MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (2017)

November 9, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Who doesn’t love a good whodunit? Don’t we all find a bit of guilty pleasure in being the mastermind who solves a fictitious murder case? Has anyone ever been better at crafting an intricate murder mystery than Agatha Christie? Why all the questions? Well, that’s nothing compared to what “probably the world’s greatest detective”, Hercule Poirot, must answer amidst the foul play aboard the sleek, luxurious, and snowbound Orient Express.

This latest film version has Michael Green (BLADE RUNNER 2049, LOGAN) with the adapted screenplay and Kenneth Branagh directing and starring as the fabulously mustachioed Poirot (with his own take on the iconic super-sleuth). Like the near-perfect 1974 version, this latest adaptation succeeds in capturing the theatricality, while avoiding any stodgy staginess. Director Branagh shot on film and it pays off in both the stunning snow-covered mountains and landscapes, as well as the tight, precisely-blocked interior shots around the exceptional set designs.

Fans of the novel will notice some shifting of character names, professions and backgrounds, although the vast majority of the story remains intact … including the early murder that occurs not long after the film ingeniously introduces us to each of the characters. The cast is strong and deep, and in addition to Mr. Branagh, features: Penelope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Dame Judi Dench, Daisy Ridley, Leslie Odom Jr, Josh Gad, Johnny Depp, Derek Jacobi, Lucy Boynton, Michelle Pfeiffer, Olivia Coleman, Sergei Polunin, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo. All are suspects – well, except the victim.

If you haven’t read the novel or seen a previous version, know that the fun is in ride. Follow along as Poirot dispenses zingers throughout, while maintaining a most precise commitment to balance in all things. He is an exacting and fastidious man, and as entertaining as he is skilled in crime solving. Note that the photograph he keeps of his one true love Katherine, is actually a photo of young Emma Thompson (Branagh’s real life wife). Enjoy keeping track of the clues and hints, while also tracking the widely diverse personalities, excuses and alibis. Most of the many characters only have a couple of key scenes, and it’s quite fun to see what these talented performers make of their moments. Daisy Ridley, Lucy Boynton and Derek Jacobi make the most of their time, while Penelope Cruz overplays hers. Other than Branagh, the star who shines the brightest is Michelle Pfeiffer (fresh off a killer performance in MOTHER!). She continues to remind us just how talented she is, and no, your ears aren’t playing tricks … that’s Ms. Pfeiffer singing “Never Forget” (lyrics by Branagh) as the closing credits roll.

Ms. Christie’s outstanding novel was first published in 1934, and is somewhat based on the Lindbergh baby kidnapping and her own train-riding adventure. It’s a wonderful and perplexing read … one that will have you changing your mind multiple times on who you believe to be guilty of murder. It’s obviously a personal favorite. There have been numerous movie versions over the years, and none have matched the excellence of director Sidney Lumet’s 1974 film with an incredible all-star cast alongside Albert Finney’s Poirot. Though this most recent movie doesn’t reach the timelessness of that one, no movie can be expected to capture the detail and maze-like structure of the novel. It’s still quite fun – and a true joy- to see the pages come to life (irony intended) on the big screen.

watch the trailer:

 

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MARSHALL (2017)

October 12, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. The question must be asked: is the movie worthy of the man? The man was the first attorney for the NAACP. He won 29 of the 32 cases he argued in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, including the ground-breaking 1954 Brown v. Board of Education (separate but equal public education). This man was a trailblazer for Civil Rights, and in 1967 became the first African-American Supreme Court Justice. This man was, of course, Thurgood Marshall … a man who unquestionably deserves not just a movie, but a really good and important one.

Chadwick Boseman has taken on film versions of such icons as Jackie Robinson in 42 and James Brown in GET ON UP, so he likely jumped at the chance to play the revered figure, Thurgood Marshall. Mr. Boseman has true movie star screen presence, and supplies the young Mr. Marshall with a self-assured swagger that accompanies a brilliant legal mind – a mind that refused to be ignored during a time it was desperately needed. Lest he be labeled a superhero, the film does portray Marshall smoking and drinking, while also hinting at his carousing. The common flaws of a great man.

It’s 1941 and the young (33 years old) Marshall is the lone NAACP attorney, so he spends his time ping-ponging around the country fighting for fair trials for those African-Americans accused simply because they aren’t white. He works only for “innocent” people and his efforts during this time were crucial to the Civil Rights movement gaining attention and legitimacy. Most of the film centers on a case in Connecticut (no, not the Jim Crow south) where a black man, Joseph Spell (Sterling K Brown), is accused of sexual assault of a “respectable” married white woman, Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson). If you are reminded of the great book and film TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, you must know that those literary and cinematic standards are such that few can ever hope to reach.

What follows is not one of the more dramatic or tension-filled cinematic courtroom dramas. There is simply too much levity for the film to be classified as a historical heavyweight. That said, the man and his story are fascinating, and though director Reginald Hudlin chooses a deft touch rather than a sledge hammer, it’s likely the wise choice if the goal is to entertain, while also educating the masses to Marshall’s early career. Josh Gad co-stars as Marshall’s co-counsel Sam Friedman, a specialist in legal technicalities within the insurance industry. Boseman and Gad have nice chemistry (at times it feels like a buddy movie), and as a Jew in those times, Friedman is himself stuck in limbo between staunch racism and acceptance by the white community.

James Cromwell plays Judge Foster, yet another man caught between the old world he has lived in his entire life and the fast-changing society and legal system that permits him to silence Marshall, while also forcing (somewhat) fair treatment of the accused Spell. Dan Stevens (BEAUTY AND THE BEAST) is Loren Willis, the disgusted and disgusting prosecutor. This character is so cartoonish that the only thing missing is a neon necklace that flashes “racist” as he speaks. Sophia Bush has a brief, yet important scene and Sterling K Brown (as Mr. Spell) has the film’s most heart-breaking moment as he sits on the stand and explains why he lied.

Director Reginald Hudlin seems like an odd choice for the project. He has been working mostly in TV since back-to-back-to-back bombs BOOMERANG (Eddie Murphy), THE LADIES MAN (Tim Meadow) and SERVING SARA (Matthew Perry). Mr. Hudlin has experienced more success as a Producer, having been Oscar nominated for DJANGO UNCHAINED. Here he works with the father and son screenwriters Jacob Koskoff and Michael Koskoff. The elder Michael is a well respected criminal attorney and legal historian, and certainly understands the expectations that come with offering a public look at a near-mythical figure … especially one as revered as Thurgood Marshall.

This isn’t so much a movie about the icon as it is about a young man on the path to greatness and importance (he served on the Supreme Court from 1967-1991). The soundtrack is filled with jazz which complements the light-hearted approach, and further distances from any semblance of “heavy” or “historical”. Director Hudlin adds a contemporary touch by having Trayvon Martin’s parents (Sybrina Fulton, Tracy Martin) appear in a scene near the end. On the downside, multiple upshot camera angles are designed to make his lead character look larger than life. The truth is, Thurgood Marshall required no help in looming large. Hopefully this mainstream approach pays off and many are introduced to the legacy of a man who is more than worthy of this movie … and another.

watch the trailer:

 


BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (2017)

March 14, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. An entire generation still enjoys their childhood animated movie memories thanks to Disney’s The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991) and The Lion King (1994). We are now a quarter-century later and Disney is looking to re-create the magic (and hopefully cash in) with Live Action versions of all three …as it did with Cinderella (2015) and last year’s The Jungle Book (sensing a trend?). Up now is director Bill Condon’s mixture of live action, CGI and music for Beauty and the Beast.

The 18th century story (1740) by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve was re-written and shortened by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont after Barbot’s death. Director Jean Cocteau’s 1946 French film version looks to have been a key influence for this updated ‘Beast’, while the 2014 version with Vincent Cassel will probably now be rendered forgotten. Screenwriters Stephen Chbosky (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) and Evan Spiliotopoulos (The Huntsman: Winter’s War) team with Oscar winner Condon, whose musical movie resume includes Chicago and Dreamgirls, to inject some contemporary aspects to Belle’s personality, as well as a bit more backstory for quite a few characters … all while staying true to the 1991 version.

Emma Watson proves a nice choice for Belle as she has what it takes to be nice yet tough, while still being an oddball within her own community. Belle is a bookworm who dares to help other girls to read, while also being the brains behind her father’s (Kevin Kline) work. She realizes her neighbors view her as a curiosity – and there is even a song to prove it! Ms. Watson brings strength, independence, and courage to the role. These traits and others are on full display even before her first encounter with the beast.

Dan Stevens (“Downton Abbey”) is the beneficiary of an extended backstory for the Prince, which includes a large dance and musical production at the castle, leading to his being cursed for having no love in his heart. Most of the scenes with Beast utilize CGI for the face and head. This effect worked for me as I found the look fascinating and able to fulfill the necessary emotions, though the non-beast Prince would be considered the weakest link in this fairy tale chain.

Since the comparisons to the 1991 version are inevitable, and certainly a matter of personal opinion, Luke Evans made a wonderfully pompous Gaston, while Josh Gad was quite humorous as LeFou, Gaston’s loyal sidekick who is also the center of the misplaced controversy (not worthy of discussion here). The staff – both live versions and special effects – includes Ewan McGregor as Lumiere, Ian McKellan as Cogsworth, Emma Thompson as Mrs. Potts, Audra McDonald as Madame Garderobe, Stanley Tucci as Maestro Cadenza and Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Plumette. Each bring their own touch to the roles, with Ms. McDonald being a particular standout, and Ms. Thompson having the most thankless job as replacement for Angela Lansbury.

While I found this version quite enjoyable and well done, it’s a bit confusing why the decision was made to go so dark and foreboding. It’s not young kid friendly at all, and seems as if the target audience is millennials who were raised on the 1991 version. This was done at the expense of inviting a new generation to explore the story and characters. Parents should probably avoid taking any kids under age 10 or 11, and the film easily could have received a PG-13 rating.

8-time Oscar winner Alan Menken returns to score the film (he did the 1991 version as well), plus he wrote new songs with Tim Rice and there are some original lyrics by Howard Ashman. With only one viewing, it’s doubtful any of the new songs will be instant classics, but “Be Our Guest” is a definite crowd-pleaser (again).

Of course, it’s an impossible task to please everyone when you mess with the classics, but overall, it’s a nice twist for fans of the 1991 animated version. Likely a missed opportunity to bring new youngsters into the fantastical BATB world, it does show that the animated to live action transformation can be well done … and that’s a relief with The Lion King and The Little Mermaid on the way. Dear Disney – don’t mess ‘em up!

Be our guest … watch the trailer:

 


THE WEDDING RINGER (2015)

February 14, 2015

wedding ringer Greetings again from the darkness. The only real determination of success for a comedy … does it make you laugh? If it makes you laugh, the movie has served its purpose for you. These movies are made for audiences, not film critics, which is why so few mainstream comedies play the film festival circuit.

Comedian Kevin Hart has seemingly been EVERYWHERE the past five years. He is funny, hard-working and talented. Unfortunately, most of his film projects are elevated by his talent rather than the other way around. This first feature film from director and co-writer Jeremy Garelick has an interesting premise … a much better premise than HITCH … and benefits from an on screen connection between Hart and Josh Gad, despite scene after scene taking the cheap laugh rather than the smart one.

Gad plays Doug, a socially inept nice guy who is marrying well above his pay grade. Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting (“The Big Bang Theory“) plays his fiancé – the rich girl forcing Doug to come up with 7 groomsmen for their wedding. Since poor Doug has no real friends, he jumps at the chance to capitalize on the services of Hart’s Best Man, Inc. Evidently there are so many men without friends that it’s necessary to have a business of best men and groomsmen-for-hire.

There is nothing subtle or smart about the approach here, and the story line and ending are absolutely predictable if you watch the two minute trailer. Still, there are some very funny moments courtesy of Hart and Gad, and my guess is most viewers will enjoy a few laughs, even if they forget most of this once they leave the theatre.

Supporting work is provided by Ken Howard, an on-fire Cloris Leachman, Mimi Rogers, Jorge Garcia and Josh Peck. Olivia Thirlby (Juno) plays sister to the bride, and it’s yet another example of a film wasting the talent of this terrific actress. Why is she always the friend, the sister or some other second fiddle role? In a bizarre football sequence, there are cameos from Joe Namath, Ed “Too Tall” Jones and John Riggins. Where the film missed a huge opportunity was in the casting of the “groomsmen”.  Think back to Michael Keaton’s The Dream Team (1989) where Christopher Lloyd, Peter Boyle and Stephen Furst contributed laughter, rather than just the absurdity we get here from the groomsmen.

The film is content hanging out in the middle as a no-apologies mainstream comedy, and has no aspiration for comedic greatness, or social commentary on the differing ideas of friendship between men and women. Still, the moments of laughter courtesy of Hart and Gad prove that making people laugh is a valuable talent, and laughter is good medicine … no matter how short-lived.

watch the trailer:

 


JOBS (2013)

August 21, 2013

jobs1 Greetings again from the darkness. One of the key characteristics of Steve Jobs was that he was constantly striving for perfection. Not just good. Not just acceptable. He wanted the perfect product in the perfect package sold in the perfect store. Whether or not you are a fan of Jobs and Apple, it’s painful to watch a middling movie about the man and the company … a movie that seems to strive for very little, and certainly not perfection.

Ashton Kutcher delivers an impersonation of Jobs complete with beady eyes, slumped shoulders and awkward gait. This is not one of those biopics where the performer disappears into the famous character. We never forget that we are watching Kutcher’s attempt to act and sound like Jobs. But Kutcher is far from the worst part of the movie … in fact, he is fine, given what he has to work with.

jobs2 The real issue with the movie is that it just offers no real insight into the man or the company. Instead we see only the headlines: Jobs drops out, Jobs goes barefooted, Jobs is a jerk, Jobs takes advantage of Woz, Jobs does drugs, Jobs eats fruit, Jobs is a jerk, Jobs is booted out, Jobs comes back, Jobs is a jerk.  The challenge to telling the story of Steve Jobs and Apple stems from finding the genius within the jerk.  Walter Isaacson’s book “Steve Jobs” does exceptional work on that front, and I believe there is a movie project in the works based on his source material.

The supporting cast is impressive: Dermot Mulroney (Mike Makkula), Lukas Haas (Daniel Kottke, Matthew Modine ( John Sculley), JK Simmons, Lesley Ann Warren, John Getz, Ron Eldard (Rod Holt), Kevin Dunn and James Woods. Especially effective, and maybe the only reason to see the movie, is Josh Gad as Steve Wozniak.  Woz is known to be the technical jobs3genius behind the founding of Apple and Gad perfectly captures the spirit of Wozniak as we in the public have come to know him over the years.

Directed by Joshua Michael Stern (Swing Vote), the film is written by first time screenwriter Matt Whiteley. This seems inexplicable to me. A writer with no credits is charged with coming up with a script on one of the most enigmatic and complex and successful people of our times. In fact, the result is what one would expect … a made-for-TV type glossy presentation that doesn’t dig too deep or offer any insight. In short, the kind of movie that Steve Jobs would have despised.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want the “Cliff’s Notes” version of Steve Jobs and Apple OR you want to see Josh Gad’s best performance to date

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you want insight and substance behind the story of Jobs and Apple … instead, read Walter Isaacson’s book

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LR6yMl2FZSQ

 


LOVE AND OTHER DRUGS (2010)

November 26, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. Based on Jamey Reidy‘s book “Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman”, the film bounces around between rom-com, disease-drama and an editorial on the medical profession and drug companies. The single best reason to watch the mashed-up film is the performance of Anne Hathaway, who surprisingly, has developed into an excellent actress.

Jake Gyllenhaal plays a hot shot, charming, womanizing, always “on” pharmaceutical rep who will stop at nothing to eclipse his quota and achieve a promotion to Chicago, the promised land for Pfizer. Struggling a bit to make a name for himself selling Zoloft, Jake’s destiny seems pre-disposed when Pfizer introduces Viagra. Talk about a pitch in the batter’s wheelhouse! However, as so often happens in life, a speed bump appears. The best laid plans …

When Jake’s character meets Anne’s character (Maggie), things change for both of them – despite the less than perfect introductory scenario. Turns out, her character suffers from Stage One Parkinson’s, while he is a Stage Four jerk. Actually, that makes for the perfect couple … for a short while. You can guess what happens.

When the film transitions from rom-com to heavy handed drama, many of the best scenes occur, but overall the movie suffers. The scene at the un-convention for sufferers of Parkinson’s is undoubtedly the film’s best. Furthermore, when Jake meets the husband of a Stage Four Parkinson’s patient, he gets the one minute down and dirty along with the advice to just walk away.

Rarely will a love story have so many moments of the couple trying so hard to push the other away. Speaking of Love Story (my attempt at a smooth transition), it is important to note that despite the drama and dark tones, this film never delivers the expected sobbing out loud moment … like the bedside payoff in Love Story. Instead, it actually does a terrific job of treating the disease with respect and directness. A nice change for Hollywood.

Directed by Edward Zwick (Blood Diamond), the film rests squarely on the shoulders of Ms. Hathaway, who doesn’t disappoint. Supporting work is not as effective or important. That includes Gabriel Macht (phamaceutical competitor), Hank Azaria (the only doctor who needs help with women), Judy Greer (the eager office assistant), Oliver Platt (Jake’s boss in the film’s most confusing role), and Josh Gad (in the Jonah Hill knock-off role), plus George Segal and Jill Clayburgh as Jake’s parents. A sad note: Ms. Clayburgh died on November 5th this year. She had a varied and important Hollywood career and will be missed.

What’s odd about this film is that I have actually many good things to say about it despite my overall disappointment. I love some of the fast quips from the early part. The points made against drug companies, insurance companies and the medical profession are spot on (though a bit obvious). The serious portion of the program is handled with dignity and pulls no cheap punches. Much of the interaction seemed accurate and real. But for whatever reason, the film is just not very cohesive and comes across as choppy … a series of scenes, rather than a full story. That said, it’s worth seeing for the continued growth of Anne Hathaway as an actress.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF:  you want to see Parkinson’s disease treated with dignity OR you just enjoy watching beautiful movie stars roll around in bed

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer a cohesive, clear story OR you are looking for this year’s “big cry” (ala Terms of Endearment or Love Story)