Since Star Wars came out in 1977, all of the successive sequels and prequels that follows have skewed more or less towards a younger market; even The Empire Strikes Back has cheesy puppets and romantic elements which drop the ball, and from return of the Jedi onwards, it’s strictly for kids. Rogue One reverses the trend; it’s a dark, gritty, downbeat epic that tells the story of how the rebels captured the plans for the Death Star, a kind of Guns of Navarone in space. As well as addressing a number of plot holes in the original film, Rogue One feels more like a war film than a family-friendly blockbuster; parents with kids under ten should be warned that the good guys get their asses kicked here. But the formula of the original films is well-adhered to in Gareth Edwards’s one-off adventure; robot sidekick K2-S0 generates some good comedy touches, which are much needed because the storyline and characters are deliberately bleak. The introduction of a CGI Peter Cushing is regrettable, looking more like a video-game character and never resembling the original actor for a moment. But as the narrative builds to a massive multi-layed battle and a brilliant bit of business with a stuck door, Rogue One is the best entry in the series since, well, the original Star Wars itself.
Hidden behind a not-very-expressive title and with poster art that suggests another tee fantasy, Your Name is a worthy follow-on to the ground-breaking Studio Ghibli animations. Starting with a gender-bending body-swap, Manako Shinkai‘s film has more to say than most. The two protagonists, Mitshua and Taki get the fun of interfering with each other’s lives, but the story opens out to encompass a natural disaster as a hunk of rock falls to earth and destroys a peaceful village. Your Name then becomes a time-shifting melodrama, as Taki attempts to avert the catastrophe. This is a ghost story, but also a rom-com, and also an action adventure, all in one package, adorned with stunningly imaginative animation and pop songs. It’s great for kids, but adults will understand and appreciate the gravity of the ideas, even if the presentation is sugar-sweet.
Somewhat erratically released due to the misfortunes of Relativity Media, Masterminds in a return to the ancient comic staple of the idiot bank-heist. From Palookaville to Welcome to Collinwood, it’s a tried and tested route, and Jared Hess (Napoleon Dynamite)’s film is aided by being based on true events. Reuniting most of the key players from the Ghostbusters reboot (SNL’s Leslie Jones, Kate McKinnon and Kristen Wiig), it gives center-stage to Zack Gilifianakis as David Ghantt, a hirsute security-detail employee who is lured into being a stooge by comely ex-employee Kelly (Wiig). The details of the heist are presumably much exaggerated, since they fall on the side of slapstick, and there’s extra life due to support from Owen Wilson and Jason Sudeikis as a hit man. While not exactly polished due to some cringe-worthy fart-jokes and caricatures, Masterminds may yet find an audience due to some full-blooded pratfalls and a willingness to find humour in some rather dark corners of US life.
As gentle as the most soothing nature documentary, Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson is a minority interest film that will repel thrill-seekers, but slowly, carefully works up to some genuine magic for discerning audience. Adam Driver plays Paterson, a bus driver living in Paterson NJ; this co-incidence is the first in a series of dualities which infuse his everyday life. Glimpses of twins, the dreams of his partner Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) , even the name of his favourite poet William Carlos Williams, everything seems to come in twos. Jarmusch earnestly catalogues the daily routines as Paterson eats breakfast, drives his bus, walks his dog, visits his pub, and shares his thoughts via poetry to Laura. She’s encouraging him to copy his poems and show them around, but Paterson’s reluctance to share his writing threatens to create a singularity that will unbalance his life. Very little happens of note in Paterson, but after the first hour, there’s much of moment; Jarmusch’s film deals with the role of art and the artist is an acutely sensitive way, and Driver is a perfect centre as the gentle soul who struggles to reconcile his genuine artistry with his fragile relationship to his tiny but beautifully detailed world.
Westworld is a model of what a reboot should be; everything is bigger, better, more thoughtful and more expansive that the original sci-fi cult classic about a futuristic theme park with a Western theme. With Jonathan Nolan and JJ Abrams at the helm, that’s no surprise, but what is very much surprising is the way they’ve moved the narrative on. The early scenes make it seem that James Marsden’s cowboy will play a similar role to Richard Benjamin and James Brolin’s vacationing thrill-seekers in the original; it turns out that Marsden’s character is actually a robot. Similarly, Ed Harris’s Man in Black seems to cut a iconic figure in the same way as Yul Brynner’s android gunslinger, but again, roles are reversed; Harris’s character is actually a tourist on a permanent vacation of sorts. And the biggest reversal of all is that the robots are the heroes, as their AI gives them a self-awareness that slowly reveals that they’re nothing but playthings for a corrupt elite; their gradual understanding of the need for revolution makes for gripping viewing. Evan Rachel Wood is the key identification character in Delores, but there’s an all-round stunning cast, from Thandie Newton to Jimmi Simpson, and best of all Anthony Hopkins as the park’s co-creator, Ford. Sir Richard Attenborough’s last iconic role was as a Jurassic Park owner in another Michael Crichton story, and Hopkins was probably the actor he used most: seeing Hopkins play God as his creations run amok is just one of a myriad of viewing pleasures on offer. And the action, violent and spiky, is cleverly scored to popular classics; if there was a moment in cinema in 2016 to compare to the astonishing Paint It Black scene in the opening episode, we’re yet to see it.
Amma Asante’s true-life drama might sound dull and preachy, but after a soft opening, this account of the 1950’s romance between Prince Seretse Khama of Botswana (David Oyelowo) and typist Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike) develops quite a head of steam. Once the Prince brings Ruth back to his home country, he falls foul of political intrigue, not least because the British government stand in the way of a high-profile mixed-race marriage. What makes A United Kingdom work is the details of the chicanery that went on, with Winston Churchill revealed as somewhat duplicitous and Tony Benn (Jack Lowden) riding to the rescue to crowd-pleasing effect. A United Kingdom gets points for finding an original, untold story and telling it well, praising the worthy and punishing the guilty alike with no-holds-barred.
Jeff Nichols has been a consistent force of nature in the world of B movies; from Mud to Midnight special, he’s specialized in small, intense dramas, and as such, it was inevitable that his considerable skills would be co-opted for a ‘prestige’ picture. Tackling the real-life story of the Loving family, a mixed-race couple whose only crime was to love each other, Nichols manages to keep the focus on the relationship at the centre of the drama and not get bogged down in courtroom shenanigans. Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga are both excellent, and the period detail is kept to a minimalist background. There’s a lack of humour, and a deft-downplaying of drama and sometimes makes the story seem drab, but Loving is to be admired for its refusal to function as awards bait or to recast a personal drama in a contrived Hollywood way.