We Could Be Immortals

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Star Wars: those two words coupled together bring back a litany of memories for people of all nations. An international phenomenon, successfully resurrected in 2015 thanks to Walt Disney Pictures and maverick producer Kathleen Kennedy, the public has had nothing but home runs since Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens, and this Christmas season, with the continuing adaption, Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi, there is endurance in the winning streak.

Picking up immediately after the events of The Force Awakens, the Resistance has been hurled into a hurricane, with the sinister First Order riding their tails – destruction is damn near imminent, General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher, Fanboys) is indispose, Commander Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac, Robin Hood) is grounded, and Rey (Daisy Ridley, Murder on the Orient Express)’s attempts to recruit Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill, Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker) prove even less than fruitless. Alliances will strengthen and break, leaders will stand proud and be struck down, and those who fight the tides of war must soon duel with fate.

Written and directed by, until now, one of my least favorite directors, Rian Johnson (Looper, The Brothers Bloom), The Last Jedi is an inspired work, bucking the trend of sequels who go full The Dark Knight and throw away all mirth and enjoyment — this is very much in vein with my favorite movie in the Original Trilogy, Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi, which had a lot at stake for these beloved characters but didn’t feel a need to accentuate darkness (remember, darkness is what brought the Jedi to ruin — twice — which is something audiences know, and if they don’t, should remember). Bravo, Rian — I misjudged you; I look forward to the next trilogy you are actively working on!

The stars (no pun intended) of this film are terrific, both the new and the old — returning from The Force Awakens, we have Finn (John Boyega, Detroit), who has gone full Rebel and fights with deep conviction — his blatant honesty is what makes him beloved. Poe Dameron is as wry and spry as ever, and if one were to put his actor, Oscar Isaac, in with a group of fighter pilots, one might never know the difference! His arc is something marvelous as well; he goes from loyal servant to leader in a pinch — not on a dime, mind, but it is truly great.

Daisy Ridley proves her worth to the acting industry yet again as Rey, the girl strong with the Force but with no past that she knows. She will endure long after her tenure in this franchise is over! Inversely, Adam Driver gives us another masterful performance as Kylo Ren, the lonely son under the command of Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis, Black Panther) — Driver’s training in his past career as a marine clearly helps him understand the hatred and pain in evil, and that only helps his characterization of Kylo, one that is equal in compassion as it is in duplicity.

New star Kelly Marie Tran (Adam Ruins Everything) is charming and resilient as Rose Tico, a Resistance soldier with more than one personal stake in bringing the First Order down — if she isn’t a household name now, she will be momentarily! Further notable additions include Laura Dern (October Sky) giving a powerful, purple-haired performance as Vice Admiral Holdo, Leia’s second-in-command akin to Gregory Peck’s Colonel Frank Savage in Twelve O’Clock High, and Benicio Del Toro (Guardians of the Galaxy) once cast as Darth Maul in Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, now playing a hacker of the ominous name “DJ.”

But of the old standbys, credit is due to Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher, the siblings of the Force who deliver immortal performances that we have never truly seen from them before — Hamill’s Luke Skywalker is a lost soul who has practically forgotten the good he once instilled in the galaxy, and both the actor and character have never been better. In the case of the late, great Miss Fisher, she has given the world a beautiful performance that will endure forever and will hopefully earn her a posthumous Oscar.

John Wayne once said, “courage is being scared to death, but saddling up anyway,” and for the Star Wars fans eager to see it, they had much to be scared of — the continuing story of characters they so loved could easily go awry, but I assure you, it hasn’t. This stands neck and neck with the series’ best, and I encourage all to enjoy it as I have!

4.5/5

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The Bad In Every Man

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It’s been a banner year for spectacle films, with Dunkirk delivering on the war picture, Beauty and the Beast an unquestionable musical smash hit, Thor: Ragnarok undoubtedly the best blockbuster of the year, and a litany of independent critical darlings peppered throughout. Often overlooked in trade papers and festival buzz was the resurrection of the whodunnit mystery, in the form of Murder on the Orient Express. A paragon in Agatha Christie’s repertoire and another daring project from Kenneth Branagh (he of 1993’s full-text version of Hamlet), the film is simply amazing, but like its famous detective, we must go further into the who, what, when, where and why.

After an impressive case in Jerusalem, and now in Istanbul, renowned private detective Hercule Poirot (Branagh) seeks a holiday away from the crime scene. Already travelling back home, he is persuaded by a close friend of his, Mr. Bouc (Tom Bateman, Da Vinci’s Demons) to travel with him by rail on the Orient Express — first class, all expenses paid! Quickly, the lush scenery and amenities do not justify the means when duplicitous passenger Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp, Black Mass) is found dead in his cabin, and so, for the greater good, Poirot must discern a killer from a motley crew of passengers-cum-suspects — among them, governess Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley, Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi), Doctor Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom, Jr., Red Tails), automotive dealer Biniamino Marquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, The Magnificent Seven) missionary Pílar Estravados (Penelope Cruz, Volver), Professor Gerhard Hardman (Willem Dafoe, The Florida Project), widow Caroline Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer, Dark Shadows) and the butler (Derek Jacobi, Anonymous) and bookkeeper (Josh Gad, Beauty and the Beast) of the recently deceased.

Star-studded this may be, but this film does not get lost in starpower like so many ensemble pieces do over the years — everyone gets their moment in the spotlight, and not one suffocates the other, not even Poirot himself! This is also firmly grounded as a murder mystery, first and foremost, and you will be shocked with how things play out — I’ve never read the book on which this is based, but by all accounts, there are numerous differences between the book, Sidney Lumet’s adaptation and Branagh’s, and that has drawn much ire and anger from critics and authors alike; I regard that as a great thing, because in a day and age when anyone can look up spoilers from classic novels via a smartphone, turning one such novel on its end only helps to surprise filmgoers and book-lovers. Rest assured, this film has a twist, and it is the most daring I’ve seen in a long, long time.

Branagh’s regular cinematographer, Haris Zambarloukis (Cinderella), returns for this film, and masterfully shoots it — on 70MM film, no less! Using the last four Panavision-made 70MM film cameras, the film’s native 8K image shines, even on a digital screen as I saw it. Despite the bulk of 70MM cameras and close quarters of a train cabin set, Zambarloukis manages to impress a wide viewing area, making the viewer feel that terror can come from anywhere, not unlike a horror film. My only gripe with said cinematography is that 20th Century Fox, the film’s distributor, opted for a Los Angeles/New York-only 70MM release, which I feel was stupid, given the amount of money Dunkirk made exclusively from said film showings. Still, it’s been a great year for movies photographed on film, and here’s looking to more!

Another returning Branagh regular is composer Patrick Doyle (Thor), bringing the requisite suspense and awe to a mystery picture, but also great moments of humility and drama at the appropriate times. He also co-composed an end credits song, with Branagh providing the lyrics (as they did on Cinderella), that is sung by co-star Michelle Pfeiffer, who carries the ballad with grace and heart.

In a cover story for Entertainment Weekly, the producers of Murder on the Orient Express spoke of sequels based on other Poirot mysteries if the film did well. The film has already outdone expectations at the box office — third place is nothing to sneeze at for a film like this — and I only hope that Kenneth Branagh and Company will be able to top the absolute perfection they have done with this film. As Poirot says, “there is good, and there is bad… and then, there is you.” We’ll see you at the Oscars, Monsieur.

Rating: 5/5