Starring: Vin Diesel, Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham
Directed by: F. Gary Gray (“Straight Outta Compton”)
Written by: Chris Morgan (“Furious 7,” “Fast 5”)
I’ve run out of ways to express my bewilderment for “The Fast and the Furious” series, so, with the latest film, “The Fate of the Furious” fresh in my mind, I’m going to go back two years and re-purpose what I wrote about “Furious 7” because the exact same thoughts crossed my mind. Sue me:
“If nothing else, the evolution of the ‘Fast & Furious’ series over the past decade and a half from low-rent meathead car culture crime movies to globe-hopping meathead action movies is worthy of some gentle introspection. How did we, as moviegoers, let this happen? How did this series go from being the “Scarface” of those guys that put neon, spoilers and Japanese letters on their cars to being Michael Bay’s “Transformers” without the transforming robots? And wait. Is de facto family leader Dom Toretto (Vin Diesel) any sort of law enforcement, or is he just a civilian badass called upon by the government to…drive fast cars to get criminals?”
I fully admit, I don’t know how to deal with these movies. They baffle me. But I’ll be damned if the ramped-up cartoonish action of “The Fate of the Furious” didn’t come closer than the shaves on the scalps of the leading men to winning me over than most of the previous entries in the series, “Fast Five” excluded.
While on their honeymoon in Cuba, portrayed here as an eternal, multi-ethnic party where lawlessness is trumped by honor, Dom and Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) do the usual American touristy things, like wearing linen and engaging in high-stakes street races with the island nation’s famously old vehicles. During a stroll to a bodega, Dom stumbles up a mysterious woman named Cipher (Charlize Theron), who shows Dom something on a cell phone that’s enough to get him to betray his family (be ready to hear that word a lot) and help her execute her confusing world-domination plan.
Reminder: 16 years ago Dom was a street-racing gearhead who ran stolen DVD players. Anyway.
When Special Agent Luke Hobbs (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) recruits Dom and his team to help swipe an EMP (again?) in an off-the-books mission that could send Hobbs to prison, Dom makes his move and Hobbs gets locked up. While inside he meets up with “Furious 7’s” villain Deckard (Jason Statham) who, while he still hates Hobbs, turns out to be a good guy now so that when they both are inevitably freed, he joins the team. Which seems sudden, but whatever.
Now Hobbs, Deckard, and the rest (including Rodriguez, Ludacris, Tyrese Gibson, and a “Game of Thrones” actress, Nathalie Emmanuel, who reprises her role as an unconvincing hacker) have to take down Dom before he gathers enough weapons to start World War III on Cipher’s behalf.
Dom’s betrayal, especially as the dull, monosyllabic patriarch of the film’s oft-grunted-about family, is pretty thin gruel that no true fan will buy for a second, and new director F. Gary Gray (“Straight Outta Compton”) knows it. Instead, he chooses to showcase things like a ridiculous cartoon prison brawl involving a raging, Hulked-out Johnson (the real star of the franchise now, let’s face it) deflecting rubber bullets and punching guards through walls in his pursuit of a parkour-ing Statham or some batshit lunacy involving hacked cars remotely chasing down a motorcade and driving themselves out of a high rise parking garage to trap a Russian ambassador under piles of burning metal. By the time a few characters blasted their way into frame via jetpacks, I was damn near won over.
By the time Dom’s plot is wrapped up, though, and the movie ends with a rooftop barbecue, the stupidity overwhelms you again, and you forget about the entire franchise for another two years.
Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Michael Pitt, Juliette Binoche
Directed by: Rupert Sanders (“Snow White and the Huntsman”)
Written by: Jamie Moss (“Street Kings”) and William Wheeler (“The Hoax”) and Ehren Krueger (“Transformers: Age of Extinction”)
In the ’90s, adolescent me had all kinds of under-the-radar alternate entertainment thrown at me by virtue of being a socially-awkward fat nerd. Some things stuck hard, like comic books, “Mystery Science Theater 3000” and “Space Ghost: Coast to Coast.” Others even I deflected, like Magic: The Gathering and anime—then only accessible on VHS from higher-end comic book shops, not counting the mass-market, sanitized Japanese exports like “Sailor Moon” and the fledgling days of “Pokemon.”
I feel like I gave anime a fair shake, though, and hyper-violent cartoons with occassional nudity was an easy sell anyway. But still, nothing. As I moved into my 20s, the ubiquitousness of DVDs led to me sampling one of the masterworks of the genre I had long heard about, 1995’s “Ghost in the Shell.” And again, it didn’t take. I shook hands with anime and we went our separate ways.
But, because genre filmmaking is a beast that can’t be satiated, it was only a matter of time before “Ghost in the Shell,” with its cyberpunk-robot storyline easily retrofitted for American audiences, was given the big-budget Hollywood treatment—and the endlessly debated, probably problematic whitewashed casting that goes with it.
Set in a future where humans augment themselves with cybernetic implants and live in cities filled with Golem-like holographic advertising avatars, “Ghost in the Shell” opens with the creation of the Major (Scarlett Johansson), the first synthetic humanoid with a real human brain inside of it under the care of Dr. Ouelet (Juliette Binoche). Major’s real body was damaged in a terrorist bombing, so she is told, and Ouelet saved her life. Since the Major is a product of the probably-evil Hanka robotics corporation, she is of course weaponized and made to hunt down terrorists with a multinational team, including the hulking, dog-friendly muscle with cybernetic eyes Batou (Pilou Asbæk), the closest Major comes to having a partner. They’re on the trail of a super-hacker named Kuze (Michael Pitt) who’s working to assassinate Hanka scientists—but his reasons remain mysterious until the Major is able to get close to him and recover her memories, changing everything.
As a dull amalgam of “Blade Runner,” “The Matrix,” and HBO’s “Westworld,” “Ghost in the Shell” is a beautiful-looking film that proclaims to be about identity, but fails to find one of its own. Its the type of movie that, 15 years ago, cinephiles would have salivated over as showcases for their home audio/video setups—a special-edition DVD in a shiny foil packaging, all gloss with nothing underneath. It’s a shame, too, because Johannson once again proves herself to be a badass female action hero in an industry severely lacking them. After this and the travesty that was “Lucy,” can we stop dicking around and just give her a “Black Widow” movie already?
Starring: Dacre Montgomery, Naomi Scott, Bryan Cranston, Elizabeth Banks
Directed by: Dean Israelite (“Earth to Echo”)
Written by: John Gatins (“Real Steel,” “Flight”)
In this, the golden age of movies based on geek-friendly properties, there are still a few outliers that commit the cardinal sin of being ashamed of their source material. Captain America wears his red, white and blue costume on screen and will soon meet up with a talking raccoon and tree-person, for crying out loud. We’re through the looking glass, people, dance with the one that brought you! These comic book-adjacent properties are thriving in an environment that embraces all of the things we might have thought were too silly to put to film 20 years ago.
Nothing quite personifies ‘90s cheese TV as well as “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers,” a show so earnest it makes “Saved By The Bell” look like “Beverly Hills 90210.” Even with it’s corny acting and repurposed Japanese special effects-filled monster battles, it became a sensation that’s still in production in some form today, nearly 25 years after premiering.
The new “Power Rangers,” seemingly borrows more from “Friday Night Lights,” “Chronicle” and even the “Star Trek” reboot. The film follows five bland teens as they meet in a “Breakfast Club” style detention, stumble across some color-coded power coins, gain superhuman strength, and plunge into an underground spaceship where they meet a very dickish Zordon (Bryan Cranston) who tells them they are now the Power Rangers. But before they get to don their helmeted battle armor (no spandex here) and ride in their giant robot dinosaurs, we have to suffer through a patience-testing hour and a half of plodding training montages, several horrible rollover car crashes, and a confusing sexting scandal that threatens to bring down one of the Rangers.
Why in Zordon’s name would anyone think a dour, deathly serious “Power Rangers” movie would be the way to go in 2017? Whatever the reason, it’s here, Morphin fans, so dance.
Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson
Directed by: Jordan Vogt-Roberts (“The Kings of Summer”)
Written by: Dan Gilroy (“Nightcrawler”) and Max Borenstein (“Godzilla”) and Derek Connolly (“Jurassic World”)
What if “Apocalypse Now” was remade today, but with a twist: instead of the Viet Cong, you replace them with King Kong? While the movie isn’t shameless enough to title itself “Viet Kong,” instead “Kong: Skull Island” foregoes subtlety—and, damningly, simplicity—to sort of retell Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece with a giant ape and connective tissue to other giant monsters in the pipeline ready to star in their own film franchises. In short, “Kong: Skull Island” is a weird fucking movie, albeit one that squanders that weirdness by bogging it down in a swamp of exposition, an overabundance of characters, and weird shifts in tone.
After a prologue shows us a pair of pilots, one American and one Japanese, crash landing on an island in the South Pacific during World War II and encountering our title character, we’re thrown ahead nearly 30 years to the waning days of the Vietnam War. Satellite photography and mapping is all the rage, and would-be explorer Bill Randa (John Goodman) uses the threat of Russian discovery to convince a senator to finance an exploratory mission with a military escort to Skull Island, which is permanently surrounded by storms.
The military enlists Colonel Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), a career soldier looking for a fight after having to “cut and run” in Vietnam, and his men to facilitate the expedition. Along for the ride is former British special forces tracker James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and anti-war photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), the latter of which provides the story with its inevitable “Beauty and the Beast” allegory. As soon as the team arrives and sets off bombs for, uh, some reason, they’re met with a fury by Kong himself, swatting helicopters out of the air and leaving Packard with a thirst for revenge.
Cool monster fisticuffs aside, “Kong: Skull Island” ends up a mess as we’re expected to follow too many different poorly-drawn characters (big ape included) as they make their way across the unclear geography of Skull Island, during which moments of would-be or unintentional comic relief mar what comes down to a movie about a crazed Samuel L. Jackson taking on King Kong. I mean, that sounds badass, right? But then what the hell is with Tom Hiddleston tossing on a gas mask and grabbing a katana to knife through a flock of pterodactyls in a poisonous gas cloud in slow motion? Is THAT supposed to be badass? Because it’s just sort of laughable. And the glut of characters leaves fine actors, like Goodman, Brie Larson, Shea Whigham, and Toby Kebbell, either stranded with nothing to do or with so little motivation the whole thing feels like a byproduct of bad editing.
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Dafne Keen
Directed by: James Mangold (“The Wolverine”)
Written by: Scott Frank (“The Wolverine”) & James Mangold (“Walk The Line”) and Michael Green (“Green Lantern”)
In the 17 years since Bryan Singer’s “X-Men” birthed the modern comic book movie, there have been a sizable number of really good films in the genre—but transcendent ones are as rare as adamantium. 2008’s “The Dark Knight” obviously makes that list, and many would put 2012’s “The Avengers” right behind it, followed in some circles by last year’s “Deadpool.” And now, nearly two decades after his first, career-making appearance as Wolverine, Hugh Jackman and director James Mangold join their company and outdo every film in the X-series—and most comic book movies, period–with the R-rated “Logan.”
Set in 2029 after something mysterious (and blissfully unexplored) left most mutants dead, “Logan” opens with Jackman’s erstwhile berserker X-Man, weak and hungover, sleeping in a limousine. When a group of guys try to steal his rims, Logan can’t muster the strength to take them down—until a shotgun blast to the chest awakens his anger and he cuts them to ribbons. Later, he’s met by a woman named Gabriela (Elizabeth Rodriguez) who offers him $50,000 to take her and her young daughter, Laura (Dafne Keen) to North Dakota—both of whom are also wanted by a ruthless, robotic-handed mercenary Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook). When the shit hits the fan, Logan and an elderly, dementia-addled Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) escape in the limo with Laura, who mysteriously mirrors Logan in both rage and the presence of razor-sharp claws that extend from her appendages.
Clearly owing a debt to the financial success of the brilliantly profane and grisly “Deadpool,” Jackman and Mangold were taken off the PG-13 leash, free to pepper “Logan” (seemingly not beholden to much of the series’ notoriously convoluted timeline) with all of the fucks and gory decapitations that have been missing from the character’s DNA. It pays off, too, allowing the film’s achingly bleak, last-of-its-kind tone to wash over everything without the compromise normally required for something meant to sell action figures and breakfast cereal. 17 years later, after pretty great movies (“X2,” “X-Men: Days of Future Past”) horrible duds (“X-Men Origins: Wolverine”) and underappreciated turns missing just a little something (“The Wolverine”), Jackman—in what he insists is his final performance in a role he 100 percent owns—finally has his comic book movie masterpiece.
Starring: Matt Damon, Tian Jing, Andy Lau
Directed by: Yimou Zhang (“House of Flying Daggers,” “Hero”)
Written by: Carlo Bernard (“Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time”), Doug Miro (“The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”) and Tony Gilroy (“The Bourne Ultimatum”)
For those prematurely concerned with another Hollywood whitewashing of Asian culture when “The Great Wall” was announced with star Matt Damon, rest assured: this is most definitely a Chinese movie with Americans along for the ride. With most of the dialogue in Mandarin (with English subtitles) and some of the Chinese film industry’s biggest stars in actor Andy Lau and acclaimed director Zhang Yimou, “The Great Wall” doesn’t feel culturally compromised (at least to this ugly American), but it doesn’t ever fully embrace its potential for mash-up weirdness either.
When a pair of European men, William (Damon) and Tovar (Pedro Pascal), narrowly escape a monstrous creature while on the hunt for black powder in China during the Song dynasty, they stumble across the Great Wall as the color-coded soldiers prepare for an attack by the Tao Tie. The Chinese army, made of up archers, wall-walking infantrymen, and rope-assisted crane fighting women, are defending the capital from the creatures (essentially telepathic monster dogs who came to earth in a meteor and represent greed!). When William proves himself to be an effective warrior, he earns the trust of Commander Lin Mae (Tian Jing) and devises a plan alongside the Chinese soldiers to defeat the dog-monsters once and for all.
While “The Great Wall” isn’t a bad movie, it is mostly a boring one—and one that leaves what could be epic multicultural weirdness on the table. Damon is fine, if not totally committed, to the role of a semi-scoundrel looking for honor, but the trio of screenwriters (including frequent Damon collaborator Tony Gilroy) fail to drum up much internal conflict for William—or anyone else for that matter. “The Great Wall” presents its conflict (the fight against the telepathic dog-monsters from space), the threat they pose (the dog-monsters have breached the Great Wall) and the unlikely secret weapon Damon introduces (a magnet!) that can help take the Tao Tie down and save the planet in the process. If that sounds potentially bananas, especially in the hands of Zhang, you’d be right. But “The Great Wall” never lives up to its batshit crazy potential.
Starring: James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson
Directed by: M. Night Shyamalan (“The Sixth Sense,” “Unbreakable”)
Written by: M. Night Shyamalan (“The Visit,” “After Earth”)
Former Hollywood golden boy M. Night Shyamalan has been working on a comeback for longer than he was at the top of his game, and since the double-sided nadir of “The Last Airbender” and “After Earth,” Shyamalan has gone small, like a former world-class athlete rebuilding his game in the minors. 2015’s “The Visit” was a fun found-footage horror romp with zero big stars and a sly wink at the audience from time to time. With his latest, “Split,” Shyamalan starts to play a little hero ball like it’s 2001 again, shooting to spin an intimate psychological thriller into an epic tale of supernatural ability using showy performances and, yes, a twist–with mixed results.
At a birthday party for popular high school student Claire (Haely Lu Richardson), the quiet, introverted Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) remains an outcast, invited only so it wouldn’t be awkward in class. When it’s time to go, Casey hitches a reluctant ride with Claire, Claire’s dad, and Claire’s friend Marcia (Jessica Sula), only Claire’s dad is knocked out before he can get in the car and the three girls are taken by a stranger named Kevin (James McAvoy) and locked in an underground bunker. When the girls come to, they find that Kevin suffers from dissociative identity disorder, and they’re visited and/or tormented by several identities including manically methodical Dennis, taciturn Miss Patricia, and lisping 9-year-old Hedwig. These identities are revolting against the reasonable artist persona Barry, who keeps trying to break through and reach psychiatrist Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley) — who likens Kevin’s disorder to superhuman abilities — before an unknown entity known as “The Beast” arrives to devour the captive girls.
While McAvoy’s go-for-broke performance as the multiple personalities is bold and grimly funny at times, the nearly two-hour run time leaves a few aspects teetering on the brink of annoyance (I’m looking at you, Hedwig). Also puzzling is the inclusion of a grossly depressing backstory for Taylor-Joy’s Claire that does essentially nothing for the plot accept to provide a head-scratching end to the climax and an icky aftertaste in the epilogue. Why her character was made to suffer that fate to have such a confusing payoff is a mystery.
So, let’s talk about the twist—which, really, has more in common with the Marvel school of post-credits stingers that open up the movie’s world instead of turning what we just watched on its ear. It’s a bold decision, for sure, and it’s hard to decide if it’s a brilliant move or a boneheaded one. Either way, it will make you leave the theater talking. Although it’s a little like watching Kobe Bryant back in the day score 60 points in a game—thrilling, to be sure, but maybe an indicator that Shyamalan hasn’t quite learned his lesson.
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Kevin Bacon, John Goodman
Directed by: Peter Berg (“Lone Survivor,” “Deepwater Horizon”)
Written by: Peter Berg (“Friday Night Lights”) Matt Cook (“Triple 9”) and Joshua Zetumer (“RoboCop”)
Reliving real-life, recent historical events through the eyes of a single character in a film is the hallmark of the docudrama. Think Tom Hanks’ in “Sully” or, well, Tom Hanks in “Captain Phillips.” These two lead characters are portrayed as rather ordinary people thrust into incredible drama, and as an audience we identify with them, we relate to the events through their eyes. So, what if they didn’t exist, made up to heighten the tension, to put the audience in the shoes of someone who was “there” without really being there? In “Patriots Day,” that’s Mark Wahlberg’s put-upon Boston police officer Tommy Saunders, a super cop who has the ear of the commissioner, the FBI, and the governor while also being on scene for every major development in the Boston Marathon bombing, from being at the finish line when the bombs go off to each step of the manhunt for the Tsarnaev brothers. It’s a strange action movie cliché that somewhat mars an otherwise solid and high-tension retelling of the worst act of domestic terrorism (sadly, since eclipsed) since 9/11.
Everyone knows the story: on April 15, 2013, two homemade pressure cooker bombs went off near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, killing three people and injuring more than 260 others. After scouring security footage, two suspects dubbed “white hat” and “black hat” were identified, and the release of the photos sparked the duo, Chechen brothers Tamerlan (Themo Melikidze) and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (Alex Wolff, all spooky, clueless Millennial disaffectedness), to go on a crime spree on their way to Times Square. In the process they killed an MIT police officer (Jake Picking) while trying to steal his gun and carjacked and kidnapped a Chinese exchange student (Jimmy O. Yang) before engaging in an explosive-fueled shootout with police. Tamerlan is killed in the standoff after being run over by the fleeing Dzhokhar, who became the target of an unprecedented manhunt that shut Boston down and brushed the edge of martial law. He was ultimately located, hiding in a sailboat in a suburban backyard.
If you can look past Wahlberg’s fictional cop who never sleeps, director Peter Berg has put together a fantastic ensemble piece that never loosens the screws, even if along the way it ends up painting law enforcement as maybe a bit too infallible. One scene in particular, featuring Tamerlan’s American wife Katherine (Melissa Benoist) being interrogated—after we’re told explicitly she wasn’t read her Miranda rights—by a mysterious hijab-clad government agent (Khandi Alexander) who questions her commitment to Islam, comes closest to breaking that streak, though. The FBI special agent in charge (Kevin Bacon) and Boston police commissioner (John Goodman) look on in wonder as the extra-legal interrogation takes place, but the feeling we’re left with is this—and the virtual lockdown of Boston—is for the greater good. “Patriots Day” isn’t interested in questioning those ideas, but it could have been a much richer experience had it done so.
Starring: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae
Directed by: Theodore Melfi (“St. Vincent”)
Written by: Theodore Melfi (“St. Vincent”) and Allison Schroeder (debut)
Films based on historical events have a tendency to feel like well-crafted museum exhibits, in that they politely lead you from beginning to end, illuminating certain events along the way without affecting your emotional state too much one way or the other. It’s a perfectly pleasant experience and you learn some stuff, sure, but you can feel yourself being ushered through all points along the way, the velvet ropes mentally brushing up against you as it unfurls. “Hidden Figures,” the true to life tale of three African-American women instrumental in the success of NASA’s early space flight, is a pleasant, heartwarming, and effective enough. These women are inspirational, no doubt, but by the time the film ends, it lacks a resonance strong enough to differentiate itself from the well-trodden genre.
Set in the early days of the space race at NASA’s Langley campus in the 1960s, “Hidden Figures” follows a trio of genius-level black women at a time when two of those three traits were detrimental to a career in literal rocket science. Math savant Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson) works with Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) as “computers” in the colored-only wing at a NASA. When a position opens up to work on the trajectory calculations that will put Americans in space, Goble ends up working under mathematicians Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons) and director Al Harrison (Kevin Costner). The men are initially reluctant to trust Goble’s work (her being a black woman and all), but begin to warm to her after charming, pioneering astronaut John Glenn (Glen Powell) gives Goble’s work his complete and total trust.
Meanwhile, Vaughan verbally spars with by-the-book supervisor Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst) about advancing her position while secretly learning to work with the mysterious new IBM computer. Also, Jackson is eager to become an engineer, but NASA regulations require engineers to take extension courses at a local school—a school that remains segregated even after federal order. So in order to attend, Jackson must seek a court injunction to even begin to advance her career.
Fine performances abound in “Hidden Figures,” but nothing stands out, except that Spencer and Monae seem to have been shorted in the story department—they feel like footnotes to Henson’s character. Noticeably, however, all of the likable actors—Costner, Parsons and Dunst—in parts that are traditionally more villainous in Civil Rights-era historical films are given relatively bland, inert roles. Maybe it’s all true, sure, but it all feels a little too safe, right down to the climax cribbed from “Apollo 13,” one of the safest movies ever made. There’s never a doubt where “Hidden Figures” is going to splash down.
Starring: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn
Directed by: Gareth Edwards (“Godzilla”)
Written by: Chris Weitz (“About A Boy”) and Tony Gilroy (“The Bourne Supremacy”)
Prequel is one of the dirtiest words in the English language to “Star Wars” fans, right up there with midichlorians and Jar Jar Binks. The increasingly negative reception to George Lucas’ prequel trilogy that unspooled from 1999 to 2005 has rendered the word toxic, which is why Disney’s marketing of “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” has expressly avoided using the word at all—even though the movie is very much a direct prequel to the original “Star Wars” movie from 1977, known now as “A New Hope.”
This is the first live-action “Star Wars” theatrical adventure to deviate from the so-called saga of the Skywalker family being chronicled so far in Episodes I through VII (there was an animated “Clone Wars” film in theaters, as well as a pair of Ewok-centric TV movies in the ’80s and the infamous “Star Wars Holiday Special” from 1978) and represents the opening salvo in Disney’s mission to release a “Star Wars” movie every single year for the rest of all of our lives.
Opening around 15 years BBY (that’s Before the Battle of Yavin—the events of “A New Hope” and the super-geeky way in which the “Star Wars” timeline is sometimes parceled out), “Rogue One” focuses on Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelson), the reluctant brains behind the weapons tech in the Empire’s planet-killing Death Star. He and his family, including daughter Jyn, are in hiding from the Imperial officer heading up the Death Star project, Director Krennic (Ben Mendolsohn). When Krennic tracks them down, he kills Jyn’s mother and captures her father as she flees, taken in by militant Rebel Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker).
Fifteen years later, Jyn (Felicity Jones) is busted out of an Imperial prison by the Rebels and given the choice of helping Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and his droll, reprogrammed Imperial droid 2-KSO (voiced by Alan Tudyk) capture her father back from the Empire to find out how to stop the superweapon. When plans go awry after a test-firing of the Death Star levels a Rebel stronghold, Jyn and Andor must team up with a blind, Force-sensitive monk (Donnie Yen), his heavily-armed sidekick (Wen Jiang) and an Imperial defector (Riz Ahmed) to steal the plans for the Death Star, a monumental event that set in motion the entire franchise nearly 40 years ago.
Burdened with extensive reshoots and the unavoidable fact that we know how it all ends, “Rogue One” represented somewhat of a risk for Disney—albeit a risk that will, worst case scenario, not make quite as much money as “The Force Awakens” did last year and only sell 85% of the toys. Happily, though, the movie ends up killer, with a brutality of war featuring the troops on the ground we’ve never seen in a “Star Wars” film before. The scars of the reshoots show through here and there, though, with Whitaker’s character seemingly suffering the most, relegated to a plot device that goes nowhere—and the same goes for a mystical crystal Jyn wears around her neck. Neither of those, however, are likely to conjure up the negative conversations that one prominently featured CGI character will over his too-many scenes. For the record, I’m not talking about Jar Jar Binks, but a long-dead British actor resurrected to look like a Playstation 4 cutscene character—pretty good, but still off-putting and not quite right. Ultimately, we’re left with a thrilling “Star Wars” movie that dares to be different—for example: no opening crawl, no transitional wipes, and no Jedi—and ends up as a better film than the widely-beloved nostalgia hug that was “The Force Awakens.”
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler
Directed by: David Yates (“Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2”)
Written by: J.K. Rowling (debut)
You didn’t really think Warner Bros. would let a multi-billion-dollar movie franchise vanish just because they were out of novels to adapt, did you? After magically stretching seven books about a boy wizard named Harry Potter into eight hit movies, multiple theme park attractions, and piles of merchandise taller than a stack of coins in a Gringott’s vault, the studio turned to author J.K. Rowling to reach back into the cauldron and conjure up a five-film prequel series based on a slim fictional textbook used in Hogwarts and published for us Muggles in 2001, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.”
Set in 1926, the film focuses on the author of the fictional reference book, world traveler and magical creature wrangler Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) as he makes his way to New York City with a suitcase full of the titular fantastic beasts, including some snake-like dragons with egg shells of silver and a mischievous platypus-looking niffler that can’t help but swipe shiny things. The latter causes trouble when he escapes at a bank, causing Scamander to inadvertently expose a baker named Jacob Kowalski (Dan Folger), who is a No-Maj—the American word for the now-familiar Muggle—to the world of wizardry. This is dangerous, you see, as there are those out to destroy witches and wizards, namely the New Salem organization who wants to them see burned at the stake. Scamander attracts the attention of Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), a disgraced Magical Congress of the United States of America (aka MACUSA) agent who attempts to detain Scamander—only for the pair to stumble upon a brewing wizarding war after some magical creature begins murdering No-Majs.
First-time screenwriter Rowling ably expands her “Harry Potter” universe admirably, albeit a tad shakily as the movie first unfurls. The film takes a while to get to know Redmayne’s shy, soft-spoken Scamanader and “Fantastic Beasts” feels a tad adrift until we finally get to see what’s inside of his case. When the hunt begins for Newt’s escaped creatures, “Fantastic Beasts” shimmers to life, juxtaposing the whimsical with the supernaturally dreadful in the way Yates’ later Potter films did so well (when they weren’t being split in two for maximum profits, that is). Prior knowledge of the Potterverse isn’t necessary, and at times the whole affair can feel a little bit like it’s setting the table for the next four films promised in the series—which, after a high-profile cameo at the end of this one, pledge to dive deep into magical warfare. Get your wands ready.
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Tilda Swinton, Chiwitel Ejiofor
Directed by: Scott Derrickson (“Sinister”)
Written by: Jon Spaihts (“Prometheus”), Scott Derrickson (“The Exorcism of Emily Rose”) and C. Robert Cargill (“Sinister”)
At 14 movies in, Marvel Studios’ cinematic universe is humming along rather well. After two lackluster releases in “Avengers: Age of Ultron” and “Ant-Man” in 2015, the studio stormed back this year with the certifiably-fantastic “Captain America: Civil War” and vanquished its longtime rival DC Comics in the battle for critical acclaim, because no one really liked “Batman v. Superman” or “Suicide Squad” all that much, volume of Harley Quinn Halloween costumes notwithstanding.
Anyway, here we are at “Doctor Strange,” Marvel’s latest effort in its (so-far) successful attempt to expand their theatrical bench using superheroes not quite as known to the general public. Doctor Strange, created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, is quickly explained as a mustachioed sorcerer with a high-collared cape and a giant amulet around his neck. Hardly Halloween costume material.
We begin quickly with a look at Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), a hot-shot, egotistical surgeon bearing more than a passing resemblance to Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark whose career is put in jeopardy after a high-speed, distracted driving Lamborghini crash leaves him without the use of his hands. After exhausting the limits of medical science and the patience of his on-again/off-again girlfriend Christine (Rachel McAdams), Strange travels to Nepal to solicit help from The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), who isn’t some sort of faith healer but a sorcerer supreme. She offers to teach him the ways of sorcery to win back the ability to use his hands—oh, and maybe fight in an impending magical war, to boot.
The film seems to know it has a lot of ground to cover to get Strange from surgeon to sorcerer, and as a result the first half of “Doctor Strange” at times feels equal parts plodding and hasty. This is, after all, another origin story, and this far in, the setup portions of these films start to feel longer and longer. The movie perks up, though, when it finally gives way to a special effects bonanza, starting with a sentient cape reminiscent of Aladdin’s magic carpet and continuing on to a kaleidoscopic, geometric rearranging of the New York City skyline and a climax that plays with the passage of time in clever, head-tripping ways. Even as the most self-contained Marvel movie since “Guardians of the Galaxy,” “Doctor Strange” is careful to toss in references to the Avengers, its own Infinity Stone, and the assurance that, of course, Doctor Strange will return.