Review: Rian Johnson brings balance to The Force with ‘The Last Jedi’


AUDIO: Tim reviews “The Last Jedi” on the “KQ Morning Show” with Tom Barnard. Segment beings 7 minutes in.

“Star Wars: The Last Jedi” (PG-13)

Writer-director Rian Johnson expertly creates the unexpected in “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” the eighth chapter in the Skywalker family space saga conceived by George Lucas 40 years ago. Naturally, after seven “Star Wars” films (eight, if you include last year’s spinoff, “Rogue One”), the environment is going to feel familiar at the outset of “The Last Jedi,” but the minute that Rey (Daisy Ridley) completes the stirring scene that started at the conclusion of “The Force Awakens” and hands the long-exiled Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) his lightsaber, the unexpected takes hold and all bets are off.

Although virtually no time has passed between the end of “The Force Awakens” and beginning of “The Last Jedi,” the celebration of the Resistance after blowing up the First Order’s Death Star-like Starkiller Base is short-lived. The base, while massive, is only one component of the First Order’s cache of weapons, and its stranglehold on the Resistance has reached a critical point.

With virtually nowhere else to turn, Rey must convince Luke to come out of hiding to help the Resistance before its too late, but Luke’s more fearful of Rey’s Jedi powers and that they may lead her down the same dark path as his former student and nephew, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) – the former Ben Solo and son of Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and General Leia (Carrie Fisher). Meanwhile, Kylo’s powers are growing as he’s continued his training under the vengeful alien Supreme Leader Snoke (motion capture by Andy Serkis), and their resolve to capture Luke is drawing closer to a reality until Rey marches forth to thwart their plans.

In addition to Hamill, “The Last Jedi” features an expanded role for Fisher, who sadly passed away last year after she completed her work on the film. Because of that, Johnson stayed the course and didn’t alter Leia’s storyline, yet given the circumstances, her dialogue in “The Last Jedi” takes on a deeper meaning and is all the more poignant.

Despite that dark cloud hanging over the film, “The Last Jedi” has a wide range of emotions, from euphoria to dread, with lots of moments of levity in-between. There’s a lot of welcome humor in the film, and a lot of times it comes from the characters you wouldn’t expect. That includes from the new cuddly creatures the Porgs, the inhabitants on Luke’s remote planet in a galaxy far, far away, who are destined to become favorites of fans of all ages.  In the end, “The Last Jedi” is a perfectly blended mix of action, intrigue, humor and emotion, easily making it the best film in the series since “The Empire Strikes Back” in 1980.

It’s hard to say where the franchise will go from here with one episode in the Skywalker family saga left, but for the time being, there’s no question that Johnson has brought balance to The Force with “The Last Jedi.”

Lammometer: 9.5 (out of 10)

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Interview: Kenneth Branagh’s ‘Orient Express’ song is one you’ll never forget

There’s no question that acclaimed actor-director Kenneth Branagh’s latest cinematic opus — the big-screen adaptation of famed author Agatha Christie’s classic novel “Murder on the Orient Express” — is rolling strong in theaters domestically and overseas, having already amassed an impressive global tally of $275 million with no signs of slowing down.

As movie fans have found out, Branagh becomes Christies’ time-honored Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, who boards the Orient Express simply as a mode of transport to get back home to London but finds himself investigating a mysterious murder where everyone on the train is suspect.

With a huge presence in front of and behind the camera, Branagh’s fingerprints are all over “Murder on the Orient Express,” including the area of songwriting, a place he’s only ventured to once before.

The first time around, Branagh and his collaborator of nearly 30 years, film composer Patrick Doyle, (along with music producer Tommy Danvers) wrote “Strong,” the end-title song for the 2015 blockbuster “Cinderella.” Now, with “Murder on the Orient Express,” Branagh has put his pen to paper once again for the lyrics to “Never Forget,” the haunting end credits song for which Doyle wrote the music.

In a phone conversation with the actor-filmmaker this week, Branagh discussed “Never Forget,” an ethereal ballad sung by his co-star Michelle Pfeiffer. The song serves as an elegy for the tragic loss of a character at the heart of the film’s narrative.

Michelle Pfeiffer in 'Murder on the Orient Express

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“They say, ‘Music is a vehicle for transcendence so that one can commune with God.’ That saying relates to music and lyrics (like ours), which talk about this incredible loss at the center of the film. To console is part of what people do to ease that suffering,” Branagh said. “And if the characters in this story are going to leave that train and have some future journey in their lives, some of the healing that Poirot talks about in the film is going to have to start happening.”

Branagh said “Never Forget” in a way grew from personal experiences growing up in Ireland — feelings that were awakened by a theme Doyle incorporated into the film’s score.

“It reminded me of moments in my youth when I used to hear my granny get upset,” Branagh recalled. “She would sing the Irish ayre ‘Danny Boy’ — she had a brother, Danny, who she had lost — and it would make her cry every time she sang it. But it was so necessary for her to sing it because it was a way of easing that pain. It was cathartic and very therapeutic. ”

Ultimately, to capture those feelings for “Never Forget,” Branagh knew Pfeiffer — who previously demonstrated her singing talent in “The Fabulous Baker Boys” and “Hairspray” — could bring to the song a haunting air of heartbreak and hope rooted in the experiences of her character, Caroline Hubbard.

“We wanted some emotional closure and we knew that Michelle Pfeiffer’s beautiful performance in the film could translate into music — but not with the idea of trying to produce some dazzling vocal gymnastics — but to experience this basic tension and beauty and melancholy in the song between the love for the innocent that is lost, and the desire to let them know that they will never be forgotten,” Branagh said. “It’s very simple, but it can be very profound. … It provides an emotional character closure that goes to the place we haven’t been in this movie. … It’s a direct appeal to and from the human heart.”

While “Never Forget” certainly merits consideration this awards season for Best Original Song, “Murder on the Orient Express” easily warrants attention in several other categories — from the picture as a whole to Branagh’s expert direction and portrayal of Poirot, to Doyle’s captivating score, the film’s stunning cinematography and its meticulous production and costume design.

In the case of costume design, one item of note is a mustache guard for Poirot, which we see him wearing as he awakens in the morning after his first night aboard the Orient Express. An apparatus designed to keep Poirot’s perfectly coiffed handlebar mustache in place, the quick shot of the mustache guard is not only good for a laugh, in a subtle way it further defines the character as a detective who strives for perfection.

“It’s one of those moments where you understood the details of a lot of people’s work, particularly that of Alexandra Byrne, our costume designer, who was responsible for that mustache guard, but who had also worked so closely with Carol Hemming, our makeup and hair designer — who worked for so long and so hard for such detail on the mustache itself,” Branagh enthused. “It boldly goes where few mustaches have gone before to fulfill Agatha Christie’s requirement that it be one of the most ‘immense’ and ‘magnificent’ mustaches in England.”

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Interview: Gary Oldman talks transformation into Winston Churchill for ‘Darkest Hour’

When you see a performance as stunning as Gary Oldman’s in the new biographical World War II drama “Darkest Hour,” it begs the natural question of where Oldman the actor ended and his channeling of legendary British Prime Minister Winston Churchill began. On the face of things, it’s easy to presume that Oldman’s transformation took place somewhere in the daily three and a half-hour makeup process and extra half-hour to assemble the costume; but for the master thespian, becoming Churchill to face the darkest hour in the history of Great Britain took a lot longer than people would imagine.

“It takes the better part of a year to work on the role, and that includes all of the things that you would imagine. You read the material and then go to the books and the news footage and speeches, and all of that stuff,” Oldman told me in a recent phone conversation from New York City. “What it becomes is a year of one’s life in surrendering to all things Winston. But there is only so much of the work that you can do in isolation. So, I decided that once the script was finalized and there were various changes made to the script as it evolved, that I learned it like a play. I knew it long before I got to the set so I’d just have the material inside me and wouldn’t have to think about it. It’s like the old saying, ‘It’s not how well you’ve known something, but how long you’ve known it,’ so the role was in my DNA.”

Now playing in limited release and expanding to more locations throughout the country on Friday, “Darkest Hour” chronicles a short yet remarkable time in the life of Churchill in 1940, when the legislator was suddenly escalated to the post of prime minister because of the resignation of his predecessor Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup), who lost the confidence of Parliament. With little support from either side of the political aisle and perhaps most importantly, King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn), Churchill was faced with either negotiating for what it sure to become a doomed peace treaty with Nazi leader Adolf Hitler, or take a stand to fight for the ideals, liberty and ultimately, the f

reedom of Great Britain.

Intensifying the situation, however, is that whatever tact Churchill takes, it must be accomplished in a matter or mere weeks. Nazi forces are moving across Western Europe and have 300,000 British troops surrounded with seemingly nowhere to go on the beaches of Dunkirk in France.

Written by Anthony McCarten and directed by Joe Wright, “Darkest Hour” comes at an interesting time in the state of politics in both the U.S., where the divide between liberals and conservatives is as deep as perhaps it has ever been. But there shouldn’t be a quandary for audiences rooting for Churchill — who early in his career moved from the conservatives to the liberals, only to switch back to the conservative party 26 years prior to the dire circumstances Great Britain faced in “Darkest Hour” — simply because partisanship has no place when it comes to fighting evil.

“There’s nothing either partisan or bi-partisan about going after Hitler,” Oldman said. “It’s an interesting question, though, because Churchill made himself at times unpopular, because this was a man who made mistakes in his career as we all have. He certainly made some blunders. But as far as Hitler was concerned, Churchill was almost clairvoyant.

“He caught on to Hitler very, very quickly — way back in the early ’30s,” Oldman added. “Once he got a taste of it, he came back to the UK as a backbencher. He stood up in Parliament and said, ‘We should rearm — this guy is coming after us,’ but no one would believe him, because it was unthinkable, especially after the first World War that there would be another war. Pacifism was very universal, and they wanted to repair relationships with the Germans, so what Churchill was doing was considered a little politically incorrect and scaremongering. But he stuck to it. He never wavered from it — and he was right.”

In some ways, Oldman believes Churchill was destined to be at the right place at the right time in history; all of which stemming from a singular incident in World War I that’s recounted in “Darkest Hour.”

“If one of those bullets that he talks about in the first World War, when he is quoted, ‘There is nothing more thrilling than being shot at without result,’ if one of those stray bullets would have hit him and removed him from the scenario, or if he had worn out in Parliament and capitulated, then the landscape would have looked very different,” Oldman said. “All of Western Europe would have been fascist … and while people say it, and they say it in jest, ‘If it wasn’t for Winston Churchill we’d all be speaking German,’ there’s some truth in that.”

Gary Oldman Darkest Hour

Not surprisingly, Oldman is already a favorite for a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his performance as Churchill, as are Wright and the film for Best Picture and Best Director, respectively. But in coincidental bit of timing, another film about the pivotal events depicted in “Darkest Hour,” “Dunkirk — director Christopher Nolan’s spectacle about the soldiers trapped on Dunkirk Beach — is also considered an odds-on favorite for Oscar nominations.

No matter how the Oscar race shakes out, Oldman agreed with my observation that the true victor is not either “Darkest Hour” or “Dunkirk,” but history itself, as the acclaim both films are receiving essentially ensures that these life-changing historical events will never be forgotten.

“It’s interesting when we screen this film. I can forgive the Americans for not knowing the real details of what happened, but you’d be surprised to the number of people that we screened it to in Britain who don’t know this story outside of scholars and historians, and people that really follow it and look at history,” Oldman said. “It’s amazing the number of people who said, ‘Oh my God, I had no idea.’ So, both films present a story very much worth telling and I couldn’t have put it better: History wins on this one.”

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Movie review: Gary Oldman is bright beacon in ‘Darkest Hour’

“Darkest Hour” (PG-13)

There are very few times in life where you can see an actor completely disappear into a role, and that’s exactly what happens with Gary Oldman becoming British Minister Winston Churchill in “Darkest Hour.” Yes, ultimately it’s a performance, but it’s so completely engrossing that you feel that you are in the film with him, watching the extraordinary events unfold.

Directed by Joe Wright, “Darkest Hour” takes us behind the scenes of a crucial time at the beginning of Churchill’s first run as prime minister, a post he’s escalated to after Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) loses the confidence of Parliament after Adolf Hitler marches his forces across Western Europe. Facing opposition from both sides of the political aisle and King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) — as well as underhanded pressure from Chamberlain and Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane) to negotiate what it sure to become a doomed peace treaty with Hitler — Churchill must decide what is right for the country and if fighting for their freedom is the best resolve.

Despite all that “Darkest Hour” has going for it — the film benefits even more from the blockbuster success of director Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” over the summer. The miracle of Dunkirk is a make or break moment for Churchill, as he calls for civilian boats to cross the English Channel to rescue 300,000 British troops that are trapped on the Beaches of Dunkirk, France.

Seeing “Dunkirk” helps you understand the stakes of saving the soldiers at Dunkirk, making “Darkest Hour” all the more riveting. All told, “Darkest Hour” is easily one of the best films of the year, punctuated by the hands-down best performance of the year by Oldman.

Lammometer: 10 out of 10

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Original Interviews, Reviews & More By Tim Lammers