Daisy Ridley

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

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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