Review of “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

The relaunch of “Star Wars” last year with “The Force Awakens” and plans to release other films that filled in backstory for some main characters and events had some people asking the question, “Is this too much ‘Star Wars’?” As long as films like “Rogue One” are what’s coming out of Lucasfilm and Disney Studios the answer is a resounding “NO!”

Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) in an angry and directionless young woman. Her father Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) was taken by Director Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) to oversee the building of the Empire’s massive planet-killing weapon called the Death Star when Jyn was a small child. In the process, Jyn saw her mother killed by Krennic’s Death Troopers. Hiding in a prearranged location, Jyn is rescued by a friend of her parents named Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) who is a leader in the growing resistance movement against the Empire. Now an adult, Jyn lives under a false name and does whatever is necessary to survive. Captured using forged documents, Jyn is being held at an Imperial work camp when she is freed by a group of Rebels and brought before the resistance council. She is told her father is still alive and working on a massive weapon for the Empire. An Imperial freighter pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) has recently defected and has information about the new weapon but is being held by Gerrera who is now waging his own personal war against the Empire and is no longer affiliated with the main group. The council wants Jyn to be a bridge between the two factions and get Gerrera to give them access to what the pilot knows. Taking her to Bodhi’s location will be Captain Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and a reprogrammed Imperial droid called K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk). Arriving on the planet Jedah, the rebels find it crawling with Imperial troops and ships. They try to keep a low profile but soon become involved in a fight started by some of Gerrera’s soldiers. During this fight they meet Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen), a blind former guard at the now overrun Jedi temple, and his friend Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen). Both men are handy in a fight and quickly help in taking out the Imperial troops; but they are all captured by Gerrera’s men. Jyn and Gerrera have an awkward reunion and he shows her a holographic message recorded by Galen and smuggled out by the pilot. Galen talks about why he built the weapon and that he knows a way to destroy it. He also talks of his love for Jyn and hopes that she is still alive. Just then the Death Star enters orbit over Jedah and targets the city near where Jyn and the other rebels are as both a low-power test and a demonstration of the awful weapon the Empire possesses.

That entire plot synopsis happens early in the film. The really exciting and “OH WOW” stuff doesn’t happen until later. “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” is packed with excellent story, action, adventure, humor and more. It may be the best film in the entire canon.

Starting with the visuals, “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” is a masterpiece. The special effects are integrated seamlessly with the real backgrounds as the production traveled all over the world to find their numerous planetary landscapes. Everything from the towering AT-AT’s walking and shooting at rebel soldiers on a beautiful sandy and palm-lined beach to a simple shot of a ship’s shadow gliding along the rocky terrain below it, the filmmakers and special effects crews have done an amazing job creating the visual world of “Rogue One.”

The story of the film, how the Rebel Alliance got the plans for the Death Star, is something that was just given a quick mention in “Star Wars” and didn’t really have much information with it. Coming up with a fresh and interesting story that still fits in perfectly with the well-known canon of “Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope” must have been a challenge. It is a combination of being tied to the original movie while also having a huge playground of previously unknown characters. It could have gone wildly off the rails and felt like watching a contortionist trying to fit himself into a box. Instead, writers Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy, working from a story by John Knoll and Gary Whitta, manage to expand what we know about the rebellion and make some sense of a more troubling part of the original “Star Wars;” namely why there was this small but catastrophic flaw in the design of the Death Star. For fans of the series, it turns that one aspect of the original film, which was probably just a storytelling shortcut by writer George Lucas, from a liability into something that make sense. It is what some would call retconning and view as a weakness. I see it as amazing storytelling.

While “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” could be a viewer’s first foray into the world of “Star Wars” and find plenty to enjoy, fans of the original trilogy will see brief glimpses of familiar faces and find characters played by long-dead or much aged actors resurrected and rejuvenated by digital manipulation. There are even bits of unused scenes from the original movie that have been integrated seamlessly into the film. It boggles the mind at how creative some filmmakers are and how technology allows at least one actor, dead since 1994, to be brought back to life and play a major role.

As much as I am gushing over the film and I do love it and will see it again soon, there is one minor quibble I have with the development and evolution of Jyn Erso. We see her first as a victim: A child that watches her mother murdered and her father stolen away. Then we see her as an adult and she’s angry and a criminal that isn’t interested in the rebellion until she discovers her father is still alive. Then after seeing his message to her, Jyn enthusiastically joins the Rebels and practically becomes their leader. Her transformation doesn’t feel legitimate. It happens so quickly and with nothing but that one message, Jyn’s newfound loyalty to the cause feels unearned. It is a convenient way to have a female hero in what has been a largely male dominated film series. I understand the desire to have another strong female lead (along with Daisy Ridley’s Rey and of course Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia) and maybe there are other scenes that didn’t make the final cut of the film that would have made her change of heart make more emotional sense; but, what we see on screen here feels like a short cut.

“Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” is rated PG-13 for sci-fi violence and action. There are numerous explosions, blasters fired and spaceships destroyed in the film. We see one character shoot a man in the back. There are various fights. A large slug-like creature with tentacles envelopes one character while trying to get information from him. A small child is shown in danger during an attack on a street. There is no foul language.

If the rumors are to be believed, the making of “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” might make a good movie itself. There were extensive reshoots and while Disney says they were always planned some have said the studio wasn’t happy with the tone and the last act of early cuts of the film. A well-known script doctor was brought in and may have been on set more for the reshoots than director Gareth Edwards. For a time, some thought this film may be something of a catastrophe. All the rumors and speculation about a troubled production and stitched together final product are either blown way out of proportion or this might be the new model for making giant blockbuster movies. “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” will quicken the pulse of any long-time fan while also providing a way in to anyone that has somehow avoided seeing any of the movies in the nearly 40 year old franchise. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to give Lucasfilm and Disney some more of my money by seeing the movie again.

“Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” gets five guitars.

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There likely won’t be any posted reviews for the next couple of weeks due to the holidays. That doesn’t mean I won’t see anything but I just won’t be posting a review for it other than perhaps a paragraph. Here’s what’s coming out in wide release over the next couple of weeks:

Assassin’s Creed—



Why Him?—

Review of “Arrival”

Are we alone in the Universe? It’s a question that has been asked practically since the first conscious human looked up at the night sky filled with stars. Throughout history the answer has varied between “we are alone” to “maybe there’s someone out there.” Now after the discoveries of thousands of planets orbiting other stars by the Kepler space probe the answer is almost certainly “there must be other intelligent life out there.” With hundreds of billions of galaxies in the observable universe each with hundreds of billions of stars the probability of at least one world with intelligent life must be high. It makes speculating about what that life might look like, how it would communicate, how far has their technology advanced and the myriad other questions rather overwhelming. Just as head spinning is contemplating how our world would react to the sudden appearance of intelligent extraterrestrial creatures landing in various locations around the planet. Would we welcome them with open arms? Would we prepare for war? Would there be panic in the streets and suicides of those that see the visitors as harbingers of the End Times? With the vast distances between stars and the apparent impossibility of faster than light travel we’ll probably never know for sure if there’s someone up there looking back in our direction wondering if there’s anyone else in the universe. But what if that question was answered for us with the appearance of 12 otherworldly spacecraft showing up in random places around the world? What would we do?

The world is thrown into a panic by the appearance of 12 unidentified flying objects landing in 12 different areas on the planet. Every 18 hours a door opens at the bottom of each craft allowing access to the interior. A breathable atmosphere and appropriate gravity is provided for those that wish to enter. One of the spacecraft has landed in Montana and the Army and CIA have set up a research base nearby. Linguist Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is approached by the Army’s Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) to help the government decipher the strange language of the aliens. They bring her and astrophysicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to the site and tell them to get to work on figuring out why the aliens are here and what they want. Starting slowly with simple words and concepts, Banks and Donnelly begin to figure out the complicated symbols the aliens use for communication. Other countries around the world are also working to figure out how to communicate with the creatures, referred to as Heptapods because of their seven legs, and all the scientists are connected and sharing information. When the Chinese translate a message from the Heptapods as “use weapon” they take it as a threat and plan on destroying the ship. Other nations also begin preparations for an attack and communications is cut off amongst all the scientists. Banks believes the alien language is far more complicated and “weapon” could mean “tool” depending on the context. Banks is also experiencing vivid dreams and hallucinations. She must work fast to decipher what the aliens mean in order to prevent a possible war.

“Arrival” is a complex film that almost defies description. This is in part because too much information about the story will ruin what is a deliciously complex narrative structure. While it seems perfectly normal to start, the longer the movie goes the more confused you may get. All I can do is encourage you to stay with it and pay attention as the payoff of all the twistiness is well worth it.

“Arrival” has no death ray guns and no space battles but what it does have is the kind of speculative and smart science fiction that is difficult to pull off and far too rare. This is the kind of movie that knows it will split the audience into two camps: Those that love it and those that hate it with very few people in the middle and I definitely fall on the love it side.

For all the scientific mumbo-jumbo, the story is far more personal and down-to-earth than one might expect. The focus of the film is how this experience is taking an emotional toll on Banks and in a broader sense the rest of the world. Banks is buried in her work and ignoring all the political pressure building around her until the world is about to boil over in violence. Fear of the unknown other also affects the soldiers at the base leading to an act of violence. It is a less than subtle metaphor for the political situation in some countries forced to deal with the realities of Syrian civil war refugees, terrorism and the rise of nationalism. If filming hadn’t taken place in mid-2015 you’d think it was a product of the times.

Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker are all fantastic in their roles. None is flashy or over the top in their portrayal of people faced with a situation for which none of us could be prepared. The acting is subtle, controlled and believable. You may not like the decisions or attitudes of the characters all the time but you can’t argue that any of them behave in a way that isn’t consistent with the story or with what we know about them.

“Arrival” is rated PG-13 for brief strong language. There is only widely scattered foul language.

I like how the story of “Arrival” doesn’t explain everything even when we reach the end. There are questions to contemplate about how any of us would deal with the outcome of our first alien encounter as well as the larger questions posed by the movie. A person in the audience at the showing I saw asked the people she was with, “What was this movie about?” If she had asked me I would have said it’s about practically anything your mind wants to construct from what you’ve seen. For many far less well constructed films that would be a negative; but with “Arrival” it is a compliment. It’s the kind of film that could have multiple meanings figured out with each viewing. A movie that makes you think beyond its running time: What a bizarre concept.

“Arrival” gets five guitars and I insist you see it immediately!

There are five new movies in theatres this week running the gamut from coming-of-age angst to post-war stress. I’ll see and review at least one of the following:

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk—

Bleed For This—

The Edge of Seventeen—

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them—


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Review of “Taken 3”

Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson) arrives at the apartment of his daughter Kim (Maggie Grace) just after she has taken a pregnancy test and learns she is expecting. Taken by surprise by his visit, Kim doesn’t tell Bryan about the pregnancy. Later, Bryan’s ex-wife Lenore (Famke Janssen) arrives at Bryan’s apartment and tells him of her marital problems with her current husband Stuart St. John (Dougray Scott). Lenore and Bryan kiss but Bryan tells her they shouldn’t do anything until she works out her issues with Stuart. She leaves and the next day, Stuart shows up at Bryan’s apartment. After some small talk, Stuart asks Bryan to stay away from Lenore while they work on their marriage. Bryan reluctantly agrees. The next morning, Bryan gets a text from Lenore asking him to pick up bagels as she is on her way to talk. When Bryan returns with the bagels he finds a bloody knife in the hallway and Lenore dead in his bed with a slit throat. As he’s trying to revive her, police enter with guns drawn believing Bryan has killed Lenore. Bryan manages to escape and contacts his old covert crew including Sam (Leland Orser) for help in disappearing for a while so he can figure out who killed Lenore and why he was set up. Investigating Lenore’s murder and also looking for Bryan is Inspector Franck Dotzler (Forest Whitaker). Dotzler and his team are aware of Bryan’s background to an extent but are unprepared for all the tactics he will use to remain free, look for the killers and protect Kim. Meanwhile, someone owes Russian mobster Oleg Malankov (Sam Spruell) a great deal of money and he’s willing to kill anyone to get it back. Somehow, all of this is connected.

“Taken 3” is about what you’d expect from the third installment of an action series. I wasn’t expecting much and I wasn’t surprised when I didn’t get much. Perhaps it’s time for Bryan Mills to find a secluded island in the middle of the ocean and move everyone he knows there to protect them. That way, they won’t be taken by anyone ever again…please.

There is so much wrong with “Taken 3” it is difficult to know where to start. Perhaps it should be from the beginning with the opening credits. The best way to describe them is “jumpy.” As the image of an evening cityscape shift from picture to picture, it transitions with a bit of blurriness along with the name of the actor switching positions on the screen. Something about this style hit me wrong, putting me in a less than friendly mood to critique the movie. Even if they credits had made me feel like the king of the world, the rest of the movie would have brought me back to Earth.

While “Taken 3” is predictable with even a plot twist near the end being telegraphed from a mile away, it is also a rather confused mess. Various plot points are picked up and dropped with such speed it makes you wonder if the projector operator had switched movies. The script can’t decide who it should focus on (despite Liam Neeson’s Bryan being the obvious choice) so it uses a scattershot approach that causes the film to feel disjointed. The movie is edited in a similar fashion making the story drag on in areas where it should only visit for a moment while important bits get just a passing glance.

With a PG-13 rating “Taken 3” has to keep a tight lid on its violence and language. The filmmakers seem to have a real problem with that when it is compared to the first film of the series. “Taken,” also rated PG-13, had the feel of a much more violent, gritty movie. The action scenes felt more painful and the memory I have of the film is much more blood-soaked than is perhaps the reality. “Taken 3” is so bloodless it feels anemic. Even scenes where there should be an enormous amount of blood have little or none. One scene in particular stuck out when Bryan and another man engage in a gunfight. One of them is not wearing a shirt and is shot twice in the abdomen. The other man then sticks the barrel of his gun in the wound to try and get some information. All the while, there is no blood coming from the wounds or is visible anywhere on or around his body. While I’m not a doctor, I believe a wound in the abdomen would probably squirt blood like a fountain. The floor and both men should have been covered in blood. This may make me sound like a bloodthirsty ghoul but the reality of the situation called for some red fluid to be scattered about and it wasn’t. It makes the movie seem more like a high school play than a studio action film.

Another problem with the action is the way it is shot: Close camera, lots of edits and a shaky perspective. This is my trifecta of hate when it comes to movies and action scenes. This style is probably used to hide some things about the action such as the speed of the movements and the need to throw punches that don’t land. I can understand this but other stunt coordinators are able to simulate realistic fights that don’t require putting the camera a half inch from the actors and on a paint shaker.

While “Taken 3” is a kind of middle-aged man wish fulfillment, it often stretches credibility past the breaking point when it comes some of Bryan’s escapes from certain death. Without giving too much away, Bryan seems to be able to disappear and reappear at will. One car crash is shot in such a way that he couldn’t have escaped yet we are shown him doing just that in a flashback. While running from the police, Bryan just happens to run into a house with a trapdoor that leads to the sewers. Did he know the people in the house so he’d know the escape route is there? I don’t know as the movie doesn’t tell us. “Taken 3” also depends on many of Bryan’s plans going exactly as he expects; otherwise, he’s dead. He rarely has to improvise once he escapes the initial attempt to arrest him and even then, things always fall his way. If the moviemakers want us to care about Bryan that means we need to worry about him as well as like him. If he’s never in any serious trouble (even though we know he will probably survive to the end of the film) the audience won’t need to worry about his welfare. All heroes need to be in a certain amount of peril for us to empathize with them. While we don’t think about it from moment to moment, we are all in danger every second of our lives. Whether its crime, accidents, illness, asteroid/comet impact, other natural disasters or slipping in the tub, we all live with a certain amount of danger in our lives. Not to the extreme of the characters in the “Taken” movies but some bit of peril hangs over us every day. If Bryan isn’t tied up, beaten up, shot or otherwise imperiled, he is too much like a superhero and not enough like us.

“Taken 3” is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence/action and brief strong language. There are numerous fights and shooting in the film. The most graphic is one where a thug forces Bryan’s gun into his mouth and shoots himself. While there is a great deal of broken glass and shattered furniture in the film, there is no significant amount of blood and no gore. Foul language is scattered and limited largely to “s–t.” The film doesn’t take advantage of its one ratings-allowed “F-bomb.”

“Taken 3” could be looked at as another example of how Hollywood has run out of ideas. How many ways can someone connected to Bryan Mills be “taken” and how many ways are there for him to beat up and kill a bunch of nameless thugs to rescue them. It turns out there aren’t enough to fill up the running time of a third movie. “Taken 3” lacks originality, is painfully predictable and looks like it was edited with a food processor. The script, action and plot are all weak and despite Liam Neeson’s efforts the movie is a bit of a bore.

“Taken 3” gets two stars out of five.

This week, there are best men, snipers, hackers, detectives and bears on the menu.  I’ll review at least one of these films next week.

American Sniper–


Inherent Vice–


The Wedding Ringer–

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