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 *****)



Beauty and the Beast: Old and new it stands out of time…

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Beauty and the Beast – 2017, 1991

Directors: Bill Condon (2017) and Gary Trousdale, Kirk Wise (1991)
Screenplay: Stephen Chbosky, Evan Spiliotopoulos (2017) and Linda Woolverton (1991) based on the story by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont
Starring:  Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, Kevin Kline, Josh Gad, Ewan McGregor, Stanley Tucci, Audra McDonald, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Ian McKellen, Emma Thompson (2017) and Paige O’Hara, Robby Benson, Richard White, Jerry Orbach, David Ogden Stiers, Angela Lansbury, Rex Everhart, Jesse Corti (1991)

Disney has been remaking their animated classics for so long now, I can’t remember a time when they weren’t. I think it may have started with 101 Dalmatians but in all honesty most of them are not good enough for me to go back and research. Over the last few years, the most notable have been their attempts to put women on the screen as real life princesses or (in Angelina Jolie’s case) should have beens. The one that everyone will talk about and remember has just arrived.

Everyone’s real hero of the Harry Potter series, Hermione Granger (no one wants to imagine she really married the doof who shall not be named) is now as likely and deservedly remembered as Belle. Although not being considered a singer before being cast in this musical, Emma Watson creates her own version of the role that Paige O’Hara mastered a generation ago.

The question of whether the movie update is necessary is immaterial at this point. A more pointed question would involve a contemplation on whether or not live action should include as much if not more animation than the original animated film. I am not going to discuss that either, though. I am really just here to celebrate both films, since, miracle of miracles, they both turned out to be pretty great.

To do this, I am just going to discuss the elements of each film that stand out more for me than the other. At this point, can we really review a film that everyone will see and love…except for those who insist on pointing out flaws. Well, I will try, but it will all feel like quibbling when I throw criticism to the side and just say it is a classic despite them.

First thing is first. What parts of the new film are not as good?

  1. The first time we see Belle’s village: For a second, I got a sickening feeling. Everything seems so close and claustrophobic, it felt like I was watching the recent redo of The Smurfs. There is no feeling of span in the town and it feels like Belle is walking in a really tight circle. The empty bookstore feels bigger than the whole confines of the village.
  2. Jerry Orbach and Angela Lansbury as Lumiere and Mrs. Potts can’t be beat: It is a personal preference, as McGregor and Thompson do well in the same roles. To McGregor’s credit, he just moved forward with his much less distinctive voice and personality. While it isn’t as memorable, it works. Orbach completely mastered the role, though, making Lumiere seem older and more virile at once. Thompson is a blander version of a character one would normally consider to be quite bland. No one ever made us sit down, make ourselves comfortable and have some tea like Lansbury.
  3. The ballroom scene. Especially true after the remastered version of the original pumped it up about 200%, there is just no beating the myriad colors and sweeping grandeur of the original. It’s one of the great animated scenes in cinematic history.
  4. I just wish they would not have cast Stanley Tucci. It’s so tiring to see him in every movie, even when they give him bad teeth to inhabit.

So what was made better in the new film? Surprisingly, quite a lot.

  1. LeFou: Gad is an inspired casting choice. His nuanced performance works in every way possible. The original was barely a placeholder for Gaston, to the point where I wondered why he was even included in such a large musical number. This time around, the character is fully fleshed out, an improvement in every way. The only time it doesn’t fit is when the residual lines from the original make it necessary to have him be somewhat illiterate and ill-informed. It is quite likely the LeFou has read most of the same books as Belle.
  2. Maurice: Good Lord I hated Belle’s dad in the original. I would have thrown him in the loony bin or old folks home right off the bat if I had to listen to his babbling. Totally moronic and typical Disney Dad, with his head in the clouds while missing every possible thing on the ground. He even thinks she should hook up with Gaston. Kline presents a slightly preoccupied, but deeply saddened man. He is completely aware of his daughter and he wants to protect her from the horrors he’s experienced, while showing her the beauty he sees in life. It’s completely understandable how they could be related in this version of the tale. She enjoys the same things he does, with her own spin. Incredible that Disney finally gets a Dad right, for once.
  3. The night-time trip to Paris: This adds a completely new dimension to Belle, her father and heretofore absent mother. This scene has a great song (How Does a Moment Last Forever) and in its inclusion, we allow a moment of true bonding between Belle and the Beast. This is the kind of scene upon which romances are built and it makes what follows all the more meaningful.
  4. Letting Belle get plastered by the snowball: It was always a little weak to have Beast hoisted by his own petard in the original.

To delve any deeper, you really have to just accept the differences between these two as just trades for each medium. Human Again (from the restored version) is traded for Evermore. The wardrobe is now an opera singer instead of a maid. My eldest noticed that Philippe was a different sort of horse. The library is remarkable either way. Gaston is as delightfully deplorable now as he was in animated form. Alan Menken is a treasure. I don’t know how he keeps drawing classics from this well.

It would be unfair to not recognize Watson’s achievement. Paige O’Hara has created, in all truth, the best Disney Princess. Instantly memorable for her pluck and her voice, all other Princesses have yet to reach the bar she set. Watson wisely avoids the pitfall of trying to match O’Hara’s voice and instead applies her own spin on the character. The songs and her performance are equally good and entirely different. I found myself hearing her voice in my head for songs that I have heard for a quarter century with O’Hara’s. She’s elevated the live action princess role that Amy Adams created so effortlessly and placed her own stamp on cinematic history, between this and Potter.

Dan Stevens is a little old, even for a 27-year-old Watson, but the role works, especially if one considers the time passing under a spell. It’s close enough and not yet creepy. His voice in Evermore is remarkable and nearly worth the price of admission on its own.

Celebrate these films. They are gifts to humanity. There have always been beauties who were drawn to beasts that they had to learn to understand. There have always been beasts who are society’s winners that smart girls know to avoid, too. This film has brought hope to many a bookworm girl and boy that they will someday meet and learn to accept one another. And grow. Everyone wants to feel like they can do that.

Both films (***** out of *****)

Pixels (**1/2) – Perhaps you were expecting Tennyson?


Pixels – 2015

Director Chris Columbus
Starring Adam Sandler, Kevin James, Michelle Monaghan, Peter Dinklage, Josh Gad, Brian Cox, Ashley Benson, Jane Krakowski. Matt Lintz
Screenplay Tim Herlihy, Timothy Dowling

There will always be films like this. A comedian past his prime is relegated to following trends started by better films (Toy Story, Wreck-It Ralph) as a vessel to do the same film he’s been doing since Billy Madison. The story, a down on his luck good guy (Sandler) just getting by defies the odds and accomplishes some challenge, scoring a way above average woman (Monaghan) along the way. There are plenty of good guy buddies (James and Gad) and one bad guy buddy (Dinklage). There is an old-fogie contingent (Cox) who will never understand these newfangled ways.

The story always starts with some sort of disappointment. In this case, Sandler’s Sam Brenner coming in 2nd place in a Donkey Kong competition. This disappointment turns a future at Massachusetts MIT into a past at Mississippi MIT. There should always be some sort of hip kid (Lintz) who serves as a path from the protagonist to the woman of his dreams. This woman must reject Sandler at first, and then they will be thrown together by some task and that will lead to a brand new family where everyone is so happy.

The challenging task is a planet that got a message sent from Earth back in the early ’80’s. They took it as a threat and responded in kind. Earth is taken by surprise, which is easy to do when Sam’s friend William Cooper (James) is inexplicably serving as president. There is no attempt at explaining what makes Cooper worthy of being president, but suffice to say America’s standards can’t be that high in a Sandler comedy, where flashbacks of 1982 regularly reference things that were popular in 1986.

Back to the threat. It’s video games. They are attacking the world. Sometimes the invaders are the bad guy in the game, sometimes they are Pac-Man. The only reason one can learn for this is that there is a scene where Pac-Man looks cute but then does something unimaginably horrific. The payoff only works if Pac is a bad guy.

What’s to like in a movie like this? Well, Sandler for one. He fits in this role like a glove. And if he is rarely surprising, he rarely guesses wrong. We want to see him make fun of a room full of the President’s men. We also want to see him get the girl. He has reached that stage where he understands what he brings to the table, unlike, say, Robert Conrad in Battle of the Network Stars. No one is watching that to see you succeed, Bob.

James offers the same deal. Personally I was just glad there were no fat guy jokes. And if it made no sense to see him running a war room, it sure is nice seeing him get down, Hitch-style while at a formal event. Josh Gad is reaching that space, too. He’s almost as lovable as he is annoying. His act curtailed enough to keep from appearing threadbare. Dinklage’s character, underwritten as it is, succeeds only in that he is played by Peter Dinklage.

I am glad to see Monaghan still getting roles. She is engaging, even if in a limited role. The soundtracks to Sandler films are always fun too. It’s obvious that he and his friends like the same stuff me and my friends liked. Okay, I had no friends. Well, I did. But I worked at it, and now I am down to just two. At least I don’t have to help anyone move any more.

So yes, this is a Sandler film. And it is average. And yes, that is redundant. I didn’t go into it expecting Sonny to get killed at the toll booth, but I also didn’t expect to see Deuce Bigelow land in an old lady’s bed, either.

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

The Internship: …and we learned so much about ourselves going to the nudie bar


The Internship -2013

Director Shawn Levy
Starring Vince Vaughn, Owen Wilson, Rose Byrne, Max Minghella, Joanna Garcia, Josh Brener, John Goodman, Dylan O’Brien, Tiya Sircar, Jessica Szohr, Aasif Mandvi, Josh Gad
Screenplay by Vaughn and Jared Stern

The Internship plays like a mixture of the worst elements of every college film ever made.  This time the college is the coolest place to work in the world.  Or so they say.  From what I can tell, it’s a place where old comic actors and young no-names working the local improvisational scene get together and see if they can get some of the words – any of the words – to work.  Truly, I cannot picture what kind of person would decide that they would pay to see this futile attempt.

The Internship works on a personal level.  Vaughn and Wilson are good at incorporating worldliness with geekiness, and making those things represent the rebel nature of Google.  When taking the gentle approach, there are some real laughs.  Showing how many skills can go into a co-operative venture shows inspiration.

Showing how much a bunch of young dweebs learn by going to the local nude bar shows that one watched too many dumb comedies in the 80’s, 90’s or really any decade.  One can’t escape feeling a kinship to Stuart (O’Brien) as he is cajoled by Wilson’s Nick into admitting he had a good time.  It reminds one of any time an older person has introduced a younger one that it’s fun to chew tobacco, even when they choked on some of it.  It’s the beginning of a bad habit, but at least they’re doing it together, right?

There is more of this kind of stupidity in The Internship than there should be for it to be considered a good film.  Vaughn and Wilson are extremely likable in the right role.  Their earlier effort, Wedding Crashers, bursts with energy and imagination that is lacking here.  There are flashes, but not enough to sustain any amount of interest, even when dealing with such an engaging and cool place as Google.

Byrne is wasted here, given only a few typical scenes.  She needs to be unimpressed, then slightly amused, then impressed and congratulatory.  She hits ever point with a thud.  Manvi and Gad are utilized effectively, though.  The kids are alright, even if Brener’s character doesn’t know whether he works for Google or if his ass is on the line.

This film is by the numbers, taking a few bunt swings for singles and investing too much time and effort with the passe T&A jokes.  The conclusion of the competition is a pleasant surprise that reminds the viewer how little effort is put into the rest of the script.

The receipts show that the U.S. is willing to go for another Wilson and Vaughn effort.  If they can keep from wallowing in the blue, they might see even better results.

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

Frozen: I love warm hugs!


Frozen – 2013

Directors Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee
Starring Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel, Jonathan Groff, Josh Gad, Santino Fontana, Ciarán Hinds, Chris Williams, Edie McClurg
Screenplay Jennifer Lee based on The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen

I hope I never get too old to appreciate the effect of a magical story on a child-like heart.  Watching this movie with my daughters was a transformative event for me. It brought me out of the long week made into a working weekend.  It removed the pressure of needing to clean a lived in house before a big party.  It’s warmth helped me to fight the effects of a bitter, unrelenting cold.  To look over and see a smile and some amazement.

Our youngest daughter, El, is in the best possible place for a child to be.  Her mind still understands possibilities and her heart still believes.  She is the embodiment of Anna.  She believes in Santa, and even the Elf on the Shelf, Thimble.  Her belief spurs our belief.

Elsa, in our house, is our daughter Em.  She’s the one who has seen some things first, and subsequently, has a harder time believing.  The cold tree of knowledge has affected her, and its obvious she wishes it hadn’t.  She’s beautiful to the core, sadly so.  

Em is battling the future she sees but does not understand.  The result is a frustration that reveals itself with unintended consequence.  She loves her sister, but is filled with envy for what she perceives El doesn’t know.  This lashing out feels like sheets of ice spreading out from their lives.

Just like the heroines in Frozen, there is a closed door between our girls.  It was closed by the parents in the story, as a good-intentioned but poorly thought out form of protection.

“What if I don’t believe in Santa Claus,” Em asked her mother last Christmas.

It was kind of a threat, which my wife handled with aplomb.

“If there is no Santa, then I guess you won’t be getting any gifts from him any more.  You definitely won’t if you ever say that to your sister.”

It’s no small thing, the chasm that develops between siblings just by the natural course of life: growing older.  Big events unfold at different times, and often out of the reach of the parents to control.  Someone got to our oldest child and gave her the icy touch of doubt.  She was showing signs of questioning even before she reached the age of her younger sibling.  As much as I wish they hadn’t, we have to move on with her, and keep preserving what we can of her innocence.

I remember the Christmas that I started to question the existence of Santa.  There was a tremendous amount of pressure for the last of 8 kids.  Not wanting my parents to know I had doubts, but not wanting to play the fool that my siblings must know I had been.  It was the start of a long dark winter of thought, and I never once felt the unbearable pressure that my eldest must feel keeping up this possible charade.

Somehow, our children have to meet in the midst of all the emotional chaos, and I think this film might lay the groundwork for this to happen.  This is easily the best film I have seen this year, and the best Disney film I have seen since Mulan.  Disney has found a path to the heart of girls, and by direct extension, the hearts of those who love those little girls.

Having only the barest connection to one of Hans Christian Anderson’s most lauded stories (and, sadly, no overtly Christian references),  Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck have managed to turn the Disney convention of love on its ear.  There is a nod to the traditional concepts that we have been the bread and butter of the Princess trade that has had its share of critics and devotees.

The story is an amazing accomplishment.  After the tremendous success of Tangled, it would have been easy to release a couple of decent Princess in peril films.  Disney always gets a pass for those, even if the Princess always finds “true love’s kiss” on the lips of a Prince or Han Solo like rapscallion.  The evil character, no matter the situation or the misdeeds, usually meets their end falling off a cliff of some kind.  It’s like clockwork.

Frozen wisely threw that clock out.  The result is a timeless story that gives a refreshingly apt definition of love.  Two sisters, the afore-mentioned Anna (Bell) and Elsa (Menzel) separated by powers that they cannot comprehend, even if one of them thinks she knows the sad answer to the predicament.  She is wrong, of course.  The power is a plot device, but also an effective metaphor.  Both girls are worthy of love, but unaware of the gift that they are kept from.  Malificent has nothing on the problems well-meaning parents can impart on their children.

The big day arrives.  The reason for the big day is not nearly as important as what happens on that day.  The younger sister finds a wonderful surprise when the door opens on her life, and when her older sister tries to slow her roll, a premature winter strikes, afflicting everything and everyone around them.  Elsa decides that her power is so abhorrent that she needs to remove herself from everyone and live in isolation.  Anna knows there is something wrong with that, and follows her sister, pushing her way through the storms she creates.

Along the way, Anna meets some delightful characters, including Olaf (Gad), the enchanted and literally lovable snowman, who craves “warm hugs.”  This character could have been a complete disaster, but instead, it is a beautiful addition to the story.  The magic that creates him comes at a crucial point of the story.  If you aren’t watching closely, you could miss it.  There is a definite and resonant reason that he exists.  He’s not just an opportunity for some comic actor to tell a few jokes and do animated pratfalls.  This character is literally the embodiment of love between two sisters.

Olaf is what we all wish we could always be.
Olaf is what we all wish we could always be.

The boys in this film are also essential, but not for the reasons that one might expect.  Mountain man Kristoff (Groff) and Prince Hans (Fontana) are perfectly presented as potential answers to the predicament that the girls find themselves in.  They are such comfortable characters, it is difficult to envision the twists as they approached.  Most, including yours truly, would have been perfectly willing to accept what Disney usually offers here.  Baited breath escaped the lips of most viewers as the characters approached what seemed to be a typical type of ending.  The surprise is daunting and it was a breath of fresh, crisp, cold air.

The Trolls of Frozen are also given a facelift from the original story, where they are presented as evil characters.  Here they offer some helpful advice, a little magic of their own, and a telling assessment on how the cold can affects us:

“The heart is not easily changed, but the head can be persuaded.”

The animation of Frozen is the best I have seen since Mulan as well.  There are some breathtaking traverses that elevate the tension, but nothing so overwhelming as to inundate one with an ocular migraine blast of special effects.  Buck and Lee understand the beauty of landscape, both visually and story wise.  The kingdom of Arendelle exists to all who survey it and will for some time after.

An astounding collection of unforgettable images like this one.
An astounding collection of unforgettable images like this one.

The soundtrack has original songs composed by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and her husband, Robert, and a score composed by Christophe Beck.  It’s wonderful all the way through, but “Do You Want to Build a Snowman,” “For the First Time in Forever,” and especially, Menzel’s powerful “Let It Go,” are the ones we’re all going to hear in our mind for years to come whenever we think of Frozen.

The simple message of love between two sisters is the best thing I have seen derive from a Disney film.  It could not have come at a better time, too.  My girls have their battles, and they have some doubts about one another.  It’s not that I think this movie will magically bring them together this week.  It’s an image that I hope won’t leave their minds, though.  With any luck, it has planted a seed that will germinate later.

“Dad,” she asked, as we drove home from the movie last night after 9pm, “Is it possible for someone to do what Elsa does; to have that cold come from them?”

“No,” I replied, “It’s just a good story.”

“Good,” she said, “Because I don’t want my children to have that.”

I smiled to myself, knowing that by the time she gets to my age, she’ll have her kids asking her a variation of that question.  It will mean at least two things to her then, even if she gives one answer.