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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JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT (2013)

January 18, 2014

jack ryan Greetings again from the darkness. Tom Clancy’s spy novels have produced four prior movies with three different actors appearing as Jack Ryan: Alec Baldwin in The Hunt for Red October, Harrison Ford in Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger, and Ben Affleck in The Sum of All Fears. While not based on a specific Clancy novel, this latest is a prequel clearly attempting to re-boot the franchise with Chris Pine as Ryan.

Screenwriters Adam Cozad and David Koepp have come up with an elaborate backstory beginning with Ryan (Chris Pine) as a university student so impacted by the 9/11 events that he enlists in the Marines. His heroic actions in Afghanistan and impressive recovery from serious injuries draw the attention of Kevin Costner’s character who recruits Ryan into the CIA. Ryan is established as a genius analyst quickly rising through the ranks at his Wall Street firm.

That entire set up is well played and quite interesting. A character who is believable as both a Marine-trained combat expert and a world-class financial analyst is borderline superhero stuff, so a fine line must be walked. Oddly enough, the big mission that Ryan falls into is actually reminiscent of the Cold War James Bond films. Foiling a terrorist act and a Russian plot to crash the US economy may be a bit far-fetched, but not if you have Chris Pine and Kevin Costner on your side! The best scene … and most worthy of an espionage thriller … takes place at a fancy Russian restaurant. Dining together are Ryan, his fiancé (Keira Knightley) and the Russian bad guy (played by the film’s director Kenneth Branagh). It reminds somewhat of the poker game between Bond and Le Chiffre in Casino Royale. Every glance and every word have dual meanings, and they all know they are being played. Unfortunately, it’s this terrific little dinner that begins the downward spiral for the movie. The action sequences are just plain silly, and the car chases, tricked out surveillance vans, and all-knowing super computer programs are just too familiar and tiresome to be effective.

Kenneth Branagh has had an extremely diverse directing career with films such as Frankenstein (1994), Hamlet (1996) and Thor (2011). It’s understandable that he would jump at the chance to re-ignite this franchise, but the genre is filled with high level competition – especially Bond and Bourne. So while it’s entertaining enough for a January action movie, it’s not at the level of the other franchises.

Perhaps Chris Pine is a bit too ambitious. Already established as the new Captain Kirk in the Star Trek re-boot, he seems somewhat over-matched in the Jack Ryan role. His stunning blue eyes may rival those of Frank Sinatra, but his screen presence falls short of Harrison Ford.

Three favorite pieces in this one are recognition for Manhattan’s long time theatre Film Forum, a two scene cameo from ballet great Mikhail Baryshnikov, and the appearance of Peter Andersson as Branagh’s head of security (he was the sleazebag case worker in Sweden’s original The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). Kevin Costner states this is geopolitics, but I believe it is closer to Hollywood’s desperation to recapture success instead of creating something new.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: it’s January and your button for an Action flick is being pushed after all the Oscar releases in December.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you now expect all action/thriller movies to be at the level of Bond and Bourne.

watch the trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K9KAnx4EvaE

 

 


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:


THOR

May 18, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. Upfront admission: I am not a Thor comic book expert. Many people are and I fully appreciate their take on this film will be much different from mine. I can only judge this movie on the basic background knowledge I have and the final product on the screen.

Let’s start with the good stuff. Chris Hemsworth makes a terrific Thor. If I had his looks and build, I would certainly consider myself a Nordic God. Heck, I might even carry around a giant hammer just for fun! Thor, son of Odin, is all set to be named King of Asgard until his quick temper and love of battle cause a break in the peace accord with the Frost Giants. His dad, Odin, played by Sir Anthony Hopkins is none too pleased with his hot-headed son. Not only does he renege on the promise to name him King, but he strips his power and casts him down to Earth … specifically New Mexico. For some reason, all alien portals lead to New Mexico. You can tell it’s a been a bad day for Thor because he lands in the middle of nowhere and is promptly run over by a science lab van driven by Natalie Portman.

 Other good stuff: Idris Elba as Heimdall, the gatekeeper, is excellent; there is a cameo by Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye – a teaser for The Avengers movie next year; Jaimie Alexander shows some chops as Sif; Clark Gregg is back as Agent Coulson; some of the special effects are pretty cool … the Frost Giants are very detailed and The Destroyer looks like Iron Man on metallic steroids; and lastly, Kat Dennings has a couple of sharp lines as Portman’s assistant. Ms. Dennings was superb in Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist.

 OK, the not so good stuff: I am beginning to despise 3-D (it adds nothing, while diminishing the brightness of colors); Jotunheim (land of the Frost Giants) is plain, gray and boring; Natalie Portman, fresh off an Oscar is just terrible as an astro-physicist with a teenager-style crush on Thor; Tom Hiddleston as Loki is one of the weakest villains I have ever seen in a super-hero/comic book movie; Rene Russo must not have read the script prior to accepting her role – she has about 3 lines and is totally wasted.

Despite the weaknesses, I found the movie to be entertaining enough thanks to the scenes with Thor and Odin. The ambitious son being shown tough love by his father is a missing element in much of society today. Guess it takes a Nordic God to show us how. The scenes with Portman are painful to watch, but I believe there is enough to keep the comic book fans, and just about anyone else, entertained.

Directed by Kenneth Branagh, who is best known for his Shakespeare and stage work, the movie does have a little different look and feel from the average superhero movie. Still, I wouldn’t put it in the class of Batman, Spider-man, or Iron Man. We do get the expected Stan Lee cameo and the end-of-the-credits appearance of Samuel L Jackson. Up next, Captain America but for now, it’s Hammer time!

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a fan of Thor comic books OR you just want to see what a shirtless Nordic God would look like OR you want to see a challenge to Elisabeth Shue in The Saint as the most miscast scientist (Ms. Portman)

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer the dialogue and story to make sense OR you prefer to remember Natalie Portman as the fine actress she was in Black Swan.