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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VICTORIA AND ABDUL (2017)

September 29, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Director Stephen Frears has enjoyed a long career by focusing on the interesting stories of people, rather than the salient specifics of history or politics. He received Oscar nominations for THE QUEEN and THE GRIFTERS, and helmed other crowd-pleasers such as MRS. HENDERSON PRESENTS, PHILOMENA, HIGH FIDELITY, and FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS. While purely entertaining movies are always welcome, it’s important to note the filmmaker’s approach when the story is entwined with historical importance.

Based on real events … mostly” is Mr. Frears’ cutesy way of kicking off the film and asking us to enjoy the unusual story of connection between a Queen and a servant, and cut him some slack on the historical depth. For most of us, the real enjoyment will be derived from watching yet another standout performance from Oscar winner (and 7 time nominee) Dame Judi Dench as the longest-reigning monarch, Queen Victoria in her elderly years. It’s a role she played twenty years ago in MRS. BROWN, and her relationship with John Brown (presented in that film) has some parallels to what we see here with Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal). Dame Judi is the rare actress who can capture both the loneliness and tiresome burden of six decades of rule and the re-invigorated woman we see learning a new language and new religion. She plays weary and spunky with equal believability.

Victoria was Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and Empress of India, and in 1861 her beloved husband Prince Albert died. This film picks up in 1887 with the pomp and circumstance of the Golden Jubilee – a celebration of her 50 years of rule. The early scenes tease us with obstructed views, and the comedic element becomes quite obvious as we see her so carelessly slurping her soup at the formal lunch. Part of the celebration includes the presentation of an honorary coin by two Indians peasants Abdul (Fazal) and Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar), the first chosen because of his height, and the second as a last minute fill-in.

Lee Hall (Oscar nominated for BILLY ELLIOT) wrote the screenplay based on the book by Shrabani Basu. The journals of Abdul Karim were only discovered in 2010, a hundred years after his death. Some of the less favorable moments of this era are mentioned, but most of the Queen’s lack of knowledge or awareness is attributed to the “boring” reports from her advisers. This leads to some awkward moments later in the film regarding the Muslim mutiny and the subsequent Fatwa.

Rather than dwell on history, the film prefers to focus on the unconventional friendship and the re-awakening of the Queen. Abdul becomes her “Munshi” – a spiritual advisor and her teacher of Urda and the Koran. As you would expect, this is all quite scandalous and frustrating for those such as Prime Minister Lord Salisbury (Michael Gambon), Lady Churchill (Olivia Williams), Victoria’s son Bertie (Eddie Izzard), and the royal staff: Sir Henry (the recently deceased Tim Pigott-Smith), her physician Dr Reid (Paul Higgins), and her quivering maid Miss Phipps (Fenella Woolgar). There is even a comical sequence with the great singer Puccini (Simon Callow) as the Queen herself belts out the Gilbert and Sullivan song “I’m Called Little Buttercup”.

Balmoral, the Isle of Wight, and Windsor Castle are all part of the breath-taking scenery, while the absurdity of the royal status is viewed through the eyes of the Indian servants. Most of the focus is on Victoria’s transformation from joyless, isolated monarch to the anything-but-insane (an Oscar worthy scene) and eager to engage elderly woman (one who has an entire era named after her) falling back in love with life as she fights off “the banquet of eternity”. Come for the laughs and the performance of Dame Judi … just not for a history lesson.

watch the trailer:

 


THE SECOND BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL (2015)

March 5, 2015

second best exotic Greetings again from the darkness. It’s been about 4 years since the delightful first film, based on Deborah Moggach’s novel, was a box office hit. My review of that film was the first time I used the phrase “gray cinema” – describing a growing genre specifically targeting the aging population. Neither director John Madden nor writer Ol Parker have had much going on since, and they re-team for this sequel that should satisfy most of the sure-to-return core audience.

Spirited and energetic hotelier Sonny (Dev Patel) is back and has his sights set on expansion to a nearby second property. Most of the original residents are also back: Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy, Celia Imrie, Ronald Pickup, and Diana Hardcastle. Lilette Dubey returns as Sonny’s mother, Tina Desai is now his fiancé, and Penelope Wilton resurfaces after dumping Bill Nighy in the first movie. New faces to the scene include Richard Gere, Tamsin Greig and David Strathairn, along with a few other lesser, but effective supporting roles.

A similar extended pre-opening credit sequence is again utilized to catch us up on the status of the regulars. Maggie Smith is now co-managing the hotel. Judi Dench is a buyer of local fabrics. Bill Nighy is a willing, but inept tour guide. Celie Imrie is juggling two wealthy suitors. Ronald Pickup and Diana Hardcastle are working – at jobs and at a relationship. Mr Patel and Ms Smith take a business meeting to the U.S. to meet with Mr. Strathairn with a design on financing the second property. Mostly the trip is an excuse for Dame Maggie to crack wise about us uncultured Americans, and few can deliver a one-liner like this lady.

It’s also on this trip, where Patel’s character begins a change in tone. In the first movie, his character was eager, naïve, pleasant and charming. This time, his ambitious nature is over-the-top and actually quite annoying (by design yes, but still annoying). This single feature affects the pleasant nature and unnecessarily puts us on edge and prevents us from connecting with a key character.

What’s very clear is that this film misses the structure of Ms. Moggach’s novel, and the numerous sub-stories come at us so quickly that every character is mostly surface level with no real depth allowed. The best exchanges are between Ms Dench and Ms Smith (one being 19 days older than the other), while poor Mr Nighy is treated like a wounded puppy for much of the story. Also lacking is the cultural clash so prevalent in the first, and instead we witness a group that has acclimated to the surroundings preventing any real interesting conflict – though the colorful sights of town are still amazing to see. The “high-speed” tuk-tuk chase adds an element of humor, and of course we get the Bollywood-style dance number at the end of Sonny’s wedding to Sunaina (Tina Desai).

Despite the flaws, there are still plenty of laughs and loads of charm, and it’s certainly a pleasure to see a welcome response to the question “Is age a barrier to happiness?”. The actors and the setting make this an enjoyable two hours, though some may question the attempt at a deeper philosophical approach at the end.

watch the trailer:

 


PHILOMENA (2013)

November 29, 2013

philomena Greetings again from the darkness. Two people telling the same story can make that story sound infinitely different. Two people united in their efforts to solve a mystery can have vastly different reactions to the same situations. Such personality and attitudinal differences are the real core of this story … even more than the true life inspired story of a quest to reunite a mother and child after 50 years.

Peter Mullan’s startling 2002 film The Magdalene Sisters provided us a look into the dark side of Ireland convents in the 1950’s. Here, director Stephen Frears brings us the very personal story of Philomena Lee – one of the unwed teenagers banished to the convent to deliver her baby and work off her debt to the nuns and church, after signing away all future access to her child. It’s a heart-breaking story of the times, of the church, and of a singular woman. Philomena struggles with guilt and regret over 50 years until her daughter arranges a meeting with journalist Martin Sixsmith. This begins their journey to uncover the truth and find Philomena’s son, and provide us with a front row to two distinct ways of viewing the world.

Dame Judi Dench plays Philomena and Steve Coogan (also co-writer and producer) plays Martin, resulting in a very “odd couple” road trip and personality test. Dench is remarkable is her role (surely in the running for an Oscar nom) as the seemingly simple woman who reads romance novels, gets excited about salad bars, is thrilled with mints on her pillow, and has lived a lifetime with a hole in her heart created by having her young son ripped from her world. Coogan is effectively restrained (minus his usual exaggerated comic mannerisms) as the snooty Brit journalist who thinks writing and reading human interest stories are a waste of time. She has maintained her religious faith and faith in people, while he has long ago given up on God and flaunts his cynicism in most every situation.

Director Frears has a widely varied movie career – from The Grifters to High Fidelity to The Queen. He excels in drama with a wry sense of humor.  Some will view the movie as anti-Catholic (replete with cruel nuns) … it is difficult to defend the painful childbirth, isolated mothers, selling of children and lack of assistance in reconciling the parties. Others will view this as a victory of faith over intellect. It’s the world-weary journalist with the $5.00 words who ends up learning a life lesson. It can be a reminder that life is going to throw some difficult situations your way. Your attitude and approach that will determine how you deal with it … and how much emotional pain follows. This is another entry into gray cinema that will generate much debate and discussion … a sure sign of success for a movie!

**NOTE: this is based on Martin Sixsmith’s book “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee”

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: instigating post-viewing debate is one of your movie criteria OR you want to see what could be another Oscar nominated role for Judi Dench

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: stories inspired by real life heart-break is not your idea of holiday entertainment, no matter how thought-provoking or well-acted.

watch the trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4DBPqcp6Hc4


SKYFALL (2012)

November 11, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. Celebrating 50 years on film for Ian Fleming‘s creation, we get the 23rd official James Bond movie. Many critics are hailing it as the best Bond film yet, though having seen all in the series, it is difficult to understand a proper form of comparison. The Sean Connery run varies significantly from the Roger Moore period, and though Pierce Brosnan brought a touch of seriousness back to the role, it wasn’t until Daniel Craig that the character and series took on an ultra-intense structure. Clear influences are seen in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, as well as the “Bourne” series.

This latest entry has some distinct advantages. Most importantly, Sam Mendes in the director’s chair brings a love and understanding of the Bond template, and the skills to deliver both top notch action sequences as well as realistic human drama. His background includes such fine films as American Beauty and Road To Perdition (also with Daniel Craig). Mendes brought on famed Director of Photography Roger Deakins (9 Oscar nominations) who delivers a look and feel superior to any previous Bond film. Also, the villain plays a key role in determining the strength of all Bond films. Here, Javier Bardem offers up a megalomaniac bent on revenge, and his unusual approach immediately vaults his Silva into one of the top 5 all time Bond villains.

 Of course, none of that matters without a strong Bond, and it is quite clear that Daniel Craig has made the role his own. This particular script from series vets Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and John Logan demands some real acting as Bond faces his mortality as well as his childhood roots. These issues combined with the physical demands of the action and the ability to toss in a few zingers, make Mr. Craig a nice fit for the tailored suits … and the classic Aston Martin.

It wouldn’t be Bond without the Bond “women”, and while there isn’t much familiarity of Berenice Marlohe, her Severine is interesting enough to capture our attention … even with Komodo Dragons hovering nearby. We also get Naomie Harris as Field Agent Eve, and the argument can be made that she is weakest link in the film. Surprisingly, the Bond woman central to this story  is M, played once again by the great Judi Dench. Much of the story revolves around her and there is quite a bit of ageism involved. Experience does matter … unless you are speaking of the new Q, played with fascinating geekery by Ben Whishaw (Cloud Atlas).  The museum scene with Q and Bond is one for the ages.

The usual global jet-setting is on full display with Istanbul, London, Macau, Shanghai and the Scottish Highlands. The traditional opening action sequence finds Bond racing across Turkish rooftops on a motorcycle, while wearing a beautifully tailored suit. These are the same rooftops on display in Taken 2, but it’s much more fun here. Then, as if motorcycles on the roof and through the Grand Bazaar of Turkey aren’t enough, we find Bond fighting atop a fast moving train … well, until M makes a business decision that quickly changes the arc of the story. By the way, the guy Bond is chasing on rooftops and fighting on the train is played by Ola Rapace, husband of Noomi from the original Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy (Daniel Craig starred in the English remake).

 When Bond finally meets Silva (Bardem), it is on the deserted Hashima Island. We quickly learn that Silva is no ordinary criminal and definitely not one to just sit and chat. His quest for revenge adds a personal touch. His personality and demeanor and background add elements previously missing from Bond films. It’s no surprise that the film’s best sequence involves Bond and Silva together and the tradition of the villain explaining what’s ruffled his feathers.

The climax of the film occurs on the hardscape of Scotland and forces Bond to come to terms with his past. There are also plenty of parental issues thanks to M and the caretaker played by Albert Finney. The personal forces at work in the script are more developed than in other Bond films, but we definitely don’t get cheated on explosions, gun play and hand-to-hand combat.

As always, music plays a vital role. Adele sings the opening title track and it plays over an unusual opening credits graphical sequence – somewhat bleaker than we are accustomed to, but no less dramatic. Also, Thomas Newman’s score is excellent and incorporates Monty Norman’s iconic Bond theme (though not often enough for my tastes).

This latest Bond film is a fine bounce back after the disappointing Quantum of Solace, and it may be the best made of all films. The idea of cyber-terrorism is very timely and a reminder that not all bad guys are trying to take over the world. Some just need revenge. Determining if it is the “best” Bond ever will be your call.

Just for old times’ sake:

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to judge for yourself if it’s the best Bond ever OR you want to see a blonde Javier Bardem as a creep, frightening villain.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you have never bought into the James Bond mystique OR you can’t take a blonde Bond and a blonde Bond villain

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6kw1UVovByw


THE BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL (2012)

May 6, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. The closest I can come to saying anything negative about the film is that it is a bit predictable, and I wish we had time to get to better explore these characters. That said, it is quite an entertaining ride to take with some of Britain’s finest actors. Filled with both comedy and insight, the Ol Parker script of the Deborah Moggach novel (“These Foolish Things”) may be the jump start to a new film genre … gray cinema.

In the pre-opening credit sequence, we get introductions to seven Brits who are all at a crossroads in life … each past the career stage (either voluntarily or otherwise) but not ready to disappear into a meaningless existence waiting to die. They each respond to an advertisement for a hotel in Jaipur, India which caters to the “elderly and beautiful”. Its biggest selling point is probably the low cost of retirement. Still, it’s an adventure of the scale most of our heroes have never taken.

We meet Evelyn (Judi Dench) as the recent widow who discovers her beloved husband left her a mountain of debt; Douglas and Jean (Bill Nighy and Penelope Wilton) a hapless married couple who have invested their savings into their daughter’s internet company; Muriel (Maggie Smith) is a racist and longtime housekeeper for the rich who has been put out to pasture while in need of a new hip; Graham (Tom Wilkinson) is a high court judge who is fed up with responsibility and seeking to reconnect with a long ago lover; Madge (Celia Imrie) and Norman (Ronald Pickup) are the lonely hearts looking for love, or in his case, loving.

 They arrive at the Indian resort to be met by its proprietor Sonny, a wildly exuberant and overly optimistic Dev Patel (Slumdog Millionaire). Sonny has inherited the rundown property from his father and has huge dreams of turning it into a showplace for retirees from abroad … he literally wants to outsource old age for all the countries who have no use for the elderly. A sad truth for both the English and Americans.

The joy of the story comes from the transformation of each of the characters as they slowly discover more about the country and, in turn, more about themselves. Graham’s discovery is especially touching, while Jean’s takes a proverbial slap in the face from her long-suffering, quasi-henpecked husband Douglas. Even young Sonny learns about life decisions thanks to his guests and the actions of his mother and girlfriend.

With the general population aging, expect to see more films in this vein … aimed at the age group who is approaching the crossroads, but not yet ready to give up living. Director John Madden (Shakespeare in Love) has delivered a charming seriocomedy, but I expect others will take a more in-depth and analytical view at some point.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are after an entertaining story about some very interesting characters

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are looking for an in-depth study of the crossroads senior citizens face as their careers come to an end and a path must be chosen.

watch the trailer:


MY WEEK WITH MARILYN

December 2, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. I was initially ambivalent on seeing a movie about Marilyn Monroe making a movie. My twisted thinking was that I have already seen the actual film The Prince and the Showgirl, and this particular story is based on a book by Colin Clark who claims to have had a connection/fling with Marilyn during the production phase of the film. Since I had always doubted Clark’s claim, it wasn’t until early reviews of Michelle Williams‘ performance hit Twitter that I started to get interested.

 For an actor, playing Marilyn Monroe must be similar to playing Elvis. Everyone on earth knows what the real deal looks and sounds like. What is interesting about this film is that it is chock-full of actors playing well known people. In addition to Williams/Monroe, we get Eddie Redmayne as Colin, Kenneth Branagh as Sir Lawrence Olivier, Julia Ormond as Vivia Leigh (Olivier’s wife), Toby Jones as Arthur Jacobs, Dominic Cooper as Milton Greene, Karl Moffat as DP Jack Cardiff, Dame Judi Dench playing Dame Sybil Thorndyke, Zoe Wannamaker playing Paula Strasberg (Monroe’s acting coach), and Dougray Scott as Arthur Miller (the famous writer and Monroe’s husband at the time).

 Michelle Williams dominates the film just as Monroe would have. She mimics the iconic movements, but best succeeds in capturing the essence of Marilyn. History states that Olivier was very impatient with Marilyn and struggled with her irregular schedule and “method” approach to acting (which he abhorred). It is little wonder that Marilyn struggled so with her first and only film outside of the U.S. Many have an image of Ms. Monroe as a ditsy blonde, but there are a couple of well-documented autobiographies that show a pretty shrewd business person and one very aware of her marketable and valuable public image.

 As for the film, it rates a couple of ticks higher thanks to the outstanding performances of both Michelle Williams and Kenneth Branagh. If not for them, it would be little more than a TV movie. Speaking of, this is the first feature film for director Simon Curtis, whose previous work has been seen on television. Personally, I would have preferred a movie that focused on either the making of The Prince and the Showgirl or a view of the human side of Marilyn. Here, we get a shortage of each.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see Michelle Williams’ beautiful performance as Marilyn (she is likely to get an Oscar nom)

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are looking for any real insight into what Marilyn was like as a real person (this one just skims the surface)

watch the trailer: