By Ashley Pauls/Box Office Buzz
The destruction of the first Death Star was the beginning of the end for the Empire. Not only was it a huge tactical setback, it was also a major morale booster for the Rebellion. Without that key moment, the Death Star would have kept terrorizing and destroying worlds, and the Rebellion likely would have been crushed.
The destruction of the Death Star wouldn’t have been possible without a brave band of rebels stealing the plans, and until now that particular event has been a mere footnote in the Star Wars franchise. “Rogue One” finally tells that story, giving us a glimpse into the birth of the Rebellion and the brave sacrifices that were made to end the tyranny of the Empire.
The story is told through the eyes of Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), the daughter of an Imperial scientist who helped design the Death Star and may or may not still sympathize with the Rebellion. Jyn doesn’t have a lot of love for either side, but when a group of rebels rescue her from an Imperial labor camp, she finds herself caught up in the conflict. Gradually, she comes to believe in the cause and eventually decides to stage a daring break-in at an Imperial records facility. Supposedly, Jyn’s father built a weakness into the Imperials’ super weapon, and if the rebels can steal the plans for the Death Star, they have a shot at bringing the Empire to its knees.
“Rogue One” is a risky Star Wars film. It’s darker and grittier than we’re used to seeing from the franchise, and some of the hallmarks of the series — like lightsabers, Jedi and the Force — play little to no role in the film. Although it definitely still has a Star Wars feel, it’s really more of a traditional war movie, with characters from both sides operating in a moral gray zone. However, it’s a gamble that absolutely pays off, and “Rogue One” ends up being a fresh and exciting addition to the classic franchise. Even though we all know how the story ends (i.e. “A New Hope”), there are still plenty of surprises along the way.
While there are a few familiar faces that show up in this film, the narrative primarily focuses on a new group of characters. It was great to see such a diverse cast, and I wish we had gotten even more background and maybe even a few flashbacks for these characters. For me, the standout characters were the droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) and the blind warrior, Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen). K-2SO is very much a fighter in his own right, and I loved his sense of sarcasm (he gets some of the movie’s best lines). He also has an act of heroism in the film’s final act that is very moving. I also really liked the uniqueness of Chirrut’s character. Although he isn’t a Jedi and doesn’t have traditional Force powers, he remains a devoted follower of the Force and the Jedi teachings. I just thought it was really fascinating that a person who didn’t have the power of the Force himself still believed in it enough to dedicate his life to following it. Even though his official bio says he isn’t Force sensitive, there’s a scene towards the end of the movie that makes me believe the Force actually was guiding him.
The film is a bit of a slow burn at first, and it takes its time to set up the story, gradually raising the stakes. But when you get to the third act — wow. The finale is packed with suspense, and I was on the edge of my seat the whole time. The thrilling battle sequence that takes place on a beach — the one featured so heavily in the trailers — does not disappoint, and there’s also an exciting starship battle taking place above the planet at the same time.
The challenging part of “Rogue One” was always going to be the ending, and I’m sure it’s something the filmmakers spent a long time mulling over. They knew fans were going to be watching the movie and rooting for the rebels. However, a happy ending would have cheapened the film and wouldn’t have communicated the gravity of the sacrifices made by the Rebellion. I won’t give away any spoilers, but I’ll just say that the ending was gut-wrenching and perfect. There are so many emotional moments, and the ending really contributes to the overall poignancy of the franchise.
Finally, no review of “Rogue One” would be complete without mentioning the film’s most anticipated cameo: Darth Vader. I felt they used just the right amount of Vader — not too much and not too little. You’ll see him once, and then the movie will go on. But don’t forget about him, because his second scene — wow (I’m using that word again). I really want to spoil this scene but I won’t; the surprise adds to the whole horror and amazement of his final appearance.
In short, this Star Wars fan left the theater feeling pleased and excited. I want to see “Rogue One” again so I can decide where it ranks in terms of my favorite Star Wars films, but overall I’m very happy and looking forward to more of these Star Wars standalone movies. The Force really does seem to be with Disney!
By Ashley Pauls
Box Office Buzz
Mid to late August is sometimes seen as a dumping ground for movies Hollywood doesn’t have a lot of confidence in. Either the quality is mediocre or the studio fears it will become a flop. These movies just can’t compete with the big-ticket summer blockbusters. However, every once in a while you’ll find a hidden, late-summer gem, and one of those movies is “Kubo and the Two Strings,” out in theaters this past weekend. Although “Kubo” debuted at the box office in fourth place with just $12.6 million, this imaginative, beautifully-animated film is worth seeking out.
Currently sitting at 96 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, “Kubo and the Two Strings” is a product of animation studio Laika Entertainment, which also created “Coraline” and “ParaNorman.” The studio is known for its stop motion computer animated visuals. Kubo follows a young boy with a magical Japanese instrument called a “shamisen” who lives with his mother in a cave on the outskirts of a small village. Every day Kubo travels to the village to earn money by telling stories, using his magical instrument to bring origami creations to life. His mother has warned Kubo not to venture outside after dark, because his evil aunts and grandfather, the Moon King, will come for him.
Although Kubo doesn’t mean to be intentionally disobedient, one night he stays out in the village just a little too late, and something terrible happens. He is then sent on a quest to find his father’s armor, which will protect him from evil. He meets some new friends along the way — a talking monkey and a warrior who has been transformed into a half-beetle, half-Samurai — and learns he has the strength to be a hero just like his parents, even though they are no longer with him.
I’ll admit the premise sounds a bit strange, as does the film’s title, “Kubo and the Two Strings.” But the story is actually very intriguing and heartfelt, and after watching the film, the title seems perfect (I don’t want to explain any more, though, because I don’t want to spoil the film’s ending, or reveal what the “two strings” are and why they’re important). The film blends elements of mysticism and Japanese culture with the timeless themes of family and love.
And of course, the animation is absolutely gorgeous. Kubo’s quest takes him to a snowy wasteland, the strange, underwater “Garden of Eyes,” a magical cave, and more, and all are beautifully animated with lots of attention to detail. Some of my favorite parts are when Kubo is using music and storytelling to bring his origami to life in bright bursts of color.
While the film is family-friendly, it isn’t just for kids, and adults will find plenty to keep them engaged. It’s a refreshingly simple and self-contained story (no pop culture in-jokes or frenetic animation with too many things going on at once). Also, be warned—the film’s ending is rather bittersweet, and you might see a few misty eyes in the theater.
In short, “Kubo” probably won’t make a big splash at the box office this summer, but if you have a chance to see it, it’s well worth a watch. It’s an enchanting little film about the power of love, family, and yes, origami.
By Ashley Pauls
Box Office Buzz
Well, that was…interesting. I was trying to come up with a sentence to summarize my thoughts on the 2016 summer blockbuster season, and that’s what I ended up with. As a whole, this summer seemed to have a larger number of misfires than normal, and quite a few major releases that either failed to perform at the box office or live up to audience expectations.
Of course, “Captain America: Civil War” did get things off to a strong start, with an impressive $179 million opening weekend and a 90 percent Rotten Tomatoes score. It’s currently tied for my favorite movie of the summer. However, from there things got rockier, and quite a few sequels, reboots, and remakes under-performed. “Alice Through the Looking Glass,” “The Legend of Tarzan,” “Independence Day: Resurgence,” “Now You See Me 2,” and “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows” seemed to come and go without a lot of fanfare. The video game adaptation “Warcraft” also failed to do much at the U.S. box office, though it picked up some steam overseas.
So, what happened? Although it could have something do with audiences simply getting tired of “more of the same,” that isn’t all of it, since two sequels, “Captain America: Civil War” and “Finding Dory,” performed very well. Perhaps the other films simply didn’t bring enough new material to their franchises or fully play up the nostalgia factor, like “Jurassic World” did last summer. Maybe the window of opportunity for films like the “Independence Day” sequel had already passed.
We also saw that bad buzz — or even simply minimal buzz — can hurt a film. I’ve always wondered what kind of power Rotten Tomatoes scores have on the average movie viewer (all the under-performers listed above did have negative Rotten Tomatoes scores). Maybe audience members don’t necessarily pay attention to those scores, but if a film isn’t getting a lot of good buzz, people might just elect to stay home. Online streaming services like Netflix are giving consumers access to more and more content, including older movies and TV shows and fresh, original content. If there’s nothing amazing in the theater, they can just stay home and easily find something to watch online. Besides, the cost of a month’s subscription to Netflix and a bowl of popcorn at home is far less expensive than the cost of taking a family to the theater every weekend, with tickets + concessions.
I think poor buzz contributed to the under-performance of “Ghostbusters” and “X-Men: Apocalypse,” which is a shame because I quite liked both of these films. Granted, “Apocalypse” might have been a little too hard to follow for viewers who weren’t super-fans of the film series (the film has lots of references to what’s happened before). But the film has some fun scenes and great performances, once again, from James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender as prequel-era Professor X and Magneto. “Ghostbusters” actually drew a lot of anger from some fans, and I believe it’s unlikely we’ll get a sequel. While of course it’s okay to be concerned about a reboot or to ultimately dislike it, the online chatter about this film turned rather nasty and sadly veered in a racist and sexist direction.
Speaking of negative online chatter, Warner Bros.’ hotly-anticipated super villain round-up “Suicide Squad” created quite a stir when it drew really, really bad reviews. Some fans even called for Rotten Tomatoes to be shut down and complained that Christopher Nolan’s Batman films were too good and should never have been made because they set an unrealistic standard for DC Comics movies (yes, I really saw someone arguing that). “Suicide Squad” isn’t a terrible film, but it is fair to say it wasn’t as good as it could have been. Although it boasted a $133 million opening weekend, I think its drop-off will be steep. At this point, Warner Bros. really needs the Wonder Woman movie to be a critical AND commercial hit, or their films post “Justice League” may be dead in the water.
Finally, a film that was close to my heart was “Star Trek: Beyond.” This movie really felt like a love letter to the Original Series and showed off the great chemistry among this reboot cast. Unfortunately, it under-performed at the box office too, and now I’m afraid Paramount won’t go ahead with that fourth movie they announced. This was a great movie, and I really hope we get to see more from this cast.
In conclusion, overall I was a little disappointed in this summer blockbuster season, and right now “Star Trek: Beyond” and “Captain America: Civil War” are the only movies with guaranteed slots on my “best of the year” list (in fact, they’re the only movies to make that list so far this year). However, the fall and winter season should chase some of these summer blahs away. “Doctor Strange,” “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” and “Rogue One” all look fantastic.
So, what did you think of the movies this summer? What films did you like or dislike?
By Ashley Pauls
Box Office Buzz
Although “Captain America: Civil War” and “Star Trek: Beyond” were always the films I was most looking forward to this summer, “Suicide Squad” was my dark horse pick for biggest surprise hit. It had a “Guardians of the Galaxy” vibe: it looked risky, funny, and creative — and in this case, also really, really dark. It may be in the superhero genre, but these characters definitely aren’t “heroes.” “Suicide Squad” promised a round-up of notorious DC Comics villains who are recruited, against their will, to team up and try to save the world without killing each other first (and you thought the Avengers had problems).
The trailers for this film were fantastic, so it came as a great surprise when the reviews started rolling in and they were…terrible. With a painful Rotten Tomatoes score of only 26 percent, critics called the film disappointing, muddled, and choppy. Certainly not the result fans were hoping for. However, I had been really looking forward to this movie, so I went to see it over the weekend anyway. Bottom line? “Suicide Squad” is probably taking more flak than it deserves, and it is by no means a terrible movie. I liked the characters, and I found the film to be entertaining. However, it’s also fair to say that “Suicide Squad” falls far short of its potential. Ultimately, I walked out of the theater feeling a little disappointed, because the film actually had all the ingredients it needed to be great. These ingredients just didn’t gel like they could have — and should have.
A quick summary of the plot: U.S. intelligence officer Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) fears for the future of humanity after the rise of powerful beings like Superman who can’t be contained by ordinary force. So, she puts together a team of violent, barely controlled metahumans and bad guys to combat these new threats as they arrive. Because the members of this “suicide squad” can’t be counted on to participate based on a mere sense of altruism, Waller implants them with tiny bombs that will explode if they refuse to cooperate. Although they don’t exactly convert to the light side by the end of the film, they do find a dysfunctional sense of family and acceptance they probably never experienced before.
My favorite part of the film was learning about the characters that make up the Suicide Squad, and I appreciated the film’s effort to humanize these characters while also acknowledging their very serious flaws. Margot Robbie and Will Smith do a lot of the heavy lifting as the Joker’s girlfriend Harley Quinn and eagle-eye hitman Deadshot, respectively. Deadshot is actually the least “bad” member of this team of villains; his love for his young daughter pulls him towards the light. As Harley Quinn, Margot Robbie is gleefully unhinged; her character is fascinating, heartbreaking, and completely crazy. Her relationship with the Joker is about as unhealthy and damaging as a relationship can be, but he’s twisted her mind too much for her to see that anymore. I think my favorite character, though, was actually El Diablo, played by Jay Hernandez. He’s a former gang member who can conjure fire but refuses to use his power because of the damage it can cause. He’s plagued by guilt and grief for his mistakes in the past, and it’s a surprisingly heartfelt performance.
I’ve heard mixed reactions to Jared Leto’s much-hyped take on the Joker, but I actually really liked it. Heath Ledger from the Dark Knight trilogy is definitely a tough act to follow, but I thought Leto brought something new to the role. His take on the character is the Joker we needed for this film (I can’t really see Ledger’s version romancing Harley Quinn).
The cast and characters are great, and the concept for the film is great — so, what caused this film to stumble? I’ve heard rumors the script was rushed so the project could start on time, and that theory makes a lot of sense as you actually watch the film. It suffers from some of the same problems as “Batman v. Superman” earlier this year; the whole film does seem a bit choppy and muddled, as if it needed more time to truly coalesce (and some better editing). I liked the film’s method of introducing the characters — Amanda Waller whips out a binder and gives you a quick rundown on each team member. However, several characters just seemed awkwardly tacked on (I’m looking at you Katana and Slipknot). I understand that they needed at least one “expendable crewman” to demonstrate that yes, Waller really is sadistic enough to kill a team member who gets out of line. But I feel that ultimately, some of those introductions could have been handled more smoothly. I would have liked to see just a couple more scenes of the Suicide Squad members interacting together before Waller sends them out to face the “big bad”; maybe a training montage or even a mini trial mission would have helped. The film’s villain also feels underdeveloped, and her “evil plan” is oddly reminiscent of “Ghostbusters.”
In short, “Suicide Squad” is an entertaining film that falls short of greatness, which really is a shame because it could have been so much more. In the end, it almost feels a little too safe, which is strange for a film about a team of ragtag villains whose members include Harley Quinn, a man who can set himself on fire, and a mutant who looks like a crocodile. It’s possible the film was held back a little by its PG-13 rating, but I think they still could have done more within these constraints to make this darker, edgier, and funnier. Hopefully the next outing will deploy these fascinating characters a little more successfully.
By Ashley Pauls
Box Office Buzz
It’s that time of year again — summer blockbuster season is here! Summer is typically my favorite time of the year at the movie theater, because it tends to bring more science fiction and superhero films, my two favorite genres. This year, however, my “must see” list seems to be a little smaller than normal. There definitely are some really big and really exciting movies coming up, but there just don’t seem to be as many that made me think, “Wow, I’ve got to pre-order my ticket for this right now!” It could be that overall, this year’s offerings aren’t quite as strong as years past, or it could simply be that studios are moving some of their big-ticket items to other parts of the year (but more on that later)…
The top item on my summer list is, of course, “Captain America: Civil War” (May 6), and I’m betting it will be the biggest movie of the summer and (hopefully!) my favorite. I’m excited about the concept, which pits two of the best Marvel superheroes against each other. Captain America normally respects the rules better than Iron Man does, so it’s interesting to see that this time, Captain America is the one on the run from the law. I’m glad to see Ant-Man joining the team, and I’m looking forward to the introduction of Black Panther. My one fear is that, similar to “Age of Ultron,” Marvel may have packed too many superheroes into this film. Hopefully they’ll keep the focus on the ideological and also personal conflict between Captain America and Iron Man.
I’m also looking forward to two other superhero movies: “X-Men: Apocalypse” (May 27) and “Suicide Squad” (Aug. 5). I’ve really enjoyed the X-Men prequel series featuring the younger versions of Professor X and Magneto, and I think the immortal Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac) will prove to be a worthy foe. While “Suicide Squad” — which recruits a group of unstable villains to save the world — could be more of a gamble, I hope this movie will be as fun and dark and crazy as the trailers seem to promise.
Although I’m sad the Star Trek reboot franchise has had to continue on without director J.J. Abrams, I’m glad that Simon Pegg, the actor who plays Scotty, has helped write the script for “Star Trek: Beyond” (July 22). I’ve really enjoyed these reboot films, and I think film makers picked a great cast to carry on the spirit of the original series. While I’ve heard some concern that the trailer makes this look too much like a standard action film, I think there are some cool elements in the trailer, and hopefully this movie will continue to push the franchise into exciting and uncharted territory.
The final film on my “most looking forward to” list is actually a bit of a departure for me.