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: :-)

10 Cloverfield Lane

March 16, 2016 by  
Filed under Movies

“Cloverfield” was a 2008 monster movie that wanted to be part “Blair Witch Project”, part “Independence Day”, and part “Godzilla”. For me, the film failed to even be close to any of those in quality and in execution. The characters were at best boring, at worst irritating; and the film’s guerrilla-style camerawork was either dizzying or too unfocused and felt forced as “amateurish”. Every actor was too good looking to be considered realistic, and some were even recognized actors, which completely betrayed the “found footage” number one rule: you should be thinking you’re watching real people, not actors. Years later I saw the film again and it dulled into a watchable, somewhat amiable B-movie. Maybe that’s what it was actually intended to be–but whenever J.J. Abrams is involved, you know it’s going to aim higher. So for that, I gave it very bad marks.

In “10 Cloverfield Lane”, it seems that only part of the title is used to connect the two films together. We get the feeling that there will be a giant monster at some point. However, we’re introduced to a more intriguing, and unsettling story when we’re introduced to a boorish but somewhat likable hero/villain, Howard, played wonderfully by John Goodman in one of his best roles in his colorful career.

A young woman, Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), leaves her fiance after a fight, and heads into the abyss of Louisiana, only to be forced off the road and losing consciousness at the end of the car wreck. She finds herself cuffed to the wall of a small basement room attached to an IV. Howard comes in and introduces himself, feeds her, and tells her he saved her life. After she attempts to escape, Howard realizes he should level with her and tell her that he’s brought her to his bunker because of an attack. He’s not sure what the attack was, except that toxic air has been released into the atmosphere and it’s no longer breathable. They are seemingly the only survivors, save for one other person–Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.), who is around her age. Emmett knows Howard, and worked for him. He believes everything Howard says, to the dismay of Michelle, but there’s a hint of doubt coming from him as well. She can tell he doesn’t want to believe Howard.

Howard eventually introduces Michelle to his entire bunker, complete with kitchen and living room, board games and a TV with a VHS/DVD player. He believes they may have to stay down there for years, which Michelle also has a hard time swallowing. It’s hard to tell if Howard is telling any sort of truth, because he has some logic to his theories about what has happened. Then he mentions aliens, and she really loses her faith in him.

As time goes on, they learn to accept each other in some ways. No one truly trusts the other, except perhaps Emmett begins trusting Michelle more than Howard, and begins to hear her out in her plans to escape. She attempts to leave the bunker at one point, only to be confronted by a hysterical woman seemingly afflicted with burn marks all over her face. The woman is at first seen as a victim of some sort, but then becomes aggressive and starts screaming at Michelle to the point where Michelle really can be the only one seen as a victim in all of this.

This incident, however, allows Michelle to finally believe Howard. But then, things start to fall apart again when she starts to learn about his past, especially involving his daughter Megan. As the story unravels, a very creepy question emerges: What if you were stuck in a bunker following an apocalypse, and your only company was a psychopath?

It’s at this point where the film really begins to crackle and pop, and there are many surprises as the mystery unfolds. The film has plenty of jump-scares, and even becomes a full on thriller towards its climax.

The climax is where the film may divide audiences. This film was not originally conceived as a “Cloverfield” sequel, spiritual or not. It does have some elements that will remind you of that film. However, it becomes something entirely different toward the end. Howard morphs into something utterly monstrous, lumbering and menacing, and though he is still a human being, we see less of one as the film reaches its surprising and audacious conclusion.

Goodman’s performance isn’t the only one to point out, though; Winstead is steady and balanced as Michelle. She reveals to Emmett in an emotional scene that she may have been abused in the past, but always runs away from everything instead of confronts it. She tells him a story about a young girl being publicly assaulted by her own father, and even if it’s not serious or life threatening, Michelle’s resolve is simply to leave the scene rather than help the little girl. This gives insight into her leaving her fiance, who may also have been abusive (voiced briefly by Bradley Cooper, as Ben, who tries calling Michelle after she’s left).

The three characters are engaging and their chemistry is very good, keeping us interested not only in the unfolding of the story, but in their lives as well. We want to see what happens to them, as much as we want to see what happens in the plot.

As stated before, the ending shifts everything to another level, and you either accept it or you don’t. But by that time, I believe the film has achieved something the original “Cloverfield” never did–a believable cast, a credible and appealing story, and a satisfying journey. Whether you like how it ends up or not, to me, isn’t as important as being completely enthralled by the events leading up to the conclusion. It is, essentially, a great ride.

My rating::-)

The Avengers: Age of Ultron

May 14, 2015 by  
Filed under Movies

The Marvel Universe is getting more and more crowded, and in some cases, cloudier and cloudier. I haven’t followed all of them, and some of them I’ve forgotten–but I plod along and try to keep up. 2012’s “The Avengers” seemed to be the best of the Universe, pitting fine actors in fine getups against interesting and entertaining villains for a 2 and a half hour long joyride. I thought Joss Whedon was the perfect guy to bring all of that together, and he’s called upon again to make lightning strike twice.

The Avengers are brought back together, this time to stop a genetic experiment headed by Hydra, a terrorist organization that exists in the Universe. They discover two new mutant kids (which gets dangerously close to “X-Men” fodder) from a place called Sokovia. The new kids are twins, Pietro and Wanda Maximoff. Pietro can move at the speed of light, and Wanda can manipulate people’s thoughts and also send out bursts of red energy. They’re somewhat effective but also raw since they haven’t been properly cultivated yet.

While the Avengers are crashing this mission, Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr., always appealing) is hit with a “vision” by Wanda, projecting the Avengers’ deaths. He believes the world needs a “coat of armor” to shield us from evil. With that, he wants to create something called “Ultron”, which is artificial intelligence harvested from a scepter. Ultron (voiced by James Spader), becomes the Frankenstein’s monster and main villain of the film, breaking off from the idea of protecting the world by thinking it has to destroy it. Everybody, including Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo, the best of the Hulk/Banner actors thus far), sort of blames Stark for this new issue that they all have to stop. Meanwhile, Natasha Romanoff aka Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) has begun to have feelings for Banner, and the two of them share a few moments of reluctant passion–but Banner has cold feet due to his wild and unpredictable counterpart.

The other subplots include ace archer Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) revealing he has a family, Steve Rogers aka Captain America may feel unnecessary when a war isn’t being waged, and Nick Fury from S.H.I.E.L.D. still wants to be part of the gang. Ultron wants to destroy the Avengers before destroying the world, and enlists the help of the Maximoffs, who at first are compliant with his idea.

But, an unexpected thing happens as Ultron tries to improve itself with something that turns out to manifest itself as another potential hero. Vision (Paul Bettany) turns out to bear one of the Infinity Stones on his brow, but wants to help for good rather than help Ultron once he is unleashed by Thor. Vision becomes somewhat paternal to the Avengers, even though every scene he’s on screen I keep thinking someone’s going to ask him, “Who are you and what are you doing here, noob?”

Ultron clashes with the Avengers throughout the film, causing massive destruction to poor Sokovia, but loses the Maximoffs to the good side eventually. By the film’s climax, it’s pretty evident whoever wins, Sokovia loses big time. That place gets absolutely demolished.

It brings me to an epiphany that I first had while watching “Man of Steel”–shouldn’t superheroes have just a little bit of regard for the place they’re saving? I know that these movies have to keep upping the ante–but really, there’s not going to be an earth enough left to save if these guys (and gals) don’t show a little bit of restraint when it comes to destroying bridges and building structures. It’s also amazing that barely any Sokovian gets hurt during the deluge. They keep finding ways to survive out of massive earthquakes–I guess it speaks to their strength as a people, but it’s a bit…you know, hard to believe.

Most of the film’s running time is packed with action, explosions and noise. In the first film, this formula seemed to work better. Maybe because there was a central narrative at work, focusing on the right characters and giving everybody a good amount of screen time. Here, the characters seem rushed into the next action sequence, barely given enough time to breathe–and when they are, it’s not that interesting. Everything from the first film is copied here, as a sequel would, and it just seems to be more retread than refreshing. While the first film was a rip roaring adventure with a lot of laughs, this one dulled by its third act.

It’s not that the characters aren’t appealing–and Whedon does get a lot of out of them. But we’ve seen all of this before, and Ultron just doesn’t come through as a great villain. He’s got all the tropes, but sometimes he’s silly and unconvincing.

The Universe will keep expanding, but the more things expand, the closer it gets to snapping and falling apart.

My rating::?

Iron Man 2

May 17, 2010 by  
Filed under Featured Content, Movies

Comic book movie sequels can be a conundrum. While you already have the pressure of being a sequel already, most of the time you’re given the chance to flesh out your hero a little more and give them another villain to work with. You do, however, have the advantage of a lot more material to work with. Marvel is the most prominent icon in comic book movies today, with the successes of The “Spiderman” series, the “X-Men” series, a revamped “Hulk” series, and of course the first “Iron Man”. But the “Iron Man” series has a different kind of approach to its sequel because the function of its hero, Tony Stark, isn’t a tortured soul like Peter Parker or Bruce Banner. He’s actually a charismatic billionaire who loves life and loves his money. So the angle here isn’t about morphing into a monster or using super hero strength to counter a nerdy teenage existence. Quite simply, “Iron Man” is about one thing:

Toys. Tony Stark loves his main toy, the Iron Man suit with all its bells and whistles and impossible awesomeness. He doesn’t believe it should go to the military to be used in some liberal agenda. He also believes he’s the only one who can be trusted enough to use it. Copycats have tried and failed; except for an ex-con in Russian whose father used to work with Tony’s father and was exiled from the project. The Russian, played by Mickey Rourke in a very underused role, creates a suit that can rival Iron Man’s power and ability. It also happens to look pretty cool.

Meanwhile, Tony is tangled up in a plot with a group called S.H.I.E.L.D. that knows Tony’s suit can be useful; but Tony himself is useless. Scarlett Johansson plays Black Widow (though she’s never referred to that code name in the fim; she’s Natasha or Natalie), part of the organization, and Samuel L. Jackson plays Nick Fury.

Also, Ivan (Rourke) is lured into a scheme by a rival gun maker named Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) to build a better Iron Man suit so he can upstage Tony Stark.

This is all well and good, and I think the movie tries to show off how cool it is a little too much. The thing I liked so much about the first film was that it was surprisingly charming and interesting as well as being pretty good to look at. The final battle scene was as hokey as they come; but by that time, the film was already likable enough to where I didn’t care.

But a sequel was not going to really be surprising. We knew what we were getting, ultimately. This wasn’t going to be like “Superman II” or “Spider-man II” or even “X-Men 2”. There was no real growth for Tony. Tony is Tony. He has a bit of a problem with his ticker, but it doesn’t really change who he is. This one’s just louder and more stuff gets blowed up. In a somewhat self-serving and indulgent scene, Tony and his long time pal Rhodey (played this time by Don Cheadle instead of Terrence Howard) get into a big macho fight that leaves Tony’s pad really busted up. And of course their friendship is kind of hurt at that point.

The movie is very predictable and not as enjoyable as the first. There’s a freshness missing; and while Downey, Jr. and Rourkey provide entertaining characters and some nice moments, the movie still is what it is: it’s just an action film. Sure, that’s fine. I still enjoyed that part of it. Perhaps this series is a bit doomed in that regard. Tony will never NOT be Tony, nor will he have room to grow to be more mature. He’s fun and charming, but there’s not anything flawed enough in him to make a real change. In other words, there’s not as much at stake. Not for his character or what will happen to his life. He puts on a suit that’s able to be pulverized by an electronic whip and still survive. He’s still insanely rich; and the future’s bright. I’m not sure where else this story needs to go.

But if there is going to be an “Iron Man 3”, which I feel there will, I think it’s a mistake. The next project for this would be a “S.H.I.E.L.D.” film, or the Avengers. I think the last bit at the end of the film credits reveals that’s probably inevitable. I think that may be a lot more fun than seeing a guy fly around in a metal suit blowing stuff up for two hours for a third time.

My rating: : :|