Opening this weekend:
Rogue One—In the advertising, it’s referred to as Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, but on the screen it’s simply titled Rogue One. That’s the first of many things I liked about this movie—it’s not Episode Anything or Chapter Anything.
This truly seems to have been conceived as a stand-alone tale, and not as a new branch of the franchise. It doesn’t open with the familiar John Williams fanfare—the fine score is by Michael Giacchino, with borrowings from Williams where necessary—or with a crawl of exposition. We get an occasional subtitle explaining what planet we’re on, but that’s it. The atmosphere is tense and hectic and dark and, despite quite a lot of effective comedy, rather fatalistic.
Having said that, this movie nonetheless felt far more authentically like a “real” Star Wars movie to me than Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones or Revenge of the Sith, the “official” opening trilogy of the series. Like The Force Awakens last year, Rogue One is a strikingly retro work—by necessity, as it's set just before the events of the original George Lucas Star Wars movie, made in 1977.
So the lovingly re-created sets and costumes have a flaky, dated look to them. They feel as self-consciously “‘70s” as bell bottoms or lava lamps. And while there are, among the leads, plenty of women and non-European-looking men—not to mention robots and aliens—the space fighter pilots and the Imperial officials are mostly played by the same kind of saggy white dudes that generally played such roles back in the ‘70s.
If I had to speculate, I’d guess that the script—by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy (based, in turn, on a story devised by effects master John Knoll and Gary Whitta)—grew out of dissatisfaction with a perceived implausibility in the first Star Wars flick: the idea that the whole Death Star could be blown to smithereens by just two wimpy torpedoes from Luke Skywalker. The heroine here, a surly, hard-fighting young delinquent named Jyn (Felicity Jones), is pressed into service by the Rebellion to contact her surrogate father (Forest Whitaker) in hopes of gaining intelligence on that colossal, planet-shattering weapon of mass destruction.
She’s thrown together on this mission with Cassian (Diego Luna), a Rebel agent of uncertain motivation, and K-2SO, a snide, kvetching robot voiced by Alan Tudyk. Along the way, this trio picks up a variety of scruffy misfit allies, and after many twists and turns the story comes to a head in a massive Rebel raid on a force-field-fortified Imperial base.
Director Gareth Edwards, of 2010’s imaginative low-budgeter Monsters, handles the epic action sequences rousingly, and there’s no shortage of visual wonder to the movie. The Death Star and the huge Imperial ships hanging in the skies have a chilling, oppressive awe to them; conversely, there’s a sprightly wit to the sight of swarms of Rebel ships springing out of hyperspace like popcorn kernels popping. The focused storyline allows for less in the way of digressive episodes and strange creatures, although there’s a mind-reading tentacled horror that’s pretty memorable.
But the general visual vocabulary of Rogue One owes as much to classic WWII movies as to sci-fi. “There’s fighting on the beaches,” somebody says at one point. Inevitably, some of the dialogue echoes with contemporary political resonance, and no matter what your ideology, you’re likely to cast “your” side as the Rebels and the other side as the Empire. In any case, the line “Rebellions are built on hope” figures prominently in this film, and hope is something that many of us are sorely in need of right now.
La La Land—Mia (Emma Stone) is a struggling actress, working as a barista on the Warner Brothers lot in the title town. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a struggling jazz pianist who wants to open his own club. The story of how they meet, fall in love, drift apart and so forth unfolds via original songs staged as elaborate production numbers.
There’s a lot that’s really good about this picture, and it’s hard not to admire its ambitiousness. Written and directed by Damien Chazelle, with music by Justin Hurwitz, and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, it’s a serious, un-ironic attempt to do something that seems to me very much worth doing—reinvent the old-school movie musical as a fully contemporary form. So I feel like a bit of a bum not being able to join in the general critical rapture. But I don’t think La La Land entirely comes off.
It’s possible that Chazelle has succeeded in creating a sort of neoclassical style for musicals that can be built on. But La La Land’s jazz tunes, though pretty, are a little tame and unvaried, and the large-scale dances have the feel of flash-mob cavorting—they don’t bristle with the intensity and insolent precision of the numbers in, say, a ‘50s-era MGM musical, or, for that matter, of the average "Bollywood" musical.
More problematically, the leads aren’t natural musical performers. Gosling and Stone have a touching rapport as actors—you believe they’re in love—and they dance well. But their voices seem featureless and slight. They’re vivid screen presences until they start singing. As soon as they do, their personalities recede.
For many of us, there are few forms of entertainment that have the potential to generate the sheer excitement of the musical, both on stage and screen. If La La Land brings the genre back to vitality, I’ll rejoice. But while much of this movie is clever and enjoyable, I can’t say I found it exciting.
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