Saturday 17 December 2016

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) - Gareth Edwards

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) - Gareth Edwards

It doesn't even begin with the theme tune.

But then it's clear from the title alone that this isn't a proper Star Wars film, though neither is it a bold new direction. There are enough familiar elements, but there's an undeniable sparkle missing. The force is not so strong with this one.

After an intriguing opening with similarities to every other leading Star Wars character in the series, the film gets off to a choppy start. With so many new characters to introduce, the film jumps between multiple scenes as it attempts to set up its story threads but they're too quick and don't allow for enough characterisation. It takes a while for Rogue One to find its rhythm.

Once it does, we're treated to an exceptional looking film with pristine CGI effects and high-stakes action. There have always been parallels to Samurai culture in the films, but here they come to the fore in hand-to-hand combat - mainly from newcomer Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen). Him aside, there's little use of the magical Force with barely a lightsaber to be seen, leading to a pleasingly more grounded film that genuinely feels like a tense suicide mission, the odds stacked high against the Rebels.

Despite this, it's hard to invest in these characters. Partly, they're simply not given enough screen time to develop, yet they also lack the charm of those we know and love. Felicity Jones is a stoic and underused lead as Jyn Erso, an orphan whose father (Galen Erso - Mads Mikkelsen) built the infamous Death Star but double-crossed the Empire by installing a design flaw. Female lead aside, the remaining characters fail to escape their archetypes: from Diego Luna's rugged pilot Cassian Andor, to robot K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk) whose comedy schtick feels out of place in this darker world.

Further, more than anything they all seem to get by on luck and coincidence. That may be part of the series' swashbuckling appeal, but it's starting to get tiresome, especially for a film aiming for a more realistic take on this universe.

What's also tiresome are the links to the other films. Whilst The Force Awakens fully embraced its parallels to the original trilogy as a soft-reboot of the series, here nods in the cinematography feel clichéd. And whilst the film segues straight into the events of A New Hope to cement its place in the canon, the inclusion of certain characters are wholly unnecessary. There's always one annoying CGI character and here it's a recreation of Peter Cushing's Grand Moff Tarkin, though he looks more like Dobby the House Elf. In the final scenes another certain someone turns up in laughable fashion...

At least the Rebels here feel like a proper underground Guerilla unit, a band of misfit soldiers risking their lives for the universe. The climactic battle at the end is brilliantly done, marrying gun battles and space fights, but the film as a whole - like its characters - is dispensable. The plot may give some interesting back story, but we all know how it ends anyway, leading to a finale of mixed emotions. But a Rebel Alliance who aren't simply 'the good guys' and do some actual proper rebelling? That's something to get behind.

Oh and all the 'boycott Rogue One' equality stuff going around? Bullshit.


Watch: Rogue One is out now.

Thursday 15 December 2016

Rent @ St James Theatre

Rent @ St James Theatre

Rent may have reached peak parody in the Team America: World Police film, but there's a reason it's become such a beloved musical over the last two decades: it remains a hugely powerful piece of storytelling.

That's as true as ever in this new 20th anniversary production at the St James Theatre that's soon to tour the country. It's rough, it's grimy, it's sexy and it's wonderfully imperfect.

It's cliché to see yet another 'raw and gritty' show, but that's absolutely the case here under the direction of Bruce Guthrie. The cast slither and pace across Anna Fleischle's detailed set that looks like it would genuinely smell if you got close enough (absolutely a compliment). Loren Elstein's costume and Betty Marini's hair and makeup design are also suitably rough yet creative for this bunch of artists, drag queens, lap dancers and vagabonds.

Yet it's the performances that show true grit, grounding the operatic melodrama (thanks to Puccini's La Bohème) in a dark and dangerous metropolis. From the depths of drug abuse, incurable disease and joblessness, a group of bohemians find sanctuary in each other. It's an arresting and riotous display of humanity with joyous highs, tragic lows and everything in between.

Layton Williams is a joy to watch as he slays his dance routines as the sassy cross-dressing Angel, but it's his relationship with Ryan O'Gorman's Tom Collins that's sensitive and deeply touching. Their partnership ripples across the remaining characters: the magnetic Maureen and Joanne (Lucie Jones and Shanay Holmes, offering awesome vocals), the flirtatious Mimi (Philippa Stefani) and conflicted Roger (Ross Hunter), and Billy Cullum's Mark Cohen still finding his feet in the world. They may tick boxes for equality and diversity, but rarely do musical theatre characters feel so real and with such current relevancy, even twenty years after the show premiered.

Musically, the cast and band certainly do justice to Larson's incredible score, wringing out every ounce of feeling amongst sweat and tears. Each song is not just an infectious hit but an explosion of emotion sung with clarity and soul, and accompanied by some emphatic choreography from Lee Proud. It's not always perfectly polished but that only adds to the show's appeal: the cracks only make the characters more human, the actors' performances more real.

This Rent is a goosebump inducing ride, a gut-wrenching production that's as life-affirming as it is tragic, as draining for the audience as it is for the actors. Seize the moment and see this show - there's no day but today.


Watch: Rent runs at the St James Theatre until 28th January, before touring the country.

Dreamgirls @ The Savoy Theatre

Dreamgirls @ The Savoy Theatre

Over the years, Dreamgirls has become associated with some huge names - from its breakout star Jennifer Holliday (who went on to win a Tony for her performance), to the likes of Beyoncé and Jennifer Hudson. In this new production at the Savoy - the first in the West End - it's the turn of Glee's Amber Riley to take on the formidable role of Effie White.

Does she do the role justice? Hell yes, and then some.

Far more than just a flashy diva with a powerhouse vocal, Riley's Effie embodies female empowerment - a woman determined to reach stardom off her own back, yet tragically self-sabotaged by her own ambition. She's a character who resonates some thirty-five years after the show premiered on Broadway, fighting against a patriarchal music industry and refusing to be manipulated into another's success.

Yet there's more to Dreamgirls than the struggles of one would-be star. It's a show about showbiz and a cutthroat music industry; about the clash of business and relationships; about the power of sisterhood and female emancipation; and about black sexuality in a white-dominated world. And as a backbone there's the rise of R&B music through the 60s girls groups that inspired the plot (namely The Supremes), embedding the show in the history of pop music.

Still, nothing can distract from Riley's stunning vocal performance. Sitting somewhere between the raw depth of Holliday and the smoother pop sound of Hudson, her voice is technical perfection with precise runs and crystal top notes. She balances sweetness and sass in an endearingly youthful concoction that belies a strength and maturity bubbling beneath the surface. That erupts in her impassioned, gut-wrenching rendition of "And I Am Telling You..." that quite rightly had the audience roaring with appreciation at this particular performance and for the remaining showtime the merest quiver of her lips was enough to draw gasps.

Supporting her are a hugely talented cast who stand strong in their own right. Liisa LaFontaine is an arrestingly beautiful Deena Jones whose pure voice is the ideal foil to Riley's Effie, whilst Ibinabo Jack's Lorrell Robinson is far from the 'poor Michelle' of this sensational trio. Then there's Adam J Bernard's Jimmy Early proving the men can entertain as much as the women, and Tyrone Huntley offers silky vocals as C.C. White.

Matching the narrative is a set that cleverly changes perspective as we glimpse behind the scenes of each show-stopping performance, the characters wearing beautifully crafted costumes dripping with jewels and sequins. Alongside a tight band, the show is an aural and visual spectacle that marries the best of live theatre and pop music. It is simply unmatched in the West End and after such a huge wait, audiences are likely to be hungry for quite some time.

Dreamgirls works on every level, from a richly layered narrative to pure entertainment. It's a production that shows the glamour and hardship of showbiz in every element. Polished choreography and high production values dazzle, but it's the raw performances that prove this dream of a show has real soul.


Watch: Dreamgirls runs at the Savoy Theatre until May 2017.

Dreamgirls @ The Savoy Theatre