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Josh Reviews Star Wars: The Last Jedi!

Star Wars: The Last Jedi, written and directed by Rian Johnson, is not at all the film that I expected it to be.  It is very different from The Force Awakens, but a satisfying continuation of the story that film began.  The film is exciting, suspenseful, and emotional.  It is funny and it is heartbreaking.  It is weird and not afraid to take narrative digressions or even just a split-second moment to explore around the edges of this vast, wonderful Star Wars universe.  It is visually gorgeous, brought to life by some of the very best special effects you can hope to see.  It digs deep into Star Wars lore and connects to some of the most beloved moments of this saga, while also being unafraid to chart new courses and introduce new characters, worlds, and situations.  It is also too long, with a middle section that sags dreadfully.  But its third act is magnificent in a way that allows almost all sins to be forgiven.  The Last Jedi is not better than Rogue One, which I consider to be the pinnacle of modern Star Wars films (any film made after the Original Trilogy).  The Last Jedi is confounding at times, but also staggeringly glorious at others.  Kathleen Kennedy is three for three with the new Star Wars films created under her tenure as head of Lucasfilm.  Considering how even George Lucas himself struggled so mightily with his prequel trilogy, this is something of a minor miracle.

Whereas all previous Star Wars sequels have picked up the story a significant amount of time after the events of the previous film, The Last Jedi begins immediately after the end of The Force Awakens.  The First Order has learned the location of the Resistance’s hidden base and dispatched Star Destroyers to annihilate it, sending Poe, Finn, Leia, and the rest of the Resistance on the run.  Meanwhile, Rey has found Luke Skywalker, but the grizzled old man Luke has become has shut himself off from the Force and refuses to train her.  Desperate to understand her place in the galaxy-shaking events unfolding around her, Rey finds an unexpected connection with… Kylo Ren, the man who was once Ben Solo.

The Last Jedi shares certain broad-strokes story beats with The Empire Strikes Back.  Both films begin with an Imperial assault on a hidden rebel base that sends our heroes on the run; both depict a young Jedi seeking out an old master to be trained in the ways of the Force; both feature our heroes scattered for most of the run-time; both end with the heroes battered and the villains still a threat.

But beyond those surface similarities, The Last Jedi[continued]

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Josh Reviews Murder on the Orient Express

Murder on the Orient Express, directed by Kenneth Branagh, is the latest film adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1934 novel.  Mr. Branagh also stars as detective Hercule Poirot, who finds himself enmeshed in a complicated murder mystery while traveling from Istanbul to London on board the titular Orient Express.  When the criminal Samuel Ratchett is killed, there appear to be a plethora of suspects on board the high-class train, and the finicky detective Poirot must sort through the clues to find the killer.

I have been a fan of Kenneth Branagh, as both an actor and a director, ever since Dead Again.  Mr. Branagh might not be the most showy or edgy of directors, but I have usually found his films to be solidly entertaining, and Murder on the Orient Express is no exception.  The film is a joyful little puzzle from beginning to end.  This is not terribly innovative or boundary-pushing cinema, but it’s comfortably enjoyable like a favorite cushy chair.  Many of the beats of the film feel familiar — not only is this the fourth adaptation of Agatha Christie’s novel, but much about the story has been imitated by other films — but Mr. Branagh manages to keep things feeling fresh.  I feel like maybe I am damning Mr. Branagh with faint praise, and I don’t mean to.  With his steady hand at the helm, he has assembled an endearingly fun spin on Ms. Christie’s most-famous story.

Perhaps Mr. Branagh’s greatest achievement in the film is the way he is able to wrangle the film’s large, and very famous, cast.  The cast is extraordinary: Olivia Colman, Penelope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr., Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, and several other talented supporting players.  Almost any of these movie stars could have been the lead of their own film.  I have seen many other movies sink under the weight of so many stars.  Yet Mr. Branagh was able to balance all of these actors and their characters beautifully.  This could have easily felt like a film without any real characters, just Hollywood stars hobnobbing.  However, Mr. Branagh was able to achieve the benefit of casting all of these talented performers; since most of the film’s ensemble of characters have only a few scenes that spotlight them, these actors’ movie-star charisma is able to, in most cases, flesh out a full character despite their limited screen-time.

It’s great to see Michelle Pfeiffer given such a meaty role to play, and Ms. Pfeiffer is terrific.  She doesn’t appear in many films these days; it’s nice to see that she’s still got it.  Judi Dench can play haughty arrogance like nobody’s business, and I … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Star Wars: The Force Awakens!

I don’t remember a time in my life in which I didn’t know about and love Star Wars.  I was a little kid when the original films came out, and by the time I really remember it, Star Wars was already a complete thing.  Three films: Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi.  I read lots of articles about Star Wars as a kid and I of course knew the story that George Lucas had at one time pictured a Star Wars saga consisting of nine films… and obviously I was aware that those three Star Wars films that had been made were numbered Episode IV, V, and VI, but it didn’t seem like there was any prospect of additional Star Wars on the horizon.  I just accepted that, and I was all right with that.  Those three films painted a complete story, and I was satisfied.

I still remember the excitement when word trickled out that George Lucas was actually going to go ahead and make his fabled prequel films.  Like, I think, almost every Star Wars fan on the planet, I was hugely excited to see the backstory fleshed out.  A chance to see the Jedi in their prime?  To learn about what the heck the Clone Wars were?  And to finally discover just how the Emperor and Darth Vader were able to destroy the Jedi?  It was tantalizing.  Well, we all know how that turned out.  Watching Episode I in theatres that opening night was the most crushingly disappointing cinematic experience of my life.  I’d never really considered the possibility that the movie wouldn’t be great.  Episode II felt like a step forward at the time but that film has aged terribly.  There’s a lot that I like about Episode III — it’s the only prequel film that I can say I enjoyed — but it was too little, too late.  To me, the prequels are best forgotten.

And so, again, in my mind that was it.  George Lucas didn’t seem interested in making any additional Star Wars films, and after the disappointment of the prequels I was totally fine with that.  The Star Wars story was finished.

And then Mr. Lucas sold Lucasfilm to Disney and immediately the announcement was made that Episode VII was in development.  I of course followed those developments with great interest.  While I can’t say I was surprised that the decision was made to make more Star Wars films, I truly never expected to see Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, and Carrie Fisher ever again reprise their roles on-screen.  I was stunned when that was announced, and even now after seeing The Force Awakens I am still … [continued]