CGB Review of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)

Rebellions are built on hope.

This is my review of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story!

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This is the story of the band of rebels who went rogue (ba boom pssh) and stole the plans to the Death Star, the ultimate planet-destroying weapon of the Empire.  Leading the charge is Jyn Erso, the daughter of Galen Erso, the main architect of the Death Star.
I was quite nervous in the months leading up to Rogue One’s release into theaters.
On one hand, I was excited that Felicity Jones was the lead.  Jones wonderfully played Jane Wilde Hawking in The Theory of Everything, one of my favorite films, so I knew she would knock the role right out of the park.
On the other hand, shivers went down my spine when I saw that the director was Gareth Edwards, the same guy who brought us the 2014 Godzilla movie…a movie that I despise as much as Batman v. Superman: Dawn of No Plot–er, I mean–Justice.  Yes, I will rant/review Godzilla 2014 at some point in the future.
Anyway, so how did this movie starting one of my favorite actresses and my least favorite director hold up?….

Rogue One is impressive, most impressive.

The Hits
I really appreciate that this is a more gritty Star Wars flick.  This reminds me of primarily The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Parts 1 & 2 in that it portrays the horrors of war without becoming overtly gruesome.  Despite the absence of Lightsabers, the action itself is classic Star Wars.  Ships going at light speed, guns that go “pew pew” and, of course, Stormtroopers who STILL can’t hit anything make up for this nicely.
Jyn Erso’s traumatic backstory is intriguing to watch unfold.  I love the idea of her being the daughter of the man responsible for the creation of the Death Star.  It adds to the drama and it keeps her from being some chosen-one; it gives a reason for the rebellion to recruit her and promise to wipe her criminal record clean.   As for the character herself, Felicity Jones brings in her A-game.  Grounded yet vulnerable, Jones brings Jyn to life as a ragtag nomad turned reluctant fighter.  Now while the script does rush Jyn’s development into a committed rebel a bit (she decides she’s all in towards the end of the film’s second act), Jones is able to steady that pace by using her facial expressions and tone of voice to sell to us the moment when she decides that the rebellion is right and just.  A filmmaker creates the character, but the right actor can polish and perfect the character they have been given to portray.  Jyn Erso is no Rey, but she does hold her own and has earned her rightful place in the Star Wars universe.  You are one with the Force, Ms. Erso and the Force is with you.
As predicted, there is somewhat of a romance that blooms between Jyn and Cassian, but fortunately it is well-handled.  It is treated less as a romance and more as a relationship based on necessity–no, not a relationship where they use one another–rather a kinship where they have come to rely on each other for safety and mutual respect.
The real show-stealer is Chirrut Îmwe, the blind Force-wielder who has coined the now famous line, “I am one with the Force.  The Force is with me.”  I LOVE his faith in the Force, his reliance on it and his absolute no-holds-barred trust that the Force will guide his path and lead him to green pastures and still waters.  In another universe, Chirut would make an excellent monk–I see him as either a Jesuit or a Benedictine because that’s just how my brain works.  🙂

The Misses
Two major Gareth-Edwards-isms are front and center in this flick: WAY too many locations and weak characterization.   Seriously, we jump to six different locations within the first ten minutes!  Granted, it’s not as bad as in Godzilla, where the film took us to ten different locations before the first act ended, but still it made me roll my eyes.
The actors playing the characters are better than the characters themselves (with the exception of Chirut; he’s awesome).  Except for Chirut, Jyn and Cassian, the other Rogue One squad is pretty much forgettable.  While Jyn’s backstory is fascinating, it doesn’t seem to impact her overall arch.  She makes a comment about, “I’m not used to people sticking around when things go bad,” yet there is little indication that she doesn’t trust that people will stick around when the going gets rough.  Except for some hardened glances at Cassian and K-2SO (the forgettable comedic-relief robot) when she first meets them, Jyn gets along with them relatively well from that point on.  I’m not saying she has to be bitter or anything, but some tiny non-verbal example of her trust issue and inner scars from abandonment would have helped.

Despite some annoying Gareth-Edwards-isms, Rogue One is a most impressive addition to the Star Wars universe.  The story of the brave few who risked it all to steal the plans to the Death Star is a job well done thanks to a thoughtful performance from Felicity Jones (like Benedict Cumberbatch, you could cast her as a lamp and she’d still do a terrific job), an amazing representation of what faith is all about given to us by Chirut and classic Star Wars action.  The Force is most certainly strong with this one.

Saint Sebastian, pray for us.

CGB Review of Moana (2016)

Why do I get the feeling that this movie was written by someone who read the Book of Esther during a weekend on a Polynesian island?

This is my review of Moana!

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In the beginning, there was the Word…and that word was ocean!   Then comes the goddess Te Fiti who, with the power of her swirly heart (there’s a swirly circle where her heart is), creates island and island and so on.  Te Fiti then goes into a slumber, manifesting herself as a lush, green island.  All is cool until the demi-god Maui (Dwayne Johnson) quite literally steals her heart, which has taken the form of a jade gemstone.  His theft unleashes a freaky sea demon called Te Ka and basically, like the Garden of Eden after Adam and Eve’s screw-up, the world falls into darkness because Maui just had to steal the heart of Te Fiti.
Enter the island of Motunui, which is home to a free-spirited girl named Moana (Auli’i Cravalho).  Moana is being groomed by her father Chief Tui to become the next leader of Motunui, but the call of the ocean has a strong pull on her heart.  This primarily has to do with an encounter she had with the ocean as a toddler.  When Motunui begins to experience decay and famine, Grandma Tala reveals to her that the ocean chose her [Moana] to find the demi-god Maui and guide him across the sea to face off against Te Ka and return the heart of Te Fiti to its rightful place.

The Hits
The animation is fluid, colorful and gorgeous to look at.  The voice work is awesome!  Never once was I distracted by the celebrity voices because all of the characters are well-written and distinctive.  Auli’i Cravalho definitely brings Moana to life as both a youthful teenager and a kind-hearted young woman.  She doesn’t sound like a late-twentysomething voicing a sixteen-year old, neither does she sound jarringly young; her character’s age is conveyed by Cravalho’s performance.  I really love Moana’s childhood connection to the ocean.  Granted, it does make this a typical “chosen one” narrative, but Moana herself doesn’t have any magic powers or some random birthmark that displays her chosen-one-ness; she’s a regular girl who was called upon by the ocean.  Now I mentioned that this movie made me think of the Book of Esther.  That’s because Moana is next in line to rule a land and must save her people from dark destruction.  While she doesn’t have to marry a king like Esther did, she does have to find the king-like Maui and take him to Te Ka.
Speaking of the ocean, the idea of having it as a sentient being is fantastic!  They don’t push the envelope too far by making the ocean a god or something, but the ocean does act similarly to the Holy Spirit; calling upon Moana to go out, to leave her comfort zone and sail into the unknown for a greater purpose.  The ocean reminded me of Acts 1:8, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  Now, mind you, Moana doesn’t travel to Judea or Samaria, neither does the ocean give her the ability to speak in tongues or prophecy, but the ocean’s influence and friendship gives her great courage, helps her to find peace in the chaos, and does enable her to travel far to take Maui to defeat a volcanic sea demon in order to restore peace to the other islands, which brings to mind the Apostles being empowered by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost to preach the Gospel and open wounded hearts to Jesus.
Moana’s pet pig Pua reminded me of a puppy, which makes him adorable, but her chicken Heihei is to this movie what Kowalski is to Fantastic Beasts; a show-stealing comic relief.
Dwayne Johnson is perfectly cast as Maui!   You can tell that he is having the time of his life voicing the character and we are having fun alongside him.  Maui is your typical “self-centered powerful dude who needs to be knocked off his high-horse,” but his humor and soft-spot for humans does keep him from being unlikable.

The Misses
Yeah, this movie gets pretty predictable towards the third act.  I pretty much was able to correct predict all the actions of the main characters in the film’s climax.  I like this movie a lot, but you can tell that there is a Disney checklist that the filmmakers need to fill (princess, comedic animal sidekick, songs, etc.) and it’s not hard to see where the story is going.

Guys and gals, I really enjoyed Moana!  It’s a charming, delightful action-comedy that the whole family will love.  Fun lead characters, thrilling action and some intriguing (if not unintentional) Biblical parallels make Moana an end-of-the-year slamdunk.  I’ve already seen it twice and I just might see it again for a third time.

Saint Mary Magdalene de Pazzi, pray for us.