Nothing But Star Wars Episode Three and a Quarter (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, 2016)

Rogue_One_IMAX_PosterThe Force Awakens, in spite of conflicting reviews had made Disney enough money to feel confident in going forward with their game plan.  Disney had set a goal of a Star Wars movie every Christmas.

Since films of the blockbuster nature often can take at least two years of time to assemble, the answer Disney had was to alternate our visits.  Star Wars Episodes Seven, Eight and Nine would continue the adventures of the rebels.  In the alternating years would be a stand alone story within the Star Wars Universe.

Many ideas were bandied about, from Han Solo to Ben Kenobi to Boba Fett.  I suspect that, in part, this is one of the reasons the Extended Universe was declared not canon. They wanted that freedom to play around without any of the constraints of the extended universe material.

The first film announced was Rogue One, the story of how the rebels got the plans for the Death Star that allowed them to destroy it in A New Hope.  And so let us take a look…a spoiler filled look…like, do not go any farther if you have not seen the movie and don’t want to have it spoiled.

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The film opens on a remote planet as a farmer watches the arrival of Empire ships.  He hurries his family away, wanting his wife and daughter to flee.  We soon find that the farmer is Galen Erso, an ex-imperial  architect to left their employ when he realized what he was building.  But he is needed to finish the work, and his former boss is insistent that he and his family return with them. Young Jade Erso witnesses her mother being killed from a distance, She runs to a hidden safe zone. Hours later, left all alone, Jade is found by Saw Gerrera, a friend of her father’s and a well known leader in the growing rebellion.

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The film then jumps ahead to a now grown Jade who appears to a regular trouble maker, currently in the custody of the Empire. She is being transported when the transport vehicle is attacked.  She is grabbed by a large robot called K 2SO. A droll reprogrammed droid, he is working with Cassian Andor.  They are on a covert mission, trying to reach a an imperial pilot named Bodhi who  is in the hands of Gerrera.  Believing Jade is their ticket to getting Bodhi, they have broken her out.

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Rogue One: A Star Wars Story L to R: Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) and K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) Ph: Jonathan Olley © 2016 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

They arrive on the planet where Gerrera is holed up.  Cassian and Jade find themselves in a fire fight between dissidents and Storm Troopers.  They are joined by a blind monk Chirrut Îmwe and his protector/companion Baze Malbus.  The monk is not a Jedi, but enters fights chanting “The Force is with me and I am with the Force”. Baze on the other hand puts more trust in guns. They are taken to Gerrera by the dissidents.

Gerrera provides information to Jade and allows everyone to leave.  They rush from the planet s the Death Star fires on the planet.  They have learned where to find Galen, but unbeknownst to Jade, the plan is simply to kill him. Jade learns the truth and unsuccessfully tries to save her father, though he does at the hands of the Empire, rather than Cassian.

Things are looking bleak, but Erso is determined to see that her father’s death is not in vein.  While the leadership of the rebellion refuses to back an attack on the planet with the Death Star, Jade convinces Cassian, Chirrut, Baze, Bodhi and several pilots it is a needed mission.

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While fighters take to the air, Cassian and Jade lead a team with the goal of stealing the Death Star plans that reveal the flaw her father built directly into the Death Star.  We know, of course, that they succeed, because A New Hope already told us that they did.

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The first thing one notices in the film is that, unlike previous Star Wars entries, there is no opening scrawl. And the film is simply titled Rogue One on screen, no “A Star Wars Story”.  This seems to be an intentional signal regarding a way for the non-episodic stories to be set further apart.

Of course, they do not take a real risk of going to far afield, afterall, Rogue One takes place literally moments right before A New Hope.  And truth be told? This was the part that kind of annoyed me.  I did not need the film to end at that spot.  It was purely the silliest of fan services.

The biggest controversy I heard on this one was how much of a problem people had with the digital Tarkin.  I mean, it is an actor playing the role, but like Gollum, there is a digital actor laid over that actor. And, there is a certain…hard to pin unnaturalness to how he looks.

Rogue_One_Tarkin Yet, for my money, the one that just creeped me out was only on screen for a few seconds.  Far more awkward to my eyes was the wax museum look of…

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I do not get how people were excited by this sequence rather than unnerved by it. There are other little annoying bits of fan service, for instance, Jade and Cassian bump into the aliens that threatened in Luke Episode four in Mos Eisley.  It just feels kind of silly, especially when you consider the planet is about to be blasted by the Death Star.

Speaking of which, I notice they do pay a close enough attention to detail to have both times the Death Star is used in the film in a fashion where the planets are devastated, but not obliterated.  I note this because Alderaan certainly seems to be implied as the first full on destruction from the Death Star.  Though I could be wrong.

For the most part, though, I really do enjoy the film. I mean, they basically decided to make a heist sci-fi film, and it is a pretty tight one.  The cast of characters are pretty interesting, though admittedly the standouts are Donnie Yen and Chirrut and Wen Jiang as Baze, along with Alan Tudyk’s K-2SO. Chirrut and Baze have one of those solid movie friendships where they seem somewhat adversarial, but you know there is something stronger and deeper below the surface.

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Baze blow’s off Chirrut’s mysticism, crediting himself as the true protector of Chirrut, not the Force (the film features no Jedi or hardcore Force Users).  Chirrut is also quite funny in his own right.  As the group is captured by Gerrera’s people, bags are being put over their heads and Chirrut incredulously states “Really? I’m BLIND.”

And then there is the droid.  K-2SO is kind of an anti- C-3PO.  Sarcastic and cynical he lacks 3PO’s refinement, but shares his tendency to appealing to the negative odds.  When Cassian gives Jade a gun, he starts to ask if Cassian knows the odds she will not use the gun against the,.  “Not very good” he says dryly.

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Yet, just as pretty much everyone in Rogue Squadron, K2 gets his moment of glory.  But I definitely felt a twinge of disappointment that some of these characters would never make a return. I could totally sit through, say, a TV series about Chirrut and Baze on adventures.

If Rogue One is a sing of things to come for the Star Wars stories, I remain hopeful for that Young Han Solo film.

Refueled (xXx: Return of Xander Cage, 2017)

xxx-roxc-poster12 years after the franchise stalled, comes an attempt to revitalize it.  Director D.J. Caruso (Disturbia) takes the reigns as Vin Diesel returns to the role of Xander Cage.  This time around, the idea is…”if one Bond is awesome…imagine if we had nine of them!”  Xander has been presumed dead, but when the CIA is hit by some highly skilled enemy agents who steal a dangerous weapon, they find Xander hiding out.

This time around, Cage sets up his own xXx team.  These are highly skilled extreme types. And they get a government agent assigned to them.  A cute and plucky girl named Becky.  She is also their “Q”.  On their way to retrieve the weapon, Cage and friends end up discovering he is up against other xXx agents that were recruited by Samuel L. Jackson’s Gibbons.  This ultimately leads to all the agents teaming up to take down the real bad guys.

The xXx films are pretty much “What if Bond was on steroids.”  Except this film.  The Return of Xander Cage is really “What if xXx was on steroids???”  It seems like the last 40 minutes were non-stop action and a Gospel Choir.

This film does not totally rewrite the book.  Instead, it is more of a blending of the Bond formula and the Fast & the Furious.  It is exciting and fun, and if you enjoyed the first two films, it is unlikely you will be disappointed by this one.  I would totally be in for the entire cast (those who make it out alive) to return for another round.

Force Adjacent (Rogue One, 2016)

rogue_one_posterTaking it’s plot from about two sentences of Star Wars: A New Hopes Opening Scrawl, this Star Wars Story focuses on the Rebels who got the Death Star plans carried by R2-D2.  Focusing on Jyn Erso, daughter of a brilliant engineer, Rogue One follows her forced recruitment by the Rebel Alliance in an attempt to get the information.  Along with her father, Erso has another connection the Alliance wants to take advantage of.  After escaping the clutches of the Empire, Jyn was raised for a time  by Saw Gerrera.  The Alliance parted ways with him over his extremism, but feel they now need his help.

What follows is an exciting espionage and war film, different from what we have seen in the past…and yet familiar.  While there are brief glimpses of some recognizable faces, our central cast is pretty much new.  The film is a bit darker than other entries, showing a side of the Rebel Alliance not often addressed.  Some have expressed problems with this.  While I had not given much thought to some of the darker implications of the alliance, I cannot say this take is unreasonable.  The idea that people are sometimes doing things they struggle to justify as being in the greater good makes absolute sense.  Certainly, it may seem out of place if you are used to thinking of the Alliance as morally pure.

Jyn is an interesting character who despises the Empire for a pretty simple and personal reason.  They took her dad and killed her mom.  She seems to have soured on the rebellion though (feeling betrayed by Saw) and given way to cynicism.  Meanwhile, Cassian Andor is a dedicated Rebel spy who plays out his role without question.  At least until he is given a side mission that makes him question his moral compass.

A real standout character is the reprogrammed Imperial Droid K2-S0.  He is mouthy, sarcastic and also the brawn.  Whereas C-3PO up-tightly delivers in depth information about the odds, K2 casually tosses out comments along the lines of “The odds are bad” and just leaving it at that.  Then there is the blind monk Chirrut Îmwe.  He fights like a Jedi Master, but is not a Jedi.  He also fights with a staff, rather than a lightsaber.  His sighted companion Baze prefers blaster rifles and does not buy into the Force at all.

The film does suffer a bit from the problem of many prequels.  The obsessive desire with filling in every blank results in a way that it can start to interfere the film it is “setting up”.  This leads to the film dying to pull right up to the beginning of a New Hope.

Admittedly, it feels a little odd having no potential Jedi (Chirrut does not use force moves beyond a certain Daredevil styled super hearing) or lightsaber duels.  The Force is spoken of, but not really seen in action beyond Darth Vader.

In the end, however, the film more than overcomes these things.  It is exciting and fun, while having an edge more in the vein of Empire.  I found Rogue One immensely satisfying.

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