stan-the-movie-man-default

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.

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send emails to stanthemovieman@comcast.net.

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—

Passengers—

Sing—

Why Him?—

stan-the-movie-man-default

Review of “Doctor Strange”

Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a brilliant but arrogant neurosurgeon. He takes on cases that are difficult but he feels he can help the patient recover and live while turning down cases he is concerned might besmirch his perfect record. His former girlfriend Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) is a trauma surgeon in the same hospital. While they are no longer in a relationship they are still friends. While driving to an awards banquet in his honor, Strange has a car crash that severely damages his hands. The nerve damage is so severe he can no longer operate. Strange is lost and searching for some kind of remedy while at the same time driving Christine away with his self-pity and lashing out. His physical therapist tells Strange about a former patient of his named Jonathan Pangborn (Benjamin Bratt) who had a spinal cord injury that confined him to a wheelchair but had found a treatment that let him walk again. Finding Pangborn playing basketball with his friends, Strange begs to find out how he was cured. Pangborn tells him to go to Kamar-Taj in Tibet. As Strange is walking through the streets of Kathmandu asking people if they know where Kamar-Taj is, he is seen by Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Saving Strange from some street thugs looking to rob him, Mordo takes Strange to Kamar-Taj to meet The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), a teacher of the mystic arts. Showing Strange there are other realities besides the one he knows, Strange begins to study and soon is able to cast spells that conjure shields and weapons as well as open portals that allow instant transportation to just about anywhere on the planet. The Ancient One also teaches Strange about the dangerous realms where creatures of great evil dwell and to avoid being seduced by their power. She tells him of one of her former students, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), who was tempted by a dark power and is trying to use a forbidden spell stolen from The Ancient One’s library to open our world up to being taken over by this evil creature. Kaecilius and his followers have attacked and destroyed one of the three sanctums that protect the Earth from threats of the metaphysical kind. It’s now up to Strange to use his newfound powers to protect the Earth from Kaecilius and a dark evil from another dimension.

“Doctor Strange” is a middling entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It doesn’t have the emotional punch of “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” of even the first “Iron Man” film. It has some interesting ideas about realms beyond this universe and terrific performances from Benedict Cumberbatch, Tilda Swinton, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Benedict Wong. It also has some of the same problems as many other comic book movies.

My biggest issue with the movie is the miscast villain. Mads Mikkelsen is a great actor as he has shown in the TV show “Hannibal” and numerous movies. Kaecilius is a role that doesn’t allow Mikkelsen to use his great ability of quiet menace. Kaecilius is a flashy villain that casts spells and makes a big show of his power. While Mikkelsen does an admirable job of portraying Kaecilius as both thoughtful and ruthless, the part doesn’t match up to the actor’s strengths. Either the role needed to be written with less action, allowing Kaecilius’ acolytes to do all the fighting and running and he gets to be quiet and menacing, or another actor should have been cast. The part of the action villain doesn’t really fit Mikkelsen.

The story also lacks emotional heft. It never made me feel like the characters were the kinds of people that I was concerned for. At times, I wanted worse things to happen to Strange as after the accident he becomes even more self-obsessed and cruel, especially to Rachel McAdams’ Christine Palmer who shows him nothing but concern and compassion. I realize the character has to be portrayed as selfish in order for him to come around and be a hero but the script by director Scott Derrickson along with Jon Spaihts and C. Robert Cargill does almost too good a job at making Strange a monster before putting him on the path or redemption.

Speaking of McAdams, she is criminally underused in the film. While her character, which shares the name of a comic book character known as the Night Nurse, might have a recurring role in future films, it will likely be either as a damsel in distress or as a love interest for the hero: In other words, more of the same for women in comic book movies. McAdams does a great job in the limited time she has on screen but both the actress and the character could have done a great deal more other than being a stereotypical doormat for Strange.

Aside from those problems, “Doctor Strange” is at times a visual acid trip. While I’ve never personally used a hallucinogen I can’t imagine the sights being much different than those when The Ancient One sends Strange on a quick journey into the multiverse. Between that and when Strange and Mordo battle Kaecilius and his followers in what looks to be a M. C. Escher-inspired New York landscape, “Doctor Strange” has some of the most inspired visuals of any MCU film. The non-acid trip parts of the movie look great too, including the car crash that ironically starts Doctor Strange on his journey and the introduction of the Cloak of Levitation which seems to have a personality that both matches and clashes with the wearer. There are some genuinely amazing sights to see in “Doctor Strange.”

I saw the IMAX 3D version and while the added dimension really never pops off the screen in an entertaining way, the larger format certainly made the movie feel more immersive. Still I don’t know if the added cost was worth it.

“Doctor Strange” is rated PG-13 for sci-fi violence and action throughout, and an intense crash sequence. The violence is both fantastical and intense. Kaecilius and his followers conjure spears that look like glass. There is also a whip that is made of orange energy that looks like it burns. While it isn’t directly shown, one character is beheaded. Another character appears to lose an arm. There are numerous fights of both the magical and non-magical kind. Blood is minimal. The car crash, while clearly computer generated, might scare smaller children. Strange is shown being thrown around inside the car and his hands being crushed. Foul language is scattered and consists of words often heard on basic cable shows.

For all its mind-bending visuals and talk of the multiverse, “Doctor Strange” is a pretty conventional superhero origin story. Stephen Strange is a flawed character that needs something extraordinary to open his eyes to the world (and worlds) beyond his knowledge. Most who become super beings from relatively normal beginnings bring along some kind of flaw or issue that needs to receive an other worldly kick in the pants to straighten them out. Much like Tony Stark and Thor Odinson, Stephen Strange was presented with a problem he couldn’t fix and had to set aside his ego to become a better person. As superhero origin stories go “Doctor Strange” isn’t breaking any new ground. It also doesn’t give us an emotional connection to the characters that would set this film above the middle of the Marvel pack. It isn’t great but it is pretty good.

“Doctor Strange” gets four magical stars out of five.

This week, the holidays arrive early, the help arrives to find strangeness afoot and the aliens just arrive. I’ll see and review at least one of the following:

Almost Christmas—

Arrival—

Shut In—

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send emails to stanthemovieman@comcast.net.