Rogue One: A Star Wars Story undeniably feels like Star Wars. This perhaps may sound like a shallow compliment, but considering the amount of excitement that this universe brings to people, it's worth mentioning. From the daunting image of the Super Star Destroyer hanging overhead, to the "Commence primary ignition." voiceover on the Death Star, to the uniforms and costumes, Rogue One undeniably evokes the look of the original Star Wars trilogy. At times, it even adds a few new elements that are pretty cool, including two planets (one at the beginning of the film, one at the end) that look unique and gorgeous.
Unfortunately, Rogue One's strong art style is not complimented by a strong directorial style. Director Gareth Edwards crafts scenes that lack pacing and energy. Both in and out of action, scenes often feel like they do not have well defined beginnings, middles, or ends. Part of the problem may fall on the editing, since Rogue One does not balance the quiet and loud moments as well as some of the better films in the Star Wars universe. However, part of it also is due to Edwards' visual style.
Though he is capable of composing pretty shots, there is rarely any sort of visual progression throughout scenes. Action scenes are filmed mostly with either a couple of wides or closeups of the soldiers at the start of scenes, and typically don't change much in composition throughout. It makes a lot of these set pieces feel like a blur, rarely having any moments of "wow" and instead resorting to repetitive blaster fights. Unfortunately, the weak visual style hurts the dialogue scenes even more. Whereas, for example, J.J. Abrams successfully filmed conversations in visually interesting ways to help keep some energy in these scenes, Rogue One's dialogue scenes are shot so uninterestingly (either in medium shots or handheld medium-tight shots) that the heavy amounts of exposition feel like more of a chore than they otherwise would.
It doesn't help that Rogue One's script is a mess. Conceptually, the idea of making a spinoff movie about the Rebel Alliance stealing the Death Star plans is a solid one, and in theory, where the story goes and how it ties into the original Star Wars trilogy is interesting. Unfortunately, this film is far better conceptually than it is in execution. For one, Rogue One's characters are so paper thin that you feel like they could slide under your doorway. They are not well defined on screen, and the only times that any hint of depth is added to them is through lazy, heavy handed expository dialogue. When characters DO change, it is often illogical and inconsistent with what might have been established in the previous scene. Making matters worse, from a plot standpoint, the first two acts are far too uneventful and poorly plotted, never providing material to allow the characters to develop nor the ideas to allow the themes to develop.
This isn't to say that Rogue One isn't completely without merit. There are a couple of action sequences that do impress (particularly with Donnie Yen's character), some visuals are exciting, and there are cool moments with classic Star Wars characters that I won't spoil here. That said, many of Rogue One's thrills are dependent on an existing admiration of the Star Wars universe. If you are a Star Wars fan, there will be moments that will make you excited. However, while Rogue One had the potential to draw in and entertain an audience not already familiar with Star Wars, the weak characters and boring plot will ensure that those that do not already admire Star Wars will not be eager to return.
What might be the worst part of all, amongst the many issues with its script and direction, is Rogue One lacks any genuine surprises. The nature of the story itself may be predictable, since it does tie directly into the original trilogy. However, even with this in mind, the way the story plays out is so predictable and so rudimentary.
About halfway through my screening of Rogue One, I heard someone snoring. I turned over and saw that someone had fallen asleep. This feels indicative of my experience with Rogue One. Perhaps he was dreaming up a more exciting, engaging movie. Either way, one thing is clear: if there was an awakening in the force last year, then it decided to go back to sleep this year.
At first glance, it is not difficult to see just how much Manchester by the Sea is dependent on its excellent cast. Both in the dialogue and in the quieter moments, every performer brings a level of authenticity to the characters that is rarely seen. Fortunately, director Kenneth Lonergan's simple visual style, which can at times capture an entire scene in one static frame, allows the actors room and time to breathe to really flesh out their characters.
Fortunately, whereas many films this year have suffered from a lack of characterization on the page, Manchester by the Sea's excellent cast is complimented by a screenplay that is absolutely worthy of their talents.
All of the characters, even the ones that only appear in one or two scenes, are all very well defined and interesting. Furthermore, the film does an outstanding job of exploring the characters to naturally evoke the central ideas rather than trying to evoke the ideas in a heavy handed matter at the cost of characterization.
At its core, this is a story about mourning and how it can prevent us from connecting with each other emotionally. This idea is tragic and quite devastating, and the film gives it the appropriate weight it deserves. Yet, despite this, Manchester by the Sea does not drown in its own sorrows. Though very poignant, it is at times equally warm, at times surprisingly hilarious, and always honest. Every emotional beat is earned.
At times, the style of the film of the film comes off as a little heavy handed, which makes a few scenes feel a bit less authentic. Furthermore, the second act drags and becomes repetitive towards the end, which also leads to an ending that feels a bit abrupt. The story's destination is appropriate and moving, but the end of the road to get there feels a little wobbly at times.
These quibbles aside, Manchester by the Sea is incredibly effective and honest. It has ideas in spades, but unlike a lot of movies this year, it never loses grasp of its humanity. It's because of this that Manchester by the Sea is one of the better movies of 2016.
Hell or High Water is not the most unique film. In fact, stylistically and narratively, it feels very much in tune with a Coen Brothers movie such as No Country for Old Men, with a small dash of Fargo. Yet, this caveat can be overlooked by the fact that, if you're going to borrow from someone, might as well borrow from the best. Hell or High Water benefits from its similarities. Not only is this a well paced and well executed thriller, but this is also a film that is more concerned with human drama than with constant action. The all-star cast, consisting of Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Gil Birmingham, and Jeff Bridges, all bring a surprising level of humanity and depth to these characters. Fortunately, their talents are not wasted on a script that is not deserving of them. At its core, Hell or High Water is not only a story about greed, but also an intelligent commentary on class in America and how the country's foundation ultimately contributes to that growing gap between classes. It occasionally sacrifices characterization with heavy-handed monologues, but with the exception of some lacking subtlety at points, this is a terrific screenplay, handled by a director that expertly executes both the quieter and louder beats. Hell or High Water is easily one of the year's best films.