REVIEW: “STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER” (2019) LucasFilm/Disney Pictures

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Ah, that familiar opening sequence that we know so well.  Where we know we are going to a galaxy far far away…is about the only thing left from over from the original that will never get old seeing. Even with “STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER” having this terrific memorable opening sequence, it is sure note that this isn’t a ‘George Lucas’ vision of Star Wars. To be fair, when it comes to Star Wars, the appreciation and the significance of it all is not lost on me, as well as the quality and enjoyment of the films that people feel. But alas, I probably am not in the high percentile of top fans and really wouldn’t consider myself a big Star Wars fan per se. While having seen most of them, I was just one who never grasped onto to the films so completely as others have. With that, seeing the conclusion of the Skywalker series wasn’t going to make me emotional mess in the lead up as maybe it would be to some others – so just know this review truly has no bias on that end.

Episode IX takes place some number of years after The Last Jedi where Rey (Daisy Ridley) has been training to take down the first order.  The Resistance lead by Leia (Carrie Fisher) are figuring out a way to lead the charge with the few alliances they have left, and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is trying to become a powerful Sith. The unknown time after which this is set definitely has a few holes in the character progression that were possibly needed in order to ‘damage control’ on the story direction. It’s is also hard to talk about the film without spoilers, but doing my best to get across the jist of it, without really going into heavy spoiling. The Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) is not a spoiler as it’s in the trailers and posters so mentioning him, but not any external story elements stemming from his return noted.

As mentioned the biggest problem with Episode IX is the direction of this story. There is just an excess of side stories in the film which absolutely kills the run time and the effects of what the main story being told is. And can we say Cameos GALORE? Boy there were some good ones though. But if you were of the thought that ‘Force Awakens’ had nothing original to offer, well the Rise of Skywalker will double down on that premise. It’s hard to believe how they set it all up, had conflict and executed the conclusion of these characters, all in one unsuccessful sweep here. Plus smack dab in the middle of battle, leading us down the road to clearly what is to become the new series of films or possibly a new show for Disney +, with a quick little story line with Finn (John Boyega) and Janna (Naomi Ackle) have a little convo about how they came to be Troopers and how they need to ‘try and find where they came from.’ Yep, there is your next movie or TV story line people.

As many have already said, there was clearly no plan by Disney for the trilogy. What Abrams set up, then Rian Johnson stepped in and had total control to then do what he wanted, and now Abrams is back to ‘save’ the film by bringing back the Emperor. Okey Dokey. The way the film quickly establishes how and why it is nothing short of lazy. Because there was no mention in the previous sequel films, the Emperors return is ruined due to the franchise factor forcing it back in. The film originally was having Colin Trevorrow as director, so there was clearly no connecting person here like George Lucas and his vision, to step in and help the story take place and progress. Bringing in different directors bring a new look to the film is not a problem, if you can still have a solid story told throughout. Then the bunch of side stories that are being told, just fail to have the time to conclude properly. Maybe they needed more than one film in order to explore them – or should have done so previously. Everything is just rushed into the film and Rey, Finn, Po, Ren and the Emperor, all have to share the screen and some arcs don’t feel earned.

The new band of heroes here as well, just don’t have the same charm, personalities or chemistry together (actually this is the first movie in the new trilogy, where they do stuff together). They feel more like they have been cast for a commercial shoot of the film versus what type of character and personality they had to portray – they are all just so empty, like cardboard-cutouts with calculated screen-time and one-dimensional personalities. Most of them hardly even have an arc or any real character-development over the course of these three movies. The final scene with Kylo Ren and Rey is laughable bad, you’ll know what this is if you’ve seen the film, and if not, you soon will. I was just in awe that the writers ruined a perfect moment by including a said ‘particular action’ which eluded gasping laughs. One character though who was fun and has always been great, is C-3PO (Anthony Daniels). He always been essentially kinda bullied and the film knows this and consequently builds on this to create a somewhat compelling character. Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) wins for the most emotional moment though. Finn and Po Dameron (Oscar Isaac), had character problems that needed to be established in the earlier films as their pay offs don’t feel earned. Rey was also somewhat disappointing mostly due to the direction of the story, but her arc is so unbalanced throughout the first two films that once her character conclusion is just unsatisfactory.

The action as well often doesn’t serve a purpose to the story – it’s just more timely inserted space-battles, chase-scenes and sci-fi fights. Mostly just overblown shiny CGI stuff with a few practical puppets, sets and costumes thrown in to pander to the old fans. These characters didn’t have a lot of time to be together unlike in the original trilogy, so their interactions weren’t memorable. This is also due to the forced jokes and dialogue. I felt like Isaac’s Po was just trying to hard to fill Harrison Ford‘s old shoes of humour when he was Han Solo. Sure the original Star Wars movies had some humor, but in those movies it felt natural, not these wink-wink-moments, slapstick humor and juvenile self aware meme-jokes. What’s worse, is that this movie also tries to be dark at the same time, but this isn’t Empire Strikes Back or Revenge of the Sith, as those movies really were dark chapters in the Star Wars saga with hardly any humor in them.  But in The Rise of Skywalker, it just makes the movie feel even more like a tonal mess, since the movie tries so to be funny, upbeat and happy at the same, making both the humor, the drama and the darker elements feel even more forced and out of place.

The originals worked because they didn’t try to be funny, and the characters were written like they could almost be normal people in the space, whereas the sequel characters are just yelling stuff out that is not natural.  At least the CGI was great. It’s expected to be and it looked cool. What they did with Carrie Fischer was surprisingly good and it fit as well. Yes, it was kind of obvious at points where extreme editing was in play, but her tragic passing was so sad and they had to do what they could after the unfortunate circumstances. (#RIPCarrie). Some of the the battles, while looking good, weren’t all that well executed. As well, lacking a lot of suspense the light-saber duels between Rey and Kylo – on the one hand they were interesting  – on the other they don’t get you as excited as the film wanted you to be. The final fight was just really over the top. I get there’s a finality to the film but there’s so much that’s happening that leaves unanswered questions toward the state of the galaxy.

Lastly, is the music. Yes it’s essentially the same, but John William score is perfect and on every level and is possibly the only thing that elevates the movie. It adds all the tension and emotion to all the Star Wars films to be sure. It’s something we never tire of it after all these films and would still gladly listen to it in future films.

Overall, Rise of Skywalker is underwhelming in it’s execution yet has some good ideas. Even though I’m not it’s biggest fan, there still felt this unsatisfying feeling as the film clearly had no plan and the end result of the story is clearly forced. Is it wrong to have just wanted to see a good conclusion to one of the most popular franchises ever? Instead, the film misses the mark and fails to have an overall finality feeling.

Grade: C

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Media Review Screening: Tuesday, December 17, 2019 ~ Courtesy of Disney Pictures

“STAR WARS: EPISODE IX – THE RISE OF SKYWALKER” IS OUT IN THEATERS WORLDWIDE

REVIEW: “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” (2017) 20th Century Fox

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CHOO CHOO!! ALL ABOARD..ALL ABOARD THE ORIENT EXPRESS! Murder! Mayham! Suspense!

Yes..If you’ve read Dame Agatha Christie’s 1934 novel “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” or have seen the 1974 version you know the storyline. If not, or like me, couldn’t remember all of it – what’s left to deal with then, is how well this one is done and of course the big ‘whodunnit’ reveal at the end.

The story of master detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) who is hoping for a break after numerous years of solving cases, jumps onboard The Orient Express thanks to friend Bouc (Tom Bateman) who was able to secure him this spot. While onboard, Poirot ends up having to solve a murder committed while traveling with 12 other passengers on The Orient Ecpress – a train that made traveling in style from West-East axis and back again, very popular.

Director and lead actor Branagh takes on the popular story, with a nod to nostalgia in three ways. First, the flair of the train travel at that time, which was associated with adventure, pleasure and discovery, must be brought back to life. Second, the charm of the detective-witty inquiry that the character is closely linked to that era. And thirdly, a remake must also pay homage to the original film and the book itself, because Agatha Christie stories are still hugely popular and it’s 1974 version brought much critical and acting acclaim. Thus, Branagh with his well-known cast, recognizes this and with a good but alas not perfect effort, tries to retain that feel. Its highlights include dazzling production design, period costumes and of course I would be remiss to not mention the highly distracting signature moustache! The opening portion of the train journey is spent as you would expect – introducing us the characters on the train. But it’s the last 30 minutes of the film where the detective really gets into why each character is there and what part they play in the film which make that the most interesting part of the film.

Branagh as Poirot, does a fine job mixing in the brilliant detective with the comedic, witty sarcasm the character is known for. It’s always a kick to see Dame Judi Dench, here as Russian Princess Dragomiroff, and the wonderful Olivia Coleman (one of my personal favourites) as her besieged maid, Hildegarde Schmidt. But they have literally nothing to do and are almost shamefully underused. Leslie Odom, Jr. as Dr. Arbuthnot is the racial switch in the casting – as Sean Connery had the role in the 1974 film – shows welcome daring for a remake that plays things stodgily by the book.
Michelle Pfeiffer shines in perhaps the meatiest – certainly the cheekiest – role as Caroline Hubbard, but those such as Daisy Ridley as Miss Mary Debenham shows that even her secret relationship with another passenger can’t give Ridley’s character enough boost to make it stand out as much as Pfeiffer does with her role – though both of these characters have a bigger chunk of the many supporting roles. Derek Jacobi as Edward Masterman & Willem Dafoe as ‘Austrian scientist’ Gerhard Hardman, both have secrets but can’t help but appear simply there for the ride. There’s a decent dramatic turn from Josh Gad as Hector MacQueen, though it might be because you only know his work as a comedian so his drama performance get a tick of notice. Also underused are Lucy Boynton and Sergei Polunin as Count & Countess Andrenyi who have a brilliant scene with Branagh but never really do anything else. Johnny Depp plays that typical smarmy-charmy type crook here which completely works for his character Edward Ratchett. Penelope Cruz on the other hand, has it worse as the religious introvert Pilar Estravados. It hard as I always find her work to be sub-par in English movies as she excels so well in the Spanish ones, I end up feeling a bit of a let down by them and here she is barely a blip on the Orient Express. So for all the resplendence of this cast, it’s hard not to feel that Branagh isn’t really pushing any of them to work.

Conclusion: Branagh’s staging of this famous crime thriller tries to do justice to the charm and the time-frame of the original with visual charms, a well-known cast and a little humor. However, this succeeds less convincingly than hoped.

Grade: C+
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REVIEW: “STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS” (2015) Disney Pictures

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32 years after the original Star Wars exploded on our movie screens, the saga is set to continue here in The Force Awakens. Take note that this review is strictly a point of view and won’t contain to much storyline as you should see it for yourself, and definitely no spoilers. One thing before I continue on..Chewie..YOU ARE MY HERO!!!
As the opening log comes on the screen, we are immmediately taken back in time which has to be one of the happiest moments of the film. With that I will just spit it out that first and foremost, this is a good movie, though far far from a great one (It’s no Mad Max) And yes, I just said that.. So all the Star Wars fan-boys can step up now and sue me.. 😀

I’m as big a Star Wars fan as any though after Return of the Jedi, The Phantom Menace couldn’t even come close to comparing. Attack of the Clones was forgettable..Revenge of the Sith – didn’t even bother to see it at a theatre and actually waited for it to be on cable. And I won’t lie..I have a few issues with this film, though not all of them are bad.
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The opening 30 minutes are less than satisfying and to be completely honest was quite ‘lulz’. Here we are introduced to some new main characters Finn (John Boyega) and Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac – who is terribly underused here). Finn is actually a stormtrooper, but get this..a stormtrooper with feelings?? no ..stormtroopers are not allowed those. But hey they are taking a risk here by doing that right – which is okay by me. Then Poe, who is head of the resistance pilots, gets captured and Finn helps him escape for which when Poe asks why, gets the answer of “Because it’s the right thing to do” what?? that’s just weak.. sorry but it is. It doesn’t fit in a Star Wars film. So as predicted they crash and it seems only Finn survives. But you also know that there is no way Poe is dead & gone, but this goes unexplained for some time, until he magically shows up later with barely a plausable explantion.

While she is no Furiosa, Rey (Daisy Ridley) has somewhat the same inplausability factor when we meet as her as she & Finn are all about saving each other within minutes of meeting. But then again, I like the risk-taking factor of appointing a strong female lead.
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Along with that part of the main cast, we are introduced to the mostly all Britsh/Irish (I guess a galaxy ‘far far away’ is now the U.K. ha!) cast of the Dark Side, notably General Hux (Domhnall Gleason), Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) and Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie – also terribly underused) to name just a few.

As expected, the robots especially BB8 (Bill Hader/Ben Schwartz – voice consultants), along with Chewbaca (Peter Mayhew) & Hans Solo (Harrison Ford) steal and deliver the best comedic one takes. While the new characters try, they fail quite miserably at trying to deliver cutesy one-liners that aren’t funny.
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While I loved the flashbacks to the Star Wars of old, including the graveyard of old spaceships, Hans Solo getting back onboard with his old ship is nothing less than classic. And who doesn’t want to see Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) and Solo reunite after years of separation?!! All these scenes and storylines are simply wonderful.

Another big risk and a sad heartbreaking one at that, is saying good-bye to one of the most iconic characters ever concieved in this galaxy or any other for that matter. Did it have to be done? Maybe so because it seems J.J. Abrams had to basically make us try to forget those three intermediate bad storylines and get us back on track to what is important. Though I found Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) to be one of my least favourite characters (and actors) as it just seems to simple to say Skywalker was good out of Vader’s bad, but yet Ren is bad out of Solo & Leia’s good.
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Last note: I’m not the biggest 3D fan, but this film is so enhanced by it, it’s worth it. The final scene of the movie is by far what makes it all worth-while to see this film – as it gives us something to look forward to in Episode VIII and it tells us it will be so much better.

Grade: B-
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