(On Blu-ray, April 2017) As much as I fear that Disney’s plans to release one Star Wars movie a year for forever will dilute the impact of the original trilogy, I’m relatively happy with the results so far. While neither The Force Awakens nor Rogue One are great movies, they’re decent films and, in the case of Rogue One, actually try something somewhat ambitious. As a putatively standalone story (but a backdoor prequel to the original film), Rogue One plays with big icons and sets a war story within the context of the Star Wars universe. It’s far from being perfect: the characters are rather dull (although it’s nice to see a Zatoichi homage in the Star Wars universe), a lot of plot-building moments are merely serviceable and there’s a scattershot nature to the plot that may be explained by the rumoured production difficulties of the movie. There are far too many dull moments where we’re waiting for the next thing to happen—and the longer you think about some of the set-pieces, the less they make sense. On the other hand, there’s a lot of stuff to like. The battle of Scarif repurposes iconic images in a tropical context and makes them feel fresh again. Many of the special effects are terrific. The production design and cinematography make impressive efforts (down to the grainy film stock) to deliver a conclusion that fits seamlessly with the 1977 original. The diverse cast is a welcome evolution. I also like the daring of using an entire film to bring further dramatic heft to the original film, transforming a few vexing plot holes into plot engines along the way. The attempt to digitally re-create two actors of the original film is admirable, even though the result doesn’t look quite right. Diego Luna, Donnie Yen and Alan Tudyk deliver good performances—I wish I could say the same about Felicity Jones, but her character is written so flat as to be playable by just about anyone. Director Gareth Edwards obviously has some fun as an ascended fanboy, but I look forward to later editions of the film detailing the reshoots and arguments whispered about. Rogue One certainly could have been significantly better (tighter, punchier, wittier) in other hands, but what actually made it to the screen is surprisingly effective in its own way. Despite stiff odds, it looks as if Disney knows what it’s doing so far with the Star Wars series—now let’s see if other standalone stories will be as effective.
(Video on Demand, March 2015) Perhaps the best things about The Theory of Everything as a biography of astrophysicist Stephen Hawking is how seamlessly it weaves the accomplishments of a top-level scientist with the complicated emotional trajectory of his life, disability and romance included. Hawking has long been famous for exploring the universe while suffering from almost-absolute paralysis, and the film covers his life over four decades, tracking the disheartening progress of his affliction, the evolution of his marriage (warts and all, daringly enough), his rise to fame and his often infuriating obstinacy. Eddie Redmayne delivers an Oscar-calibre performance as Hawking, metamorphosing before our eyes from a vibrant young man to the Hawking best-known today. Felicity Jones also turns in a remarkable performance as his wife Jane, her emotions often bridging the film’s emotional impact from Hawking’s oft-inscrutable expressions. The film does have a few issues, notably how it downplays some of Hawking’s scientific achievements, makes a lot out of his lack of belief, and soften his legendarily abrasive personality. Still, the result is a powerful scientific biography, and one that celebrates the human element of a top intellectual’s life. As far as biographies of British scientists are concerned, The Theory of Everything is a film to be seen alongside Creation and The Imitation Game.