Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
The Force Awakens was a genuine, fresh surprise, a bolt out of the blue to electrify a limping saga. Much has been made of its similarity to A New Hope, but we don’t watch Star Wars films for narrative ingenuity (I hope), we watch them for kickass action and plenty of laughs. JJ Abrams understood this – apparently more than George Lucas, whose prequels became overly reliant on the series’ greatest weaknesses: dialogue, characterisation, emotions.
Rogue One stumbles a bit on these same inevitable failings, particularly in the opening scenes where too much exposition sets up what is in essence a very simple plot: rebel factions try to steal plans for the Death Star so they can later destroy it in the fashion we all know.
The dialogue is wooden as ever, even if it’s being performed by increasingly gifted young actors, queuing up to pay duty to their childhood dreams. Felicity Jones is convincing as Jyn Erso, our new protagonist, although she has no discernible character traits other than ‘tough’. Riz Ahmed, fresh off HBO’s excellent miniseries The Night Of, confirms his status as a rising star, merely by appearing in this blockbuster as opposed to any specific aspect to his performance. And the supporting cast is a feast of international talent: Mads Mikkelsen, Forest Whitaker, Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen courting the Chinese market (and finally acknowledging the series’ indebtedness to Eastern philosophy), Diego Luna courting the Hispanic market (and ladies of all races).
Gareth Edwards, the film’s director, has made an explicit point with this multicultural cast. It goes beyond broadening the commercial horizons (which is obviously a factor). It stands as a testament to how far we’ve come since the 70s, and how far the PC movement has won despite protests to the contrary. Which is brilliant: it opens up the opportunity for a greater variety of talent to emerge from all corners of the globe – and it pisses off all the right people in the process.
Yet in the film’s structure Edwards falters, placing too much stress on the climactic battle for the Death Star plans, with tension and screen time sapped from earlier scenes to compensate. The Force Awakens worked as a series of action vignettes with real depth to its photography, operating on various planes within individual shots like a less intense precursor to The Revenant. Rogue One instead feels more like a computer game, with CGI ships blasting at each other and human rebels shooting rows of storm troopers ad infinitum, without any imaginative leaps between them. It’s a visually uninventive cop-out in a film where the visuals are the most crucial aspect by far.
Another major cop-out is the coming and going of Darth Vader, who does so in the time it would commonly take for a toilet break. His appearance therefore falls into the same category of cynical marketing ploy as the Joker’s in Suicide Squad.
Otherwise, Rogue One is hardly a bad entertainment, with enthusiasm and an obvious affection for previous instalments in the series. Edwards is not a bad director, keeping things moving for the most part and sustaining momentum after the initial 20 minute lull. The cast and, of course, the special effects are top-notch.
Then why did I leave the cinema with a shrug and not a bounce?
ON BFI PLAYER
This extraordinary documentary exists in the gap between life and animation. It reveals that this might be less marked for some people than others. The example given is Owen Suskind, a charming young man who developed autism as a very young child and lost most of his speech capability as a result. Remarkably, he later learned to communicate again, but only with the help of Disney films. By watching these obsessively, rewinding and replaying them in order to find meaning in the world, he discovered a way of expressing his innermost thoughts.
That Owen learned to speak again is inspirational, that he did so with the help of fictional, animated characters elevates Life, Animated to a rare level of insight for a documentary. It stands as an expression of the ways in which we watch and learn from films. They encourage us to empathise with other characters, to inhabit their inner worlds and share in experiences of happiness and pain, which can in turn help us to understand our own complicated feelings. Humans with autism particularly struggle to comprehend emotions, so it is revelatory to witness Owen as he copies the facial expressions of Disney characters, clearly trying to make sense of them all in order to make sense of his own life.
There is a limit to Disney’s ability to prepare one for life though, as this film acknowledges by showing Owen graduating from college and leaving home. Clueless about sex and romance outside of true love’s first kiss, he must turn instead to his family for advice, who step up admirably to the challenge. His brother suggests Disney porn.
Postmodern theory is too often obsessed with the negative impact that society’s obsession with screens is having, and whilst there are certainly troubling aspects to technology’s pervasive influence, that isn’t the full story. Not by a long shot, as Life, Animated demonstrates. Owen uses animated movies not to shut off from the world, but to better understand it, to connect with the people he loves, to console himself in times of need, and to better express his own feelings. Cynics would do well to watch this and be temporarily silenced, as Owen blossoms into verbose life right before our very eyes.
Available on BFI player here.
Blue & Lonesome – The Rolling Stones
The Rolling Stones have nothing left to prove. With the recent decline of rock music as a commercial and cultural force, they are sure to remain unchallenged as the World’s Greatest Rock n’ Roll Band. So they are freed from the burdensome expectation of innovation, much like the World’s Greatest Songwriter Bob Dylan, and are thus able to look back to their roots on this pure-blues album.
They do so with admirable gusto. Mick Jagger snarls and hollers his way through the 12 cover versions with a humour missing for yonks (even if his mouth harp is less invigorating). Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood trade licks so you can almost hear the smiles on their wizened old faces. Charlie Watts is the sturdy backdrop as ever, with his supple jazz-rock simplicity still in place. And special mention must go to Darryl Jones on bass, Matt Clifford and Chuck Leavell on keyboards, and Eric Clapton guesting on guitar not once but twice.
Which all sounds like a dream for any lifelong blues and/or Stones fans, and the album does indeed have its moments. I love the sinister strut of Howlin’ Wolf’s ‘Commit a Crime’ and indulgent sprawl of Willie Dixon’s ‘I Can’t Quit You Baby’ in particular.
But I don’t think it merits Rolling Stone magazine’s predictably overexcited reaction; it strikes me as a good but not great blues album. To prove it, here’s a little treat I made, a playlist comprising the band’s best blues covers (and their respective albums):
- I Just Want to Make Love to You (The Rolling Stones)
- I’m a King Bee (The Rolling Stones)
- Confessin’ the Blues (12 X 5)
- Mona (I Need You Baby) (The Rolling Stones, Now!)
- Little Red Rooster (The Rolling Stones, Now!)
- I Can’t Be Satisfied (More Hot Rocks (Big Hits And Fazed Cookies))
- Don’t Lie to Me (Metamorphosis)
- Prodigal Son (Beggars Banquet)
- Love in Vain (Let it Bleed)
- You Gotta Move (Sticky Fingers)
- Shake Your Hips (Exile on Main St.)
- Stop Breaking Down (Exile on Main St.)
These dirty dozen trump everything on Blue & Lonesome because they sound not just fun but, crucially for the Stones, dangerous. The band are most enervated when shooting for subversion, with Jagger’s androgyny and sexual swagger spotlighting every single double entendre in the lyrics (and more), Brian Jones’ slide guitar crowing for sex at every given opportunity, and Keith Richards crafting the riffs and rhythms to shake your hips to because, well, you know what that can lead to.
It should surprise no one that the surviving member’s libidos have diminished somewhat over the years (although only somewhat, as Jagger has proven), yet whilst Dylan and Young have brought an elder statesman’s maturity to their blues covers in later years, the Stones here try to match the youthful vigour of their earlier work, which can only end in relative disappointment. They’re clearly enjoying themselves, but without the threat of changing the world, this acts as just a footnote to their great career. They sound like the World’s Greatest Pub Rock Band.
Give your blues-loving relatives Blue & Lonesome for Christmas and they’ll probably enjoy it. But give them the above playlist burnt onto a disc and they won’t know when to stop dancing. Which is how the blues, as the Stones envisaged it, was meant to be.