Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

rogueDirector: Gareth Edwards

Screenwriters: Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy

Cast: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Alan Tudyk, Ben Mendelsohn, Forest Whitaker, and Riz Ahmed

George Lucas must be laughing his way to the bank now. I mean, imagine you made a mess, I mean a serious, disastrous, offensive mess. Then someone offers you $4 billion to clean it up for you and still keep you on the payroll? Rogue One: A Star Wars Story represents more than just an extension of the Star Wars brand and cinematic scope. It frees the franchise up to allow more dynamic and complex voices to influence the future of the characters and stories.

Rogue One takes place just before the events of 1977’s Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope. The film opens with Director Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) along with a flank of Empire forces landing on a remote planet where Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) is hiding out with his wife and young daughter. Erso’s history as chief scientist for the Galactic Empire has made him indispensable in the Empire’s construction of a new weapon, and Krennic is not leaving without Erso. When things go bad, Erso is abducted by Krennic, but his daughter Jyn (later played by Felicity Jones) manages to hide and escape with the help of Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker).  Jyn ultimately comes of age with a chip on her shoulder against the imperial forces and after a host of actions including forging imperial documents, aggravated assault, and resisting arrest, she is tossed into an imperial prison. Fortunately for Jyn, the Rebels manage to break her out only to task her with helping them on a secret mission. Why her? I’ll leave it at that for now since the answer to that question is actually the answer to a question that has been bouncing around the galaxy since Star Wars debuted in 1977.

Rogue One is an enjoyable film for all levels of fans. One does not need even a passing understanding of the other films to enjoy this film. However, I would strongly recommend watching Episode IV before watching Rogue One if you want to catch all of the nuanced touches left in there for super-fans. Director Gareth Edwards designs and directs this film to feel connected but not tethered to the other films, and I think that is a delicate task to accomplish. From the first moment when the classic text, “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” we are introduced to something familiar but slightly different (no trademarked scrolling text accompanies this film). Also, Edwards allows his characters to interact, talk, and feel. The opening scene between Krennic and Erso feels more like a Tarantino scene than a Star Wars movie.

Not that the film doesn’t have its small share of missteps. First of all, in his defense, Forest Whitaker is having a great year starring in quite possibly two of the year’s best films: Rogue One and Arrival. Still, his performance is odd and a little annoying. Additionally, his character’s whole purpose seems arbitrary in that he acts as a shepherd and plot device that is then appropriately “put away” once those tasks are served. Furthermore, much will be discussed about the film’s use of CGI. In an effort to not spoil, I will say that this CGI is not the Jar-Jar Binks kind of CGI, so don’t worry. It’s more of a principled approach that will have its detractors and its supporters. I reluctantly dip my foot in the supporter pool for now, but with reservation. Nonetheless, a precedent has been set where things could get goofy, which would be problematic.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is a strong, balanced, and entertaining film that plays how we wish the original prequels could have played. There’s a hint of nostalgia along with new and fresh perspectives, which make us forget that we all know where this is going and “forces” us to care and root for these new characters. Rogue One also continues the recent track record of introducing another classic droid character that will be beloved in K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk); I imagine we haven’t seen the last of him. Jyn is also a strong dynamic lead. Parallels are destined to be drawn between Jyn and Rey (from last year’s The Force Awakens, but Jyn is starkly different and Jones plays her with an edge. Like the best Star Wars movies, there is plenty to interpret including some theoretical connections to The Force Awakens and the continuation of the latest trilogy. There are also some major bombshells and any misgivings you have about the film are wiped clean away with the final 20 minutes. If you have any level of appreciation for Star Wars, you will leave the theater in high spirits!  Easily immersed, we are, in this new/old environment, and knowing what is going on just over in Tatooine, Mos Eisley, and Dagobah only enriches the fabric of this film that much more. A-

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 15 minutes.

Out of the Furnace

ImageOut of the Furnace poses a rather critical conundrum.  On one hand, the film’s gritty exploration of one man’s quest for justice is finely acted, but on the other hand, it is substantially conventional. 

Director Scott Cooper follows up his enormously successful 2009 film Crazy Heart with Out of the Furnace.  In it, steel mill worker Russell Baze (Christian Bale) works in order to take care of his terminally ill father while his Iraq-War veteran brother Rodney (Casey Affleck) tries to find a way to adapt to life back at home.  On the surface, it is a film about fathers, sons, and brothers.  However, Cooper opens his film with an alarmingly tense and violent scene at a drive-in movie theater that includes neither of the film’s two main characters.  This scene sets the tone for the film as well as attempts to set the stage for its ambition.  Unfortunately, Out of the Furnace can not quite maintain its balance between narrative and ambition.

The ambition angle aims to document and test the two brothers as life locks them in a metaphorical “furnace.”  Russell spends several years in prison for a drunk driving accident and Rodney begins a downward spiral after the war that leads him to an underground fight-ring headed up by a ruthless kingpin, DeGroat (Woody Harrelson, in his most frightening role in years).  When Rodney suddenly disappears, Russell takes matters into his own hands and goes on a manhunt.  This is when Out of the Furnace ends up stepping on the heels of a film released earlier this year, Prisoners.  Both films want the audience in a “what would you do?” type of scenario, but Prisoners executes it much better.  Both films even have a deer hunting motif!

Out of the Furnace is clunky structurally and it is heavy handed in its treatment of flawed characters who “just want to do the right thing.”  However, the film did attract big, big stars who all came to play.  Affleck and Bale turn out career performances, and the supporting players include Willem DaFoe, Sam Shepard, Forest Whitaker, Zoe Saldana, and the aforementioned Harrelson who are all quite compelling as well.     

Out of the Furnace is all guts and not much glory.  The film desires to resonate with the audience, but I was left feeling unsatisfied and disappointed.  I appreciate great performances, but they are rarely enough to carry a film on their own merits.  C

Out of the Furnace is rated R, and has a running time of one hour and 46 minutes.  I say see Prisoners instead.