Tag: daisy ridley

Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi

Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi (2017)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Thrilling, visually resplendent, and high on entertainment value, the eighth “Star Wars” picture is, upon closer inspection, an attempt to push the series toward fresh territory while honoring the spirit of the beloved original trilogy. It stands strong amongst the cream of the crop with enough genuinely surprising twists and interesting character direction to pique the interest of observant and emotionally invested viewers. In the hands of writer-director Rian Johnson, “The Last Jedi” opens up a promising uncharted universe, an outstanding achievement because the series is already is so rich in lore, curiosities, and possibilities.

Its striking visual style is made apparent right from the opening sequence. Naturally, it involves blowing things up and yet we are invited to notice minute details. What I loved about 1977’s “A New Hope” is the look of a lived-in future. No matter where we end up, whether it be on a scorching desert, an asteroid field, man-made floating cities hiding behind clouds or outer space, surfaces almost always have dust, moss, or some kind of outer covering. Items appear old or second-hand but the attitude behind the events surrounding these inanimate objects, in addition to the people who interact with or wield them, their spirit, their energy, is young, vibrant, waiting to reach a crescendo with the slightest touch.

Although the action is most impressive, particularly dogfights that require eye-popping and brow-raising acrobatics, it can be argued that the film’s strongest moments involve longing silences, young and worn characters looking at each other knowingly, engaging in tense exchanges that could alter the tide of war between The First Order and the Resistance, the latter desperate and dwindling in number.

Out of three parallel storylines, most intriguing is Rey (Daisy Ridley), tyro and earnest but strong with the Force, attempting to convince Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) to leave his self-imposed isolation and join the fight for the galaxy. The overall tone, compared to the rest of the picture, is spiritual, questioning. Shades of blue, gray, and green dominate the screen. We hear nature rather than whirring of machines and explosions. The pacing is unhurried, unconcerned with creating a typical arc to garner tension, prone to rumination.

Familiar characters are given more personality this time around. For example, in the predecessor, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) is introduced as an ace fighter pilot, clearly a key player in the Resistance. However, we simply accept the character as he is introduced. Here, however, it is shown why Dameron is a leader, his competencies as well as his shortcomings. We are even introduced to his type of humor. Jokes and situational comedies almost always fit the occasion or characters involved. When the writing is specific and takes risks, the allure of the “Star Wars” universe is all the more amplified.

A filmmaker’s goal, or what should be his or her goal, is to put one’s unique stamp on a project, whether it be for mainstream consumption or a niche audience. Here, I got a strong impression that the “Star Wars” installment that Johnson respects most, his beacon, is “A New Hope.” It is in how he picks up themes brought up in that film and makes them his own rather seamlessly without relying on overt images or fan service. Most importantly, the writer-director is willing to take the next step and to give the franchise a chance to evolve. However, putting one’s own stamp on a popular franchise comes with a cost: it is certain to antagonize audiences who are not yet ready to look to the future.

Murder on the Orient Express

Murder on the Orient Express (2017)
★★ / ★★★★

“Murder on the Orient Express,” directed by Kenneth Branagh, is such a stylish-looking picture that certain scenes emit yellowish glow and it is filled to the brim with performers of recognizable faces. However, one gets the impression that it might have been a stronger work had it been three hours long, thus paving the opportunity for the audience to get into every possible suspect’s psychology. Instead, what results is a mildly interesting mystery with some superficially curious exchanges, but certainly not a film that commands first-rate tension and urgency. It is passable as a late-night or rainy day cable movie.

Branagh plays Hercule Poirot, a renowned detective with an obsession for detail. The material makes a point that this case is of a particular challenge for the supremely observant detective since he is someone who believes there is only right and wrong. Branagh makes a potentially insular character into someone accessible by expanding upon the more humorous lines through carefully calibrated facial expressions meant to nudge the viewers that there is more to Poirot than solving puzzles and a strict sense of morality. In less capable hands, the protagonist would likely have become one-dimensional.

There are nearly a dozen suspects and some of them are more intriguing than others. Michelle Pfeiffer is a standout as a widow who knows exactly what she wants. She commands attention in just about every scene she is in, mixing sensuality and sexuality with seeming ease. Her performance is exactly right especially when her character must come face-to-face with a detective of extreme logic. Another solid performance is by Daisy Ridley who plays a governess involved in a relationship that she feels she must keep under wraps. Although she does not have as much many lines Pfeiffer, Ridley is able to communicate a level of desperation, mixed with fear, especially when her character is challenged by seemingly straightforward questions.

The rest of the suspects, however, require more time to be thoroughly engaging. While nuggets of mystery are teased, especially by Penélope Cruz and Willem Dafoe as a Spanish missionary and a racist Austrian professor, respectively, these characters do not get the opportunity to shine because the script requires a constant forward momentum. The problem is, although the movie moves at a constant pace, it is not exactly fast-paced. The exposition will likely test the patience of some viewers who crave action almost immediately.

Detective stories thrive on sneaky suspicions and heart-pounding uncertainties. This interpretation of “Murder on the Orient Express” fails to create a level of claustrophobia that functions as a pressure cooker. Notice there are numerous overhead shots of the train and the snowy terrain—beautiful but these do not contribute in establishing the correct tone and mood. Perhaps the director ought to have chosen a more humble route.

Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens

Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens (2015)
★★★★ / ★★★★

“Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” directed by J.J. Abrams, is a massively entertaining mainstream science fiction fantasy picture filled with many familiar elements and small but required twists for old and new generation of fans. It is highly accessible, from the well-placed, rapid-fire banters to its crescendoing epic score during key moments, and so one can sit back and enjoy the plethora of wonderful images and action sequences.

A new threat known as the First Order has risen from the ashes of the fallen Galactic Empire. It is led by a mysterious figure named Snoke (Andy Serkis), working for him are two generals Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), and the elimination of the final Jedi, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), is critical to the group’s universal reign. But Skywalker is nowhere to be found. According to some sources, a pilot (Oscar Isaac) who works for the Resistance has just gotten hold of an important clue that may lead to the Jedi’s whereabouts.

The new characters are interesting and worth getting to know further. The partnership between a former Stormtrooper (John Boyega) and a scavenger (Daisy Ridley) is inspired even though the placement of seeds involving a possible romantic connection comes across as a bit forced at times. I enjoyed that the former, Finn, is thrusted into the war between the First Order and the Resistance almost out of guilt while for the latter, Rey, it is almost as if it is her destiny. It is wise that the screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan, J.J. Abrams, and Michael Arndt keeps the eventual duo apart for as long as possible. When they are separate, we can feel the pulse of the new myth being born.

It offers a strong sense of place and community. There is a breath of excitement with each environment, from the seemingly endless desert of Jakku to the lush green planet Takodana. Perhaps more importantly, the various creatures we encounter almost always have a personality to them, whether it is through exchange of dialogue, grunt-like noises, or beep-beep-boop. I found myself wanting shots to linger a little longer especially when an interesting-looking creature is shown on the side or the background. I wanted to look at their faces or skins a little closer; I wanted to examine the clothes they wear and the weapons they carry. With some, I even noticed their postures. There is no doubt that we are in the hands of a most capable visual storyteller.

One can argue that a little bit more creativity might have elevated the picture. For instance, the Starkiller Base, capable of destroying entire solar systems with the help of the sun, is too similar to the Death Star encountered in the previous films, only bigger. The young Jedi storyline, too, is a retread. While this is not an unreasonable criticism, it can also be argued such examples—and others like them—are merely plot device. What matters more is the energy and small changes behind the expected elements.

I argue that this is an attempt to revitalize a franchise. And it works. Diverting too much from familiarity might have done more harm than good. But expansion and new ideas are exactly what I will be looking for in the inevitable sequel. This time, playing it safe should be overlooked. But safe does not equal boring. On the contrary, this is an exciting chapter with action sequences that at least rival the originals.