ROGUE ONE (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 14 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Extended Sequences of Sci-Fi Action and Violence

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Directed by: Gareth Edwards

Written by: Chris Weitz & Tony Gilroy

Starring: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Donnie Yen, Mads Mikkelsen, Alan Tudyk, Riz Ahmed, Jiang Wen, Forest Whitaker & James Earl Jones

Now that STAR WARS Episode VII has gone down as the third-highest-grossing film of all-time, it seems that the Christmas season has also become STAR WARS season and will remain that way for the foreseeable future. ROGUE ONE is the first in a trilogy of standalone “anthology” films set in the STAR WARS universe. In other words, this is the first non-episode of STAR WARS and functions on its own plot that happens to take place a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away. Though not without flaws, ROGUE ONE is a spectacular new installment in the STAR WARS universe!

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Set after Episode III and before Episode IV, ROGUE ONE tells the story of how the Death Star plans fell into the hands of the Rebellion. Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) is the daughter of gifted scientist Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) who was recruited by the Empire when she was a young girl. Fifteen years later, Jyn is a rough-around-the-edges troublemaker and finds herself unwillingly “rescued” (captured) by Rebel Forces. The Empire has built a planet killer (the Death Star) and the Rebellion wishes to “take care” (assassinate) it’s creator Galen. However, Jyn discovers top-secret details that could save her father’s life as well as the crush the Empire’s greatest weapon altogether. Aided by gruff officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), sarcastic droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), nutty pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), blind warrior Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen) and heavily armed mercenary Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen), Jyn leads a rogue mission into enemy territory to steal the Death Star plans.

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It should say something about how well-executed ROGUE ONE is that I already knew how this movie would end thanks to Episode IV, yet still found myself on the edge of my seat and caught up in the heat of the moment. This movie’s focus is on a smaller, more contained story (even though it spans through galaxies and planets) about a group of outcasts trying to make a difference in the fight between good and evil. The plot is at-times simple to the point of relying on unnecessary, cheesy clichés in its first half. However, it all becomes totally satisfying and action-packed when every bit of build-up pays off during the film’s adrenaline-pumping second half.

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A few clichés aren’t the only nagging turbulence that ROGUE ONE encounters during its flight though, because the first 10 minutes had me worried about how the rest of the film would play out. There’s an obligatory prologue sequence, which felt like it belonged in a Disney cartoon as opposed to a STAR WARS story. After that bit of predictable clumsiness, the opening jumps around far too much as we get tons of character introductions and planetary settings (some of which don’t even come back into play and only exist to lay down groundwork)…for ten minutes straight! I was becoming seriously concerned with how the rest of this film would play out, but luckily the story become much more compelling and focused as it went along.

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ROGUE ONE’s performances are mostly solid with a couple of minor slip-ups. Felicity Jones makes a great leading lady and the second-best STAR WARS heroine thus far (not a massive compliment, but still worth something). Diego Luna starts off like so-so Han Solo imitator, but then becomes his own complicated character. Alan Tudyk steals much of the show as a blunt reprogrammed droid and receives a ton of well-earned laughs as a result. Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen are convincing as a pair of bad-ass heroes and unlikely friends, stealing certain moments and providing unexpected emotion later on.

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Riz Ahmed doesn’t add a ton to the proceedings, but makes the most of his brief scenes. Mads Mikkelsen and Forest Whitaker, the latter of which seems uncomfortable and embarrassingly inept as a raspy-voiced extremist, are both squandered as Gareth Edwards continues to waste great acting talent in a similar fashion to his throwaway role for Bryan Cranston in 2014’s GODZILLA. Finally, Ben Mendelsohn is believably scummy and despicable as the story’s main villain, making for a different kind of antagonist this time around.

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In the realm of technical accomplishments, ROGUE ONE features some of the best CGI I’ve seen in quite a while as familiar faces from the past reappear. Though the effects bringing these characters (you’ll know who I’m talking about when/if you see the movie) to life aren’t perfect, they did effectively trick my brain multiple times and also elicited a few gasps from audience members. The various alien species (not too many this time around) mostly seem to be executed through stellar make-up and puppetry. The space battles (regulated to the film’s second half) are appropriately exciting and emotional stakes throw greater impact into them. Again, we all know how this story ends thanks to Episode IV’s existence, but ROGUE ONE manages to keep us excited and entertained nonetheless.

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ROGUE ONE is easily my third-favorite STAR WARS film thus far (falling just beneath EMPIRE STRIKES BACK and A NEW HOPE). This film does things that the other STAR WARS episodes haven’t done before and feels remarkably refreshing as a result. As much as I liked THE FORCE AWAKENS, it’s essentially a buffed-up retread of A NEW HOPE and follows plot points that STAR WARS has previously covered many times before. ROGUE ONE is concerned about telling its own story. This tale is not without some flaws; thanks to Whitaker’s bad performance, a few clichés and the shaky opening. Still, it’s a cinematic tale that kept my adrenaline pumping, supplied a steady stream of well-earned laughs, was fueled by emotional stakes, and left me very satisfied as I left the theater. The ending of ROGUE ONE is likely to make you crave an immediate rewatch of Episode IV through new eyes…and cleverly fixes a major plot hole that fans have complained about for decades. Whether you’re watching it as a prequel, a sequel or a standalone story, if you’re a STAR WARS fan, then you’re bound to enjoy ROGUE ONE!

Grade: A-

STAR WARS Episode III: REVENGE OF THE SITH (2005)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 20 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sci-Fi Violence and some Intense Images

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Directed by: George Lucas

Written by: George Lucas

Starring: Ewan McGregor, Hayden Christensen, Natalie Portman, Ian McDiarmid, Samuel L. Jackson, Christopher Lee, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, Frank Oz, Matthew Wood, Jimmy Smits & Silas Carson

If you’ve sat through two iffy entries of a trilogy (PHANTOM MENACE, ATTACK OF THE CLONES) and the conclusion is immensely satisfying, does that make the entire trilogy worth watching? Hence, the big question that’s been circling in my brain after completing my re-watch of the STAR WARS prequel trilogy. Episode III is definitely the best of Lucas’s lesser three films. Everything has come full circle, making REVENGE OF THE SITH into the bleakest STAR WARS film to date. So much repressed misery, hate, fear and pain (as Yoda pointed out multiple times in the previous two films) in Anakin is unleashed. The film is not without a couple of problems, but REVENGE OF THE SITH is a legitimately good chapter in the STAR WARS saga.

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The Clone Wars are nearing an end, but two powerful separatist leaders remain. These are the Sith Lord Count Dooku and the monstrous General Grievous. After Senator Palpatine is kidnapped, Anakin and Obi-Wan lead a rescue that has unintended consequences. Mission being an overall success, the suspicious Palpatine befriends Anakin on a personal level and corrupts him. Thus the storyline that many were excited to see when the prequel trilogy was originally announced comes full circle. Friends are torn apart, lives are lost, and galaxy becomes a far darker place…

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If you haven’t seen the original trilogy, then you might still know vague details about what exactly happens in this film. Because it’s a prequel and the original trilogy is one of the most celebrated movie series of all time, the bombshell reveal at the end of Episode V has become cinematic joke at this point. Anakin Skywalker transforms into one of the biggest movie villains of all-time and the Empire becomes an omnipresent force of evil in the galaxy. A comparison has been made between the Empire and the Nazis in plenty of different articles and is a well-warranted description. The fall of democracy to dictatorship is believable in REVENGE OF THE SITH. Padme even says something along the lines of “This is how freedom ends. With cheers and applause.” The film does go out on a much-needed glimmer of hope with a final shot on a certain planet housing characters waiting to rise again to fight evil. It’s still a mighty depressing film. That’s exactly how it should be, considering the content.

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Something also needs to be said of how exciting and fast-paced SITH is. This is a movie that consists almost entirely of pay-off for all of the build-up seen in the previous two prequels. This also has far better constructed light saber duels than in the bombastic Episode I. Though there are a couple of battle scenes involving the clones vs. droids, a lot of one-on-one face-offs take place and there’s actual (God forbid) emotion thrown into them. In the opening, Dooku delivers a more exciting showdown than his appearance in Episode II. The half-alien, half-machine General Grievous is one of the best original characters in Episodes I-III and makes me wish he had a presence in the former two entries. He also presents more of a threat in a fight thanks to super strength and four light saber wielding arms. Excess paid off in this scene. Then there’s the massive climax that intercuts between Obi-Wan facing off against a too-far-gone Anakin and Yoda fighting the newly scarred Darth Sidious. I may be going on a little long about these battles, but they really are excellent action scenes paying off in a lot of plot development building for two long movies.

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The biggest problem with Episode III was seen in the last two movies. This would still be the utter blandness of Anakin. This isn’t helped by Hayden Christensen’s (a.k.a. Mannequin Skywalker’s) wooden delivery of lines that are supposed to be menacing. He looks threatening when he doesn’t have any lines of dialogue, but as soon as he opens his mouth, all fear goes out the window. As epic and spanning as the final fight sequence between Anakin and Obi-Wan may be, it could have packed even more of a punch if the previous films hadn’t delivered a so-so friendship between those two characters. I know this isn’t something REVENGE OF THE SITH can help as its own film. George Lucas is clearly doing his best to make up for all of his past prequel flaws, but the damage has been done. Episodes I-II have ever so slightly diminished what could have been a devastating, tear-jerking reaction of watching former friend turn on devoted mentor.

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Though it could have benefitted from a stronger performer in the titular role of Anakin Skywalker (something that both Episodes I-II suffer from), REVENGE OF THE SITH makes sitting through the previous two prequels feel worth it. In spite of how silly or annoying they were at times, I actually enjoyed revisiting the STAR WARS prequel trilogy and look forward to covering the better (older) trilogy in the future (before Episode VII hits in December 2015). Episode III is a satisfying chapter of how Darth Vader and the Empire are ultimately formed, while the galaxy falls into darkness. You’re likely to crave a viewing of Episode IV soon after seeing this, because it leads so well into it. Overall, REVENGE OF THE SITH transcends the other two prequels. I’d argue this is actually a good movie!

Grade: B

THE BELIEVERS (1987)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 54 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

16. Believers

Directed by: John Schlesinger

Written by: Mark Frost

(based on the novel THE RELIGION by Nicholas Conde)

Starring: Martin Sheen, Helen Shaver, Harley Cross, Robert Loggia & Jimmy Smits

This is one of those films that has a fantastic premise, but squanders the promise away by not taking advantage of it. Based on a 1982 novel, THE BELIEVERS was a financial success, but critics and audiences said that it was an average cult-satanic thriller. I really was hoping to dig it a lot, but by the end of the film, I had to agree with the majority. This is just average at best. Topped with overacting, convoluted plot-twists and a lackluster ending, THE BELIEVERS falls short of being great or even good.

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Cal Jamison is a psychiatrist who has just suffered a terrible loss. His wife died in an accident involving some liquid and a faulty coffee machine. Trying to get a fresh start on life, Cal and his young son, Chris, move to New York City. His move coincides with the sacrificial deaths of young children. It appears that a cult is on the loose on New York and they’re eyeballing Chris as a potential sacrifice. Anybody who crosses them winds up being punished in some horrible way, which usually results in death or agonizing pain. Can Cal stop the cult? Will he save his child? Is Voodoo creepy as hell? Also, will you care about any of this by the time the overlong running time has concluded. The answers are: maybe, maybe, definitely, and probably not.

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One of the many flaws gracing this could-have-been-so-much-better film involves Martin Sheen’s acting. I really wish the director or any of the cast members told him to dial it back. He seems to overdo every emotion he’s trying to portray. When he’s curious, he’s REALLY curious. When he’s angry, he yells every single syllable with emphasis! I would say that there were other emotions involved, but aside from two scenes of sadness and one moment of love, those are the only traits of his character. So what about this angry/curious man’s young child. He’s one of the more annoying kid actors I’ve seen in cinema. Not quite to the level of Bob from HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY, but very close! As far as the side characters go, they exist merely to further the plot along. This includes the love interest, the superstitious housekeeper, and Jimmy Smits in a brief role.

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As far as the script itself goes, there are a few good ideas at play. Some genuinely creepy scenes involve a growing zit that has a nasty surprise in store for a poor woman and Jimmy Smits’ demise is pretty damn gruesome. Things get bogged down in mundane details and some contrived plot twists that all lead up to an ending that gives new meaning to the phrase “over-the-top.” This is the only example of a film that goes from brooding occult thriller to 80’s action cheese in the final 20 minutes. It’s absurd and feels out-of-place. To make matters even worse, the epilogue feels tacked on and worthless as if the director was going for one last shock and failed.

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With all this complaining, one may think that I hated THE BELIEVERS. Actually, I thought the ritual ceremonies themselves and some of the atmosphere were great. The set design and cinematography were quite good as well. This is a professionally made movie that exhibits really solid filmmaking as far as style is concerned. Things begin to go sour where the bad acting and silly script are concerned. The film is too long as well. It’s nearly stretched out to two hours and there simply isn’t enough content to fill it up without dragging.

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In the end, THE BELIEVERS is a film that could use a solid remake to better all the qualities that just aren’t that good with this 80’s version. There are a few creepy moments and some very cool ideas, but for the most part, it’s a missed opportunity that could have wound up being a forgotten horror classic of the 80’s. I don’t feel bad about watching it, but I certainly won’t be revisiting THE BELIEVERS in the future.

Grade: C

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