Murder On the Orient Express

November 15, 2017 by  
Filed under Movies

Agatha Christie is the definition of who-dun-it crime stories. Anytime you think of murder mystery, her name immediately comes to mind–and for good reason. One of her most popular stories, “Murder On the Orient Express”, had been adapted a few times before this 2017 version. Its’ most notable is the 1974 version with Albert Finney as the famous detective Hercule Poirot. The story follows a train carrying a load of passengers, seemingly unfamiliar with each other but all recognize Poirot. After the murder of one of the patrons, Poirot has to solve the crime, while the train pushes through the chilly landscape of Eurasia.

The film begins with Poirot solving a robbery case in Jerusalem. Thinking this is his last case before a well deserved break, he decides to go to Istanbul–but he receives a telegram telling him he must go to London to solve another case. So, he is booked on the unusually booked Orient Express, with the help of a friend–the director of the Express–Bouc (Tom Bateman). Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) is somewhat dismayed, but tries to put on a happy face (beneath a very studious mustache), as he joins a very eclectic group of people ranging from aristocrats to the lower class, on their way.

He is nearly immediately approached by a gruff individual, Sam Ratchett (Johnny Depp), to be his bodyguard, and provide him safe travel until they depart. Ratchett, an unsavory businessman, promises to pay Poirot a handsome figure to help him. Poirot refuses, saying there’s something about his face he doesn’t like. Ratchett is incensed, but lets it go. Poirot retires to his bunk, trying to enjoy reading Charles Dickens, and forlorn over a past presence in his life, until he hears commotion, as the train gets hit by an avalanche, derailing it and stranding the passengers.

That’s not the only problem, however, as it turns out the next day that there has been a murder. Every passenger on board is a suspect, and Poirot must use his world-class techniques in order to solve the case. Not only is everyone a suspect, but they all act in suspect ways: there is a great cast here. Dr. Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom, Jr.) and Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley) seem to be a secret couple, and have shifty antics that lead Poirot to mistrust them when he interviews them. There’s Gerhard Hardman (Willem Dafoe), a racist German–but actually undercover detective–and Princess Dragomiroff (Judi Dench), who has as an annoying dog and is quite indignant about being questioned. Ratchett’s right-hand man, Hector MacQueen (Josh Gad), is also under suspicion, as he might know more than he lets on. There’s also Pilar Estravados (Penelope Cruz), who at first you would think would have nothing to do with such a “sin” as murder.

The story unfolds in a way that I can’t let on too much without revealing more than I should. After all, this is a murder mystery. The less you know, the better off you are in enjoying this lark. And for the most part, it is entertaining. Branagh chews scenery like he normally does–and he’s likable enough. The cast does a great job of tying the whole thing together–and the payoff, of course, is very satisfying. But not completely predictable, unless you’re already familiar with the story itself.

Poirot is eccentric, and he is fun as the focal point. I do think Branagh could have spent a little more time with the rest of the characters, getting to know their pasts in a way that isn’t in direct connection to the murder plot–just backgrounds on them or more personality would have been very welcome.

As it is, however, it is a good enough film and stands on its own–not as memorable perhaps as the 1974 adaptation–but certainly worthy of Christie’s work. Some of the filming is stagy, as Branagh is a big “theater” person; but there are some nice cinematic touches as well. And besides the obvious CGI, the train itself is a personality, and an intriguing one at that.

My rating: :-)

A Nightmare On Elm Street (2010)

May 3, 2010 by  
Filed under Featured Content, Movies

Michael Bay has quickly become the equivalent of a 1st Grade Elementary School Level Producer of Remakes. And even then, I’m probably giving him too much credit because at least a 1st Grade production of something has charm and innocence, something his “remakes” lack. While he’s not the filmmaker, he is the money guy and the one who usually puts these together. But along with “Friday the 13th” and “Texas Chainsaw Massacre”, “A Nightmare On Elm Street” joins the clothesline of butchered projects that are coincidentally slasher remakes.

It’s not that this film is necessarily bad. The acting is fine, the visuals are well done, and the make-up is credible. It’s just incredibly bland. And I think that’s actually worse than something being bad. I’ve seen plenty of bad movies. Some of them are just bad. Like “Pulse” (not the 80’s thriller, but the awful 2006 film–which was a remake, too, but not of the 80’s thriller), or “Boogeyman”. Then there are films that actually are charmingly bad, like “Final Destination 3” or “Troll 2”. The remakes of “Friday the 13th” and “A Nightmare On Elm Street” fall into the former, rather than the latter. They’re literally ghosts of what made the originals classics. While those two movies created bloated franchises that became unoriginal and trashy, the originals still resonate today as being legendary horror films.

This film strays a bit from the original, too. And I’m not sure why. They’ve made Freddy more of a pedophile/stalker than a child murderer, which was what he was in the original “Nightmare on Elm Street”. But the film does nothing with this revelation. There’s absolutely no personality to this Freddy. He’s seething, angry, armed with his knife fingers and a bass amplified “scary” voice. But he has no value whatsoever. Part of what made Freddy endearing was his sense of humor about being so diabolical and sickeningly evil. He was a charismatic villain. This Freddy is a real glum one. He is also a pervert. Who wants to see that? It just doesn’t fit.

There’s nothing really of value in this film. People get slashed up, there’s blood. There are a few moments of “suspense” climaxing into a burst of orchestral hits and loud noises that’s supposed to pass for “thrills and chills”. But this is an empty funhouse. Wes Craven was not involved in this remake, unlike “Last House on the Left”, and I think they really missed out on letting him at least be a consultant. After all, it’s his movie. I find it interesting that a good portion of his catalog has been remade. I don’t know how I’d feel about that if I were him.

Like Zombie’s unfortunate “Halloween” remake sequel (I did like the first one), there’s no ambition or creativity at all in this film. It’s there, and it’s got some spooky imagery. But it doesn’t do anything for me at all. I think Jackie Earle Haley (Freddy) is a really good actor. But he was given nothing in this script to really do anything with. He’s a monster, but he has no personality.

So, Michael Bay I guess will keep on churning these things out. My advice is to recognize that every one of his movies looks the same, and every one of his movies will feel the same. Empty.

My rating: :(

Alice in Wonderland

March 9, 2010 by  
Filed under Featured Content, Movies

I was excited to hear that Tim Burton was going to be taking on a project to remake/adapt “Alice in Wonderland”. After seeing the classic Disney film from 1951, the trippy imagery and odyssey-like approach to the narrative was intriguing to be given to someone like Burton. The original texts, “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking Glass”, were somewhat compressed into the 1951 Disney film.

In this adaptation, it’s the same. But, it’s different, too. Disney is a very different company than it was back then, and takes fewer chances. This proved to be a hindrance for Burton, as the imagery is not scary or enticing or provacative. It’s merely…colorful, and ordinary.

It starts with Alice being a little girl disturbed by dreams, and thinking she’s “half-mad”. Her father assures her she is mad, completely bonkers. Then, he adds, “the best people are.”

Instead of getting right into the rabbit hole, we’re taken 13 years into the future where Alice is grown up (and quite the little beauty) and her father has died. Her mother wants her to marry into royalty, but she doesn’t love the man she’s going to marry. At this point, it’s as if somehow Jane Austin got a hold of Lewis Carroll and dismantled his plot. But Burton finally gets the story going and the young adult Alice discovers a rabbit running around, and follows it into the rabbit hole.

In this film, she’s been here before. She’s recognized as “Alice”, but the wrong Alice. Nothing’s mentioned about why that is, but the obvious reason is that she’s grown up. She doesn’t believe the world exists, but only in her mind. She’s dreamt it up. But now, she’s faced with the reality that she’s stuck there. She tries to pinch herself, but she does not wake up. She meets Tweedledee and Tweedledum, and she’s taken to see Absolem the Caterpillar, and he is asked if this is the right Alice. “Not hardly,” he replies. Everyone is a bit disenchanted but they still want to believe that this Alice can save them from the Red Queen who has taken over Underland.

She then visits the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) who looks forlorn, and talks about something called Frabjous Day, in which Alice will defeat the Jabberwocky with the Vorpal Sword. Alice doesn’t understand why she’s been chosen for this, and doesn’t want to take part because she doesn’t believe in hurting any living creature.

But the Red Queen (Helena Bonham-Carter) is a brutal overlord, and has banished her sister, the White Queen (Anne Hathaway). Everyone is miserable, and they’re looking to Alice to save them all.

The plot resembles what we’ve come to know the story of Alice less and less as it unravels. While the performances by Depp and Bonham-Carter are very good and entertaining, the climax of this film seems as though it was taken from “The Chronicles of Narnia” rather than “Alice in Wonderland”. And, this film hardly takes risks.

It lacks the enchanting and refreshing look and feel of the 1951 film. All of the images are there, but they’re bland. I always liked the Chesire Cat–even here, he seems like he was taken from a rejected Pixar film. Crispin Glover, who plays the Knave of Hearts, is also wasted here. He’s probably one of the most interesting and strange Hollywood actors we have, and he’s reduced to a very minimal role, sporting a very fakey British accent.

I’m not sure if Burton didn’t know what to do with this project, or he had to follow a strict code given by Disney studios. I’d like to think that Burton hasn’t lost it, since I found “Sweeney Todd” to be a well done adaptation; but here, everything seems stationary.

It felt, overall, like a kid’s movie. I realize it was geared toward kids, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be a kid’s movie. Films like “The Incredibles”, “Up”, “Shrek”–all are “kid’s movies” but they’re also family movies. There are very few things that an adult would find entertaining in this film.

Also, the 3-D is somewhat flimsy. While in some parts it is impressive, the sequences of Alice falling through the rabbit hole are chaotic and it’s hard to follow the 3-D animations because it’s unfocused.

The film is not a total waste, but it’s a disappointment given the talent that was attached to working on it. It’s not a waste of time, but it’s not something you absolutely must see.

This trip to Wonderland can be skipped, and you won’t feel like you’re missing the tea party.

My rating: :?

The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus

January 29, 2010 by  
Filed under Featured Content, Movies

I’m not always sure how to review a Terry Gilliam film. These days, I think it’s safe to say it’s an achievement for him to even get one made anymore. After projects coming together, then falling apart (“The Man Who Killed Don Quixote”, “Good Omens”), and with this one even being in question after the main star had died during production (do I even have to say his name?), the fact that this film is FINISHED can be given a thumb’s up, no? But this is the film critiquing business and I still have a job to do. Even though I’m not paid for it and nobody really reads these anyway. I still believe in myself. So there.

I’d have to start off by saying if you enjoy Gilliam’s earlier works, you will most likely enjoy this. If you’re not a fan, this won’t make you one. It keeps within the visual styles and narrative themes that he and his co-writer Charles McKeown have been making for decades now. In this film, the theme is self-indulgence and selfishness, and it’s presented in a typical, Gilliam way.

The “Imaginarium” is a world beyond a mirror that you can be taken to for a donation, as a traveling “circus” like stage moves about towns, seeking customers. Anton (played by Andrew Garfield) is the attractor. Valentina (Lily Cole) is the beautiful temptress to lure the men. Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) merely sits on the stage in a zen-like way, waiting for those who want to come into his world.

It looks like a cheap parlor trick, but inside the Imaginarium is literally a fantasy world. In it, your wildest dreams come true. But there is a price. Actually, there is a choice. The devil, known as Mr. Nick (Tom Waits), is waiting in the Imaginarium to seduce you as well. As the plot continues you learn that the two of them are battling for souls, as part of a bet that Parnassus made with him long ago.

But Parnassus is not made out to be God, or god-like. He’s a simple man with simple pleasures and simple desires–and he’s an alcoholic. He is accompanied by a dwarf named Percy (Verne Troyer) who tries to keep him in line (“What would I do without you, Percy?” “Get a midget.”) but Parnassus is consumed with himself. He made a deal with the devil that if he doesn’t win, he loses his daughter to him. His daughter, nor Anton, know about this and Anton is in love with her.

The plot thickens when they encounter a hanging man that they bring back to life, who’s revealed as Tony (Heath Ledger, among others). They’re not sure where he’s come from but he bears strange markings on his head, and he’s dressed in a suit. Tony, meanwhile, cannot remember anything, not even his name. Parnassus gets a few tidbits from Mr. Nick (though they’re “enemies”, the two have a relationship) and Parnassus convinces Tony who he is and what he was doing (he was hosting a charity event). But Mr. Nick swears that Tony is “not his”, nor sent by him. Tony feels obligated to pay Parnassus back, so he joins their traveling show and woos women into coming into the mirror. This allows Parnassus to possibly win the bet and get his daughter back. He needs 5 souls.

But problems arise once Tony is sucked into the world himself. He transforms, becomes other manifestations of himself. He grows increasingly selfish about it, and is revealed to be somewhat of a bad person. It is in this world that brings other performances by Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell into the film, as Tony. Each one delivered is a good one, and in some way resemble Ledger’s Tony. This is what saved the film. It would not have been finished without this happening. However, it makes perfect sense in the narrative for it to happen regardless. In fact it strengthens the theme because of how much Tony “changes”.

While I enjoyed the theme and the look of the film, it was actually the performances that I found the strongest element of it. Andrew Garfield is perfect as Anton; Waits is a pure delight to watch, and Ledger & Co. are all entertaining, especially Jude Law.

The film bears striking resemblances to earlier Gilliam works as well. I’m not sure if I’d call it a weakness, but it certainly doesn’t possess the uniqueness that some of his older work has. For instance, the “street” scenes with Parnassus are straight out of “The Fisher King” and “12 Monkeys”. The character of Tony is extremely reminiscent of Brad Pitt’s Jeffrey Goines. Parnassus himself reminds me of Baron Munchausen. Some of the disjointed and disorganized dialog and presentations in the Imaginarium are straight out of “Brazil”.

All of that being said, however, the film is fun to watch and I enjoyed it thoroughly. Its climax and ending are very satisfactory, and I left with a smile on my face.

I’m sure this is not the last film we see from Gilliam. But I hope his next venture isn’t as much of a hassle. I won’t hold my breath, though.

My rating: :-)