'Rogue One' sets stage for 'New Hope'
Owls Head — Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Lucasfilm, 2 Blu-rays or standard DVD, PG-13, 133 min.). "Rogue One" is the first stand-alone film in the "Star Wars" universe -- read that as do not get too attached to any of the new characters. The film, which has some exciting action sequences, including the World War II, South Pacific like ground battle sequence on Scarif, does have some direct connections to "Star Wars IV: A New Hope" (as most know, actually the very first "Star Wars" film), especially at the end. The opening crawl of "A New Hope," in part, reads: "Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire. During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR, an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet." "Rogue One" tells of that space battle and the theft of the Death Star plans.
The Death Star itself and its radical new power core were developed by Imperial engineer Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), originally as a deterrent to warfare (see the worth-reading prequel book, "Rogue One: Catalyst"). Erso's groundbreaking discoveries came in the use of kyber crystals, which also are used to power Jedi lightsabers. Control of the project was a battle between Director Orson Krennic and Governor Tarkin. The heroine of the new film is Erso's daughter, Jyn (Felicity Jones), whose missing 13 years will be detailed in the forthcoming young adult novel, "Star Wars: Rebel Rising," due May 2.
"Rogue One" begins with Jyn and the time she is separated from her parents, as Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) has come for her father to complete the Death Star project. The film then jumps forward 15 years, as it drops in on a dizzying number of locations, including the Ring of Kafrene trading post, the Jedha moon, Rebel Alliance headquarters on Yavin 4 and the Wobani Imperial labor camp. It is from the latter than Jyn is liberated, as she is the connection to independent rebel fighter Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker, whom we could have used more of), who protected Jyn during those skipped-over years and should know where her father is. Once it is learned that the Death Star plans contain a deliberate flaw that can wipe out the moon-sized weapon and that those plans are on Scarif, Jyn is sent to steal the plans, along with Rebel intelligence officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), Imperial defector pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) and reprogrammed Imperial droid K-2SO (voiced and motion-capture performance by Alan Tudyk). Making the biggest impression of the four is the robot, who is witty and can fight. The film really comes to life at the 73-minute mark, when old foe Darth Vader makes an appearance.
Along the way, the rebels pick up two other characters of note, played by well-known Chinese actors. They are Boze Malbus (Jiang Wen) and blind, but nevertheless deadly Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen), who appears to have a connection with the Force. The pair were Guardians of the Whills on Jedha, and they take part in an exciting street battle on Jedha. The pair have their own book, "Star Wars: Guardians of the Whills," also due on May 2. The final battle takes place on Scarif, which is a bit of a cross between Florida and Guadalcanal on the ground, has a giant tower in which Imperial plans are stored and is guarded overhead by Imperial fighter spaceships.
The film also brings to life via computer magic two well-known characters whose portrayers are now deceased. A closer look at this process is the ninth segment of the 10-part making-of feature (68 min.) that is found on the second Blu-ray disc. The other segments cover how the idea for the film grew; biographies of seven of seven characters, along with the actors who play them; the Empire's characters; the look of the film; and the Hollywood premiere. An additional featurette (4:31) points out Easter eggs and homages embedded in the film. Grade: film3.5 stars; extras 3 stars
Rating guide: 5 stars = classic; 4 stars = excellent; 3 stars = good; 2 stars = fair; dog = skip it
Youth in Oregon (Sony DVD, NR, 99 min.). Since the film is supposed to be a comedy about assisted suicide -- is that even possible? -- one would guess that the title is a takeoff of Youth in Asia, aka euthanasia, although the main character, dragging his son-in-law along, does travel nearly 3,000 miles to die in Oregon. The film, directed by Joel David Moore and written by Andrew Eisen, kind of wastes a wonderful performance by Frank Langella as 80-year-old Raymond, who, two years after a heart attack, does not want to undergo more surgery to replace a valve and create another bypass. Raymond would rather end his life before the real pain starts and has made plans to do so in Oregon, where assisted suicide is legal.
The son-in-law is Brian (Billy Crudup), married to Raymond's daughter Kate (Christina Applegate), who has to stay home because their high school-aged daughter Annie (Nicole Peltz) has gotten in trouble at school over nude selfies. (Are we laughing yet?) So the road trip is undertaken by Brian, Raymond and Raymond's wife, Estelle (Mary Kay Place), who is too fond of alcohol. Brian expects that Raymond will change his mind by day two, but he does not. Along the way, they visit Raymond's estranged son Danny (Josh Lucas), who lives in Utah, is gay and gets the film's best line (talking of his ex-partner: "Mormon by day, more men by night"), and Brian's estranged son Nick (Alex Shaffer). Thus, we have a family with multiple estranged relationships. The film is ultimately depressing, despite the strong performance by Langella, who also serves as executive producer. There are no extras. Grade: film 2.5 stars
We Don't Belong Here (Sony DVD, R, 88 min.). The feature debut of writer-director Peer Pedersen is too disjointed to be enjoyed, but may be worth checking out for one of the final performances by the late Anthon Yelchin, who here plays Max, one of three bipolar children (out of four) of Nancy Green (Catherine Keener). Nancy has three daughters, including pop singing star Elisa (Riley Keough) and still-at-home Lily (Kaitlyn Dever) and Madeline (Annie Starke). The big family secret is that both Elisa and Max may have been molested by Frank Harper (Cary Elwes) when they were very young.
At least one, if not two scenes portray tragedies that really didn't happen, although the second one is a foreshadowing. Possibly the film's structured is so fractured because occasional narrator Lily has stopped taking her medicine. And while Nancy feels homosexuality is wrong -- Max is gay -- her relationship with friend Joanne (Maya Rudolph) appears to have had a sexual component in the past. Also thrown in the plot is Elisa's possibly abusive, but hunky boyfriend, and stoner Davey (Austin Abrams), whom Lily has a growing (pun unintended) relationship. Molly Shannon plays psychiatrist Deborah. The film tops off with a way-too-coincidental meeting between Nancy and Frank. There are no extras. Grade: film 2 stars
World Without End (1956, Warner Archive Blu-ray, NR, 80 min.). Four years before he starred in "The Time Machine," based on the H.G. Wells novel, Rod Taylor plays a time travelling astronaut in this forgotten science fiction film that has a plot similar to "Planet of the Apes" (1963 novel by French author Pierre Boulle), minus the apes. Taylor plays Herb Ellis, one of four astronauts, who, during the return from a mission around Mars, encounter an anomaly that sends them more than 500 years into the future. The other astronauts are Dr. Eldon Galbraithe (Nelson Leigh of 1957's "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral"), pilot John Borden (Hugh Marlowe, who starred in "The Day the Earth Stood Still" in 1951) and engineer Hank Jaffe (Christopher Dark). The film attempted to capture the same market as George Pal's "War of the Worlds." The writer-director was Edward Bernds, but an uncredited Sam Peckinpah ("The Wild Bunch" in 1969) served as "dialogue director."
When they arrive on what proves to be future Earth (2508 to be precise), the astronauts find the background radiation levels are three times higher than normal, are attacked by giant spiders (really fake looking) and come across several gravestones with the death date of 2188 on them. This leads them to the conclusion that a nuclear war took place in 2188. Then they are attacked by savages, whom they call "mutates." (Today's term would be "mutants.") Taking shelter from attack in a cave, the astronauts find a metal door that leads to an underground civilization, led by Timmek Everett Glass). Timmek's beautiful daughter is Garnet (Nancy Gates, who had been in "Suddenly! with Dark in 1954; the film starred Frank Sinatra and Sterling Hayden). The civilized people are content to live underground, even though the surface can support life now. Working against the astronaut's plan to develop a surface colony is Mories (Booth Colman), even though the underground dwellers appear to be dying off, with each generation being smaller than the previous one. Other key roles are Elaine (Shawn Smith) and former surface girl Deena (Lisa Montell). The film was an early Cinemascope production; there are no extras. Grade: film 2.5 stars
The Valley of Gwangi (1969, Warner Archive Blu-ray, G, 95 min.). This dinosaur film is surprisingly effective thanks to the wonderful stop-motion animation work by Ray Harryhausen that often brilliantly matches up live action to the animation -- in particular, the sequence in which humans on horseback try to rope a dinosaur. In the film, a Wild West show, run by T.J. Breckenridge (Gila Golan, an Israeli fashion model who was in "Our Man Flint"), while in Mexico, comes across a miniature horse, an Eohippus, that has been extinct for many millions of years. Her people have taught the tiny horse to dance atop a normal-size horse. Meanwhile, paleontologist Professor Horace Bromley (Laurence Naismith of "Village of the Damned," "Diamonds Are Forever") has found skeletal evidence of the Eohippus and is looking for the Forbidden Valley, aka the Valley of Gwangi, which is what the brontosaurus type dinosaur is referred to.
Into all of this comes T.J.'s ex-boyfriend, Tuck Kirby (James Franciscus of TV's "Mr. Novak" and "Naked City"), who is trying to buy T.J.'s horse that dives into a pool of water, surrounded by fire as an attraction for another circus. The other main character is T.J.'s current assistant, Champ (Richard Carlson of "Creature from the Black Lagoon"). Midway, a group manages to find the entrance to the valley. Once inside, a Pterodactyl grabs one of the men. There also is the typical dinosaur on dinosaur battle and the humans, making the same mistake as in "King Kong," capture Gwangi and bring it to town to be the show's newest attraction. Naturally, it escapes and wreaks havoc. Particularly well done, is the battling with Gwangi inside a giant cathedral. Bonus features include "Return to the Valley" (8:04), a mini-documentary about the film that includes an interview with Harryhausen, and an Easter egg that talks about Harryhausen's daughter and her dinosaur toy. Grade: film 3 stars; extras 1.5 stars
When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth (1970, Warner Archive Blu-ray, NR, 99 min.). The film starts off beyond silly, but some fairly good action makes the second half almost tolerable. The film involves two separate tribes of cavemen, who speak primitive languages that are not subtitled. What is amazing is that the great British author J.G. Ballard (here credited as J.B. Ballard; author of the films "High-Rise," "Empire of the Sun," "Crash," as well as many terrific science fiction novels) had anything to do with this sub-par effort, but it is based on one of his stories. The thought is that most of Ballard's writing was altered when director Val Guest ("The Quartermass Xperiment," "The Day the Earth Caught Fire") wrote the screenplay.
The film is set at the time the moon made a first appearance in the sky, upsetting the ritual sacrifice of three women to the sun god. One of the sacrifices, Sanna (Victoria Vetri of "Invasion of the Bee Girls," a Playboy Playmate of the Year), escapes by falling over the cliff when a violent storm suddenly strikes. She is rescued by fisherman Tara (Robin Hawdon of the 1967 "Bedazzled"), a member of a rival tribe. During this period, dinosaurs shared the Earth with humans (again via stop-motion, but less skillfully). Once again, there is a jealous woman, this time Ayak (Imogen Hassall), who used to be Tara's woman. The Hammer film is an obvious rip-off of "One Million Years B.C." with Raquel Welch. Sanna does make friends with a newly-hatched dinosaur, which proves helpful later, and a Pterodactyl attack is the best action sequence. Late in the film, a tidal wave comes up from nowhere and seems to take forever to sweep towards shore -- and the humans go onto boats and into the water instead of seeking higher ground! The stop-motion effects by Jim Danforth ("The Time Machine") were nominated for an Oscar. There are no bonus features. Grade: film 1.25 stars
Doctor Who: The Return of Doctor Mysterio (BBC Blu-ray, NR, 60 min.). This 2016 Christmas episode of the long-running British TV series is my favorite episode with Peter Capaldi as The Twelfth Doctor. Doctor Who and Nardole (Matt Lucas) find themselves in New York City when brain-swapping aliens are posed to attack. However, The Doctor has the aid of a mysterious caped and masked figure (Justin Chatwin as The Ghost), who by day is mild-mannered Grant, who works as a nanny for investigative reporter Lucy Fletcher (Charity Wakefield). Lucy does not know Grant's secret identity nor that he has a huge crush on her. The Doctor had previously met Grant when he was only 8 and at that time Grant swallowed a wish-granting gemstone that he thought was medicine, thus becoming a superhero, later to be known as The Ghost. The episode is quite light-hearted and there are several sly references -- visual and verbal -- to the "Superman" canon. Bonus features include "A New Kind of Hero," which looks at how The Doctor is a hero despite any super powers, and "Doctor Who Extra," which looks at the making of the episode with Capaldi, Lucas and executive producer/writer Steven Moffat. "Doctor Who" returns with Capaldi's final season this Saturday, immediately followed by the new spinoff show, "Class," set at Coal Hill Academy. Grade: episode 3.5 stars; extras 2 stars