Out on Friday 16 December
Rogue One finally storms into cinemas. Daisy Ridley guides you through the world of eagle hunting. Eugène Green delivers his own Nativity story.
Yes, here's this week's new releases. Click on for our reviews of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, The Eagle Huntress, The Son of Joseph, Uncle Howard, and Through the Wall.
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Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
“...Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR...” This vague line from the opening crawl to Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope is the launchpad for Rogue One, Disney’s first ‘Star Wars Story’: a standalone movie that falls outside of the Episode structure.
If you’re looking for an update on Rey, Finn, Kylo and co., you’ll have to wait until , in 2017. In the meantime, this is a – whisper it – prequel filling in a gap that sets the wheels in motion on the Rebel Alliance’s explosive victory in the first movie.
What the original trilogy did so well was hint at a world that was so much bigger than what you saw on screen, so do we really need a film like Rogue One? Based on this evidence, the answer is a victorious “Yahoo!”.
Like , Rogue has clearly been crafted with care and considerable attention to detail, and it unfurls a fascinating corner in the galaxy far, far away that’ll thrill fans as they revel in its meticulous world. It works in its own right as a full-blooded action adventure, though there’s no question it’ll mean more to those who’ve pored over trading cards and staged their own standalone stories with action figures.
While the storytelling is relatively lean, the plotting is more complex than A New Hope’s opening text would have you believe. We start with a prologue, where the connection between scientist Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) and the building of the Death Star is established, and Galen’s daughter, Jyn, goes into hiding.
As a wayward adult rebel (but not yet a Rebel), Jyn (Felicity Jones) is apathetic about galactic politics, but gets a chance to take a more active role when she’s sprung from a labour camp by a faction of the Rebel Alliance. She’s one thread in a plan that leads back to Galen, and his designs for the ultimate weapon. It’s here the mission begins, and there’s no letting up.
As with , the commitment to practical sets, real locations, in-camera effects and creature make-up conjures a tangible world, one that feels very much of a piece with the galaxy you grew up with; Rogue One never comes across as an ‘alternative’ Star Wars film. It fits comfortably with the series. Within this very much alive world, the stakes are clearly established, and the tension of intergalactic war hangs in the air.
More than , Rogue One gives a broader sense of the political landscape, and indeed the war that's playing out in the background: this actually feels like a war film, where loose lips could sink starships, and the line between goodies and baddies is ambiguously shaded.
Everyone from Riz Ahmed’s defected Imperial pilot to odd-couple warriors Chirrut and Baze (Donnie Yen and Wen Jiang) feels developed, and has a chance to shine without it feeling like arbitrary box ticking. Alan Tudyk steals all the laughs as K-2SO, a reprogrammed Imperial droid who’s something like a sassier, snarkier, tougher Threepio.
Jones is terrific in a role that's grittier and more badass than anything she's done before, and Diego Luna brings a mercenary edginess to Captain Cassian Andor. The only weak link is Forest Whitaker as Clone Wars character Saw Gerrera; his performance is hammier than Babe in a panto, and doesn't quite fit in.
Even on the Imperial side, sinister character actor extraordinaire Ben Mendelsohn largely reins it in as Imperial weapons head Director Krennic, exuding both menace and the frustration that comes with being a few links down the chain of command.
And of course, there's the small matter of Darth Vader's return. He's infrequently seen but keenly felt, and his brief appearance is catnip for fans, restoring his credibility after he was last seen howling "Nooooooooooooo" in Revenge of the Sith. The dark lord formerly known as Anakin is one of a handful of callbacks and references.
One CG-face will provide a fan thrill even if it's slightly at odds with the otherwise tactile surroundings, and certain crowd-pleasing references feel a bit more natural than others. Another disappointment to steel yourself for? Trailer breakout star Bistan – the Rebel gunner who looks like the offspring of Chewie and a Critter – has less screen time in the film than he has in the teasers.
In fact, several trailer moments don't make the film, which is the only hint at the heavily reported reshoot work that was done on the film. Beyond that, Rogue One feels remarkably coherent with no sense of a cut-and-shut job.
Standalone Star Wars Stories were always going to carry two innate risks. The first is that they'll feel smaller and less significant than the Episodes. The second is the danger that all prequels face: will audiences care if they already know how it ends?
The opening shot confirms that Rogue One is going to be anything other than Star Wars-lite, and everything from shots of locations, fallen Jedi temples and the Death Star itself feel wholly ‘big screen’, with Edwards frequently demonstrating his knack for scale. And despite the fact viewers ostensibly know the outcome, Rogue One grips till the very end.
The biggest surprise is quite how emotional it is, with several scenes – and one holo-message in particular – primed to (force)choke you up. Rogue One might trade heavily in nostalgia but it's bold enough to take risks, and will leave you stirred, fired up and raring for more. Now, if only there was a follow-up we could go away and watch immediately…
THE VERDICT: Proof that Star Wars prequels can work, Rogue One is a rousing action-packed epic, that's a treat for fans and one of the best blockbusters of the year.
Director: Gareth Edwards; Starring: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Alan Tudyk; Theatrical release: December 15, 2016
The Eagle Huntress
As uplifting as it is stunning, this doc follows smiley, scene-stealing 13-year-old Aisholpan’s quest to become the first eagle huntress on the Mongolian steppes. Part nature doco, part fly-on-the-wall look at local traditions (including elders who believe a girl’s place is in the yurt), it’s an empowering piece.
First-time director Otto Bell captures the region’s majesty, while Daisy Ridley’s no-nonsense narration transmits the toughness of Aisholpan’s challenge. Watching an eagle swoop onto her fist from a mountain that looks like the roof of the world, you can’t help but marvel at her guts and tenacity.
Director: Otto Bell; Starring: Aisholpan Nurgaiv, Daisy Ridley; Theatrical release: December 16, 2016
The Son of Joseph
Troubled teen Vincent (Victor Ezenfis) tracks down his dad (Mathieu Amalric), only to find a self-centred publisher in this meditation on fatherhood. Eugène Green’s (The Portuguese Nun) direction favours symmetry over emotion, while the impassive performance style recalls French auteur Robert Bresson.
It lacks the profundity to fully merit that comparison, but earns its uplifting ending.
Director: Eugène Green; Starring: Victor Ezenfis, Natacha Régnier, Fabrizio Rongione; Theatrical release: December 16, 2016
Aaron Brookner’s documentary about his uncle, a forgotten filmmaker, feels so personal it’s almost like reading a diary.
Howard Brookner may not be a familiar name, but his place in US indie film culture deserves recognition: among other things, he directed Madonna in Bloodhounds of Broadway before dying in 1989, aged 34. Here Brookner captures his uncle’s unique spirit and courage.
Director: Aaron Brookner; Starring: Aaron Brookner, John Giorno, Jim Jarmusch; Theatrical release: December 16, 2016
Through the Wall
After arranged-marriage drama Fill the Void, Israeli writer/director Rama Burshtein heads into romcom territory.
Despite being jilted, Michal (Noa Kooler) goes ahead with her wedding; she’s sorted the dress, venue and guests so, she reasons, “God should not have too much trouble finding me a groom.” Kooler convinces, but it feels like TV sketches, with not enough laughs.
Director: Rama Burshtein; Starring: Noa Koler Shimi, Tamam Yoss, Oz Zehavi, Irit Sheleg, Roni Merhavi; Theatrical release: December 16, 2016