Rogue One: A Star Wars Story


The empire strikes first.

The empire strikes first.

(2016) Science Fiction (Disney/Lucasfilm) Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Alan Tudyk, Donnie Yen, Wen Jiang, Guy Henry, Forest Whitaker, Riz Ahmed, Mads Mikkelsen, Jimmy Smits, Alistair Petrie, Genevieve O’Reilly, Ben Daniels, Paul Kasey, Stephen Stanton (voice), Ian McElhinney, Fares Fares, James Earl Jones (voice), Warwick Davis, Peter Cushing, Anthony Daniels, Ingvild Della. Directed by Gareth Edwards

 

Most movies, particularly those that build entire worlds and mythologies, leave tantalizing questions. Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope is no different. Some of those questions were answered by the three prequel films. However, one tantalizing bit of information – how did the Rebel Alliance get the plans for the Death Star – remained unknown. Until now.

Jyn Erso (Jones) is the daughter of a brilliant scientist (Mikkelsen) who has been shanghaied by the Empire into building a new super-weapon – a planet killer called the Death Star. The elder Erso convinces a freighter pilot (Ahmed) to defect and carry a message to Saw Gerrera (Whitaker), a former Alliance member who found the Alliance not radical enough for his taste and had holed up on the occupied moon of Jedha. When Alliance intelligence officer Cassian Andor (Luna) discovers this, he helps spring Jyn out of a rebel prison and takes her to the Alliance to propose that she introduce him to Gerrera, who is almost like family to her.

Jyn sees the message sent to Gerrera and realizes that her dad has left a flaw in the system, a flaw that the Rebellion can exploit to destroy the planet killer but in order to do that they’ll either have to retrieve her father from an Imperial work camp or the plans from an archive on a closely guarded tropical planet. Accompanied by the blind monk Chirrut (Yen) who believes in the Force and fights like he’s dialed into it, and his friend the gruff sharp-shooter Baze (Jiang), they go to fetch Jyn’s dad. Unfortunately, hot on their trail is Director Orson Krennic (Mendelsohn) and Governor Moff Tarkin (Henry/Cushing) along with the Emperor’s new Lord of the Sith…one Darth Vader (Jones).

This is the darkest of the Star Wars films and by a lot. In order for the story to work, the odds have to be incredibly long and the Empire has to be justifiably evil. Both of those are true and it feels more realistic; the rebels don’t sail in and save the day at the last minute. It gets messy.

Jones makes for a nifty heroine in the franchise. She’s tough, she’s clever and she has good reason to do what she does. She’s no idealist but when push comes to shove she is in this for all the right reasons. Jones is an Oscar-nominated actress who is becoming one of the most reliable actresses in the business now. She’s the perfect choice to play Jyn.

The rest of the cast boasts some impressive names and more than a few familiar ones from previous episodes, mainly in cameo form (Anthony Daniels shows up for just a few lovely moments as C3PO. Tudyk provides most of the comic relief as a re-programmed imperial war droid K-2SO and Whitaker is impressive as the fanatical Gerrera who is almost all prosthetics now.

The special effects are just what you’d expect them to be; the best in the business. The climactic fight has as many moving parts to them as you’ve ever seen in a Hollywood movie and the environments created are realistic and yet alien all at once. You are immersed in the environments, be they an Imperial garrison, a desolate asteroid, or the re-constructed Death Star itself.

Perhaps the most impressive special effect is bringing back the late Peter Cushing, who’s been dead for 24 years, as the odious Tarkin whose foul stench Princess Leia recognized in the very first Star Wars movie. Using a motion actor (Henry) to approximate the late actor’s build, the face of Cushing is digitally projected on Henry’s body and his voice synthesized. It is actually pretty unsettling in many ways. It doesn’t exactly bring Cushing back to life but it comes closer than anything I’ve ever seen. I wouldn’t be surprised if the movie won a special effects Oscar just for that.

This is a marvelous film that hits every right note. If you’re a fan of the franchise, you’re likely to be quite satisfied with what you get here (and if you’re a fan of the franchise, you’ve likely seen it more than once already as I have). If you’re not a fan of the franchise, chances are this won’t make you one – while it does make a fine stand-alone movie, knowledge of what happened in the first Star Wars film is extremely helpful in understanding what is going on here. The only drawback is that some fans of the series might find the tone too dark – it certainly isn’t your father’s Star Wars. Nor should it be.

REASONS TO GO: This is a real change in tone from the other Star Wars films. The special effects are absolutely amazing.
REASONS TO STAY: It might be a little bit too dark for the hardcore fans.
FAMILY VALUES:  A fair amount of action, some of it strongly violent and of a sci-fi nature.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  This is the first Star Wars movie not to feature the iconic scrolling text at the beginning of the film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/3/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Bridge on the River Kwai
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Underfire: The Untold Story of PFC Tony Vaccaro

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Saw 3D


Saw 3D
Betsy Russell goes on the Saw workout with remarkable results.

(2010) Horror (Lionsgate) Tobin Bell, Cary Elwes, Costas Mandylor, Betsy Russell, Sean Patrick Flanery, Chad Donella, Gina Holden, Laurence Anthony, Dean Armstrong, Naomi Snieckus, Rebecca Marshall, James van Patten, Anne Greene. Directed by Kevin Greutert

This is a film that visibly demonstrates the virtues of leaving while you’re on top. But the question is, is this franchise doing that or going out with a whimper?

Again, because of the possibility of spoilers for previous films in the series that you may not have seen and might want to (trust me, the series goes down a bit better if you know the mythology front to back). The apprentice of Jigsaw (Bell) has escaped the trap of Jigsaw’s wife (Russell) who now goes to the police in the person of Detective Matt Gibson (Donella).

In the meantime the apprentice is setting his sights on Bobby Dagen (Flanery), a survivor from a previous Jigsaw trap who has written a self-help book on the subject and has become the flavor of the week more or less. In the meantime, the police once again think they’re closing in – but when the fur flies, the body count will rise and the end comes thanks to a surprise character from the first movie who turns out to be the most surprising twist of all.

Greutert, who had hoped to direct Paranormal Activity 2 but was forced to direct this due to a contractual obligation, continues the formula that has sustained this series through seven films and the wear and tear is beginning to show. There is nothing here that really differentiates it from the other films in the series.

Part of my issue with the film is that there was never much doubt about what the outcome was going to be with each individual trap. Greutert would ratchet up the suspense but then well, you get the picture. This happens with each and every trap without fail. It would have been nice if there had been at least a smidgeon of a possibility that someone would get away but by the last few traps it was just a matter of waiting for the damn thing to go off.

The cast here is solid as always, although as with all the Saw films after the third one, it sorely misses Jigsaw as a contemporary force. Like the last three movies, the seventh movie only shows Jigsaw in flashback and thus the movie is robbed of its most interesting character. Elwes, the best-known of the cast, reprises his role from the first film in what is essentially an extended cameo. He looks a little embarrassed to be there, to be honest. Hope the paycheck was good.

Props must be given to the producers for not going the cheap route and doing this in 3D conversion; it’s actually filmed in 3D and the effects for such are pretty amazing. However be aware that those 3D home video sets that use the darker glasses, the movie is pretty dimly lit to begin with and you might have trouble seeing some of the things going on.

I admit there is a vicarious thrill in watching people get offed in such fiendishly clever ways, and usually the victims deserve their fates although the two-timing wench from the movie’s prologue might have received a somewhat extreme punishment for her crime. Still, the franchise has undoubtedly run out of steam and while seeing the surviving victims from past movies come together in a support group session was one of the movie’s highlights, this is definitely a series that is ready to at the very least take a long break and regroup, if not sail off into the sunset altogether.

WHY RENT THIS: Lots of blasts from the past. This is supposed to conclude the franchise so if you followed it this far…

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Not a very satisfying conclusion and a bit of a letdown. The traps lack any kind of suspense.

FAMILY VALUES: There is violence and blood and torture and bad language but no sexuality to speak of.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Was the second straight film in the series to feature a winner of the “Scream Queens” reality television series in a featured role; Gabby West here, Tanedra Howard (who also appears here) in Saw VI.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray edition has a featurette on every trap from every film in the series – all 52 of them.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $136.2M on a $20M production budget; the movie was a blockbuster.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Six Days of Darkness concludes!