Murder on the Orient Express (***1/2) – It’s never about whodonit


Murder on the Orient Express – 2017

Director Kenneth Branagh
Screenplay Michael Green based on the novel by Agatha Christie
Starring Branagh, Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr., Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, Tom Bateman

“Lies – and again lies. It amazes me, the amount of lies we had told to us this morning.” (said Bouc)

“There are more still to discover,” said Poirot cheerfully.

“You think so?”

“I shall be very disappointed if it is not so.”

The Poirot of Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on The Orient Express is much more tired than the Albert Finney version of my extreme youth. Finney seemed ready to jump into the fray, whereas Branagh’s version always seems to remind people he’s on his way to retirement. On his way, but not quite yet.

This time, after solving the case of the missing religious artifact with the prime suspects being a priest, a rabbi and a cleric, he is asked to head to London for an impending case. The quickest route has to be the train line of the title, taking off from Istanbul the next morning. He gets on.

The mystery of the title happens the second night on the train. Someone is murdered. Then the train is stopped by landslide. The director of the train line, Bouc (Bateman) presses his friend, Poirot to solve the case quickly before the train gets moving again and gets to the next stop.

From this point, the interviews are fast and furious. If you think you’ve solved it or if you have seen or read previous incarnations, this train is still worth the ride. The point of Branagh’s take is not really to show a neat collection of clues and piecing the puzzle together. That said, it should be easy enough to surmise that there is more than one motive and suspect.

Where Branagh succeeds in this take of the story is in his realization that there must be a reason to watch a film more than once. The things going against that in any mystery is once you’ve seen it, the mystery is solved. It also doesn’t help to have such exaggerated vamp performances.

For these reasons, Branagh has included some carefully laden clues, gorgeous scenery, a humble soundtrack and some more subtle acting to reward repeat viewing. In short, he’s made a movie that draws you in while it pulls you down the track.

First of all there are very few scenes that come across as cheesy. Everyone is playing straight with no chaser. Even Derek Jacobi, who seems the very essence of a flaunt, has a muffle on it for once. In fact, only Poirot comes across as any sort of flamboyant, and like I said, he’s pretty subdued. And he’s rather polite, too. We just know that he has a big mustache and can’t turn down a good mystery.

The shots of the train and the environment it ambles through are excellent, for the most part. There are a couple of CGI moments, but those are forgivable in an age where a warm den with a computer outweighs any shot in inclement weather. We can definitely tell, in scenes like Poirot’s interrogation of Debenham (Ridley) and the final reveal, these people are not comfortable and for more reasons than their guilt or innocence.

Of the passengers, all of the performances are good, and a few of them great. Pfeiffer hasn’t chewed this much scenery since Dangerous Liaisons. Ridley’s counter to Poirot’s inquiries is fun, as she gives no quarter, nor does she expect any. My favorite is Bateman’s Bouc, in what should have been a throwaway role. His frank honesty adds an innocence that is required to give Poirot a sounding board off which to bounce his findings.

Most interesting is the scenery that Branagh and cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos use for many of the shots. There are many shots from differing vantages and through angled windows and mirrors that add another dimension to what could have been a boring and repetitive venture of questions and answers.

This is not necessary viewing, to be sure. It’s a matter of preference and whether or not you have a Sunday afternoon with nothing planned. It’s not necessarily the kind of film that will leave one puzzled. In truth, one would hold little chance to fully resolve the film based on the fact that evidence mostly comes to light for us in an orderly fashion throughout the last two acts.

It’s a good film though,. And it deserves a space for those who like to see a good story told well. Not well enough for awards, but definitely well enough for someone with nothing much to do.

(***1/2 out of *****)



Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (***1/2), but the movies never stop


Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales – 2017

Directors Joachim Rønning, Espen Sandberg
Screenplay by Jeff Nathanson
Starring  Johnny Depp, Javier Bardem, Brenton Thwaites, Kaya Scodelario, Kevin McNally, Geoffrey Rush, Golshifteh Farahani, David Wenham, Stephen Graham, Orlando Bloom, Kiera Knightly

It’s been forever since they pumped one of these films out. Okay, well not that long ago. But since 2011 Depp’s star has fallen. Good thing I don’t care about that crap. For the most part, I have enjoyed his Pirates‘ movies. I saw none of the earlier films in the theater, but I bought them all. And watched them once. For some reason, I never felt have been able to want to watch them again over repeated viewings of Master and Commander. Okay, it’s because the Russell Crowe / Paul Bettany epic is one of my favorite films. I always was a little jealous that the first film took the wind from the sails of the clearly superior Peter Weir film. By now, when its clear that there will be no 2nd film for the Patrick O’Brien series, it’s all water under the bow.

I have learned to appreciate the films, first for their inclusion of Geoffrey Rush as the initial antagonist and eventual anti-hero. He was made to play Barbosa in every way possible. The only other character that I like better is his Walsingham from the classic Elizabeth films.  That the story is somewhat centered around Barbosa only helps, in my view.

The story is a tad convoluted, nonetheless. Will Turner is a bit too old to play the naive hunk by about a decade, so instead we have his son, played by Thwaites. The dutiful son is dedicated to bringing his father out of eternal curse of sailing the Flying Dutchman. In order to do this, he needs a MacGuffin held onto by Depp’s Jack Sparrow. That MacGuffin will lead to another MacGuffin which leads to…well, you get the point.

In his search for Sparrow, he comes across a new young babe (Scoldelario) who bases her life on the belief of science and stuff. I say stuff because some of this is based on the true tale of Poseidon’s Trident.

Meanwhile, Sparrow is being chased by Salazar, a former Pirate hunter who was obliterated by a curse at the hands of a young, digitally enhanced Sparrow. So now he’s some kind of ghost.  He is unleashed the moment that Jack Sparrow does something with one of the MacGuffins, but this is not the last time he’ll be set free. If you think that is good for him, you haven’t seen many of these movies.

The thing about this plot, it works real well with the effects and the effort feels halfway cohesive. Sparrow flits and farts through the film, using his super power of being too drunk to take any hit straight on, yet sure-footed enough to get the benefit of every bounce.

Will the plucky youths come out on top in the end? Will those who have died in a curse live to die again? Does Barbosa find a purpose after so much looting and plundering? Will that little ghost of a monkey be as adorable now as ever? Will we get to listen to Knightly speak or does she charge by the word?

One thing is for sure, Sparrow will remain unchanged, astern The Black Pearl by the end of the film. And the next one too.

There will be no preaching about this film one way or the other. I can tell you that as the series goes, this is one of the better efforts, if for no other reason the youngsters are different from in films 2 and 3. Why that matters is of personal taste. I just liked seeing the wheel turn to a new generation there as we view the constants of Sparrow and Barbosa in the center.

Bardem does a fine job of being disappointed in his efforts to ruin Jack’s day. His perverse speaking style has a fear of failure built-in along with his joy in killing whatever he deems to be bad.

All the peripheral Pirate characters you’ve grown used to but still don’t know the names of are all here, except for maybe a few that died in earlier films. I mean that died and weren’t re-signed for this film.

The best thing about the film, not one mention of a voodoo curse by someone speaking with a reggae infused accent. It’s almost makes up for the biggest disappointment of trading Keith Richards for Paul McCartney. No problem with Sir Paul, but he’s no Keef.

So I think I will finally go back and partake of the rest of this series. There is probably some fun to be had…again. If not, I am sure I will have another chance to see another sequel in a few years.

(***1/2 out of *****)


Black Mass (**) is not moving


Black Mass – 2015

Director Scott Cooper
Screenplay Jez Butterworth, Mark Mallouk based on the book by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill
Starring Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Rory Cochrane, Kevin Bacon, Jesse Plemons, Corey Stoll, Peter Sarsgaard, Dakota Johnson, W. Earl Brown

As someone who has seen Goodfellas somewhere close to 30 times, I don’t have to say how much I can appreciate crime drama at its best. It’s a difficult line to walk, deciding which real events and real people to leave out, what characters and events to meld together. One thing that cannot be left out is a compelling story driven by characters one can identify with and root for and against. For the Scorsese classic, we are drawn into the world through our tethering to the perfectly expressed thoughts of Henry Hill (Liotta), who lived by a code that was consistent, if not one the normal Schmo would find comfortable. This code is presented through a procession of scenes that build upon one another as the character grows within his environment. He doesn’t grow a conscience and decide he needs “out.” Furthest thing from it. He does what he has to in order to survive, and then lives with adjusted consequences.

Ever since that film, many mob stories have come and gone, most trying but failing to duplicate it’s success. Scorsese himself tried it again a few times, failing with Casino and even more spectacularly with The Wolf of Wall Street, but scoring an Oscar with the good, but not great The Departed. The last of which is one of the many recent Boston “Southie” mob tales that have come out of the real life that Whitey Bulger lived. It’s a shame, after The Departed, The Town, Mystic River, The Boondock Saints films and The Equalizer, we reach the point where we’re taking on Whitey in depth and the formula has run out of steam.

It’s easy to blame the glut of films that take place in that world, but it is more than this that contributes to the feeling of tired resignation one gets while watching a film that is technically telling Bulger’s story proficiently and uncompromisingly. There is technique in the buildup of scene after scene, but it is a tired one that does not try anything new. Someone messes up, they go for a car ride, they get whacked. Someone gets arrested, they talk (or don’t) they go for a car ride…you know.

By the time I am finished watching Johnny Depp in his strikingly blue eyed makeup for 2 hours of this, I don’t know anything more about Whitey Bulger than what I read in the paper, saw on the news or elicited from The Departed. Plenty of people tell us who Bulger is, and we see him do things all the time. We never really know why he does them, because he was a fully convicted, served and released member of the Alcatraz club by the time we first lay eyes on him. Everything he does afterword is strictly driven by opportunity.

Where one suspects the story is trying to go is the story of FBI Agent John Connolly (Edgerton). He is trying to play both sides and score points while allowing his lifelong friend to thrive. There is some real grist here for a story, and it would be a great film if they could have done anything close to a believable job. I have yet to see the film where I believed that Edgerton acted poorly until this one. Even Uncle Owen from the dreaded Star Wars prequels outshines here. His performance is laughably underwritten and almost qualifies as parody. It’s one thing when we see him interrogate a witness against Bulger. We then see him go right out in public to question Bulger. Next thing we see is the witness dying. Got it.

We then see Connolly attempt to go through the same ritual with his disbelieving co-workers not once but two more times on screen. As if we didn’t get the point.

Then there is the disintegrating relationship with Connolly and his wife. It has all of the motions of other films where the husband gets in too deep and the wife gets spooked, but absolutely nothing in the way of a convincing execution of these events. From the moment they have their little make-out session at the beginning of the film you can almost see him being locked out in one hour screen time.

The best performances in this film are with Bulger’s accomplices:

Weeks, as played by Plemons, is a vacant ship, just doing nothing but being faithful. He has no other connections than Bulger and although we never see why he turns on him, that is the fault of the script only. W. Earl Brown as Martorano is like an older and wiser version of Weeks. He is ruthless, but his strict adherence to code gives us plenty of understanding why he would rat on the increasingly erratic and unpredictable Bulger.

The best acting is Cochrane’s take on Flemmi, who has his heart wrenched out quite cinematically but does a great job keeping a stiff upper lip.

Johnny Depp looks primed and ready to roll in his performance of the titular Black Mass. He is a void that continuously sucks in those in orbit around him. It makes one wonder what he could have done with perhaps a half-hour more screen time, or some genuine exploration of his character. It’s not his fault we never get to see him before he is a convict.

The experience rings hollow, unfortunately, and all of his work will be sadly forgotten by the time the next Boston crime story surfaces.

After scoring an initial win with Crazy Heart, Cooper has shown himself to be a competent if not particularly driven director. He hits every note here with such a thud, it plays like some sort of climax. By the time the story reaches it’s end, it feels more like a long day’s work than an experience.

Hard to tell how much of this is due to the bland script, which Jim Sheridan wisely left his name off of. I haven’t particularly loved anything Butterworth has written, although Liman, Blunt and Cruise did make something nice out of Edge of Tomorrow. Oh, and it might have helped having McQuarrie around for that one too.

While I never seek out Johnny Depp, I don’t root against him either. It was sad thinking that this might be one of the rare opportunities he’ll ever get for some real credible acting. In all of the obvious energy he put into his performance, this film is adrift from the first moments.

(** out of *****)

22 Jump Street: Does Blanche do heroin?


22 Jump Street – 2014

Directors Lord and Miller
Starring Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, Peter Stromare, Ice Cube, Amber Stevenson, Jillian Bell, Wyatt Russell
Screenplay Michael Bacall, Oren Uziel, Rodney Rothman

Conventional wisdom tells us the story about most sequels, and it tells even more about those who review sequels.  Many sequels are made on some sort of auto pilot that just applies more explosions, more speed, more money into the same story.  More reviewers head into sequels already knocking a point or two off of their rating.  It almost takes an act of Congress to restore it.

To be completely honest, my want to see the 2nd Jump Street film was not as high as it probably deserved.  They were coming back with the same team of stars, directors and writers.  What could go wrong?  For this reviewer, its been Jonah Hill fatigue.  His film work lately has received more praise than it was worth, and the debacle of his use of homosexual slurs had me tired of his over apology.  He knew it was stupid to say what he did.  He knew more the financial cost of not bending over backwards to appease those who might be offended by it.  The whole thing stunk as insincere.  Give me Shia LaBeouf any day. There’s a guy who knows how to avoid going to therapy just because he went on a bender in NYC.

When it came down to it, 22 Jump Street looked like the only film fellow reviewer WeMissE and I had not seen either together or separately, so that was that.  Good decision by elimination.  This time around, with the guys going to College instead of High School, it was better than the first.  Mainly it was self awareness that allows it to be so.  Much of the talk in the beginning centers around the coincidence of their new location, along with management’s desire for Schmidt and Jenko to just do what they did the first time around. Some of the early references fall flat, but it’s the long game that counts and that is where everyone succeeds.

The story, in short, is about a new drug called WhyPhy (wifi).  A college student is dead from its effects, and for some reason, just like the first time around, the police has caught up to this drug in it’s first location – fictional college MC State – and they know the dealers plan to go National from there, even if they don’t know who the dealers are.  Such moments remind me of the speaking while driving segments of the Lethal Weapon films.  We need exposition, and for the film makers, there are better things to do than mine that out of the story naturally.  In the Jump Street films, the better things to do is provide comedy.

Do they ever provide comedy, though.  The main trio in these films, Hill, Ice Cube and especially Tatum, are perfectly cast for their roles.  It’s as if everything in their acting life has lead them to this point, and the result is pure magic.  Their performances once more match almost perfectly with that of the scribes and directors. There are moments that might stretch too far, like Cube’s meltdown at the dinner buffet, but if anything, the wisdom was to alter the course just enough so that what we expected to be stale is different. Even better, the chase scenes and the violence were actually scaled back, making them seem a tad more realistic, if that is at all possible.

Among the highlights in supporting cast, most prevalent is Bell.  Her deadpan delivery works exceptionally.  Her remarkably awkward scene with Hill towards the end of the film is pure magic.

There are the Yang twins in the dorm across the hall, played by The Lucas Brothers.  Every moment with them is funny, and even better, it brings another element to Schmidt and Jenko, playing brothers who are so completely different.  The wise decision to make the point that Schmidt looks much older allows for a potentially worn out joke to breathe and as a result, be funny.

It’s nearly impossible to picture Peter Stromare as anyone other than Karl Hungus from The Big Lebowski.  Even so, he is not really on the screen enough to distract from the story.  If anything, it’s better having him there because a stock character needs to be played by a reliable character actor.

This is indicative of the strength of Lord and Miller as filmmakers.  They are not reinventing the wheel in any way with their work.  They just make it a little wobbly, and thereby more entertaining to watch.  If they excel at anything other than turning convention into a weapon, it’s pacing.  There is never a moment that we spend thinking about anything other than what is happening on the screen.  The best example of their continued magical chemistry with the writers, Bacall especially, is the pondering of drugs today versus those used by The Golden Girls.

Tatum is a decent actor, but he’s never been close to as effective in any of his other work as he is here.  Jenko is a rare bird: a person at war with his brain.  He keeps expecting it to work for him, but at crucial moments, it just doesn’t.  The key is not overplaying it.  Other actors might play him as a buff, but functional retarded man.  He is just short of the Pain and Gain guys, but he is capable where one might expect.  This time around, he finds someone who fits his personality like a glove.  Zook, played by Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell.  The interactions are not forced and seem just enough for a couple of kids who were made for college sports, and not much else.

Hill, for what it’s worth, is back in his wheelhouse.  It’s not that he isn’t good at dramatic film-work.  He is just not as good at it as the press would have one believe.  This will probably play itself out in 2 or 3 years, and his opportunities might diminish a bit.  He’s made brilliant choices on who to work with so far, and the press has loved him for it.  There are only so many times you can play the same quirk.

Ice Cube has something that no one else can do.  His skill is much like Charles Barkley’s.  Who else can give an explicit insult to “Korean Jesus” in one moment and then sing the praises of the “Vietnamese Jesus” the next?  Making him a father is a stroke of genius.  Making him the father of a college age kid is beyond genius.  Just wait to see who the mother is.

It’s unclear whether there will be a genuine sequel to this film.  Given the hilarious sequence of sequels they roll out with the credits, it might be a bridge too far.  My favorite is 33 Jump Street: Generations.  After that brilliant sequence, they’d be foolish to try to top it.  Then again, I thought they would be fools to try to make a movie out of such a conventional show, so many years after it was over.  These guys can do a lot with convention.

(****1/2 out of *****)

The Lone Ranger: Waiting for Depp to fail.


The Lone Ranger – 2013

Director Gore Verbinski
Starring Johnny Depp, Armie Hammer, William Fichtner, Tom Wilkinson, Barry Pepper, James Badge Dale, Helena Bonham Carter
Screenplay Justin Haythe, Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio

The Lone Ranger was pretty much announced DOA when it was released in July 2013.  Why is pretty much tea leaf readings based on production difficulties, a general distaste for Jerry Bruckheimer and a feeling that Johnny Depp’s luck had to run out at some point.  The film’s primary failure in that it did not stretch beyond the shadow of doubt cast over Disney from the previous summer’s John Carter.  Other than that, like John Carter, it’s pretty good.

Disney’s too big, though, to not have films do great box office.  They will survive, of course, but everyone in Hollywood not owned by Disney (there’s only a few left, I know) will have a field day, as the company counts receipts from the Marvel and Lucasfilm (okay, Star Wars) and other Disney owned features, toys, etc.  Point is, failure is not new territory for Disney, and it’s also not a problem.  People just need something to talk about, or fill column space.  See, I just got two paragraphs.  This writing is a piece of cake.

Back to the film, it’s not nearly the mess that it could have been, even if it leans a little too heavily on not shooting guns and doing the right thing.  When you see the bad (always white) guys kill, maim, injure and prosper, the guy in the white hat does everything he can by the book, even if the person he is fighting has done something unspeakable.  That’s just dumb.  Armie Hammer has the propensity to play more intelligently (The Social Network) than he is allowed in this portrayal of the titular character.  He’s got a lot of spirit, though.

Depp is at his most appealing playing Tonto.  I don’t give a rip if he is 1/32 Comanche or he comes from a long line of quitters.  He’s cool as a cucumber and, when he’s not being required to suffer at the hand’s of his partner’s naivete or required to tell the story to a little kid, he’s literally giving the people what they want.  It’s easy to appreciate what they worked to carry out with the role and they largely succeeded.  His story, and the portrayals of Comanche Nation is good enough for me, even if I don’t have the heritage to say so without protest.

The bad guys are drawn effectively as well.  Fichtner is almost unrecognizable, Pepper is delightfully vapid and Wilkinson, as usual, is the real snake.  His reveal is supposed to be a surprise, but it is just about as much of a secret as how the big Disney villain always dies.  I would give you a hint, but, really, it’s no surprise.  Really.

Speaking of bad, the annoyance that is Bonham-Carter is muted by brevity and appropriateness of content.  Her weapons, along with her character, is borrowed.  At least we don’t have to see her naked.

The direction is exactly what one can expect from the helmer of the first three Pirates of the Caribbean films.  The action sequences are crisp and exceptionally well-timed.  They make Depp look unwittingly brilliant.  What they have borders on crystal clear magic.  The film’s signature scenes are ones involving trains.  The beginning and especially the end are magnificent and thrilling.  If the film had been more successful, they just may have re-done Thunder Mountain.

They are re-doing Thunder Mountain, but there will be no Lone Ranger references.  Nor, will there be a sequel.  They played Hammer’s character as if there would be one, and it hurts the film overall.  So does the PG-13 awkwardness.  So much violence in a traditionally low-key action character is off-putting enough, but making it PG-13 muted is kind of lame.  They could have toned down the massacres, since they knew it would not amount to anything.

The Lone Ranger is a decent summer film.  It will have life on video that it didn’t quite achieve in theaters.  It’s one of the few Depp performances I look forward to seeing again.

(***1/2 0ut of *****)

Dark Shadows: Tim Burton is strange, but still knows how to cash in

Dark Shadows – 2012

Director Tim Burton
Starring Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Eva Green, Helena Bonham Carter, Jackie Earle Haley, Johnny Lee Miller, Chloë Grace Moretz, Bella Heathcote, Gulliver McGrath, Alice Cooper, Christopher Lee
Screenplay Seth Grahame-Smith based on the TV show by Dan Curtis

Anyone who’s seen Beetlejuice will instantly recognize a family dynamic demonstrated in the early part of Dark Shadows.  That dynamic is the reckless and aloof daughter played first by Winona Rider and this time around by Moretz.  It’s her job to roll her eyes as our other fantastic and daft characters do wacky things.  In employing this method, Burton won over many a misunderstood teenage girl  They, along with many of the audience in Tim Burton films, understand that the moody teenage girl is much more centered than the other goofs.  She is hipper, she is misunderstood, but we know that she is the one that the others will learn from if they want to accomplish anything.

Barnabas Collins (Depp) is one such student in Dark Shadows.  His last 196 years have been spent in a casket because of a woman scorned.  The woman who put him there, Angie (Green), is still there.  She rules the town of Collinsport now, but she never has taken over his home of Collinwood.  Even now, on its last legs, it is held by two of his distant cousins, Elisabeth (Pfeiffer) and Roger (Miller), hold residence as merely place keepers.  Elisabeth’s daughter, Carolyn (Moretz) is grouchy and likes playing T-Rex, like everyone else in movies that cover that time.  I think of him as the Van Morrison of early 70’s scripts.  Rider came to prominence in both Beetlejuice and Heathers, but never was able to build much in the way of momentum.  Moretz has already made several better films in her short career than Rider ever made.  In that way, it is a shame to see her so limited here.

This is not to say that Dark Shadows is a bad film.  In fact, it is very amusing.  The Burton quirks, especially those expressed with the dry humor that Depp excels at, are all present.  The emotions presented are almost surgically sterile.  The key feeling expressed is one of vengeance, and even that runs a little cold.  It really does not matter how one evaluates Depp at this point.  You either swoon or you don’t…or you sit back and try to smirk once in a while.

One can appreciate the story as presented, and I really appreciated the chance to see Pfeiffer looking so alluring after so many years off-screen.  Jackie Earle Haley is quite fun as Caretaker Loomis.  Eva Green has been a lot more appealing, but then she is several hundred years old.  Seeing Lt. Gorman from Aliens fire a couple of shots into Depp’s back was cool.

By the time the credits roll, we get the same feeling from this film as we do most of Burton’s retreads.  There is no fire, and most of the laughs are forced, in that ever so subtle Burton way.  There will likely be no sequel, but that is okay. This already feels like one.  Sure, Pfeiffer will be disappointed, but not so much as those of us who get the privilege of seeing him place his quirky stamp all over some other film property we really care about.

(**1/2 out of *****)

21 Jump Street takes a different, better turn

21 Jump Street – 2012

Directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller
Starring Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, Brie Larson, Ellie Kemper, Dave Franco, Rob Riggle, Ice Cube
Screenplay Michael Bacall

It’s not that I did not ever watch the original television show, I just didn’t ever make it a point to watch 21 Jump Street.  All of the hullabaloo surrounding Johnny Depp, Richard Grieco and what I considered to be the wrong member of the DeLuise family didn’t appeal much to me.  I don’t even remember when it went off air.  All these years later when the movie was announced, I had mixed feelings.  Jonah Hill was an interesting choice, but how could anyone be enthused by the selection of Channing Tatum as his partner?  Tatum has mad appeal to women of all ages, as shown by the above average performance of his films, most of which kind of suck.

How surprising, then, to discover that the most memorable performance of the film belongs to Tatum.  His comic chops, shown successfully in the otherwise average Haywire, and dismally in the waste of time The Dilemma.  Tatum’s turn in this movie is perhaps the most delightful performance of the year.  While not being entirely dimwitted, he puts enough of himself in the position of a fool who, while not hopeless, must make a change to…just about average.  Just like only Nixon could go to China, only someone who is not the brightest could pick up a thing or two by the end of a well devised comedy.

Tatum is not alone in his development.  Somewhat more prototypical journey is from the geek to the popular guy.  Hill, however, doesn’t need to win everyone over at the school, he just seeks little victories, making each one sweeter and more rife for real comedic potential.

The movie’s direction seems at one with the script.  Aside from some early goofball antics that stretch believability past funny (humping a pimp, really?), there are enough little touches (the Captain flicking Hill’s injured elbow) that ring true.  Funnier still is the play on typical loud action expected in any film with cops and bad guys.  Jenko and Schmidt (Tatum and Hill, by name) spend much of the time perplexed when conventional stuff does not occur.

The peripheral characters add much to the enjoyment of the story.  Again, it’s because they are played not quite against convention, but, rather, with a touch of realism that allows for more genuine laughter than the same crap you’ve seen in almost every movie since Porky’s.  Geeks are still geeks, but they have a use, and, importantly, are not universally hated.  The best of these is the portrayal of Brie Larson as Molly.  She is part of a crowd that have a special place in the school, but for reasons that would have made them pariahs 10 years earlier.  Larson is very pretty and at ease on camera.  Last thing I saw her in, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, she was as good as anyone else in the film, playing Scott’s ex-girlfriend, Envy Adams.  She is headed in a great direction, if these two movies are an indication.

Ellie Kemper gives the most deliciously wicked performance as Ms. Griggs.  Along with

What’s that you say, Ms. Griggs?

her work in The Office and Bridesmaids, she is fast becoming one of the classic comedic actresses of our time.

Ice Cube has become a reliable comic commodity, and here is no exception.  He has the rare talent of being fearsome, mean, funny and comforting at once.  There is no one else like him.

The film is filled with surprises, and even the expected ones take a turn for the better.  The cohesion between Lord, Miller and Bacall bring to mind the classic works of Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg, or perhaps Ivan Reitman and Harold Ramis.  Magical.

21 Jump Street must be seen if you come anywhere close to liking comedy.  Even if you don’t, I dare you to try not to laugh at this one.

(****1/2 out of *****)

The Rum Diary: Notes on a life full of exits

The Rum Diary – 2011

Written and Directed by Bruce Robinson
Starring Johnny Depp, Aaron Eckhart, Michael Rispoli, Giovanni Ribisi, Amber Heard, Richard Jenkins

I had always wondered whether I should read any of Hunter S. Thompson’s stuff.  I had a quirky friend who had read him in High School and, before he went off the deep end, I found him to be rather funny.  ‘Round about 2005 when he decided he wasn’t going to live with the consequences of his bad lifestyle choices, I decided that reading his works was no longer necessary.  There is a line early on when Hunter’s alter-ego, Paul Kemp, gives advice to a man of recent acquaintance who is tired of his job:

“Why don’t you quit?  Life is full of exits.”

This is a clever line, to the makers of The Rum Diary.  They apparently think nothing of his decision to leave his loved ones in the lurch at the end.  To Johnny Depp and Bruce Robinson, Thompson is still a wacked-out folk hero rebel.  From Depp, this is not a surprise, as he already made the another Thompson movie, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which bombed in 1999.  As for Robinson, I am still not sure he’s made a movie that has turned a profit, and I am utterly surprised that he got $40 million from someone to make this film.  It barely made half of its money back.  So at least this is consistent with Hunter’s other works made into movies.

The story is typical Thompson: booze, a new job, weird new friends, drugs and bastards.  The bastards, as in every case, are those who by nature or choice are in opposition to Thompson.  He has some sense of right and wrong, mixed with the drugs it is often hard to distinguish if it is real or by accident.  The natives are his purpose du jour.  He gets offers from the bastards (Eckhart in better clothes than everyone else) to help them make money.  Meanwhile he hangs out with his new, lowly, newspaper writing and drug addicted friends, getting in trouble with the locals while feeling a pious pity for them.

As for the friends, Ribisi is wasted simply by playing every other lowlife he’s portrayed in his career.  Rispoli actually does a credible job as Bob Sala, who is the resident true heart sad sack.  He is so believable, he almost makes the movie worth watching.  But not quite.

Depp is amusing, off and on, but we’ve seen this crap before, done better in other movies that take place in the Caribbean.  We get it, Depp.  In the immortal words of Marc Hochman, “We gotcha.”  We’re all impressed that you can play someone in an altered state.  Now try playing sober.

(** out of *****)

I Don’t Have A Vote: Cool Papa E Picks The 84th Oscars

2012 Academy Awards

Please don’t let this be the year that the gimmicky French film wins.  I would prefer that the real masterpiece that took place in Paris, France take home the gold.  The rush to crown The Artist as Best Picture feels a little like the time we anointed Brokeback Mountain the movie of our times.  If it actually wins, then it will feel like when Out of Africa beat out The Color Purple: only one of those films has been watched since 1985.

The disappointments this year are in the omission of the last Harry Potter film, along with Take Shelter from the nominees list for Best Picture.  We easily could have done without War Horse, Moneyball and Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close in this category.  This just shows the kind of clout Speilberg, Pitt and Hanks have that they get these as gimmes.

As a refresher from last year’s post, if a category is not covered here, it’s because I have not seen most of the films in that group, and, obviously, don’t care about the category.

Best Picture

The Artist, The DescendantsExtremely Loud & Incredibly Close, Hugo, Midnight in ParisThe HelpMoneyballWar Horse, The Tree of Life

My pick:  Out of this group, Hugo is the clear class of the bunch.  There are other good films here, The Help, The Descendants and The Tree of Life among them.  None of those, though, were better than Take Shelter.  Only Hugo achieves this, and it is the best 3D film ever.

Who will win: If The Artist wins, something is seriously wrong with Hollywood, because no one will be watching this film in a year.  For the self-congratulatory voters, however, this is the shiny object in their periphery.  Better still, it is a shiny object that they feel represents “tradition.”  It should be a dead heat between Hugo and The Help.  My money is on The Artist, though.  Something is seriously wrong with Hollywood.

Best Actor
Demian Bichir, A Better Life
George Clooney, The Descendants
Jean Dujardin, The Artist
Gary Oldman, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Brad Pitt, Moneyball

My pick: Bashir gave a clinic in A Better Life.  Brad Pitt actually did better work this year in Tree of Life, but that was a supporting role, so the performance was ignored.  Clooney playing slightly against type is always fun.  The older he gets, the more ways he finds to go against type.  Soon, he will have no “type.”

Who will win: If The Artist wins best picture, it may be enough to divorce the voters from the idea of giving it to the French guy, who spoke not a word.  I think the Academy likes Clooney as much as I do.

Best Actress
Glenn Close, Albert Nobbs
Viola Davis, The Help
Rooney Mara, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady
Michelle Williams, My Week With Marilyn

My pick: Mara’s movie, while great, is derivative.  I still think of Noomi Rapace.  She should have been nominated for her work first.  Streep is great, but the Iron Lady is not enough to get the gold.  I haven’t liked Close much since Cookie’s Fortune showed me how unskilled she is when unrestrained.  I haven’t seen Williams as Marilyn.  If ever there was a clear standout, Davis should win for showing us how to be humble, graceful and a giant of a human being.

Who will win: Davis, with no question.  Streep is old reliable and could surprise.  From what I have been told, Mara does not interview well.  That and a violent movie about rape should keep her from the gold this time.

Best Supporting Actor
Kenneth Branagh, My Week With Marilyn
Jonah Hill, Moneyball
Nick Nolte, Warrior
Christopher Plummer, Beginners
Max Von Sydow, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

My pick:  Nick Nolte’s performance in Warrior was incredibly poetic.  His skill has only increased with age.  Hill was fun in his fictional version of Paul DePodesta, and he really worked Sorkin’s dialogue.  I have to go with Nolte here.  I have to say, though, it was a true shame that Rickman was not nominated for his role of Snape.  He would have taken the Oscar, if so.

Who will win:  The shiny object in this category is the old gay guy dying of cancer who was faithful until his wife died.  Plummer is a great actor of many years.  This is his Sean Connery moment, albeit a slightly pinker version.  I would rather have given it to him for Star Trek VI, but hey, I am a different breed of cat.

Best Supporting Actress
Berenice Bejo, The Artist
Jessica Chastain, The Help
Melissa McCarthy, Bridesmaids
Janet McTeer, Albert Nobbs
Octavia Spencer, The Help

My pick:  Chastain is a wonderful actress who had many excellent roles this year.  3 of these, The Help, Tree of Life, and especially Take Shelter deserved nominations (the latter for Best Actress), but she lands in the one spot she can’t win.  Octavia Spencer is perhaps the best nominated performance of this year’s awards.  She made a lasting impression with The Help.  McCarthy was good, but undercut by fat chick clichés in Bridesmaids.

Who will win: I think that Spencer made the same impression on the voters that she made with me.

Best Director
Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris
Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist
Terrence Malick, The Tree of Life
Alexander Payne, The Descendants
Martin Scorsese, Hugo

My pick: Payne and Malick had excellent movies, but Scorsese’s Hugo is a masterpiece.  This movie is right up there with Goodfellas, Raging Bull, Aviator and Taxi Driver as the best in his career.  Yeah, I know I did not include The Departed.  It’s good, but not on the level with his best.  Remember, Oscar is a shiny object.  The most impressive feat of the film, though, is Scorcese’s ability to weave a wonderful tale and while using unobtrusive 3D effects that actually help the story seem all the more real.

Who will win: It looks like The Artist’s director will take this one.  The only one that stands a chance is Scorsese.  Not a good one, though.

Best Original Screenplay
Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris
JC Chandor, Margin Call
Asghar Farhadi, A Separation
Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist
Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo, Bridesmaids

My pick:  Out of this group, I have to go with Midnight in Paris.  Take Shelter should have been nominated and deserves the award, too.  Margin Call was nothing more than a depressing recap.  Bridesmaids was good, but the fat clichés knock it out for me.

Who will win: The Academy is big on Woody Allen.  He thinks like they do.

Best Adapted Screenplay
Alexander Payne, Nat Faxton, Jim Rash, The Descendants
John Logan, Hugo
George Clooney, Grant Heslov, Beau Willimon, The Ides of March
Aaron Sorkin, Steven Zaillian, Moneyball
Bridget O’Connor, Peter Straughn, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

My pick:  No contest.  As good as The Descendants is, Hugo is the best story of the nominations and it was written exquisitely.  The story is the history of movies itself.  There can be no better story than this for a movie lover.

Who will win: Odds have The Descendants.  I have to go with Hugo though.  What better way for Hollywood to celebrate itself than by this story?

Best Animated Feature
A Cat In Paris
Chico & Rita
Kung Fu Panda 2
Puss in Boots

My pick:  No question here.  Kung Fu Panda 2.  The story was a true continuation of the journey.  Remarkable and one of the 4 best animated features ever.  The great thing here is that Pixar was shut out after putting out that derivative pile of crap, Cars 2.  It’s only because I love everything else that Pixar has done (except Cars) that I celebrate this.  They always do better, and they deserved the shut out.

Who will win: Rango is probably going to take this.  It looked great, to be sure.  The story was about as original as Avatar, though.

Original Score

The Adventures of Tintin, John Williams
The Artist, Ludovic Bource
Hugo, Howard Shore
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Alberto Iglesias
War Horse, John Williams

My pick: Howard Shore did a very skilful job combining the feelings and the tension with Hugo.  The Artist was a hodgepodge of stolen riffs from other movies.  They call it an homage, but that did not fare any better than Moulin Rouge for me.

Who will win:  The music for the silent film will probably win the day.

Best Original Song
Man or Muppet,” The Muppets; Music and Lyric by Bret McKenzie
Real in Rio,” Rio; Music by Sergio Mendes and Carlinhos Brown, Lyric by Siedah Garrett

My pick:  Easy.  McKenzie’s faux rock ballad perfectly encapsulated the glory of all things Muppet.  Ironically, that was not even as good as Life’s a Happy Song from the same movie.  Real in Rio is a nice song, but that’s about it.

Who will win:  Like I said.  Easy.

Best Achievement in Art Direction
The Artist
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2
Midnight in Paris
War Horse

My pick: Before I saw Hugo, this award would have gone to the last Harry Potter.  My life is now infused with the images from Scorsese’s masterpiece.

Who will win:  Hugo should win, but The Artist could creep in.

Best Achievement in Cinematography
The Artist
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
The Tree of Life
War Horse

My pick:  Malick’s work was immaculate.  His nonsequiturs are amazingly filmed as they are puzzling.  I love Fincher camera work and The Artist sure does look good.  Nothing, however, holds a camera to Scorsese’s work in Hugo.

Who will win:  This is likely the one place that they reward Malick’s wonderful film.  Hugo or The Artist could surprise though.

Best Achievement in Costume Design
The Artist
Jane Eyre

My pick:  This is a contest between Hugo and The Artist.  Hugo’s costumes encompass all that The Artist’s presented, while bringing into it so much more.  Hugo.

Who will win:  This could go either way, but I am guessing that they go with The Artist.

Best Documentary Feature
Hell and Back Again
If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front
Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory

My pick:  Hell and Back Again.  Semper Fi.

Who will win:  Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory has traction.

Best Achievement in Film Editing

The Artist
The Descendants
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

My pick:  There are no wasted shot’s with Thelma Schoonmaker.  Hugo.

Who will win:  If the tide is with them, and I think it may well be, The Artist, will probably win.  If by some miracle, they judge on merit, Hugo will take it.

Best Achievement in Makeup
Albert Nobbs
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2
The Iron Lady

My pick: Potter.

Who will win:  Potter.

Best Achievement in Sound Editing

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
Transformers: Dark of the Moon
War Horse

My pick:  Hugo

Who will win: Hugo

Best Achievement in Sound Mixing
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
Transformers: Dark of the Moon
War Horse

My pick:  Hugo

Who will win:  Hugo

Best Achievement in Visual Effects
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2
Real Steel
Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Transformers: Dark of the Moon

My pick: Hugo should win this.  Apes was an excellent effort, but Scorsese’s work was conventional and groundbreaking simultaneously.

Who will win:  Unless there is a Hugo landslide, Rise of the Planet of the Apes should win.

Rango: flawless animation, great voice work, recycled story

Rango – 2011

Directed by Gore Verbinski

Starring the voices of Johnny Depp, Ned Beatty, Bill Nighy, Isla Fisher, Alfred Molina, Abigal Breslin, Ray Winstone, Stephen Root, Harry Dean Stanton, Timothy Olyphant

Written by John Logan

Rango  starts off with a protagonist acting so strangely, one can’t help wondering if he isn’t more than a little deranged.  It’s the protagonist, a chameleon, played by Johnny Depp, who is almost unrecognizable, vocally.  He’s a pet, stuck in a tank, acting out fantasy with whatever is around.  He moves from character to character without explanation or sense.  He looks miserable and happy at once.

Quite an arrangement of town folk, but something is awry

Soon enough, the status quo is interrupted.  An armadillo named Roadkill (Molina), causes an accident just trying to get to the other side.  This accident lands our hero face to face with his destiny, which he has to find by leaving the road.  Not long after, he is introduced to desert iguana Beans (Fisher).  Fisher is the damsel in distress, about to lose her farm due to lack of water.  The water is being withheld in a power grab by the mayor, Tortoise John (Beatty).  Bound to a wheelchair, the astonishingly sinister elements of Beatty’s voice work give him all the power he needs.  Where this leads has been shown a thousand times.  Rarely so cinematically beautiful, or so full of quirks.

Beatty's Mayor is sinister while seemingly harmless

Each of the characters in this film is so distinctive and beautifully drawn, it looks like it is anything but animation.  This work is so far beyond Toy Story, it is hard to believe they are made using related technology.  It is not a fair comparison, and really I am more grateful than anything.  This is where animation should be at this point.   The people designing this film do an excellent, professional job.

Inside is as crooked as the outside.

Matching the sketch of each character is a vocal work that is note perfect.  Stephen Root’s work, in particular, over 3 characters is each one distinctive of the other and working well within the context of the film.  Beatty, in with Toy Story 3 and this movie, has shown himself criminally underused in animated vocalizations in the latter part of his career.  However much he’s done (no more than this, from my research) it hasn’t been enough.

A Bad Guy with a presence...

As Rango, Johnny Depp finds a new voice, but takes a similar path.  Not exactly brave, but in no way a coward, he mines the familiar ground of Captain Jack Sparrow and Ichabod Crane.  His character is a hard one to love.  There is a distance between his thoughts and his deeds, his deeds and a shared sense of the other characters.  Through most of the film, he moves back and forth between intellectually driven self-preservation, and an absent sense of frolic.  Absent here is any sense of heroism, of course, like his characters from Pirates and Sleepy Hollow.  This time, however, he is called upon by the movie’s Clint Eastwood clone, the horribly named, Spirit of the West (Olyphant, doing a good Clint impression), to act out his story.  This leads to a decent, if brief, ending involving a bad guy, Rattle Snake Jake (an excellent Bill Nighy) and a lot of water moving through the town of Dirt.

Overall, this is a good, forgettable film.  You won’t regret watching it, especially in lifelike high-definition.  There is a disconnect between most of the characters that is hard to define.  It seems like everyone is so starved for water, the part of the brain that supplies half of their character has withered, and what is left is a collection of adorable zombies with little to no thoughts about anything but water.  Add to this, a script retread that is played with (read: quirks) but not deviated from, and you have something of a standard in the movies these days.  Everything, it seems, can be made perfect and original but the story.

(***1/2 out of *****)