“Star Wars: The Last Jedi” Review

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It’s hard to review a Star Wars film. It’s a series that means so much to so many people, myself included, that it’s difficult to separate the impact of the series as a whole from each new individual film. Fortunately director Rian Johnson and the team at Lucasarts are all too aware of that influence, and The Last Jedi is as much a film about legacy as it is about something new. This theme is largely represented by returning stars Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher, with their iconic characters Jedi Master Luke Skywalker and General Leia Organa elevated to legendary status by their actions in the original Star Wars trilogy and beyond. Returning Force Awakens protagonists Finn, Rey, and Poe Dameron similarly struggle to deal with the expectations now placed on them as the battle between the Resistance and the First Order gets more serious, and new characters such as Laura Dern’s Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo and Kelly Marie Tran as Rose Tico bear the pressure of proving themselves amongst the established heroes. Johnson does a remarkable job at balancing the old, the current, and the new, creating a Star Wars film that seems to signify the original trilogy passing its legacy on to the next chapter.

One of the most common criticisms of J.J. Abrams’ The Force Awakens was that it felt too similar structurally to A New Hope, and a similar complaint could be given to The Last Jedi at times. Iconic scenes such as Luke’s training with Master Yoda, the Battle of Hoth, and Luke’s final meeting with Emperor Palpatine are deliberately mirrored, but every time I thought I knew where the film was going Johnson throws in unexpected twists and subverts expectations to demonstrate how much the Star Wars series still has to offer. Johnson’s script is funny in often surprising ways, particularly in scenes with a delightfully deadpan Mark Hamill, but not afraid to challenge established conventions of the Star Wars universe. The division between the Light Side and the Dark Side isn’t as clear in The Last Jedi, with Skywalker turning away from the teachings of the Jedi Order and the villainous Kylo Ren more emotionally conflicted than ever. Considerable emphasis is placed on the connection between Ren and Rey, and moments between Adam Driver and Daisy Ridley bring a heart and moral complexity rarely seen in blockbuster films lately. Kylo Ren is quickly turning into one of the best characters in the Star Wars saga, with his alliances and motivations never quite clear and Driver’s performance bringing every conflicted emotion to the forefront.

As is to be expected from a Star Wars film there are elements that are bound to be contentious. Two separate moments, one involving Leia Organa and another involving Luke Skywalker, overstate the characters’ abilities and powers so much that it felt to me like Johnson was playing off their reputations among the fans rather than honouring what they could believably do in the established universe. The special effects vary in quality – while for the most part the movie is a visual treat, CGI characters such as Andy Serkis as Supreme Leader Snoke stick out like sore thumbs when compared to the beautifully designed sets and top-quality practical effects. Yet two of the climactic battles, one aboard a damaged spaceship and the other on a planet of red salt, provoke such stunning images that certain frames resemble works of art.

Ultimately this is a Star Wars film that delivers what one could want from the series, be it the final heart wrenching performance of Carrie Fisher or John Williams’ typically excellent score, while demonstrating potential for where the series still has to go. By the end of The Last Jedi the pieces are well and truly set for a spectacular conclusion of the new trilogy still to come, one that promises to offer something new and unexpected in a series over 40 years old.

Guess I’ll just have to see this one another two or three more times while we wait.

4 stars.

“Murder on the Orient Express” Review

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The fourth screen adaptation of a novel over eighty years old, you’d think people would have figured out that the Orient Express isn’t the safest way to travel by now. Nonetheless, a man has once again been murdered on the passenger train speeding its way through Europe, and it’s up to the famed Belgian detective Hercule (not Hercules) Poirot to figure out which of the eccentric passengers committed the crime. Kenneth Branagh both directs and dons the ludicrous moustache of Poirot for this trip, and is joined by an impeccable A-list cast of suspects including Michelle Pfeiffer, Dame Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, and Daisy Ridley.

Having never read Agatha Christie’s novel or seen one of the previous adaptations I can’t say how well this version matches the tone or plot of the original, but Branagh seems to have opted for a similar style to Guy Richie’s Sherlock Holmes films. The production design is sleek and flashy, with stylised flashbacks and the camera smoothly flowing around the train and its inhabitants, and the story peppered with some action sequences to liven things up. Unfortunately Poirot is even less suited to be an action hero than Holmes is and these moments feel ludicrous and often comical. A good mystery requires the time to slowly and thoughtfully piece together all the clues to narrow down the list of suspects, which doesn’t quite fit with the detective fighting off attackers with his walking stick.

At times Murder on the Orient Express feels as though it was only made so that Branagh could be the hero of his own franchise, particularly with an overt reference to Death on the Nile to tease a sequel at the end. Most of the other train passengers are pushed to the side in favour of exploring Poirot’s own quirks and eccentricities and are reduced to the typical one-note characterisations of a murder mystery. There’s the gangster, the butler, the dame, and so on. Fortunately the supporting cast is strong enough to at least make these characters entertaining if nothing else. Pfeiffer is deliciously camp as the flirtatious widow Caroline Hubbard, and the usually comedic Josh Gad delivers a surprisingly sympathetic portrayal as the haggard accountant of Johnny Depp’s gangster character Ratchett. Fans of Depp can take comfort from knowing this is one of his most grounded and believable performances in years, echoing his Whitey Bulger from 2015’s Black Mass, while those who’ve gone off the actor since his domestic violence allegations will be pleased to see him killed off at the end of the first act. Apologies for spoiling an eighty-year-old story.

Yet the entertaining performances only carry so far, and when the mystery is solved none of the characters feel developed enough to give the final reveal much of an impact. That’s not to say Murder on the Orient Express isn’t a fun enough ride while it lasts, but it’s unlikely audiences will have as much fun as Branagh and the cast seem to be having.

3 stars.