Movie Review: “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story”

Rogue One

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, a Space Western trilogy took this little blue marble by storm. More than a decade after the original “Star Wars” movies (Episodes IV – VI) bowed out of theaters, out came a threesome of somewhat lackluster–but stunningly visualized–prequels (Episodes I – III). Last year saw the release of an uneven Episode VII, the lead-off for a third trilogy in the series. “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” fits neatly in between Episodes III and IV, finally giving the details of how the plans for the Empire’s Deathstar landed the hands of the Rebellion.

While firmly planted in the “Star Wars” ‘verse, and hewing so closely to canon as to employ more than a few easter eggs (including of the human variety), “Rogue One” definitely shows it’s not your typical “Star Wars” flick. It dispenses with the traditional opening crawl and dramatic John Williams score, setting the tone from the first second as something that wants to establish its own path rather than reheating material. This is a nice contrast to Episode VII, which got a lot of mileage out of ground well-traveled in Episode IV. The story centers on Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), the daughter of Imperial prisoner and weapons architect extraordinaire Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelson). Galen manages to save Jyn from immediate capture by the Empire, and she spends some of her formative years in the hands of an estranged Rebellion leader, Saw Gerrera (Forrest Whittaker).

The fully-grown Jyn eventually finds her way into the hands of the Rebellion proper–and they offer her a mission that could lead to her father. She’s paired off with the dashing yet surly Captain Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and his reprogrammed Imperial droid, K-2SO (Alan Tudyk). The Rebellion is convinced Gerrera has confidential information they need, in the head of an Imperial pilot, Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), who defected and headed straight for Gerrera. It’s at this point where it’s actually wiser to stop providing more detail, because the level of spoilers goes through the roof. It is safe to say that Jyn and Cassian cross paths and take into their confidence two mysterious figures: the blind, Jedi-esque Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen) and Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang), a former protector of a Jedi temple.

No longer on her own, Jyn acquires more than a mission–she gains a rag-tag family of rebels that give her a reason to fight for something bigger than herself. This is a common thread for the “Star Wars” movies, with some of the lines in Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy’s script resonating just a little too much these days–such as the reminder that “rebellions are built on hope”.

“Rogue One” is a splendid addition to the “Star Wars” legacy, with only a few hiccups here and there. Jyn follows the excellent example set by Daisy Ridley’s Rey in Episode VII, “The Force Awakens”; we’re seeing a whole new level of feminist idols emerging–badass “don’t call me a babe” types who can hold their own in a firefight. It’s pretty fantastic. Weitz and Gilroy simplified the droid sidekick trope by giving K-2SO a coat of sheer smarm handled to perfection by Tudyk. Yen and Jiang are steadfastly brilliant, and Mikkelson performs just the right mixture of stoic and emotional (and finally in a role where he’s not a straight-up baddie–a nice change of pace).

Where “Rogue One” had more opportunities comes in the depth of some of the storylines that somehow got left on the cutting room floor (such as the rallying speech given by Gerrera, heard only in a trailer). Additionally, there seems to be a baked-in expectation that viewers will have spent their spare time catching up on all the canon fleshed out in the “Clone Wars” animated series to be fully oriented in the basic who’s who.

Luna’s performance, while quite easy on the eyes, is a bit more spotty than I would’ve liked, and it feels like some space on that same cutting room floor is littered with character development along the way for Jyn and Cassian, in particular. The level of planet-and-moon-hopping also wears a bit thin; yes, it’s clear that there’s a lot of galaxy to go around, but we didn’t need to fill our Imperial passport entirely in the span of 135 minutes.

For those wonder if it’s worth seeing “Rogue One” in 3D or 3D IMAX, I can say that the 3D is fairly good for giving depth throughout, but the IMAX really only shines during the final act. It’s not necessarily worth springing for IMAX unless that’s your preferred mode.

What about the younglings? Is “Rogue One” okay for kids? This is the third “Star Wars” movie to earn a PG-13 rating, and it definitely has its fair share of action and violence. That said, I found “Rogue One” less startlingly bloody than “The Force Awakens”, so little ones turned off by Episode VII may warm up to this film. Even so, kids younger than 7-9 years old may not be quite ready for all of it (and the 3D IMAX may just overwhelm them). They may do better with one of the 2D showings.

As “Star Wars” movies go, “Rogue One” finally succeeds where all three of the prequels failed miserably. It pairs decent acting with really good dialogue, and it deftly avoids any of the whiny teenager action displayed by the Skywalker brood. This is a “Star Wars” movie worth watching again and again, preferably as a lead-in to a re-watch of Episode IV. “Rogue One” offers hope tinged with painful realism, building on a decades-old legacy in a way that makes it an instant classic.

Three and a half out of four stars.

“Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” opens in theatres on Friday, December 16, 2016. It’s rated PG-13 for extended sequences of sci-fi violence and action.

Movie Review: “Moana”


Just when we all REALLY needed a distraction, Disney brings forth “Moana”, a tale of girl power wrapped up in Polynesian mythos and catchy tunes. “Moana” is a solid successor to the title held by “Frozen”, not just because surely there’s the potential to sell ALL the licensed items but also because the story doesn’t revolve around the standard Disney trope of needed a prince to solve the heroine’s problems.

“Moana” opens on the gentle and stunning island of Motunui, with Gramma Tala (Rachel House) telling an enraptured preschool-level audience the story of how the demigod Maui (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) stole a stone from Te Fiti (the goddess who created the mother island), kicking off a chain reaction that threatens to drain the life from all of the islands in the ocean. A young Moana (played for the bulk of the movie by Auli’i Cravalho) is drawn to the ocean, and the ocean itself encourages this, enticing her out into the lagoon and revealing from an early age the quest she is being asked to complete.


Gramma Tala (House) and Moana (Cravalho)

Gramma Tala (House) and Moana (Cravalho)


Fast forward a few years, and Moana is growing into a lovely girl whose dreams of the open water are constantly squelched by her father, Chief Tui (Temuera Morrison). Gramma Tala helps show Moana her destiny as a great sailor, and she explains why the people of the island abandoned their wayfaring days for the quiet, sublime, and settled life on Motunui.

As one would expect, when there’s a quest, it can’t be denied, and Moana eventually heads out to find Maui and restore the stone to its rightful place in Te Fiti’s heart. It wouldn’t be a Disney movie without some measure of gag relief, so Heihei (Alan Tudyk) to the rescue–a stowaway chicken who clearly loves Moana and doesn’t have a brain cell to spare otherwise. From this point on, the movie goes along pretty much as one would expect of a hero myth–challenges, danger, cunning, and strategy all factor heavily in the heroine’s success, and while she doesn’t ever act alone the voyage is as much about her own self-discovery as it is about bringing vitality back to the islands crippled by the stone’s absence.


Moana (Cravalho) and Maui (Johnson)

Moana (Cravalho) and Maui (Johnson)


“Moana” is an unusual movie for Disney, in that they don’t tend to cover a lot of mythology so outright (“Hercules” being an exception), and this movie draws heavily from and is inspired by a mixture of creation and trickster stories. Maui’s description of his exploits, such as “pulling up the islands”, is actually a feature of many stories about Maui across the various cultures that celebrate him. Employing a Polynesian cast was a culturally competent move, and it’s clear that Lin Manuel-Miranda (“Hamilton”) and the other song-writers benefited from their research on the islands as they prepared their work.

At a high level, Moana is a model of a self-rescuing princess–a welcome paradigm shift from the 20th century versions–and Maui is a standard trickster with a heart of gold. Heihei…well, he’s an example of how Disney will ruthlessly use Alan Tudyk for their films in the same manner as John Ratzenberger has been employed for their Pixar movies: any way they can and always to the audience’s delight. The cast is stellar–Cravalho acquits herself well as she displays the passionate and desperately capable Moana, Johnson clearly relishes his role as both babyface a heel (and displays some really good singing chops in the impossible-to-ignore “You’re Welcome”), and House is the consummate awesome grandmother we all wish we had. A key villain–the monster crab Tomatoa (Jemaine Clement)–chews scenery almost as much as he’d like to chew on the protagonists.

The songs are catchy, with Moana’s “How Far I’ll Go” positioned as this year’s “Let it Go”, although Maui’s “You’re Welcome” is the one that will stick in your head for DAYS. (Trust me on this one; I’m speaking from experience.) From a graphics perspective, I didn’t see any new ground being broken, but the visuals are attractive and have a good balance of realism and cartoonishness. Is it worth seeing Moana in 3D? The screening I attended was in 3D, so I can say that it’s not a bad thing to see it that way–although it’s unclear that the 3D was something really eye-popping until you get to the end-credits.

And then there’s the perennial question that pops up when a movie aimed at the family is rated PG: Is “Moana” too scary for my kids? There were definitely a few moments during the movie which I would figure the ratings folks could describe as “brief but intense scenes of peril”. Moana and those around her get into some serious scrapes with bad situations, and some of them–such as the Realm of Monsters, where you meet Tomatoa–could warrant snuggling up close to the littler ones in your party. I’d say it’s fine for 10+, but those under the age of 10 may need a hand to hold at various points. The music, the visuals, and the overall story are worth making this a movie for the whole family, though, and that’s something worth crowing about.


Inner Workings


Note: come early and stay late! “Moana” is preceded by a delightful short film, “Inner Workings”, which (in any right-thinking world) should be short-listed for the 2017 Academy Awards. It’s a dialogue-free adult version of “Inside/Out”, just with a more organic spin. (You’ll see what I mean.) Also, there IS a post-credits scene for “Moana”, so stick around until the lights are all the way up.


4 stars out of 4

“Moana” opens nationwide on November 23, 2016. This movie is rated PG for peril, some scary images, and mild thematic elements.

Movie Review: “Pete’s Dragon”

Pete's Dragon movie poster

“That’s the thing about adventures: you’ve got to be brave.” So begins Disney’s latest outing, an overhaul of the 1977 partially animated film of the same name. This time out, Pete (Oakes Fegley) is a young boy orphaned at age five by what we’ll term “Bambi’s Unintentional Revenge”. He dashes off into the woods and immediately lands in danger–but he’s saved by a furry beastie he names “Elliot” after the “Elliot Gets Lost” storybook he was reading in the car at the time tragedy struck.

Fast forward six years, to the nearby logging town of Millhaven. There’s a legend about “The Millhaven Dragon”, kept alive by the tall tales of a local who claims he squared off against it–Meacham (amiably played by Robert Redford). Early on, he holds court over a pre-tween audience, cautioning them: “Just because you don’t see something doesn’t mean it’s not there.” Of course, it’s easy to say that when you’re the one telling the stories.

Meacham (Redford)

Meacham (Redford), at home in the woods

The Millhaven Dragon, naturally, refers to Elliot–who has cared for Pete all this time. The now 11-year-old Pete is fairly feral and runs, jumps, dives off cliffs, and plays with Elliot with total abandon. It’s been six years of no responsibility and all play with his rather large and furry bestie. During a game of hide-and-seek Elliot shows off his ability to camouflage to the point where he seems to disappear, but it’s quite certain that he definitely exists. This friend is absolutely not imaginary.

Pete (Fegley) and Elliot

Boy meets dragon: Pete (Fegley) and Elliot

On a walk deep in the woods to track owls, Meacham’s daughter–Park Ranger Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard)–stumbles upon Pete. With the help of some nearby loggers, including her fiancé Jack (Wes Bentley) and his taciturn brother, Gavin (Karl Urban), Grace confronts the mysterious boy. Jack’s daughter Natalie (Oona Laurence) attempts to befriend Pete in the woods, but the confused boy–who later wakes in a hospital post-capture–is unsure of his surroundings and flees. Thus begins the triple chase theme that runs through the rest of the movie: Grace chasing Pete as the son she doesn’t have, Pete chasing his Elliot to regain his freedom, and Gavin chasing Elliot in search of fame and fortune. Even as Grace and Jack start to ponder the idea of Pete being more than just a transient playmate for Natalie, Pete’s eyes are always trained towards his home in the woods with his furry friend. Elliot never gives up hope that he may see Pete, but Gavin’s malicious advances endanger everyone, including Elliott, Pete, and the trio of Grace, Jack, and Natalie.

Grace (Howard), Pete (Fegley), Jack (Bentley), and Natalie (Laurence)

It’s a (pseudo) family affair: Grace (Howard), Pete (Fegley), Jack (Bentley), and Natalie (Laurence)

This movie does well at bringing Elliot to life, even if the concept of a furry dragon is still a bit confusing. He’s a playful, heroic figure who genuinely loves Pete from the first moment they meet–a boy’s best friend. Pete, touchingly animated by Fegley’s soulful eyes, is full of exuberance and an inner luminosity borne out of a carefree youth spent heavily as a dragon’s wingman. Laurence’s Natalie is endearing, the conscience of the film and the moral compass guiding those around her.

Natalie (Laurence) is introduced to Elliot by Pete (Fegley)

Girl Meets Dragon: Natalie (Laurence) is introduced to Elliot by Pete (Fegley)

Sadly, these three are really the only fully developed characters in the film. Redford’s Meacham serves the general role of “Elder Statesman With A Heart of Gold”, Howard’s Grace is “The Park Ranger With A Heart Of Gold”, Bentley’s Jack is “The Logger And Engaged Single Dad With A Heart Of Gold”, and Urban’s Gavin is “One-Dimensional Bad Guy Logger”. That’s not to say that they acquit themselves poorly; on the contrary, both Meacham and Grace are sweet characters that you want to root for time and again. Jack is there mostly to keep the scenery from flying away, but Bentley does as best as he can with a role that basically just locks him into “generic good guy” mode.

Jack (Bentley) and Gavin (Urban)

Logger bros Jack (Bentley) and Gavin (Urban)

Of all of the characters, I take exception only to Gavin; Karl Urban is given almost nothing from a script perspective. An accomplished actor who can play it straight (“The Two Towers” and “Return of the King”), he can also chew scenery with the best of them (“The Chronicles of Riddick” and any of the new “Star Trek” reboots). Instead, he’s relegated to a thinly drawn role–made an antagonist because the film needed one, not because there was particularly any need for his character to be an antagonist. His motivations are non-existent until he says them out loud, by which time you wonder, “Really? That’s where they’re going with this?”

Natalie (Laurence), Grace (Howard), and Jack (Bentley)

The family unit: Natalie (Laurence), Grace (Howard), and Jack (Bentley)

Is “Pete’s Dragon” okay for kids? Oh sure. There are a couple of scary scenes, including one with wolves at the beginning, but I wouldn’t hesitate to take my newly-minted seven-year-old to the movie with me. The computer graphics are okay enough–Elliot’s fur is rendered well, but the fuzzy dragon never looks like he’s as natural as his surroundings. On the other hand, the fur likely dials down the scare factor that might’ve been higher if he sported traditional dragon scales. Kids will love Elliot in all his fuzzy glory, and boys will long to run wild through the woods with so marvelous a companion. Girls will get a kick out of Natalie–the Hermione Granger of this film–strong, smart, and unafraid. And really, in a family-friendly movie like “Pete’s Dragon”, the adults aren’t the draw anyway, so positive images of the “kids” (of all shapes and sizes) is really all that matters.

2-1/2 out of 4 stars

“Pete’s Dragon” opens nationwide on August 12, 2016. This movie is rated PG for action, peril, and brief language.