Lot of good movies in this post, for once...
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story: This movie acts as the first part of a two part movie, where the original Star Wars (4) is now positioned as the second part. In the original Star Wars, the opening crawl informed us that rebels had stolen plans to the Death Star. Later in the movie, a rebel leader said that they found a weakness in its design. This movie fills in the story of how those plans were discovered and stolen (you thought that was just backstory, right?) and why the weakness is there (you thought that was just a plot hole in the first movie, right?).
Felicity Jones stars as the protagonist who is reluctantly roped into helping steal the plans. Diego Luna and a host of others form her "dirty dozen" attack team. Famous sets from the original Star Wars becomes more and more prominent as we race to the end of the movie, which ends scant hours before the original Star Wars starts. You will recognize objects, races, computer screens, and control rooms from the original movie, but the story is not a retread of other Star Wars movies (a criticism leveled at The Force Awakens), despite the fact that the story has to fit into the one that we already know. Instead, this movie is like D-Day meets Star Trek; it's a gritty war movie with little place for humor, except for one dry, pithy droid. The mission seems to be suicide, but there is an undercurrent of hope. This movie puts Luke Skywalker's journey in the fourth movie into perspective, and makes that movie even better; Luke was standing on the shoulders of panoply of heroes.
Like the awesome Daisy Ridley from The Force Awakens, Felicity provides a well-defined courageous heroine who happens to be a woman. This generation's movies, many of them from Disney, are putting heroines into movies that have no specific romantic goals, which is great ... mostly. What it lacks in romantic chemistry, it also lacks in personal chemistry: we care for her, and maybe we care for one or two of the sidekicks, but (except for two sidekicks) none of the characters seem to care much for each other. That gives the movie a certain coldness, and inserts distance between the characters and the audience. I don't need for the heroine to have romance as her main goal, but a little romantic, friendship, or familial side-plot gives us more involvement and does not have to imply a lack of fierceness or independence. Human stories involve us, and all human emotions (not just fear, bravery, and determination) are a central part of being human.
My only other complaint is a certain creepiness factor: Peter Cushing who played Governor Tarkin died in the 1990s, yet here he is again, on screen, playing in a movie through the wonders of motion capture and CGI. It's jarring. Did they get his permission? His family's permission? Shouldn't an actor have a say as to which movies in which his likeliness appears? Are we really going full Looker?
These issues aside, the movie is beautifully shot - all the grittiness and dirt that was absent from the second trilogy is back, making the world seem rich and vibrant. There are new worlds and settings, even as the movie gradually leads back to the settings that we will see again in the original trilogy. A few other characters from the original trilogy also appear (either through great makeup jobs or more CGI). I greatly missed seeing lightsabers, which is one of the main elements that makes Star Wars great, but when Darth Vader appears in his few brief cameos he both steals and elevates the movie.
The story works well, as if it had been part of the original script. The characters are distinct (if distancing, as I noted). It all works better than it should. It's a great ride and essential viewing for a Star Wars fan. It will probably be somewhat confusing for someone who never saw any of the other movies, especially because it ends on a cliff hanger (leading straight into the first scene of the original Star Wars), but I believe it holds up well in this case, too.
La La Land: Damien Chazelle (Whiplash), Ryan Gosling, and Emma Stone present a beautiful movie musical, like a 1950s musical just barely kissing the 21st century (cellphones, and a bad word here or there). The thing we worry about when we hear "musical" is that the characters will be shallow and the music and dancing hokey and jarring, forgettable self-indulgence at best, interminable annoyance at worst. Children's movies are hit or miss with musical numbers, but adult movies are generally miss. Happily, this movie is one big hit.
Emma and Ryan have so much chemistry, its a wonder they haven't done a half dozen movies together before this. They sing okay (if not great), they dance well enough, and Ryan supposedly even learned enough piano to play it himself during his scenes. So, much of the singing and dancing isn't spectacular, but the movie makes up for this with great music, great costuming and visuals, beautiful choreography, sweetness, enthusiasm, and numbers that add to the movie's fun rather than jar it.
The story is also not spectacular - girl meets boy, boy and girl part, will they make it back together? Will they succeed at their dreams? - but the 21st century touches add enough color to make the characters fully-fleshed, the dialog captivating, and the ending a mystery. The pivotal fight scene before the parting was handled beautifully - it could have come from one of Linklater's Before movies. Despite one or two curse words, the movie is suitable for all ages, although some of it may go over the head of the youngest viewers.
I don't want to give any spoilers, so I'll just say this: the movie ends (the last ten seconds) with a slow smile. I've been thinking about the choice to do this for a day since I saw the movie, and I'm still not sure that this was the right ending or just the more palatable ending. If you see the movie let me know: how would your feeling for the movie be different if it didn't end with the smile?
Great movie. Worth seeing in the cinema.
Lion (Saroo): I have seen a number of great movies this year (La La Land comes to mind), and I haven't seen all of the ones I want to see, but I am confident in naming this as the best movie of the year. Wow, what a great movie.
Based on the book, a true story, in 1985 a five year old boy gets separated from his family by accidentally taking a train ride from a remote Indian village to Calcutta, 1000 miles away. He doesn't know how to pronounce the name of his village properly, or even speak Bengali (he speaks Hindi). He experiences various pitiless, travails on the Calcutta streets and in an overcrowded orphanage before he is adopted by a well-to-do, good-hearted couple from Tanzania. They give him a new, good life, but he comes to remember that he left his family behind and that they may be looking for him. And now, in 2010, there is such a thing as Google Earth.
If you liked Slumdog Millionaire, or even if you didn't, this is set in the same kind of space, but a very different story. The story is great, which is a good start. The acting by everyone is outstanding. Sunny Pawar, a very young Indian boy in his first film role, does an incredible job conveying Saroo's thoughts and fears with his eyes and his face. Dev Patel as the grown up version is also amazing. More amazing (if that is possible) is Nicole Kidman in an Oscar-worthy performance as a woman who (with her husband) chooses not to bring more children into the world but instead give hope, love, and a future to some other children. The actors playing Saroo's brother, mother, girlfriend, and everyone else all act flawlessly.
The directing is excellent, the cinematography captures both the beautiful and the ugly in full measure, and the lighting and music work. I don't get emotional at many films, but I teared up twice during this movie; once at the pathetic circumstances of a lost child beset upon in the big city, and once when the protagonist's long quest for resolutions was coming to its conclusion.
The only thing I could complain about, if anything, was that the Saroo's Aussie girlfriend was portrayed as too perfect - she initiated the relationship, she supported him in everything, she didn't react badly when he gave her grief, and she stuck with him through it all. I haven't met any woman who is THAT perfect.
Moana: This is an odd Disney movie. It has a young, strong female protagonist, but she's not a princess (although she is part of the Disney princess pantheon now, anyway) and she has no love interest at all (Anna from Frozen and Merida from Brave didn't end up with anyone, but love and marriage were still a part of their stories; I think Elsa is the only other Disney princess without a love story of any kind (other than love for her sister, of course)). It has an epic quest, a narcissistic demigod, and some of the mythological spirits heavily borrowed from Miyazaki movies; which is not SO odd, I suppose, since the movie is set in Polynesia, which is halfway to Japan. Then again, Lilo and Stitch was set in Hawaii, also technically in Polynesia (but modern Polynesia, so there you go).
The music is not too memorable. There are some b-grade songs, but also some songs so explicitly mundane and straightforward that they are laughably bad. The "message" - because every Disney movie has to have one straightforward, uncomplicated message - is "be true to yourself". Follow your heart's desire, even if doing so recklessly will likely leave you drowned, crashed on the rocks, or burned to death under a steam of lava. Of course, this message is less unbelievable if you also happen to be the most favored of the ancient spirit of the ocean, who is there to rescue you from drowning, save you from the rocks, and guide you safely around the lava flow.
Moana is an okay character. Her friends and relatives are uninteresting and one-dimensional. Maui the demigod is two-dimensional, at best. The animation is stunning, as usual. The quest works well enough and - aside from a trip to monster-land and some annoying songs, which take up about a fifth of the running time - the rest of the movie moves along, helped greatly by the Miyakazi influences. It has a funny, stupid chicken, who thankfully doesn't talk. But please, Disney, enough with the pee and butt jokes.
Kubo and the Two Strings: This is a lovely Americanized Japanese animation film. Mostly stop-motion, with some CGI, the stop-motion is so smooth that the whole things looks like CGI. Many stop motion scenes are based on origami.
Like other Japanese movies, the director knows how to frame beautiful shots, sometimes expansive, sometimes intimate; American movies can create beautiful and realistic effects, but rarely know how to pause or frame the scenes to inspire wonder. Also, as in other Japanese movies, the film is shot through with traditional Japanese traditions regarding spirits and other mythological elements; at least, I think so. And the movie is unafraid to deal with parental mental health issues, parental death and unwholesome family connections, ideas rarely tackled by American films for children.
Yet, unlike other Japanese movies, there are things about the movie that are very American. The movie uses English wordplay. The characters feel American with American values.
The main character is a boy who has a few real magical skills, and who sets out on a hero's journey. His lives alone with his mother near a small village. His mother fades in and out of mental clarity, but she strictly warns him to never be out at night, or the Moon-spirit, his grandfather, will take him. Naturally, he stays out late at night once, only to be set upon by his witch-like aunts and to be told that his mother is gone and the village burned down. He must find some mcguffins in order to be able to fight. The mcguffins don't make much sense, and neither do the various magical deux ex machinas that appear in order to guide him along.
The problem with these kinds of random quests, random encounters, and plot device guides is that you don't feel much for the character, his enemies, or any of the obstacles. Still, other than a fifteen minute lull about a half an hour into the movie, it moves along with some funny characters and thrilling action sequences, mixed with beautiful, sometimes stirring or stunning animation. The protagonist is no worse than other movies of this sort. It's a far better movie than Moana, The Jungle Book, or Finding Dory, and equal to (better in some ways, worse in others) Zootopia.
Proof: Gwyneth Paltrow gives another incredible performance as the daughter of a math genius who recently passed away. She speaks with a slow lilt that emotes a combination of depression, fatigue, and possible mental imbalance. Her father authored a world-famous proof back in the day, and then spent his remaining years growing ever more insane - with possible periods of lucidity. She is also a math genius, who took care of her father through all of the difficult years of his life. But now she fears that she may also becoming insane.
Her sister, and one of her father's students, the latter of whom finds what may be a new earth-shaking proof among his last papers, share this concern. Is this new possible proof the result of a final burst of lucidity by the father? Or is it the work of his daughter, as she claims? Who to believe? The movie focuses only partly on these questions; it also focuses on the relationship between the sisters and how they deal with life after their father's death.
Based on a play, written with humor, pathos, and intense mystery, this is an extremely good character-driven movie, if a bit hard to watch sometimes. People with no math background need not be worried; the actual math discussions are few and easy to follow.