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My family took me to this yesterday, and while it lacks the fresh inventive feel of the original, quintessential summer flick, it is still a treat. The sense of humor is intact, the characters remain winning, Dave Bautista’s hilariously literal Drax again steals the picture, and Groot is now Baby Groot, so darling that the most vicious murderers in the galaxy cannot do him in because, as their leader freely admits, “it is too adorable to kill.”  The story is a bit ragged – Peter Quill’s father (Kurt Russell) is introduced and his plan is both overly apocalyptic and not necessarily reliant on the involvement of the Guardians.  The sentiment is also a bit heavy; a lot of pain is expressed within the theme of family interrupted, creating one too many lumps in the throat for a damn Marvel movie.  Still, a lot of fun.

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My own Star Wars experience goes something like this.  I saw the first film in the theater and like any 13 year old boy, was enthralled.  My father was captivated as well, because it harkened back to the serials of his youth.  By the time the next two films came out, I was in high school/early college, and I did not see them because I was too cool to go to a kiddie movie.  Fast forward to the late 90s, early 00s, and I have children.  I couldn’t wait to show them Star Wars and the two that followed, in anticipation of the next trilogy.  They were enthralled by the first three movies, and like most folks, bored by the mind-numbingly antiseptic and stupid second set.

Fast forward to last year, and the triumphant return of a Star Wars movie that is not in the hands of the animatronic George Lucas, and everybody cheers.  Sure, the movie was pretty much a replica of the first film, but it breathes life and marked the fact that the series had been wrested from the dolt Lucas.  So, rejoice!

Which brings us to Rogue One, a prequel to the 1977 debut of the series.  As you likely know, in that first film, the rebel alliance must stop the Death Star, and the iconic figures of Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and Princess Leia take on the task.  Rogue One gives us the story of how the alliance was able to get the plans to do exactly that.

Now, to my introduction.  When I watched Star Wars with my Dad, it was exciting and engaging and even spine-tingling because I was 13 years old.  It also had the added bonus of speaking to my father through nostalgia encased in a rip-roaring yarn.  So, he didn’t have to sit through an insipid child’s movie.

But now, an entire industry and ethos has grown around Star Wars, and the series has had to deal with an unexpected but incredibly lucrative development – the emergence of an audience who demand that same feeling they had when they were 13 years old, in perpetuity, until the day they die or are kicked out of their parents’ house.  And that is a hard row to hoe.

Now, you can’t put the failure of the horrible Lucas trilogy on the demands of the arrested development audience.  Those films were execrable, to anyone, anywhere.  And as noted, last years’ coming out party had to merely not suck.  And it didn’t.

Rogue One, however, is a little better than not sucking.  It is a rip-roaring yarn but, in an effort to keep the interests of the 36 year old man living in his parent’s basement surrounded by his collectibles, it gives him all the normal elements but in a dirtier, darker package.  Space looks more like Blade Runner and Alien than the gleaming, clean world of the earlier films.  Moreover, one of our protagonists (Diego Luna) is a rebel spy and, if necessary, a cold blooded killer of the innocent (it is a sharp rebuke to Lucas’s fey re-imagining of the shoot-first cad Han Solo when Luna mercilessly puts down a friend who may jeopardize the mission) .  The other lead (Felicity Jones), is an embittered castaway, neutral on the issues of the day.  Together, they embark on a decidedly dour suicide mission that is deftly handled by director Gareth Edwards.

There are problems.  Jones’s transformation from cynical to heroic is clumsy and way too fast.   The first half is slow.  Forrest Whittaker and Mads Mikkelsen, as, respectively, the father-figure and father to Jones, are thin characters.  And the idea that information is still held in what essentially are super floppy disks in the future is weird.

Still, I liked this film and respect the attempt to please the kiddies, the geeks and the critics all at once.  It is vulnerable to attack on all sides, but it does a fair job at a difficult task, giving folks iconic moments, gritty semi-realism, and winking nods to characters and circumstances that die-hard fan know are forthcoming.  I am particularly thrilled at something truly and wonderfully surprising that happens at the end which I cannot share.

Full disclosure: I’m leery of space alien movies where the aliens are non-threatening, such as Contact or Close Encounters (when they are hostile, at least you know there will be action).  I don’t know anything about the aliens, the genre doesn’t lend itself to backstory, and I have tired of the persistent trope of the dewy-eyed scientist versus the steely militarist.   Add to that prejudice my own limitations of imagination and intelligence  – space-time continuum fare has the same effect on me as the math part of the SAT (“C, C, C, C, C, C . . . “) – and you have what you need before reading my take on Arrival.

It’s not bad.  Amy Adams is effective as the grief-stricken linguist brought in to communicate with aliens who hover above the earth, causing worldwide panic, and Jeremy Renner plays her colleague with some verve and the appropriate amount of dew in his eyes.  As the stern military liaison, Forest Whitaker surprises us all by under-acting, and the plot is, at times, engrossing.

It’s not all good either.  It is a dark, dreary film; it gives us the process of communication-through-translation without a shared form of discourse, which is both admirably ambitious and a little boring; and it can be lazy (there is an entirely underdeveloped subplot involving a treasonous act that comes completely out of nowhere; the idea that Sudan and Sierre-Leone have militaries capable of doing much to the aliens is hilarious; and the geopolitical moralizing – “can’t we all just get along?” – silly).

I sense, however that this is a smart film, and likely too smart for me.

Matt Damon anchors this futuristic mash-up of Apollo 13 and Castaway (with a little bit of Gravity thrown in for good measure), and for the most part, the results are positive. Stranded on Mars, Damon must learn to adapt to the planet’s forbidding nature, ingeniously deducing how to grow food, warm himself, and communicate with NASA to effectuate his rescue. This is an Oscar-nominated film and still in the theaters, so I’ll be broad in my comments. Damon – again – elevates a picture. We view him battling the elements and disaster, and he veers between gallows humor, heartfelt wonder when he hits upon an idea that can help him survive, and mental and physical breakdown. He’s a gifted and still, incredibly, underrated actor, often passed by. I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating. He was the heart of The Talented Mr. Ripley, but everyone was dazzled by Jude Law; he made The Departed tick, but the buzz went to Jack Nicholson, Leonardo DiCaprio and even Mark Wahlberg, who presented a compelling but not particularly difficult tough Boston cop and received an Oscar nod for it. In the Coen brothers re-make of True Grit, he near stole the picture, and I remember his smaller part in Contagion being the most affecting. This is his picture and while DiCaprio was excellent in The Revenant, Damon was more valuable to this movie.

The film is well-paced as Scott alternates between Damon attempting to survive on Mars and the efforts of NASA to rescue him. While we are with Damon, it is consistently compelling. When it reverts to NASA, it tends to become a bit more uneven, pat and pedestrian. It does not help that Jeff Daniels has decided to portray the director of NASA as some sort of mannered Aaron Sorkin archetype. It also does not help that Kristen Wiig is anywhere near this movie (as the director of Public Relations for NASA, she seems to be itching to show us her googly eyes). Finally, Scott is clearly aping Apollo 13 by giving us a picture of the NASA brainiacs as they work to save Damon. Unfortunately, unlike in Apollo 13, the science is less accessible and it is negatively juxtaposed with what Damon is doing on the planet, where he explains to us the science in his daily video logs.

Scott is no stranger to space.  His breakout film, Alien, was set in 2127, where space was industrial, dirty and haunted, and government and corporations conspired to screw the little man. Clearly, he is in a better place today. In 2035, NASA’s kindly counterpart in China subverts its own government to help Damon; the people who work at NASA have a certain blasé “I worked in a Blockbuster and I will never wear a uniform again” mien: and missions to Mars are the kind of endeavors wear crewmates can play kissy face.

My curmudgeonly nits aside, this is very solid entertainment.

J.J. Abrams pulled off a neat trick with this picture. First, he purged from our filmic consciousness the abominations that were George Lucas’ middle three Star Wars films, which were bloated, antiseptic stories populated by green screen zombies and seemingly produced for the sole purpose of reinvigorating the merchandising arm of his global empire. For more on this, see Red Letter Media’s brutal takedown of those films and The People versus George Lucas.

Second, Abrams eased into it, essentially hewing to the first film in both style and story. There is nothing new or even particularly daring here, but Abrams is wisely more interested in establishing his bona fides and recreating the feel of the first three films. This one is a mix of action, fun and nostalgia, self-referential but not so self-referential as to be lazy.

Third, he strongly established four different new characters – three of whom have true motivations that emanate from a backstory – for the franchise to rely upon going forth.

It’s not perfect. Some of the self-reference is a little haggard, and the plot at the end is a little thin, pat and hurried. Yet, Abrams needed to exorcise the franchise of its demon menace, Lucas the bloodless toy purveyor, and he has done so in a movie that can reconnect new viewers to the wonders of the first pictures.

Writer director Alex Garland has written several very distinct dystopian films (28 Days Later, Dredd) and his directorial debut is assured and not unexpectedly, unique. Oscar Isaac is Nathan, a Steve Jobs-esque reclusive titan who invites Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson), a coder at his web service monolith, to his retreat deep in the mountains to conduct the testing of an artificial intelligence being (Alicia Vikander) he has created. While Nathan and Caleb start off in an awkward forced friendship hampered by their employer-employee dynamic, and the fact that the reason for Caleb’s selection seems flimsy, they soon become adversarial – with Nathan chastising Caleb for his unscientific approach and Caleb increasingly distrustful of Nathan’s methods. It then becomes unclear exactly who is being tested, Eva, Caleb or Nathan, as the three negotiate their roles while strategizing to achieve their aims.

Expertly paced and beautifully photographed, there is a little bit of Her and Spielberg’s A.I. in here, but ultimately, the film that best captures the ethos of this picture is Mousetrap. This is an intelligent, absorbing and imaginative sci-fi thriller which rejects shocks for a slow dance and smartly realized  dawning at the end.

Better than its predecessor, for a couple of reasons: the perfunctory heartless, nasty corporation is not in the mix, the film is not saddled with the herculean task of presenting James Franco as a scientist, and we spend more time with the apes than the humans. The apes, led by Caesar (Andy Serkus), are decidedly more interesting, having created a thriving, peaceful colony outside of San Francisco. Since this sequel is set only 10 years after the apes escaped their Bay area zoo at exactly the moment mankind became afflicted with a disastrous plague, it appears the simians got right down to the nasty, because there are a shitload of monkeys hiding out in Muir Woods.  But man comes a calling . . .