Movie Shorts – December 2016

ROGUE ONE – A Star Wars Story ***1/2

About four years ago, an aging George Lucas finally decided to retire from filmmaking and cash in his life-long passion project; Lucasfilm Ltd.  Disney bought the company for a cool $4 billion, hired Kathleen Kennedy, one of Hollywood’s most revered producers of mass-audience “tentpole” films, to run it, and then went to work furthering Lucas’s signature gift to the world, his Star Wars saga.  Kennedy immediately hired fellow producer and director J.J. Abrams to begin work on the first of the final three chapters of Lucas’s original epic, and Christmas 2015 rocked with the release of Star Wars Episode VII; The Force Awakens, a wonderful (and immensely profitable) effort.

But Kennedy and the Disney people had much more in mind for the Star Wars brand.  Off-shoot stories based on the Star Wars galaxy had been highly successful in novels and animated TV shows.  Why not off-shoot, one-off movies as well?  And so was conceived this film, the first in an overall plan to give the world the gift of a new Star Wars-based movie every year at Christmas; an “off-shoot” film filling in the years between the release of the remaining main-story episodes.

Rogue One is a tie-in story that provides background into how the Rebel Alliance was first able to obtain the plans to the infamous Death Star that Princess Leia  delivered to them and enabled Luke Skywalker et al to eventually destroy it.  As with all the Star Wars stories, it’s a complex, multifaceted tale that takes place on multiple planets and involves a myriad of characters.  Chief of these is Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), the daughter of Galen Erso, a gifted engineer and rebel sympathizer, who has been forced by the new Galactic Empire to devise what will be its ultimate method of enforcing galactic order, a moon-sized, planet-killing space ship.  When Galen is first taken by the Empire, Jyn escapes (her mother dying to make that possible), and is raised by Saw Gerrera (Forrest Whitaker), who eventually abandons her.  On the run, fending for herself, Jyn, now a young adult, runs afoul of both the Empire and the rebels.  Captured by the rebels, they pry her for information about her father and what he’s up to, which, of course, she knows nothing of.  They then cut her a deal; she helps them find her father, and she gets her freedom.  She’s sent with a trusted pilot, Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and his droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) to accomplish this task, leading to many a harrowing adventure and the eventual formation of the rag-tag “Dirty Dozen” of sorts that call themselves “Rogue One,” who pull off the final heist of the precious plans.

Despite its complexities, which are at times dizzying, the story is dramatic, action-packed, and filled with characters that we instantly find interesting and learn to both love and love to hate.  This is particularly brought out by Jones and Luna, whose characters develop a fascinating chemistry, and Ben Mendelsohn as Orson Krennic, the pragmatically heartless head of the Death Star project, who finds himself victimized by his even more heartless bosses, the pompous Grand Moff Tarkin (Guy Henry, eerily made into the spitting image of the late Peter Cushing, who originated the role in A New Hope), and his menacing “friend” Darth Vader.  The rest of the Rogue One crew are a similarly well-played menagerie of unlikely heroes.

Disney and Kennedy swear that Rogue One will not have a sequel, and indeed, that would seem to be the case in the end; the “sequel” is Star Wars: A New Hope. But if this is an example of what Ms. Kennedy has planned for off-shoot, one-off films based on the Star Wars galaxy, I say bring them on!  I already can’t wait for Christmas 2017.

** Special Note; As of this writing, “Star Wars Episode VIII – The Last Jedi,” is scheduled for release December 15, 2017.  The next “off-shoot” film, yet to be titled, will feature a young Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich), and be released during the Christmas season, 2018.  It will also star Woody Harrelson, Donald Glover, and Emilia Clarke from “Game of Thrones.”

 

MOANA ***

This is the second release in 2016 for the Walt Disney Animation Studios (along with Zootopia), but unfortunately not near as engaging or thematically rich as the other.  Still, with the consistent Disney mantra these days of portraying its “princesses” as bold, actiony heroes, winning voice performances, eye-popping animation, and songs that are both fun and uplifting, it is entertaining and fun, despite its lack of depth.

Moana is a young island princess (Auli’i Cravahlo) who longs for adventure and to follow her heart (yes, we’ve definitely heard that before), which, in this case, is to go beyond the island’s protective reef and see the sea.  And of course, her over-protective father forbids her from doing that.  But when a curse falls upon the island and Moana’s grandmother knows that’s it’s because of a mysterious green rock that has washed up on shore, she urges Moana to take a canoe and go, with the green rock, find the demigod Maui (who stole the rock eons ago from the “mother island” of the seas, then lost it, voiced by Dwayne Johnson), and together restore it to its rightful place on the “mother island.”  Moana tries once and fails, but then, when the island is truly threatened, she makes it.  Opposing her and the shape-shifting demigod are a dizzying  assortment of enemies that keep popping up for no particular reason, including some coconut-shell warriors that remind one of the skeletons from Jason and the Argonauts, a giant volcanic monster-island called Te Ka, and Maui himself–his enormous ego continually subverting the team’s efforts.  This culminates in a harrowing climax, or course, which I’ll let you discover on your own.

If that sounds convoluted and difficult to follow, though, welcome to the club.  Even after watching the film, then reading its synopsis later, the story is still so confusing to me that I lose interest.  Imagine what it must be like for a child!  And herein is this film’s chief flaw; a needlessly complicated story that (like all needlessly complicated stories) tends to bore the audience at some point.  Were it not for the action, the visuals, and some great chemistry between Maui and Moana, this could have been a real snoozer.  And then there’s the music too.  There’s lots of it; great, island-sounding background stuff punctuated with really cool songs by Opetaia Foa’i, Mark Mancina, and none other than Lin-Manuel Miranda, the musical mastermind who created, directed, and starred in this year’s smash Broadway hit Hamilton.  Just about the time you start to drift off, one of these pops up, and snaps you right back in.

In the end, this is certainly not the best of what the Disney Animation Studios has had to offer over the past few years, but it’s still a worthwhile afternoon of entertainment, or something to have in your video collection if you have younger kids in the house.