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Wednesday, January 11, 2017

FILM REVIEW OF ''ROGUE ONE, A STAR WAR STORY" (2016)



Nothing worthwhile comes without sacrifice, and the superlative science fiction saga “Rogue One, A Star Wars Story” (**** OUT OF ****) exemplifies this notion.   Basically, “Godzilla” director Gareth Edwards, “Golden Compass” scenarist Chris Weitz, and “Bourne” trilogy scribe Tony Gilroy have eliminated all those buffoonish, kid-friendly aliens and given adults a chance to experience an unusually Spartan “Star Wars” saga.  No, the PG-13 rated “Rogue One” is neither “Saving Private Ryan” nor “Hacksaw Ridge,” but the straightforward action will give you a reason to shed a tear since a palatable sense of doom looms over this skullduggery.  Everything I’ve read about this entry in the “Star Wars” universe emphasizes the word ‘stand-alone’ so you won’t be seeing the gifted cast, featuring Felicity Jones, Forest Whitaker, Donnie Yen, Ben Mendelsohn, and Diego Luna, reprising their roles unless Disney conjures up prequels.  Of course, this doesn’t apply to Darth Vader who behaves like the ruthless ruffian that he has always been.  Mind you, in some respects, “Rogue One” may seem hopelessly predictable for some aficionados.  If you’ve seen George Lucas’ “Star Wars: Episode VI: A New Hope,” then you know that the Death Star didn’t survive that adventurous classic.  “Rogue One” qualifies as a prequel.  Chronologically, this outing takes place between “Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith” (2005) and “Star Wars: Episode VI: A New Hope.” Although we know the Death Star is ill-fated, what we didn’t know the identity of the individual who sowed the seeds for its destruction.  Some of the finest moments in “Rogue One” occur when the Grand Moff Tarkin appears.  This is the infamous character that the late British actor Peter Cushing of “Frankenstein” fame portrayed with such ascetic villainy.  Cushing’s estate approved the physical recreation of the late actor’s personage, and actor Guy Henry’s impersonation is flawless. Quibbles aside, if Peter Cushing could see what they’ve accomplished, he’d be impressed.  Similarly, what Edwards and his scenarists have achieved with Disney’s audacious attempt to expand the “Star Wars” time-line is sensational.  Indeed, the House of Mouse has succeeded where few film studios have ever gone with a legitimate spin-off from a multi-million-dollar franchise.
Since “Star Wars: Episode VI: A New Hope” came out back in the summer of 1977, fans have complained about the sweet spot in the Death Star that enabled the Alliance to blow it up.  “Rogue One” relates the story about that sweet spot, and “Star Wars” aficionados can argue about other things—primarily the time-line between the two films—because Luke and Leia were born at the end of “Episode III.”  Nevertheless, who really cares about such things, when a movie like “Rogue One” fills the gap?  Aside from Darth Vader, C3PO, R2D2, and Princess Leia, the primary characters in “Rogue One” are entirely new to the franchise.  A brilliant scientist, Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen of “Dr. Strange”), has been forced against his will to collaborate with the Empire to forge the ultimate weapon of devastation.  The wicked Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn of “Killing Them Softly”) has commandeered Galen for the project, and he intends to use Galen’s wife Kyra (Valene Kane of “Victor Frankenstein”) and his adolescent daughter Jyn (Beau Gadsdon) as bargaining chips. Galen sends his daughter into hiding, and Kyra perishes trying to thwart Orson.  Jyn grows up under the tutelage of an extreme radical, Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker of “Platoon”), and she becomes a notorious criminal who has been imprisoned when the Rebel Alliance rescues her.  It seems that an Empire pilot, Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed of “Nightcrawler”) has defected and given himself up to Saw.  Bodhi claims he has an urgent message from Galen Erso about the Death Star.  Naturally, nobody believes the Empire could have forged such an awesome armament.  The Rebel Alliance isn’t prepared to be so casual about this booger bear.  Cassian Andor (Diego Luna of “Blood Father”) and his reprogrammed Empire Droid K-2s0 (voice of Alan Tudyk of “Serenity”) break Jyn (Felicity Jones of “Brideshead Revisited”) out captivity when she is being transferred to a labor camp.  Later, as Jyn explains to Saw, the Rebel Alliance is using her for safe passage into Saw’s camp on the planetary moon Jedha where Bodhi is being held captive.  Saw surprises Jyn with a holographic message from Galen intended for her. Galen explains that the Death Star has the equivalent of an Achilles’ Heel that will render it vulnerable to the Rebels.  No sooner has Jyn seen this message than the Grand Moff Tarkin brings the Death Star into orbit around Jedha and unleashes its formidable power on the city. During their rushed exit from Jedha, Cassian and Jyn pick up a pair of hitchhikers, Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen of “Iron Monkey 2”) and his sidekick Base Malbus (Wen Jiang of “Let the Bullets Fly”), who become recruits for the cause.  Chirrut is a blind martial arts warrior who wields a lethal staff and believes in the Force with all his heart.
“Rogue One, A Star Wars Story” depicts the efforts of the underdog Rebel Alliance to triumph over the Empire.  Basically, this exciting escapade works on the level of a Republic Serial from the 1940s with one cliffhanger scene after another ensuing in a grand finale on a scenic Caribbean-like island named Scarif where the star fleets of the both the Rebel Alliance and the Empire wage the battle to end all battles. Although it doesn’t rely on the usual trio of Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and Princess Leia, “Rogue One” imitates “Star Wars” in virtually every respect except its ending with a Pyrrhic Victory.  Felicity Jones makes a sympathetic heroine that you won’t forget.  Donnie Yen and Alan Tudyk as K-2S0 compete as the ultimate scene stealers. The special effects are fantastic. Altogether, “Rogue One” qualifies as the best “Star Wars” epic since “The Empire Strikes Back.”

Monday, January 2, 2017

FILM REVIEW OF ''PASSENGERS" (2016)



The adventurous science fiction romance “Passengers” (** OUT OF ****), starring Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt, contains an initially appetizing premise.  An enormous spaceship carrying 5000 passengers and a crew of 250, all of whom are asleep in hibernation pods for the 120-year journey through space to colonize another Earth-like planet, encounters complications with an asteroid field and a malfunction opens one of the pods.   Our unfortunate hero awakens to find himself alone aboard the spacecraft with luxurious accommodations and recreational facilities, but he cannot resume his sleep no matter what he tries.  Imagine being trapped all alone aboard a vessel reminiscent either of Douglas Adams’ novel “Starship Titanic” or Grant Naylor’s novel “Red Dwarf” cruising on auto-pilot through the icy desolation of the galaxy with nobody to turn to for relief and assistance.  No matter what he does, our hero cannot get a response from anybody about his ordeal.  Moreover, he won’t interact with another human until the ship enters orbit around its destination in 90 years!  Indeed, the only thing that he can do is share his anguish with an oblivious android that mixes alcoholic beverages behind the bar and indulge in the recreational outlets aboard the ship.  “Imitation Game” director Morten Tyldum and “Prometheus” scenarist Jon Spaihts synthesize the classic films “Sleeping Beauty” and “Titanic” in this promising ‘what-if’ scenario, but the characters aren’t as compelling as the life and death crisis with which they must contend.  Chiefly, Jennifer Lawrence’s highly-strung, leading lady spends more time screaming than scheming, while the Chris Pratt hero tangles with a fate so tragic that he conducts himself in an ethically compromising manner that haunts him.  Some of the obstacles that they confront are genuinely exciting, but “Passengers” amounts to a thoroughly predictable yarn riddled with plot holes that neither Tyldum and Spaihts nor Lawrence and Pratt can triumph over in this 116-minute, PG-13 rated opus.  Ultimately, when you consider everything that everybody could have done to improve this flawed film, it is really a shame that “Passengers” doesn’t live up to its potential.

Basically, “Passengers” reminded me of those adventures that intrepid pilgrims embarked upon to enter a promised land for a better life.  Jim Preston (Chris Pratt of “Guardians of the Galaxy”) is a middle-class, mechanical engineer who cannot find his fortune on a vastly overpopulated planet Earth, so he books passage aboard the lavishly appointed corporate ferry Avalon for a faraway place designated Homestead II.  There are two things that you should know from the outset about “Passengers.”  First, this sci-fi saga occurs so far into the future that all the guess work in space travel appears to have been accounted for by scientists so that nothing can possibly go wrong.  Second, our hero and heroine don’t contend with menacing alien creatures out to make a meal of them.  Humanity is the only race that inhabits this half-baked escapade that wears out its welcome long before the Avalon reaches its destination.  During the first 30 or so minutes, Jim Preston struggles to amuse himself aboard this spectacular spaceship.  Some things about the craft are really cool.  As it plies its way through the universe, this sophisticated, state-of-the-art spaceship has been designed to travel on auto-pilot with a huge, invisible shield deployed like a huge nose-cone to deflect anything perilous in its path. The asteroid field that it smashes its way through during the first few minutes evokes memories of “Titanic,” but the toll that the asteroid field takes on the Avalon doesn’t create problems right away.  After he awakens, Preston takes advantage of all the opportunities that the ship offers.  As it turns out, the hibernation pods are scheduled to open during the last leg of the voyage, with the crew awakening months prior to the passengers so they can prepare them for disembarkation.  When Jim isn’t floating in alcohol, he tries to break into the bridge where the crew sleeps.  Meantime, Jim browses through the passenger database and finds Aurora and admires her in her translucent hibernation pod.  Eventually, about a year later, Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence of “The Hunger Games”) joins Jim, and the fate that they are facing horrifies her.  Jim has done everything that she suggests later to extricate them from their predicament. 
Initially, like all romantic movies, time takes a toll on Jim and Aurora’s relationship, especially the conditions that prompted their rendezvous in space.  We learn Aurora is a writer who wants to experience life first-hand on Homestead II and then return to Earth so she can write the first book about the experience.  Unlike Jim, Aurora purchased a higher priced ticket and enjoys all the features of a first-class passenger. You can see the resemblance between “Passengers” and the Leonardo DiCaprio & Kate Winslet “Titanic.” 

Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt generate enough charisma to make a sympathetic couple. Nevertheless, they can only do so many things before “Passengers” exhausts its spontaneity. The closest thing to another human is friendly android bartender Arthur (Michael Sheen of “TRON: Legacy”) that polishes glasses, mixes drinks, and listens to them.  You can figure out where “Passengers” is bound with its cliché-riddled ‘boy gets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back’ plot.  Once Jim and Aurora have broken up, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that something bigger must happen for them to repair the damage to their relationship.  They must reconcile themselves and then figure out how to repair the catastrophic damage to the Avalon as it steadily deteriorates because of the asteroid field encounter.  Lawrence and Pratt are more interesting than the one-dimensional characters that they portray. The arrival of another character to straighten things out doesn’t really help matters in Spaihts’ by-the-numbers screenplay.  For the record, Hollywood has been struggling to develop this project for about a decade.  Initially, Keanu Reeves and Reese Witherspoon were cast to play the two lovers, but scheduling difficulties derailed that enterprise. You won’t get carried away with “Passengers.”

Saturday, December 3, 2016

FILM REVIEW OF ''STAR TREK BEYOND" (2016)



“Fast and Furious” director Justin Lin never lets the momentum slacken in “Star Trek Beyond” (***1/2 OUT OF ****) despite the formulaic Simon Pegg & Doug Jung screenplay that delivers a lot of the right stuff during its warp-drive running time of two hours and two minutes.  A multitude of melodramatic moments with surprises and suspense galore ensue as Captain James T. Kirk and the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise triumph over tragedy.  Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, Zoe Saldana, John Cho, Simon Pegg, and the late Anton Yelchin must have had fun making the 13th “Star Trek” saga because they work so well together that it doesn’t matter what they’re doing.  Basically, the “Beyond” in the title refers to the uncharted territory that our indestructible heroes and heroine must negotiate before they can vanquish a megalomaniacal villain and preserve the status quo.  Mind you, I didn’t fear that Kirk, Spock, Bones, Uhura, Sulu, Scotty, and Chekov would die and that their wicked adversaries would perish.  What I liked about “Star Trek Beyond” was the way everybody in the crew contributed to the ultimate success of their mission.  None of the main cast were neglected or given the short shrift.  One character has been altered.  Aside from generating controversy on the Internet about Mr. Sulu’s sexual proclivities, the rest of the Enterprise crew remains essentially the same, and you care as much about them as what occurs around them.  Similarly, the giddy action unfolding in “Star Trek Beyond” was sufficient to race your pulse, whiten your knuckles, and get caught up in this spectacular epic.  Cinematographer Stephen F. Windon, production designer Tom Sanders and make-up designer Joel Harlow all deserve kudos for their outstanding work.  Two settings—the Nebula and the Yorktown space colony—looked sensational by any science fiction movie’s standards.  As villains rate, the reptile-faced Krall provides more than enough obstacles with which Kirk and his crew must contend, and Krall’s unhinged plan to wreak havoc is sufficiently audacious.  Nevertheless, Krall isn’t half as memorable as Benedict Cumberbatch’s Khan in director J.J. Abrams’ superior sequel “Star Trek Into Darkness.” 

Three years into the Enterprise’s five year mission, Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine of “Unstoppable”) complains that “things have started to feel a little episodic.”  When an action-oriented character utters these words, they should cross themselves immediately and hold their tongues.  No sooner has the Enterprise docked at the remarkable new star base christened Yorktown to gather provisions than Kirk winds up eating those fateful words.  Three important events occur before chaos assails the Enterprise.  First, Spock and Uhura break up. Second, Mr. Sulu comes out as gay.  Third, Kirk submits an application for promotion to Vice Admiral, and he recommends Mr. Spock replace him as the Enterprise’s captain.  Complications take place when an escape pod lands at Yorktown.  Its alien passenger, Kalara (Lydia Wilson of “About Time”), reports that her ship has crashed on the distant planet Altamid in the Nebula.  The Nebula resembles a vast, impenetrable field of asteroids that constitutes a titanic barrier between Yorktown and Altamid.  Commodore Paris (Oscar-nominated actress Shohreh Aghdashloo of “House of Sand and Fog”) accommodates Kalara and mounts a distress mission to rescue Kalara’s stranded crew.  Kirk takes the helm and the Enterprise plunges into the Nebula, with Kalara--looking like she has a starfish wrapped around her head for a wig--aboard to show them the way.   Predictably, Kalara turns into one treacherous dame as our heroes discover as soon after they find themselves assaulted by a swarm of aliens reminiscent of those Earth faced in “Independence Day: Resurgence.”  Surprisingly enough, Krall and his legions cripple the Enterprise in record time.  The doomed starship topples from space, and the crew find themselves separated after the crash.  Scotty encounters a resourceful Amazon named Jaylah (Sofia Boutella of “Kingsman: The Secret Service”) who knows a thing or two about survival.  Boutella’s face is made up to resemble a Kabuki mask and her appearance evoked memories of Darth Maul in the “Star Wars” prequels.  Jaylah has been hiding out on Altamid, and her chief adversary is Krall.  She teams up with Scotty, Kirk, and Bones, while the rest of the crew wind up in Krall’s hands.  Krall wants an artifact stashed aboard the Enterprise so he can perpetuate an apocalypse.  He has no qualms about who he has to liquidate if he isn’t given that artifact.  Uhura watches in horror as Krall murders a helpless Enterprise crew member who poses no threat to him.

Once Krall has thrown down the gauntlet, Kirk and company must pull off the impossible to thwart their fanatic adversary.  In many ways, “Star Trek Beyond” reminded me of a traditional Cavalry versus Indians western.  Our heroes arrive at a frontier fort, embark on a rescue mission, find themselves isolated during a journey of hardship, and encounter a do-or-die opponent whose primary goal is to destroy the fort with everybody inside it.  “Star Trek Beyond” boots Kirk and company out of their comfort zone, forcing them to abandon ship, and then compels them to overhaul an older starship considerably inferior to the Enterprise, when they aren’t raiding Krall’s camp to liberate their fellow crew members.  Naturally, Kirk must confront Krall in a death-defying face-off while the welfare of civilization teeters on the brink.  Happily, director Justin Lin and his scenarists provide enough humor to sweeten all this mayhem and the eccentricities of the characters allow audiences a chance to chuckle at their foibles.  Of course, Spock and Bones grate on each other’s nerves. This installment of the venerable Paramount Pictures franchise marks the 50th anniversary of all things “Star Trek.”  Visionary producer Gene Roddenberry launched the “Star Trek” television series 50 years ago, and this captivating franchise has generated 13 films and six TV series, sold over 100 million books, comics, and magazines.  If you’re a hardcore “Star Trek” fan, you’ll probably relish this rollercoaster of a ride.