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Movie review: ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ is first-class ride

VIDEO: See Tim’s review of “Murder on the Orient Express” with Zachary Lashway on KARE-TV (NBC)

“Murder on the Orient Express” (PG-13)

Don’t hesitate to climb aboard “Murder on the Orient Express,” filmmaker Kenneth Branagh’s lavishly produced and expertly directed adaptation of legendary author Agatha Christie’s classic novel. Loaded with a brilliant ensemble cast, lush set pieces, inventive cinematography and gorgeous settings, “Murder on the Orient Express” is a welcome throwback to the classic whodunnit murder mysteries of yesteryear, told passionately though the Branagh’s lens.

Branagh does double duty by playing famed literary detective Hercule Poirot, one of world’s best investigators who thinks he’s in for a three-day break for on a train trip across 1930s Europe when the locomotive is waylaid on a mountainside by an avalanche. The train is occupied by people of all different backgrounds, including Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp), a notorious mobster whose “occupation” as art dealer has made him a lot of enemies.

On the first night aboard the stranded train, Ratchett is violently murdered, and with no one else in the proximity of the crime scene for miles, Poirot quickly concludes that one of 13 passengers is responsible for Ratchett’s death. Through his meticulous investigation, Poirot tries to whittle down a suspect, leading to a stunning conclusion that people new to the story simply won’t see coming.

While many people are fond of Christie’s original novel or the 1974 adaptation directed by Sidney Lumet and starring Albert Finney as Poirot, perhaps the film fans who will enjoy “Murder on the Express” the most are the people who come into the film cold. Yes, there are slight character changes in the film, but there is virtually no wiggle room for the film’s meticulously-constructed narrative.

That’s a big plus for newbies, yet leaves potential room for disappointment for fans who already know how the story ends . Luckily, the film’s sprawling, fascinating narrative, stunning vistas and first-class performances by the likes of Branagh, Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Judi Dench, Derek Jacobi, Daisy Ridley, Penelope Cruz, Olivia Colman, Leslie Odom Jr., Josh Gad and Willem Dafoe make the ride well-worthwhile.

Lammometer: 8 (out of 10)

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AUDIO: Hear Tim review “Murder on the Orient Express” with Tom Barnard on “The KQ Morning Show” (segments begins 9 minutes in).

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Movie review: ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’

Photo: Disney

By Tim Lammers

“Star Wars: The Force Awakens” (PG-13) 4 stars (out of 4)

The Force is the strongest it’s been in 32 years with “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” the long-awaited seventh episode in the monolithic space opera. Maintaining the same vital tone, effervescent spirit, sense of wonder and fearlessness to go to dark places – the same elements that made the classic “Star Wars” trilogy such a joy – “The Force Awakens” feels like a skillful combination of the best things about “A New Hope” and “The Empire Strikes Back,” all while creating a classic film chapter of its own. Expertly directed by J.J. Abrams, “The Force Awakens” – erasing the harsh memories of creator George Lucas’ CGI-laden prequel trilogy – is everything the fans could have hoped for, if not more.

Best of all, there are no annoying Jar-Jar Binks-like characters, politically-infested trade federations or Midichlorians to be found.

To preserve the mystery of the plot co-written by Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan (after the original script was written by Michael Arndt), I won’t spoil any ma

jor plot points of the film (I went on a social media hiatus earlier this week myself to avoid happening upon any details spilled from the Los Angeles premiere), but will only say the film examines the notion of The Force and the Jedi – particularly Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) – being myths to new generations in the universe. With Skywalker at the forefront of people’s minds, it paves the way for a plausible plot to pull the old band – Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Leia (Carrie Fisher), Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), C3PO (Anthony Daniels) and R2D2 (Kenny Baker) – back together. The characters are no doubt in supporting roles, but are pivotal nonetheless to the story set 30 years after the end of “Return of the Jedi.”

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The great thing is, supporting players like Ford, Fisher and Mayhew slip comfortably back into their roles – especially Ford, who is clearly in his element as the scoundrel smuggler – yet perfectly mesh into the plot involving a new set of leads. From a scavenger, Rey (Daisy Ridley – the film’s greatest discovery, who has the look, enthusiasm and presence of a young Keira Knightley), and First Order Stormtrooper defector Finn (a charismatic John Boyega), to ace X-Wing pilot Poe Dameron (a funny and fearless Oscar Isaac) and the nefarious, red lightsaber-wielding Kylo Ren (a fearsome Adam Driver), who has pledged to finish the intergalactic domination that Darth Vader started, the casting is perfect. The key is, the new kids on the block play their characters with the same enthusiasm and passion (and in Driver’s case, menace worthy of Darth Vader) as their predecessors. On the non-human character side, the lovable droid BB-8 easily joins the ranks of the iconic C3PO and R2D2; and an wise, old alien named Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong’o) exudes the wisdom of Yoda.

There are several other things that make “The Force Awakens” a great film, which was shot on 35mm, no less. Out of the gate, thanks to Abrams’ brilliant decision to use practical effects over CGI as much as possible, “The Force Awakens” feels like it fits within the set of the original “Star Wars” films. From the multitude of different sets the action plays out on, the actors are clearly much more engaged than they would have been in front of a green screen, and their actions are palpable.

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Also, the story, which mirrors several plot points from the early films, is terrific because it furthers the expansive storyline of the saga instead of retreading familiar ground. Getting back into a tried and true, yet powerful, story of good vs. evil, Abrams and producer Kathleen Kennedy smartly tapped Kasdan to co-write the revised script; and anybody familiar with familiar knows he co-wrote the strongest film in the original trilogy with “The Empire Strikes Back.” Kasdan clearly has a knack for writing the classic characters, especially Han Solo, and he and Abrams wonderfully marry the classic sensibilities of the original tale with a set of fresh and exciting new characters. The younger actors introduced to the “Star Wars” universe clearly get the filmmakers’ intentions.

With so much hype going into this new “Star Wars” film, fans will inevitably be disappointed in some aspects of “The Force Awakens.” In this case, though, there’s a silver lining in this disappointment – basically for the fact that there isn’t more than what you see in the film’s brisk, 2 hour and 15 minute runtime. Yes, inevitably, with such of a large cast, some characters don’t have as much screen time as you hoped they would have, but thanks to the film’s wonderful cliffhanger, there’s a tremendous amount of promise on the road ahead. Overall, it’s hard for a film of this magnitude to meet expectations, but “The Force Awakens” does and effectively, defies the odds. Ultimately, “The Force Awakens” gives the audience everything they want and more, putting The Force back where it belongs – in the hands of the fans.

In brief …

“Sisters” (R) 1 star (out of four)

“Saturday Night Live” pals Tina Fey and Amy Poehler embarrass themselves in “Sisters,” a dreadfully unfunny comedy about a pair of immature, overgrown siblings who can’t handle their parents’ decision to sell the family home. Centered around the Fey and Pohler’s task of cleaning out their rooms so the parents (James Brolin and Dianne Wiest) can close the deal with the home’s new buyers, “Sisters” quickly devolves into a  shameless rip-off of the very funny “Step Brothers” and multitude of tired, old comedies about a house party gone horribly wrong. It’s easily one of the worst movies of the year.

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