Daisy Ridley

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

21/12/19

In the early 70s, a young filmmaker called George Lucas had a vision. He wanted to make an epic space saga that would consist of nine episodes in total. (And one for which he would, naturally, retain all merchandising rights.) For reasons best known to himself, he decided to begin, in 1977, with episode four of what, for me, is one of the most overrated film franchises in history.

It began well enough – indeed, the first two films are great – but, from that point, it has descended into a whole series of misfires. There’s the one with the Ewoks. And those three awful prequels… oh God, those prequels!

Finally, here we are at episode nine: The Rise of Skywalker. After the bewildering cul de sac of The Last Jedi – and after the ignonimous departure of Skywalker’s original director, Colin Trevorrow – J J Abrams is back on board to bring the saga to an end. This seemed like a sensible decision when it was first announced. After all, his The Force Awakens was easily the best Star Wars movie in a very long time, a sort of lively ‘best of’ compilation. If anybody could offer a safe pair of hands, surely he was the man? So it’s sad to report that (for my money, at least) this final chapter provides a decidedly lacklustre conclusion.

The plot: a familiar voice from the past is threatening the rebel resistance, which is still being commanded by Leia Organa (the late Carrie Fisher, courtesy of some visual trickery). Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega) and Poe (Oscar Isaac) head off on a quest to try to find where that pesky voice is coming from, accompanied by C3PO (Anthony Daniels) and Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo). Meanwhile, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is still intent on ruling the universe. And then… ah, who cares? It’s all lumpen and – dare I say it? – dull. I find myself bored after just twenty minutes of viewing. And considering the film opens with an all-out action sequence, that’s a problem.

So what has gone wrong? Is it the unnecessarily complicated storyline that sinks it? The seemingly endless procession of people we think are dead, but aren’t any more? (Maybe even the ones who actually are dead but don’t seem to know it – and I’m not talking about Carrie Fisher here, but the fictional characters.)

Is it the series of hopelessly turgid lightsaber duels that drag it down? The fact that people talk in a series of fridge magnet quotes? Is it that characters still can’t decide if they’re good eggs or dark, demonic nasties? Or is it simply that not enough time has passed since Jedi to allow audiences to summon up enough enthusiasm for this nonsense? Whatever the reasons, by the time we hit the (ho hum) extended space battle climax, I’m looking at my watch and praying for it to be over.

I appreciate that the diehard fans will rally round to support the film, because, well, that’s what Star Wars freaks tend to do but, apart from a couple of scenes here and there, I can’t honestly say that I enjoy this. And that’s a shame because, despite the curse of diminishing returns, Star Wars has had a remarkably good run down the decades and I want it to go out on a high.

Of course, I’m not so dumb as to imagine it’s really going to end here. As long as there’s more money to be made, there will be spin-offs and prequels and homages and tie-ins.

But I seriously doubt I’ll be watching them.

2.5 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

15/12/17

Well, Episode VIII is suddenly upon us and everybody’s going crazy to see it, so I thought, what the heck, how bad can it be? I know I’ve gone on record as saying that Star Wars is one of the most overrated movie franchises in history, (and I genuinely believe that) but J.J. Abrams’ The Force Awakens was pretty decent stuff, largely because it had the good sense to deliver a sort of ‘greatest hits’ package, featuring all the best bits from A New Hope. This time out, we have writer/director Rian Johnson at the controls and I have to say, rather than the exhilarating flight we had last time, this is more reminiscent of an interminable train journey, packed with passengers you neither know nor care about. Will we ever reach our destination?

Proceedings kick off (of course they do) with a great big space battle, as the tattered remnants of the resistance flee from the overwhelming might of the Empire. (Sound familiar? Get used to it.) You quickly get the sense of worse things to come when the usually reliable Domhnall Gleeson as General Hux is reduced to stamping around and leering at his underlings like a pantomime villain. Yes, there are state-of-the-arts special effects, but I feel completely unmoved by the spectacle. Shortly thereafter, we cut to a remote island where Rey (Daisy Ridley) is still trying to convince Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamil) that he should stop being such a moody monkey and come back to join the rebels. (You may remember this was where we left the previous film.) Luke manages to spend pretty much the entire two hours and thirty two minutes running time trying to make his mind up, though of course, we all know he’ll get there in the end…

This procrastination seems to be key to Johnson’s vision. Kylo Renn (Adam Driver) faffs around trying to decide whether he’s good or bad (when of course we all know which one it is), Rey seems, for quite a while, to be suffering from exactly the same malady and Finn (John Boyega) spends much of his time scampering around a variety of exotic locations with his new sidekick, Rose (Kelly Marie Tran). The main problem is, everything feels turgid here and whenever we sense we’re approaching some kind of resolution, we discover that there’s another ending tacked on – and then another, and just for good measure, one more. The film is dedicated to ‘our Princess, Carrie Fisher,’ and perhaps the saddest thing is to see her hanging around in scene-after-scene, with very little to do but look mournful and mutter lines about ‘the Force’. (At one point, the script even has her put into suspended animation, which, I can’t help thinking, doesn’t feel entirely respectful to her memory.)

I’ve already seen a few decent reviews for The Last Jedi and no doubt, the hardcore fans will come out saying they adored it. (They generally do.) But for me, this one ranks very low down the pecking order, better than those terrible prequels, of course (though to be honest being beaten repeatedly over the head with a fresh haddock would be a step up), but limping along behind Rogue One, which at least a few fresh ideas to offer.

I can’t help feeling that the well is running pretty dry and unless somebody comes up with something very inventive soon, it may just be time to press the ‘self-destruct’ button on Star Wars.

Yeah. Like that would ever happen…

2.5 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Murder on the Orient Express

03/11/17

Let’s face it, we know what we are going to get with this one. Agatha Christie’s story is a classic of its kind, and Poirot’s style of detection a thing of wide repute. The trailer makes it clear that this incarnation doesn’t stray far from the cosy murder-as-family-entertainment tradition, so we settle in for a glossy, star-studded slice of nostalgia; we know it won’t be challenging but we think it might be fun.

And it is fun, to a point. It’s handsomely done, with glorious vistas, and the opening scenes in Istanbul are wonderfully vibrant, teeming with life and energy. Kenneth Branagh is convincing as Poirot, as pedantic and idiosyncratic as Christie paints him in her books. And the unthinking decadence of the upper classes is beautifully clear, their sumptuous surroundings barely noted, the train’s luxury accepted and dismissed.

It’s a shame, then, that we never feel any sense of claustrophobia, even when the train breaks down, and everyone is trapped in the middle of nowhere, even when the sleazy Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp) is murdered. I won’t give any spoilers here, just in case,  although I imagine most people know the plot; suffice it to say, I know there are reasons why the suspects’  reactions are not as we might initially expect, but still… No one really mixes; no one seems irritated with anyone else; they’re all so separate, as if they’re not in close proximity. It’s all plot and no character, despite the starry cast.

The starry cast is a problem too. They’re all magnificent, but I only know that from their other work, not from what they do here. There’s nothing for them to do. Michelle Pfeiffer, as Caroline Hubbard, is perhaps the luckiest; there’s some substance here, so she can milk her role. But to under-use actors as fine as Olivia Colman, Judi Dench, Daisy Ridley, Leslie Odom Jr., Penelope Cruz et al is criminal: these are all essentially cameos.

In the end, sadly, this is just a pointless remake of what is – sorry, Agatha fans – a silly story. It’s not awful – everything is bigger here, including Poirot’s moustache – it’s just not very good.

3 stars

Susan Singfield

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

21/12/15

Let’s start with something controversial. In my humble opinion, Star Wars is one of the most overrated movie franchises of all time. Seriously. Let’s examine the evidence. There were two decent original movies, a third that was spoiled by the overly-cute warrior teddy bears, the Ewoks and then three watching-paint-dry prequels that committed the cardinal sin of being dour and earnest, when they should have soared. And yet the return of Star Wars has been greeted with an unprecedented weight of expectation, with whole multiplexes devoting every screen to J.J. Abrams’ take on the story. I mean, really?

If there was ever a safe pair of hands into which to place this much-loved series, they were his. (Look, for instance, how he dealt with the moribund Star Trek franchise, delivering a great big kick up the backside that jolted it into new life.) So I’m happy to report that Abrams has pretty much nailed it here too, salvaging all the best bits from the original movies and throwing in some cannily judged updates of his own. The keen-eyed will spot a few ‘Easter egg’ references to the original movies liberally sprinkled throughout the film. I should also add that Abrams comes up with a plot twist that will have hard-line fans gasping in their seats.

The events take place some thirty years or so after Return of the Jedi. Rey (newcomer, Daisy Ridley) is a scavenger on a desert planet, eking out a precarious living from finding salvage from wrecked space ships. She encounters, Fin (John Boyega) a former storm trooper for the First Order, the new fascist dictators of the galaxy. Finn has become disillusioned by the cruelty of Kylo Renn (Adam Driver) and has done a runner, with his evil task masters in hot pursuit.

What follows is a series of chases, aerial dogfights and lightsabre battles but scriptwriters Abrams and old hand Lawrence Kasdan have cannily stitched everything together so that all the major characters are able to make an appearance without it feeling as though a crowbar has been used to jam them in to the proceedings – Han Solo, Princess Leia, C3PO, RTD2, Chewbaca… all the usual suspects are trotted out for inspection and it all works splendidly. Most importantly, Abrams has reinstated the humour that was prevalent in the first films and entirely absent from those po-faced prequels. Ridley, a kick-ass heroine from the new school manages to subvert a lot of the tropes that now make the originals feel vaguely misogynistic and Boyega and Oscar Isaac as fighter pilot Po Dameron, offer plenty of scope for the next instalment.

I might be in danger of damning the film with faint praise here but this just might be the best of the series so far.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney