Movie review: ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ a star-studded whodunit

Star studded cast MURDER IN THE ORIENT EXPRESSA group of strangers board the luxurious Orient Express for what appears to be an uneventful train ride to Istanbul. Then, a storm creates an avalanche that traps all these passengers in the mountains. In the middle of the night one of these passengers is murdered. With the train stuck in the snow and a killer on the loose, no one on board the train is safe.

This is just the sort of mystery for Hercule Poirot, novelist Agatha Christie’s famous Belgian detective, played this time by Kenneth Branagh. The brilliant but eccentric detective must solve the case by the time the train is freed from the snow and arrives at the station, or an innocent may be accused of the crime while the real killer escapes.

“Murder on the Orient Express” (out in theaters now) is an adaptation of Christie’s novel of the same name and has been filmed several times before. I have not seen any of the previous versions, so I can’t comment on what new elements this film may have brought to the story. However, I was excited to see a period mystery with an all-star cast that includes Michelle Pfeiffer, Judi Dench, Willem Dafoe, and many more.

“Murder on the Orient Express” is what I would call a good “rainy afternoon movie.” If you are stuck inside the house on a lazy weekend afternoon, this would be the perfect movie to enjoy while curled up on the couch with a cup of tea or hot cocoa. It’s not a particularly ground-breaking or inventive film, and it won’t end up on my best of the year list. However, it’s a fun, old-fashioned whodunit that’s worth watching for the great cast.

Branagh’s Poirot is lovably eccentric, preferring to have things “just so.” He is often better at questioning suspects than making small talk, and he doesn’t apologize for his odd habits. However, he cares very deeply about finding justice for the innocent. He isn’t just concerned with the facts behind a case — he cares about the people as well.

There’s so many famous faces in “Murder on the Orient Express” that inevitably no one gets a huge amount of screen time, and I almost wish this could have been a TV mini-series so each character had more time to shine and the plot could have delved further into their motivations and backgrounds. For me, the standouts were Daisy Ridley as governess Mary Debenham and Josh Gad as Hector MacQueen, an assistant to a particularly nasty businessman. I’d only seen Daisy Ridley in “The Force Awakens” but I think she has a bright career ahead of her. (After seeing this I also think she’s more than capable of handling a “dark side Rey” twist, but that’s a different topic for a different time.) Although I previously knew Josh Gad more for his comedic acting and voicework, I enjoyed seeing him in a serious role that showed off his acting range.

A mystery is only as good as the final reveal where the case is solved, so definitely don’t let anyone spoil the ending for you. Keep track of all the little inconsistencies and coincidences as you’re watching the film; they’ll all make sense in the end. Does the final “unmasking” of the killer stretch credibility just a tad? Perhaps. However, I thought the ending was an interesting commentary on justice and how right and wrong aren’t always as black and white as they first appear. I think Poirot made the best possible decision regarding the complicated situation as he wrapped up the case.

Advertisements

A ‘Marvel-ous’ list: An updated ranking of my favorite Marvel Cinematic Universe films (November 2017)

Here’s my updated Marvel Cinematic Universe ranking, with “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2,” “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” and “Thor: Ragnarok” added in. This is getting to be a long list, and increasingly harder to decide which are my top favorites! 😉

Box Office Buzz

669681So many Marvel films, so hard to rank my favorites! 😉 Instead of continually creating new posts when new Marvel Cinematic Universe films come out, I’ve decided to just keep this master list and update it. The new films I’ve added this time around are “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2,” “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” and “Thor: Ragnarok.” Of course, some of the older movies keep shifting around too, so this list always feel like a work in progress. 😉

1. Iron Man (2008)

“Guardians of the Galaxy” is literally so close to taking over my No. 1 spot, but the original “Iron Man” just can’t be beat. This is the movie that made Iron Man my favorite superhero and Robert Downey Jr. my favorite actor.

2. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 1 (2014)

3. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

4. Captain America: Civil War (2016)

5. Doctor Strange (2016)

Although…

View original post 482 more words

It’s time to Ragna-rok and roll! Thor goes cosmic in latest MCU film

static1.squarespaceFor better or worse, the Marvel Cinematic Universe films always follow a certain template. They have a similar look and feel, and a similar style of humor. I happen to really like this formula, and I think it still leaves plenty of room for variety (i.e. the heist feel of “Ant-Man,” the trippy, psychedelic elements of “Doctor Strange,” etc.). While the latest, “Thor: Ragnarok” (out in theaters now), is still very much an MCU movie, it is the film that perhaps veers the farthest from the Marvel template that we’ve seen before (perhaps even farther than “Guardians”!) With a lot of improv from the actors and wackier humor/characters than we’ve seen in the past Thor films, “Thor: Ragnarok” just might be the “weirdest” Marvel movie yet.

Although Thor (Chris Hemsworth) was notably absent from the quasi-Avengers film “Captain America: Civil War,” he’s had plenty to keep him busy. Namely, trying to prevent “Ragnarok,” the apocalyptic destruction of his home world, Asgard. He’s also got Hela (Cate Blanchett), the vengeful goddess of death, to contend with. He has to put together his own super team (he humorously dubs them “the Revengers”): an exiled Hulk (Mark Ruffalo); his brother and sometimes-ally, sometimes-enemy Loki (Tom Hiddleston); and a lost Valkyrie warrior (Tessa Thompson). He also has to find a new source of strength after Hela smashes his seemingly indestructible hammer.

It’s interesting to see how the MCU has evolved over the past decade. We started with the relatively grounded “Iron Man” and have since gone full cosmic, in preparation for the “Infinity War” extravaganza. While the past Thor movies have had a definite fantasy feel, “Ragnarok” swings more toward space opera. It’s a wildly colorful movie with new creatures and a strange new planet, Sakaar, a dumping ground for objects — and sometimes people — without a home.

I’ve loved seeing the MCU get more colorful and wider in scope, and it’s exciting to see them trying new and riskier things. According to director Taika Waititi, about 80 percent of the dialogue was improvised, which gives the film distinctly different, much looser feel. Waititi fully embraces the film’s potential weirdness — I never thought I’d hear “Pure Imagination” from “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” show up in a Thor movie! I got a kick out of seeing Jeff Goldblum be Jeff Goldblum in a Marvel film; he technically plays the Grandmaster, the ruler of Sakaar, but really, he’s playing Jeff Goldblum in space, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. It was nice to see Hulk and Thor teaming up, as well as the cameo from Benedict Cumberbatch’s Doctor Strange. Valkyrie makes a great addition to the team, and I hope she gets to join the action in “Infinity War.” And Cate Blanchett is obviously having a blast embracing her dark side as Hela; it’s good to see a strong female villain in the MCU.

thor-ragnarok-18

While there are lots of other great, colorful characters I still haven’t mentioned, “Ragnarok” still is, at its heart, Thor’s (and to a certain extent, Loki’s) story. Thor has grown (and matured!) a lot since his first solo film, and I enjoyed seeing him fully discover his powers when he can no longer rely on his hammer (spoiler alert! I loved seeing him use his newfound lightning powers in the final face-off against Hela). It’s also good to see a director fully take advantage of Chris Hemsworth’s comedic abilities; note to Hollywood: we want more opportunities for Hemsworth to be funny! And I liked that the movie kept Loki’s dynamic, giving him a chance to be a hero but not fully abandoning his own agenda. Because Loki just isn’t Loki if he’d not trying to be a trickster.

The action scenes are all good — I loved the arena fight between Thor and Hulk (and despite poor Thor’s consternation at getting his hair cut, I’m digging the new gladiator look), and it was super cool seeing the Valkyrie flying in on winged horses, in all their glory.

However, my one complaint about the film is that perhaps the jokes fly a little too fast and furious. It’s good to see a Thor movie that’s so darn fun, but some of the heavier moments were treated a little too lightly, in my opinion. This movie does have some more serious plot twists (skip for spoilers!) — such as the death of Odin and the complete destruction of Asgard — but these moments are almost lost in the fast and crazy storyline. I thought the “Guardians” movies did a better job balancing their humor and serious moments; while there are plenty of laughs from Starlord and Co., those films do have genuine emotional weight (I really laugh AND I really cry). I wish “Thor: Ragnarok” had been just a touch more serious in those important moments, and maybe used a little less improv overall.

I had a blast watching “Thor: Ragnarok,” although it will probably just barely miss breaking into my top half of MCU films (I really need to update my MCU ranking post). That’s not really a criticism of “Ragnarok”; some of the other movies are just a little more my personal style. Still, I’m really glad Marvel is willing to try some new things and let directors have more freedom to do something really different. And I’m super pumped to see what they do with “Black Panther” next year!

Beyond a galaxy far, far away: My favorite new canon Star Wars novels

Lords_of_the_Sith_artAlthough I’m definitely known as “the movie gal” amongst my friends, I really love books too. And since one movie a year isn’t nearly enough Star Wars for me, 😉 it’s nice to have Star Wars novels to help tide me over.

A lot of the Star Wars books I’ve read in the past are now, unfortunately, non-canon; Disney retired the old Expanded Universe novels — with characters like Mara Jade, the Solo twins Jacen and Jaina, and Luke’s son, Ben Skywalker — when they decided to make more movies. While I was originally sad about this, I understand that Disney wanted to start with a clean slate. And even though the old EU had some great content, there was some pretty dicey stuff too (let’s all forget the time Luke fell in love with a sentient spaceship).

The new Star Wars canon novels have been a little hit or miss, but I think they’re getting better. Here are some of my favorites, if you’re looking to dive into the wonderful world of Star Wars companion novels. And unlike the old EU, you don’t really have to read these in order, and all that’s really needed is a knowledge of the movies and/or TV series.

Thrawn by Timothy Zahn

Timothy Zahn’s previous Star Wars novels are widely regarded as some of the best in the old EU. Although they’re now non-canon, Zahn has brought back one of his most beloved characters, the cunning and sophisticated Grand Admiral Thrawn (who has also been showing up on the animated “Rebels” TV show). It’s great to see Zahn back in the Star Wars canon, and I enjoyed seeing Thrawn in a new way. This is a great introduction for those who don’t know about this mysterious alien warrior who joins the Imperial military.

Ahsoka by E.K. Johnston

Confession time: When I first started “The Clones Wars” animated series, I wasn’t a huge fan of Ahsoka Tano, Anakin Skywalker’s apprentice. However, she really grew on me as the show went on, and her character’s gut-wrenching departure turned out to be one of the show’s most emotional moments. This novel takes place shortly after “Revenge of the Sith” and follows Ahsoka as she struggles to survive in a dangerous, post-Jedi world.

Rebel Rising by Beth Revis

This isn’t the only “Rogue One” prequel — I’ve also read “Catalyst” by James Luceno, which covers the development of the Death Star. Although Luceno was one of my favorite EU authors, I didn’t end up liking this book as much. I thought “Rebel Rising” — about Jyn Erso’s life before she’s recruited by the Rebellion — was a much stronger book. Reading it is a bittersweet experience; Jyn’s life is full of difficulties and danger, and we already know she doesn’t get a happy ending. Yet she’s a fascinating character, and the book contains some interesting meditations on how far is “too far” to go to defeat the Empire.

rebel-rising-tall

Rogue One by Alexander Freed

Although some of the Star Wars movie tie-in novels are better than others, “Rogue One” is great. Actually, it’s one of my new favorite Star Wars novels, period. It delves more deeply into who the characters are and why they do what they do — but thankfully not too deeply, if that makes sense. Part of what made “Rogue One” so powerful is that Jyn and her band of rebels felt like ordinary people. They didn’t have a “touch of destiny” like the Skywalker clan the franchise has traditionally focused on. They’re complicated people who were confronted by a challenge and grew into heroes. This book is a gut-punch — it makes the movie’s tragic ending even sadder — but it’s a powerful read.

Lost Stars by Claudia Gray

This book gave me hope for the new Star Wars canon. It introduces two new characters: young Imperial Academy recruits Thane Kyrell and Ciena Ree. Without delving too far into spoiler territory, one of them becomes disillusioned with the Empire and decides to defect, driving a wedge between the two friends. Although the romance that develops between the characters is a significant plot point, I thought it was handled well within the larger context of events and didn’t seem forced.

Lords of the Sith by Paul S. Kemp

A buddy team-up adventure with Darth Vader and Palpatine! Well, not quite. 😉 Though everybody’s favorite Sith Lords do find themselves working together to escape as they are hunted by revolutionaries on the Twi’lek planet Ryloth. It was interesting to read a book from Darth Vader’s perspective, and I liked it because it reminded me of one of my favorite old EU novels, “Dark Lord: The Rise of Darth Vader” (which is still worth checking out).

Happy reading!

Not-so-freaky Friday: Movies to watch for the Halloween weekend that aren’t (too!) scary

harry-potter-philosophersI’m a real wimp when it comes to horror films. Just the trailer for the new “It” movie — which I had to see while watching a different movie this summer — was enough to make me cover my eyes and want to cower beneath my chair (scary clowns — just…no). However, I do love Halloween, and there are plenty of fun, not-too-scary films to watch for the holiday. Here are some of my favorites — and of course there’s also “Stranger Things” season 2 to binge this weekend!

Shaun of Dead

Director Edgar Wright and actors Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are, I think, a match made in Heaven. Their unofficial “Cornetto trilogy” — “Shaun of the Dead,” “Hot Fuzz” and “The World’s End” — would make for a great Halloween mini-marathon, but if you can only pick one, you can’t go wrong with the zombie-themed “Shaun of the Dead.” Wright finds a way to spin a zombie apocalypse into a witty, delightfully British romantic comedy about two not-so-bright friends who are clueless about the start of said apocalypse. Once they finally realize the people around them have started turning into the walking dead, they survive by taking refuge in their favorite pub. And if you’ve got time to check them out, “Hot Fuzz” (my all-time favorite comedy) follows a big city police officer who uncovers a dark secret in a small town, and “The World’s End” features a pub crawl that accidentally triggers the end of the world.

Ghostbusters

No Halloween movie list would be complete without “Ghostbusters,” right? This classic 1980s comedy is about a dysfunctional crew of paranormal exterminators, led by Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd. After they are fired from the university where they work, they start their own paranormal investigation business and end up saving the world. Although some of the special effects are a bit dated now, this movie is still a lot of fun and there are plenty of memorable lines. And this might be something of a controversial thought, but I even enjoyed the 2016 “Ghostbusters” reboot. It wasn’t a groundbreaking film by any means and it technically wasn’t really necessary to reboot “Ghostbusters,” but I still found it entertaining. SNL star Kate McKinnon and the surprisingly funny Chris Hemsworth steal the show.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (or Philosopher’s Stone, depending on your region)

Any of the Harry Potter movies would be a good pick for Halloween, but “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s/Philosopher’s Stone” gets a bonus for actually featuring a Halloween feast at Hogwarts. The first Harry Potter film isn’t my favorite in the series, but it’s a fun movie that kicks off Harry’s journey as a young wizard. It’s also more lighthearted than some of the later, heavier films. It always makes me wish I could spend Halloween at Hogwarts, with chocolate frogs, cauldron cakes, pumpkin pasties and of course butterbear!

monstersincsulleyboomike-xlarge

Monsters Inc.

“Monster’s Inc.” is my favorite Pixar movie, and the monsters in the movie are definitely more lovable than scary. Billy Crystal and John Goodman voice monsters Mike and Sulley, whose friendship is tested when Sulley accidentally lets a human girl escape into the monsters’ world. The world of “Monster’s Inc.” is colorful and fun, and Crystal and Goodman’s banter keeps adults entertained. While the follow-up “Monsters University” isn’t quite as good (it shows how Mike and Sulley became friends in college), it has some funny moments and is an entertaining follow-up for fans.

The Mummy

Although Tom Cruise’s Mummy reboot didn’t fare too well at theaters this summer, I’ve always been partial to the 1999 film. This film is both fun and funny, a sort of “Indiana Jones” spin on the classic 1930s horror flick. Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz are the charming leads in this movie, which follows a band of adventurers who decide to investigate an Egyptian burial site and accidentally awaken an ancient, undead priest (definitely not the best idea). “The Mummy” is an entertaining, swashbuckling adventure that offers plenty of thrills and (not-too-scary) scares.

Hocus Pocus

I actually watched this Halloween classic for the first time last year and thoroughly enjoyed it. Interestingly, this movie wasn’t really a critical or commercial success when it was released in 1993 but has since picked up a rather devoted cult following. “Hocus Pocus” stars Bette Midler, Kathy Najimy and Sarah Jessica Parker as the Sanderson Sisters, three witches from 1693 who resurrect in the modern day on the night before Halloween. That premise actually does sound a little scary, but never fear, this film is definitely more fun than frightful, as the witches don’t quite know how to adjust to the modern era.

What are your favorite not-so-scary (or even scary!) films to watch for Halloween?

‘Yo ho, yo ho, a pirate’s life for me!’ Is Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean franchise still relevant?

pirates_of_the_caribbean_dead_men_tell_no_tales_by_mintmovi3-db23j4wOctober has already been a busy month for movie/entertainment geeks: buzzworthy new trailers for “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” and Marvel’s “Black Panther”; a highly praised sequel to a sci-fi classic, “Blade Runner 2049”; “Spider-Man: Homecoming” coming to home video; and the ongoing debate about what we think of the new Star Trek series, “Discovery,” as well as the new streaming service we have to watch it on, CBS All Access. So it’s perfectly understandable that some may have missed the latest Pirates of the Caribbean movie, “Dead Men Tell No Tales,” which slipped out on DVD on Oct. 3.

Was that particular would-be summer blockbuster a flop or not? Was it designed to end the long-running franchise or serve as a new jumping-off point? The answers to both those questions are still a bit murky.

Domestically, “Dead Men Tell No Tales” certainly under-performed. With a reported budget of $230 million, the film has pulled in $173 million, currently sitting at #13 on the list of top grossing movies for 2017 and far below this year’s mega-hits like “Beauty and the Beast” and “Wonder Woman.” It couldn’t even beat “The Boss Baby,” sadly enough. Internationally, though, it’s a much different picture; 78 percent of the film’s total gross came from overseas, bringing its earnings up to $795 million. Still, it’s worth noting that the film’s final tally is a significant drop from the previous sequel, “On Stranger Tides” (2011), which cleared the billion mark.

I was 16 when the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie came out, and I can remember how big the franchise was at the time. It became a pop culture powerhouse, and my friends and I were so hyped for the sequels. Yet since then, the franchise’s star seems to have faded, at least somewhat. Marvel’s Cinematic Universe is the new pop culture king, and Star Wars has made a successful comeback. Even if it wasn’t a true flop, “Dead Men Tell No Tales” just couldn’t command the same amount of buzz the franchise used to.

Curious to see how well the franchise had aged, I went back and watched the original Pirates trilogy this past summer. I was a bit nervous, since this franchise was such a huge deal for me in high school and helped spark my movie obsession. Perhaps not all would agree, but I was relieved to find that the first three films were still a lot of fun. Basing a movie on a theme park attraction may have seemed like a sketchy idea, but “The Curse of the Black Pearl” was (and still is) a fun, swashbuckling adventure with ghostly special effects that still hold up. At the time, Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow felt like a breath of fresh air, a hilarious trickster who (mostly) did the right thing, if sometimes for slightly selfish reasons.

pirates.preview

The next two sequels — “Dead Man’s Chest” and “At World’s End” — were more divisive, but I can’t lie — after re-watching them this summer, I still really enjoy them. Maybe they were bloated and self-indulgent at times, but I loved that they dared to push the franchise in new and sometimes weirder directions. My favorite Pirates movie is actually “Dead Man’s Chest”; I love the whole fight on the beach/island between Jack and his (sort-of) friends and Davy Jones’ crustacean crew (there are some great sword fights in the franchise overall). I also appreciated the film wading into somewhat murkier moral waters (sorry, I had to work in a pun like that somewhere!), such as Elizabeth tricking Jack and leaving him to the kraken to buy the rest of the crew a chance to escape. I also admire the film makers’ gutsy decision to give the original trilogy a more tragic ending than we typically see in popcorn blockbusters: killing off the franchise’s one truly selfless main character, Will Turner, and bringing him back as the cursed captain of the Flying Dutchman. The only character who really deserved a happy ending doesn’t quite get one.

Disney waited too long to release the sequel, “On Stranger Tides,” a more forgettable adventure without many of the classic characters fans loved. It’s been a while since I’ve seen this one, though I remember Geoffrey Rush’s Captain Barbossa as the highlight. I think with this film we start having the issue of Captain Jack overexposure. He was really great in the first three films but the character does start becoming a bit tired in the fourth film, due to the fact that he doesn’t really change. It’s a catch-22 because if he DID change, he wouldn’t be funny anymore. One could also argue that Johnny Depp fell into the trap of ONLY playing characters that were wacky variations of the Jack Sparrow type, so it feels like we’ve seen the character a lot more than we actually have.

Disney also waited too long to release the most recent sequel, “Dead Men Tell No Tales,” perhaps overestimating the franchise’s staying power. However, I actually enjoyed “Dead Men Tell No Tales” and thought it avoided some of the issues fans had with “On Stranger Tides.” It was good to see the franchise return to its roots and reflect more on its legacy, featuring Will and Elizabeth Turner’s son, Henry, as the protagonist. Although it was a fun time at the theater, as touched on earlier it didn’t quite generate the spark Disney was probably hoping it would. Whether we get a sequel or not (or perhaps a hard reboot) will depend on how happy Disney is with that final box office tally.

I’m still proud to call myself a Pirates fan, and I’m happy to re-watch the original trilogy and will look forward to seeing “Dead Men Tell No Tales” again on home video. Still, I hope that Disney will let this franchise rest, at least for a while. Some franchises just don’t have the staying power of a pop culture icon like Star Wars. Star Wars has been going strong for 40 years, and there’s decades more potential film ideas to be mined from that franchise. The Pirates universe isn’t as expansive as that — and doesn’t have to be. It’s not bad for some franchises to end; an ending doesn’t have to mean failure. Sometimes it’s better to sail gracefully into the sunset than try to keep fighting as the ship sinks.

‘This is not going to go the way you think’: Decoding the latest trailer for ‘The Last Jedi’

9ec782340f75ed65a331672fb5d218d2When I heard rumors that the new trailer for “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” might contain some spoilers, I really did consider not watching it, just so I could go into the movie with as few expectations and assumptions as possible. However, my resolve lasted all of two seconds when I saw the new trailer pop up on one of my social media newsfeeds. I watched it, squealed so loud I scared my cat, and then watched it again.

There’s a lot to unpack from this trailer, and I’d love to hear all of your theories as well. The first thing that stands out to me is the darker, more ominous tone. I really hope the whole movie has this sort of tone, unlike “The Avengers: Age of Ultron” which had a really cool, dark trailer but then the movie we got wasn’t quite as cool and dark as I hoped. I think this movie could get even darker than “The Empire Strikes Back.”

I love Supreme Leader Snoke’s ominous voiceover at the beginning of the trailer. He very well could be speaking about Kylo Ren, but I think it’s actually Rey. He’s impressed by her raw power, and he wants to recruit her to the dark side. It’s possible he’s looking to dump Kylo Ren as his apprentice just like Palpatine dumped Count Dooku for Anakin in “Revenge of the Sith.”

And speaking of raw power, this line from Luke absolutely gave me chills: “I’ve seen this raw strength only once before. It didn’t scare me enough then. It does now.” Not only is it wonderful to see Mark Hamill returning as an older, more world-weary Luke, I’m now dying to know just who Luke is so afraid of. Again, he could be talking about his failed pupil, Kylo, but I think he’s talking about Rey. We watched how quickly her powers spiked in “The Force Awakens,” and I think Luke is afraid she could turn into another Vader if her power isn’t very carefully molded. Maybe he doesn’t trust himself to do the job, especially after he failed with Kylo.

star-wars-the-last-jedi-trailer-1507601854

I know some aren’t huge fans of Kylo Ren, but I actually really like his character. I think he’s what Anakin Skywalker should have been in the prequels — what he could have been with better direction and a better script. We see some very emotional acting from Adam Driver in this trailer, particularly as he (apparently) lines up a shot to kill his mother, Princess Leia. This is one of the moments of possible misdirection in the trailer — I think Kylo will decide not to press that trigger, and his choice will have far-reaching repercussions and pull him back to the light (or at least back to the middle, but more on that later). It’s very bittersweet to see Carrie Fisher again as General Leia Organa, and I hope she’s given a meaty role in the story here.

Other random moments that stood out to me: I’m super excited to see the big spaceship battle, as well as the battle on that cool planet with the red dust. The Millennium Falcon flying through that crystal cave is also super cool. And I may regret saying this later, but I think the Porgs are very adorable and I need a stuffed Porg toy right now. I think they’ll be a fun touch, as long as they don’t take over the story (I’m looking at you, Jar Jar Binks). I’m really looking forward to the showdown between Finn and Phasma; I’m not really sure where they’ll be taking Finn’s story in “The Last Jedi,” and at least from the trailers, it looks like his path may not cross with Rey’s a lot. It would be cool if the Resistance sends him undercover to infiltrate the First Order.

Finally, the scene that most had me buzzing was the final few seconds with Rey (possibly) asking Kylo to help her find her way, and Kylo (possibly) reaching out his hand to her. This may be a controversial thought, but I’d really like to see them subvert expectations and send Rey to the dark side and redeem Kylo to the light. I think it would be really fascinating to see a twist like that, or even to have Kylo reject both the light and dark and find balance as a “grey Jedi” who seeks a balanced path in the Force. Whatever happens, I’d love for “The Last Jedi” to end with a really big, shocking moment on the level of Darth Vader’s “I am your father” from “The Empire Strikes Back.” Turning Rey to the dark side would be a powerful, unexpected twist.

So, what do you think? What are your theories about “The Last Jedi”?

 

Movie review: ‘Blade Runner 2049’ a worthy sequel to a sci-fi classic

Blade_Runner_2049_2040.0I love being surprised by a movie. A couple times a year, I’ll walk into a theater to see a film, either not quite sure what to expect or not feeling particularly hyped, and then I’ll end up walking out afterwards completely blown away. That was my experience watching “Blade Runner 2049,” a film that wasn’t on my “most anticipated” list this year but has definitely earned a spot on my “best of 2017” ranking.

I’ve only seen the original “Blade Runner” once, several years ago. Although I enjoyed it and recognized how important it was to the science fiction genre, I happened to watch it when I was going through a period of really bad insomnia. I didn’t feel like I was fully engaged with the film and the story didn’t stick with me (I had to re-read the plot synopsis on Wikipedia before seeing the sequel). I also had some skepticism about a sequel being released more than 30 years after the original. Did we really need a sequel? Was this just a cash grab?

The answers are yes, we did need this sequel, and no, this feels like far more than a cash grab. Director Denis Villeneuve has crafted a haunting, thought-provoking film with absolutely gorgeous cinematography that stands proudly alongside the original.

Like its predecessor, “Blade Runner 2049” is a sci-fi noir that takes place in Earth’s dystopian future. In the first movie, Harrison Ford played Rick Deckard, a “blade runner” or sort of bounty hunter who “retires” renegade androids called “replicants.” “Blade Runner 2049” takes place 30 years later, after Deckard has gone off the grid. Ryan Gosling plays an LAPD blade runner known simply as “K,” one of the newer model replicants designed to be more obedient to humans. The film begins with what appears to be a fairly standard mission for K, eliminating a replicant who has been hiding out on a farm. However, an unusual object buried deep underground tips off K to a larger conspiracy and leads him to question his own existence.

I’ll delve more deeply into the story in the spoiler section below, because I’m dying to discuss some of the plot points, but for those who haven’t seen this yet, I’d highly recommend it. Denis Villeneuve is definitely going on my list of directors to watch (he also directed last year’s excellent “Arrival”). Normally my local IMAX theater only offers 3D movies in IMAX (I’m still not a huge fan of 3D), but when I saw “Blade Runner 2049” was showing in IMAX 2D I decided to splurge. I’m so glad I did. “Blade Runner 2049” is probably the most visually stunning movie I’ve seen this year. Every shot feels lovingly and painstakingly crafted, and it was breathtaking to see these visuals on an IMAX screen (especially without the clunky 3D glasses). The film overall has a lonely, melancholy tone that make the few flashes of genuine hope all the more impactful. It works as both a sci-fi action/detective film and a more thought-provoking meditation on what it means to be human and what gives life its meaning.

Warning: Spoilers ahead!

I managed to avoid pretty much all spoilers ahead of time, and I really enjoyed following along with the film’s central mystery, which involves K trying to hunt down the seemingly impossible: a child born to a replicant. K uncovers evidence that leads him to believe he is actually the replicant child, a fact that causes him to start thinking more independently. Although he does become more human, he later learns that he was actually just a decoy created to help hide the real replicant child, the daughter of Rick Deckard and the replicant Rachael. It’s heartbreaking to see how much this crushes him. He’s now caught in a dangerous limbo: he’s not the chosen one, but he can’t just go back to being an obedient replicant.

I thought the film used just the right amount of Harrison Ford; his appearance is more substantial than a cameo, but Rick Deckard doesn’t take over the plot, allowing the new characters plenty of time to shine. I appreciated how many layers they added to the characters; there’s more to them than you assume after first encountering them.

The movie is ultimately a fascinating study of humanity and explores the murky area of ethics and artificial intelligence. We as the audience can identify with K and want him to be treated as a human because he looks like a human. And even though he’s supposed to be an obedient android, we see he has real thoughts and emotions. He may not be the real replicant child but that makes his journey of self-discovery no less meaningful. I was also left wondering just how “real” his holographic girlfriend Joi was. She’s obviously a computer program but are her feelings for K genuine? Does she really care about him, or is this just a part of her programming? The film doesn’t fully answer this, leaving us with something to think about after the credits start rolling.

End spoilers!

“Blade Runner 2049” didn’t make a huge splash at the box office, especially considering its sizable budget. But I hope positive word of mouth will motive more people to check this out, along with the original. This is definitely one of my favorite movies of the year.

TV review: Star Trek returns to small screen with new series, ‘Discovery’

star-trek-discoveryAfter an absence of more than a decade, Star Trek is returning to the small screen…well, sort of. Although CBS has launched a new series in the long-running science fiction franchise — titled “Star Trek: Discovery” — the series is only available on the network’s new streaming service, CBS All Access.

CBS is offering a free trial period to entice fans to its new service, and I took advantage of this to watch the first three episodes of “Discovery.” I definitely have opinions about how CBS has decided to market and release this show, but first let’s take a look at the show itself.

Also, full-disclosure — while I am a proud Star Trek fan, I am actually more familiar with the movies than the TV shows. The 2009 reboot film was my first real entry point into the franchise, the moment when Star Trek really connected with me. Since then I’ve gone back and watched a number of the Original Series episodes and the movies featuring William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy and the rest of the original cast. I’ve seen a handful of episodes from the other Trek series and would like to watch more, and I’m a bit ashamed I haven’t gotten to them yet. The Original Series characters remain my favorites, at least from what I’ve seen.

To me, “Discovery” feels like a blend of the past TV shows and the new Kelvin timeline movies. The special effects and cinematography are slick and quite good for a TV budget — I’d say nearly film quality. The show runners made the interesting decision to set the show back in time, before the Original Series (I know some fans had hoped the show would keep with Trek’s typically forward-looking theme and set this new series at a point in the future, beyond what we’ve seen before). This new series also feels more serialized, with apparently one overarching storyline this season, as opposed to the more episodic feel of some of the other series.

The main character is First Officer Michael Burnham, played by Sonequa Martin-Green. Burnham is the first human to have been educated at the Vulcan Science Academy. At first I wasn’t sure about this plot point, since it seemed like it could become a bit gimmicky, but I actually really like how the show highlights Burnham’s inner war between human emotion and Vulcan logic, yet in a different way than Spock. I hope the show continues to delve more deeply into this. Martin-Green is definitely an actress to watch, and I hope they give her character some meaty material to work with this season.

It’s difficult to talk plot without delving into major spoilers, but the events in the first three episodes involve Burnham making a costly mistake that has huge ramifications for the future of Starfleet. She becomes an outcast but might find her shot at redemption on board the mysterious U.S.S. Discovery.

The pilot felt solid but not groundbreaking, with a mix of action and discussion between characters. The Klingon redesign felt a bit “off,” at least to me. However, the story definitely got stronger in the second and third episodes. “Discovery” feels a little different than some of the Star Trek shows that have come before, but I’m intrigued enough by the new characters and the top secret mission of the U.S.S. Discovery to want to learn more. Another character that stood out to me is Saru (Doug Jones). He comes from a species that is hunted as prey on their home world, and I think it’s really interesting how his background influences his interactions with other crew members. I’m also liking what I’m seeing from Jason Isaac’s Captain Gabriel Lorca, who seems more than willing to bend a few rules.

However, I decided that I won’t be signing up for CBS All Access. I really want to support this show because it’s Star Trek; with the future of the films perhaps in limbo, I have a feeling if this series doesn’t fly, it’s going to be a long time before we get new Trek. I’d like this show to be a success, and to pave the way for another Trek series that is set in the future. Still, I don’t like the fact CBS has decided to restrict “Discovery” to their streaming service. My fear is that more and more networks will begin pulling their content off aggregate sites like Netflix and Hulu, and people will end up having to subscribe to a dozen streaming services, just to access the one show on each service that they actually want to watch. Right now I’m planning to wait until all the episodes have aired, and then either buy a one month subscription to All Access so I can binge all the episodes at once or just buy the show on DVD. I’ve heard from many fans who are planning to do the same.

So, what did you think? Have you been watching “Discovery?” How do you feel about CBS’ streaming service?

Movie review: Kingsmen saddle up for sequel, ‘The Golden Circle’

Kingsman-The-Golden-Circle-1st-Day-Box-Office-CollectionOn paper, the Kingsman sequel, “The Golden Circle,” looks like it has all the right elements. It features the same details we loved about the first film, “The Secret Service,” such as over-the-top action, quirky humor, lots of unrealistic but super fun spy gadgets, and a sense of British charm. Then, to keep things fresh, the sequel adds in a new wonderfully cheesy super-villain and the Kingsmen’s American counterparts, the Statesmen. However, even though “The Golden Circle” is a fun, entertaining movie, the final product doesn’t live up to its predecessor.

In “The Golden Circle,” Eggsy, a.k.a. “Agent Galahad” (Taron Egerton), is now a full-fledged spy and proud member of the Kingsman secret service, though he still mourns the loss of his mentor, former Agent Galahad Harry Hart (Colin Firth). His latest mission is investigating an unlikely drug lord, Poppy Adams (Julianne Moore). In order to stop Poppy’s nefarious plans, he’ll have to team up with the Kingsmen’s partner organization from the U.S., the Statesmen.

At first it was a little tough for me to pinpoint why I didn’t enjoy the sequel quite as much as the first film (kind of similar to “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” earlier this summer, actually). As a viewing experience overall, it just didn’t feel as funny or clever as the first. Perhaps that’s a symptom of the first movie being such a surprise; it felt like a treat to discover “The Secret Service,” a quirky spy flick that almost slipped under my radar.

Here’s the parts I did like: Taron Egerton is great as Agent Galahad, and I love how he brings a different perspective to the very formal Kingsmen, since he’s not an aristocrat. I also like how he really wears his heart on his sleeve; we’ve seen plenty of spies who are cool, calm, and collected, always keeping their emotions locked behind a bulletproof shield. But Eggsy isn’t ashamed of his more sensitive side, and there’s a quite lovely moment towards the beginning of the film where he gets a little choked up as he remembers his mentor, Harry Hart.

And speaking of Harry Hart… Although I know it’s a common complaint that franchise films kill off and then miraculously bring back their main characters a little too flippantly, I don’t mind that “The Golden Circle” brought back Hart after a seemingly point-of-no-return in “The Secret Service.” These Kingsman movies are designed to be over-the-top and crazy, so why not bring back Hart? It’s a pleasure to see the always-dapper Colin Firth in some of these delightfully cheesy scenes.

I also enjoyed how they sent up American stereotypes with the cowboy-esque Statesmen agents, named after different types of alcohol. I wished they found a way to work Jeff Bridges’ Agent Champagne into the plot more, but perhaps an extended cameo was all that time/budget allowed. Same goes for Channing Tatum’s Agent Tequila, although the film’s closing scenes indicate we haven’t seen the last of him. I also thought Pedro Pascal did a good job as Agent Whiskey, and it was fun to see Halle Berry as Ginger Ale, the American counterpart to Mark Strong’s Merlin, the Kingsmen’s tech guru.

I loved that the first Kingsman movie had such as fun, cheesy villain (played with relish by Samuel L. Jackson), and Julianne Moore also seems to be having a good time as a sort of dark, would-be “Martha Stewart.” I wasn’t quite sure how I felt about her villain plan, though. Sort-of spoiler alert — Poppy poisons the world’s supply of recreational drugs and then holds the antidote hostage. I couldn’t figure out whether the movie was intending to make a statement about the war on drugs or if it was just a plot point. If the former, what was that message? Stop the war on drugs? Just have people stop taking these drugs? To me it just felt odd to work this very serious issue into what’s supposed to be an action comedy. Maybe it didn’t bother others, but it was one of the things that felt “off” to me. I won’t go into more details, but the meat grinder scene was also a little too much for me (and really, that’s all I want to say about that!)

Even though the sequel isn’t as good as the first, I still had a fun time at the theater and there are some really good moments here. I felt like the Elton John cameo was worth the price of admission, all on its own. John Denver’s “Country Roads” will also bring a tear to my eye the next time I hear it.

So, what did you think? Did you like the sequel? What worked, and what didn’t?