Where You’ve Seen Them Before — Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Posted on December 16, 2016 at 8:00 am

“Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” opens today, introducing a whole new set of characters to the extended Star Wars universe, played by some actors who may look familiar.

Felicity Jones (Jyn Erso) appeared earlier this year with Tom Hanks in “Inferno,” but is probably best known for “The Theory of Everything.” Her breakthrough was in the lovely romance, “Like Crazy,” and she played Miranda in the Helen Mirren production of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.”

My favorite character in the new film is the reprogrammed droid voiced by Alan Tudyk. He is a very successful voice actor — he provided the squawks for Moana’s chicken sidekick and was Duke in “Frozen” and Duke Weaselton in “Zootopia” — but he has also appeared on screen in a variety of roles, from “Firefly” to “A Knight’s Tale.” I especially liked him as a three-card monte carny in “Hearts in Atlantis.”

Another favorite was the renegade Empire pilot played by Riz Ahmed, who had a breakthrough role this year in HBO’s “The Night Of.”

Forest Whitaker is the Oscar-winning actor from “The Last King of Scotland” and has had an extensive and widely varied career in film and television. You may also recognize him from “Platoon” or “The Butler.” I’m especially fond of his performance in “Phenomenon” with John Travolta.

Ben Mendelsohn is an Australian actor of superb skill. He’s made big-budget and prestige films like “Exodus: Gods and Kings” and “The Place Beyond the Pines.” He is superb in a small film with Ryan Reynolds called “Mississippi Grind.” He’s played a lot of bad guys and will play one again in the upcoming Robin Hood movie, starring Taron Egerton and Jamie Foxx.

Donnie Yen is one of Hong Kong’s top martial arts superstars. His fight scenes are electrifying.

Diego Luna has been an immensely charismatic actor on screen since “Y Tu Mamá También” when he was barely out of his teens. Be sure to see him in the twisty con man movie “Criminal” and with Sean Penn in “Milk.”

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Actors Where You’ve Seen Them Before
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Posted on December 13, 2016 at 12:00 pm

Copyright Disney 2016

I know, I know, you want me to tell you how it ranks against the other “Star Wars” movies.  I’m going to say somewhere between “A New Hope” and “The Force Awakens.”  It is a worthy addition to the canon, gorgeously imagined, with striking images, intriguing and richly diverse characters, a suspenseful plot, a worthy adversary, an amusing sidekick, some romantic sparks, and a very satisfying answer to one of the most persistent questions from the very first film in 1977.  And without getting heavy-handed or preachy, it touches on some complicated and timely issues.

Once again, we are reminded that this takes place a long time ago, in a galaxy far far away, and thankfully the text ends there and we are immediately in the middle of the action. A little girl with pigtails is breathlessly racing home to tell her parents that the threat they have been preparing for has arrived. “It’s happened. He’s come for us.” “You know what to do.”

The girl is Jyn Erso. Her father Galen (Mads Mikkelsen) was a scientist who once designed weapons for the Empire. He got away and has been living on an isolated farm, but the Empire’s Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) has found him. He is there to bring Galen back to finish work on the planet-killing weapon we know well from “A New Hope.” Galen explains why he left. “You’re confusing peace with terror.” Krennic responds crisply, and creepily, “You have to start somewhere.”

Jyn’s escape has been well-rehearsed. She knows where to hide. Her mother was supposed to go with her, but could not resist trying to protect her husband. She is killed, Galen is captured, and Jyn is rescued, kind of, by outlaw Saw Gerrera (a dashing Forest Whitaker).

The grown-up Jyn (Felicity Jones of “The Theory of Everything”) has clearly been taking care of herself — and not trusting anyone else — for a long time. But she is captured by the rebel forces, who have received a message smuggled out by a pilot named Bodhi Rook (a terrific Raz Ahmed). The Rebel Alliance wants Jyn to get to her father and find out how to stop the terrifying new weapon, the planet-killing Death Star. Jyn, who did not know whether her father was dead or alive, and hoped he was dead because it would mean that he was not helping the Empire and not abandoning her, must re-think her view of the world (in her case, I guess, the galaxy) and of herself.

Led/accompanied by Rebel Alliance hero Cassian (Diego Luna), his pilot/sidekick droid K-2SO (winningly voiced and motion-captured by Alan Tudyk in one of the film’s most memorable highlights), a blind monk with mad martial arts skills (Donnie Yen) with his firepower-packing friend Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang), and the renegade pilot, Jyn crosses the galaxy to try to rescue her father and stop the Death Star.

So, to recap: good characters, good action, great scope, and just the right amount of fan service. I’m not sure that the digital re-animation of “A New Hope” characters are worth the distraction. And I am not entirely on board with the ending.

No more for risk of spoilers. But there is so much going on, it is worth pointing out some details that might be overlooked in the middle of all the action. Note young Jyn’s stormtrooper doll, an Ozymandias-like massive statue, prone on the sand, the issue of factions within the rebel community, the bigger issue of moral responsibility for actions committed for the larger good, echoes of familiar wartime images from the D-Day landing to hooded prisoners and IEDs in civilian areas.

K-2S0, like Rook and “Force Awakens'” Finn, was formerly with the Empire. It/he has been reprogrammed but a sort of data pentimento has it/him a bit loopy and the result is a dry, even sarcastic wit that adds a bit of a twist to the seriousness of the storyline. This film, more canon-adjacent than linear, has some of that same sense of independence and even improvisation, a welcome waystation before the next chapter of the saga.

Parents should know that this film includes extended sci-fi action-style violence, with many characters injured and killed. There are sad deaths including death of parents, and some disturbing images, including monsters. The script by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy is wise enough not to try to answer questions about the complex quandaries of oppression and rebellion, but wise enough not to overlook them.

Family discussion: How did the governance of the Empire and the Rebel Alliance help or hinder their decision-making? How did the hologram message change Jyn’s mind? What does it mean to carry a prison with you?

If you like this, try: “Star Wars” IV, V, VI, and “Force Awakens”

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Fantasy Science-Fiction Series/Sequel

Trailer: Rogue One, the new Star Wars Chapter, with Felicity Jones

Posted on April 7, 2016 at 8:14 am

“Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” stars Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, and Forest Whitaker. It’s clear from the storm troopers and the musical theme that we’re in the “Star Wars” universe, but these are new characters and a new look inside the rebel forces. It opens in December, and I’m already counting the days.

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Science-Fiction Series/Sequel Trailers, Previews, and Clips

The Book of Life

Posted on October 16, 2014 at 5:56 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for mild action, rude humor, some thematic elements and brief scary images
Profanity: Some mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Themes of death and afterlife with some scary images of skeletons and desolation, peril including bull fights and snake bite, violence including sword fights and outlaws
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: October 17, 2014
Date Released to DVD: January 26, 2015
Amazon.com ASIN: B00Q599952
Copyright 2014 Twentieth Century Fox Animation
Copyright 2014 Twentieth Century Fox Animation

Jorge Gutierrez (Nickelodeon’s “El Tigre”) is co-writer and director of a dazzling new animated film that all but explodes off the screen in a kaleidoscope of color and energy and a love of life and storytelling and colorful characters and fantastic adventures.  It is filled with the richness of love and passion and life and death and music and bullfighting and courage and family.  It is a refreshing new aesthetic, inspired by Mexican folklore, with many of the characters looking as though they were carved from wood — not by trained experts and not recently.  It has great songs and stunning images, covers of songs by artists from Elvis to Mumford and Sons, with a sweet new duet from Us the Duo. Plus, there is a sensational and wonderfully varied voice cast that includes Ice Cube (superbly funny and warm-hearted), Cheech Marin, Placido Domingo, and Anjelah Johnson-Reyes (“Bon Qui Qui”).

And it is very funny and a lot of fun.

Even the opening logo for 20th Century Fox has been transformed, letting us know right from the start that we are in another world, or maybe three of them.

A museum guide tells a school group the story, which begins with a wager.  The afterlife has two parts: The Land of the Remembered, ruled by La Muerte (Kate del Castillo), where the newly dead are joyfully reunited with their families, and all is celebration, and The Land of the Forgotten, ruled by Xibalba (Ron Perlman of “Sons of Anarchy”), a bleak landscape where souls who are no longer cherished by the living are isolated and afraid.  The two rulers make a bet over which of two boys will win the heart of the girl they both love.  The winner will get to rule the Land of the Remembered.

The children grow up.  Xibalba’s candidate is Joaquin (Channing Tatum), who has become a brave soldier with a chest full of medals.  One he never lets anyone see was given to him by Xibalba, who is not above cheating to win the bet.  It gives whoever carries it courage and invulnerability.

La Muerte is rooting for Manolo (Diego Luna), who is studying to be a bullfighter like his father and all the other men in their family, but whose real passion is for music.  Both are still in love with Maria (Zoe Saldana), just returned from her studies in Spain.  Maria’s father favors Joaquin, who can protect the town from the evil, predatory bandit Chacal (Dan Navarro).  But Maria’s heart is touched by the romantic Manolo, even after his first attempt to serenade her turns into a disaster (hint: never let your companeros persuade you that the songs of either Biz Markie or Rod Stewart are romantic).  When it looks like he will lose the bet, Xibalba cheats again, sending a poisonous snake to bite Maria and Manolo.

Manolo is killed, and finds himself in the Land of the Remembered, where he is happy to see his mother and many other relatives.  But to get back to Maria, he will need to cross through the Land of the Forgotten. He meets the candle-maker (a warm and very funny Ice Cube) and a monstrous bull composed of all the bulls Manolo’s family has ever killed, makes a daring wager of his own before he gets back just in time for the arrival of Chacal.

It may seem thickly plotted at times, but that is all part of the Carnivale sensibility.  And the cavalcade of incidents and characters, both living and dead, is reassuring in its matter-of-fact approach, reminding us that it is all a part of the book of life, and that we can never lose what or who we truly love.

Parents should know that this film includes Day of the Dead-inspired images with skeletons and afterlife settings, characters in peril and some violence, sad deaths of parents and grandparent (reunited in afterlife), some scary monsters and villains, brief potty humor and some mild language

Family discussion: How can you tell when you follow your parents’ advice and when to do what feels right to you? What is the best way to make sure we remember the people who are no longer with us?

If you like this, try: “The Princess and the Cobbler” and “Rio” and the documentary “Walt and El Groupo,” about the real-life trip Walt Disney and his animators took to South America and how it transformed the look of Disney animation.

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3D Animation DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week Fantasy Musical Romance

Casa de Mi Padre

Posted on March 15, 2012 at 6:11 pm

You think having sunny-spirited Californian Will Ferrell play the son of a Mexican rancher is not goofy enough?  How about if the entire movie is in Spanish (with subtitles)?  You want goofier?  I got your goofy right here.  The entire premise of the movie is that it is a humorous take on a genre that is largely unknown to its intended audience.  The result plays like an extended “Funny or Die” short, engagingly loopy and unpretentious but overlong and uneven.

Ferrell’s great appeal as a comic performer is the way he commits so completely to whatever his character’s dim but utterly earnest world view is supposed to be.  Whether he is an elf or “Hank the Tank” or a high school cheerleader or banging on a cowbell, he is completely on board.  Here he joins with Mexican stars Gabriel Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna (who co-starred in “Y Tu Mama Tambien” and “Rudo Y Cursi”), and Latino actors Genesis Rodriguez (“Man on a Ledge”) and Efren Ramirez (“Napoleon Dynamite”) in the story of a rancher with two sons, Armando (Ferrell) and Raul (Luna) and the drug kingpin (Bernal) who wants their ranch and the woman both brothers love.

Armando is a rancher at heart, but his father does not respect him, reserving his love for the son who left home and became successful in business, Raul.  When Raul returns with his beautiful fiancee, Sonia (Rodriguez), they hope the ranch’s financial problems will be over.  But it turns out Raul’s money comes from drugs, and the rival drug lord Onza (Bernal), who has his own relationship with Sonia, wants to eliminate the competition and punish those who dared to challenge him.

The film embraces the cheesiness of its melodramatic plot, clunky (at least in translation) dialog, and limited budget, and the best jokes are the cheery and sometimes absurd asides that go on at the edges of the frame.  Thankfully, its humor is based in a genuine affection for its source material, the soapy, low-budget telenovelas (and the traditional Hollywood Westerns that influenced them), respecting the heart of those stories and their audiences.  The cast is terrific, especially Bernal, who can make smoking two cigars at once look menacing and the beautiful Rodriguez, and everyone in the cast is clearly having a blast.  There are some moments of loony hilarity, but it would have worked better as a short, as the concept gets played out quickly.  Si casa no es tu casa.


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Action/Adventure Comedy Satire
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