it being a rip-off. There’s lots of that and even professional writers can make something that’s a Star Wars rip-off. Most Star Wars fans will not go for something insulting. True, there are a lot of people that are Star Wars-crazy but most will not go for something if they sense it’s a rip-off. Don’t forget many felt insulted by the prequels so that’s a reminder.
They succeeded. They provided a very good story about the completion of the Death Star and the family behind it and the rebellion attempting to steal the plans leading to the hope in the end. The story had to be well-researched in order for it to make the right connection between Episode III and IV. Any new characters like the Ursos, Cassian Andor and K-2SO had to fit with the story as well as include original Star Wars characters like C3P0 and Darth Vader properly. On top of that, it had to have the right action scenes and the right battles done. Basically the whole movie had to have it all to work. The story could not be compromised despite the action sequences. The acting also had to be top notch from Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Mads Mikkelsen, Ben Mendelsohn and Forest Whitaker. Even the theme of the story of heroism has to be present. It’s there, but in a way like no other Star Wars saga film does it. For the first time, self-sacrifice is needed for heroism.
The story worked very well. The critics on Rotten Tomatoes gave a total percentage of 85% approval. Many praised it for its depth in the Star Wars mythology and for breaking new narrative and aesthetic ground while paving way to a potential future for other blockbusters. The film scored well with crowds too as it would become the 20th movie to gross over $1 billion worldwide.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is not just an excellent movie. It’s an accomplishment. It’s proof that Star Wars standalone movies can not only be a hit but be excellent in their own right.
I know I’ve done individual reviews of Best Picture nominees in the past. This year I thought I’d try something new. I thought I’d do summaries of the nominees. Three blogs analyzing three of the nominees. It’s something new this year and I hope you like it. For my first summary, I’ll be reviewing the first three Best Picture nominees I saw: Arrival, Hacksaw Ridge and Moonlight.
When you learn Arrival is about aliens, I’m sure you have an idea of what you’d anticipate what a movie about aliens would be about. However, you’re in for a big surprise.
This is probably the first movie about aliens to earn a Best Picture nomination. The film appears to set up for a story that would most likely lead to big-time action sequences. Instead we get a film that’s very intellectual in dealing with aliens. Don’t forget Louise is a linguistics professor who was hired for this duty because of her language expertise. In this film, the focus is on communication. Louise has a way to communicate with the aliens and earn their trust even while those around her grow more hostile to the beings. Louise’s gift for communication goes beyond the aliens and she’s able to say to General Shang the words his late wife said to her. It’s like she has a sense for this.
Even with all this, the film is not just about aliens and preventing a human-alien war. The film is about Louise trying to heal after her daughter’s death. Her marriage is no more as well and she’s looking for her purpose. It’s even about Louise and her ability to foresee the future and the possibilities they can unfold. Louise is the central protagonist whom the whole story revolves around. She finds her true gifts at a time she least expects it and she’s able to find her life again. It’s almost like this alien invasion is like a godsend to her life. Right after her daughter dies, she learns of her purpose to the world and to others.
Denis Villeneuve did a top job of directing this film. He already has a reputation for films like Maelstrom, Incendies and Sicario. He’s also been hired to do the Blade Runner sequel. This film he directs is very tricky but he does all the right work for it. The script by Eric Heisserer is very smart and very deep. It does a very good job of getting the right moments of action and the right moments of drama pieced out.
The story also rested on the performance of Amy Adams. She knew the story was primarily about Louise and she had to make it work. Although the role didn’t have too much in terms of character development, her performance was solid and it held the story together. The supporting performers may not have had as big of roles but they still did well with their performances. Jeremy Renner definitely could have had more depth in his role. The music from Johann Johannson and Max Richter fit the movie perfectly. The visual effects were also excellent and just what the movie needed.
Arrival is a very intelligent movie. It’s an alien movie not like one you’d anticipate at first but you will leave the theatre pleased.
Mel Gibson is back. This time he has Hacksaw Ridge. It’s a war drama that’s about more than just the war.
This film makes for an interesting topic: conscientious objection. I know all about it. For years I went to a Protestant church where the people were known for their anti-war beliefs. Conscientious objection is something that’s bound to make one question their morals and even act out of hostility. I know that we have conservative pundits who insist that fighting in a war is the definition of patriotism and will even use scriptures to justify why was is the right thing. Upon release of this film, I was anticipating a conservative backlash against it. So far no ‘Diss The Doss’ movement has happened. No movement to have his Medal Of Honor posthumously revoked. Nothing. It’s a good thing because the film does make one reconsider what defines a ‘patriot.’ I’m glad this story was told.
One of the biggest complaints from conservatives in the last 40 years has been either the negative depictions of religion or lack of positive depictions of religion in movies. True, this is not the Hollywood where the Hays Code calls the shots. For those that read my review of Of Gods And Men, I have a quote from Barbara Nicolosi about why that’s the problem. That explains why it’s hard to get a pro-religion movie to compete for Best Picture nowadays. There’s a fine line of showing a film with a positive depiction of Christianity without it being schmaltzy, hokey or overly sentimental. Plus with all the ‘game changers’ in the last few decades, writing a winning script or creating a winning film is just that much of a challenge.
I feel they did a very good job in Hacksaw Ridge. It was a very good story of the persecution Desmond Doss had to face for his beliefs. It was a very gritty story of the war and all the damage it caused. Some say the graphicness was comparable to Saving Private Ryan. It was an honest portrayal about someone’s faith. However there was one point when I felt it was borderlining on hokey during the scenes of: “Please, Lord. Help me find one more.” I know that was something Doss said in real life but I’m just wondering if it could have been done better.
This film is the first film directed by Mel Gibson in a decade. I know he had to take a break as he had a very public meltdown with the things he said about others and problems with alcohol. You could rightfully call this film the redemption of Mel Gibson. He directs an excellent film that took a lot of effort to make. 14 years to be exact even while Doss himself was still alive going from one writer to the next until finally they had the right script and right story thanks to Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkkan. Gibson and the writers did an excellent job with the film with the story and the depiction of war.
In addition, the story was made thanks to the performance of Andrew Garfield. This was more than just a war story. This was a story of a person’s heart and soul. Garfield knew he had to personify Doss in his convictions in order to make this story work. He did it excellently. It’s hard to pick out any supporting players who stood out. None of the roles of the supporting actors were as developed. However Teresa Palmer did a very good job as Dorothy Doss and portraying the concerned fiancee, as is Hugo Weaving as the father Tom Doss and Vince Vaughn as the hard Sargent Howell. The visual effects and the sound mixing were top notch, as it should be in a film like this. The score from Rupert Gregson-Williams fit the film excellently.
Hacksaw Ridge is a surprising film. Who would’ve thought that the best war movie in years would be about a man that didn’t fire a single bullet? Definitely a story worth telling.
At some point, you gotta decide for yourself who you’re going to be. Can’t let nobody make that decision for you.
This year’s surprise critical success is Moonlight. It’s a very unique film like no other seen this year.
The film is unique as it sets itself around three key periods in the life of Chiron. There’s his childhood where he’s known as Little, there’s his teenagehood where he’s simply known as Chiron and there’s his adulthood where he’s known as Black. The film does tell a story of a man who you think would die young. He has all the ingredients: gay, living in inner city Miami, a verbally-abusive mother addicted to crack, arrested at a young age and a future of being a pusher himself. Somehow he finds the will to survive. He’s able to withstand the bullying he faces for being gay, he’s able to decide his life to the best of his abilities without his mother. Often it’s not the best choices he makes in his life but he finds the ability to survive. You wonder how does he do that? Was it from that brief time with Juan and his mentoring? Was it the love from Kevin he always knew was there? I remember that scene of Little in the school dancing classes dancing like he was in 7th heaven: his escape from the bullying. Was it a spark within Chiron himself? Whatever the situation, it results in beauty at the end.
The film is not just about Chiron. As one can see, it showcases the lives of many different African-American people living in the inner city. It may show some of the more negative depictions like drug dealers, poverty and drug addicts but it also shows positive images too like in the case of Juan and his girlfriend or even in music being played. It showcases some surprising things as well as how Juan the pusher can be a very smart man. It even dispels some myths we have of inner city people. Like how Juan was good at handling Chiron’s homosexuality and gave him words of comfort while Paula acted out in hostility. Usually you’d expect ‘gangstas’ to have a homophobic attitude. It showcases what it’s like to be black and gay in the inner city. It also showcases people’s insecurities. It is overall one man’s attempt to find himself in the harsh world that he lives in. Yet despite all its harshness, it becomes something beautiful in the end.
The film is a triumph for Barry Jenkins. This is actually his second feature as a director. His first film, 2008’s Medicine For Melancholy, won a lot of attention and even earned him many directorial debut awards. Moonlight is only his second feature. This film which he adapts a script from a drama school project from Tarell McCraney is a masterpiece in both the story and its direction. The script is also excellent that there is not too much dialogue but is able to say lots even in the silent parts. Another quality of the film; it says a lot while saying very little. Overall the film is a real delight to watch and leaves one wondering what Jenkins will have next.
The three actors who portrayed Chiron– Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes- all did a very good job with the role and portraying him at the right ages. Mahershala Ali was excellent as Juan: the pusher who becomes a mentor to little Chiron for that brief period of time. Ali had to bring the right charisma and character for a role like Juan to work not just in his scenes but to have an influence throughout the whole film. He did a stellar job. Also excellent was Naomie Harris. Possibly the one actor or actress to be a part of all three scenes, Harris was excellent as the drug-addicted mother Paula. She had to go through three stages with her role from a simple crack user to a crack addict to recovering in rehab. Each time she had to give her role dimension and inner depth to keep it from being cardboard. She did excellent too. There were additional supporting roles that were also good like Janelle Monae as Teresa and Andre Holland as the adult Kevin.
The technical bits were also excellent. The film was edited very well, the cinematography from James Laxton was possibly the best of the year. The score from Nicholas Britell was excellent but the inclusion of track music from classical to Latin to funk to hip-hop to Aretha Franklin to Motown really added to the feel of the movie. Almost feels like an anthology. In fact that scene when Kevin sees Chiron (as Black) after so many years and plays the classic Hello Stranger is one of the best scenes of the film.
Moonlight is a story of a young black man coming of age in the big city but it’s a lot more too. Those who’ve seen it will know why this film is a masterpiece.
And there’s the first of my Best Picture summaries for this year. Next one coming up in a few days.
Lee Daniels’ The Butler is another surprise hit movie of the summer. It doesn’t feature the typical fare for what one would call a ‘summer movie.’ Actually it features more mature fair that’s meant for a release around October, November or even December. So how did it manage to become a hit this summer?
The Butler is a unique story of Cecil Gaines. Born in a cotton field, he was forced into labor by the Westfalls, a Georgia family who owned the plantation. Even though slavery was out of existence, it didn’t stop people from treating their black employees like slaves. The son raped Cecil’s mother and shot his father dead. The state’s caretaker, the mother, takes Cecil out of the farms and assigns him to be a house servant. However it would be a businessman whom encounters Cecil after he breaks into a bakery and steals a cake after running away. The businessman turns him into a successful butler who’s able to provide a good income for his wife and children. Something very rare for an African-American man to be able to do before 1960.
A breakthrough occurs when Cecil is offered a job as a butler at the White House. This is a big breakthrough for the Gaines family as they can improve their way of life. However it does not come without its prices as Gloria feels alienated from Cecil and his workaholic manner and turns to adultery. His son Louis becomes very involved with political activism and the Civil Rights Movement from restaurant sit-ins to the Black Panthers movement. That doesn’t sit well to Cecil at all to the point they fight and they don’t speak for years. His 34 year career as a butler in the White House takes some turns as he’s able to converse with the president and even influence many on how they deal with African-Americans. Cecil is also involved in other incidents such as the riots after Martin Luther King’s assassination to losing his son in the Vietnam War. The story intertwines with his career with social changes for Black America during that time period with his own family life from his childhood to his career to Obama’s inauguration.
A short while back when I was doing a Wikipedia search on the movie, I learned that this film is loosely based on Eugene Allen: an African-American butler who first served in the White House in 1952, advanced to Maitre d’Hotel in his career and finally retired in 1986. The movie admits that this is inspired by a true story rather than actually being a true story. Though one can doubt the truthfulness of the story, the script by Danny Strong does capture one’s attention and is able to mix the White House life of Cecil with moments of history and even the struggle of one family dealing with the changes and trying to make life better for themselves and for their race. It’s almost like Cecil could be labeled the ‘Black Forrest Gump.’ The relationship between Cecil and Louis also highlights the divisiveness between two generations of African Americans. One learned he had to work hard to get places. Another adopted the new attitudes of Black pride during the 60’s. The clashes between the two represent the clashes of the two generations of Black America. Lee Daniels also does a very good job of directing the movie with its complexities. This is a big move for him to go from something like Precious to something more polished. Nevertheless it’s a very good move and can allow him to replace Spike Lee as the top African American director in the business.
The actors were also excellent, especially Forest Whitaker as Cecil. I’m not sure if Forest is trying to imitate Eugene Allen or trying to make Cecil into his own character–I admit that I myself have never seen video footage of Eugene Allen–but he gave an excellent performance both in terms of the character’s personality and his aging. Oprah Winfrey also gave an excellent performance as Gloria encompassing the struggles of maintaining family unity while dealing with a husband that seems too preoccupied with success. David Oyelowo achieves a personal breakthrough here as Louis Gaines. He does a very good job of representing the new black attitude of his times in both life and personal political attitude through Louis Gaines. Supporting acting was also very good from star actors like Terrence Howard, Lenny Kravitz, Vanessa Redgrave, Mariah Carey and Jane Fonda. The supporting acting performances from the lesser-known actors like Mika Kelly, Nelsan Ellis, Elijah Kelley, Clarence Williams III and Yaya da Costa were also very good and added to the ensemble cast. One thing that struck me about Yaya da Costa’s performance of Louis’ girlfriend is the Black Panthers scene where she has a big afro and admits her desire to kill. Didn’t she remind you of Angela Davis in that scene?
There’s one glitch in the movie, it’s the casting for those who portray presidents in the past. At first I thought Robin Williams as Eisenhower was a good choice but the others didn’t seem so. John Cusack made Richard Nixon seem awfully young as did Liev Schreiber as Lyndon Johnson and James Marsden as John F. Kennedy. All three of them were at least ten years younger than the presidents they played when they assumed office. I feel the biggest miscast was Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan. Reagan had a charming personality and Reagan was not seen as charming at all in the film but rather a toughie. Makes me wonder what was with this? Was it miscasting? Or were those the ways the presidents looked to Lee Daniels or through the eyes of Cecil Gaines?
One final note of the movie. This was the scene near the end showing Obama’s election to the Presidency in 2008. I know that there has been a ton of flack given to Obama over what he’s done or what he’s failed to do as President of the United States. One thing you can’t deny is that even in the five year’s since his election, he’s still the face of hope for a race and other racial minorities. That’s one thing that can’t be taken away.
Lee Daniels’ The Butler is an excellent movie worth watching. I have sometimes co-related to movie to Forrest Gump where a man is part of history. Despite some of its flaws, it was an excellent intelligent alternative to the hyped-up summer stuff and still draws audiences now.