movies: rogue one, la la land, moana

I See Movies: ROGUE ONE, LA LA LAND, MOANA

Since my One Word for 2017 is SEE, I thought I’d tell you about a few movies I went to SEE during the holidays.

Rogue One

As of this writing, I have seen Rogue One: A Star Wars Story four times in three weeks. I’ve seen it in four different theaters, with four different (but sometimes overlapping) groups of people. I’m probably done seeing it in theaters now, but you never know.

Rogue One is a standalone story and a bridge between existing films in the Star Wars series. Set just before the events of 1977’s A New Hope [Episode IV] (or, as we knew it at the time, Star Wars), it introduces new characters, strategically deploys familiar ones, and sets things up for Luke and Leia to enter the story.

I’m not going to get into plot details here. If you care about them, you’ve probably already seen Rogue One, and if you don’t care, you probably won’t. Rogue One has a specific storytelling mission (no pun intended) and I thought it accomplished it effectively and smartly. However, I didn’t find it as emotionally resonant as The Force Awakens [Episode VII] . That may be partly due to the fact that it is a standalone film—the principal characters were unfamiliar and not part of the ongoing Star Wars story.

But that very unfamiliarity is the biggest thing that did resonate with me. I am part of the very first generation to know Star Wars. We went into that first movie not knowing who these people were or what was going on with them. Rogue One gives us previously unknown characters, settings, and events.  It’s as close as anyone who’s never lived in a world without Star Wars will ever get to experiencing it all for the very first time. I appreciated the way it made me feel something like that again, nearly forty years later.

La La Land

People do not routinely jump out of their cars to sing and dance through traffic jams here in Los Angeles. (I’m not sure if it would make traffic jams more entertaining or more intolerable.) In other words, La La Land is not a documentary. It’s a throwback movie musical about love, ambition, and Hollywood; in some ways, it’s about being a movie musical. And it’s doing very well during award season, at least partly because Hollywood tends to love movies about itself.

La La Land follows a year in the lives of struggling actress Mia (Emma Stone) and jazz pianist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling). They meet, fall in love and break up over their inability to support their individual creative ambitions and their relationship simultaneously. The story is familiar and a bit thin, but both lead performers are appealing. Their on-screen chemistry makes the film feel a little more substantial.

I wanted to love La La Land and be delighted by it. I didn’t and I wasn’t, although I liked and enjoyed it. It is stylishly old-fashioned and absolutely gorgeous to look at–the costumes, set design and cinematography make even seedier Hollywood locations look good. The dancing is impressive; I saw this movie with my son, who has been swing dancing since college, and even he thought so. But I didn’t find the songs particularly strong, memorable, or even especially necessary. I realize not every musical is built like Hamilton or Les Miserables, but I do think they should be telling at least some of their story through song. I didn’t think La La Land did that enough, and that was disappointing. This movie was a charming couple of hours of escapism that ultimately didn’t leave a deep impression on me.

Moana

I haven’t seen a Disney animated film for quite a while. (Not having little girls in my immediate orbit allowed me to take a pass on Frozen.) We had the chance to see an extended preview trailer of Moana when we were at Disneyland last fall. We passed on it in favor of the Doctor Strange sneak peek. I was ambivalent about seeing Moana until I started seeing the rave reviews.

And so Moana was the first movie I saw in 2017, on New Year’s Day. This was the movie that delighted me. It had the memorable songs…and the very unexpected reference to Mad Max: Fury Road.

Moana’s story follows the Disney recipe pretty closely, taking it to the Pacific Islands with some small variations. There’s no romance. Our heroine has two living, competent parents. And she’s a “princess” only by a technicality. Moana is is the only child of the chief of her island people, destined to be a chieftain herself. There’s not even any question that she will inherit her father’s role as a leader. I loved that, and I thought she was a very engaging lead character.

This is another gorgeous film–the animation is so good it’s almost better than life, and watching it was a joy. I enjoyed listening to it as well. Moana is cast with diverse voices, including Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as the demigod Maui and Christopher Jackson–George Washington in the original cast of Hamilton—as Moana’s father.

Moana’s songwriting team is led by Lin-Manuel Miranda, and the Hamilton force is strong with this one. There are places when a rhyme scheme or verse structure has a familiarity that clearly reflects his craft, while other songs introduce new influences. “Shiny, ” for example, comes across like a lost David Bowie number. I came home from the movie and bought the soundtrack, and I’ve been listening to it for over a week now. I’ve been alternating it with The Hamilton Mixtape. It seems like it always comes back around to Hamilton…even when it starts at Disneyland.

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