Monday, 19 December 2016

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story - SPOILERS

I'm putting this here so you don't find it by mistake. A quick look at the stats for this little known page shows that there have been precisely no views today, nor any since December 13 when one person somehow stumbled across it. No doubt they were looking for something relating to real, actual fire hazards.

The reason for the secrecy and the inevitably lower readership which will ensue is that most people will not yet have seen Rogue One: A Star Wars Story just yet. It was only released four days ago. I was supposed to be waiting until tonight myself but at some point during the last few days I remember waking up sweating having remembered that it is the Merseyside derby tonight (Monday). All of which just meant that I could bring my viewing forward a day to Sunday. I didn't fancy Bournemouth v Southampton much anyway. For now though, please do not continue to read this if you have not seen Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and still intend to.

Set between episodes III and IV of the saga (that's Revenge Of the Sith and Star Wars A New Hope for those confused by the chronology) Rogue One tells the story of how the rebel alliance brazenly lifted the Empire's plans for the Death Star which was destroyed by a Force-assisted Luke Skywalker in episode IV. I don't think that is a spoiler. If you haven't seen Star Wars: A New Hope by now you are probably not all that inclined to. It has been 39 years after all. If you haven't seen it then Rogue One: A Star Wars Story will make very little sense to you. It seems to exist solely to explain how the rebels arrived at a position where they were able to attack and destroy the Death Star. But in that sense it adds something to the saga, unlike the Force Awakens which just blatantly steals from earlier episodes and recycles the same ideas.

The chief protagonists here is Jyn Erso, mostly played by Felicity Jones but we initially see her as a small child (Beau Gadsdon) escaping from white-suited Imperial Bastard Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn). He has come looking for Jyn's father Galen (Mads Mikkelson) who he needs to recapture so that he can force (no pun intended) him to continue his work on a project that turns out to be the Death Star. Galen is reluctant to go with Krennic and his menacing band of black-clad stormtroopers but once his wife is killed and Jyn is safely out of sight he surrenders. Jyn's been given instructions for exactly this eventuality, which involve hiding in a dark hole until she is rescued by Saw Gerrera (Forrest Whittaker). The latter is desperately under-used which is one of the few things about this film that I didn't like. If you are going to hire such a big name actor then at least have him involved a little longer. If not, you would be better off not bothering with a big name and just casting someone that nobody knows. It is cheaper, you know? And anyway one of the reasons Star Wars was so easy to get carried away with is that the cast were unknowns when the first film was released all those years ago. Since then the saga has become a little too celebrity-heavy, though Whittaker does a more than passable job in the role of Gerrera who we are told raises Jyn before losing touch with her. We never see any of this which significantly weakens any sense we might get of a strong bond between the two when their paths cross again later.

The next time we see Jyn after her rescue by Gerrerra she has morphed into Jones. We find out that we have jumped 15 years to a time when she is scavenging and surviving on her instincts (echoes of Rey in episode 7 perhaps?) and has little time for the rebel alliance. You'll remember them? All X-Wing fighters and frog-faced admirals. Yet when news breaks that her father is still alive her ears prick up. Via that timeless Star Wars staple the holographic message she learns that yes he has been working for the Empire to build the still unfinished Death Star but also that he has deliberately placed a small flaw in the system which, he tells her, could see the weapon destroyed if she can convince the rebels to launch a mission to steal the plans. The same plans that Darth Vader is looking for at the beginning of episode IV. See, it all fits.

But persuading the rebels proves difficult. They say Galen is right with the Empire and is only trying to lure rebel forces into an aerial battle they cannot win. All of which forces Jyn to take on the mission with the help of just a few friends, all totally new characters to the Star Wars universe. As well as Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), there is defected Imperial pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), smart-arsed droid and 3PO for the new generation K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), Force-summoning martial arts whizz Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen) and some other random they pick up along the way called Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang). With the help of the finally convinced remainder of the rebel alliance they complete the mission (which we know they must because remember Vader is looking for the stolen plans in episode IV) but at a particularly awful cost. Ever wondered why there is no mention of Jyn And The Gang in any of the original Star Wars films set after Rogue One? You work it out....Seemed a bit draconian for me with a high risk of upsetting any children watching, but narratively it was the only way to go.

There has been some controversy about the use of CGI to resurrect a classic and frankly essential Star Wars character played by an actor who has now left this world. The argument is that the audience is quite capable of accepting a new actor in any given role and that it is not necessary, and may not even be all that ethical, to use a CGI version of a dearly departed human being. But the family must have provided consent and may even take a deal of pride in the results. What is not in dispute is that the hardcore Star Wars fan will be hugely delighted at the reveal and to use a new actor would have denied them that pleasure.

Let's be clear we are not talking about Darth Vader here. The much beloved Lord Of Sith has a limited role, appearing in only two scenes, but he doesn't waste his screen time and is not just a CGI image. This is particularly true of his second and final scene near to the film's denouement, the first and only time that we see any lightsaber action in Rogue One. You wouldn't call it a duel as it is far too one-sided for that, but it looks good all the same. The disenfranchised David Prowse is not inside the suit. Nor should he be at 81 years old although if they had wanted to be really clever and authentic about it they could have thrown a huge amount of money at Hayden Christensen to do it. Instead both Daniel Naprous and Spencer Wilding take over the role, with James Earl Jones returning to voice cinema's greatest ever baddie.

There has been some grumbling about whether we needed Rogue One at all. It is fair to say that it exists only to close the plot hole from episode IV, namely how and why did the Death Star get to have what seems like a rather careless flaw that could be exploited later on by the rebels? Maybe you take the view that the why in episode IV doesn't bother you and that we don't need to know. But while that is a valid argument Rogue One is no less fun or interesting for all of that. Certainly an improvement on the wretched homage to the original trilogy that was The Force Awakens. Rogue One might very well be the best Star Wars film outside of that original trilogy.

Tuesday, 19 January 2016


Creed is an overly sentimental, overblown and often cringe-inducing fiasco which is not to be taken seriously under any circumstances. But it's no less enjoyable than many of the other memorably demented Rocky sequels for all that.

Acutely aware that nobody is having Rocky VII as a concept, Sylvester Stallone and the co-producing Winkler-Chartoff axis have rather cleverly made Rocky VII and called it Creed. That's because it follows the fortunes of the spectacularly talented and self-taught Adonis 'Donny' Johnson, the illegitimate son of former Rocky rival turned mentor Apollo Creed. In a barely believable and cliched fashion, Johnson's rags-to-riches-to-rags journey sees him hook up with legendary former champ Rocky Balboa and pursue his hobby of knocking people out. He's his father's son alright.

Once Michael B Jordan's Donny leaves the luxury of Apollo's old mansion the tale begins it's relentless homage to the Rockys of the past. Rocky, like his own trainer Mickey, is a reluctant trainer for Donny but agrees to it eventually in a stunning display of what-the-heckery. He's sold on Donny's parentage, although any of the facts that Donny throws at him to prove his origins could have been gleaned by spending a couple of hours watching Rocky III. By this time he's already been fobbed off by the son of Apollo's former trainer in LA and fled to Philadelphia, and his and Rocky's visit to that city's art museum was for me, despite the many Liverpool locations featured (St George's Hall, Goodison Park, The Liver Buildings and the Radio City Tower to name a few) the one exciting 'I've been there' moment.

We'll get on to where Liverpool fits in later but for now Donny's only boxing experience to date are the 15 legally dubious contests he fought out in Mexico. The name of his trainer (and not his father because he's not telling anyone about that just yet, he wants to make his own legacy) is enough to get him a match with the local pro at Mickey's old gym. He's 17-0 in his pro career and if you were taking this shit seriously you might question the choice of opponent for Donny's first official pro fight. But you're not so you accept it, just as you accept it's unlikely outcome.

First step on the road to stardom completed, Donny's life is complicated slightly by his relationship with hard of hearing bar room singer Bianca (Tessa Thompson). She's no Adrian but she's passable love interest fare and a reasonable device for helping us find out more about what Donny's really made of. Which is pretty stern stuff as it turns out, although Jordan's mannerisms fail to invoke the spirit of Apollo for me. He lacks his wit also. When Apollo boasted that he'd retired more men than social security some time in the late 70's or early 80's the writers were deliberately channelling his inner Ali. Donny's too serious for that. He's confident but focused. He's not so far ahead of the competition that he can laugh his way to victory like his father could. And the entertainment value drops accordingly to a degree.

And so to Liverpool. If Donny's first pro fight was a stretch to believe, his second is the kind of match only made in Rocky Heaven. Needing a financial boost after some gun-related tomfoolery in Toxteth (no, really) light heavyweight champ Ricky Conlon gets wind of Donny's heritage and is persuaded by his mockney cardboard cut out manager Tommy that it could be a nice little earner. Just one condition for a shot at the title. He has to use the Creed name. Cue more reluctance and nore what-the-heckery and the fight is on.

Now remember those great Rocky foes of old, including Apollo? Clubber Lang? Ivan Drago? They weren't the most rounded of characters but the use of an actual actor did offer a certain something. Conlon is played by Liverpool light heavyweight Tony 'Bomber' Bellew and consequently the character development is kept to an absolute minimum. Clearly the wooden attempts at thespianism were too weak even for a Rocky film, so Conlon is limited to press conference insults, in-fight trash talking and of course physical violence.

The final fight scene is a horrid mangle of styles. The early rounds are all gritty close-ups until with the fight nearing its conclusion we go back to old school Rocky wide shots in which every punch thrown is a preposterous haymaker. In another nod to the franchise there's always someone who can't be at the fight watching at home on television. That used to be Adrian but in her absence Apollo's wife, who had taken Donny in at a young age but lost him when she forbid him to box, will suffice. Without giving the end away the climax is dying on its arse before it is boldly rescued by the one thing the film has lacked to this point and is the only sure fire way to give it a boost. The Rocky theme. This is now officially Rocky VII, whatever they want to call it.

This being Stallone you might expect his unwillingness to let Rocky go spawn more Creed sequels. That is still possible but the way that Creed explores Rocky's mortality suggests that Sly might just be seeing the end of his most famous incarnation sliding in to view. Rocky VIII to be the last, last, last hurrah anyone?

Thursday, 7 January 2016

Joy (spoilers)

Joy is anything but joyful for the most part. Through the narration of her grandmother (Diane Ladd) it tells the almost relentlessly despair-ridden tale of Joy Mangano, divorced mother of two who clearly overcame some adversity (but not as much as the film suggests, surely?) to become one of America's most successful capitalist bastards. I mean entrepreuners.

She did this by inventing a self-rinsing mop with a cotton head that can be cleaned and re-used. Which mundanity is probably the reason why the storytellers decided to have so much go against Joy and to make so many of the people close to her such outstanding piss-hats. A divorced mother of two, Jennifer Lawrence's Joy pays the mortgage in a home which accomodates not only her and her children but also her dad played by Robert De Niro, her mum (Virginia Madsen) and her ex-husband Tony (Edgar Ramiez). Her dad has already ruined her wedding day some years previously and goes on to bring preposterous greed-loving Trudy (Isabella Rosselini) into the house after meeting her on a dating website for widows and widowers. He's not even a widower but he has split from Joy's mother, who spends an unrealistic amount of time in her bedroom watching the same monstrously bad soap opera. Before Trudy, Joy's dad Rudy (I know...) shares the basement with Tony, with whom he gets along with about as well as Teddy Sheringham got on with Andy Cole. Half-sister Peggy (Elizabeth Rohm) pops up less frequently, but is no less contemptible.

Joy's life is perfectly awful, so it's understandable that she tries to find a way out through her invention. She was Valedictorian, which is American for the brightest pupil in her high school, and she puts those brain cells to good use designing her invention with her daughter's crayons. Which is really where the film starts to get bogged down in the legalities of patents and fraud and what-not. Despite attempts to make it dramatic it is hard to get past the fact that it's just a mop. Yes the stakes are high for Joy and even for the rhyming Rudy and Trudy as the triumphs and disasters come at them thick and fast, but it's still just a bloody mop. Perhaps Tony, a wannabe singer from Venezuela who to his credit is a much better friend to Joy than he was a husband, is the one who realises this first as his role is significantly and bafflingly reduced in the second half of the film.

The strength of Joy is in its performances. Lawrence is this writer's definition of watchable but despite that bias I don't think many would argue that she's not the best actress in film at the moment. She even makes you care about Joy, which is going some. It's just a mop, remember. Bradley Cooper delivers a brief but diverting turn as a high powered QVC executive, but despite their best efforts the trio of Lawrence, Bradley and De Niro can't get near the heights of their work in the cinematic gem that is Silver Linings Playbook. I fell asleep during American Hustle which also featured all three, but it was my love of Silver Linings Playbook that persuaded me that Joy might be another pleasant surprise.

It was not, but remained watchable if only for another stellar performance from Lawrence.