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-

DOCTOR STRANGE (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 55 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sci-Fi Violence and Action throughout, and an Intense Crash Sequence

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Directed by: Scott Derrickson

Written by: Scott Derrickson & C. Robert Cargill

(based on the DOCTOR STRANGE comics by Steve Ditko)

Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, Michael Stuhlbarg, Scott Adkins, Mads Mikkelsen & Tilda Swinton

Fourteen films and eight years later, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is still going strong. DOCTOR STRANGE is a rather unique addition to this long-running cinematic franchise though, because it injects mystical powers and wizards into the MCU. I thought that GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY and ANT-MAN were tough films to sell, but DOCTOR STRANGE seems downright challenging. Fortunately, director/writer Scott Derrickson is more than up to the task. Aided by fantastic performances, astounding special effects, and a smart script, DOCTOR STRANGE is easily the best Marvel Cinematic Universe movie thus far!

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Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a brilliant surgeon with a huge ego. After saving lives and carving out an acclaimed career, Strange suffers severe nerve damage in his hands from a horrible car accident. When Western medicine fails him, the down-on-his-luck doctor turns to Eastern mythology. His skepticism turns to amazement upon meeting centuries-old sorceress The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton). Strange soon finds himself immersed in a world of infinite possibilities, many universes, magical talents, mythical weapons, and dark threats. When evil zealot sorcerer Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) attempts to bring use The Ancient One’s magic books for evil, it’s up to emerging hero Doctor Strange to save the world.

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Benedict Cumberbatch is a welcome addition to the bevy of A-listers who populate the Marvel Cinematic Universe. As Steven Strange, he starts off as completely unlikable and slowly begins to humble himself through magical teachings. Strange’s arrogance rivals Tony Stark’s cocky attitude, which makes me excited for the possibilities that might erupt when the two eventually meet face-to-face. After being an utter ass for the first third of the film, Strange’s changing attitude and emerging heroism ultimately wins the viewer onto his side. Chiwetel Ejiofor stars as Karl Mordo, a good-natured wizard who finds himself constantly at odds with Strange’s view of the world.

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Though a lot of hubbub erupted for her part in this film, Tilda Swinton vanishes into the charming role of The Ancient One. Meanwhile, Rachel McAdams plays Strange’s former lover and best friend…providing great comic relief and believable emotion. Finally, Mads Mikkelsen plays Kaecilius, Marvel’s equivalent of Saruman and introduction for bigger threats in the future, as an intimidating presence with insane powers that make for great fight scenes…particularly when one of Strange’s plans backfires spectacularly.

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One has to admire how brilliantly written DOCTOR STRANGE’s script is. Yes, it’s a superhero origin story…but it’s the most compelling origin story to come out of the Marvel Universe thus far. This film stands entirely on its own and doesn’t fully seem connected to the MCU (a good quality), save for a few brief Avengers references and a mid-credits scene that promises more of Strange in future Marvel projects. Strange’s training takes time and introduces lots of complicated concepts that come into play throughout the story (astral projection, relics, other dimensions, spells, etc.). The ways in which we are given this complex information feel entirely natural and provide laughs…as well as sheer awe-inspiring moments.

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In terms of special effects and action scenes, this movie is awesome! I know that word has become commonplace, but it definitely applies to DOCTOR STRANGE’s jaw-dropping sequences of psychedelic head-trips, vibrant colors that look like a rave went to outer space, and an amazing INCEPTION/MATRIX-like battle through New York City that currently stands as one of my favorite action scenes of the decade. This movie is phenomenally trippy and cool the whole way through. Even visuals that might seem cheesy when taken out of context (a giant floating head, spirits leaving their bodies, etc.) all work perfectly within the film’s storyline and with the added weight of the characters inhabiting them. The film’s climax has also reinvigorated my love for superhero movies as a whole. I was slightly fatigued by the massive number of comic book movies hitting the multiplex in the past few years, but DOCTOR STRANGE has ignited the childlike spark inside of me and makes me crave the upcoming Marvel films now more than ever!

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DOCTOR STRANGE is easily my favorite movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It incorporates tons of complicated elements through a smartly written script and mind-blowing spectacle. The characters are all great, even if not all of them receive a ton of screen time. The humor works fantastically and never overshadows the film’s more serious moments. The action is exciting and adrenaline-pumping. The magical aspect delivers some of the most creative, head-trippy imagery to hit theaters in all of 2016! This is big entertainment done right in every conceivable way!

Grade: A+

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