ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY. An unpleasant combination of factors still leaves me feeling ambivalent about The Force Awakens, even all these months later: the vast and vapid pre-hype; Disney's marketing push penetrating every sector of consumer culture; the lingering memory of the first round of prequels, then of the re-touched, re-released (it could be argued, ruined) original movies. And underlying all of that, the fact that the new movie, despite its warmth and sure-footedness, didn't feel new. At the same time, it didn't really feel vintage either, despite director JJ Abrams and company's commendable efforts to evoke the look and feel of George Lucas' creations. The Force Awakens felt like a synthesis of all the elements of all the Star Wars movies preceding it, for good and bad. Its familiarity struck me as cloying, practiced, trying a little too hard to make us like it. (Although, in the movie's defense, a friend recently and astutely said that he sees it as a successful corrective to the trespasses of the earlier prequels. I am considering it.)
Rogue One, by contrast, reminds me of the original Star Wars movies — and my reaction to them — in a childlike, visceral way. But it also makes use of the cinematic technological advancements of the last three decades to enrich the experience, and to move the enterprise forward. I find it a more fitting, more exciting, better-executed re-entry into this world than its recent predecessor.
Twenty years before the events of Star Wars (1977), in the early days of the Galactic Empire, Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), leads a simple life with his wife and young daughter on a grassy, sparsely populated planet. But Galen's skills are in demand, and his attempt to serve his conscience and distance himself from the machinations of the Empire is not looked upon kindly. Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) is dispatched to retrieve him so that he might contribute to the construction of what will become the Death Star. Galen relents, knowing that resistance is futile, but not quickly enough to prevent tragedy. Devastated, he rejoins Krennic, leaving his daughter in the care of Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker). Fifteen years later, Galen's daughter Jyn (Felicity Jones), raised as a warrior by Saw and then left on her own, is in prison. Word of her lineage spreads to the top tier of the Rebel Alliance. The rebels spring Jyn from jail, only to hold her captive and compel her to help find her father. Supposedly, he dispatched a defector, Bodhi (Riz Ahmed), with a coded message for the Alliance, but Bodhi has been captured by Saw and his extremist rebel cadre. Jyn is placed in the charge of Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), a seasoned operative and assassin, along with a reprogrammed Imperial droid called K2SO (Alan Tudyck). She is promised freedom in exchange for locating and contacting Saw but things go sideways from the jump. Jyn, Cassian and K2SO fall in with a Zatoichi type (Donnie Yen) and his hard hitting partner Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang), and are caught in the crossfire when Saw's forces attack an Imperial detachment.
All I knew about director Gareth Evans up to this point consisted of favorable reviews of his debut Monsters (2010) and a keen sense of disappointment in his Godzilla (2014). The trailer for the latter was one of the finest I've ever seen, cutting together stunning visuals with chilling sound design to create an air of menace and majesty. Godzilla contained those elements but they were so diluted by unnecessary plot and over-length that they were all but lost. To be honest, there are stretches of Rogue One that could be said to suffer from the same impulses. But the story, the characterizations, the acting and the aesthetic are strong enough to override minor pacing problems. The plot remains labyrinthine, transiting among planets and zooming through hyperspace, but Evans' sense of the narrative keeps it coherent and compelling. And he follows through on the visual promise of Godzilla, working to create a distinct look and feel for his Star Wars story. He tips his hat to the originals, particularly in the aerial battle sequences — there's a spectacular one that essentially closes out the movie — but doesn't get caught up in trying to copy. Instead, he ranges out and finds a visual language that is unique but inspired by the material upon which this story is built. Equally important, Rogue One does not shy away from darkness and moral ambiguity. There is no guarantee that everybody will make it out alive and some good people will do some assuredly nasty things in service of the greater good. There is a complexity to the characters and motivations here that is heretofore unseen in the Star Wars universe, and it adds a vital weight and dimension to the movie. Of course there's also the stellar cast, impeccably choreographed battle sequences, good jokes and the best droid yet. PG13. 113m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK, MINOR.
COLLATERAL BEAUTY. When I asked my wife if she'd like to join me for this one and gave her a brief plot summary, she replied, "Well that sounds awful." And it was.
Howard (Will Smith), justifiably despondent over the death of his 6-year-old daughter and the subsequent dissolution of his marriage, has checked out of life. He doesn't eat or sleep, much less maintain his business relationships. His advertising company — seemingly the only one in history devoid of cynicism — is in financial trouble. His partners hire a private investigator to tail Howard. She intercepts letters he's written to three abstractions: Love (Keira Knightley), Death (Helen Mirren) and Time (Jacob Latimore). The partners (played by Edward Norton, Michael Peña and Kate Winslet) hire actors to embody these abstractions and engage with Howard in an attempt to prove him non compos mentis and expedite the sale of the company. It's a maudlin exercise in dicey magical realism and it doesn't really work, in spite of the high-powered cast and considerable production value.
I have to admit, though, that after being hammered by sentimentality against an anvil of quasi-philosophy for an hour and a half, I was momentarily moved. But then I came back to my senses. PG13. 97m. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.
— John J. Bennett
For showtimes, see the Journal's listings at www.northcoastjournal.com or call: Broadway Cinema 443-3456; Fortuna Theatre 725-2121; Mill Creek Cinema 839-3456; Minor Theatre 822-3456; Richards' Goat Miniplex 630-5000.
ASSASSINS CREED. Michael Fassbender stars as a con who's forced to channel his hit-man ancestors in this video game adaptation featuring secret societies and cool hoodies in 15th century Spain. PG13. 115m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
FENCES. Denzel Washington directs and stars as a father raising a family amid the tumult and racism of the 1950s. PG13. 139m. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.
LION. A man who was separated from his family on a train across India as a small boy tries to find his long-lost home and family. PG13. 118m. BROADWAY.
MANCHESTER BY THE SEA. A man with a past (Casey Affleck, fittingly) returns to his hometown to look after his dead brother's kid. With Michelle Williams. R. 137m. MINOR.
PASSENGERS. Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt play a pair of space travelers who, like a holiday traveler without Ambien/cash for the drink cart, wake up way too early in the flight and find themselves in trouble. PG13. 130m. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK, FORTUNA.
SING. A koala trying to save his theater holds a singing competition with a menagerie of hopefuls in this animated musical. Starring Matthew McConaughey and Reese Witherspoon. PG. 108m. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK, FORTUNA.
WHY HIM? Ryan Cranston plays a father out to oust his daughter's (Zoey Deutch) wildly inappropriate boyfriend (James Franco). R. 111m. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.
CHRISTINE. Based on the grim on-air death of a Florida TV news reporter (Rebecca Hall) with thwarted ambitions and a crumbling personal life. You know, a fun journalism movie. R. 119m. MINIPLEX.
FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM. Director David Yates and company create a vast, fascinating, Potter-esque atmosphere but the action is antic, rambling and insubstantial. Starring Eddie Redmayne. PG13. 133m. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.
HANDMAIDEN. A young woman on the grift in Japanese-occupied Korea poses as a servant and gets involved with the woman she's supposed to con. Starring Tae-ri Kim and Min-hee Kim. NR. 144m. MINIPLEX.
HARRY AND SNOWMAN. Documentary about a man who rescues a busted farm horse and turns it into a champion show jumper. See if 2016 left you any tears to cry. NR. 84m. MINIPLEX.
IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946). Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed star in Frank Capra's Christmas classic. PG. 130m. BROADWAY.
THE LOVE WITCH. Arcata-filmed retro comedy-horror with a witch looking for love in all the wrong potions. PG13. 120m. MINIPLEX.
LOVING. Ruth Negga and Will Dalton star as the married couple who took Virginia's anti-miscegenation law to the Supreme Court in 1967. PG13. 123m. MINOR.
MISS SLOANE. Jessica Chastain stars as a lobbyist who takes her formidable skills, cutthroat tactics and alien poise to the gun control fight. R. 132m. BROADWAY.
MOANA. A young navigator (actual Hawaiian Auli'I Cravalho) enlists the reluctant aid of a demigod (actual demigod Dwayne Johnson) on a sea voyage to save her home from destruction in this Disney animated feature. PG. 113m. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.
MOONLIGHT. Attention to the little things and small, powerful moments make for a much wider and more hopeful picture of the world in this three-part coming-of-age-and-beyond story. Starring Mahershala Ali. PG13. 111m. MINOR.
OFFICE CHRISTMAS PARTY. The jokes come fast and furious until the script loses punch and polish in the second act. The cast is great but the party isn't as wild as the trailer suggests and the resolution is as cute and convenient as expected. R. 105m. BROADWAY.
— Jennifer Fumiko Cahill