Category Archives: Local Reviews

Review: ‘Fences’ remains relevant, powerful

By CARL SCHULTZ

Probably there’s not a man or woman on the face of the earth who doesn’t sometimes feel as if fate — or circumstances, or politics, or society — has cheated him out of a better life. Whether we dream of fame or riches, power or affluence, most of us entertain at least occasionally a notion that that life could’ve been vastly better, if only . . .

That feeling is one of the demons Troy Maxton is wrestling in “Fences,” Paramount Pictures’ most prestigious motion picture release of the Christmas season. “Fences” is the long-awaited film adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning drama by Pittsburgh-based playwright August Wilson.

In “Fences,” Troy Maxton is a middle-aged trash collector living in mid-1950s Pittsburgh with his wife, Rose, and their high school-aged son, Cory. Revealed through conversations between Troy and his best friend and co-worker Jim Bono is the knowledge that Maxton was once a baseball player of some promise in the pre-World War II Negro League.

Unfortunately, the color barrier was not broken in major league baseball until Maxton’s prime had already passed . . . although a 13-year stretch in prison for an accidental murder also undoubtedly contributed to Troy’s failure to reach the big leagues.

As the picture begins, Troy’s thoughts are occupied with a confrontation he recently initiated with his employer over an essential unfairness: The relatively-menial task of garbage collection is being performed by black employees, while the less-strenuous and higher-paying position of driving the garbage trucks is assigned to whites. On their walk home from work, Troy vows that he intends to pursue the resolution of the unfairness, even if it costs him his job.

Arriving home, however, Troy is also surprised by his wife with the information that their son Cory is being scouted by a major university, with the intention of recruiting him for a football scholarship —rewarding the son with a free education in exchange for his athletic abilities.

Troy’s reaction is surprising. The elder Maxton is mistrusting: Nothing, he claims, is ever given away for free, and the son is better off where he is — finishing school and keeping his job working weekends at the nearby A&P grocery market. It is suggested that Troy resists the son’s college scholarship because he fears the son exceeding his own modest accomplishments.

Also members of the Maxtons’ extended family are Troy’s younger brother, Gabriel, and Troy’s older son, Lyons. Gabriel is a World War II veteran who sustained a disabling combat wound, and is now mentally disabled and living on a veteran’s pension. Approximately $3,000 paid to Gabriel by the U.S. government for his wound was used by Troy to purchase the Maxtons’ home, with the understanding that Troy and his family would be Gabriel’s caregivers, although as the picture begins Gabriel has recently moved into the home of a woman in the neighborhood, to whom the Maxtons pay a monthly rent.

Troy’s adult son, Lyons, a musician in local bars and jazz clubs, is the result of a relationship in which Troy engaged previous to his meeting Rose. Lyons is resented by his father for his lack of responsibility — the elder son is perpetually short on cash and borrowing from Troy, either unable or unwilling to toil in a more responsible profession.

Troy’s primary pursuit during evenings and weekends is the construction of a wooden fence around the perimeter of the backyard of the Maxton home. The reason for the fence is variously suggested as a means of protecting the family from the outside world, isolating the family in a domain where Troy is their sole provider, or as a means of keeping death — the Grim Reaper — away from Troy.

In this manner, the angel of death becomes almost an unseen member of the picture’s cast. The fence also is symbolic of the barriers Troy has erected between himself and his sons.

Originally produced in 1983 at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Connecticut, “Fences” went on to a respectable run on Broadway in 1987 and 1988 at the 46th Street Theatre, with actor James Earl Jones performing the role of Troy Maxton. “Fences” won Tony Awards for Best Play, and an Outstanding Actor award for Jones.

A limited 13-week revival of Fences was staged in April of 2010 at Broadway’s Cort Theatre. That production starred Denzel Washington and Viola Davis as Troy and Rose, and won three Tony Awards — for Washington and Davis as Outstanding Actor and Outstanding Actress, and for Best Revival of a Play.

The movie is directed by star Denzel Washington, who’s also guided the dramas “Antwone Fisher” in 2002 and “The Great Debaters” in 2007. And Washington the director serves the source material of Fences well . . . possibly a little too well. Although August Wilson died in October of 2005, prior even to the acclaimed Broadway revival of “Fences,” Wilson is credited appropriately as the author of the picture’s screenplay, “based upon his play.”

And with very few exceptions, a filmed version of the Broadway play is what we see with Washington’s motion picture version. The play itself serves as the movie’s screenplay — there’s virtually no attempt expand the drama into locations beyond the Maxton home. Most of the cast — Washington and Davis, Mykelti Williamson as Gabriel, Russell Hornsby as Lyons, Stephen McKinley Henderson as Bono — also reprise their roles from the 2010 Broadway revival. And after certain key scenes, Washington the director even allows the screen to fade to black — for the viewer, it’s impossible to not imagine the curtain descending in a stage production, to provide a break between scenes.

But staginess aside, “Fences” as a movie is an honor to watch, if not precisely a pleasure. This is not a happy picture, and family patriarch Troy Maxton is revealed throughout the drama as a deeply flawed individual. But the production is remarkably well-crafted, almost flawless, making superb use of its filming locations in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, although the exteriors are seen in only a few shots. Backgrounds are digitally modified showing 1950s-era steel mill smokestacks. And the production design is nearly perfect — even the garbage collected by Troy and Bono looks authentic, although the laundry Rose hangs on the clothesline in the backyards sometimes looks like it’s already been dried and pressed.

And the acting is uniformly superb by all cast members. At age 62, Denzel Washington has become something of our national actor, nearly a force of nature, and plainly in “Fences” he’s never been better or more effective. The sight of Washington opening a window during a rainstorm to bellow in rage at the angel of death reminds the viewer that film acting just doesn’t get any better than this.

Matching Washington eyeball-to-eyeball, if not scene-to-scene, is the excellence — almost saintliness — of Viola Davis as Rose. Davis’ performance is a revelation, nearly an epiphany, and makes the viewer wish her gift as a performer could be used in more motion picture productions beyond the supporting roles she’s played in other, more inferior films. This is not a supporting role — Rose could easily be promoted as the primary character in Fences.

The first productions of “Fences” during the 1980s took place nearly 30 years after the timeframe of the play. And the motion picture version of the play is being released now, some 30 years following the original Broadway production. Partly for this reason, audiences expecting, or fearing, a rumination on racial relations might be disappointed, although the picture plainly is based upon the African-American experience during a time of change, in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

But “Fences” the motion picture is also a work in which time has caught up with the artistic intentions and expressions of author August Wilson.

Is “Fences” still relevant, 30 years after its stage debut? Absolutely. More than age or affluence, inequality, generations, unfairness, politics, or even race, “Fences” is a movie about American life.

PENNSYLVANIA STYLE LAGER

Extra Gold wasn’t extra great, but it was decent. American Beer? Not so much.

As the third cheap-o selection for January, Pennsylvania Style Lager falls somewhere in between. Decent might be a stretch, but it’s nowhere near the low level of the wretchedly bland and hangover-inducing American.

Pennsylvania Style is a disturbingly pale-colored brew with little in terms of scent or taste. There’s a light version as well, which ought to be called Pennsylvania Style Air because it’s hard to conceive of anything more tasteless.

Probably the best thing you can say about this beer is that you barely notice it. 

That’s not a compliment — but again, we’re talking about the most inexpensive drinks on the market this month. So let’s look on the bright side and call it a modest victory.

-@BruceJSiwy

SUPERJOINT

‘Caught up in the Gears of Application’
11 songs, 38 minutes
Housecore Records (2016)

All the acumen is there. 

For the non-immersed in heavy metal culture, Superjoint features former members of Crowbar and Pantera, the latter being architect of the indisputably heaviest album ever to debut at Billboard’s No. 1: “Far Beyond Driven.” So what you get is a shepherd’s pie of sludge and punk, drizzled with death metal squeals and less-than-appetizing subject matter.

The songs most sample-worthy on this effort include the title track, “Ruin You” and “Receiving No Answer to the Knock.”

With three full-lengths under their belt, these guys still have yet to pen their metal masterpiece. But with this recent display of discordant aggression and raw vehemence, these middle-age thrashers show no sign of mellowly aging with grace. 

Amen to that.

-@BruceJSiwy

AMERICAN BEER

It gets no more generically domestic than this.

American Beer is exactly that — American beer. Made in Pittsburgh, this is a sudsy blond drink that tastes of sweet corn. Its aftertaste is dry and somehow sticky, despite its light body.

There probably isn’t a brewer on Earth who could make American Beer great — again or ever — without a major makeover. It’s pretty stale and bland, to be polite.

Like all beer on the menu this month, this one’s a bargain. Hard to beat $11 for 24, even though Extra Gold Lager probably edges this one out on flavor. 

Best of the month overall? We’ll see in three weeks.

-@BruceJSiwy

Review: ‘Passengers’ under-performs its sizable budget

By CARL SCHULTZ

Probably all of us have entertained at one time or another the mordant thought of what it would be like to be the only living person on Earth, or by association any large enclosed environment. 

How would we survive? Could we endure the loneliness? And if we could select one person to share the isolation, who would it be?
The producers of the new Sony and Columbia Pictures release “Passengers” are hoping a lot of us would select Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence to share the solitary experience. And the studios have such confidence in that hope that they’ve invested a considerable amount of money making a movie in which the two actors do precisely that.

Set in an undetermined future time, “Passengers” has some 5,000 space pioneers aboard a gigantic spacecraft en route from Earth to an undeveloped and unsettled planet called Homestead II. The travelers were eager enough for a new beginning that they abandoned all worldly friendships and associations, and submitted themselves to suspended animation, enforced hibernation, for the 120-year voyage to the distant Homestead II planet.

Unfortunately, some 30 years into the voyage the spaceship runs through an uncharted asteroid field, which causes a system failure. One of the passengers, a mechanical engineer named Jim Preston, is accidentally revived from his hibernation. And after a day or two of exploring the cavernous space vessel, he realizes he’s not only alone, but also likely to remain alone for the remainder of his life — his shipmates, including the flight crew, all will remain in suspended animation for 90 more years.

Preston is played by actor Chris Pratt. Late of television’s situation comedy “Parks and Recreation,” Pratt is a wonderfully engaging performer who’s been attracting a lot of notice recently, not only from his starring appearances in such Hollywood blockbusters as “Jurassic World” and “Guardians of the Galaxy,” but also in smaller supporting roles in pictures like Kathryn Bigelow’s 2012 film “Zero Dark Thirty” — he played a member of U.S. Navy Seal team on the mission to kill Osama bin Laden — and Antoine Fuqua’s remake of “The Magnificent Seven” earlier this year.

Pratt’s screen persona is similar to that of the late James Garner — a reluctant hero with a stubborn streak of integrity dire circumstances can’t quite overcome, often conscripted by circumstances to step up and make a stand against forces which threaten others. But unlike Garner, Pratt projects an aura of sweetly childlike naiveté which seems to make audiences want to reach out and protect him.

Partly as a result of his persona, Pratt carries with him a certain cache — viewers have come to expect from the actor a certain type of performance in a certain type of role. As a result, his performance in “Passengers” — and also in “The Magnificent Seven” remake, in which Pratt played more-or-less the old Steve McQueen role — marks a slight deviation, a departure from other recent performances. And in playing a somewhat atypical, less-sympathetic role in “Passengers,” Pratt is successful . . . mostly.

As Vincent Price, Charlton Heston and Will Smith learned in the various screen versions of Richard Matheson’s “I Am Legend,” it’s difficult for an actor to appear alone onscreen for an extended period and still maintain the interest and emotional investment of the audience. And despite some support from the versatile Michael Sheen as an amiable android bartender who serves as a sort of Greek chorus, a solo performance is what Pratt needs to deliver for the first quarter of the movie’s 116-minute running time. 
Then his character makes a choice which risks losing the audience’s goodwill entirely.

After a year of isolation and despite the entertainment amenities and activities of the spacecraft — lounges, gymnasiums, nightclubs, movies, space walking and the most awesome Wii system you’ve ever seen — Pratt’s Jim Preston is literally dying of loneliness. He’s actually considering ending it all when he becomes emotionally obsessed with one of the 4,999 fellow travelers still in artificial hibernation, a journalist played by the wonderfully charismatic Jennifer Lawrence.

And the moment Jennifer Lawrence’s feet hit the deck, the movie starts to zing. On full display in “Passengers” is Lawrence’s plain-spoken, self-deprecating let’s-get-this-party-rolling persona, which has endeared the actress to movie and television talk show audiences over the past handful of years.

Lawrence’s performance seems also to ignite something in Pratt — their scenes together are as charming as those between the title characters in Disney’s “Lady and the Tramp,” and for much the same reason. As a means of making sure we’re paying attention, the filmmakers have named Lawrence’s character Aurora, an obvious nod to Princess Aurora of Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty.”

But also accompanying Lawrence’s arrival onscreen is the central onscreen conflict: In waking Aurora prematurely from suspended animation, Jim has selfishly robbed her of her plans and ambitions for a life on Homestead II and beyond, for no better reason than to provide company for the lonely mechanic. What’s going to happen when she finds out?

And despite the warmth and humanity generated between the two actors, the movie begins to fall apart at that point, almost literally. Problems develop simultaneously with both the spaceship and the screenplay. The formidable Laurence Fishburne pops in long enough to explain in an authoritative voice that the asteroids which woke up Pratt’s character also damaged the ship sufficiently to end the journey. Turning back is not an option. And unless the mechanical engineer and the journalist can figure out in a big fat hurry how to fix the spaceship, everybody on board is a goner.

The filmmakers are not too adept at explaining the science behind the fiction, but are fairly good at covering their tracks: Every time the audience thinks they’ve spotted an anomaly in the plot, a new wrinkle is introduced that might or might not smooth it over. That’s almost excusable in “Passengers” because it keeps us on our toes enough to allow other nagging distractions to slip by, such as why Pratt’s character left the signature scruff on his face after he shaved off the rest of the fake-looking movie beard he grew during his year of isolation.

The one distraction too large to ignore is that Jon Spaihts’ script can’t decide whether “Passengers” is a romance, a character study or a science fiction thriller: It’s too much of each, and not enough of any. And despite some eye-popping special effects — there’s a honey of a scene in which the ship’s artificial gravity fails while Lawrence is taking a dip in the swimming pool —there’s too much plot going on to pause and savor them.

Norwegian director Morten Tyldum, who also guided 2014’s “The Imitation Game,” keeps “Passengers” plodding forward evenly enough to resolve the various plots, although at times the movie seems as tedious as the 120 years required to travel from Earth to Homestead II.  

And Thomas Newman’s techno-pop music score is pleasant enough, with a few old standards thrown in to augment certain scenes, but seems to have been composed for a more light-hearted picture. Whatever it is, “Passengers” is not a comedy.

In the end, it’s Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt who carry “Passengers” and sell it to the audience. The undiluted rapport they generate with the audience inspires us to forgive most of the picture’s problems and deficiencies.
 
 It’s an agreeable-enough expenditure of holiday time. Unfortunately, instead of a love story, a persuasive science fiction saga or a rumination on the effects of isolation, “Passengers” instead becomes an explanation of why movie stars are paid such enormous salaries.

‘A—Z MY ALL-TIME FAVORITES’

By Leonard LaPlaca
186 pages
Xlibris(2016)

If you’re searching for inspiration, Leonard LaPlaca’s new book is a great place to start.

Putting 50 years of research to good use, the Windber author, speaker and educator does all the heavy lifting to make for a highly charged and easily digestible read. “A—Z My All-Time Favorites” assembles motivational fables, parables and quotes that must rank among the most motivational in human history.

One telling testament of this compilation’s power: the endorsement of international speaker Jack Zufelt, winner of the Presidential Medal of Merit.

To open his new book, LaPlaca uses a Lao Tzu quote: “What is a good man but a bad man’s teacher?”

In thoroughly researching and compiling this effort, LaPlaca demonstrates the many ways in which he’s still this kind of teacher.

-@BruceJSiwy

EXTRA GOLD LAGER

Be honest: Your credit card is maxed and your bank account minimized.

It’s the month of January, a financial hangover from Christmastime’s gift-giving gluttony. So with imports and high-end craft beers out of the budget, let’s get real and look your most palatable cheap stuff — beginning with Extra Gold Lager.

Produced by Molson Coors Brewing Co., this stuff smells of straw and tastes of cereal and corn. The roasted malts and high carbonation are not negatives for this particular brew and, if you’re anything like this reviewer, it may even bring back some college memories.

No, it doesn’t compete with your premium brands — but at less than $15 a case, don’t cry about it.

Will this be the best (or least worst) of the bargain beers? Check back throughout the month to find out.

-@BruceJSiwy

KINGS OF LEON

‘WALLS’
10 songs, 42 minutes
RCA Records (2016)

Their original fanboys and fangirls will be disappointed that the group’s roots as blues-inspired Southern rock seem gone for good. But Kings of Leon seems content enough in their more contemporary role as torch-bearers of arena alt-rock. 

“WALLS,” the band’s latest release, appears to confirm this, as the Followill family writes a tight bunch of safely assembled pop numbers.

There are high points, to be sure. “Reverend” is driving and undeniably catchy, “Around The World” a sure-fire dance hit and “Muchacho” takes the music into refreshingly instrumental territory, with a fine solo backed by a Latin beat.

Still, it’s hard not to expect a little more from these guys. And even their more recent fans seem to agree: After debuting at No. 1 on the Billboard 20, the album dropped swiftly to No. 20.

-@BruceJSiwy

DEMO BLACK I.P.A.

If considering this Magic Hat offering for your New Year’s Eve toast, you may want to look elsewhere instead.

Demo Black I.P.A. is 6-percent ABV and has a rich head that dissipates swiftly. The scent is sharp, almost acidic, but the taste is dominated by dark chocolate malt and a trace of raisin. As for mouthfeel, it’s deceptively light.

This is a beer that can’t decide if it’s an India pale ale, porter or stout. It does several things simultaneously, which is fine, but does none of them particularly well.

If the words “LIMITED ENGAGEMENT” on the label indicates that this won’t be on shelves forever, that won’t be such a shame. There are better brews out there, especially from Magic Hat.

-@BruceJSiwy

SHOOTER JENNINGS

‘Countach (For Giorgio)’
Nine songs, 40 minutes
BCR Records (2016)

The formula for Shooter Jennings could have been simple and quite lucrative.

As the son of country music legend Waylon Jennings, all he had to do was hire some Nashville writers, perch a cowboy hat on his head and croon about tractors. But Shooter aims for whatever fits his whim — and his fans are richer for it.

With the release of “Countach (For Giorgio),” Shooter pays homage to famous Italian producer Giorgio Moroder, who worked with artists such as Blondie, David Bowie and Donna Summer. All tracks on the album were either composed or inspired by Moroder.

The result is a decidedly ‘80s-sounding assortment of up-tempo, ambient tracks featuring a diverse list of studio guests: Marilyn Manson, Brandi Carlile and Steve Young (the country singer, not football great). It’s a fun, easy listen, one that’s far less than intense than 2010’s “Black Ribbons,” which was darn near a masterpiece.

“Countach (For Giorgio)” probably isn’t Shooter’s best album, but if death is boredom, this release can be said to at least keep things lively.

-@BruceJSiwy

Review: Star Wars takes a dark turn in ‘Rogue One’

By BOB GARVER

A particular hurdle a genre picture needs to clear, whether the movie is a western, a musical, a horror film, science fiction or fantasy, is how to make it accessible to an audience member who’s not necessarily a fan of that genre.

That might not be so much of a problem for “Rogue One,” the latest picture in the Star Wars franchise. The raw numbers seem to suggest that nearly everyone in the civilized world has seen one or more of the Star Wars movies since the 1977 release of the original picture. And the collective gross revenues from the Star Wars franchise long ago entered the rarefied air of literally trillions of dollars.

Since the release of the first historically popular picture in the series, even the weakest among the six subsequent entries can claim the distinction of being the unquestioned vanguard of the fantasy genre, just by virtue of its solid platinum heritage. Because even when a Star Wars picture is laughably bad (remember Jar-Jar Binks?) it inevitably becomes a blockbuster — a money-minting success.

In the Star Wars lexicon, the new release “Rogue One” — not designated with an episode number but subtitled “A Star Wars Story” — inhabits a time roughly 30 years after the conclusion of 2005’s Episode III: The Revenge of the Sith, and just prior to the beginning of the original 1977 picture.

The oppressive Galactic Empire has designs to build a massive new spaceship called the Death Star, a craft already familiar to fans of the original picture. The Death Star will contain a weapon capable of reducing an entire planet to rubble with one single shot. But the primary architect of the Death Star escapes from the Empire’s service before the weapon is functional.

Sometime later, the Empire tracks down the architect and conscripts him to return and complete the weapon, leaving behind his young daughter. Years later the daughter, now an adult, is recruited by the anti-Empire Rebel Alliance to locate and enlist the services of the father in destroying the weapon, toppling the Empire, and restoring peace and liberty to the galaxy.

And as it happens, “Rogue One” is a fairly impressive movie in the fantasy genre, not as good as the best entries in the Star Wars series, but better than many. Actress Felicity Jones is cast in what is nominally the leading role, as Jyn Erso, the adult daughter of the Death Star architect. Jones’ colorful resume includes an Academy Award nomination for her role as the wife of physicist Stephen Hawking in the 2014 biographical picture “The Theory of Everything,” and also recent appearances in “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” and this past summer’s “Inferno,” directed by Ron Howard.

Jones’ Jyn Erso is consistent with the Star Wars tradition of strong female leads, from Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia in the original pictures to Daisy Ridley’s Rey in last year’s “The Force Awakens.”  Erso is seemingly a little more indifferent to the niceties of good versus evil, but the character’s carefully-maintained ambivalence seems to inspire the audience to desire even more her eventual conversion.

But Jones is only the headliner in a strong ensemble cast which includes Mads Mikkelsen from “Casino Royale” and television’s “Hannibal,” the always-engaging Forest Whitaker, Ben Mendelsohn, Riz Ahmed, Donnie Yen and Genevieve O’Reilly all contributing memorable characterizations. Mexican actor Diego Luna is effectively cast in the swashbuckling role of Cassian Andor, a resourceful pilot working for the Rebel Alliance.

There’s very much a sense of unification about “Rogue One,” with appearances by a variety of characters from both previous trilogies. At least one character from the original 1977 picture reprises his role posthumously, via the not-quite-persuasive magic of computer animation. 

And since his image figures strongly in certain of the film’s publicity, it’s no great spoiler to reveal that Darth Vader also appears in the picture, albeit briefly. That popular villain’s big scene is preceded with a buildup worthy of a Wagnerian opera, but with the strains of John Williams’ “Imperial March” from Episode V trumpeting forth from the soundtrack during his entrance instead of “Ride of the Valkyries.”

Certain of Williams’ familiar musical themes are reprised from the previous seven pictures, although the actual music score for the picture is credited to composer Michael Giacchino. Giacchino, who also scored the recent Star Trek pictures and “Guardians of the Galaxy,” already seems to have been so influenced by Williams that his name in the closing credits instead of Williams’ is a mild surprise.

“Rogue One” director Gareth Edwards has proven his mettle for putting legendary film characters through their paces with his work on 2014’s “Godzilla” remake. And certainly Edwards’ sure hand keeps “Rogue One” moving along at a pace brisk enough to almost disguise some of the more preposterous turns in the film’s script, credited to Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy . . . although 20 minutes could’ve easily been trimmed from the picture to bring the running time to under two hours.

In October of 2012, seven years after the release of “Episode III: Revenge of the Sith” — which Star Wars creator George Lucas assured us would be the last installment in the franchise —the entertainment world was stunned to learn that a deal had been finalized for Lucas to sell his Lucasfilm Ltd. corporation to the Walt Disney Co. As part of that transaction, the Disney organization also acquired ownership of the Star Wars series of films, released originally by the 20th Century-Fox film studio.

Simultaneous to the Lucasfilm acquisition, the Disney company announced the production of new entries in the Star Wars series, beginning in 2015 with “Episode VII: The Force Awakens.”  The new picture would reunite most of the cast of the original three pictures, and Lucas’ services would be retained by Disney as a creative consultant.

The first clue that “Rogue One” is not a typical entry in the Star Wars canon comes in the picture’s opening seconds. Although the Lucasfilm Ltd. logo appears prior to the opening shot, as well as the familiar legend “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away . . .” there is no opening stab of John Williams’ iconic theme music, no words crawling from the bottom of the screen to the top explaining the story so far.

But the differences between “Rogue One” and the earlier Star Wars pictures are not limited to the modified opening moments. Since 1977 the pictures in the series have grown progressively more somber, developing a mythology almost as complex and challenging as Tolkien’s novels. Last year’s “The Force Awakens” seemingly only barely avoided an R rating, with a My Lai-style massacre at the beginning of the picture and the violent death about halfway through of one of the saga’s most enduring and beloved characters.

Parents conducting young children to a “Rogue One” screening should be warned: Even the darkness of vision revealed in “The Force Awakens” doesn’t completely prepare the viewer for the unflinching loss of life and disturbing images in the picture. 

“Rogue One” works hard to earn its PG-13 rating: Characters we grow to like are killed onscreen, and the graphically depicted results of the Death Star weapon are more reminiscent of a nuclear holocaust than the bloodless big bang we remember from the original picture. Darth Vader also engages in some genuinely frightening antics.

Those who professed wonder or surprise at the 2012 sale of Star Wars to Disney shouldn’t have been — Lucas always did profess admiration for that studio’s entertainment heritage.

More perplexing at the present time, and especially while viewing “Rogue One,” is the knowledge that when the Star Wars saga began to explore its darkest and most disturbing themes and images, it did so under the Walt Disney flag of wholesome family entertainment.