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: :-)

Dunkirk

August 9, 2017 by  
Filed under Movies

In the spring of 1940, well before the US joined the allied forces in WWII, things looked pretty grim for Europe. Germany had taken Poland, and had advanced into France, while England became a sitting duck. German forces pushed English and France armies to the brink, bringing them to the shores of Dunkirk, a beach along the coast of France. Christopher Nolan’s noble “Dunkirk” attempts to retell the evacuation attempt and rescue on that beach; for the most part, he achieves something unique: a war movie without a central narrative. It’s somewhat disjointed–which is on purpose–but that does bog down the dramatic elements of the film.

It’s split into three parts: The Mole (beach), which takes place over a week; The Air, which takes place over one hour; and, The Sea, which takes place over a day. Each parts, to me, represent three elements of the body: the head (The Mole), the heart (The Sea), and the muscle (The Air). Most of the sequences in the air are tightly shot, with dogfighting between Spitfires being the primary focus. There are some outside shots illustrating the scope of the fight; but mostly, we’re drawn right into one-on-one battles.

On the Mole, we’re introduced to two main characters: Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) and “Gibson” (Aneurin Barnard). Tommy is the sole survivor of his unit after being attacked by the Germans (who are never shown onscreen), in the town. He escapes and makes it onto the beach, encountering Gibson burying someone. Instead of having a conversation about it, they’re immediately whisked away to wounded as Germans keep bombarding the beach. They carry a stretcher to a boat with wounded, but are only just about to make it, after being turned away by officials. As stowaways, they are safe–until the ship is leveled and everyone is poured out into the water, and forced back to the beach.

The Sea features probably the strongest story in the film. A father, Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) and his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), take their private yacht to Dunkirk to aid the evacuation. This was part of a huge project urged by Winston Churchill (also never shown onscreen), that civilians take part in aiding the stranded soldiers back to England. But Dawson, instead of having the Navy support him, takes his boat for himself to head his own rescue. George (Barry Keoghan), their teenage assistant, comes along. On their way, they pick up a wounded soldier who survived a U-Boat attack (Cillian Murphy). The soldier is shell shocked and extremely tense, insistent that he doesn’t want to go back to Dunkirk. Dawson continues on, to the dismay of the soldier, who winds up accidentally pushing George down and hurting him badly. The yacht eventually picks up a pack of soldiers either from downed planes or destroyed ships, and attempts to bring them back.

The Air has the most action, and as said above, tightly executed so it comes off very realistically and intense. Farrier (Tom Hardy) is the main focus as far as the characters, and seems to be the most accomplished fighter pilot. His mission is to stave off German fighters from attacking the ships trying to leave Dunkirk. His heroics are certainly some of the strongest of the film–and provides some of the much needed drama that’s lacking elsewhere.

That would be The Mole. While there certainly is plenty of ground to cover dramatically, we don’t get a real sense of intimacy from the characters. They’re just faces and mouths shouting at each other. Tommy is quiet, Gibson speechless; but another character, Alex (Harry Styles), barks and distrusts both of them as they all try to escape the beach in ill-fated attempts. Alex accuses Gibson of being a German spy since he won’t talk, and thinks Tommy is a traitor. But none of that really goes anywhere, and seems to be a waste of screen time. The other central figure on the beach is Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh), who mostly paces around hoping for a miracle to happen. Branagh has the easiest part to play here, as the stoic commander just whispering “home” and watching as the ships come in.

The Mole represents “the head”, because it comes off as the more intellectual story. Trying to show these soldiers as literal rodents scampering and desperately surviving can be a useful metaphor; though, it’s not a full on allegory. But it has the most use of dialogue, even though there is a lot of silence among characters as well. But it falls flat as a narrative, since it really lacks a main character arc. The sea is the heart because the story of Dawson and his son, and mate George, is the most moving. And, seeing all of these ships from civilians come onto the beaches of Dunkirk to rescue their countrymen, is very powerful. I think the entire film could’ve revolved around this and been a stronger film. The air, of course, is where most of the best action comes from. The muscle, literally keeping this film in motion. Hardy is always reliable as an actor; and he pulls off Farrier extremely well.

The weaknesses of the film don’t outweigh the potency of its story and purpose; but, it could have been a much stronger picture. I think Nolan sometimes lingers on the pretentious, thinking he can do better than sentimentality–which is fine, except you need to fill that with something meaningful. “Dunkirk” suffers a bit from having too little emotional empathy at times. Besides that, some of the questionable music cues weigh down the film’s authority as well. In the air, I felt there was no soundtrack necessary. Just the whizzing and pops of the bullets, mixed with the whaling of the fighters, was enough. That part of the film is so raw anyway, that music was a distraction.

“Dunkirk” does succeed in telling a good story about faith and hope; it’s not the strongest WWII movie by any means, but it does serve its purpose telling a unique story. I think Nolan could have simplified the story–or, told it in either a trilogy of films or a miniseries of some kind. That would have given it more time to breathe, rather than constantly leave us breathless.

It’s still going to make you feel overwhelmed when you see those ships come to shore, however, and watch these brave soldiers come “home”.

My rating: :-)

Thor

May 23, 2011 by  
Filed under Movies

The comic book movie train continues to make its rounds and the next stop is “Thor”, a movie from the Marvel Universe that interweaves comic book material with some Norse god fantasy elements that make the film a bit more fun than some of the more recent standard superhero adaptations. We’re going to get quite a few more superhero films this summer, including another “X-Men” movie, a Green Lantern film, and Captain America makes an appearance as well. I can still remember back to the fateful summer of 1990, seeing a poster for a “Captain America” movie while going to see “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” for the 4th time and being excited. Back then, super hero movies were a death sentence to major studios.

Today, they’re a gold mine. It’s hard to say whether this is a blessing or a curse; back when I was growing up, I’d probably love to see legitimate films being made about my favorite superheros like Batman and Spider-man and the Incredible Hulk, and the X-Men. But at this point, there are so many movies out there about superheroes that it’s saturated the genre into one big muscle bound money machine. Not every one has been a major success (they still can’t really get the Hulk right), but there have been enough that Marvel is now testing the waters in marketing their very own Justice League–the Avengers.

We’ve been introduced to a few already: “Iron Man” and “The Incredible Hulk” made a few years ago introduced us to S.H.I.E.L.D. and that sets up the other heroes to be included. This time it is Thor, and he’s sort of a cross between Super Man AND the Incredible Hulk–with a hammer, at least.

We’re first introduced to Thor as the ancient Norse character, along with his brother Loki, as the sons of Odin, king of Asgard, a realm of immortals who protect the other realms of the universe, including the earth. They had been at war with the Frost Giants, who look a bit like the orcs of the “Lord of the Rings” movies, crossed with Nightcrawler of the “X-Men”. These nasty creatures are conquered; but there still are a few around that may be launching another attack, and someone in Asgard may be a doublecrosser.

Thor sets out with his band of Merry Immortals including his brother, and launch an attack on the Frost Giants after they have attempted to steal the Casket of Ancient Winters. This of course is against Odin’s orders; and Thor, who is supposed to inherit the throne, is cast away onto Earth, relinquishing his powers and his Hammer, which is also sent to earth.

On earth we meet another slew of characters including the always charming, sweet, and gorgeous Natalie Portman playing Jane Foster, a scientist who has been studying the stars, discovers him along with her assistants. But there have been others watching her, and Thor’s landing on earth. S.H.I.E.L.D., which provides the earth “villains”, confisgate all of Foster’s work and have quarantined the Hammer, which is stuck in a rock much like the Sword in the Stone.

The film’s plot moves back and forth between worlds and in some ways, that’s a real hindrance because it doesn’t give us a chance to focus on what exactly the purpose of the film is. On the one hand, it’s a story of loyalty and forgiveness, and overcoming immaturity. Thor, when first introduced, is a very brash and ill-tempered kid who has a large temper and likes to break things. He learns what every cliched immature character does, which is that growing up and taking responsibility pays off. In his case, it pays off in the form of a giant Hammer that can do some real damage when wielded.

Although the film is full of cliches and an added plot about S.H.I.E.L.D. that just feels thrown in for obligatory purposes to set up the inevitable “Avengers” film, it’s not without its own certain charm. Anthony Hopkins delivers a solid performance as Odin, Thor’s father; and Australian actor (aren’t they all?)Chris Hemsworth gives the film’s best performance as Thor. There are some comic scenes, too, although I don’t think there were enough. Sometimes the film seemed to want to have a better sense of humor than was allowed. It was also a surprise, a pleasant one, for me to see that Kenneth Branagh directed the film. While it’s no Shakespeare, there is seemingly a higher int

The other thing that I continue to be bothered by in superhero films is the seemingly constant need to throw in as many big bad robots or monsters as possible in what I call “miniboss syndrome”. In this case, a big beastly robot that looks like Gort’s little brother is sent down to destroy Thor and there’s a long uninteresting battle sequence between them that goes on far longer than needbe. Of course, this film, like any other superhero film, is an exercise in special effects. For the most part, they do work; but I just think there were some opportunities to flesh out some character relationships that were substituted with gratuitous battle sequences that just dulled the film down.

Now, it may seem like I wouldn’t recommend this film but I actually am. I did have enough fun and found it worthwhile. It’s not perfect, it’s a far cry from better franchises such as Spider-man and Batman; but it does deliver the goods enough to where you won’t be totally bored or think you wasted your money–unless you see this in 3-D. There is absolutely no reason to at all. It wasn’t filmed in 3-D, it was all done in post production. Skip it. See it in a regular or I-MAX theatre.

While I found the film overall entertaining, I can’t decide whether I’m looking forward to the rest of the comic book movies this summer, or any summer in the future. I guess if you are, then summer is coming. If you’re not, well…then, winter is coming.

My rating: :-)